Sports Desk: Early mornings are part of the deal for triathletes

Despite not being a fan of a wake-up alarm going off at 4:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning (or any morning, for that matter), I really didn’t mind too much this past Sunday.

The assignment necessitating the really early start was the Mighty North Fork Sprint Triathlon, which is neat to cover because it is so different from most of the other sports we chronicle on these pages. So, in order to be at Cedar Beach County Park in Southold well in time for the 6:50 a.m. start, it meant being on the road by 5:30 a.m., with pens, notebook and a digital recorder in hand, ready to hunt for an interesting story. 

This was the 17th Mighty North Fork Sprint Triathlon, and I figure it would not be an exaggeration to say that I have covered most of them. I recall the first one I “covered.” I arrived at the beach around 10 a.m. or so, not knowing what the race’s starting time was, but figuring that I was there early enough. Wrong.

It was that day when I first met Steve Tarpinian, who was cleaning things up with a few other workers at an almost deserted beach. I had missed all the action, but Tarpinian was helpful enough in providing me with information to put a story together somehow.

Tarpinian was the organizer of the event. Sunday was the first Mighty North Fork Sprint Triathlon since his death this past spring. Very sad.

Not that I knew him well, because I didn’t, but Tarpinian was a friendly guy, in terrific physical shape. He was a coach, too, who always seemed more than willing to help others out by offering advice or encouragement. In my limited dealings with the sport, he was Mr. Triathlon. One time he even suggested that I give triathlon a try. “I appreciate the thought, Steve, but, uh, no thanks.”

Triathlon is one of those pursuits — like mountain climbing, marathon running and sky diving — that I can’t help but wonder and ask myself, “Why in the world someone do this?”

So, on Sunday, I couldn’t help myself. I had to ask just about every triathlete I spoke with the same question: Why on earth do you compete in this crazy sport? The athletes who get involved in triathlon seem to get hooked to it.

“It keeps me sane — and healthy,” said Jaclyn Fahey of Wantagh, the winner of the women’s race in 55 minutes 44 seconds. “It’s a great community. I met fabulous friends and you surround yourself with positive, healthy people and you kind of want to stay in it.”

I have to say, the sport does seem to attract nice, friendly people.

“It’s the best,” the women’s runner-up, Julia Bechtolsheimer of New York City, said. “It’s so much fun, the challenge, the training, the community of people. … It’s an incredible atmosphere. It’s an amazing sport to be a part of.”

Adrian Mackay of New York City said: “It’s a fun sport. It’s hard not to get hooked.”

Don’t be mistaken, though. It’s a demanding sport, requiring discipline and hard training.

“It’s definitely hard work but there’s always something to build on,” Mike Merlo of Cutchogue said. “There’s always that next level to work towards.”

Three different disciplines are involved in a triathlon: swimming, biking and running. The distances for each vary, depending on the type of triathlon. Perhaps the most famous are the ultra or ironman triathlons that have athletes doing a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.

That makes the much shorter sprint triathlon in Southold look like kid’s stuff. The Mighty North Fork Sprint Triathlon entails a 500-meter swim, an eight-mile bike ride and a three-and-a-half-mile run.

It’s not easy, especially when the athletes have to deal with jellyfish in the water as well as heat and humidity.

But athletes said the conditions on Sunday were ideal. ”You can’t ask for a better day than this,” Merlo said. “Calm water, not too hot — yet — and no wind on the bike [ride], so it was perfect today.”

Fahey was a first-time winner in the North Fork event, as was Billy Holl of Bayport, the men’s champion in 48:01.

A triathlete must savor the moment when he or she crosses the finish line after a good performance. What was Fahey thinking after she crossed the line and had a medal draped around her neck?

“Thank God it’s over,” she said. “Where’s my beer?”

Bob_CBob Liepa is the sports editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at [email protected].