by Mary Collins
When the average person hears the word “Triathlon” they may know it involves biking, swimming and running, but, more likely, they think of some vague endurance test that’s very long and very hard; words like “Ironman” might come to mind.
And, of course, all of that is true for some triathletes, but for those participating in Team Training New England (TTNE), run by Lynne Tapper and Janice Cohen in the Hartford area, the process is rarely just about the miles and feats of endurance.
Marlanda Hamilton, a rising sophomore on the volleyball team at Saint Joseph College, did not even know how to swim. But when her coach told her about a scholarship offered by TTNE, which included free gear, eight weeks of twice-weekly training sessions and the fee for a competition in Massachusetts, Marlanda didn’t hesitate to sign up.
“I actually learned how to swim two weeks before the first TTNE meeting,” she said, while sitting in the lobby of the O’Connell Center for an interview. “I had some friends in the pool with me showing me the basics of the freestyle stroke.”
TTNE already had strong ties to Saint Joseph College because they often used the college’s facilities for their training sessions.
“During our second year of TTNE,” Lynne Tapper says, “we approached Saint Joseph College about using their facilities. We cold-called Debbie Fiske (Associate Athletic Director). We loved the idea of working with an all-women college for our all-women training groups.
“They were really generous from the start. In 2007 Debbie did her National Girls and Women in Sport Day, which is part of a national event put on by the Women Sports Foundation. I had actually worked with that myself and was always a bit frustrated that they had so much for girls but not women, especially the pre-Title IX crowd. So I pitched the idea to Debbie that we run an indoor event in February for women as well. It was open to anyone. We’ve done it several winters now and the last one had more than 100 competitors.
“So when Janice and I decided we wanted to give a scholarship to someone, Saint Joseph seemed like a fine place to start. The fact that triathlons take a lot of time, energy and money to train for can mean there are a lot of barriers [to participation] and we wanted to open it up to a wider range.”
Marlanda, who turned 19 during the summer training, admits that she felt particularly intimidated by the age difference.
“I was intimidated by being around such a different group of people [mostly white, middle-aged women] but it felt like a family environment and everyone was great.”
As many as thirty women enrolled in the TTNE summer 2010 program might show at any given workout, which meant there were always plenty of buddies to do laps with and to get pointers from. Some were moms with young children who wanted a break; others were challenging themselves after devastating injuries or a lifetime of inactivity. They shared the common purpose of building better physical health and trying to compete in and complete the Massachusetts State Triathlon on July 18 at Lake Dennison. The task: 1/3 mile swim in a lake; 12 mile bike ride (including a mile hill climb) and 3.1 mile run.
Marlanda herself had two jobs at the time, but dropped one so she could handle the training schedule better. Her Dunkin Donuts supervisor accommodated her needs so she continued to work there. Some days her mother could bring her to the track sessions with the group or to the pool, but other times she had to load her gear onto a city bus and make her way over to wherever TTNE might be meeting.
Marlanda rose at 5:30 a.m., put her new bike in her mother’s van and together they made their way from their hotel to the start of the race.
Six hundred or so competitors—men and women—mingled at the start as they received their numbers, an ankle bracelet that would keep track of their times on each segment, and hit the marker station where a volunteer penned on each athlete’s body his or her number and age.
Marlanda was in the pink swim cap group, which included women of all ages. They waited on the beach while the first wave of male competitors entered the water.
“They looked like they were going to war,” Marlanda says of the men.
Two weeks of lessons with friends, seven weeks of training at various pools and now Marlanda Hamilton had to race with competitors in an open lake in record heat. TTNE Coach Janice Cohen had looked into getting a swim buddy for Marlanda at the Massachusetts event, which the organizers approved. So the Saint Joseph College volleyball player found herself towering over a man named Geo on the beach, her swim buddy, who swam by her side and coached her through her breathing and strokes as she made her way around one huge orange floatable marker to the next.
Hundreds of bicycles lay racked in dozens of rows and as the athletes came out of the water, through an inflatable arch and into the bike launch area, things got confusing fast.
“I went in the wrong direction at first,” Marlanda admits. “But there was no one else around so I just collected myself and found my bike and got started. I did forget to turn my heart monitor on.”
In each section of the race, Marlanda found a “partner” to work with. At the swim section, Geo was assigned to her, but on the bike, she just picked out someone going at the same pace. Together with her newfound friend, she tried to tackle the one mile hill.
“We thought we’d just finished it but then we saw the sign, ‘Crush the Hill’ on the side of the road, so we knew it was still ahead. I wanted to stop but I kept going and going.”
Once she got over the top, most of it was downhill.
“I admit to doing a little sightseeing at that point,” she says, laughing and flashing her perfect smile.
Many athletes struggle with the transition from the intense bike ride to the run. Legs wobble. Backs seize up. Feet cramp. Once again, Marlanda found someone in her pace range and chatted and teamed with that person to help her pace herself through the race.
THE FINISH LINE
A group of TTNE competitors in blue shirts were already at the finishing line with their cow bells cheering on fellow teammates as they crossed the finish line. Marlanda says seeing that group was one of the highlights of the entire training for her.
Of course her mother, Michelle Hamilton, who was also there, admits, “It was so nerve wracking. I was really nervous that she was doing this event, but she always does things that no one else would do.”
Now, when she goes to work at the Dunkin Donuts, Marlanda is known as the Tri-girl. “I don’t mind that!” she says.
She’s ready to try again, possibly for the indoor in February, only this time no swim buddy and “I want my volleyball team to join me.”
Mary Collins’ new book, American Idle: A Journey Through Our Sedentary Culture, won the Grand Prize for Nonfiction at the 2010 Indie Book Awards.
She completed the sprint triathlon at Lake Dennison with Marlanda.
The following gear and services were generously provided by Team Training New England, Newington Bicycle, Fleet Feet Hartford, Trek Bicycle, Heart Zones Coaching, Max Performance, Courtyard Marriott Fitchburg: a new road bike; running shoes; triathlon suit, swim goggles, program fee, race registration and hotel accommodations.