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Recalled: ‘The Ironman for Skiers’

A lookback at the Mountain Man Triathlon, the wild winter endurance event that drew big names in the '80s and '90s. 

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In 1987, Colleen Cannon was at the height of her pro triathlon career. A member of the U.S. team with wins at major races to her name, Cannon would go on to claim multiple national titles. Swimming, biking, and running she could handle. But skiing, snowshoeing, and speed skating? That was a different beast altogether. 

Still, Cannon tossed her, uh, toque in the ring of the 1987 Mountain Man Triathlon, a race launched in 1983 as a way to attract people to the towns of Avon and Beaver Creek, Colorado. Capitalizing  on the growing popularity of Hawaii’s Ironman triathlon, the Mountain Man would offer a chance to spotlight all that the then-fledgling resort towns had to offer. This particular blend of tri? 11.5 miles of cross-country skiing, 9.1 miles of snowshoeing, and 12.4 miles of speed skating on a frozen lake—all staged in the rugged terrain of the White River National Forest. Eventually nicknamed the “Ironman for skiers,” the race was billed as “one of the most brutal tests of winter mountaineering and endurance that the human body is capable of performing in one day.” 

And the description was spot on. Not only were the distances of each leg challenging, but the elements made it all the more of a sufferfest: Set at an elevation of more than 7,300 feet, the course had an ascent of 7,750 feet and descent of 8,190 feet. Athletes would scale the summit of Beaver Creek Mountain (11,400 feet), where the wind chill hovered at 85-below temperatures.

Despite the ominous conditions, the race attracted a large swath of spectators, hundreds of volunteers, and top talent from around the country, including two-time champ (and local adventuring legend) Dawes Wilson and 1984 winner John Dozier, who was featured in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” for his feat, finishing in 4 hours, 43 seconds. It also attracted the press: One participant in the 1983 race wrote a lengthy feature about his experience in a 1984 issue of SKI Magazine. And by the late ’80s, the race would be televised for ABC’s Wide World of Sports. 

While the men’s field at Mountain Man was rather robust, the women’s side was slim—not surprisingly since the sport of triathlon was dominated by men at the time. Just one woman, Jan Reynolds, a member of the U.S. Biathlon team from Middlebury, Vermont and one of the first athletes to be sponsored by The North Face—finished the inaugural event in 1983. (She’d go on to pick up four back-to-back wins before becoming the race director.) Perhaps because of Reynold’s influence, the number of women at the Mountain Man steadily increased as the years went on. 

And, in 1987, Cannon arrived in Beaver Creek, along with her training buddy, long-distance star Scott Molina (who would win the Ironman World Championship in 1988). While the pair had done a crash course in skate skiing, snowshoeing, and ice skating on borrowed equipment just days before the race, neither were quite prepared for the behemoth task laid out before them. In a blog post, Cannon admitted that they thought of pulling out, but “didn’t want to look like wimpy professional triathletes from California.” 

So off they went—and then, they went down. Several times. Despite being two of the fittest triathletes on the planet at the time, neither Cannon or Molina could stay upright on their skinny skis, and even needed a boost from the race director to get up the first hill. The snowshoe running, featuring a slippery five-mile descent, was more in their wheelhouse, but Cannon said she “was using muscles that [she] had never used before and they were not happy,” adding that she arrived in the transition area exhausted, with still another event to go. “There is no Ironman training to get you ready for this,” she wrote. 

While Molina dropped after the run, Cannon soldiered on, completing the speed skating portion fueled by chocolate turtles her husband handed her on each lap. A national champion who routinely finished Olympic-distance races in just over two hours, Cannon completed the Mountain Man Tri in the dark, some eight hours after she started.

That day I swore I would learn how to cross-country ski, snowshoe, and ice skate,” Cannon recalled. “It also gave me a huge appreciation for these Mountain Men and Women athletes in Colorado.” 

RELATED: Level Up Your Running Game With Snowshoes

Other pro triathletes fared far better than Cannon and Molina in later years. Those like Kirsten Hanssen, the Mountain Man champ in 1988 (the same year she placed third at the Ironman World Championship), and seven-time Ironman winner Ray Browning, who took the tape in 1993 after learning to cross-country ski for the occasion. 

The Mountain Man Winter Triathlon continued into the nineties, ultimately picking up a title sponsor in Anheuser-Busch, Inc. and offering a $4,000 prize purse. And while winter triathlon has grown and taken on different shapes since then, the Mountain Man remains one of the very first—and possibly the toughest—cold-weather triathlons in history. 

RELATED: A Triathlete’s Guide to Get Started Cross-Country Skiing