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Look Who's Trying Triathlons


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This sounds like a fun way to spend a morning: Swim half a mile, dash out of the water and jump on your bicycle, bike 24 miles, then jump off and run another six miles. Why? Because you can.

We're talking about triathlon, a sporting event that combines swimming, biking, and running -- from the shorter "sprint" and "Olympic" distance triathlons, up to the brutal "Ironman," in which competitors swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, then run a marathon. Triathlon has exploded in popularity over the past 10 years -- novice participation in the sport has increased 94% since 1994, according to the national sanctioning body USA Triathlon, and next year more than 40,000 athletes will compete in some 700 sanctioned races.

If you watch a triathlon, you'll probably notice something. The competitors aren't all lean, buff, hardbody types. You'll see white-haired grandfathers, middle-aged moms, and a fair number of people who look as if the furthest distance they run is from the couch to the fridge. And as they approach the finish line, at least one athletic-looking guy will be eating the dust of at least one sweet-looking grandmother.

Endurance for Everyone?

Why does triathlon appeal to such a wide range of people -- many of them people you might not think of as "traditional" athletes, and many who have never thought of themselves as athletes before?

In part, says Margaret Hawkins, who manages the American Association of Retired Persons' "Tri-Umph" triathlon series for people over 50, it's the combination of sports. Putting swimming, biking, and running together means that you don't have to do one sport to exhaustion -- and in the time it takes to train for a marathon, people who can't imagine themselves running over 26 miles straight can cross-train and be ready for a middle-distance triathlon.

Tri-Umph, which began last year with six triathlons across the country, is sponsoring 15 races this year. Although most participants are in their 50s, a substantial chunk -- up to 30% in some areas -- are between ages 60 and 74. In addition to the benefits of cross-training, Hawkins says older athletes, and probably younger people of a less athletic bent as well, are drawn to triathlon because it calls on mental strength as much as physical.

"I think mental endurance and focus really play a role," she says. "It's not that they're streaking out to be the best runner, swimmer, or cyclist -- they're just determined to keep going. We even have participants walking the run course, but they're still competing and finishing."

"The goal for most participants in triathlon is not to beat the pack," agrees Fred Apple, MD, medical director of clinical laboratories at Hennepin County Medical Center. "You might have an individual person you compete against, and try to pass them at the finish line, but the competition is based on your personal record. Everyone's got their own personal best, and everyone's competing with themselves."

The world record for a particular triathlon might be two hours -- but if you finish in five hours this year and four hours, 58 minutes next year, that's an enormous achievement. "The goal is to endure and maintain, and the sense of accomplishment is tremendous," says Apple, who is also professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Minnesota.

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