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Heavier triathletes fit into Clydesdale, Athena divisions

Six years ago, Victoria Rennesund didn't think she could run 200 yards, let alone complete a triathlon. But then something happened that changed her life forever. "A very close friend of mine was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer," she explained. "As she was dying, I made a promise that I would complete a triathlon in her honor." At the time, Rennesund didn't know much about triathlons. "I knew you had to swim, bike and run," she said. "But that was about it." The mother of two wasn't particularly athletic. A size 16, she looked nothing like the muscled Amazons that often grace the covers of triathlon magazines. "So I signed up with Team in Training and did a charity ride to raise money for leukemia research," she said. "I guess you could say I got hooked."

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Today, the 40-year-old Tampa resident is down to a size 6. She's also become an accomplished triathlete.

"If you go to a race like St. Anthony's you will see some pro and elite athletes," she said. "But 99 percent of the people are weekend warriors just like me . . . I am bigger than some and leaner than some . . . but every type of body type is represented."

Keeping a promise

Once you get past the top three finishers in a triathlon, awards are doled out based on age group, the thinking being that a 50-year-old shouldn't have to compete with a 30-year-old. But heavier athletes also compete in their own competition categories, since in general, the heavier you are, the slower you go.

Men who weigh more than 200 pounds can enter the "Clydesdale" division and women who weigh more than 150 pounds compete in the "Athena" division. Which by current American standards hardly makes them remarkably large, but they do face challenges. Triathlete training is tougher on a heavier body; the Internet is full of chat groups with Clydesdales and Athenas swapping tips on weight loss, joint pain and finding plus-sized triathlon gear.

At the light end of the Athena class, Rennesund no longer faces those issues, but she's not the stereotypical wiry triathlete.

"You don't hear much about us," said Rennesund, who won the Athena title at the 2009 St. Anthony's and Morton Plant triathlons. "But we are out there, every race."

Rennesund's race weight is between 155 and 160 pounds. She said her biggest challenge is not completing the nearly 1-mile swim, 25-mile bike and 6.2-mile run.

"The hardest part is just keeping it all together," she said. "I am not a professional triathlete, I am a mom. And as any parent can tell you, raising kids is a balancing act."

Rennesund has a training schedule, which she finds at times difficult to stick to.

"Triathlons are multitasking," she said. "Being a parent prepares you well for the sport."

A part-time spin instructor, Rennesund tries to sneak most of her training in while her kids are at school.

"I try to keep it fun," she said. "Some people fish; some people do triathlons. You should train because you want to and just go out there and do your best."

Weight takes a toll

Ron Worden was an athlete in high school, but a demanding job, two daughters and 20 years of relative inactivity helped him put on nearly 90 pounds.

"I played a little softball now and then," he said. "But I pretty much dropped out of sports until 2000."

At 6 feet 4 inches tall and 255 pounds, Worden didn't look like a distance runner. But he went out and started running 5Ks, gradually increasing his distance.

"I could feel it after a run," he said. "When you're as big as me, it really takes a toll on your body."

But Worden, now 48, kept at it. He entered some sprint triathlons, and then moved on to Olympic distance, shedding pounds, race by race.

Two years ago, Worden started training with Spencer Smith, a former British world champion and St. Anthony's record holder who now lives in Palm Harbor.

"I'm down to around 205 and faster than ever," Worden said. "Having a coach has made all the difference. He keeps me on course, but more importantly, injury free."

In 2009, Worden, who manages a local car dealership, competed in 11 triathlons and won his division in five.

"I'm 48 years old and racing against some very competitive triathletes," he said. "I think I could race for another 10 years at this pace."

Staying on the path

Worden typically runs 30 to 35 miles a week, rides 120 to 150 miles a week and swims 9,000 to 10,000 yards. But like Rennesund, he sometimes finds it hard to stick to a schedule when life gets busy.

"There are times when I don't want to train," he said. "Sometimes I ask myself, 'why am I doing this?' "

But every time Worden gets distracted, he remembers why he got into triathlons. "It is about having fun," he said. "Sometimes I have to remind myself."

So he thinks about his goals. In 2010, Worden wants to better his St. Anthony's time, finish a couple of half-Ironman distance triathlons and swim across Tampa Bay in January with the Navy SEALS to help raise money for the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Foundation.

All impressive, but he's the first to acknowledge he has his guilty pleasures.

"I am not perfect," he said. "My diet could be better . . . I'm not one of those guys that can sit down and eat four pieces of chicken and two pieces of corn and that's it."

On Sunday, after he finishes the St. Anthony's Triathlon, he'll be headed to his favorite hamburger stand.

"I'm going straight to Five Guys," he said. "There's nothing wrong with that."

Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@sptimes.com

Tips for bigger triathletes

• Buy a good pair of running shoes and shock-absorbing insoles. The more you weigh, the more pounding your joints will take, and proper footwear will help reduce some of the impact.

• Stay loose. Flexibility helps reduce over-use injuries. Consider a group stretching routine. Can you say yoga?

• Hit the pool. Swimming is a great, low-impact exercise that will help increase your cardiovascular endurance while burning fat and building muscle.

• Bike, baby, bike. The more you ride, the more calories you burn. When first starting out, spend more time spinning than running. Your body will thank you.

• Back off. If you feel sore or have an ache or pain that just won't go away, take some time off. Build in at least one day of total rest into your weekly workout routine. Even the pros need a day off now and then.

27th annual St. Anthony's Triathlon

You can cheer on the more than 4,000 individuals and 150 relay teams expected to compete Sunday morning in St. Petersburg. The Olympic-length triathlon starts at 6:50 a.m. at Spa Beach, near the Pier, with the 1.5K open-water swim, followed by a 40K bike ride that takes competitors on a loop to Pinellas Point, and a 10K run that goes out to the Snell Isle neighborhood.

Meek & Mighty

Nearly 1,000 participants are expected for the shorter-distance Meek & Mighty Triathlon for youths and novice adults this morning at North Shore pool and along the downtown waterfront .

Sports & Fitness Expo

Today in St. Petersburg's Straub Park, from 10 a.m.-7 p.m., vendors will offer the latest in triathlon apparel, bicycles, health services, wet suits, sports nutrition, cycling gear, swimwear, running shoes and more. Free admission.

Heavier triathletes fit into Clydesdale, Athena divisions 04/23/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 27, 2010 2:14am]
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