Veteran Racer Trains Rivertowners for Triathlons

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by Barrett Seaman – 

Everyone knows that triathlons aren’t for sissies. The Ironman, the Big Enchilada of triathlons, demands a 2.4-mile swim followed by a 112-mile bicycle ride, rounding out with a full marathon run of 26.2 miles. You don’t do that for fun.

There are lesser triathlons: the half-Ironman, which, simply enough, cuts each of those three legs in half. Then there is the standard, or Olympic, triathlon, which consists of a 0.93-mile swim, a 25-mile bike ride and a 6.2-mile run. Finally, there is the so-called Sprint Triathlon, which requires a swim of just under half a mile, a 12.5-mile bike ride and a 3.1-mile run to round it out.

Not everyone can do even that short a race. Success – even survival – requires knowledge of techniques on how to swim in a pack, how to make the transition from water to bicycle and bike to running gear, and what to wear for each leg.

This spring, Joanne Dondero, under the auspices of the JCC on the Hudson, offered to train any tri-wannabes in advance of a somewhat modified sprint triathlon to be held in Sleepy Hollow on June 16 in Kingsland Point Park. There, they will swim in the Hudson for half a mile, bike for 11 miles and finish off with a 10-k (6.2 miles run). Eight people signed up for Dondero’s classes; seven went through her seven-session program. One, Amanda Thomas, who aspired to running with her mother Barbara, injured her wrist in a bicycle mishap before the training even started.

Applicants did not have to have prior triathlon experience, but they were required to swim at least 200 yards, own a bike and be able to ride it for at least 45 minutes, and run, or walk/run for 30 minutes. “I geared this training to the beginner or first timer,” said Dondero, who, at 72, is as fit as anyone half her age. “Most of the trainees are first timers, though two have done a tri before.”

One of this spring’s trainees, Larah Alami, has participated in four partial triathlons in that she and her husband swapped different legs of a triathlon but neither did all three legs in a single race. Margaret Yawmen has one sprint under her belt. No one else in the class has experienced the challenge.

Though it is the first and therefore freshest leg, swimming is often the toughest for some. Laurie Hirsch Schulz admitted that swimming is her weak point. As a result, she may skip the Sleepy Hollow tri because it is in open water on the Hudson and sign up instead for the August 18 tri sprint at West Point, which uses the pristine waters of Lake Popolopen for its first leg. Still, she worked hard under Dondero’s tutelege in the JCC pool.

Dondero worked all her charges hard in their pool drills, using training techniques gleaned from a Total Immersion Swimming protocol she said is well known among tri-athletes. “I took several classes and clinics on it years ago,” she said, noting that there is a Total Immersion school in New Paltz. Techniques include handicapping one limb or another while swimming or treading water, learning how to breathe in rough water and how to wend one’s way through a crowded field of swimmers.

Julia Perault, one of the more accomplished swimmers in the class, deftly maneuvered her way through a pack of five crowded into one of the pool’s race lanes. One of the swimmers she passed was Alex Fletcher, who would become her husband the following weekend. They intend to compete together in the Sleepy Hollow event. Fletcher is the only male in this group. Dondero appreciates his presence when they are out on their bikes, as his booming voice is useful in relaying messages on the road, where it’s sometimes hard to hear above the traffic noise.

The transitions from one leg to another are crucial elements of the triathlon. At the completion of the swimming leg, competitors must shed their wet suits efficiently and don socks, sneakers, helmets and glasses—in order, from bottom to top. Knowing how to carry a bike to the starting area is important. Stowing the bike and helmet and donning a race belt with a numbered bib requires practice as well.

Dondero herself started running around age 30, and at 40, back in the 1980s, ran her first half-marathon. Last year, she qualified for the world championship Olympic distance triathlon in Lausanne, Switzerland, in which she will compete later this year, along with the half-Ironman in Nice, France. Before she leaves, she will offer another round of training aimed towards the Westchester Triathlon September 22 in Rye.

Her JCC trainees are not nearly as competitive as some of the diehard triathletes Dondero will be up against in Europe. “My attitude is that we’re nice, normal people just trying to complete in the event,” said Nancy Arias “– not fanatics.”

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