Columbia resident trains like a pro for triathlon

Suzy Serpico, 32, starts her days early, with a swim, bike or run before heading to her job as a physical education teacher at Hammond Elementary School.

Several evenings a week, the Columbia resident trains for an hour and a half with personal trainer Greg Matt. The weekends are reserved for long runs and even longer bike rides.

When the horn blares signaling the start of the 30th Columbia Triathlon on Sunday, May 19, she'll be in the front of the pack, as one of the race's pros, hoping to complete the .93-mile swim in Centennial Lake, the 25-mile hilly bike-ride and the 6.2-mile run before anybody else.

She has been competing in the Columbia Triathlon since 1998, when she was a senior at Centennial High School. It's the race that earned her the chance to go pro two years ago, and it remains one of her favorites.

As the popular race reaches its three-decade milestone, Serpico paused from her evening workout recently to reflect on the event and her own history as a triathlete. In high school, Serpico was a volleyball player. Though she had no particular background or training as a runner, she ran a 5K during her junior year and discovered she was fast. Fast enough to take third place. Next up was a full marathon, which she completed in 3 hours, 21 minutes.

Suddenly, she was a runner, and her senior year of high school she switched from volleyball to cross country. She was named Howard County Runner of the Year, and came in second at the state level.

That year, she made a deal with her parents. She would skip Senior Week, with its reputation for drinking and partying, if they would buy her a bicycle. They took her up on the offer, and the same year she swam, biked and ran in her first triathlon, the Columbia Triathlon.

"I remember when I started tri's, nobody was doing them," she said. That's certainly changed. Triathlons, particularly shorter-distance ones, have become very popular.

"I think it's the new marathon, especially around here," Serpico said.

It helps that the nonprofit Columbia Triathlon Association (CTA) has earned a reputation for fun, scenic and well-run races that raise money for local causes. Race director Robert Vigorito, 65, the surreally energetic force behind the growing roster of CTA events (which now include the Rocky Gap Triathlon and an Iron Girl Half Marathon) retired this year, but he hasn't disappeared. In fact, though he's an accomplished triathlete, this year will mark his first time competing in the Columbia Triathlon he has nurtured all these years.

The race has grown from about 90 competitors the first year to more than 2,000 now, including pros from all over the world.

The race may be the longest-running triathlon in the mid-Atlantic, said Linda Congedo, CTA communications director, and is unusual in that it is run by a nonprofit organization. In one year, the organization raised more than $200,000 for charitable organizations, she said, and charity teams raised more than $450,000.

"Every pro that has come to do it has said it's not only tough but it's also beautiful," she said. "It's nice that we have it in our own backyard."  

Serpico's time in her first Columbia Triathlon was fast enough to qualify her for the Junior Triathlon Olympic Training Team, and she spent the next two summers training in Colorado Springs. Her first international competition was the Age Group World Championships in Switzerland in 1998.

She ran cross country while at Salisbury University, and she used to think running was her strongest part of the race. Now, she thinks her swimming is strongest.

Among her achievements, she came in second in her age group at the 2009 Ironman Cozumel Triathlon, which she ran with husband, Danny, on their honeymoon. The event qualified her to compete in the famous Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. (Danny runs Rip It Events, which organizes races and provides coaching.)

Serpico's training schedule is daunting. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, she swims from 5:30 to 6:45 a.m. in a "master class" with coach Sue Mangan. On Tuesdays, she teaches a spin class through the Columbia Association that starts at 5:45 a.m., and then adds a run with either speedwork or hill training. On Tuesday nights, she hits the gym for a personal training session with Matt, her trainer for about four years. Matt, who grew up in  Howard County, said his goal is to keep challenging Serpico, boosting her endurance and strength.

On Wednesday evenings, Serpico teaches a spin class and then either goes for a bike ride or adds a second class, either as instructor or participant. On Thursdays, she runs in the morning, then works out with Matt in the evening.

On Fridays, she swims in the mornings, then either rides her bike or works out on a step machine in the afternoon. Saturdays are reserved for runs of between 13 and 16 miles with the Howard County Striders, and on Sundays she'll typically ride her bike for two to five hours.

Serpico fuels all this activity with simple foods, including pizza, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and power bars. She is also guided by tri trainer Mike Matney, who provides plans that promote endurance, strength, speed and technical skills.

"Suzy's ability to manage her personal and married life, coaching, training, teaching, while remaining a positive influence of the multi-sport community, and retain a spirit of gratitude is what impresses me the most about her," he said.

While some triathletes specialize in races of certain distances, Serpico said she enjoys the challenges of each one, though she's partial to the Ironman, with its 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run.

The important thing, she said, is not winning, but digging deep and keeping going when the going gets tough. Last year, her bicycle chain broke during last mile and half of the Columbia Triathlon. Instead of giving up, she took off her bike shoes, grabbed her bike, and ran.

She's also proud that her father, Chuck McCulloch, 64, has begun joining her at the gym since he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease about a year ago. He has lost about 40 pounds and believes the exercise is helping with his balance.

Her sister, Katie, 32, also makes time for working out, even though she has three children under the age of 5.

"I never thought the three of us would be working out together," Serpico said.

Her mom, Winnie, typically volunteers as a body-marker, writing the numbers and ages on participants, for Columbia races.

"We're proud of her," said Chuck McCulloch, recuperating from his workout. Turning to his daughter, he added: "We don't say it enough but you know we are."

The Columbia Triathlon is scheduled to start at 6:40 a.m. Sunday, May 19 at Centennial Park in Ellicott City. Expect traffic delays and road closures around Route 108 and Centennial Lane.

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