Triathlon Across the USA: State #50 – West Virginia

Parsons, West Virginia; May 20, 2023 – PVFD Cheat River Triathlon, Mill Race Park.

The West Virginia triathlon was the final one in the Triathlon Across the USA adventure that began over a decade ago. Our children, Jon, Liza, and Ben, joined Joy and me for this road trip. The warmth of the people and beauty of the landscape of West Virginia made this special time even more memorable.

A Family Road Trip to West Virginia for a Triathlon

Joy and I left our home in The Villages, Florida on Thursday at a little after 7 am. Three hybrid bikes hung on the bike rack, secured to the hitch of our Chrysler Pacifica. We would use the bikes on the mixed paved and gravel trail we would ride during the West Virginia triathlon.

Our destination for today was a hotel near the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina. Our three children would meet us in Charlotte, one on Thursday evening and two on Friday morning.

Fortunately, all flights were on time. Actually, the one on Friday morning was about twenty minutes early, which allowed us to start our journey to West Virginia a little earlier than planned.

By 11 am, we were on our way with the five of us snugly packed in our van with triathlon gear for three of us. Joy and I had additional luggage, golf clubs, and other items for the two months we would be in the north central part of the country,

As we drove, we remembered earlier road trips. Our best recollection was that this was the first road trip together as a family since 1985.

Our destination for this evening was Elkins, West Virginia, a 30-minute drive from Parsons. Along the way, we made an intermediate stop at the New River Gorge Bridge. According to the US National Park Service, it is “the longest single-span steel arch bridge in the United States”.

3rd Annual Parsons VFD Cheat River Triathlon

The race, a fundraiser for the Parsons Volunteer Fire Department (VFD), began at 10 am on Saturday. Advertised distances for the individual legs of the sprint triathlon in which we competed were:

  • Run: 3.9 miles (6.3 km)
  • Kayak: 3+ miles (4.8+ km)
  • Bike: 7 miles (11.3 km)

A Special Race Morning

We left the hotel at a little after 8 am to allow time for check-in and packet pickup, setup of our transition areas, and some pre-race stretching.

We arrived at Mill Race Park in Parsons, West Virginia, after a leisurely 30-minute drive. Mill Race Park is where the triathlon would begin and end.

From the moment I started walking to the packet pickup area, I knew something was up. I could see people looking and whispering. There was also a reporter from a local TV station. As we walked to pickup our race packet, I saw a banner recognizing this 50th state milestone prepared from pictures used in other posts.

We picked up our timing chip, t-shirt, and mandatory whistle for the kayak leg. During the pre-race meeting, we learned that, according to West Virginia law, anyone on the water is required to carry a whistle. The fine for violating this law is $50.

Pre-race Meeting for the West Virginia Triathlon

During the pre-race meeting, Fire Chief Kevin White welcomed the participants and described the race course. He warned of the possibility of some loose material on the bike path, despite it having been swept the previous day. He also told participants about a couple of places on the Cheat River of which to be careful. In particular, he mentioned a tree downed in the river. His advice was ‘keep left’.

Chief White then welcomed a ‘celebrity’, which turned out to be me. He told everyone about this being my triathlon in the 50th state. Then, he called me to the front where he presented a special plague prepared by the VFD to recognize the occasion.

After the pre-race meeting, the reporter, Tanner Gilmartin, asked to record my answers to a few questions. Sections of the interview would later appear on the WDTV evening news.

After a quick stretch, it was race time. Kevin counted down, after which all racers took off on the run leg.

pictures from before the 2023 Cheat River Triathlon in Parsons, West Virginia
Before the Cheat River Triathlon, (upper left) I posed with the banner prepared by our children, (lower left) Chief Kevin White presented a plague commemorating West Virginia being the 50th state in Triathlon Across the USA, (upper right) closeup of the PVFD plaque, and (lower right) Tanner Gilmartin interviewed me for a spot on the WDTV evening news.


Liza, Ben, and I positioned ourselves at the back of the pack before the beginning of the triathlon. We crossed the starting line last and ran together at a pace I had planned for the first mile. My goal was to avoid starting too fast, something I had learned in a reverse triathlon (run-bike-swim) done in New Mexico.

It was quickly apparent that we were racing against fast runners. The distance between us and the person ahead of us grew each moment. When I reached the end of the run, all other runners were on the kayak or, for those who were part of a relay team, walking or jogging back to Mill Race Park.

Scenes from the Parsons VFD Cheat River Triathlon courtesy of my daughter Liza.
Left: While on the tree-lined run course, we got a hint of what we would face on the kayak.
Center: A view from the kayak while entering one of the most tame rapids.
Right: The bike leg was on a well maintained, mostly paved, path used earlier for the run.


For reference, I have kayaked many times. However, my previous experience was with a closed kayak on a lake. I seldom went out when there was more than a light wind and small waves. Today, I would learn about kayaking on a river with rapids.

Upon reaching the water, a volunteer told me to ‘pick one of the green kayaks’. They were apparently lighter weight than others. I found one with easy access to the water, dragged it to the edge of the river, and put on my helmet and life vest.

As I climbed onto the open kayak, I recalled an earlier conversation about the kayak leg with a couple of guys from the area. Admittedly, I was a little concerned about kayaking going into this race, not knowing what to expect. I remembered them mentioning ‘some rapids’.

During that conversation, I had asked them if they were going to wear their running shoes on the kayak. While they were especially kind, the look in their eyes betrayed them. Of course, they were going to wear shoes. I’m sure they thought I was crazy.

From their comments, we jettisoned the two-gallon plastic ziplock bags Liza had packed for us to keep our shoes dry during the kayak leg.

Kayaking on the Cheat River . . .

I was not ready to get my shoes wet at the beginning of the kayak, just in case it was not necessary. I pushed the kayak into the water as far as I could while being able to get into it without walking into the water. To get the kayak into the water so I could start paddling, I used a rocking motion. This eventually worked but took too much time.

I made it through the first rapids, though my kayak was full of water when I reached the other side. I tried for a few moments to bail water with my hands, but realized this was a waste of time.

At the next small rapids, I headed for a slightly calmer area, one through the center. As I would quickly learn, this was not a good choice. I soon felt the bottom of the kayak scraping on rocks, eventually stopping. I tried rocking the kayak as I had to get off the bank at the beginning, but was stuck.

My shoes would not be dry for several days after this point. I got out of the kayak, pulled it past the shallow area, ever careful not to fall. While I was there, I emptied the water from the kayak.

Once I reached the other side of these rapids, two guys who had watched this fiasco from the shore told me to ‘stay to the right’. The current was apparently stronger on that side. (The only advice I had previously heard was to stay to the left near the end of the course, where the tree lay in the water.) I followed their advice, mostly. The time I didn’t follow it was the next time I got stuck.

. . . With Real Rapids

As I was dragging my kayak off the rocks to the right, where the current was indeed stronger, Liza and Ben caught up to me. I learned that Ben had capsized while going through the first rapids, losing the hat Liza had loaned him.

From hereon, the three of us traveled the river at the same pace. Now, I was trying to figure out how to read the water to find the fastest route.

We finally reached the point where the tree lay on the right bank. The water was far more active than we had previously seen. We would eventually pass through what I saw as ‘massive’, two foot high waves.

As I started into the most turbulent section, a mix of thoughts ran through my head. The ones I now remember were “keep paddling to keep the kayak straight”, “here’s what I am going to do when I capsize”, and “I wonder how many more of these I have to go through”.

Thankfully, I made it to the other side in my kayak.

A short distance later, I saw two guys on the left shore motioning us to land. Since I thought we had further to go, I had stayed in the middle of river. To get to the exit, I tried, with minor success, to turn the kayak and paddle perpendicular to the current. It wasn’t long before I was stalled on shallow rocks again.

I pull my kayaked the rest of the way to shore, where my oldest son Jon shouted advice based on what he had seen others go through while exiting.

As soon as my helmet and life vest were off, I carefully (thanks to Jon’s coaching) climbed a set of rocks to reach the flat grassy area leading to the bike transition area.


After putting on my bike helmet and grabbing my bike, I headed out of the transition area and onto the bike course. The flat, out-and-back bike course was on the same path as we had run. This time, however, we turned around near the place we had earlier headed to the water.

As I relived the time on the water and realized I would complete this triathlon, I took more time than usual to enjoy the scenery. Today, this included a patch of beautiful blue and white irises, the river we had just ‘cheated’, and several impressive natural rock sculptures. A couple of roosters and several race volunteers stationed at each of the intersections faithfully cheered us on.

Liza, Ben, and I traveled more or less together, having decided we would finish together. I didn’t want this race to be remembered for the competition between the three of us. And I certainly did not want to be beaten by either or both of them.

crossing the finish line of the Parsons VFD Cheat River Triathlon in Parsons, West Virginia
Liza, Ben, and I crossed the finish line together. Biking was the third leg of the Parsons VFD Cheat River Triathlon and 50th state in which I crossed the finish line at a triathlon. Source: Appalachian Timing Group.

A Triathlon Axiom Confirmed in the West Virginia Triathlon

“Never try something for the first time on race day.” I learned this early in my triathlon journey. For as far as I can recall, I had been faithful to it. Except for today.

For this race, I knew I was going to violate this rule. I had never kayaked in a river. Before today, I didn’t even know about the rapids in the Cheat River.

Since there were no splits for the individual legs of the triathlon, I will never know how much time I lost in the kayak leg. However, my inexperience with kayaking in water like that of the Cheat River cost me a lot of time.

After the West Virginia Triathlon

There is one thing we do know. We would love to return to this region of West Virginia, possibly even this triathlon, in the future.

After enjoying snacks and drinks, we changed out of our wet clothing, repacked the van, and said our thanks and farewells to the kind people of West Virginia.

From Parsons, we drove to Blackwater Falls State Park, where we made the short walk to view the iconic falls and take a couple more family pictures.

While visiting Blackwater Falls, the skies opened. We cut short further sightseeing plans and began our trip to Missouri and Minnesota, where our three children live.

Joy and I would finish this trip after a couple of months visiting friends and family in Minnesota and South Dakota.

VanderWert family at Blackwater Falls State Park after the Parsons VFD Cheat River Triathlon in Parsons, West Virginia
After the West Virginia Triathlon, we visited Blackwater Falls State Park. On the way up from the viewing area, we stopped for one more family picture.

Race Firsts

  • First triathlon without a swim option. (My Indiana triathlon included kayaking as an option, but I chose the open water swim.)
  • The West Virginia triathlon was the first attended by all three of our children. (Liza did my first triathlon with me. Ben and Liza did another triathlon with me in Minnesota.)
  • First triathlon at which a television reporter interviewed me.

How About Kayaking at a Triathlon?

Have you done a triathlon with kayaking instead of swimming? How about another triathlon with sports other than swimming, biking, and running?

Please share your experience in the Comments below.

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