It happens every year, comes around just like Christmas, only for this group of 16 men, it’s even better.
The WashMo Triathlon is a private, one-day competition organized by a small group of friends, mostly from the Washington High School Class of ’91, who’ve managed not just to stay in touch over the last 23 years, but develop even deeper friendships than they had in high school.
This year the group held its 11th annual triathlon, and they have all vowed that this contest they created “will not end anytime soon.”
Some of the men now live as far away as Washington, D.C., and in previous years some lived in Los Angeles and Louisiana, but they always make it back to Washington, Mo., for this competition, which is more about hanging out and catching up with old friends than winning — although they do keep track of the winners on a traveling trophy (and list the losers both on a “Wall of Shame” on the trophy’s backside and on a special T-shirt the loser is supposed to wear to the triathlon the next year).
Winners also get special gold-color jerseys to wear, along with unending bragging rights.
They have families and careers as salesmen, nurses, auto mechanics, teachers, coaches, engineers, production managers, product managers, casino pit bosses, members of the U.S. Air Force — there’s even a Navy SEAL in the bunch. But just about nothing can come between them and the annual WashMo Triathlon.
They admit they’ve missed some significant family activities because of it, but nothing that has done permanent damage to any other relationship. Their wives and children have been very understanding, they say, even if many think the competition is a bit of a joke.
Actually, the guys don’t argue with that point. The contest is not serious, and they never want it to be. That would take away some of the fun.
“The point is just to get all of us together once a year,” said Jeff Klein, one of the WashMo Triathletes. “We’ve been in each other’s weddings, there are no divorces or drugs or anything crazy like that. There’s no drama. It’s just a bunch of guys who want to get together and hang out like we did all those years ago.”
The three “sports” that make up the WashMo Triathlon are intentionally non-athletic: 18 holes of golf, three games of bowling and a rotating event that is typically a backyard-type of game, like washers, horseshoes, corn hole (bag toss), dart ball or Fricket, which is played with a Frisbee, plastic cups and sticks.
Many Have Been Friends Since Kindergarten
Since its inception, the WashMo Triathlon has been under the management of an “executive board,” whose officers are self-appointed to serve indefinitely.
Jim Anderson was known as “el Presidente,” until he recently changed his title to “King.” It seems to be a point of contention, but Anderson is the one who came up with the idea for the friends to organize a triathlon.
They had been making an annual trip to the Lake of the Ozarks, but it was getting harder and harder for many of the men to get away for an entire weekend. The beauty of the triathlon is that it is a one-day contest.
Fellow board members include Brian Ruether, “vice president of everything”; Shane Weber, “the Mouthpiece,” which means if a triathlete has a complaint about something, Shane Weber will berate him until he no longer has any complaints, Ruether explained; and John Feldmann, who serves as the secretary, but is referred to as the president’s executive assistant or the king’s jester.
The rest of the athletes include:
Russ Eickmeyer, Mark Harriman, Jim Kelly, Jeff Klein, Wally Luther, Danny Nance, Shane Nunn, Scott Obermark, Greg Scheer, Craig Schuttenberg, Clay Stockwell and Randy Weber.
In years when one of the original athletes couldn’t attend, the group brought in a sub. These have included Dave Pruessner, Bill Schwoeppe and Jimmy Klein.
In 2004, when the first WashMo Triathlon was held, there were just 10 men involved. Later two more were added, and now the group is up to 16. To make it work, the number of participants has to be an even number and one divisible by four, since they play golf in foursomes.
Most of the group have been in school together since kindergarten, said Ruether, noting he still has a photo of himself with Craig Schuttenberg and Wally Luther when they were hanging out together in kindergarten.
Two of the athletes are St. Francis Borgia Regional High School Class of ’91 graduates, and one is from Eureka High School Class of ’91 — Clay Stockwell, whose father, Ed Stockwell, was principal at WHS back in ’91.
There also is one guy from Oklahoma, Shane Nunn, who was friends with a few members and after subbing a few times for missing members earned himself a full-time slot.
How the Contest Unfolds
There is extensive planning that goes into making the annual WashMo Triathlon happen each year. It begins in February with a mass email sent out by Secretary Feldmann to find a Saturday between March and the end of May that works for most.
There’s never a date that works for all 16, but if a date works for 14 or so, they go with it.
“The others just do whatever it takes to try to make that date,” said Feldmann.
“Miss their daughter’s dance recital or whatever it takes,” joked Ruether.
Narrowing down the date is a process that transforms these lifelong friends into “grumpy old men” as they tease and ride the ones who say they can make a particular date.
One year, the triathlon was held the Saturday before Mother’s Day, and that didn’t sit well with all of the wives, since the men are so exhausted the day after the event they want to do little more than sleep and rest.
“By the end of the night, you feel like you’ve been hit by a Mack truck,” said Schuttenberg.
In the early years, the triathlon was held in the fall, but scheduling became difficult as a couple of the guys started coaching Little League football, so the contest was moved to spring. It interferes a little with baseball coaching, but it has been easier, said Ruether.
Once the date is set, reservations are made for golf and bowling. Originally, golf was played at Elmwood and later Birch Creek in Union.
“This year we went to Wolf Hollow, and it was a little bit more challenging,” said Ruether.
Bowling is usually always played at Town ’N Country Lanes in Washington.
The rotating event has been held wherever they can make arrangements — sometimes in one athlete’s backyard, other times under a pavilion somewhere like the Knights of Columbus Hall or Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, where several of the athletes are members.
Reservations and planning for each of these activities are handled by whoever is available.
“It’s very much a community effort to get it organized,” Ruether commented.
Golf and bowling have been mainstays of the contest, but the rotating event changes each year. What it will be is determined by the executive board without any input from the rest of the group.
“This is a dictatorship, not a democracy,” one of the athletes remarked.
Anderson didn’t deny it.
“We have found that we like to take as little input as possible from our group,” he said, with a smirk.
The day of the triathlon begins around 6:30 a.m. with the athletes meeting at McDonald’s in Washington. (The day doesn’t wrap up until 10 p.m. or later, sometimes 1 a.m.)
Foursomes are determined here before the groups head to the golf course. The four best golfers in the bunch are captains, and they each select their three teammates by drawing names out of a hat.
At the end of the 18 holes, the team with the lowest score wins, so everyone on that team gets four points. The second-place team each get three points and so on.
At the bowling center and for the rotating event, new teams of two are drawn with men drawing numbers out of a hat to find a partner.
In both of these contests, the team with eighth place gets one point, seventh place, two points, and so on.
It’s a simple system, but it works and gives everyone a fair shot at winning, although it has been the source of many good-natured arguments.
“We’ve learned to keep it simple,” said Anderson.
“You can get last place in golf and still end up wining the tournament,” Feldmann noted.
In milestone years, the group has had matching shirts made.
To cover all expenses involved, each athlete chips in around $100.
In Sickness and In Health
Even though the triathlon isn’t a serious competition, the 16 guys say they are often pretty keyed up the night before the event.
“We will call each other the night before talking about how we have butterflies,” said Ruether.
“Sometimes you can’t sleep,” added Schuttenberg. “I’ve woken up at 4:30 in the morning before and just end up getting ready.”
It’s not so much the competition they are excited about as the chance to see and hang out with these longtime friends.
Not much will stop a die-hard WashMo Triathlete from competing in their annual event, not even fever and sickness. Some have sustained injuries during the events too, but that doesn’t slow them down either.
That surprises none of them, because they all feel the same way.
“It’s the best day of the year,” said Scott Obermark, this year’s WashMo Triathlon winner. “It’s like Christmas for a grown-up.”
In summing up their tight-knit relationship, Feldmann described it this way:
“You can say anything you want to and no one will be offended,” he said.
When he talks about the experience with anyone outside the group, it’s hard for them to comprehend that these 16 are that close. Many people are envious, the athletes said.
“We get our wanna-bes, hangers-on, groupies, who show up at the end up to watch,” said Schuttenberg. “They wish they could play.”
For some, that has paid off. One athlete’s younger brother who comes to watch was able to play this year as a sub when one guy couldn’t make it at the last minute.
The WashMo Triathletes know of a group of younger guys in the area who hold a similar contest, but theirs is actually athletic. This group never wanted theirs to be that way.
“There’s a fine line between having fun and competitiveness and not letting that get out of control,” said Anderson.
“We’re all competitive, but at the end of the day, you have to remind yourself that this isn’t a real triathlon. This is just for fun. No one really cares after you wake up the next day.”