The Trimanathon is an annual, invite-only event held on the first Saturday of December. Each participant from the previous year is required to “summon” another guy that they think they could beat as well as someone that they think could beat them.
“With that model, it should be growing exponentially, but people tend to drop out, because they value their lives." That’s Daniel, the guy that tipped me off about what seems, at first sight, to be an unregulated grown man’s pissing contest.
It’s a drizzly day, with thick, vaulted steel skies. There’s a black labrador taking shelter under a truck and wives holding babies and umbrellas.
It’s not really the location you’d expect. A nice waterfront park in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Knoxville, manicured lawns on rolling hills with trim bushes and impressive water features. There’s a steady stream of Crossfit types in Lululemon getting their morning run in on the well-kept, low impact trail that skirts the edge of the park, an image that contrasts sharply with these hairy guys preparing to jump into icy water in their underwear.
A veteran of the Trimanathon says through gritted teeth and excited shivers that this is the best weather they’ve had. “No sleet, it's above 40 degrees. Perfect day.”
The Trimanathon is a mini triathlon (swim, run, bike) with an additional “man-challenge” that varies every year among things like archery, changing a tire blindfolded, and taking a 5th grade math test.
Two competitors light up before the start of the first leg, a short swim along the northern bank of the Tennessee river. One competitor tells me that they had to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes one year. Another says that the previous year someone got hypothermia. All the stories are like this, with a “big fish” kind of feel to them.
While the motivational machismo and rallying cries at the opening of the race feel pretty cheesy and canned, the camaraderie and philial love amongst these guys is refreshingly uncontrived. A bald eagle perches atop a tree on the bank of the river, an almost too-good blessing of this silly endeavor, and I find myself giving in and enjoying the whole thing despite myself. A phallic whistle is blown (I know, pretty bad) and the guys wade into the water for the first leg of the race.
“Yes, it is overly masculine, and a lot of it is playing on the false sense of masculinity our culture breeds, almost as an obvious satire that we embrace and laugh at,” says Stephen Otis, who founded the Trimanathon six years ago with friends Taylor Yoakley and Matthew Mincer. “Really, it's a reminder for us not to get lazy as we age, that doing something crazy like we used to do in our youth can still happen on some visceral level. It is nostalgic.”
Stephen articulates a purer theme that looks beyond frat house sensibilities into a truly fraternal bond among the men that choose to participate in what he calls "a spontaneous combustion of fun.” Throughout our conversation about the Triman, I can tell that Otis is grasping at a "Whitmanesque" nostalgia, celebrating the “durable poet” and “brawny lover” ideals of a bygone age, with hopes of pushing back against the drabness of every day life. “We chose something to do that reminded us that we need to face the cold hard facts of life and learn to laugh and grit our teeth at the same time. The camaraderie with other men gets us through it and has a way of sharpening us.”
While I don’t know if I can get on board with all of the macho Triman rhetoric, I look around at these guys, pushing back against safety and security in their own way, and I can respect it. Amongst these beautiful manicured lawns, million dollar homes and nine-to-five lives, something a little crass and muddy and dangerous seems important, maybe even necessary, to break up the monotony and isolation of the every day: what Stephen calls “the slow death.”
Otis is hoping to grow the Triman into something unique and fun in Knoxville. And for this year's winner, Joe Pendley, the Triman is getting better every time. “I didn’t throw up this year, so that was definitely a plus.”