'The new marathon': Triathlons gain popularity locally
By Adam Howard

REGIONAL (July 24): Next month, athletes from all over the world will gather in Beijing for the Summer Olympics.


Thousands of competitors will compete for medals in a variety of sports, including traditional events like track and field, basketball, soccer, gymnastics and softball. In addition, in a nod to changing times, some less-traditional sports like beach volleyball, mountain biking and triathlon will be on the Olympic program.

While making an Olympic team in any sport is not likely for most people, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t chances to compete in sports that are featured in the Olympics.

Over the coming weeks, Current Publishing will take a look at ways for local athletes to take part in some of the sports that will be featured when the Olympic flame is ignited in China next month.

This week, we take a look at triathlon, an event that has been a part of the Summer Games for less than 10 years, making its debut in the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

“Whoever finishes first, we’ll call the ‘iron man’,” with those words, Navy Commander John Collins devises the first ever Ironman triathlon in 1978. The event came from a debate between Collins and several competitors of a Hawaiian running race as to which athletes were more fit: swimmers, runners or others. Collins and his wife Judy decided to settle the argument by combining three existing events into the ultimate test of endurance; the Ironman triathlon.

That first triathlon was simply a combination of the Waikiki Roughwater Swim (2.4 miles), the Around-Oahu Bike Race (112 miles, originally a two-day event) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles). The events were to be completed in succession. The first winner was Gordon Haller, who finished the race in 11 hours, 46 minutes and 58 seconds.

But local athletes shouldn’t let the size of the Ironman intimidate them, not all triathlons are that big. In fact, some triathlons, especially those run locally are of a distance easily completed by the most athletes.

“(Triathlons) are basically broken down in different distances,” said Will Thomas, Executive Director of Tri-Maine. “A sprint triathlon is typically a quarter to a third to a half-mile swim, a 12 to 15-mile bike ride and a 5k or three-mile run. The Olympic distance is basically double that, a mile swim, 25-mile bike and 10k or six-mile run. The next is half-iron, which is a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run. Full Ironman, which is what really started triathlon, is a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run. So it really ranges in terms of distance and time it takes.”

So how does someone get started in triathlons? It goes without saying that diligent training is a must. But the type of race you are looking to do will dictate the time commitment needed to compete.

“Typically for a sprint race, if someone has no fitness whatsoever we recommend taking about 12 weeks to get ready,” Thomas said. “That involves learning to swim efficiently, getting comfortable on the bike and having some running experience and building up to it. One of the key components of that is learning to go from biking to running, which is called a “brick” because that’s really what your legs feel like when you get off the bike. I recommend that people do brick workouts once a week, which is you do a bike workout and when you get off you immediately start to run. That is something you need to train your body for.”

Mike Caiazzo of Westbrook, who won the Scarborough Triathlon earlier this month, says he trains very hard to be ready for the races he does.

“I train mostly year-round,” he said. “I do take anywhere from a few weeks to a month off during November and December. During the winter, I teach indoor riding classes at Peak Performance but I focus more on my swimming and running. This winter, I was training anywhere from 10 to 15 hours a week. Since April I have only been able to train five to eight hours a week because of an Achilles injury and the birth of our second son, Hunter.”

In addition to the training regimen necessary to compete in a triathlon, there is also some necessary special equipment. Choosing the right clothing is key, not for a sense of fashion, but to make sure that you have something that you can wear through all three stages of the race. It should be something tight fitting, but comfortable that can be worn under a wetsuit. A wetsuit is necessary for many of the swimming legs, especially here in Maine’s cold waters.

“You need a wetsuit for a lot of races in Maine,” Thomas said. “They require it because of the cold of the ocean and it’s a safety issue as well. Wetsuits keep you buoyant in water, so if you get tired you can float in a wetsuit.”

When a race has a biking leg, it goes without saying that a good bike is a vital piece of equipment. But not just any bike will do. A special triathlon bike is best. Those bikes are equipped with aero bars, which are specially designed handlebars designed to put riders in the most powerful riding position possible.

“To get started in triathlon the best place to start is by getting set up with a good bike, wetsuit and running shoes,” said Caiazzo. “There are a bunch of local sprint triathlons in the area that are great for beginners to experience triathlons. Triathlons are not nearly as tough as many make them seem or they look from an outsider observer.”

Once you have the proper equipment and have spent some time training, it’s time to find a race. Since 2006, Tri-Maine has offered a series of races in Maine that are right for first timers and veteran racers alike.

As race series like Tri-Maine become more prevalent, it’s obvious that triathlon is not just a niche sport anymore. Tri-Maine races attract competitors from all over the country. But for the most part, Mainers make up most of any given Tri-Maine race. The sport is experiencing serious local growth.

“The latest numbers I have seen predict it’s going to grow somewhere around 60 percent over the next three years, year after year,” Thomas said. “Sixty percent growth is pretty impressive for anything. I always say triathlon has become the new marathon. Marathons, while they still are very impressive feats and they amaze people, they kind of had their heyday in the 70s and 80s. Everyone was like ‘I did a marathon.’ It was something to talk about. Triathlon has sort of taken over that role.”

One word of warning, if you do decide to conquer the triathlon, you may just find out that it will change your life.

“It’s a lifestyle,” Thomas said. “You decide to live a certain way. Every day you train, whether it’s running or working out in the gym or swimming a combination or core exercises. But it becomes as much a part of the nature of who you are as brushing your teeth or reading. It’s just what you do.”