30 Years at the Tupper Lake Half Ironman: In the Community, By the Community, for the Community
How many events in the triathlon world have lasted 30 years in a row? We can probably count them on a couple of hands worldwide and many of them are fairly high profile events with large followings. But there are probably several smaller events that have happened many years in a row in their local communities that get little recognition that add to the overall worldwide triathlon community. The longevity of all of these events, are not driven by a corporation, and often not even by the original founders of these events. Rather, they are driven by local volunteers, and the athletes that support them year over year. The Tupper Lake Tinman in Northern New York state went through its 30th year just over a month ago on June 30th 2012.
While large corporate triathlon events largely driven by WTC have flourished, there was a time when even Kona was a small community event that grew organically within its natural environment. There was no notion of dropping a pre determined cookie cutter turn key event into a random community. Rather, like many communities that they exist in, local triathlon events just grew organically from a small events and over time to larger ones, involving community leaders, local government, and local businesses, all coming together to create something special. These events would become part of the yearly calendar for many local athletes and those in driving range.
Back in 1982, triathlon was in its infancy. Some of the folks in the community of Tupper Lake decided to put on a half Ironman after reading about all the exploits on the Big Island of Hawaii. Over time, the triathlon became a means to raise funds for the local high school for its sports program. This is about as far as you can get from corporately run events and has more in common with the local coffee shop being integrated into the local community than Starbucks dropping a franchise into main street of the town. In fact, there is a lot of commonality between how Starbucks grew and how the sport of triathlon evolved to where WTC has over 20 Ironman races and more than 60 half Ironman distance events worldwide.
When you go to the local coffee shop, you get the pulse of the local community. The people who hang out there, read the local newspaper, and talk about things that matter to the neighborhood. The local coffee shop is an extension of the local community and part of its "personality". Corporations like Starbucks have tried to take the best features of the local coffee shop and then tried to replicate them with high standards and consistency across the world, whether you show up at the Starbucks in Lake Placid, or on Madison avenue in New York, or at the franchise at Hong Kong airport across from your Cathay Pacific gate.
The story of WTC vs. local triathlon also has similar dynamics. When we go to local events, we really feel the pulse of the community. Athletes entering the event and contribute to the local economy (the money stays there). The event is managed by key people in the local community, in this case coaches from the local high school at Tupper Lake. Every local event has its own flavor that represents its community, much like the local coffee shop. WTC on the other hand, over time has taken many of the best features that made "local events" in Penticton, or Kona or Taupo so good and has done an excellent job of standardizing many of them and dropping the entire package into "local franchises". As athletes, we go to these WTC events, because we know what we are getting. There is a level of consistency in terms of the entire athlete experience, that is not largely dissimilar be it in Lake Placid, Madison or Frankfurt. You sign up for one of their events and you get treated like a rock star for that day. Rather than being a triathlete misfit in regular society, where work colleagues and family regard our actions as being on the lunatic fringe of sanity, we are surrounded by peers who act in a similar way and have the same set of priorities. Even though we may mock at ourselves, for spending more than an engagement ring on fast bikes, parading around in compression socks with shaved legs underneath, and riding around in head gear befitting of aliens.
Back to Tupper Lake and the local triathlon. When we go to the local coffee shop, we often don't know what we are getting. The coffee may be too strong, or not strong enough, the pastries, too sweet, or just perfect. The décor may or may not deliver the ambiance we are searching for. The coffee shops that don't blend into the local communities as an organic extension while offering end customer value go out of business in time. The ones that deliver value survive. Likewise the local triathlon.
In its existence the Tupper Lake Tinman has seen the entire "industry" around triathlon evolve, from a small "cottage industry" to a much larger scale market. In 1999, Ironman Lake Placid arrived almost next door in Lake Placid, so the organizers moved the date of their race to be 3-4 weeks out from Lake Placid so that athletes could use Tupper Lake as a final hard prep day for the Ironman and then turn around on Sunday and hang out in Lake Placid to get a feel for that course. At one time, Tupper Lake was literally the only half Ironman race in the North East. Now, within 2-4 hour driving distance there are half Ironman events throughout the North East: Mooseman, Syracuse, Tremblant, Rev3 all happen in the same month. Yet Tupper Lake has survived and survived well. Obviously there is something special that keeps athletes coming back.
Over these 30 years, Tupper Lake has somehow managed to keep the same feel, and we can say this in a good way. Many of the features of the race that existed back in the late 80's are still featured today:
- Identical bike course, swim course and parts of the run course featuring the local community and surrounding picturesque roads in the Adirondacks.
- Great community supported pre and post race meals. You really feel like you're being served by the local crew!
- Volunteer support from the local community who make visiting triathletes feel like guests in their "home".
- Loyal following by many long time supporters (key in getting the message out, but also ensures that the race organization keeps up attention to details year over year).
- Adirondack hospitality.
Words don't really do the event and its longevity adequate justice. The allegiance of the community for putting it on, and athletes for coming back year of year over time perhaps are the best endorsements of the value that this local community event provides.
In looking at the list of sponsors, we saw the big backing from all the local business, but there were also a few corporate surprises in there, showing that there is a symbiotic relationship between the big guys and the local communities. We felt it would be right to list all of them:
2012 Tinman Sponsors:
Adirondack "By Owner"
Adirondack Club & Resort
Belleville & Associates
Cerruti Family Chiropractic
High Peaks Cyclery
Little Italy Restaurant & Pizzeria
Luke's U-Haul & Auto Repair
P-2′s Irish Pub
The Town of Tupper Lake
The Tupper Lake Chamber of Commerce
The Village of Tupper Lake
The Well Dressed Food Company
The Tupper Lake Free Press
The Wild Center
Tupper Lake Municipal Golf Course
There is a saying that it takes a village to raise a child. In this case the child is 30 years old, but the village is there in full force supporting it. With the surrounding beauty of the Adirondacks, the area makes for an excellent vacationing location at the end of my June or early July every year.
More information can be found here and return here later if you make plans to sample the 31st edition. The local high school teams appreciate your support.
About the Author: Devashish Paul is an xtri contributor and masters triathlete based in Ottawa Canada. Dev's last race at Tupper Lake 2011, was the last race before a fair serious accident at Ironman Switzerland 2011 that required several months of medical treatment and rehab. He returned to Tupper Lake for the 17th time in 30 years going back to 1990 to put the "past year behind him" and managed to get 3rd in M45-49.