World and national women's champion Karen Smyers competed in her first triathlon in 1984 on an old, beat-up bike she used for commuting to work. She didn't do very well in that race and was frustrated knowing that she could have done as well or better than some others if only she'd had better equipment.But today, when Smyers sees athletes spend $3,000 on racing equipment before they've entered their first triathlon, she's even more frustrated. "It's just not necessary," she says. According to Tim Yount of the Triathlon Federation/USA, most recreational triathletes might spend, say, $1,175 initially: $200 for a wetsuit; $10 for goggles; $800 for a bicycle; $40 for a helmet; $70 for bike cleats; and $55 for running shoes. But really, "the sky's the limit," says Yount. Lew Kidder of Triathlon Today magazine is more conservative in his estimate of a triathlete's basic needs. There's often a big difference between what triathletes need and what they perceive they need, he cautions. Those who go to a triathlon with a swimsuit, goggles, a $400 bike, a helmet, and running shoes will have all they need, he says. The problem is, these athletes will look around and conclude that they can't possibly compete. What they'll see, among other things, are $1,500 bicycles equipped with special aerodynamic handlebars ($60) and racing wheels (up to $250 each) or even special "disc" wheels (best for speeds over 24 miles per hour) costing $300 to $400. "This equipment not only can make a difference," Kidder says, "it can be perceived to make a difference - and that's the rub." An unavoidable cost is a steep entrance fee: about $40 to $50 for the average race. This covers such expenses as city services, insurance, publicity, T-shirts, buoys, aid stations, and lifeguards.