PENN RUN — Besting his extraordinary performance in last year’s race didn’t top the to-do list of Ohio native John Lowrey heading into Saturday’s Jackie Kallal Triathlon at Yellow Creek State Park.
Truthfully, Lowrey just wanted to finish the race alongside his former high school teacher and one of Kallal’s lifelong friends, Greg Varner, a former Indiana resident who was competing in his first triathlon.
The carefree approach paid off for Lowrey, and the 21-year-old posted event-best times in all three phases of the half-mile swim, the 9.5-mile bike race and the 3.5-mile run to place first for the second straight year in the 17th annual event.
Lowrey, who resembled a proud father when the 50-year-old Varner crossed the finish line in 27th place out of 94 competitors, completed the race in 1 hour, 1 minute and 43 seconds, more than four minutes faster than second-place finisher Luke Niezelski.
Lowrey finished 2:58 off his mark from last year, and the 22-year-old Niezelski, placed second for the second straight year.
Kentucky native Sarah Pugh avenged a third-place showing in last year’s women’s race and won this year’s race with a time of 1:20.43. Pugh, who placed 13th overall, outlasted second-place finisher Hully Hoover by 25.9 seconds. Hoover placed second last year behind Anna Mucci.
“I wanted to win, but I didn’t have anything to prove, so to speak,” Lowrey said. “I really just wanted to take the whole Jackie Kallal ambience of the race in and enjoy it instead of really trying to push it. This year was more important to me because my old high school English teacher, Greg Varner, was competing, and it was a really big deal for him.”
Lowrey calmy emerged from the frigid water several paces ahead of Niezelski and then eventually pulled away on the second hill of the bike race.
On account of slick road conditions and areas of construction, Lowrey pedaled conservatively on the ultra-hilly bike course. But the cautious Lowrey still did enough on his bike to enter the third phase of the race with a lead of more than three minutes on Nieszelski.
A barely winded Lowrey then dashed through the finish line with a healthy grin on his face, knowing he’d put forth an effort that would have made Kallal, who died in 2007, proud.
“It was a really sentimental thing for all of us again this year,” Lowrey said. “Not only was I honored to do this alongside Greg, it was also special to get to compete with Jackie’s daughters, Amelia and Olivia, and her husband, David. This was just a really special and sentimental day for all of us.”
By placing 18th in his age division at the 2012 USA Triathlon Age Group Championships, Lowrey qualified for the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final, which will be held in London in September.
Varner, a dear friend of Kallal’s in high school and college, convinced Lowrey to make the trek from Columbus, Ohio, to Penn Run last year for the event. Shortly after that, an inspired Varner competed in a half-marathon, and then eventually set his sights on the Kallal event as his first triathlon.
Only one competitor over the age of 50, Robert Wheatall (1:23.44), finished ahead of Varner (1:27.37), who placed first in the 50 to 54-year-old division.
“It’s safe to say that he ended up inspiring me,” Varner said of Lowrey. “When I came here last year and watched him, it was like he was running in proxy for me. I knew then that if I was going to run a triathlon, I wanted it to be hers. It’s just interesting now that I’m standing here at the finish line, when a year ago I couldn’t even swim. I just learned to swim in October and today I looked at that lake and said to myself with confidence, ‘I can do this.’ It was just one of those inspirational days. Several times during the race I found myself saying, ‘This is for you, Jackie.’”
Pugh, 23, earned her first win in just her third career triathlon. Pugh grew up in Louisville, Ky., but currently attends the University of Pittsburgh.
Despite her success, and akin to Lowrey, a modest Pugh claimed that she didn’t carry lofty expectations into the event.
“I was just hoping to do as well as I did last year. I didn’t have any expectations as far as placing,” Pugh said. “I don’t like to look at the gender thing. I just try to compete with the guys and the girls. Maybe someday I’ll be able to beat the guys.”
Kallal’s daughters, Amelia Kimmel, 20, and Olivia Kimmel, 18, each competed in the event for the first time. The Kimmel sisters joined Kallal’s widower, David Langton, to form Team Jackie.
“This started when I was 3 and I was here basically every year until I joined the military,” Amelia said. “But this was the first year I competed in it and that was really nice because I’ve always been here and it’s always been such an important thing to us.”
“It’s great to have her memory live on this way,” Olivia added. “Just hearing everyone talk about her still when now it’s been six years since she passed away, it’s just a great reminder of how you can really make a difference in people’s lives. Just coming to this triathlon every year, it inspires me with my own life, too. It’s like I have this great role model to look up to, and it’s something I’ll never take for granted. It’s just an awesome way to remember her.”