THE Ironman triathlon may well have to change its name to ``Ironperson.'' Even though women account for only 270 out of some 1300 participants, their times are fast approaching the men's times in this ultimate endurance race, being held tomorrow in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Athletes of all ages and nationalities will show their staminal skill by swimming 2.4 miles, bicycling 112 miles, and then running a marathon - 26.2 miles.
Last year, Paula Newby-Fraser captured 11th place overall (men and women) and won the women's title for the second time with a record-breaking 9:01:01. By comparison, the six-time men's champion, Dave Scott, clocked in at 8:28:38. He broke the nine-hour mark only five years ago.
As the women's field has increased and become more competitive, the times have gotten better, said Newby-Fraser in a phone interview from her hotel in Hawaii. ``Men are probably competing closer to their potential faster than women. Guys have been in the sport longer; we haven't had the base,'' she said. Physiologically speaking, there's a much greater chance in endurance events that women's times will be closer to men's, explains Gary Scott, deputy director for the Triathlon Federation/USA.
Still the chances of a woman ever winning the race are slim - at least in the near future. ``I don't see a woman winning this race; perhaps if it was longer,'' says Newby-Fraser, who predicts women's times will reach a plateau. As Mr. Scott puts it: ``It'll be a while, and an incredible woman to come in first.''
But by everyday standards, anyone who simply finishes the race is worthy of being called ``incredible.'' Triathletes must train long hours, everyday. They must get the right equipment. They have to learn how to pace themselves and what eat before, during, and after a race. Most agree that the sport requires mental might as well as physical stamina and strength.
The ages of the women dynamos range from 19 to 64. ``Plenty are in the over-40 range,'' says Susan Meiklejohn, communications director for Ironman, now in its 11th year. The participants come from all over the world, with more than half from the United States.
Indeed, triathletes even consider themselves a rare breed. But why are women attracted to this grueling competition once thought of only for men and often considered to be an all-out assault on the body?
``It's just so exciting. It's the ultimate challenge,'' says Claudia Kretschman, a first-time Ironman participant from Ringwood, N.J. ``It's a special bunch of people that like to do this. Triathletes like to see how far they can push themselves.''
``It's great feeling when you finish and wake up the next morning and say `wow, I did it,''' says Patricia Puntous, one of the famous triathlon ``Twins'' from Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. She crossed the finish line second to her identical sister, Sylviane, who won the Ironman in 1983 and 1984. Both expect to finish in the top five this year. ``You want to win, but you really want to finish and still feel good,'' adds Ms. Puntous.
For some, being a triathlete is demanding not only physically, but personally. Kretschman is affectionately called ``ironMOM'' by her husband and two children and admits that because of the time required for training, ``things are hard to manage.''
In addition to devoting time to her family, she works three nights a week as a nurse, often sacrificing sleep. ``That's the only thing I do wrong in my training,'' says Kretschman, who says that her husband thinks she's ``crazy'' sometimes. He is, however, ``extremely supportive,'' she adds.
Discipline comes in the form of strict workouts and eating ``fuel'' foods such as pasta, bread, and baked potatoes. Dedication means training in all sorts of weather. Kretschman has been known to crank up the wood-burning stove in her living room to ``the hottest it can'' so she can hop on an exercise bike and ``get used to the heat.'' (The temperatures in Hawaii can soar as high as 120 degrees F. )
Success is defined on an individual basis. ``My measure of success two months ago would have just been finishing...but now I would like to finish in the top 20,'' says Kretschman, who recently acquired a sponsor that will help with her expenses. The top ten will be professional women who train many hours a day. Most probably don't have children, and do triathlons for a living, she says.
These are professionals such as the Puntous twins and Newby-Fraser, who train fulltime and earn money from endorsements and prizes. And although they still view triathlons as a test of their talents, the annual Ironman race is basically another competition. ``My best strategy is to treat it like any other race,'' says Newby-Fraser. ``I sort of relax and say `Whatever's going to happen is going to happen.'
``I'm never shooting for any time... I'm just out there going at a pace I can maintain,'' she continues, adding that she doesn't even wear a watch. Her fifth year competing in the Ironman, Newby-Fraser is this year's favorite and has been nominated as Sportswoman of the Year, 1989, by the Women's Sports Foundation.
``I just put it into perspective - it's a job for me. I get up every day and go training,'' says the former classical ballet dancer and national-level swimmer from South Africa, who now resides in southern California. ``It's something that I have always wanted to do with my life... The lifestyle is very rewarding. I don't have to push myself to enjoy it.''