For Billy Busko, who has molded himself into a world-class triathlete during the past 10 years, the first leg of the grueling competitions is the toughest.
"I never swam growing up," said Busko, a Cockeysville native and 1982 graduate of Dulaney who lives in New York. "I grew up in a tennis-playing family, and I might have jumped off the high dive before. I took my first swimming lesson just two months before my first Ironman race, in 2005."
Running is Busko's strongest suit, which is not a surprise considering that he ran cross country under the legendary Bob Dean in high school. But Busko has discovered the secret to swimming.
"I found swimming to be much more technical than I would have ever imagined," he said. "Becoming a good swimmer is akin to becoming a good golfer. It's not just about the amount of time you put in, but also about learning the proper form. Biking is more about time in the saddle. If you put time in the saddle, you will eventually become a pretty good biker."
Busko, 51, has done enough research and work to develop into one of the top triathletes for his age level. Last Sunday, he finished first among men ages 50 to 54 and 41st overall among the 4,000 amateurs in the New York City Triathlon, completing the race in 2 hours, 9 minutes, 1 second. It was the fourth consecutive year he won his age group.
Busko will compete in the Subaru Ironman Mont-Tremblant in Quebec on Aug. 16 before racing in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, on Oct. 10. He has participated in the past six Ironman competitions; he started competing in triathlons only 10 years ago. Even Busko conceded that his run of success is sometimes startling.
"I did that [Ironman Canada in Penticton, British Columbia] in 2005 fully in honor of my dad, and I didn't expect, as I was training for that race, to do another race after that race," he said, referring to his late father, Bill. "But I met a lot of people while I was training for that race and I met a lot of people during that race and I met a lot of people after that race, and I was introduced to the community of triathlon. … From my viewpoint, I just really enjoyed the lifestyle of being in the sport and the people I met and being active and the opportunity to also travel."
There's also the knowledge that, except for a handful of competitors, Busko is finishing triathlons faster than peers who are decades younger than he is.
"I do think that as you find that you're competitive at something, it certainly is motivating and probably adds to the determination," he said. "People tend to do the things they excel in. I think that by doing that, it's a source of inspiration for other aspects of life."
The 5-foot-11, 165-pound Busko, who still fits into jeans from his college days, trains vigorously from February to October, beginning every weekday with a 90-minute swim, bike ride or run before getting to his office as an investment banker by 8:30 a.m. At least three times per week, he works out again in the evening. On Saturdays, he completes a 6-hour bike ride, and on Sundays, an 18-mile run.
Kevin Schroth, 45, a lawyer who has known and trained with Busko for the past 10 years, marveled at his friend's ability to overcome exhaustion.
"He always seems to be able to keep moving at a high pace," Schroth said. "I attribute that partly to a great aerobic engine, but also to his mental toughness and mentality. He's kind of low-key and cavalier about triathlons. He's the only triathlete I know who could comfortably ride 100 miles on his bike and then meet friends at a country club and play 18 holes of golf with a smile on his face throughout the day and never complain about the fatigue."
Busko, who averages about 7 hours of sleep each night, said having friends who are also triathletes with him makes the workouts easier.
"I think people look at running or doing a triathlon, and they think it's a very solitary sport, but I think most people will spend a fair amount of time training with others as part of a team or just with friends they've met along the way in the sport," he said. "That's why I think it's important that you make triathlon as social as possible."
One person who regularly trains with Busko is Morgan Anderson, a triathlete and also his fiancee. Anderson, who met Busko through a mutual friend in 2010 and began dating him a year later, said the two frequently share notes on training regimens and nutrition plans.
"I think Billy trusts and relies heavily on my opinions, stuff like the structure on workouts, the exertion level, and what we should be doing in the weeks and days leading up to races, nutrition," she said. "I think it's nice that we both trust each other and that on a day-to-day basis, we're always sharing workouts and how we did and how we felt and pushing each other to the max."
Said Busko of Anderson's support: "It helps tremendously. She's very understanding, and she's very encouraging and supportive."
As meticulous as he is about his training, Busko intends to take it easy after the Ironman in Kona. On Nov. 14, he and Anderson will get married in her hometown of North Palm Beach, Fla.
Asked what he would have done if an important triathlon conflicted with the wedding date, Busko said firmly: "I would choose our wedding over anything that has to do with triathlon."
That sentiment delighted Anderson: "I'm glad the marriage is taking priority over any triathlon. It is something we enjoy together, so it's a shared passion. I think it's hard for couples who don't share that passion, because so much of your time is spent doing that. … I definitely agree that as much as we love exercising and training, we appreciate other aspects of life and downtime and vacations that are not centered around triathlons, and good food and good wine."
Busko is equally grateful for his mother, Margie Busko, and sister Lisa Johnson, who have attended every Ironman competition in Kona and are well known in the triathlon community for creative and colorful signs encouraging Busko along the triathlon's route.
Busko said he also feels driven by the memory of his father, who died of a rare skin cancer in February 2006, and by the many others who have supported him.
"I will tell you that during an Ironman race, when you're on the bike and you're 50 miles away from civilization or from the race site, often, I feel very touched," he said. "It's easy to be overcome with emotion, and I think that's something that a lot of triathletes experience, and it's very meaningful and very powerful. You might feel like you're at the most lonely part of the race, and that's when all of a sudden, you feel the presence of everyone who is rooting for you. Not to get too spiritual, but I feel the presence of everyone who is rooting for me. Whether or not they're there at the race or elsewhere around the world, I feel their presence."