The Crowd At Athletic Frontier

Triathletes

Most people used to think these athletes were crazy. But now, it seems, Everyman wants to be an Ironman.

The Ironman triathlon - where competitors swim 2.4 miles, bike 112, and run 26.2 - has become the inspiration for legions of common folk set on defying couch-potato chic.

And while triathlon distances aren't always Ironman-class, the participants are part of an expanding subculture of people - athletes and nonathletes alike - who build their lives around the three-sport event.

Instead of driving to work, they bike.

Instead of taking a long lunch, they swim.

In all, they train between 10 and 20 hours a week.

Then on race day, they use tricks of the trade such as covering themselves with nonstick Pam - so their wet suits are easier to peel off after the swim.

At last weekend's Chicago Triathlon - the world's biggest - a sweaty mass of 4,900 participants swam, biked, and ran along the city's waterfront. The event's founder, Jan Caill, explains the growing appeal of triathlons this way: "These are three basic sports almost everyone learns to do before they're six years old. Yet there's this perception that this is an extreme sport - and that's a big draw. There's genius in those two elements."

But this extreme sport for today's Everyman doesn't draw only modern-day Adonises or Dianas. As one slightly baffled passerby observed at Sunday's contest, a thick Russian accent betraying her nativity, "But there are so many chubby women." And men, too.

A race for every endurance level

Indeed, endurance levels vary. In Chicago, there were two race lengths. The "international" distance: a 0.9-mile swim, a 24.8-mile bike, and a 6.2-mile run. The more popular "sprint" distance cuts the race by half: a 0.4-mile swim, a 13.6-mile bike, and a 3.1-mile run.

Equipment varies too. There were plenty of $3,500 bikes that resemble sleek modern sculptures. But there was also the occasional Schwinn 10-speed or Panasonic touring bike.

Some people, like Chicago-area resident McLain Tallungan, even teamed up with a partner. He biked and ran, his partner swam. "I was having trouble with the swim part," explains the lanky financial planner, "so I asked her to do it. Next year though, I'm going for the whole thing."

He, like many people, was part of a group doing the triathlon - or "tri" as these events are known. Seventy fellow church members joined him.

Last year, a group of women, all management consultants, did the Chicago Tri. After registering the night before - and getting their race numbers scrawled in black magic marker on their upper arms - they attended a formal company dinner. The new fashion combination of magic marker and cocktail dresses proved to be a hit with their more sedentary office colleagues, and the women were the center of the party.

A recent poll of Ironmen by Inside Triathlon magazine reveals that most train two hours a day, five days a week. They have an average household income of $91,000. The most common profession: engineer, followed by physician and attorney. Asked their favorite hobby, 95 percent answered, "Are you kidding?" Their second-favorite hobby: sleeping.

This year, Chicago Tri organizers had to turn away 500 people, as more and more people seek to compete. About one-third of Sunday's participants were rookies.

Nationally, permits for individual races - which are required for officially sanctioned contests - jumped 40.3 percent this year, says USA Triathlon, the sport's governing body. It estimates 200,000 Americans have competed in triathlons. The sport will make its Olympic debut in 2000.

But what do all these punishment-seekers get for their troubles? Many describe it as a near-spiritual experience that combines discipline, sacrifice, and great rewards. It also brings structure and balance to nonwork hours. "For me, the swimming part is very meditative," says Michele de St. Aubin, an eighth-grade teacher from Chicago and a first-time triathlete. "The biking is a big burst of energy." And the running? "It's just plain hard," she moans.

Families and friends ask, 'But why?'

Despite the sport's growing popularity, some friends and relatives might think their triathlete is a bit crazed. "I don't think my family has any concept of why I'm doing this," says computer salesman Craig Preston, who ran his first international-distance tri here this weekend.

As for those who are contemplating it, he has this advice: "It may seem impossible, but once you try - and discover you can do it - it's way beyond awesome."

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