The Rocky Mountain Flyathlon is probably the most enjoyable triathlon out there. Contestants run, catch fish, and drink beer. Oh, and they raise a ton of money for conservation. Interested yet?
Four years ago, a small event in Saguache, CO, attracted a handful of people who liked the sound of this quirky race. Now, it has grown to include multiple locations, hundreds of people, and has raised well over $100,000 for native trout.
The first unofficial Flyathlon was in 2013, when Andrew Todd, the founder of the event, got a dozen of his friends together to partake in three of his favorite activities: trail running, fly fishing, and drinking craft beer.
A year later, they decided to try to make the event official. With the thumbs up from the Forest Service, they held the first event, the Middle Creek Flyathlon, in Saguache. They had 40 participants sign up, and naturally, there were now bigger fish to fry.
They asked folks if they’d be willing to share the event with their friends to see if anyone would donate money to the cause. For the first event alone, racers raised $6,600. This money went toward rerouting a trail near the creek and educating visitors about the local native trout, the Rio Grande cutthroat.
The next year was an even bigger success, with $22,000 raised for another trail project in the Middle Creek drainage.
Since then, the race has been featured in magazines, online articles, podcasts, and more, and has not stopped growing. In 2016, a second race was added at the Lake Fork of the Gunnison, and in 2017 there were another two events: a Driftless Area Flyathlon in Iowa and a Miners Creek Flyathlon in Creede, CO.
Also in 2016 was the creation of a 501(c)(3) organization called Running Rivers to handle the influx of support for the Flyathlon events. Its mission statement is “to facilitate the connection of people with healthy freshwater ecosystems through novel recreational events, educational activities, and on-the-ground restoration projects.” Money donated for each event goes toward stream restoration, trail maintenance, and education projects mostly surrounding Rio Grande and Greenback cutthroat trout.
What does a Flyathlon entail?
The gist of a Flyathlon is simple: run a race, catch a fish during that race, and drink tasty beer before and after that race.
Runners line up the morning of the race with gear in hand. All gear must be broken down at the start of the race (possibly the first good argument I’ve found for single-piece fly rods), and carried throughout the duration. Some people bring frills like nets, while others keep it as simple as possible with nothing but a tenkara rod and a couple of flies.
To start the race, kids shoot a can of non-craft beer with BB guns, and the runners are off! The race winds its way along a creek, and runners must drop down to try catching a fish at some point before finishing. Some people drop immediately, trying to get the fish out of the way and access holes before anyone else has fished them. Others do the majority of the run first, hoping to knock out the physically demanding part.
Each course is different. The Middle Creek Flyathlon has two courses, a short and long, and the run is moderate difficulty. The Lake Fork Flyathlon has a single 10-mile long course that is rated as easy, but the fishing is supposedly a little tougher.
Fishing is catch-and-release during the race, and each runner is given an official measuring sheet for photographing the length of the fish. The longer the fish, the more time you can shave off your race time. There’s a benefit to catching a tiny fish, though. While the top male and top female each become a finalist, so do the people with the biggest and smallest fish. These four finalists then duke it out in a cornhole tournament to see who the champion is. This person usually receives some sort of awesome prize, like a custom fly rod. The top few fundraisers also generally receive some nice goodies.
All then celebrate by drinking a ton of beers from various craft breweries.
2018 Lake Fork Flyathlon
For the last three years, I have competed in the Lake Fork Flyathlon. Though tempted to try the Middle Creek event, I’ve grown to love the Lake Fork area and seeing the same friendly faces each year. It seems like quite a few people like to stick with their favorite race.
The weather for this race can be all over the board, from snow (my first year) to sweltering heat (this year). It takes place in a canyon, so it generally switches from a brisk start to a hot day quickly once the sun peeks over the canyon wall.
My goal every year is just to catch a fish and finish, and it seemed like most people did catch a fish this year. It took me a little longer to hook up than I hoped, but when I got a little 6.5″ dinker in, I was hoping maybe it would land me smallest fish (since it obviously wasn’t going to shave off much time).
I ran a faster race than the last two years, which was a big morale booster for me since I’m generally not much of a runner, but I missed the smallest fish by a little over an inch! The smallest fish competitors were out in full force this year.
All-in-all, it was a big success as in years past, and between the two events of 2018 so far, the Flyathlon has raised around $50,000! Hopefully, the event continues to grow and raise money for the fish who call Colorado home.
If you’re into podcasts, which you should be, take a listen to the Dirtbag Diaries episode about the 2017 Lake Fork Flyathlon, or my episode with the founder, Andrew Todd. If you need even more of a reason to go sign up, maybe this will put you over the edge.