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Triathlon central: Washington, D.C.

By Vicky Hallett
Thursday, June 10, 2010

On June 20, the Washington DC Triathlon will debut with an expected 2,000 participants, most likely including the District's tri fanatic of a mayor. Across the city, kids are about to kick off six weeks of free training through the Achieve Youth Triathlon Summer Camp. And in September, more than 7,000 athletes are expected to dive into the Potomac River, making the Nation's Triathlon the largest Olympic distance event in the country.

Welcome to TriTown, U.S.A.

That's how Washington Sports & Event Management is selling the nation's capital, and the name seems apt. It's hard to believe that only four years ago, the District was the only major city not to host an annual triathlon.

How did we bolt so fast from last place? Part of it is location, location, location. Our weather is suitable for training most of the year, and an abundance of parks is a perk for runners and cyclists.

It probably has a little something to do too with Mayor Adrian Fenty, who has been a supporter of swimming pools, bike lanes and sporting events. But there are a lot more folks responsible, from the army of volunteers who've kept races running smoothly to the powers that be at the National Park Service who've doled out permits. If it takes a village to raise a child, "it takes a city to put on a tri," says Jeffrey Horowitz, program manager for Achieve and a brand ambassador for the Nation's Triathlon.

So it certainly helps that the DC Triathlon Club -- estimated to be the fourth-largest in the country -- boasts 1,087 members, ranging from newbies to Ironman competitors. That figure is even more impressive considering the group was founded in 2000 as an e-mail group for fewer than 15 friends. And according to club President Julie Kennedy, the numbers just keep going up. "I think it really helps increase interest in triathlon in general when you see it happening in your own back yard," she says. "Lots of people travel for races, but more people are going to be motivated when it's right there."

Not that extra motivation seems all that necessary these days. USA Triathlon, the national governing body for the sport, has nearly 133,000 annual members and has seen its numbers leap 523 percent since 2000 and 129 percent since 2005. The biggest growth spurt has been in the mid-Atlantic, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has been shut out of a race that filled up in a matter of hours. "The classes sell out quickly; the training programs sell out quickly," Horowitz says. "Say the word 'triathlon' and you'll draw a crowd."

More demand equals more multi-sport events, such as the new Splash N' Dash, a 300-meter swim paired with a 5K run in Silver Spring that's being held twice this year. (The first one was this past weekend, but you can still sign up for Aug. 8.)

Organizer Lloyd Henry of OnPoint Fitness regularly trains triathletes and found many were frustrated that they had to plan so far in advance to get into a race and didn't have enough opportunities to practice. "For intermediates, it's a chance to work on their transitions," he says of the Splash N' Dash. "For beginners, this gives them a chance to see what it's all about in a less intense environment."

After all, no matter how many people get into triathlons, the idea of doing one is daunting. That's even true for Bethesda-based physician and exercise expert Pam Peeke, a familiar face on cable TV's Discovery Health. For 2010, she has persuaded a group of women -- her "Peeke Performers" -- to attempt a tri for the first time. Their goal race is the Iron Girl sprint, held in August in Columbia by the Columbia Triathlon Association (which, like the Reston Triathlon Organization, has been hosting races for decades).

Although Peeke is a strong swimmer, a marathoner and a respectable cyclist, the combo is a challenge for her. "I've never glued them together before," she says. But as a regimen, she's already sold: "It's really important to cross-train, and this is the mac daddy of cross-training."

It takes plenty of hard work to prepare: Just ask Peeke's thighs, which she refers to as "Thelma" and "Louise." Switching between the three disciplines, however, takes far less of a toll on the body than pounding the pavement constantly.

It can also be more fun, which is the message Achieve will be teaching children ages 9 to 14 for the fourth summer. Hooking urban youth -- a demographic that normally would have no access to triathlons, which often require costly gear and entry fees -- is a way to bolster the sport, along with their health, for years to come. "This won't be a one-time experience for these kids," promises Horowitz. "We're a farming system."

Sounds like TriTown, U.S.A., is here to stay.

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