When Dr. Mark London describes something as an "adventure," you can take his word for it.
It might be obvious to anyone aware of the Kinzua Country Tango adventure race, that each of the grueling six legs are monumental physical challenges.
And it's even more complex than that.
Times Observer photo by Toby Keller
Tango team comes together
The Signature Fireplaces Kinzua Country Tango team is all smiles as they make final preparations for the multifaceted adventure race held Saturday, starting at at 7 a.m. Saturday at the YMCA. The Tango has grown since its inception in 2006, and offers a unique outdoor competition that reflects the community that hosts it. Signature Fireplaces relay team members, from left, include Dave Thomas, Alex Johnson, Sam Sivak, Mark London, Natalie Beyeler, and Dana Beyeler.
The Tango will start at the YMCA Saturday morning at 7 a.m., and from there the first leg, a half marathon, will take competitors east down Pennsylvania Ave., up Hemlock Road to the Kinzua Dam. They'll cross the top of the dam, and continue along Route 59 to the Kinzua Beach. The second leg, which brings participants down to the water's edge at the Elijah boat launch, is a 20-mile bike up Longhouse Drive and through the Allegheny National Forest. There's a more-than-two-mile swim, a six-plus mile orienteer, a 4.5-mile run and then an eight-mile canoe/kayak sprint to the finish.
London, appropriately named as a travel adventure racer, will be competing in the swimming canoeing portions of the race, but he may attempt the whole event solo in the coming years.
"With my wife doing the cycling event this year, I've been doing workouts with her," said Mark. "The only leg I haven't trained for is the running, and over the next year or two I might give it a go. My hats are off to those guys and girls that compete alone, or in the complete race. That's by all definitions an impressive feat."
Solo competitors in the past have taken between eight and 15 hours to complete the course. Teams are able to finish much faster, and Mark believes that his team will finish around 3:10 p.m., eight-and-a-half hours after the start. For some, this is an individual challenge, both mentally and physically. For others, it's motivator to train and live healthy.
For London, it is a combination of all of those things, and a chance to bond with co-workers and family members who he is becoming closer with since moving here.
It was in Palmer, Alaska, some 40 miles from Anchorage, that Mark met his now-wife, Natalie Beyeler, a native of Russell, who was in the transition from managing an Army hospital, to opening her own private practice as a physician.
They lived there together before Mark headed to the Windy City for the University of Chicago's medical program. For seven years, Mark and Natalie held their long distance relationship together; the decision to move to Warren afterward was an easy one for both. The lure of proximity to family, and the benefits of raising a family in this small town won them over.
Mark will see his first bit of action during the third leg of the race. He'll have to jump into the reservoir and swim 2.2 miles (the standard set by Ironman competitions), from Elijah to the Kinzua Beach. He has been training for it his entire life - without knowing.
"I'm an adventure person. I grew up-raised in Australia- 'surf life saving' (a growing competition-spirited event based around the training lifeguards receive and the sport of surfing)," he said. "I was always racing kayaks on the ocean, paddle boardsI've been competing in the water my whole life. I've traveled all over the world and in my early twenties I moved to Alaska and worked with helicopter rescue services as a paramedic. This is a real adventure race, though- straight open water, a run through rugged terrain, the orienteering side will be tough, and the rocky bike ride."
Mark, who has been searching for the next adrenaline rush his whole life, has conquered his nerve when put under stress. He has a surgeon's steadiness, because he is a surgeon. His teammates won't let him down, either.
"My wife was in the Army, Dana (Beyeler) was a Marine, both our fathers were in the Navy. There's a lot of military behind us," he said.
Dana has the pleasure of orienteering, the fourth leg of the race, for the team. From Kinzua Beach, they'll move on foot through the hills of the Allegheny, collecting six marked points before returning to the beach for the fifth leg, another run back down 59 to the western side of the dam.
"The orienteering is an interesting part of this," said Mark. "You could have the greatest Olympic triathletes in the world, but if you miss a marker, or spend too long in the woods, you could lose so much time. You can also make up all that time during that leg. It's anyone's game at that point."
Mark's team, sponsored by Signature Fireplaces in Russell, and made up of family and close friends, is a representation of what this race, and the community that hosts it, appear to be about - individuals striving to be the best they can be for the good of others around them. The Beyeler name may sound familiar to natives of the area, and those same people may remember Matthew Beyeler, who lost his life in 2011 at the age of 33. He was active at Cable Hollow Church and in the local Boy Scouts. He had a love for the outdoors, and is said to have "never met anyone he did not know," said Mark. He was a friendly face and a recognizable character to many in this small town. Mark's team will be competing in his honor and memory, doing something he would have loved to do.
"The feeling I have from it is one of camaraderie, friendly connections, community," said Mark. "The team is very close, and we wanted to do something for our area, and in the memory of a lost loved one who enjoyed these same places."
The final leg of Tango is an eight-mile paddle from the tailwaters of the Allegheny River to Point Park in the heart of the city.
"A lot of people criticize this area," said Mark. "Young people want to move to the big metropolitan areas, but this is a great place and the outdoor activities are unbelievable (and for someone who has lived and competed elsewhere, he would know).
"I've been exploring here each season since we moved, and I haven't covered a single percent of what there is to do here," he said. "It's the ideal town to bring up a family and enjoy life."
Mark's journey, which has brought him to this point-poised to race with hundreds of others in the picturesque setting that can be taken for granted by those who see it everyday-is unique in the details. But, like most stories, its subtext is common to all. In the aftermath of adversity, we band together. Tears strengthen bonds between loved ones and strangers alike. Sweat is poured over the desire to become a better person, to make a difference anywhere, somehow.
"The Tango is about families like Mark's, like the Beyelers, London is quick to point out. It will test the resolve of everyone in it, and they'll cross the finish line, hands on their knees and breathing rapidly, better people than they were when they started, and with more appreciation for the things most take for granted. Each competitor this Saturday will be a reminder of this intense appreciation for life that we should all be training ourselves to achieve.
And they have 15 hours to do it.