By Brett Nachtigall
HOT SPRINGS – A little more 25 years ago, Hot Springs Jaycees members Father Mark McCormick, John Blatchford and Mark Rude – along with a few others – watched an IronMan competition on television and thought, “what if we did something like that here in Hot Springs?”
The group then went to work on creating the first-ever Southern Hills Triathlon, which debuted in 1998 and was then-known as the Hot Springs Jaycees / Mammoth Triathlon and took place on Labor Day weekend as part of 7th annual Mammoth Days Celebration in Hot Springs.
The event featured a total of 17 participants and began at Angostura Recreation Area with a half-mile swim, and then an 18-mile bike race into Hot Springs, followed by a five-mile run around Cold Brook.
Blatchford and Fr. McCormick were both back for this past weekend’s 25th annual event and expressed amazement with how far the event has come since their idea first sprouted.
“This is just beyond imagination,” Blatchford said, regarding how much the event has evolved over the past 25 years, as he and Fr. McCormick addressed the crowd of more than 200 competitors from 12 states and their friends of family this past Saturday morning, Sept. 3, prior to the start of the event.
Blatchford, who now lives in Brookings, was a relay competitor in this year’s triathlon. He was the “runner” while competing as part of “Team Not So Fast,” which also included his brother-in-law Jason Heidebrink (biker) and nephew Brad Bednar (swimmer). They finished third in the Sprint Relay Male division with a time of 1:40.49. Another family member competing was John’s sister Christine Heidebrink, who competed as an individual in the Sprint competition, where she placed sixth in her age division with a time of 1:45.44.
Over the past 25 years, the event has indeed evolved, with several changes to the course and also a few different sponsoring organizations. After the Jaycees started the event, it was eventually turned over to the Miss South Dakota organization and served as a fundraiser for them. The Friends of the Library then took it over and have been responsible for carrying on the event for the most amount of years, until recently handing the reins over to Brendan Murphy of Rapid City.
Under Murphy’s leadership, the event has exploded and also now includes a collegiate sprint competition, which this year featured a total of 29 triathletes from four different universities – Black Hills State (Spearfish), Colorado Mesa (Grand Junction), University of Denver, and Montana State (Billings).
The University of Denver had the top-three fastest finishers, led by Freya McKinley in a time of 58:34.1. The highest finisher from Black Hills State University was Lilja McKendry, who placed ninth in a time of 1:03:06.2.
There is only one person who has been a competitor in all 25 of Hot Springs’ triathlons and that is local resident Barb Fetters. At the then-age of 44, the 1998 Hot Springs Jaycees / Mammoth Triathlon was Fetters’ very-first triathlon attempt, which sparked a love for the sport that continues today at the age of 69. She was the oldest competitor to complete this year’s individual Sprint Triathlon and finished third in her division with a time of 2:19.18.
After completing her 25th Southern Hills Triathlon this past Saturday morning, Fetters said she has lost count of the number of triathlons she has competed in all across the United States, including finishing six Ironman competitions, and several others as part of the Senior Olympics. At the peak of her triathlon career, she was doing about three per year.
In her very first triathlon in 1998, she participated as only a competitor, but as the event changed hands, she also began working as one of the volunteer coordinators, after the Friends of the Library took over.
In reminiscing about her first-ever triathlon in 1998, Fetters said she vividly remembers seeing the “Race Day” banner in the transition area and her heart skipping a beat, as she thought “OMG, this is real!”
She said she also remembers walking over to pose for the post-race group photo in Chautauqua Park when one of the other competitors, Beth Burkhart, told her, ‘They should have a division for mountain bikes.’
“She had a road bike, I had a mountain bike, and I was like ‘Why?’ and that’s when I learned that road bikes are faster than mountain bikes. I didn’t have a clue before that,” Fetters recalled. “So I went out and found a used road bike for the next year’s race. And that started me on the slippery slope into triathlon.”
Part of what keeps bringing her back to competing in the addictive sport of triathlons every year is her fascination with how much it forces one to train both your body and your mind.
“Sometimes your mind wants to do more, but your body won’t let you,” she said. “And that’s becoming more and more a thing the older I get.”
She too is very impressed with how far the event has come since being one of the first 17 competitors in 1998. “It’s bigger, better and safer,” she said.
And once again, in addition to being one of the 200-plus competitors, Fetters was also once again one of the volunteers helping to set-up and tear-down the event as well. She said she is proud of the fact that the new coordinator, Brendan Murphy, continues to share a portion of the proceeds from the event with the Friends of the Library. Fetters said that the Friends also continue to provide about 30 volunteers to help put on the event, in addition to the volunteers that Murphy brings with him as well.
This year’s 25th annual event featured three different distances, including the Olympic (1 mile swim; 24 mile bike from Breakers Beach to Oral and back); 6.2 mile run along path at Angostura; Sprint (¼ mile swim; 12 mile bike from Breakers Beach then half-way to Oral; 3.1 mile run along path at Angostura); and Youth for ages 6-12 (100 yard swim; a 3.1 mile bike and 1 mile run on the path at Angostura).
Competitors could compete as individuals or as part of a relay team. The oldest team competing was known as Team PB&J and totaled a combined 218 years and included swimmer Paulette Kirby (age 61 of Silver City), runner Bob Meyer (age 81 of Spearfish) and biker Jerry Dunn (age 76, formerly of Hot Springs and now from Florida).
The Hot Springs residents who competed as individuals in this year’s Sprint Triathlon included: Kari Kathman (35th overall, 1:28:10); Treese DeBoer (40th overall, 1:31.00); Christine Heidebrink (63rd overall, 1:45.44); Jodie Lim (73rd overall, 1:53:42); Drew Lim (74th overall, 1:53:42); Brian Madigan (75th overall, 1:53:45); and Barb Fetters (84th overall, 2:19.18).
Organizers of the Southern Hills Triathlon expressed much appreciation to Angostura Recreation Area and the S.D. Game, Fish & Parks for their cooperation and assistance with this year’s event.