Many will compete in a bay event Saturday, showing that triathlons are becoming more mainstream

The Baltimore Sun

Like many busy people, Julie Dixon fits exercise into her schedule with great finesse.

In between her part-time job as a licensed counselor and the soccer and field hockey games, play dates and homework that accompany caring for three children, she sandwiches a little running here. A little tennis there. An hour at the gym a few mornings a week. Some kayaking on the weekends.

On Saturday, the Queenstown resident plans to test just how fit she is by competing with a teammate in the Chesapeake Bay Eco-Tri, a triathlon being held for the first time at the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center in Grasonville. "We're both just not serious athletes," Dixon says, referring to herself and her teammate, Jada Beach. "But I have a lot of friends who are always saying, 'I'm doing a half-marathon. I'm doing a triathlon.' So we thought it would be kind of cool to give it a try."

Organizers of the Grasonville competition hope that the 4-mile run, 10-mile bike ride and 3-mile kayaking leg will showcase the center's 510 acres of fields, marshes and waterways. (Most triathlons include biking, running and swimming).

The first-time event, which is drawing competitors from six states, exemplifies the growing popularity of triathlons as a recreational athletic pursuit -- rather than a sporting event in which only elite athletes can dream of participating.

"Clearly this is a growing trend -- triathlons that appeal to all kinds of people. The reason people like these [events] is that you do not have to be a great athlete to be in them. And yet most people are interested in fitness challenges," says race coordinator Anne Joyner, who initially suggested that the environmental center hold the triathlon.

The competition is designed to attract not only seasoned triathletes who are looking for something a little different, but also newcomers to the sport. Athletes can participate as individuals or in teams of two or four (kayaks built for two are allowed). "It's an event that allows someone to try new things out," says Joyner. "Look at the way road races have grown: The people running in them obviously all are working. They are working, running, raising families. They are busy, but they want to face challenges, too."

Indeed, interest in triathlons seems to be growing in great strides. In 1999, for example, there were 19,060 annual members of USA Triathlon, a national organization that sanctions about 2,000 triathlon events annually. In 2006, there were 70,291 members, according to the association. And as of July, that figure had grown to 96,000 annual members -- a leap of some 26,000 athletes.

Those numbers don't include athletes who participate in nonsanctioned triathlons, says Jason Mucher, USAT media relations manager. "Some estimates are that 690,000 people competed in a triathlon last year as a one-day member of the USAT or in a nonsanctioned event."

Most triathletes are in their 30s and 40s, have achieved some success or stability in their professional lives, have a little money to spend and are looking for a challenge, says Mark Zenobia, the race director and president of On Your Mark Productions, which organizes about 45 events yearly.

"What we see growing is what we call 'mid-packers.' These aren't the people who are up in front, but people who are going to be coming in the middle," Zenobia says. "Typically people have come to triathlons later in life -- maybe after competing in swimming or running when they are younger. Fitness is a lifestyle thing that they are developing when they are younger and want to keep it up."

Triathlons are considered by some athletes to be more forgiving -- in certain ways -- than running events. Like road races, triathlons long have offered awards to winners in separate age groups. Triathlons, however, were the first to offer awards based upon age and weight, says Rob Vigorito, president of the USAT Mid-Atlantic region. (There are separate categories for men who weigh over 200 pounds and women who weigh over 150 pounds.)

"Triathlons were really the first to take weight into account -- to take bigger, not fatter, people into account. That is why triathlons are a much more inclusive sport that running ever was," says Vigorito. "And that has been a factor in bringing in new people into the sport."

The growing number of women-only triathlons also are attracting new athletes to the sport, he adds. For example, though only in its second year, the Ryka Iron Girl, a women-only competition held last month in Columbia, attracted more than 2,100 athletes.

"It's a triathlon with all women -- that encourages more women to come out. They come out, compete with each other and gain confidence, and that's what it's all about," says Vigorito, whose nonprofit Columbia Triathlon Association organized the event.

"Women come with women. Daughters tell their mothers, and it is now cool to be a triathlete."

For some, however, it long has been cool to be a triathlete.

Indeed, for longtime triathlete Murray Sarubin, training and competing is a way of life. If it's early Tuesday morning, then the 66-year-old Baltimore dentist must be running -- and his wife, Susan, must be swimming.

He also runs Thursdays and swims Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. She also swims Thursdays and Saturdays, and runs Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. They sprinkle their weekly schedules with strength training and a few bike rides (short ones, long ones, hills and intervals). And for the past few weeks, they've been kayaking a lot.

Murray Sarubin, who has competed in some 35 marathons, four Chesapeake Bay Swims and "all kinds of triathlons," says they're both planning to compete Saturday in the Chesapeake Bay Eco-Tri. "It's different," he says. "Plus it's an opportunity to get outdoors together."

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