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Joshing Around 

click to enlarge Rowing teams finish the second leg of the Great Josh Billings RunAground triathlon, a September tradition in the Berkshires.
  • Rowing teams finish the second leg of the Great Josh Billings RunAground triathlon, a September tradition in the Berkshires.

The year was 1977 and a tourism committee in the Berkshires was trying to figure out how to attract visitors to western Massachusetts during the slow season after Labor Day and before the influx of the fall leaf peepers. One member of the committee had gone to college in the West and seen an odd sporting event called a triathlon. This was the ’70s, and triathlons were still largely unknown. Interesting idea. The one out west consisted of running, biking, and skiing. There’s no skiing in the Berkshires in September, but there is canoeing. It was decided: Let’s hold a triathlon.

Yes, but what to call it? One of the towns the race course passed through that year was Lanesboro, birthplace of the 19th-century humorist Henry Wheeler Shaw, better known as Josh Billings. Billings was famous for pithy observations that were at once funny and wise, to wit: “Flattery is like cologne water, to be smelt of, not swallowed.” The triathlon committee borrowed his name and his irony, and dubbed their event “The Great Josh Billings RunAground.” For good measure, they adopted one of Shaw’s one-liners as well, and “To finish is to win” became the motto of the race.

That sentiment is still the watchword of the event, which will take place for the 31st time this month. The race begins in Great Barrington with a 27-mile, hilly-but-scenic bicycle ride. That’s followed by a 5-mile canoe/kayak sprint around Stockbridge Bowl, also know as Lake Mahkeenac, on the Stockbridge-Lenox border. The last leg is a 6.2-mile run around the lake ending at Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox.

“In that first race, there were only 71 teams and they consisted of many athletes wearing cutoff jeans and T-shirts, and riding clunky old bikes from their garage,” said current race director Patty Spector. “There were mostly aluminum canoes, and it would have been just the sort of funny thing Josh Billings would have enjoyed.”

Today, there are more than 400 teams made up of one, two, three, or four people, most of them wearing spandex and sporting state-of-the-art shoes, bikes, canoes, and kayaks. Twenty percent of those teams are in the “Ironman” division, where one person does all three sections. “It’s a lot more serious today,” says Spector, “but we still have those ordinary folks who only compete in this one event all year.”

The race is now the oldest and largest bike, row, and run triathlon in the country. “It’s gotten more competitive,” says Spector, “but it’s still about being in the outdoors and having fun. Many triathlons have come and gone, but we survive because the community really gets behind this. We’re also willing to try new things and adapt. Three years ago we added kayaks to the canoe portion, and our entries went up. We’re also one of the only triathlons that has a matchmaking service which will put you on a comparable team of athletes. If you’re a biker, we’ll find you the other two legs. We do hundreds of matches.”

The Great Josh Billings RunAground will be held on September 16.

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