At a glance, the Top Notch Triathlon looks like any other normal sprint; but in reality, it is a grueling challenge that requires each of its competitors to dig deep in order to reach it’s finish line. A race that requires you to climb over 3,000 feet of vert and leaving you on the summit of Cannon Mountain. This triathlon means so much more to me than just another race or adventure, it is the sole event that exposed me to the mountains. For those of you that know me, you know that I’ve fallen in love with the mountains and anything that involves them. I was introduced to this event three years ago (2014), when one of my roommates, Christian, invited me to join them for a team triathlon they do every year in New Hampshire. At that time, I had never been to New Hampshire, done a triathlon, ridden a mountain bike, hiked a real mountain, or possessed any interest in any of it. Nevertheless, I accepted the invitation and found myself at the starting line 2 months later…
That first year, 2014, was a surreal experience that I will never, ever forget. We arrived at our host’s home in New Hampshire the night before, which means I did not see any landscape on the way in. But the following morning, I opened my eyes to see mountains surrounding the house and a pristine, aptly named, Pearl Lake. These were the largest mountains I had ever seen, standing at a few hundred feet tall. That moment I vividly remember asking Christian if these mountains were bigger than what I presumed we would be biking and climbing in only a few hours. He laughed, took a second, and responded with, “Oh no. Cannon is much bigger.” My granola bar breakfast nearly came right back up. We loaded up the cars with our bikes and headed into small town of Franconia. As the cars chicaned through the mountain roads, a clearing up ahead revealed the silhouette of a massive object protruding up through the clouds. That massive object was the north face of Cannon Mountain and the main face of Lafayette. “What did I get myself into,” I immediately thought to myself.
We participated in the team triathlon division, which means I was only responsible for one leg of the race. In this case, I was chosen as the biker for the team since I racked up a “whopping” 8 miles of riding a week, on a road bike. Ahead of me lied only a 6.2 mile ride, half on road and the other on trails. The kicker is, the entire ride is a climb of 1,000 feet. At the time, I knew nothing about climbing and nothing about pacing. Yet somehow, my minimal preparation had paid off and I was able to hand-off the sensor to my teammate, Tico, who waited me at the transition to the swim. Still pumping with adrenaline from my “stellar” effort of a 42min leg (winner is about 30min), I decided to hike up the mountain with Dave for the third leg. Even though it was one of the most difficult experiences of my entire life, I can’t imagine my current life path if I had not chosen to climb up that mountain during the 22nd Annual Top Notch Triathlon.
I took me two more years before I gained the courage, and confidence, to take a shot at the full triathlon. It seem foolish to write that it took courage and confidence, knowing plenty of people risk more on a daily basis than I could ever during an athletic event. But it felt true for me because I am such an awful swimmer that I legitimately felt I could drown during the half mile swim or even worse, expend all my energy during the swim and require a rescue off the side of a mountain. I determined that it was going to be a game-time decision for me, depending on how I felt after the 1st leg of the team race which I was, again, responsible for. But this year would be different, I would tell myself over and over again in the weeks prior to the triathlon. I am concurrently preparing for a century ride and mixing in a little single-track riding here and there.
The morning of August 6th began like each of the previous two years. A quick warmup ride around Pearl Lake as the sun burned off the morning fog that rose from the water. All the bikes and teams loaded-up and into the cars. The convoy then made its way through the mountain’s dirt roads, as Cannon and Lafayette sat, looming in the distance. Next steps were to get the teams all checked in, support team settled on the logistics, and before I knew, it was race time. We slowly began to approach the starting line as the nerves in my stomach began to build exponentially when the countdown started. 5, 4, 3, 2….1. We were off. My biking segment went as well as it could have gone. I pushed myself to the limit, without being completely exhausted for my real goal. The swim.
After making it to the transition stage, I caught my breath, undressed, and waded into the water. Only having to run back to my bike to get my goggles that I had forgot to grab. As I made my way into the water for, what was about to be, the longest swim of my life; I began to relax even though I was petrified of drowning due to a leg cramp or exhaustion. Applying a few swimming techniques that I had googled two days before and had not practiced, I found myself a third of the way across the lake. “No way will I make it, I’ve given it everything I’ve got and still not even close” I thought to myself. But stroke by stroke I pressed on, switching between front crawl and breast stroke. As I realized the far shore was actually attainable, my moral and energy began to increase and I was back to the front crawl charging on. Then I felt “it” under my feet. It was the sandy lake bottom. I made it! I actually completed a ½ mile swim. At this point, I was beyond stoked and filled with adrenaline realizing I was two thirds of the way through this triathlon.
So, I did what any normal athlete who is competing way outside of their training preparation, and slapped on those shoes and marched my ass up that mountain. Step by step, I climbed up that hill at the max speed my legs could move, which was probably around 1mph. Luckily, the clouds and storms held off so that the views further up began to reveal the incredible beauty of the Franconia Notch that I fell in love with the first time I saw. My friends and support team passed overhead on the Tram by the time I was on the last pitch, motivating me to finish strong. I did it, with screaming fans (crowd favors those who sprint to the line) lined on both sides, stepped across that line. I stood 3,000 feet higher than where I started and feeling more accomplished than I ever have before. I can now say I’ve accomplished something I was afraid of attempting and in doing so, a Triathlete.
No matter what you’re afraid of, go out there and try. We always find more fear in the unknown, and once we are in the middle of it, never does it feel that terrifying as we imagined. To quote Michael Scoot, quoting the great Wayne Gretzky, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take!”
My name is Zachary Kenney and I’m an adventure filmmaker & photographer. My passion is to tell stories that will hopefully motivate you to go live a more adventurous life. Whether that is to experience the view from the summit of a mountain, or wandering through a new town on a road trip. Currently based out of Park City, UT.