The best thing you can say about the third stage of the St. Anthony's Triathlon is that the other two stages are over.
You no longer have to worry about getting kicked in the head or gulping saltwater on the swim or leaning too far into a sharp turn and kissing pavement on the bike. All that's left is a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) run by the Vinoy, along the waterfront and through the streets of Snell Isle.
The problem is that if you've been working hard on the first two stages, your body is paying for it now.
For most athletes, this is where exhaustion and dehydration kick in. This is where the morning sun warms up. This is where you see what you have left.
The first thing you notice is that it feels great to get off the bike. After more than an hour of contorting your body to cut down on wind resistance and pushing forward on the seat, it's a relief to stretch out and take a load off your butt.
Then it hits you: Your legs have all the bounce and spring of tree stumps. Aching tree stumps. Now you're supposed to start running?
"Your body isn't built that way _ to just get off a bike and start running," said Dr. Koco Eaton, a St. Petersburg orthopedic surgeon who competed in St. Anthony's two years ago. "You're going to experience pain and tightness, especially in your thighs."
The pain subsides. But not right away.
The culprit here is lactic acid. Just as a car burns fuel and needs to get rid of the byproduct through the exhaust system, your body burns fuel. The byproduct is lactic acid in your muscles, and your body will dispose of it _ if only you'd rest.
"That's your body's way of telling you to stop," Eaton said. Of course, you can't stop yet, so it's going to hurt.
Most well-trained athletes work out the lactic acid in the first half-mile. But those first few steps are not pretty. Hang around the transition area; you'll see that most everyone starts the run looking like an old man who just got out of bed.
There are exceptions. Guys like John Woodruff love the run.
Woodruff, a 35-year-old elite triathlete who owns the Dig Me Sports store in St. Petersburg, doesn't experience aching thighs. He trains so hard (he has done the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii four times), his body is ultra-efficient and needs less fuel to burn. Therefore, no lactic acid. No pain.
For most triathletes the key to the run is to start out at a measured pace and keep it up. Sprinter Carl Lewis once said he blew by opponents at the end of 100-meter dashes not because he accelerated, but because he slowed less than the others. During the last 2 miles of the run, especially during the long straightaway near North Shore Park, you'll pass dozens of runners by simply not slowing down as much.
Everyone has something left once they start down the brick street on the south side of the Vinoy. The finish line is in sight. The spectators are cheering. Dehydration and lactic acid are nothing compared with a good shot of Adrenalin.
_ Stephen Hegarty is looking forward to his fourth St. Anthony's Triathlon this year with excitement, dread, and a cool new pair of goggles.