11 locals head to Florida for triathlon tryouts

Mention a trip to Panama City and most people envision partying on the beach, fishing in the surf or just lounging about, basking in the sun.

However, mention that same trip to a certain group of Gwinnett County residents and an entirely different picture emerges.

On Saturday, 11 county residents will make the trip to the spring break capital of North America not for partying but for a spot in the Ironman Florida triathlon, a grueling race that stretches its competitors to both their physical and mental limits.

"People have different strengths but for the most part, the most challenging part is the running portion because it is at the end of the race," said Kevin Tolbert of Duluth, who will be competing in his second full triathlon.

The race kicks off with a 2.4-mile swim in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, followed by a 112-mile cycling stage. Once that is completed, a full 26.2-mile marathon is next. All in one day, with no stops, breaks or rests, taking anywhere from nine to 11 hours to complete.

Training for the event takes tremendous dedication with each athlete putting in time over a 38-week period, typically working on two events per day. The time put into that training adds up, reaching 20 hours per week or more.

All that work is on top of everything else, including full-time jobs and families.

"It is a lot of time," said Suwanee resident Kat Tindol, a veteran of five triathlons. "It's like having another job."

The cycling and running portions of the event can be worked on just about anywhere, but venues for the swimming portion were limited. That's what brought this group of athletes to Swim Atlanta.

Swimming coach Debby Carey has been coaching swimming for 30 years, mostly with youth groups and children. But a few years ago, an encounter at a summer league steered her in a different direction.

"I stumbled into masters training a few years ago," Carey said. "I had always worked with kids but never coached masters. I went and watched some triathletes, and these were some of the most phenomenal athletes around, but their swimming left a lot to be desired.

"I started steering towards masters training so I could concentrate on the triathlon."

Carey helps the swimmers work on their technique and stamina, teaching them to draft off other swimmers and keeping their heads out of the water to be able to see the markers. They also work on swimming in groups to simulate the crowded start of the race and swimming in the open ocean waters.

These Gwinnett residents will be competing with over 2,300 others. The competition is broken down by gender and age groups and the top three from each group will qualify for next year's Ironman championship in Hawaii.

"That is the Super Bowl of the triathlon," Carey said. "Just qualifying is a big deal."

Rusty Burns, a Lawrenceville resident, will be making the trip to Florida for his second triathlon. His path to Panama City began with his love of running.

"It's different for everyone," Burns said. "I was always a runner and then I started cycling with a friend and it just kind of went from there."

Steve Kester's motivation to get into the triathlon began with a different route. A few years ago, Kester became concerned with his weight, tipping the scale at about 220 pounds.

"I was out of shape and I wanted to do the hardest thing in the world and I came across the Iron Man competition in Hawaii," Kester said. "I said that's what I want to do."

Kester began training and soon became one of the top triathletes in the area. He started training in 2001 and quickly met his goal when he qualified for the 2002 event in Hawaii, placing 13th in his group.

If he can overcome a recent rotator cuff injury and have a strong outing in Panama City, he will once again reach his goal of going to Hawaii.

"I'm ready for it," Kester said, who does most of his training from 3 to 7 a.m. "I know what the conditions are like and I am used to the atmosphere."

Others making the trip are Bill Murphy of Lawrenceville, Hugh Wellington of Suwanee and Chuck Howard of Duluth. Information about the race, including results and live coverage, can be found at www.ironmanflorida.com.