Three-sport races win big with athletes

Northwest embraces triathlon after the 2000 Olympics

Mike Hickson crossed the finish line, dripping with sweat and gasping for air. He looked down at his watch, and a broad smile spread across his face.

'That's a PR!' he said.

The 47-year-old Oregonian traveled from Lebanon to compete at Portland's Blue Lake Triathlon, and he recorded his best time ever, a personal record.

As a volunteer handed Hickson his finisher's medal, more competitors streamed across the finish line. They've been doing the same all over the Northwest: Six triathlons took place in the first week of June, attracting more than 2,000 athletes.

The largest, the Blue Lake Triathlon, set a participation record for the fourth year in a row with nearly 1,200 entrants.

'People get tired of just running,' says Jon Atherton of AA Sports, which puts on the Blue Lake Triathlon. 'They like the challenge of putting three different sports together.'

Triathlon combines swimming, bicycling and running. Distances vary, but the ratio of swimming to bicycling to running stays the same.

In a sprint triathlon, competitors swim half a mile, then bicycle 12.5 miles, then run 3.1 miles. Triathletes usually complete the course in one to two hours. In the Olympic distance race, each event is twice as long. And the Ironman triathlon ÑÊthe original form for the competition Ñ is the most grueling.

The triathlon began as a way to settle an argument that arose after a running race in Hawaii. To prove which sport had the better athletes, the first swim-bike-run race was staged on the islands in 1978. The epic contest included a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile marathon run. Twelve men completed that first race, and the winner was called the 'Ironman.'

In 1982, TV cameras at the Ironman race captured the scene as Julie Moss, an exercise physiology student competing as part of her research, crawled on her hands and knees across the finish line. From that moment, the Ironman triathlon came to symbolize the ultimate test of physical and mental toughness.

Also in 1982, Frank Goulard of Lake Oswego became one of the first Oregonians to do a triathlon. On race day, the water for the swim was 60 degrees. Goulard had no feeling in his frigid feet when he mounted his bike, but he finished.

'It was an enjoyable experience,' he says, 'and I thought, 'I want more.' '

Twenty-one years later, Goulard is still racing, and he's excited by the recent rise in popularity of the sport.

'It's really incredible,' he says. 'It's a whole new wave of people, a lot of young people.'

AA Sports' Atherton credits the Olympic Games for much of the renewed interest.

'Since triathlon was added as a medal sport in Sydney in 2000, participation has just exploded,' he says. 'It was only three years ago that we got our first 500-person field. Last year we had 950 and this year almost 1,200.'

National membership in USA Triathlon has doubled in the last two years. Locally, triathlon clubs have blossomed.

Phil Anderson is president of the Portland-based Gecko Tri Club, which started a few years ago with a handful of athletes who got together to train and socialize. Today, the club has about 180 members and offers coaching, weekly training sessions and a newsletter.

'It's kind of like the marathon in some ways,' says Anderson, an Ironman finisher himself. 'A lot of people say 'I'll never do that again.' Then they're training, and in a couple of weeks they forget the pain and remember the fun.'

Friends got Kimberly Elzinga, 20, of Beaverton to try her first triathlon at Blue Lake.

'I really liked it,' she says. 'I liked the bike best because you're just sitting there!'

For Joey Groth of Bend, attempting to complete a triathlon was a personal challenge. 'I'm not a swimmer and I'm not a runner,' she says.

Crossing the finish line at Blue Lake was a great accomplishment for her.

'You set a goal, you work toward it, and when you achieve it, it feels pretty good coming across that finish line Ñ no matter what your time is,' she says.

After the Blue Lake Triathlon, participants milled around the finish area, sharing race stories, refueling at the refreshment table or lining up for a free massage.

Goulard was at the head of the line for a massage. Then he packed up his gear Ñ which included a special wet suit for open-water swimming and a $3,000 racing bike with aerodynamic handlebars and a high-tech, four-spoke wheel Ñ and headed home to rest. He was signed up to do another triathlon the next day.