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An iron man runs the triathlon

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Columbian Robert Vigorito made his annual predawn incursion into Centennial Park this morning.

About the same time this newspaper hit your driveway, the race director for the Columbia Triathlon was hard at work overseeing the 18th version of the nationally known event.

"I want to create memories for people," said Vigorito, who has been involved with the triathlon since its inception and race director since 1986. "You make friends for life here. There's a special bond among triathletes, perhaps because the majority of us do it [not only] as an enjoyment of the sport but as a commitment, also. It's our May Day party."

The multisport endurance competition has come a long way since 90 athletes entered the first Columbia Triathlon in 1984.

This year's field comprises more than 1,000 participants. Entry closed six weeks before this year's event. Seventy percent of the field comes from out of county. The sport's famous names, such as Ironman winner Scott Tinley, have competed. National triathlon magazines have rated Columbia's one of the top in the country.

All of this is music to Vigorito's ears.

"I liken this to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra," said "Vigo," as he is known in the community. "Individually, all the musicians are professionals and good and all that, but they need a good conductor. The conductor who sets the tone, pace, practice, signs contracts, gets people focused.

"I liken my job [to] that. I like to say I feel I'm a pretty good conductor, but I wouldn't be anything if I didn't have a band of professional musicians that are the best. I feed off them, they feed off me, and we all get together as one big family doing this."

An estimated 700 volunteers and the triathlon committee of 14 in addition to Vigorito band together.

"When you look at the park, it's incredible the transformation that it will make in 48 hours between Friday and Sunday afternoon," said Alan Davis, the assistant race director. "You can pull up to the park on Sunday and never know a major national event was held there. They are that good at getting it all taken care of."

Davis, too, has been there from the beginning. Princeton Sports & Travel, of which he is president, was founded by his grandparents in 1936 and has long been a major sponsor. Princeton's support has made a lasting impression on many, especially Dr. Jerry Casper.

Casper, a pediatric dentist from Columbia, is one of two athletes to have competed each of the 18 years.

Some years back at the triathlon, just as he was about to start the swim, he noticed his bike had a flat tire. He became flustered, thinking that he might miss the race's 10th anniversary - this is, after all, the same guy who postponed knee surgery one spring so he could still compete. When he returned from the swim, Princeton mechanics had his bike ready for the second segment.

"I was scared I was going to miss out, because I was really looking forward to my 10th year," he said. "The people around the race are just great. It's just so well-organized. Everything is so well-planned. It's a great race for the triathletes. Everything is geared toward them. This has got to be the best race in the country."

Davis' support is more than mechanical; he will be among those camping out at Centennial Park the night before the race to guard nearly 1,400 bikes. Columbia's draw, says Davis, is the perspective Vigorito lends.

"He's a triathlete, and he's able to look at things through a racer's eyes," said Davis. "He has a real passion for the sport."

Vigorito's love affair with triathlons started when he saw the now famous broadcast of Julie Moss, severely dehydrated and fatigued, crawling her way to the finish line in the 1982 Hawaii Iron- man.

The concept of a sport pushing the mind and body to such limits turned Vigorito's head and won his heart. Having played basketball, baseball and football while growing up in East Haven, Conn., he threw himself into this new world - as dropping from 218 pounds to his current 178 will attest - and did his first triathlon in 1983. He was hooked.

Among numerous triathlons and assorted marathons since, Vigorito, 53, has completed three Hawaii Ironmans - his best time is 11 hours and 52 minutes. The Hawaii Ironman offers the ultimate endurance test with its tough conditions and longer distances: 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run.

Vigorito's stamina for his daily life is no small feat, either.

His volunteer work as the race director requires about 30 hours a week during peak time; there's the 12-plus hours a week of training for the three or four triathlons and other running events he does yearly.

He also directs two other triathlons in the state; and, yes, there's the matter of his career - he's a clinical instructor as well as the coordinator of the brain and tissue bank at the University of Maryland School of Medicine - and family.

He sleeps about five hours a night.

This boundless energy is rooted in his love for the sport.

"I'm never going to get burned out," he says. "I've raced all over and see Columbia Triathlon T-shirts in Hawaii, Florida - that's a great feeling. You know you're doing something right."

That passion, attention to details and personable approach make the difference.

Vigorito's biggest worry? Rain. A little precipitation increases safety and logistic concerns exponentially. At those times, he is more aware than ever that running a race is far more difficult than running in a race.

His reward comes at the finish line.

"I just love seeing all the happy faces at the finish line. They come across that finish line, and they're screaming or crying or they're excited and yelling. ... When you get that, it's the realization that the committee did another great job."

At a glance

Some facts about the 18th Columbia Triathlon:

Course centers on Centennial Park, with a 1.5-kilometer swim in the lake, a 41-kilometer bike race into the western county and a 10-kilometer run north into Ellicott City. That's just over 32.8 miles total.

More than 70 Howard countians are among 1,000-plus entered. Entrants are from 25 states and the District of Columbia, with most, of course, from the Baltimore-Washington area.

Course has been used twice (1994, 1997) for national age-group triathlon championships.

Times to beat - Men, 1 hour, 55 minutes, 46 seconds, set in 1997 by a Floridian. Women - 2:10.17, set in 1997 by a Connecticut woman. Slowest time: 4:40.

Oldest finisher, 74; youngest, 14.

Columbia's Barbara Sullivan is the only Howard countian still holding any of the Triathlon's individual records; 2:17.20 in 1997 for master's women.

SOURCE: Columbia Triathlon Web site: www.tricolumbia.org.

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