Tri this: A sprint to fitness

I wrote the following story for The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer; It ran in both papers March 8. It’s rerun here with links, and is one of four posts this week on triathlons, specifically the increasingly popular sprint variety.
Tuesday: Triathlon by the numbers
Today: The growing popularity of sprint triathlons
Thursday: Kim Feth’s story: From walking around her living room to finishing her first sprint tri eight months later.
Friday: Gerald Babao’s story: Trying to out swim, out bike, out run cancer.

Swim. Bike. Run.
We did them for fun as a kid. And, increasingly as we approach middle age, we’re doing them to get in shape. Only instead of spreading the activities out over the course of a day, we’re doing them in rapid succession: swimming  500 meters, hopping out of the pool for a 12-mile bike ride, then lacing up the running shoes for a three-mile run.
According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association, 1.2 million Americans participated in at least one triathlon in 2009. And according to USA Triathlon, which sanctions the majority of triathlons in the U.S., more than three quarters of triathletes eschew the longer Olympic and Ironman distances in favor of sprint triathlons, races that typically begin with 6 to 10 laps in the pool, followed by a 12- to 15-mile bike ride and a 3.1-mile run.
And it’s not 20something hard-bodies driving this trend: USA Triathlon, which has seen its membership grow seven fold in the past decade, to 134,942 in 2010, has seen the greatest growth in the 35-44 age group.
To a growing number of health-conscious adults, doing a triathlon is a sensible way to get in shape. The three disciplines work a variety of muscle groups, all offer aerobic benefits, and the variety reduces risk of injury from overworking the same muscles.
“People work, they have stuff to do in their lives,” says Jason Biggs, one of the founders of Cary-based FS Series, which promotes and runs races throughout the state. “For people who don’t have time to ride 100 to 150 miles a week, or swim 2,000 yards three days a week, they’re great.” In a survey of 15,000 members, USA Triathlon found 87 percent said they participate to stay in shape.
Kim Feth of Apex found herself in a physical funk shortly after turning 42 in late 2009. She was grieving the death of her mother, she’d gained weight, she couldn’t motivate herself to move. Then came the gut punch:
“My son came up to me and said, ‘All you ever do is lay on the couch and have a headache. When are you going to play with me?’
“It all crystalized for me,” says Feth, who weighed 207 at the time. “I decided then and there that I cannot keep this up. I decided I’m going to do a sprint-distance triathlon.”
That logic might be a head-scratcher if your only familiarity with triathlons are the highly publicized Ironmans, in which participants swim 2.7 miles, ride their bikes for 112 miles, then run a marathon — 26.2 miles. Not for Feth.
“I knew I couldn’t do a marathon, I couldn’t run that far. But three miles seemed reasonable, I love being in the water and I love riding a bike. And with three sports, I figured I wouldn’t get bored.”
Doing a sprint triathlon also seemed the sensible thing for Gerald Babao of Charlotte when he was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare from of head and neck cancer, in 2008.
“That was my launching point,” says Babao, who was 33 at the time. “I felt I need to do as much activity as possible.”
Not that Babao, who works for USA Canoe and Kayak, was a slug. He hiked, backpacked, paddled. “I wasn’t overweight, but I wasn’t in shape.”
Baboa spent the summer in Durham getting treatment at the Duke Cancer Center. When he was strong enough, he bought a bike and started cycling (that led to him sponsoring Team Wannabe Riders in the Livestrong Challenge ride in Philadelphia). Then someone mentioned sprint triathlons, so he he signed up for the TRYMCA class through the Ballantyne Village YMCA. The class met three times a week for eight weeks, swimming, running and cycling. Baboa and his classmates supplemented that training with workouts on their own.
He did his first sprint tri last July, finishing about mid-pack.
“Realistically,” he says, “I know there’s only so much I can do about my cancer. “But this allows me to believe I’m doing everything possible to keep the cancer from returning.”
Feth’s training was a little less … orthodox.
“I started walking around my dining room,” says Feth. (“I started training in December,” she explains. “I don’t like the cold.”)
In March, she started riding her bike (outside) and in June, when the neighborhood pool opened, she added swimming to the mix. She also signed on to, which offers tips and tracking tools for people looking to get into better shape. Between training for her tri and eating better, she dropped 34 pounds by the time her target race, the Dash for Divas, rolled around in September. She looked better, felt great — and realized at the starting line that her self-styled training left her totally unprepared for the race.
At one point on the bike, she sensed a car slowly rolling along behind her fat-tired beach cruiser. She kept trying to wave it around, then stopped to find she was being tailed by a sheriff’s deputy, lights blazing.
“He was behind me because I was the last racer,” Feth recalls with a laugh. “It was all I could do not to break into tears. I just wanted to toss my bike in the trunk and quit.”
But she didn’t. She finished, with the police escort still on her heels. And she signed up for her next race, the Ramblin’ Rose in Raleigh this May.
Her goal for that race: to have the scarlet letter removed from her leg. Actually, it’s an “A” and it’s in black grease pencil. It stands for “Athena” and its given to female participants who weigh over 150 pounds.
“I know,” she says, “it’s pride. But it’s a righteous pride because I’m trying to get healthy.”

* * *

Try a tri?

  • The Charlotte YMCA’s TRYMCA program is an eight-week training program intended to prepare first-time triathletes for their first sprint tri. Cost is $135 for Y members, $195 for nonmembers. The next session begins April 4. For more information go here or call (704) 716-6927.
  • In the Triangle, the Raleigh Triathlon Training Team Meetup group holds training events and offers opportunities to learn from seasoned triathletes.
  • You can also find training programs online. At, for instance, plug in specifics about the type of event you’re training for and you’ll get a recommended training program.
  • For a rundown of triathlons, sprint and otherwise, in North Carolina, visit at  or the Endurance Magazine calendar.
  • Just getting started? Check out — “Guiding Beginner Triathletes into the World of Mini-Triathlons.”

Photo: From last year’s Ramblin’ Rose in Raleigh. Photo courtesy Clarke Rodgers.

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