Tri Diva Reunion Event? Hell, yeah!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Women are choosing triathlons

Women are choosing triathlons

Marco R. della Cava

See Jane run? Hah!

See Jane run, bike and swim is more like it.

In yet another nod to today's maniacally multitasking heroines, women increasingly are finding time to make triathlons -- those famously grueling triple-feat trials that test the fittest of the fit -- their new physical and social outlet of choice.

While those diving in range from teens to octogenarians, the sport is proving especially alluring these days to 30-something moms looking to reclaim the trifecta of adjectives that defined them in their college years: athletic, competitive and connected. Not to mention happy.

If you look hot, you feel cool

All of which is why 40 women can be found on a recent Bay Area night jogging around a local college track under a patchy sky. Typical of this crew is Jenna Phillips, 35, whose teacher husband, Perrin, is back home giving a pre-bedtime bath to their two young daughters.

"I quit my job as a teacher when I had my kids. Ever since, I've been looking for something to do for myself, but nothing ever felt right," says Phillips, who is training for her first triathlon later this spring through the aptly named area sports retailer See Jane Run, which is riding the surging wave of female triathletes.

"From the first day I joined this group, I've had a perma-grin on my face," she says. "You could say I have a new perspective on life."

In decades past, fighting for equality and storming the boardrooms may have defined the Empowered Woman. But today, many seem to be subscribing to the Greek belief that perfecting the body leads to a harmony of spirit and intellect. Or put in 21st-century speak: If you look hot, you feel cool.

Evidence ranges from a proliferation of nationally-sponsored events to growing grass-roots organizations, not to mention the new businesses popping up to cater to this energized and often moneyed boomer crowd.

Events for women

Take the Danskin Women's Triathlon Series. It started modestly in 1990 when 150 women plunged into the Pacific near Long Beach, Calif. Now the series has events in eight cities; participation has rocketed from 13,000 in 2000 to 22,810 last year.

Seattle's more recent Danskin tri, as the cognoscenti call the sport, broke a record for most entrants when more than 5,000 women snapped up spots. While the biggest age group was women 30 to 49, nearly 100 of the triathletes were women 65 and older.

Danskin's success is spawning imitators. Iron Girl -- a division of the company that each year sponsors the famed Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii -- used to organize only footraces, assuming that triathlons weren't something the average woman wanted to pursue. This year, Iron Girl will stage triathlons in Irving, Texas, and Columbia, Md., with other cities possible for 2007.

Most tri newcomers start with a sprint; distances vary, but typical is a 200-yard swim, 5- to 10-mile bike and 3-mile run. The ultimate is still the Ironman: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon.

"It's the tell-a-friend phenomenon that's making this grow," says Maggie Sullivan, longtime Danskin triathlon race director. "Let's face it, at the start of your first tri, it's not about who's pretty or who's rich. The playing field is leveled. At that moment, you're all scared, and you're all triathletes."

Helping women train for triathlons are organizations such as Moms in Motion, founded in 1999 by a Santa Barbara mother who wanted company while pursuing her new goal. Then, a few women joined Jamie Allison; today, 30 cities boast chapters of Moms in Motion, whose motto of "fun, fitness and philanthropy" lays out the volunteer-based mission.

"The perks of getting fit through a tri are huge," says Allison. "You look better, feel better and have more energy. You get that flushed face, that glow."

Women's-specific gear

You also will need to get some gear, which is where newly thriving companies such as See Jane Run, and come in. Capitalizing on the fact that most tri outfitters are oriented to men, these women-only oases offer guidance geared toward a woman's body and her sense of aesthetics.

Lori Shannon founded See Jane Run in 2000 after feeling neglected by clerks. "I'm short and a bit overweight, so because I didn't look like the marathoner that I am, I was ignored in those stores," she says.

That same feeling was the spark for onetime elite triathlete Nicole DeBoom. Tired of "looking like a boy" at her tris, DeBoom, who is married to male tri star Tim DeBoom, last year launched Boulder, Colorado-based SkirtSports, whose Triks ("skirt" backward) line of gear was aimed at feminizing the female triathlete. Her stock sold out fast. "The biggest surprise was the buyers," she says. "I was sure it was going to be 20-year-olds, but my new target demographic actually is the 40-year-old multitasking mom."

Add educated to that list. DeBoom, who was a competitive diver for Yale University, says that tris "seem most compelling for Type-A type women who are very good at juggling things. I'm amazed by how many are ex-Ivy Leaguers."

Not just for 20-somethings

Smart, athletic and defying middle age; USA Triathlon, the sport's governing body, reports that nearly a third of its 20,000 women members are 30 to 40.

"Many in this crowd are the first generation of women who got to play competitive sports in college" and now find themselves craving both the camaraderie and competition from those days, says Shannon.

"The other big group is what I call the Oprah generation," she adds. "That's the 50-plus crowd, women who have been told they can do anything. Besides being a great overall workout, a triathlon does have the mystique. It's empowering."

That's exactly what Dawna Stone is hearing from female triathletes when they call in to her new fitness-oriented satellite radio show: "The self-worth you get from a triathlon is amazing. Complete one, and you feel you can do anything."

Stone credits triathlons with keeping her fit and focused. The former collegiate swimmer-turned-marketing exec took a gamble two years ago and started Her Sports magazine; more recently she was Martha Stewart's winning Apprentice, which has led to her new Martha-branded radio show.

"A growing group of women want to push themselves in the ways they did before marriage and kids," says Stone, who is training for a summer tri. "They aren't saying sports comes above family. But they are saying, 'We need something for ourselves.'"

Back at the hilltop track in Oakland, all that's missing is the Sister Sledge anthem We Are Family. There are a lot of backs being patted and encouraging words being shouted. The women assembled here defy stereotypes; some are model-lean, others are not. Some are single, others are single moms such as Barbara Caruso.

"I have two teens, and at first, they were really skeptical about me doing this," says Caruso, 51, a corporate communications executive from nearby Piedmont. "But, wow, what a turnaround. They're so proud now. As for me, I have a new view on aging. What's 50? I see women in tris who are 70."

As Caruso stretches out, triathlon newbie Phillips wraps up a sprinting exercise. She's winded but can't suppress a grin: "What can I say? I guess I never realized I could be this strong."

Just then, See Jane Run trainer Rebecca Whittaker claps her hands and issues the latest directive to the group: "OK, ladies, I want another lap, the first half slow, the second half at 80 percent. Let's do it!"

And in a flash, these tri warriors are off, leaving jobs, boyfriends, husbands, kids and other anchors of life in their determined wakes.

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