Thursday, June 3, 2004

A 'user-friendly' competition


Event combines running, biking and canoeing into one fitness achievement

By Shannon Russell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

More than 1,000 athletes will canoe, run and bike their way into Morgan's Little Miami Triathlon history Sunday morning as the country's second-oldest triathlon celebrates its 25th anniversary.

Starting at Morgan's Canoe Livery at Fort Ancient, two-person teams in six race divisions start with a 6-mile canoe race down the Little Miami River. After a 6-mile run and an 18-mile bike ride, the entrants celebrate with a picnic at Fort Ancient State Park.

What started as an idea in 1979 has grown into America's largest canoeing triathlon, and with good reason, said race director Gary Morgan.

It's a triathlon for everybody.

"Our triathlon is for real people," said Morgan, the general manager and vice president of Morgan's Canoe and Outdoor Centers, Inc. "Other triathlons are for elite athletes. This is a demanding triathlon and is serious, but it's also set up to be user-friendly."

Each team is ranked by the combined times of its entrants. Morgan said athletes train for the event, but finishing is the ultimate reward - and not necessarily finishing first.

"It's a memory-making time with significance for each person on a team," Morgan said. "You know you have someone right with you who is part of your buddy system."

The Little Miami Triathlon substitutes canoeing for swimming, though the latter is the traditional part of the triathlon triumvirate. Its popularity has inspired summer and fall versions of the event for the past 10 years. Its course hasn't changed in 15 years.

Jeff Ungerecht of Tipp City, Ohio, and his racing partner, Matt Helmick, are the reigning Open Division champions. Helmick, who is recovering from a collapsed lung, won't be racing with Ungerecht on Sunday; Ted Jackson is taking his place.

Ungerecht, 51, said he wasn't in shape to compete in triathlons 25 years ago. He took up jogging on a whim and eventually decided to enter a 10K. He finished in the middle of the pack and wondered how he could do if he "got serious."

He took up cycling, then swimming, then realized a swimmer he never would be. But canoeing was just the ticket. He liked the sport so much he bought an 18-foot racing canoe, which is sleek and aerodynamic and is "a lot faster than a regular canoe," he said.

While it's not against the rules to bring your own canoe to the Little Miami Triathlon, it is rare, Ungerecht said. He estimated between 10 and 12 competitors own boats, and only in the Open Division.

Winners aren't awarded prize purses at the Little Miami Triathlon. Fun and competition are the underlying motivations, though everyone wants to do well, so picking a good partner is key, Ungerecht said.

"I'd say 15 to 20 percent of the field is competitive and everyone else just wants to finish. It's important to find a partner that is definitely going to dedicate time to (training), " Ungerecht said.

Triathlons are fairly rare in southwest Ohio, and canoeing triathlons are even harder to find. Morgan's offers canoe training at no charge, with a personal canoe trainer to guide a team through the course and offer canoeing tips.

Often, the triathlon is won in the canoe.

"Canoeing is the most fun, but it can be the most demanding and nerve-wracking," Morgan said. "Of 1,000 people, 100 are good canoeists. It is the great equalizer."

Anyone interested in registering can enter on race day.

Online registration ended five days before the triathlon, but athletes can download forms from littlemiamitriathlon.com and bring them and the $60 registration fee to Fort Ancient.

E-mail srussell@enquirer.com




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