Up there with ugly girls, aggressive squirrels, and the death of fun, there is the old stereotype that mocks the acute lack of athletic prowess among the student body. A few Chicago athletes training for a triathlon are starting to dispel that last adage.
One of the most demanding tests in the world of sports, the three races come in speedy succession, with only enough time to strip off a wetsuit and change shoes. The shortest variety consists of a 750m swim, followed by a 20k bike ride and topped off by a 5k footrace to the finish and demands a punishing training schedule. At the Olympic (1,500m/40k/10k) and Half Ironman (1.9k/90k/21k) levels, there are hardly words to describe the kind of physical and mental preparation necessary to cross the finish line.
While triathlon preparation itself exacts lots of physical demands for any athlete, training in Chicago presents its own set of difficulties. A potentially overwhelming combination of an intense workload and the Windy City’s chilly climate and flat terrain discourages prospective triathletes to leave the cozy confines of the library or go anywhere but the gym.
“For the Half Ironman, I do about one and a half to three hours of cardio six days per week,” fourth-year Stephanie Melkonian said. “It’s a lot of time, but it usually just comes down to forcing yourself out of bed in the morning to either work out or do homework. I spend a lot of time on this, but it is my hobby.”
“When it’s so cold, a lot of times it’s just hard to get outside,” third-year graduate student Aspen Gorry explained. “Plus, working out on a stationary bike is harder since you can’t coast, and then there just isn’t anything to look at. But after an indoor bike workout, an outdoor run is almost pleasant, even when it’s freezing.”
Even when U of C triathletes can squeeze in a run or a bike ride, all that training can feel like inadequate preparation when it’s time to toe the line at the real thing.
“Training in Chicago and then competing in places like upstate New York where there are hills is kind of jarring,” Melkonian said. “You get used to running and biking without any incline ever, and then you go to places where the first quarter mile of the run is all uphill.”
A range of RSOs and club teams on campus are dedicated to helping triathletes overcome the dropping temperatures and extra training hurdles by bolstering their training schedules with quality time to pedal, paddle, or pound pavement. Second-year Zoe Vangelder got hooked on triathlons this summer and recently started the University of Chicago Triathlon Club, which is set to compete at the Galena Triathlon in Galena, IL on May 17.
“I knew there were people here who trained for triathlons, and I just wanted to get a group together to work together and motivate each other to stay in shape,” Vangelder said. “I got into triathlons in large part because I wanted to get into the culture and just find out how triathletes train and stay in shape.”
The club currently reserves pool space several times a week for members to train together and plans to organize runs, bike workouts, and mini-triathlons to help prepare for the big race.
“It’s also nice to be able to train on your own schedule. It’s like having a team but not being on a team,” Vangelder explained.
For varsity athletes like fourth-year Brain Hague, it’s a bit easier to double up personal preparation with team practices to get whipped into shape. A track and cross-country runner, Hague already gets part of his training handled by being part of the squad.
“Coach Chris Hall has been a great help to me. He is really flexible and lets me do a lot of my training in the pool or on my bike rather than running every day,” Hague said. “I like being on and competing with the team; they’re very supportive and encouraging. The running team is like the home base that I build the rest of my training around.”
Even after logging in all the hours at the gym to be in peak form, there are still a number of other obstacles to be faced the day of the race. Moving between events requires successful triathletes to be hyper-efficient, and a dexterity with wetsuit zippers and shoelaces never hurts as the little details add to the physical demands.
“The transitions can be the hardest part,” Melkonian said. “You have to lay everything out ahead of time and then during the race you have to know what to do and where everything is, and it’s just really, really stressful.”
“The worst is the transition from the bike to the run,” Gorry explained. “You’ve been biking really hard for a really long time and running just uses a different rhythm and different muscles, so when you first start off, your legs feel like jelly. A lot of people just walk the half mile.”
Even with the stress of competition, the harsh training conditions, and the classic Reg-versus-Ratner battle, triathletes at the U of C find themselves hooked on the lifestyle. A combination of endorphins, the motivation of a mission, and a chance to get some fresh air every day make the ceaseless training pleasurable.
“I really like swimming, biking, and running together,” Vangelder said. “They reinforce each other, and you don’t have to be great at all of them to be a great triathlete.”
“I don’t enjoy getting started training, sometimes, like the initial plunge into the cold pool or the run outside into the cold, but once it starts, I have a hard time stopping,” Hague said. “I enjoy the thought of coming back to eat as much as I want at Pierce.”
While these athletes find a rush in their personal training, veteran competitors Gorry and Melkonian say the main attraction of the grueling triathlons is the camaraderie at races. Even in the heat of competition, your opponents will be your strongest supporters. An empathetic audience is a boost at an event where competitors push their bodies to the max.
“At the Chicago International and the Half Ironman, there were professional triathletes, and they were really, really intimidating,” Melkonian said. “But everyone’s there because they worked hard and they want to be there, so there’s a really supportive atmosphere, and you see the people who finished in the top 10 standing at the finish line cheering on everyone finishing behind them.”
“Just finishing a triathlon is an accomplishment in itself,” Gorry said. “Even if you don’t finish with your best time, you still feel really good. The people you are competing with understand how much it takes just to finish the race, so there’s a lot of support.”