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An amateur triathlete challenges the Vineman

By Ella Lawrence

I'M A PSEUDO-JOCK. I have many friends of many different persuasions: student friends, artist friends, winemaker friends, DJ friends. All of them are highly impressed with my level of athletic prowess. I have other friends, too: state record-breaking swimmer friends, pro-cyclist friends, world-class kickboxing friends, dancer friends who've been on MTV, and marathon-runner friends. They are highly amused by my level of athletic prowess.

My winemaker friends believe I'm being modest when I insist I'm the slowest swimmer on the JC's team. My friends from the swim team, however, know this to be no exaggeration. My artist friends are wowed to hear of this morning's 40-mile bike ride; my biker friends think my snail's pace is sort of endearing.

I excel at being average.

I have gotten moderately good at volleyball, distance running, swimming, road biking, ballet, swing and hip-hop dancing, kickboxing, and Polynesian fire dancing. I'm good enough at whatever sport it is I'm sampling at the moment to impress people who don't do that sport, but anyone who's an actual athlete sees through my jock facade and dismissively commends me for "trying."

Then a bike-racer friend of mine haughtily told me that triathletes are "athletes who aren't any good at one particular sport, so they get halfway decent at three and turn it into an event." I knew triathlon was for me. Training for the Vineman would keep my interest, I rationalized, because I wouldn't be doing the same sport day after day--I'd be cross-training in three different sports. So this spring, after realizing that swimming was yet another sport I'd never shine in, I decided I was going to do it. I was going to train for, and compete in, the Vineman, a competitive triathlon held each year in Sonoma County that's been an Ironman qualifier since 1994. (The Ironman is Hawaii's annual triathlon, 2.6-mile swim, 120-mile bike ride, with a 26.2-mile marathon run to wrap it up.)

This year's Vineman is on July 8, so I have four months to train. I won't expect to place well for my age group, but when I've done it, I'll really be able to call myself a triathlete--I'll have my sport. (Cymbals crashing.) I will have accomplished something.

Although the Vineman is only a half-triathlon, the 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and 13.1-mile run will take all day, and all the endurance that I have yet to build up.

I SPEND the month of March swimming every day, biking slowly twice a week, not running at all, and telling everyone about how I'm going to do the Vineman. I also spend a lot of time going out to have fun. I'm having a hard time drawing the line between serious athlete and fun-loving college student.

On April 1, I realize that the Vineman is a month closer and I'm not a whole lot fitter. I drop swimming down to three days a week (the team spends a lot of time splashing each other and water-wrestling anyway), and start biking three days a week; longer rides. I also begin to run two miles after each ride, to get my legs used to the feeling of running and biking.

The first day I do this, I collapse on the corner and sprain my ankle. "Hey, are you OK?" shout some guys who've been watching from across the street. I give them a thumbs-up and limp home, completely mortified.

The next two weeks are spent in the JC's training room, receiving ultrasound, ice massage, and stem (electric shocks to the muscle surrounding an injury). The sports technicians ask, "How did you sprain your ankle? Aren't you a swimmer?" I cringe, giving the answer, "I was running, and I fell down." End of story.

I fell down.

The dichotomy between party girl and triathlete-in-training still holds. I find myself riding out to a friend's house in Forestville and enjoying a cigarette and a beer on her front porch before riding home again. But this month I'm berating myself about it, instead of finding it as hilarious as I did in March. May rolls around, and I'm beginning to get nervous about the triathlon.

I've sent in my registration form and fee, and I'm realizing that in just a few weeks I'll be competing with over 2,000 other athletes. Luckily, the same cyclist friend who finds it amusing to make disparaging comments about triathletes has decided to be my personal trainer. He puts me through a longer bike ride each week, yelling at me to sprint on climbs. Twice a week is a torture session at the gym, where I practice saying "Dude!" during my bench presses. I'm supposed to have one day per week of complete recovery, but since I've given up drinking and clubbing, I've got too much energy to sit around for a whole day. And the closer to July 8, the more I think about the fact that lots of people are going to be watching me swim, bike, and run. What if I'm the last one out of the water? What if I fall off my bike? What if I run like a dork?

Maybe I can take up African dance.

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From the May 17-23, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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