MOST PEOPLE wouldn't walk a block - much less travel cross-country - to voluntarily swim about 1.5 miles in a chilly lake very early in the morning, then pedal a bike about 25 miles, get off and end the workout by running 6.2 miles.
But people who are willing to go to such lengths in the name of fitness and athletic competition will be in ample supply next Sunday at the 21st Columbia Triathlon, a mid-May ritual that has become an annual fixture on Howard County's sports calendar.
"We like to pride ourselves on being the season-opener for triathlon in the middle of the East Coast," said Robert Vigorito, the ebullient Columbia triathlete who founded and heads the event.
Entrants range in age from high school students to senior citizens.
"We have the largest field ever," said Vigorito, also president of USA Triathlon's mid-Atlantic region. The figure is 1,365, and Vigorito found himself cutting off entries three months ago, on Feb. 14. Merely a week later, he stopped taking names for his waiting list.
Competitors are due from 38 states and Canada, a financial boon to local businesses, particularly in lodging and restaurants. The Sheraton Columbia Inn is headquarters.
In addition to the triathlon being the first such event in the area every spring, Vigorito attributes its popularity to "bike and run courses that are hilly and pretty demanding. People like that kind of challenge; racers don't like courses that are flat."
"Women are coming out in droves," said Vigorito, a medical researcher for the University of Maryland, Baltimore who competed two weeks ago in Florida but is so busy organizing his event that he no longer can race. The number of women who completed last spring's event was 303, out of 1,094 finishers, a number he marvels at.
"When we started, a women's field of 10 percent was a lot, but now it's about a third, and nationally, there's a circuit of six events for women that draws about 2,000 entrants each."
Next Sunday's race will center, as usual, on Centennial Park, with the swim portion scheduled to begin in Centennial Lake at 6:45 a.m. The cycling course takes racers onto country roads in the western part of the county and back.
The fastest racers will hit the finish line roughly two hours later, with the last ones taking more than four hours to complete the circuit.
Vigorito, a tireless, year-round promoter of the sport, not only has a number of commercial sponsors lined up but uses tie-ins to help motivate racers and heighten community interest.
Racers this year, he said, will be honoring the memories of Howard County's victims of the terrorist attacks Sept. 11 at the Pentagon and World Trade Center. The Howard County Striders, one of the mid-Atlantic's largest running clubs, did something similar last fall.
Repeating the honor cannot hurt, Vigorito said, because "it reminds people there are more important things in life."
Financial proceeds from entry fees and other sales will go to a number of, mainly, Howard County groups involved in social work.
That cumulative figure from his nonprofit race organization has topped $300,000, Vigorito said. The primary beneficiary has been the Arc of Howard County. Support also has gone to the county's Special Olympics chapter, Howard County Striders scholarships, the Howard County Police Foundation, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the Howard County Domestic Violence Center and the Lance Armstrong Foundation, among others.
Vigorito has high praise for his sponsors as well, particularly the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, Princeton Sports in Columbia, David's Natural Market, Bagel Bin, Bob Brown and Associates printing company, Nightmare Graphics, Howard County General Hospital and Central Maryland Rehab.
Along the sidelines
Figure skating: The Diamonds and Emeralds, those two ensemble skating teams we wrote about a few weeks back that have a high percentage of Howard County youth skaters, finished second and fifth, respectively, in last month's top-level competition in France.
Some associated with them think there was some low-balling done in scoring by the French judges, particularly involving the Diamonds' routine. Sound familiar in this sport?
Soccer: If losing Fort Meade's parade ground in the aftermath of Sept. 11 weren't enough, the Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County is still trying to find a quality, lighted field for its annual showcase games during the Memorial Day weekend.
Howard High's field has been used for years, but with the utility poles that have supported that field's antiquated lights for what seems like generations having been taken down because of rot, nighttime soccer is going dark.
Cedar Lane Park's lighted field, where the national champion Maryland Bays played a decade or more ago (doesn't seem that long), was an option at this writing.
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