ADVERTISEMENT

My watch reads 5:45 a.m. It's a chilly mid-September morning. The sky is dark and an abundance of stars still shines brightly overhead. I'm pushing my bike with one hand and carrying a crate of my "supplies" with the other.

There is an energy in the air. I've been here before; I've done this before. Still I feel excited and anxious. I am surrounded by a growing crowd, but no one seems to feel the nerves I do. Everyone is laughing, talking and staking their claim to their small spot in the "corral" that will be theirs to operate from.

There is only one goal for everyone today: to compete in and complete a triathlon. At 7 a.m., more than 1,000 people of all ages will walk the final hundred yards from the corral to the north shore of Canandaigua Lake to start the seventh annual Finger Lakes Triathlon.

My anxiety is peaking as I wade into the water till it's waist deep, awaiting the starter's call. All the training and preparation comes down to this moment. The joking and nervous laughter going on between the racers ends with the loud speaker warning "Thirty seconds!" Everyone now stares at the distant large orange buoys that mark the turning point, and halfway mark, of the impending swim.

"Go!"

A triathlon is an event as much as it is a race. Despite its name, it actually consists of five parts: the swim, the transition from swim to bike, the bike, the transition from bike to run, and the run. You are timed in each of the five parts by a computer chip on your ankle, and the sum of these five parts is your race time.

The goal is to do your best time and maybe claim a medal in your age group. But the real victory comes in crossing the finish line, knowing you just completed one of the most challenging events in all of sports.

Triathlon, also known as multisport, starts with a swimming race. You are assigned to a "wave," which consists of swimmers usually close to your age and gender. Each wave goes out at a different time, usually three to five minutes apart.

After you complete the swim, you run back to the transition area (or corral), change your clothes (most people wear a wet suit for the swim over their biking clothes), grab your bike and run it out onto the bike course.

After a long bike ride, you dismount your bike outside the corral, run it back to your space in the transition area, drop it off with your helmet, and head out on the run portion.

Each triathlon can be different in the distances for each part of the race, but a "sprint" triathlon is usually a half-mile swim, a 16- to 20-mile bike ride, and a 5K run. An "Olympic" triathlon is a one-mile swim, a 26-mile bike ride, and a 10K run (6.25 miles). The torturous "Ironman" triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 104-mile bike ride and a marathon (26.2 miles).

The Finger Lakes Triathlon is my fourth sprint race. I first got the idea to start doing triathlons when I saw my dad compete in them, and every time I watched him, I knew someday I wanted to do the same. Before I was old enough to do sprint triathlons, though, I competed in the Finger Lakes "kids" triathlon.

A few of the annual triathlons held in Western and Central New York also sponsor a "kids" triathlon, where children, ages 8 to 13, can experience the feel of such an event with a very short swim (50 to 75 meters), a 2.4-mile bike ride, and then a 3/4 -mile run.

The Finger Lakes Triathlon benefits the Mary M. Gooley Hemophilia Center in Rochester. It has sold out the last few years, topping out this year at 1,200 participants. Add hundreds of volunteers and spectators cheering you on, and it becomes a quite a spectacle in Canandaigua each year.

So why a triathlon instead of a 5K or fun walk?

"It worked for us on many different levels," says Robert Fox, president/CEO of the Hemophilia Center and a race participant. "It works as a fundraiser, as a community event to garner attention for bleeding disorders, as a soapbox from which to speak to our patients about the value of a healthy lifestyle, and as an exciting, invigorating activity that appeals to many of our staff and medical staff."

Why are more and more people, especially teens and younger adults, getting involved in these triathlons?

"I think more and more people are realizing you don't have to live like an ironman to do a triathlon successfully -- each person defines their own success," said Fox. "Eat well, live well is a positive universal message that will benefit all of us."

Many teenagers are getting involved because of the accomplishment of finishing a triathlon and the hard work it takes to get to that point. There were about 30 girls and women ages 14 to 24 that I started my race with that day.

"My favorite part about the triathlon," says 14-year-old Paola Figueroa of Syracuse, "is the feeling of crossing the finish line. You see it up ahead and you know that all your hard work has paid off, no matter how fast or slow you come in. It's a real accomplishment."

Jeremy Schraeder, 22, of Rochester, had competed in a few half-marathon races. He said, "This [the tri] is much harder. You don't realize how hard it is to switch from one event to the other. The marathon is hard, but it's just one thing: running."

Four years ago, I met Gwen Hoffmann of Fairport when she and I were doing our first sprint triathlon. We have both competed in the Finger Lakes event for the past four years.

"Triathlons are just something I do that makes me unique. The finish is a time when I really feel proud of myself," says Gwen, 16.

Not only is it a strenuous sport, but it also can be a fun experience, too. The friendliness and encouragement of both volunteers and athletes is overwhelming.

This was the first triathlon for 15-year-old Bristol Utter of Rochester.

"All that matters to me is that I'm out there having a good time," Bristol said. "I love the volunteers and the racers cheering you on throughout the course, as well. It makes me feel good, and it helps me to keep moving forward, no matter how tired or sore I am."

Some of these triathlons also feature a team event: three different people, each doing one of the three segments. This is a great way to experience your first triathlon, especially if you are concerned that doing one all by yourself would be too much.

Other multisport options include a winter outdoor event that combines skiing, mountain biking and running all on snow, as well as a winter indoor event.

Back to the Finger Lakes race: "Go!"

You start swimming. You peek up at times, looking for those huge orange buoys. You see swimmers doing different strokes just trying to get through this part. There is a certain relief at coming out of the water, but also a disorientation, as you have just done a 20-minute upper body workout in a cold lake, and now you are asking your legs to run your dripping body back to the corral.

Next comes one of the most-talked-about parts of the race by the triathletes: the transition. The clock is running and you are trying to change clothes and gear, and get back onto the course. No matter how fast and efficient you are, everyone seems surprised at how long their times in transition end up being.

There is a certain comfort in the beginning of the bike ride. Hills and turns can interrupt your focus, but over the many miles, you can't help but notice some very pretty and tranquil countryside. There is also peacefulness here, away from the thrashing in the water and the cheering crowds.

It's back to the transition one last time, drop off the bike and helmet, barely stopping to do so, and exit onto the run course. There are people rooting for you the whole way, encouraging you to keep going. It intensifies into a thick crowd with a few hundred yards to go and then the magic moment: You hear your name announced from the loud speakers as you cross the finish line. It's momentarily exhausting, and then it hits you: You did it!

The next few hours are spent in a post-race euphoria, congratulating the triathletes coming in, enjoying some food from the sponsors, listening to different stories about the race, telling yours, and watching the podium ceremony for the three medals in each age group.

It is an accomplishment that can be done by more people than one might think, and it offers an atmosphere and feeling unlike any other competition.

Maria Patnella is a junior at Mount St. Mary Academy. She finished fourth in the Finger Lakes Triathlon in her age group and has won two silver medals in her four triathlons.