An Ironman Who's Not Yet a Man

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 10, 2008; Page E01

It's a drizzly, gray dawn on Maryland's Eastern Shore as 291 bold souls in wetsuits and goggles wade into Hambrook Bay for a grueling test of stamina that will stretch past nightfall.

But it's easy to pick out 14-year-old Hunter Lussi. He's the one with braces. He's also the one sporting a zebra-striped swim cap so his parents can monitor his progress -- and his safety -- amid so many flailing limbs in the choppy, open water.

The ChesapeakeMan Ultra Triathlon, held each September in Cambridge, Md., starts with a 2.4-mile swim, segues into a 112-mile bicycle sprint and is capped by a full-blown marathon. That's 140.6 miles in all, contested over a morning, afternoon and night that might otherwise be spent watching a child's soccer game, mowing the lawn, catching a movie and sitting down to three square meals.

This year, it was Lussi, a Georgetown Prep freshman from Kensington, who was first out of the water, winning the swim in less than 56 minutes despite a nasty jellyfish sting on his neck. Roughly 13 hours later, he loped across the finish at the local high-school football stadium, where a dwindling group of friends and relatives waited to cheer their loved ones home.

"And now -- at 14 years young -- Hunter Lussi!" brayed race director Bob Vigorito, who greeted each finisher over a loudspeaker.

So-called "ultra-distance" triathlons like the ChesapeakeMan, which replicate the distance of the trademarked "Ironman" events, are considered the ultimate challenge by many devotees of the sport. But there is broad disagreement about whether they're suitable for youngsters.

The elements of triathlon -- swimming, biking and running -- are terrific exercises for kids, according to Dr. Mininder Kocher, associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Harvard Medical School. Broader participation, he adds, could go a long way toward countering the epidemic of childhood obesity.

But the chief concern about youngsters doing extreme distances -- or training intensely in any sport that pounds the body, such as gymnastics -- is the potential damage to the growing skeleton, which is made up of what's known as "growth plates."

Any sign of pain, swelling of the joints or limping should raise red flags, said Kocher, who also is a member of the Youth Sports Safety Initiative Committee of the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.

If caught early, overuse injuries heal in kids. If addressed too late, they can do long term damage -- even stunt normal growth.

That's largely why the sport's international governing body, the International Triathlon Union, limits participation in ultra-distance events to those 18 and older. As a result, the ITU doesn't acknowledge Lussi's achievement in the ChesapeakeMan. In fact, after learning that Lussi had been allowed to compete in last year's race at age 13, the ITU lodged a protest with USA Triathlon (USAT), which sanctioned the event, likening the decision to "child abuse."

Vigorito dismisses the charge as "absurd and ridiculous."

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