by Jean Stratton

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TEAM WORK: "For me, personally, training with my son, and racing with my son are some of the finest moments I've ever had. When you're racing on course with your kid, it is one of the greatest joys. If I could bottle it, I'd sell it!" Ron Bowman (right) and his son Connor have participated in many triathlon events.

Challenge of Triathlon Events Tests Endurance of Athletes

Jean Stratton

Fitness is taken to a whole new level by triathlon athletes. It is surely one of the most rigorously demanding of all athletic contests, requiring the participants successively to swim, bike, and run long distances.

This is not a sport for the faint-hearted, or for the summer or weekend warrior. Yet despite its demands (or perhaps because of them), it attracts large numbers of men and women, who willingly and eagerly compete all over the world, some on a regular basis.

All ages, all backgrounds and life-styles are represented, notes Princeton resident Ron Bowman, a commercial real estate executive. He has participated in 15 triathlons, and is impressed by the people he has met.

"I have met really interesting people doing this – some of the finest people I have ever known. They're all across the board – all ages, all professions; men and women. In one event, I met an underwater commercial diver, who was an amazing guy. There are lawyers, information technology guys – it's everyone."

Mr. Bowman's opinion is echoed by Chris Pilla, an executive at the Burlington Coat Factory and a trainer and coach at Momentum Fitness, who has competed both in marathons and triathlons.

"I have met fabulous people doing this. The athletic community comes from all walks of life, and you meet interesting, dedicated people."

Several Categories

Also, adds Mr. Bowman, interaction among the athletes is a plus. "There's a lot to talk about when you do a triathlon. Getting out of the water onto the bike, the transition into each event. The swim, the bike ride, the run – there's more to talk about than if you were doing just one thing."

Triathlons are divided into several categories. The Sprint consists of a 500-meter swim, 12-mile bike ride, and 3-mile run. The Olympic (so named because this is the version used in the Olympic Games) features a 0.9-mile swim, 26-mile bike ride, and 13-mile run.

Also available are the Half Iron Man, with a 1.2 mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and 13-mile run, and the full-fledged Iron Man. The latter consists of a 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26-mile (marathon) run.

According to Mr. Bowman, the triathlon originated 25 years ago in Hawaii. "It was started by a group of fitness guys who wanted to see who was the most fit."

Mr. Bowman is very fit today, but he says it was not always the case. "I had played lacrosse in school and run recreationally, but when I got into my thirties, I concentrated on my career, and didn't get as much exercise.

"Then, when I was around 39 or 40, one day, my daughter, Ceara, called me 'The Fat Princess!' I took it in stride, but I began to make some adjustments and started to run again. Also, after September 11, I needed to do something. The triathlon seemed like a good place to put a lot of excess physical energy."

Half Iron Man

Although he was used to running and biking, Mr. Bowman was not a swimmer. "I could keep up in the water, but I never learned to swim very well," he explains. "My kids were both great swimmers – my son, Connor learned at six – so I watched them."

Losing no time, he entered a Half Iron Man triathlon in St. Croix, V.I. in 2002, and son Connor, later a member of the swim team at Princeton High School, also participated.

"I was very pleased to finish," says Mr. Bowman, "but I saw that I had more work to do."

He certainly persevered, competing the same year in an Iron Man at Duke University, which he completed in 11 hours and 54 minutes! He was vertical at the finish, he reports, and pleased with the experience.

Obviously, training is crucial to preparing for and completing a triathlon. Both Mr. Bowman and Mr. Pilla put in long hours on the road or at the gym getting ready for their events.

"Training depends on the length of the event. As the distance gets longer, the level of training increases," points out Mr. Pilla, who has a sports background, having played football, soccer, and tennis during his high school and college years. Once he began entering marathons (he has completed 38), he started cross-training.


"I was cross-training for all the marathons, and had started riding my bike to build other muscles. I also entered Century Rides (100-mile bike races), and I enjoyed that, too.

He had grown up on the water in Long Island, and so swimming was second-nature to him, but he found when he entered his first Olympic distance tri in 2000 that the swimming segment can be the most difficult.

"The average person doesn't swim competitively," he explains, "and there's a lot to deal with. The water can be rough – usually, it's in the ocean, rivers, or lakes – and there are a lot of people pushing and knocking you around."

Mr. Bowman agrees, adding, "The reason swimming is the first segment is so there is less risk of people drowning! It's good to get ahead of the pack, if you can, and also, if you come out of the water with confidence, it can help you for the next event."

Depending on the event, training can begin three months before, and consist of 20 to 40 hours a week, three to four days a week.

"It depends where you are in the training," notes Mr. Pilla. "Typical training for the Iron Man can include 3/4 days a week swimming, 3/4 days biking, and 3/4 days running. You can get as much out of it as you put in it. Training increases in intensity as you get nearer the event, but then, three weeks before, you taper off. You don't want to be overtrained.

Different Ways

"There can be different ways to approach training, too. Some days you can run, bike, run; some days, do all three. One day, I could swim 1,000 yards, another 2,000, or 3,000 yards. I usually spend one hour and 15 minutes swimming, 10 to 20 miles on the bike, and an hour and a half to four hours running."

"For the long distance events, such as the Iron Man, you should train three months to build a base," adds Mr. Bowman. "That includes regular cardio work. The heart has to be in good shape. You need a very strong heart. You should also do weight resistance between 15 and 20 hours a week."

Mr. Bowman also likes to use his own bike during cycling workouts. When necessary, due to weather, he puts it on a trainer in his house. "I think it's important because the saddle can be different, at a different angle, on the stationary bike in the gym."

Motivation is key to any training program, notes Tony Vlahovic, director of Momentum Fitness, who has set up a workout schedule for a number of triathlon athletes.

"I helped two women in their mid-thirties train for the Iron Man for almost a year," he says. "They were both novices and recovering from sports injuries, but they wanted a challenge. Amazingly, one was even afraid of the water! But they were very determined."

Mr. Vlahovic created a program, balancing the three components of the triathlon, as well as adding strength training and core training.

"Core is very important," he points out. "It includes the abdominal muscles, the obliques, the low back, and the hips. They must be strengthened and balanced."

In addition to the physical training, Mr. Vlahovic addressed the mental attitude necessary to complete a triathlon.

Mental Toughness

"I based it on a model of mental toughness and endurance," he explains. "Helping them to incorporate the mind/body connection; visualizing how the mind can get you through it when the body doesn't want to move."

Both women were incredibly fit, and both completed the Iron man, he reports.

Mental attitude is very important, agrees Mr. Pilla, who points out, "I want to be confident, but also not over confident. Confident enough to know you can get through it when the body begins to resist. I like the challenge, and I primarily aim to finish and best myself. I like to improve and do my best."

Another crucial part of training is diet, and both Mr. Pilla and Mr. Bowman believe in eating well-balanced meals. "It's very important to get all the carbs," says Mr. Pilla, "but you should never deprive yourself of any major food group. I eat real food, and I love ice cream!"

"Food is good," says Mr. Bowman, with a smile. "Connor and I love to eat. He is still growing and can eat anything. I try for a balanced diet during training. I'll watch butter, fats and sweets, and probably have a power shake and coffee for breakfast, a salad for lunch, and a complete meal for dinner.

"Also, nutrition during the race is very important. You don't need anything during the swim because your body can store one to two hours of glycogen (fuel).

"During the bike race, I'll typically have two power bars, a gel for a burst of energy, three or four containers of fluid, and on the run (depending how long it is), fluid, a gel, and a power bar. It's important to drink before you're thirsty and eat before you're hungry. If you wait, it's too late, and you can become dehydrated."

Mr. Pilla says that "The day before the race, I'll want 80 percent carbs and also some protein. Pasta, chicken, lentil soup are good, and the day of the race, I'll have oatmeal for breakfast – something that will stick with me."

Racing Attire

Racing attire poses interesting considerations. Since there is not really time to change clothes for each event, versatility is the key.

"Most people wear triathlon shorts – swimming shorts – for all three events," explains Mr. Pilla. "Then you just add a shirt for the bike ride and the run. There is a transition area to do this. For example, when you get out of the water, you run to the bike, which is already set up. Then you can put on a shirt. The rules are that you can't touch the bike, until your helmet is on and fastened."

Mr. Bowman says that his greatest pleasure is racing with his son Connor, who will be a sophomore at the Hun School and a member of the water polo team next fall. Recently, they did a relay tri at Duke University.

"Connor did the swim, another guy handled the bike, and I did the run. We came in second. It was terrific. Connor was awesome. He got us off to such a good start.

"I really look forward to continuing to race," he adds. "I hope to race with Ceara, who is 10. She wants to, and I'd very much like to do an Iron Man with Connor, and with Ceara, too."

One must be 18 to enter the Iron Man, but Connor will no doubt be ready when the time comes. Already having competed in many triathlons and related events, he says, "I think it's fun. I enjoy the endurance aspect, and I like the competition. It makes you feel good about yourself. You're not just sitting around. You're doing something."


"There's a lot of self-esteem that goes with being fit," points out his father. "Also, I really like racing and the buzz that goes with it. The buzz of race day is like nothing else. It's incredibly exciting."

Mr. Pilla, who is about to enter a half Iron Man in Oregon this week, agrees with the foregoing, and also has additional reasons to compete.

"My goal is to increase awareness and raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. My initial involvement was based on my friendship with a girl I dated all through high school, who was a cancer survivor.

"I am fit, and I think of some of the cancer patients who get up every day, have chemotherapy, and can't enter these events. I can, and in a way, I do it for them. I do my best, and I don't want to let them down. I enter as many events as I can and get pledges of support from people who contribute to the Society."

The numbers of people competing in triathlon events are growing, says Mr. Bowman., who along with Connor, is preparing for an Olympic tri in Philadelphia in two weeks.

"You can have anywhere from 500 to 1,200 people at these events. There were 3,000 in one we did in St. Petersburg, and more seem to show up especially at the Iron Man. They say it's the fastest-growing sport. There are a lot of us Type A's out there!"


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