2021-09-28-REISSCOLPIC

From left: Peter Paul, Stephanie Stern and Richard Reiss at the Josh Billings RunAground finish line after the team completed the triathlon.

For those of us of a certain age, the notion of competing is not quite what it used to be. We former athletes, with faded scrapbooks and cracked trophies, still long to be first to cross the finish line, score the most points, stand on that pedestal and accept that award. We possess a visceral need to win because there was a time when winning was a constant high in our lives.

As a competitor (and I use that term loosely) in the Berkshire’s Josh Billings RunAground triathlon, I realized I had to change my definition of winning. If you’re not familiar with The Josh, know that it consists of 27 miles of cycling through the Berkshire hills, 5 miles of kayaking on the beautiful Stockbridge Bowl and 6 miles running around the Stockbridge Bowl to the finish line at Tanglewood. A competitor can do all three segments alone or be part of a three-person team. I was part of a team and chose cycling.

My first task was to build a team of able-bodied, albeit just over-the-hill, athletes. First, I asked my friend Peter, who, even more intensely than I, organizes his life around his workouts. Peter swims, cycles and rows, but gave up running when one of his knees gave up on him. Peter lives on a lake and my kayak has been in his backyard for years, ever since I sold the truck that used to haul it around. Always up for a challenge, Peter agreed to do the kayak portion of the race and immediately began training.

Finding a runner was not nearly as easy. Years of pounding the pavement can be unkind to one’s body, and for good reason there are a lot more 60-year-old cyclists than runners. Then I thought of Stephanie. She had only taken up running in the past few years so the cumulative damage to her body was minimal. Plus, she was only 57, and would bring youth and energy to our team. Would Stephanie join us? Hesitantly, she said yes, concerned that her slow time would drag the team down. I assured her that, “It’s all for fun,” although not so deep down, my competitive spirit hoped for a miracle. Spoiler alert: There would be no miracle.

The order of the race was cycling, kayaking, running. The cycling was to begin in the parking lot of the Great Barrington Price Chopper. So, when I arrived at the parking lot of the Great Barrington Big Y, only to find a few cars and empty shopping carts, I knew things were not going my way. Fortunately, I had plenty of time to get to the right location and found my place in the middle of the pack of riders. As the race began and adrenaline from the other riders flowed from their bodies to mine, I could feel myself picking up the pace. I knew I was going fast, faster than usual, climbing the wonderful Berkshire hills with little difficulty.

I was exhilarated when I completed my ride and was ready to pass the baton (it wasn’t really a baton, but baton sounds so much better than sweaty wristband) to Peter. Yet there was a problem. Peter was nowhere to be found. We were team number 231 and all around me people were yelling, “231. 231. Where are you, 231?” as I was yelling, “Peter. Peter. Where are you, Peter?” I called my wife. I called Peter’s wife. I called Peter. No one answered. This is not winning, I thought to myself. Then, 10 minutes later, there was Peter grabbing the baton (sweaty wristband) as he carried the kayak into the Stockbridge Bowl. We had lost precious time not knowing that all roads had been closed off to the lake, forcing Peter to walk more than a mile to get to his kayak.

The good news was that Peter was in the water. The not so good news was that I soon got a phone call from Stephanie who informed me that she couldn’t reach the starting point for the run. “All of the roads are closed,” she said. Winning was getting harder.

Like Peter, Stephanie walked an extra mile and made it just in time to receive the sweaty wristband. Off she went, slightly haggard but confident in her ability to complete the run.

An hour later, we rejoiced as Stephanie crossed the finish line.

We did not win. We did not come close. Out of 279 teams, we finished 221.

But believe it or not, we had an extraordinary amount of fun. We had a lot to laugh about. We had a great after-race meal. And we all agreed to do The Josh next year and better our time.

The energy in the air that day was contagious. The sky was brilliant blue, and water was crystal clear. The verdant Berkshire Hills shimmered like emeralds. How could anyone feel as if they lost on a day like this?

I have since abandoned the concept of coming in first as my definition of winning. We all win when we are joyful. However, in the true spirit of friendly competition, I am compelled to point out the following: The Josh ranks each competitor in each segment of the race. In the running category, Stephanie placed 221st. In kayaking, Peter placed 211th. In cycling, where I was driven by a force greater than myself, I placed 202nd. Does my best of three ranking make me the “winner” on my team? Who am I to say? I’ll let others be the judge of that.

Richard Reiss is the author of “Desperate Love: A Father’s Memoir.” He lives in Canaan, N.Y., with his wife Paula.