The Luray Sprint Triathlon attracts people to beautiful Page County, Virginia, every August. The multi-sport event’s beautiful backdrop is the scenic Shenandoah Valley with a challenging course that participants have referred to as the “benchmark of fitness”. But for 67-year-old Ray Grimes of Tappahannock, Virginia, participating in the triathlon has far greater meaning than the bucolic scenery or the athletic competition.
Ray doesn’t consider himself an athlete, but his youngest daughter, Kimberly, tried to talk him into doing the Luray Triathlon with her one of the first years it took place. “I said, ‘Kimi, I’m an old man, I can’t do these things.’ But she would never let it go.” In 2008, Ray gave in. “I knew if I was ever going to do one with her, that would be it.” Despite never having participated in a multi-sport event before, Ray finished alongside Kimi. She waited for him after the swim and bike portions so they could do the run together, which included stopping to pick a flower in a field alongside the course, to give to her mother, Brenda, at the finish line. “For her it was never about winning,” Ray says, “it was just the experience of competing and doing it.” Kimi passed away two months later, just after her 28th birthday.
Born in 1980, Kimi was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at 18 months old. She went to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, where she underwent an operation and chemotherapy. But the chemotherapy had to be stopped early. “It just seemed like it was going to kill her,” Ray recalls. “She looked like a skeleton. So they stopped it a course or two early, we took her home, and she was fine.”
Back then, Ray says most patients like Kimi were only surviving about five years, so when she hit her five year anniversary, the doctors were optimistic her chances of it ever returning were the same as the general population. Unfortunately, Kimi developed cancer again in her twenties. The cancer came back as a solid tumor but also manifested into leukemia and it was attached to her brain stem and throughout her brain. Kimi did chemotherapy but ultimately chose quality of life over the arduous treatments.
Kimi lived a full adventurous life and loved skydiving, mountain climbing and traveling to far away places. “She was the Mother Theresa of the family,” says Ray, who describes her relationship with God like no one else he’d ever met. She did missionary work throughout the United States and in Africa, China and Guatemala. “Kimi had a special heart for kids,” he says. “They would just gravitate to her.”
Completing a triathlon was one of the items on Kimi’s bucket list, so she signed up for the Luray Sprint Triathlon one of the first years it was offered. Her family was concerned for her safety and well-being. “Everyone in the family thought it was just lunacy,” Ray remembers. “At that point she had suffered some terrible seizures. We worried about what would happen if she had one in the middle of the swim.”
Kimi didn’t have any complications during the race. “We celebrated that,” Ray says, recalling how he and his wife, Brenda, were jumping up and down on the banks of Lake Arrowhead. “She did other triathlons too, but she always like Luray the best.”
After Kimi passed, Ray was compelled to do the triathlon in her honor. “I just decided it was a nice thing,” he says. “She got me exercising again and I hadn’t been on a bike in decades. I think it was one of those things she wanted me to do to stay in shape, and so I did.” Ray has completed a triathlon every year since Kimi’s passing, except for the past two years when he’s been sidelined with knee injuries. Other family members have joined him, most notably his other daughter, Jen Vick, of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
“Triathlon is not something I would have ever in a million years considered myself doing,” Jen says. She considers herself a fairly athletic person but didn’t stay as active after college when her career and family started growing. Watching her younger sister battle through the Luray Triathlon changed Jen’s outlook. “You can’t find a more inspirational reason to get up and go.” But that’s not the only person who motivates Jen. “I am equally in awe and inspired by my father’s dedication to this,” she says.
Jen loves that her dad’s tradition of honoring Kimi brings their family together every year. They’ve done a few triathlons elsewhere, but Luray has always been special to their family. “We have never, ever had a bad experience,” Jen says, “even with horrendous weather. The folks who staff the triathlon and the people in the town are always some of the kindest people. They go out of their way to be helpful and the race is always well organized. It’s a fun race.”
This year, as Ray recovers from recent knee surgery, Jen suggested they participate as a relay team. Her dad will most likely do the swim, since that will be the easiest on his knee, and Jen’s 14-year-old son Noah will also participate for the first time. Participating in the triathlon has been a great way for Jen to talk with her kids about the aunt they never really got the chance to know. “We had an opportunity recently, so I sat down with my kids and looked at a bunch of pictures of them with her, before she died,” Jen says. “They would have really enjoyed each other. It’s sad to me that they will never really know her.”
Training for and participating in the Luray Triathlon is therapeutic for both Jen and Ray. “Everybody’s lives are crazy busy and I have young kids and a full-time job.” Jen explains. “I don’t really take the time to think about her in my regular day-to-day life, but when I know I’m training for this race and when I do this race, it gives me a chance to stop thinking about everything else and just think about her and our relationship. During that race I have her in my head the whole time.”
Ray, who proudly describes both his daughters as “incredible”, says doing the race for Kimi gives him a chance to share some of what his daughter was like. It’s also helpful in his healing process. “It’s been a very cathartic kind of thing every year,” says Ray, who finds himself sharing Kimi’s story with other people during the event, even strangers. “There’s this field by the run, and every year I go up there and pick a flower,” he says, just like his daughter did for his wife when she completed the triathlon. “It’s amazing how many people have asked me why I stop to pick a flower. I tell them ‘for Kimi’.”