by Michael Bowen

Anxious people in numbered swim caps mill around a beach in the early-morning light. Despite the protection of wetsuits, the wind off the lake is still chilling. There's glare on the water, making the first buoy difficult to see. Everyone notes gloomily how strong the tide is coming in. They'll have to swim against it. In staggered starts, wave after wave of swimmers will struggle against the incoming whitecaps. In muffled voices, they wish one another luck. A few joke about the insanity of voluntarily taking on such a challenge. Most talk about recent training and optimal split times. They've pushed themselves through a lot of workouts to get to this beach. At City Park in Coeur d'Alene, it's starting time for the competitors in the USA Triathlon National Championships.

Have a good race, they all say. But in the minutes before a triathlon -- especially one as competitive this -- all the athletes feel the knot in the stomach, the fear that it won't be a good race, at least not for them. Everyone feels the irrational urge to back away altogether from the challenge of swimming nearly a mile, then riding a bike for almost 25 miles before finishing with a 10K (6.2-mile) run. Maybe we'll "just treat this one as a workout," they're tempted to say. But this is the race they've all been shooting for, the race that might lead them to a spot this November at the World Cup in Cancun, Mexico. For these 1,200 athletes, running a bit over six miles is nothing compared to the hundreds of miles they've logged in workouts, on treadmills and country roads.

To get to the national championships, essentially, athletes need to have finished in the top quarter of a local race or in the top third of a regional triathlon. At Coeur d'Alene this weekend, only the top six in each age-group category will qualify for Cancun.

For the strongest swimmers, even the decision when to stop sprinting through the surf and actually dive into their freestyle stroke takes on importance.

Who's going for the lead? All I can see is a lot of foam and flashing arms. Can I draft on this girl? Watch out for knees and elbows. Don't go out too fast. Or should I tuck into the slipstream behind that pack? Keep your cadence. We still have a long way to go. Breathe right, three strokes, breathe left. How far to the first buoy? Stay within yourself. Let that one go -- I'll catch her on the bike.

There's another category of participants in this race, however, further back in the pack from the very beginning. They're the age-groupers -- those who have no chance of winning or even placing very high overall, but who nonetheless are quite competitive against others in their own age bracket. In once-a-year national championships like those in Coeur d'Alene this weekend, even the older age-group athletes will have the best equipment, the most impressive training regimens. But all of them once slogged through their first tri. The stereotype has them as middle-aged or even older; quite often, swimming is not their best or favorite segment of a multi-sport event. And just as they weren't at the head of the course in their first race, so they probably won't be this Saturday morning. From the rear of the pack at a national championship, the perspective on the swim can be quite different.

I can't already be this far back. Did that guy kick me deliberately? God, even the water inside my wetsuit is cold. They said I'd feel more buoyant. Sure. Okay, settle down. Easy strokes, keep your form, don't worry about the whole race, just concentrate on that first turn. This is pretty heavy chop. Try to time my breaths so I don't just suck in a lot of lake water. I can't believe these goggles are fogging up. I'm already fading, and I've got a half-mile left to swim.

For such pain, we can assign blame. While a triathlon-like event first took place in France back in 1921, the modern sport traces its roots to a band of frustrated runners in San Diego. Bored with the ubiquitous 5- and 10K runs during the jogging craze of the early '70s, a couple of men decided to create a little variety. And so, in Mission Bay in September 1974, 46 hardy souls -- the first triathletes -- tested one another in a five-part competition that actually went swim, bike, run, bike, run. The sport had some growing to do. (Even its name had to be coined, on the model of "decathlon.") And grow it did. Just 20 years after that first cobbled-together race in San Diego, the International Olympic Committee announced in 1994 that triathlon was to be an Olympic sport. Last September, the marquee events on the first two days of the Sydney Olympics were the women's and men's triathlons. No other sport has ever proceeded more quickly from inception to Olympic status.

Although the sport can often turn into more of an endurance contest, top-ranked triathletes are capable of turning it into a race. The elite racers begin to distinguish themselves from the hordes even before the race begins. Custom wetsuits, $3,500 titanium-alloy bikes without seat tubes and disc covers over the rear spokes, after all, are part of the allure. Every committed tri-guy has the mentality of a techno-wonk. Hang around any transition area for an hour before or after any race and you'll hear all the one-upmanship about gear ratios and chromium-alloy sprockets, aero bars and teardrop helmets, nutritional supplements and in-race hydration, resistance training in the weight room and in the lap pool, the latest shoes from Nike and components from Shimano.

Not only do the top athletes arrive with trendy equipment, but they obsess over race preparation as well, especially the intricacies of T1 and T2. Those would be the first and second transitions, first from swim to bike and later from bike to run. They're fan favorites, partly because they represent the only time in a triathlon when the racers aren't either indistinguishable swim caps or unrecognizable blurs. Besides, during transitions, we can all sympathize with the guy who's having a hard time wriggling in and out of clothes that don't seem to fit.

At any rate, athletes will jog into City Park's T1 with goggles and caps already off and wetsuits unzipped to the waist. The trick to peeling off a wetsuit expeditiously is to slather on your choice of lubricant before the race. Sure, these folks get cold in those little bathing suits, but there's no time for concern now, because next comes the ritual of towel off, shirt on, glasses on, helmet snapped, jog alongside the bike, exit the transition area, feet into shoes (already clipped onto the pedals), eyes on the next cyclist ahead.

As the bicyclists speed off, some of us will be left behind as spectators. Clearly the best vantage point will be City Park downtown. On Saturday, swimmers will leave from a point between the basketball courts and the bandshell in 13 waves at times staggered between 7 and 8:50 am. They'll swim out against the tide, then parallel to the shore and return. After T1, they'll venture out on the bike course from the side of City Park nearest Northwest Blvd. The 25-mile out-and-back bike route trends southeast, along Front, Mullan and Lake Drive, past Bennett Bay to a turnaround at Higgins Point, then crosses and recrosses I-90 via Bonnell and Mullan Trail before a second U-turn and, via Sunnyside, across the freeway yet again, retracing the route back through town to City Park.

The most efficient cyclists lean over those odd-looking handlebars ("aero bars") that allow them to remain crouched in the most efficient position for pedaling. They can rehydrate -- the rest of us call it gulping Gatorade -- from bottles and tubes affixed to the front of the bike.

Get your cadence up. We still have the hills to go, and I don't want to be pushing some monster gear through that section. Just stay in touch, let her do the work, keep a rhythm. Don't get so close that they think I'm drafting. My swim was good, I feel good, I can do the overtaking when we come back through town.

Already 20 minutes in arrears, the age-group guy is just glad to be out of the water.

Okay, dry off a bit. Drink some water. Try to get settled here, glad to be on dry land, that transition went pretty well... Whoa! Who is that guy? Another one? I'm getting dropped here. Gotta pump faster. I am not gonna let this next guy get past me. Look at his bike -- he's still using toe cages. Wait, what's his number? I can't see... 54! He's that old, and he's dropping me like this is some training ride. But I can't stay with him...

Ages are written on the back of a competitor's left calf, so that when you come up from behind -- or get passed -- you can see who you're up against.

After a second transition (bike-to-run), the now-weary competitors will run 6.2 miles, first half-circling City Park, continuing along the shore and through the middle of the North Idaho College campus, then east on River and north along the railroad tracks until returning along River and then Rosenberry Drive ("the dike road") back along the lake to the finish line in City Park.

Elite runners unclip from their bikes and slip into their running shoes with practiced ease.

My legs aren't too stiff. I lost too much time on that last hill. Gotta get with somebody, not run by myself. What's the pace? Don't push it too early. I'll make my move somewhere after the turnaround. Time to make those girls pay, the ones who hammered on the bike. The course is pretty flat. I don't want it to come down to a final sprint. Better to push it now.

The back-of-the pack competitor, with different concerns, dismounts his bike and plods along.

My legs feel like cement. Is this as fast as I can go? I must look ridiculous. Oh, my quads are tightening up. I'm running like my Aunt Gladys here. Please, God, just don't let me finish last. Let me beat somebody in my division. Five miles to go.

Finally, improbably, the mirage of a finish line becomes real. Nice people take away your nice ankle strap with the timing device and offer you nice cold things to drink. I did it. I feel great. How was my time?

The post-race concerns of elite and average triathletes aren't much alike. The winners can scarcely conceal that they've been cooling down long before some of the others even finish. Staying hydrated; getting some nutritional replenishment; seeking out a massage; comparing splits and transition times -- these are what occupy the leaders' minds after the race. The age-grouper, finishing perhaps 30 or 40 minutes behind, receives some scattered applause, slumps to his knees or wanders about exhausted, his legs still moving out of habit, not quite convinced yet that there isn't more punishment. Perhaps a few family members and well-wishers gather to exclaim over the lunacy of going the equivalent of from here to Spokane, voluntarily. Boy, are you gonna be sore tomorrow.

But it's a sweet soreness. For now, pumped on an endorphin high, the triathletes talk to one another, to race officials, to anybody, almost giddy with accomplishment. Some have achieved coveted PRs (personal records); many are disappointed. If only I'd hung with that pack on the back part of the bike leg. I could've gone through T1 quicker. And my swim was lousy, something like four minutes off. Next year, my training's going to be better...

Next year represents an opportunity for spectators to refine their understanding of the sport, too: next September, the national championships return to Coeur d' Alene. Surely a handful of this weekend's onlookers will be inspired to attempt a so-called sprint triathlon or two (roughly half the distance of this event), then a race at the Olympic distance, hoping to qualify for next year's nationals.

If so, for next year, here's some advice, time-honored among triathletes: Whatever you do, don't forget your bike. And don't drown. After that, it's just left-right, left-right until the pain goes away.

Michael Bowen avoided drowning and then finished last year's Coeur d'Alene Triathlon.

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.