Popularity of triathlons increasing in southern Wisconsin

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Gina Duwe
Sunday, August 10, 2014

JANESVILLE--Bruce Thoms was a runner for years, but after going from 5K races to completing nine marathons, he tired of the sport.

He did what many runners have done: triathlons.

The sport that combines swimming, biking and running into a race presents a new challenge for runners, but it's not just runners who are helping grow the sport. The number of triathlon participants and races has been growing, area trainers and athletes say.

“Usually every weekend you can go to a triathlon within 30 to 40 miles,” said Thoms, who is the race director for the Janesville Rock, Roll 'n' Run in downtown Janesville.

Jenny Wimmer has seen the increase in the sport as a member of the Southern Wisconsin Area Triathletes, a Janesville group that formed eight or nine years ago to help members train and reach their fitness goals.

The group's 29 members range from people training for the Ironman or half Ironman to others just getting into the sport, said Wimmer, the secretary and treasurer. Her husband, Mike, is vice president.

She attributes the popularity of triathlons to “a lot of emphasis on getting off the couch and getting moving.”

“I think it's just something (that people think) might be fun to give a try—on their bucket list,” she said. “Maybe they do it once, and they're done. I think a lot of people get the fever to continue.”

The starter triathlon—a sprint—generally is a 400-meter swim, 15-18 mile bike ride and 5k run, said Kitty Clark Cole, a multisport coach and health and wellness trainer. Race distances lengthen, working up to the Ironman, a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run.

Having the Ironman Wisconsin in Madison, which is Sept. 7 this year, helps get people interested, Clark Cole said.

This is the third summer that Clark Cole has led a Wednesday night brick workout in Janesville—meaning two events such as a swim and bike or a bike and a run.

As the popularity of the triathlon grows, Clark Cole said she sees many age groups embracing it—from the young to people in their 70s and 80s. In January, the NCAA approved triathlon as the next “Emerging Sport for Women,” a step toward becoming a full varsity sport.

“The thing that's nice is with proper training, almost anyone can do a triathlon,” Clark Cole said. “For training for a triathlon, it's easier on your body than just one sport.”

The swim is the most intimidating for many people.

“(It) scares most people contemplating doing it and keeps people away from doing it,” Clark Cole said.

Thoms didn't know how to swim, but he got his first practice in the Marshall Middle School pool in winter 2011. By 2012, he had completed his first and second Ironman races.

“I kind of go in extremes when I start this stuff,” he said.

For those fearful of the swim, Whitewater offers two triathlons with indoor swims—one at the Whitewater Aquatic Center and two at UW-Whitewater.

Thoms said the Janesville Rock, Roll 'n' Run is beginner-friendly, with the swim in the current of the Rock River. He also said he's considering moving the race from the July 4  weekend to later in summer.

The triathlon veterans offered advice and information for people considering getting into the sport:

--Don't make a triathlon your first open-water swim, Thoms said.

You need to get in open water because it's “completely different” than a pool, he said. Get familiar with the murky water, he said. “A lot of times, you can't see the bottom,” and fish and other things you might see on the bottom of the lake “might freak you out a little bit,” he said.

Also, get experience swimming in a group. Whether it's a time trial or mass start, most of the time you're going to get bumped around a little, he said. Faster swimmers will hit you, and you'll hit slower swimmers, he said.

“Get a little used to that feeling … that's not always a fun feeling in the water,” he said.

“That's the place where people panic,” Clark Cole said. “If they can't keep themselves under control in the water, their race will be done. They'll get pulled out of the water.”

--Learn how to bike ride in a group, too, which can be a little unnerving, she said.

--Find a friend, or more.

“It's so much fun to do these things with a group of friends,” Clark Cole said.

It's a great sport to meet people and expand your social network, she said.

“There's a great camaraderie in the triathlete community,” she said. “I find it to be very supportive.”

Training in a group helps keep Wimmer going, she said.

“You have to find a group that will push you and make you want to work on your weaknesses,” she said. With three sports, “there's a lot to practice.”

--Get a training program. Even if it's just a sprint triathlon, you'll need practice putting the three disciplines together, Thoms said.

“You don't want to just go out and do it. You'd be surprised how much the swim can take out of you,” he said.

You can get disoriented while standing up after being horizontal during the swim, he said, and it can take a half-mile or more to get your feet comfortably running under you after the bike portion.

Reach out to experts, and consider one-on-one coaching, Clark Cole said.

--What you'll need: “You can spend as much money as you want to, but you don't have to,” Clark Cole said.

A wetsuit might be needed depending on the water temperature. Otherwise, it's just a cap and goggles.

You can use a mountain bike, but riding will be easier with a road bike. Plain old pedals will work, but toe cages also are nice. A helmet is a must.

Invest in a good pair of running shoes.


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