The race to Toughman Tinman is on
Sun glitters off the surface of Raquette Pond and the sky is a deep cloudless shade of blue as you drive by the Tupper Lake Municipal Park on a warm spring day in Tupper Lake. With any luck that is how it will appear on June 28 when the Toughman Tupper Lake Tinman Triathlon gets the starting horn and the first waves of swimmers make their way into the water for the first wave of the swim event.
The race hasn’t always been staged on a cloudless beautiful day, and has seen foggy rainy weather, and temperatures of over a hundred degrees and even a micro burst one year that threatened to call off the race altogether.
Recently three of the people who have been cornerstones of the event for the past 31 years got together at The Marketplace along the Tupper-Saranac Highway for a burger and a beer and a chance to discuss the upcoming 32nd annual Tinman event and reminisce about the history of this groundbreaking race.
Three years after the first Hawaii Ironman debuted in 1979, the athletic enthusiasts of Tupper Lake got together and decided to hold their own version of the grueling race that encompassed a swim, bike ride and a run. That was in 1983, and it was decided that a half-Ironman would fit their needs nicely. The Tupper Lake Tinman (as it was dubbed early on) includes a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride and a 13-mile run.
The first Tupper Lake Tinman Triathlon drew 62 athletes. Among them was this year’s race director, Ted Merrihew, who for the past four years has headed the event as race director, and has directed the race for a total of 15 years -?although not consecutively.
Now in its 32nd year, the Tupper Lake Tinman has taken on the status of “Toughman” competition for the first time ever and joins the Toughman Half Iron Series, which includes Toughman half-iron races in Arizona, Washington state, Alabama and Indiana.
As the only Toughman venue in the northeastern United States, the race also serves the Canadian tri-athletes who seem to have come to love the Tupper Lake Tinman over the years.
At that first race in 1983, was Jim Frenette, who acted as transition area volunteer. “That meant I raked the beach, ” he laughed, thinking back to that first event.
Little did he realize at that point what the job of transition area captain would entail after just a few years. Sitting around a table at the marketplace on a recent evening, Frenette recalled many of the details of that first year. The buoys were just milk jugs, and the bike racks were the posts of the parking lot where athletes simply leaned their bikes in preparation for their return from the swim. Old photos of that first race show the numbers tacked to the posts on paper. They used one of Frenettes’ trailers to move all of the equipment from Little Wolf Beach up to Raquette Park, where the run would eventually finish on the firefighters competition strip.
“When the bikes returned from the road race, which went to Long Lake and back, everyone went into the green buildings at the park to change and get ready for the run,” Maynard Peroza added. Peroza is currently the assistant race director for the Tinman Toughman race and has previously volunteered for the event as the bike race captain and other capacities during the races over the years.
“Originally Little Wolf Beach was a great place for the swim,” Merrihew said, “but it wasn’t long before we outgrew that area.”
For the first few races, high school volunteers awaited the first sighting of the bikes as they returned from the road and would yell the number to other volunteers down the line. They would, in turn, run up the bleachers and grab the racers packet of clothes and equipment and meet them at the transition with their gear.
After two years, the race grew to such popularity, being one of the first races of its sort on the East Coast that organizers realized the Municipal Park would be a better place to start and finish.
Following that move, the race continued to grow throughout the 1980s and 1990s. By the time the 25th year came around, it was hosting more than 1,000 athletes.
That was due partly to the addition of the Tinman Sprint and the Tinman Relay, which were added to give other athletes a chance to experience either a shortened version of the whole race or the chance to participate in just one leg of the race as a relay team member. Many of the people who once just stood around waiting for their favorite athlete to finish, now had a chance to participate as well.
When the Lake Placid Ironman came to town in 1999, everything changed for the Tupper Lake Tinman, including the date. It was now the final weekend in June and it opened up a whole new world of things to borrow that pushed the local race to an new level of professional appearance. Graham Frazier, who started the Lake Placid Ironman, “was all ready to help us, and we were able to borrow the bright orange race bouys and water cones to mark the course and all of the standards for the bike racks and everything including the blow up finish line,” Merrihew recalls.
Frazier is not only a great proponent for the triathlon, but was the first winner of the Lake Placid Ironman.”A few years later and they said we needed to get our own equipment, and that’s what we use now,” Merrihew said. “They really helped us – I mean they gave us a lot of help.”
“Originally, Tony Mercurio laid out the swim course with a transit on a tripod,” Frenette said. “Now, Charlie Hoffer has the GPS coordinates of the swim course and it’s laid out that way.”
He places jugs in the coordinates and the Tupper Lake Dive Rescue Team comes in and replaces his jugs with the race buoys at the exact spot. “Thats a lot different than when we went down there race morning and just threw them in. Rudy Schneider would go out there in his boat and line them all up before the race,” Peroza said. In those years, Rudy and Mary Schneider owned the Sunset Park Motel and Mary was a Tupper Lake Chamber of Commerce board member.
“Rudy also invented the ‘S’ hooks that are used on the transition area bike racks now,” Frenette said.
“Getting water to the racers was also a process” according to Merrihew.
“We used to fill clear plastic barrels of water in the back of a pick-up truck and take them out on the course,” Peroza said.
Later, the Army 10th Mountain Division brought their freshwater filling truck to provide the water on the bike and run course.
“Now Tupper Lake Coca Cola supplies all of the bottled water and Powerade for the race,” Frenette said.
Of course, the race could never succeed, nor would it have gained such popularity among athletes if not for the volunteers, which number more than 300. Kids and adults line the bike and run courses at aid stations and some years they have had themed aid or aid station sponsors.
The 56-mile bike course, which once went from “Coney Beach” out to the Sabbatis Road loop and returned via the highway to Long Lake and Hoss’ Corner and back to Tupper Lake is completely opposite now. The congestion at the Long Lake beach caused organizers to rethink that strategy early on and now the course goes out through Piercefield and Cranberry Lake to a turnaround a mile outside of Cranberry Lake.
The run, which once took the athletes on the Old Wawbeek Road, and the abandoned section of Route 3 to Wawbeek Corners and Cross Clearing now goes only as far as Dugal Road before turning out onto state Route 30, due to the deterioration of the old abandoned asphalt road through the woods.
“We used to have to go out there and spraypaint all the rocks sticking up out of the tar and circle the deeper potholes in the old road,” Peroza said. Those painted rocks are still visible in some spots now.
The new run course also once went directly up Sunmount hill, which was tough at the end of the race. Now it follows that last part of Old Wawbeek and skirts the hill a bit.
The only major road crossing on the run is where they leave the park, and that is well protected by local law enforcement like the village and state police. The police also direct traffic at the entrance to the road where the bike course begins and at the turnaround out beyond Cranberry Lake Their services to the Tupper Lake Tinman Triathlon in the past and at this year’s Toughman race are incalculable, according to organizers.
“The whole race is an amazing show of unlimited cooperation between the Tupper Lake Chamber of Commerce (which now sponsors and owns the race) and the community as a whole, including the village workers, the town workers, the police and ambulance and Dive Team and all the volunteers as well as others who loan equipment, or time and even motorcycles to make sure Tupper Lake pulls off a fantastic race,” Merrihew said.
People can help out anywhere from an hour or two to all day if they want, and many do.
“It’s a story about where we started, where we are now and the cooperation it takes to make something like this happen,” Frenette said.
“We used to be the only game in town, but that’s not true any more,” Merrihew said. “There are triathlons all over the place all summer, and its become a competitive market in a way. So becoming part of the Toughman Series may give us an edge to draw the numbers back. Back when we had 60 racers, we said we hoped to have 500 someday and people said we were crazy.”
At the 25th anniversary race, it was an Ironman qualifier and drew more than a thousand competitors. The Tinman was also the Tri-Fed Northeast Championship race for a number of years.
After interviewing racers at the finish line for a number of years, there is one thread that always comes through, people love this race. Triathletes from Canada to New York City to Washington, D.C. and beyond say this is the best race around. Many triathlon clubs return to the Tupper Lake Tinman year after year. “They come back every year because of the way they are treated here,” Frenette said.
“Word of mouth is the best advertising there is,” Merrihew said. “We’ve had a lot of good publicity partly because we’re very flexible with registration and we allow them to sign up and then if necessary change to the sprint or the relay if they need to.”
After many years as the transition area coordinator and worker, Frenette asked Peroza to replace him as transition captain. Last year, Peroza took on the challenge and after four years of accolades as swim captain, he became the transition coordinator and assistant race director.
He said Bob Tebo, a competitive triathlete who took up training later in life after retirement, and has now been in the Lake Placid Ironman, as well as the Hawaii Ironman and the Tupper Lake Tinman, where he got his start, has been a lot of help to him in phasing into the new position.
Frenette still volunteers at the race as he has for the past 32 years.
Peroza and Frenette both agreed that 1995 was Merrihew’s finest year, when a microburst hit Tupper Lake on the morning of the race. High winds and huge waves pounded the park and trees were down everywhere. It tore down tents and ripped things apart.
Many wanted to bail out and would have done it had it not been for the volunteers like the HAM operators, who went out on the course and reported where the downed trees were so people could get out there and clean up the course, The race went off without a hitch after just a two-hour delay. The volunteers waited it out and all the athletes stuck around.
Tupper Lake Coca Cola has always been a big contributor to the Tinman and owner Bob LaBarge was at the finish line of the first race handing out cokes to all the finishers.
Coke is still one of the biggest sponsors supplying all the drinks and the cups and many of the amenities, such as the big blow up finish line at the end.
This year’s race will begin promptly at 8 a.m. when the first wave of swimmers take to the water.
The race is sanctioned by USA Triathlon, which provide race officials who make sure all guide lines as to water temperature and course layout is followed to the T, and they even patrol the bike course on the back of volunteers with motorcycles to make sure there is no drafting or other rule violations.
“All we are looking for now are more volunteers and the support of the community,” Merrihew said.
Anone interested can call the chamber at 518-359-3328 for a job assignment.
Frenette is a lifelong Tupper Laker whose family operated the Tupper Lake Coca Coca Bottling plant for many years. He was later a high school teacher and did a stint as a board member of the Adirondack Park Association during the 1990s.
Merrihew moved here with his family when he was 6 from Plattsburgh and became an elementary school teacher and freelance photographer. He plans to retire from teaching after this school year.
Peroza is also a lifelong Tupper Lake native and taught high school social studies before his retirement from the school system a few years ago.