Finding inspiration at Mighty North Fork Triathlon

05/31/2018 6:00 AM |

Race day began before sunrise, which suited Jean Mellano; she couldn’t sleep anyway. Dark clouds hovered over the North Fork and the whipping wind signaled less-than-ideal conditions ahead.

Ms. Mellano had been through the drill many times before, always at the side of her life partner, Steve Tarpinian, on the morning of a triathlon. Mr. Tarpinian, a swim coach and triathlete, was well known across the East End as the brainchild of local races including the Mighty Hamptons Triathlon and the Mighty North Fork Triathlon.

On race day, Ms. Mellano worked behind the scenes, assisting Mr. Tarpinian as needed, whether it meant bringing water to the finish line or directing traffic. Through all the years and different races, she had only participated herself a handful times as part of a relay team.

Yet there she was Sunday morning, icy pellets of rain striking her face as she raced from Cedar Beach through the quiet streets of Southold, mostly by herself as she passed inspirational quote signs Mr. Tarpinian had created. So how did Ms. Mellano, age 64 and battling Parkinson’s disease, decide this would be the time to race her first triathlon? That story begins several months earlier at Peconic Landing in Greenport.

Carmine Arpaia heads the fitness department at the retirement community, leading a staff of trainers who assist residents in various physical activities. It’s become tradition at Peconic Landing for the staff and residents to team up for various activities, such as competing in the John May Mile or the Walk to End Alzheimer’s. They’ve even gone on kayaking and clamming excursions.

Mr. Arpaia didn’t know Ms. Mellano before she moved to Peconic Landing last year, but had heard she had been affiliated with the triathlon for many years. Some staff members were planning to form a team to compete at this year’s Mighty North Fork Triathlon and Mr. Arpaia wanted to extend the invitation to residents. Who better to start with than Ms. Mellano?

“I think she had some natural trepidation,” he said. “But I was kind of shocked. She said if you can get a team, I’ll do it.”

In addition to individual competitors, teams can enter and participate relay-style, meaning that a different person can take each leg of the race — swimming, bicycling and running. Ms. Mellano felt confident she could complete the 3 1/2-mile run. She would need help for the 500-meter swim and seven-mile bicycle ride.

With Ms. Mellano on board, Mr. Arpaia set about recruiting two other members to fill out the team.

Enter Louisa Hargrave and Robert Taylor.

Ms. Hargrave, a founder of the North Fork wine industry, agreed to tackle the swim and Mr. Taylor, who bikes frequently from Peconic Landing to Orient, signed on as the cyclist. They dubbed themselves Team Peconic Landing-220. The number represented their combined ages. Mr. Taylor, 86, was the oldest of the group, followed by Ms. Hargrave, 70, and Ms. Mellano.

Swimmers compete in the first leg of the triathlon Sunday. (Credit: Mia Santa Cruz)

Together, despite their 220 collective years, they had zero experience competing in triathlons or any formal races.

“I don’t know what possesses me sometimes,” Ms. Mellano said. “I’m always looking for new challenges. It’s great for people to get out and do things like this.”

Ms. Hargrave began training in the Peconic Landing pool, practicing different swim strokes under the guidance of trainer Christina Sun, a former swimming instructor at NYU. Ms. Hargrave started swimming regularly in January and ventured into the open water a few weeks before the triathlon to get acclimated to outdoor swimming. Ms. Mellano drove with her down to the water so she could practice. Ms. Hargrave had never even worn a wet suit and had to borrow one that didn’t quite fit.

“A lot of people run these races for themselves — they’re challenging themselves,” Ms. Hargrave said. “I was definitely challenging myself, but also it’s what I love about Peconic Landing. People all help each other.”

As race day approached, it became clear the weather wouldn’t cooperate. Saturday’s beautiful sunshine gave way to ominous skies Sunday morning. Triathlons start with swimming, so it was up to Ms. Hargrave to kick off the relay. The wind was so strong that white caps were forming in the bay. It was so rough, competitors were given the choice to skip that leg of the race.

As she stood on the shore looking out at the rough sea, Ms. Hargrave thought about how to use the waves to her advantage. The current, pushing east to west, would boost her in the first half of the race. So she knew she needed to conserve energy for the final 250 meters, which would come against the current.

“Basically, my mantra was, ‘I love to swim,’ ” she said. “I kept saying, ‘I love to swim.’ I’m sure everybody on land thought I was drowning.”

At the halfway point, she could see a few other swimmers give up and head toward the shore. She thought of her teammates waiting for her to finish and knew she couldn’t give up.

She persevered through the final 250 meters, completing the swim in 16 minutes, 19.3 seconds.

She described the feeling of coming out of the water as “complete elation” and a “total high.”

“My body was so numb that I had to have my family team literally get my clothes off because I couldn’t use my hands. I was completely numb,” she said.

After a transition of less than two minutes, Mr. Taylor began his bicycle ride. He said he never would have imagined he’d be competing in a triathlon, especially at age 86.

“It’s about positive thinking,” he said. “Positive belief. Living healthy, living long, living a good life. Gee whiz, that’s what it’s all about.”

The rain mostly held off during Mr. Taylor’s ride, but finally picked up just as he passed the timing chip to Ms. Mellano for the final leg. He completed the bicycle ride in 37:33.3.

“I am so impressed with my two relay partners,” Ms. Mellano said. “This was my world for so many years and even I was stressing out. They were so cool, calm and collected and did such a great job.”

Ms. Mellano share a hug after the race with Peconic Landing fitness director Carmine Arpaia. (Credit: Mia Santa Cruz)

Most of the competitors were well ahead of Ms. Mellano as she began her 3-1/2 mile run. She walked most of the way, at times “lonely and miserable,” until the very end at the finish line. During her 59 minutes on the course, she thought about Mr. Tarpinian and everything she has been through. He died in 2015 by suicide after years of battling chronic depression. He was 54. On the outside, she said he was a tough, do-it-all ironman who inspired so many. On the inside, he faced constant struggle and pain dealing with mental illness.

In the years since his death, Ms. Mellano has shared Mr. Tarpinian’s story openly, hoping to inspire conversation about mental illness and suicide. She frequently writes a blog and shared her story in a first-person article in Newsday in 2016.

A tradition Mr. Tarpinian held dear was to cheer the final competitors as they crossed the finish line. Sure, the top finishers earned the accolades, but there was always a story in perseverance for whomever pushed through the entire race and finished at the end.

As she neared the finish line Sunday, Ms. Mellano caught up to a man who was competing solo. His name was Alan Yancovitz and he was in his early 70s. He was walking at that point; hip replacement surgery limited his ability.

“I caught up to him and I said, ‘Let’s go across together,’ ” she said. “So we crossed the finish line together with our arms up as the last two people.”

Mr. Arpaia greeted Ms. Mellano with a hug as other members of Peconic Landing cheered her on at the finish line. The race director placed a medal around her neck.

“I think she conquered more than a triathlon,” Mr. Arpaia said. “I think she kind of faced her fears and reopened a very important door in her life.”

The conditions had been so poor on race day, that the three relay members didn’t have a chance to meet up afterward; they were frozen and exhausted. The next morning, however, Ms. Mellano saw Mr. Taylor proudly wearing his race T-shirt and medal. He was eager to do it all over again next year.

On her blog, Ms. Mellano finished her Monday post this way: “I am in a good place now in my life and I am optimistic about my future.”

She’s persevered through tragic loss, faced Parkinson’s disease head-on and keeps fighting. In many ways, the grueling grind of a triathlon on a chilly, rain-soaked spring morning served as the perfect metaphor. As the obstacles mount, the only thing to do is keep pushing forward.

Top photo caption: Robert Taylor (from left), Louisa Hargrave and Jean Mellano represented Team Peconic Landing-220 at Sunday’s triathlon. (Credit: Mia Santa Cruz)

Correction: An earlier version stated that Ms. Mellano had never participated in a triathlon before. She had previously participated as part of a relay team at the Steve Tarpinian Memorial Mighty Hamptons Triathlon and with Mr. Tarpinian a few times as part of a relay at earlier races.

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