Like a shifting causeway between island and mainland, there’s a thin line between struggle and reward, between beauty and pain. And sometimes, when the wind is at your back and sweat stings your eyes and your lungs and your calves are screaming in a can’t-explain-it, feel-good way, that thin line between effort and elation, between awe and ouch, blurs together. It does on Kiawah, anyway, after thirty-two-some miles of ocean waves, oak-canopied roadways, and a flat, fast running course.
I was among the 410 bodies who gathered out on East Beach under a yawning gray and salmon sky, early on a September Sunday, to tackle the Kiawah Triathlon. Taiko Charleston, a Japanese-style drumming group, heralded us with a booming, jiving bass beat, our tribal call to action, as we ambled toward the start line. Fitting, I suppose, since triathletes are a curious tribe. While most people seek Kiawah’s lush serenity for some kickback R&R, this group of Lycra-clad athletes translates R&R as “ride and run”—and that’s after the .7-mile open water swim. They don’t kickback as much as kick it up a notch. Or two or three.
Triathletes do strange things like spit in their goggles, while speaking a lingo of “PRs” and intervals and negative splits; they spend weekends and predawn hours cranking out laps, long bike rides, and training runs to “build a base.” But the payoff comes on race day, when this odd clan of folks who don’t mind Sharpie-tattooed numbers on their arms and thighs walk around in bathing suits and tight biking shorts. (Well, some of us mind but do it anyway.)
Here’s the thing about grunting through 25.1 miles hunched over handlebars, pedaling at 20-some miles per hour—it’s almost easy, even fun, when you get to do it in a magical setting like Kiawah. There’s really nothing like crossing back over Mingo Point at mile twenty-three, with sweetgrass waving and egrets applauding as they flap their awkward wings. I’m not sure if my mouth was open in every race photo because I was gasping for air or because of the jaw-dropping beauty. Surely the latter.
In addition to being a mecca for golfers and tennis players, Kiawah is a favorite destination for hard-core endurance athletes—the Kiawah Marathon sells out each December, and a fall race typically culminates the local triathlon season. This year, however, was the first time the triathlon was officially presented by Kiawah Island Golf Resort, and the logistical organization and volunteer support was bar none. Competitors like fifty-seven-year-old Jack Burton of Mount Pleasant, who has done his share of Kiawah races, appreciated the resort’s amped-up efforts. “I love this race,” he said. “The setting is simply unmatched, and the professionalism of the organizers was great.” For newbie triathlete, and one of the youngest participants, eighteen-year-old Micah Norton of Charleston (winner in her age division), the Kiawah Tri was her first Olympic-distance race. “The course was so well marked, and the views were just amazing,” she said. “I was nervous about the beach run, but I actually really, really liked it!”
As for my friend and swim training partner, Charleston’s Trenholm Walker, who took first place in the men’s sixty to sixty-five age group, I actually couldn’t get a quote. After powering through the finish line, he was off to sip mimosas and enjoy a bit of R&R (the traditional, sane-person kind) by the Sanctuary’s lovely pool. Ah, yes, another really good reason to race at Kiawah. — S.H.