One by one, fairly steadily for several hours, they crossed the finish line to applause, handshakes and hugs.
They came from all walks of life. Some were veteran triathlon participants. Some were in their first. There were all sorts of ages, from grandparents to a middle schooler.
Two hundred twelve finishers, to be exact. Seventy-nine in the International and 133 in the Sprint.
Everyone who stepped into the waters of Lake Habeeb Saturday morning just after 8 o’clock was in for a challenge. The times didn’t matter most to the majority. The Rocky Gap medal and the feeling of accomplishment was No. 1.
That was evident by the smiles of the finishers as they took their final step.
Scott Bittner, of Columbia, ran in his first triathlon at Rocky Gap and said he’ll be back. Hopefully he’ll have plenty of visits because ... he just finished middle school! In the fall he’ll be a student at Oakland Mills High.
Bittner, 14, began competing in triathlons at age 9. He was the youngest participant Saturday, finishing the Sprint Triathlon in 1:37:44.
“I’ve never opted out of a race. I always finish,’’ he said. “There are so many good people that you meet when you are at the triathlons, and it’s just the greatest feeling when you run across that mat at the finish line and they announce your name, and your parents are waiting there and you get a medal.”
Bittner said he trains about three months prior to a triathlon.
“The preparation helps keep you fit and active. During the summer, kids don’t have anything to do so they sit around and do nothing. But I like to train for my triathlon and it helps to keep me from becoming a couch potato.”
Bittner said he also has played running back in football, lacrosse, basketball and soccer and likely will run cross country or play football in high school in the fall, and compete in track and field in the spring.
“The hardest stage for me was definitely the bike ride. It was a really grueling ride because of the hills. There were ups and downs and some major hills, but I got through it. I think I’m going to do this one again. Definitely.”
Gail Keller, of Keyser, W.Va., and Denise Partsch, of Cumberland, were two of numerous first-timers yesterday. Both are members of the Western Maryland Wheelmen Bike Club. Partsch was 26th in the Women’s Sprint in 1:15:23 and Keller was 30th in 1:16:47.
The feeling of accomplishment at the end may be rivaled strongly by the emotions moments before the start.
“I was really nervous, scared and excited all at the same time,’’ Keller admitted. “But it was great because everyone out here was so great. They talk to you when you’re running and encourage you ... everyone supports everyone. It’s a great atmosphere and (event producer) TriColumbia has done a great job with it.”
When the horn sounded the swimming begins and the race was on.
“I was more excited than nervous,’’ said Partsch. “Swimming’s the hardest for me. The adrenalin’s going right from the beginning of the race. I couldn’t catch my breath and couldn’t relax enough, so I kept having to turn on my back. You’re pumped and ready to go.”
Both rookies had friends who participated in triathlons and a few months ago they considered taking the Rocky Gap challenge. The biking came easiest for the avid pedalers.
“I’ve been biking for three years almost daily, and in February we started talking about the triathlon,’’ said Keller, an Air Force veteran. “I began training at the end of February and gave myself an April 1 deadline to see if I was going to be able to do it.
“The swimming was the hardest. It’s a lot of training. My weaknesses were swimming and running, so I ran three times a week, swam two or three times a week and fit biking in between because that’s my strength.”
Partsch moved to Cumberland from Charlotte, N.C., five years ago. Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., she is now closer to family in Johnstown, Pa.
“Cumberland is a beautiful place and I love it here. I can ride my bike anywhere ... trail, road, anything ... right from my house,’’ she said.
Like Keller, Partsch didn’t run or swim. Now she does, and rather well.
“A lot of friends were doing the triathlon. I thought, ‘It’s a challenge. I’m going to see if I can do it.’” Partsch said. “The triathlon is a lot different than your training because your adrenalin is going, so you really have to concentrate on pacing yourself. I’m happy and really proud of the time I got.”
Like Bittner, Partsch and Keller said Rocky Gap will likely be an annual event for them.
The Rocky Gap Triathlon, which benefited the Cumberland YMCA, was exceptionally produced by TriColumbia, an endurance event production company. For more information and results, visit TriColumbia.org.
Mike Mathews is a Cumberland Times-News sportswriter. Write to him at email@example.com.