Meet Don Davis of the SOS Triathlon

Don Davis is the man behind the Survival of the Shawangunks Triathlon, a unique event with multiple swim and run transitions in a stunning area of NY state. The event was started in 1983 and today still fills up faster than the average American can eat a sandwich. But Davis who has survived the SOS triathlon many times and as recent as 2015 is quick to point out that without the support of all the other organizers and volunteers the race would simply not happen.

Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time Don.

Don Davis: Thank you, Herbert. Our athletes love slowtwitch.

ST: With the 2017 SOS Triathlon still several months away, what keeps you busy as we speak?

Don: Well, my wife and I just got back from a swim clinic in Curacao which was really great. Doug Stern, a long time friend, created a swim clinic years ago, and we’ve been going for about 20 years. This year my son joined us and he loved it, so it was a great way to share good times with the family and stay in good swimming shape. Other than that, it’s been nice to have the bike out on the road lately. We had a great indoor bike season on our Computrainers at Bike Mike’s studio, but it’s always fun to get out and ride. Also, our race committee is all set to let people know about this year’s 2017 SOS Bootcamp. It’s especially good for newcomers to get some experience on our course but most importantly, it’s just an excuse to have a fun weekend, and get to know the SOS community.

ST: When is the SOS Bootcamp?

Don: The 2017 SOS Bootcamp will be Saturday July 22nd, and Sunday July 23rd. We’ve been doing this for a few years now, and people seem to love it.

ST: You started that race in 1983 and there are not many races left that can claim such a long history. Do you see that as an item of pride that you are hanging so tough, or is it sad to you that so many old races are disappearing?

Don: It’s obvious that the world of triathlons has become a big business. Which is actually a great thing. People have finally caught on to the idea that cross training is cool. I remember when I’d go out for a run (training for the marathon) in the 70’s people would look to see whom I was running from. People at the time just didn’t exercise that way. In fact, my main goal of creating the New York Triathlete Association was to encourage people to build and maintain cardiovascular fitness through the sport of triathlons. So, seeing the entire world embracing this notion is awesome. What makes the SOS unique, however, is it’s a mom and pop shop. We don’t have the backing of a huge marketing firm. We’re a bunch of athletes who love training for triathlons. The SOS was created for triathletes, by triathletes. My goal is to maintain an event that has everything I would want in a triathlon, and then some. I don’t think we’re hanging tough, I’d say once people come up and meet the SOS race committee, they’d say we’ve been leading the charge.

ST: It surely appears that you are leading the charge with passion.

Don: Our race committee is dedicated. We have some amazing people who make this thing happen every year. All of our organizers and volunteers really go above and beyond every year. It’s difficult to explain, but there’s something about the SOS Triathlon that sets it apart from the rest.

ST: Word has it you started the Survival of the Shawangunks as a way to get ready for IRONMAN. Is that indeed so and can you tell us more?

Don: That’s true, but I wasn’t training for “an” IRONMAN, I was training for “the” IRONMAN. In the early 80’s there was only one. I had accomplished my original goal of doing the New York City marathon, then the Boston marathon, and it seemed like Kona was the next big thing. And during that training, as I got more familiar with the amazing natural landscape up in the Gunks, I wanted to include the three most beautiful lakes into one “grand finale” workout at the end of the summer. And when I shared the experience with friends, it just grew. In a way, the SOS really created itself.

ST: Was the name SOS part of the event from the beginning, or did it come later?

Don: Absolutely. It was the SOS, Survival of the Shawangunks Triathlon, right from the beginning. I still have the original t-shirt that we made our first year with the original SURVIVORS including Barnacle Bill Brophy, Kathy Bergess, Don Reilly, and myself. We had a great time in those days before anyone really knew what we were doing.

ST: Some folks call your race the original SwimRun challenge even though the bike is clearly part of the race. Were the multiple swim run transitions always a part of it?

Don: I have to say, while I love the idea of being original, those gorgeous lakes were carved out of the third glacial period, I just strung a few beautiful ones together with the most scenic runs. But in order to get up there, you need to earn it, with a 30 mile bike segment taking you up 1,200 feet. The SOS was always designed as a triathlon, but the bike portion was the only part that I could accurately measure the distance. We didn’t have GPS then, but my bike had an odometer.

ST: So the multiple swim run sections were there from the start?

Don: After biking up the mountain, we used to lock our bikes up in the woods somewhere near the Awosting parking lot, run up cardiac hill to the lake, swim across Awosting, then take the beautiful Castle point trail to Minnewaska, swim across that lake, then past the waterfalls, over Trapps bridge, past the rock climbers, up Godzilla, and swim across Mohonk, then of course the sprint to sky top. So yes, the point to point, multiple swim run sections were included in the experience from the beginning.

ST: Do most folks swim with their shoes or do they store the shoes in their race suit?

Don: That question is up to each individual athlete. The rule is, everything you take from the bike on, you take with you to the survivor line. Most people just stuff their shoes in their shorts.

ST: What about the top finishers? Is there a trend along those lines how they handle their running shoes?

Don: Well, Herbert, now your getting a bit personal. Kidding. Most top finishers go with one shoe in front, and one in the back.

ST: The course records are pretty old. Fastest male time 4:10:43 by Erik Grimm in 1993 and Jan Wanklyn managed a 4:44:49 in 2000.

Don: That’s a direct testament to how Erik and Jan were able to manage to course. Simply put, the SOS offers some unique challenges. It’s not just a swim, bike, run event. The hills are intense, and the experience can be grueling. Many triathletes who excel in the world of endurance triathlons have a different experience when they face the Shawangunks. That’s why we call them survivors.

ST: Has anyone come close more recently?

Don: I thought Jonas Colting might have had a shot. Aside from his impressive performances at Ultra Ironman races, Jonas won the Swedish OTILLO. And in 2009 he won the SOS, but about 8 minutes shy of Erik’s record.

ST: What did he think?

Don: Jonas loved the race, he had a great race, was very gracious. He’s a strong athlete.

ST: What is the field limit and how fast does the race sell out?

Don: We limit the race to 150 participants. A major part of the SOS experience is keeping the race intimate. We don’t want to attack the mountain with so many participants that it takes away from the individualistic experience. Our athletes get a very unique opportunity to enjoy something really beautiful. I don’t want too many people crowding the area. Intimacy of the pre-race and post race festivities are also part of what sets this race apart from the rest. Keeping things small, we don’t have to rush people. We’re able to pay attention to each individual athlete, and get to know them and their families. Registration opens at midnight on Halloween and sells out in minutes. This year I believe we filled up in 6 minutes. This usually means those who participate have a very strong desire to come join us. Some of our participants memoir their SOS experience starting with their Halloween picture. Some set up their computers in advance, with all their information ready, so they’re all set to go at midnight. It’s been rumored that people have SOS parties. These are only a few reasons why we really try and pay attention to every detail. We feel that our community deserves it.

ST: Who holds the record of having survived the SOS Tri the most often and of the original crew who has finished most recently?

Don: We’ve had the original crew make appearances now and then. Barnacle Bill has done it a few times with his daughter. Larry Krieger has done the race every year since 1984 with only one exception. Larry won the SOS in 1990 and signs up at midnight every Halloween. Long time participants Ross and Aubin got married after the race one year, and Scott and Julie Willet, both have won the race and had a beautiful wedding at the sky top finish line as well.

ST: You have participated or as you say "survived" the SOS race many time, but also went to Kona. When was that and did you do any other IRONMAN events?

Don: I recovered from a serious cycling injury while doing a half IM in Hawaii in 2011, and I've been to Kona twice for the IRONMAN ('87 and '95). I've only done 2 IRONMAN races, both in Kona those two years. I did go back and complete that half IM in Hawaii in 2015.

ST: Is there anything else we should know?

Don: Yes, we have about 250 volunteers for the SOS. Many have been part of the event for over 25 years. I can’t think of any triathlon where there are more volunteers than participants, and each member of our team is definitely considered family. It’s a labor of love, really. We all train together for the event, enjoying the beauty of the Shawangunks and getting in great shape together. Rumor has it, there’s a fountain of youth up there. I’m still looking for it.