Winter triathlon a unique variation on endurance racing theme

``It is one of the most brutal tests of winter mountaineering and endurance that the human body is capable of performing in one day.'' That no-nonsense statement, believe it or not, is a promotion. It is the billing for the fourth annual Mountain Man Triathlon, a race that this year will include 11.5 miles of cross-country skiing, 9.1 miles of snowshoeing, and 12.4 miles of speed skating -- all over the rugged mountain terrain of Colorado's White River National Forest.

Daunting as it seems, however, this one-of-a-kind event -- which began in 1983 with just four men and one woman competing -- has attracted athletes at a steadily increasing rate. Applications were received from 20 states and Canada for this year's race, to be held Saturday, and an estimated 67 entrants, including eight women, are expected to be on the starting line.

The event was originally dreamed up by the local chamber of commerce in hopes of attracting people to the area, which centers on the towns of Avon and Beaver Creek, 11 miles west of Vail. Several winter triathlons are run across the United States, but Ted Martin, race director, said those races include legs of running or cycling.

``There are no other real winter triathlons anywhere,'' Martin said. ``We are actually creating the sport and creating the heroes and the athletes of the sport.''

Darryl Bangert is one of those heroes. He entered the first race for business purposes, won it, and has been a regular competitor ever since.

``I decided to compete in the triathlon the first year to get my name known around town, because I had just started a rafting and cross-country skiing guide business,'' said Bangert, who was clocked in 5:07.06 that day. ``I guess that gave me some sort of credibility.''

Entering his fourth, and probably last triathlon, Bangert views the race as an extension of his life style. The Chicago native has been a Nordic skiing guide for 10 years; his hobby is climbing peaks, which he compares to snowshoeing; and he plays hockey, thus putting in a lot of skating.

Bangert also finds the combination of events to be natural.

``It's not all that atypical of a day,'' he said. ``It's like climbing a peak, really. You ski hard to get there, dump your skis, climb, and come down to a high lake and skate.''

The 31-year-old Bangert said he does nothing unusual to train for the Mountain Man. Oftentimes, however, he can be seen around the mountains training with his wife, Robin. They snowshoe or ski up and down the spectacular terrain, he carrying their 26-month-old daughter, Robin toting their eight-week-old son.

Jan Reynolds is another whose name is well known to the aficionados. She was the lone woman in the inaugural race, finishing fourth, and was again the only woman among 18 competitors in 1984. Last year as one of four female entrants braving 30-degree-below-zero weather, she placed fifth overall in a 38-competitor field and set the women's record of 5 hours, 40 minutes, and 59 seconds.

``The idea captured my imagination immediately,'' says the 29-year-old native of Middlebury, Vt. ``I've always loved the outdoors. Adventure is the only thing I know. I've always been involved in all kinds of sports. Basically, I just follow my heart.''

Unfortunately, Reynolds doesn't plan to compete this year. She spent the last couple of months hot air ballooning over the Himalayas and didn't feel she had enough training time to get ready.

The three other members of that historic original quintet were Coloradans Gary Barnett, Denny Hogan, and Hooker Lowe. The first two, like Reynolds, have decided to skip it this time, but Lowe will join Bangert as one of the only two athletes able to say they have competed all four years.

Also entered are John Dozier of Aspen, who set the men's record time of 4:43.00 in winning the 1984 race, and Dawes Wilson, the defending champion.

The triathlon the past four years has attracted a variety of people, ranging in ages from 22 to 43. Many are mountaineers, marathoners, cyclists, or summer triathlon athletes. Last year the race, which consumes most of the short winter daylight hours, drew nearly 1,000 spectators, and 150 volunteers manned various stations along the route.

Besides the Mountain Man's 33-mile distance, all done at an elevation of more than 7,300 feet, the course has an ascent of 7,750 feet and descent of 8,190. The highest point of the race is 11,400, the summit of Beaver Creek Mountain, on which the wind chill factor last year created the equivalent of 85-below temperatures.

Each leg of the race offers different challenges, and depending upon the strengths and training of the competitor, one may be harder than the other. Bangert, who does little running, finds the five-mile descent on snowshoes the hardest because of the jarring effect. Reynolds, a longtime competitive cross-country skier and biathlon athlete, spent her first triathlon skating test on Avon's Nottingham Lake sliding on her ankles for the 30 laps, her blades not even touching the ice.

``Now that was a lesson in humility,'' she said. ``I was used to skating, but not after 20 miles of skiing and snowshoeing. I did better the next year, because I trained and prepared for the skating.''

Reynolds is used to adversity. She spent four months trekking around Mt. Everest in the winter of 1981-82, an adventure she chronicled in the recently released book ``The Everest Grand Circle,'' co-written with fellow trekker Ned Gillette.

``The Mountain Man is one of the most brutal tests performed in one day, but on Everest we spent four months carrying heavy loads and five days lost with no food,'' Reynolds said. ``That was like running the Mountain Man one day and getting up the next day and doing it again.''

No prize money is awarded in the amateur race, but the winner gets a perpetual trophy, a bronze casting by Estes Park artist Herb Mignery; and the top finishers take home medals.

The race this year got corporate sponsorship, so Martin has put the money into additional advertising and promotion. Race officials are exploring the possibility of regional, sanctioned events across the country to qualify for the 1987 race, and eventually they even hope to make the winter triathlon an Olympic event.

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