The mountains in the Appalachian Chain running through western North Carolina once stood much higher than they do today. In fact, just a few hundred million years ago, continental collision drove the Blue Ridge Mountains to elevations up to 10 times higher than the Himalaya Mountain Range today.
Just imagine the snowcapped peaks ... the tree-covered hillsides ... the multisport training opportunities.
Even without 40,000-foot inclines, North Carolina might rival Colorado as a Mecca for triathlon training.
With the Atlantic Ocean to our east and a wealth of training resources in the Triangle, elite and professional multisport athletes are being drawn to Chapel Hill-Carrboro.
"We've got a perfect mix here," said Dave Williams, owner and coach of Triangle Multisport, which offers expert coaching in triathlon, swimming, cycling and running, in addition to health and fitness training. Triangle Multisport ( trianglemultisport.com
) also sponsors a team of highly competitive athletes, a youth team and event / tour stops.
"We do have elites and pros moving here -- and we're one of the few places that has that," Williams said.
Stacey Richardson, a professional triathlete champion and owner of Tri-Stacey Training ( tristacey.com
), contends that the local scene is not in the same stratosphere as Boulder.
"We've got a population of great triathletes in the Triangle -- phenomenal runners, cyclists and swimmers," she said. "We're not talking world class though, like Boulder. No one from the Triangle is going by invitation to the Olympic Training Center or on the U.S. National Team."
Richardson said a few key elements are still missing from the mix locally: "the terrain, access to coaches who can work with the next generation of elites and can coach draft-legal racing."
Fleet Feet Carrboro co-owner Brian White agreed, but added that the already hopping local scene could explode with a bit of validation.
"I don't know if we could ever be a 'Boulder,' just because of the altitude," said White, a one-time selection for the elite USA Triathlon (USAT) Junior National Team. "This terrain doesn't have the long mountain climbs, but ... it could be an east-coast, low-altitude Boulder if a couple of the right people trained here."
Williams admitted that the Triangle hasn't toppled the ivory towers of the Rocky Mountains yet.
"We're not (there) yet, but over the past three years, we've been seeing a lot more elites and pros in the area," he said. "The more we get, but more people who come and train with them."
Whether Chapel Hill-Carrboro and the Triangle are ascending to Boulder's altitude, it's agreed that the local fervor reflects the right attitude.
"North Carolina as a state is one of the more active participation states," White said, "and the Triangle is huge."
"It's a great place for age group competitors to live and train," Richardson said. "They go to national championships. There are collegiate teams that Dave Williams coaches. The area has beginners' clubs, youth clubs, kids and college clubs."
"If you're interested in triathlons, there's a place for you in the Triangle," she added.
White said the prominence of physical fitness and competition is an evident part of the fabric of local life.
"You sit by the window at Tyler's (in Carrboro) and you see all levels of athletes walking and running by, and then you go out on Dairyland Road, and there are just packs of cyclists out there, and Homestead Pool is always being used. It's awesome: this place is already happening."
All can also agree that the participation and the level of competition will only continue to grow and improve during the next decades due to industry-building efforts by such as Set-up Events - one of the largest race production companies in the U.S. - and Endurance Magazine and Swim for Smiles, all of which promote opportunities to beginners and developing triathletes.
White said the resources for younger athletes are impressive and still-growing.
"You look at the club swimming scene and N.C. Aquatics Club for this small town, and there are some phenomenal swimmers around here," he said. "Bigger towns don't have as many kids swimming, and the youth cross-country programs are phenomenal. It's the culture that's been created here."
Proof for multisport popularity among youth is evidenced in the overwhelming turnout for Chapel Hill's Swim for Smiles Youth Triathlons.
"I'd seen a lot of parents doing triathlons and a lot of kids standing around and just watching their parents," Swim for Smiles' director and co-founder Gary Kayye said. The distances were too long and exhausting for them. Biking 12 miles in an adult sprint triathlon is a daunting task. There just weren't any kid-only ones, so Swim for Smiles seemed like a natural fit.
Swim for Smiles is the nation's largest youth triathlon, again expecting hundreds of participants for its sixth annual staging on May 6.
"I'd like to say I was some kind of genius, but I'd be lying to you," Kayye said, laughing. "It was a matter of 'right place at the right time.' North Carolina was already one of the top 10 states for adult triathlons ... but there were no sanctioned events for kids. USA Triathlon thought it was a great opportunity for growth and said, 'Sure, we'll support you.'"
White said it was just another indication of the sport's local ascent.
"How is it that Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has the largest youth triathlon in the nation?" he asked. "This place is extremely special."
To grow the sport culture further, however, many say a bridge must be built between youth competitions and elite training. Currently, even as an Olympic sport, triathlons aren't recognized as varsity sports by either high schools or the NCAA.
Local triathlon standout Alex Werden found it hard to start a recognized triathlon club at Chapel Hill High due to liability concerns.
"It's hard to get kids to put their apples in one bag when there are no NCAA college scholarships," said the CHHS junior, a member of the Tigers' cross-country and track and field teams, "but we are trying to work with Dave Williams at Triangle Multisport to start a local club for teens."
Chosen as a member of the USAT Junior National Team while in high school, Duncan Hoge still found little support for such endeavors while later enrolled at UNC.
"NCAA status would have been great, and I suppose that's part of the natural progression," Hoge said. "I mean, it's already an Olympic sport, so why is it not an NCAA sport yet?"