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Redondo Beach Triathlete Throws Nutrition to the Wind on His Swim, Ride, Run to Top

Times Staff Writer

Garrett McCarthy is a couch jockey: He guzzles beer, despises health snacks and hounds junk food. Pizza, chocolate, fast-food menus, the usuals.

But wait.

The Redondo Beach resident also happens to be one of the country’s top triathletes, a knotty warrior who swims, bikes and runs through a couple of hours of torture at about 20 races a year.

Nevertheless, he still sticks to his rigid schedule of--by normal athletic standards--unhealthy eating habits and unusual training routines.

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And if basketball youths are buying Michael Jordan’s Wheaties and midget league defensive ends are eating soup because Howie Long said so, then budding triathletes just might start skipping the health food aisle and heading for the storefront deli.

“I guess I do things out of the ordinary, but that’s just me,” the 25-year-old McCarthy said. “Even my dad looks at me strangely when I eat all the junk I do.” McCarthy’s father, who holds a Ph.D. in nutrition, may raise a higher eyebrow than even his son’s racing foes.

But McCarthy’s sweet tooth and when-I-can workout schedule have always been a part of him; triathlons came into the picture in 1985 when he ran in one at USC. He has increased his number of races every year and plans on running in 30 this year.

McCarthy’s aloofness toward his sport would probably go unnoticed if he were just another face on the triathlon circuit. But he is fast becoming recognizable and there are only a handful of triathletes considered better--for now.

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“He’s really picking up the pace. He’s the next guy to watch for in world triathlon competition,” said Tim Downs, publicity director for the Bud Light U.S. Triathlon Series.

McCarthy blazed to a fifth-place finish at the USTS’s meet in San Jose on June 3, opening the eyes of such triathlon luminaries as Dave Scott, Scott Tinley, Mark Allen and Mike Pigg. More recently, he placed fourth in the series event in Baltimore on June 24. His series points this year place him fourth in the national standings.

And McCarthy achieved that while not only snacking crazily but also taking part in an everyday ritual other triathletes can’t afford--he works at a job. Full time, and then some.

“Last winter, I was working seven days a week, putting in around 80 hours. I was working at two wine stores at once, and I still ran in several triathlons,” he said. McCarthy recently quit selling wine, not so he could concentrate on triathlon training but to take a marketing position with a new energy-drink company. And he still finds time for the intense training necessary to compete in triathlons, which consist of a one-mile swim, a 25-mile bike ride and a 6.2-mile run.

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“It’s safe to say I don’t have a regular training program. I take my bike to work, and I have my running shoes there, and any time I get a break, wherever I am, I’ll throw on my shoes and run several miles.”

Downs says he doesn’t know of any other world-class triathlete who works at a day job full time.

McCarthy can think of only one, friend Mike Collins, and acknowledges the toll the dual role takes on his time.

“No two weeks of training have ever been the same,” he said. “That’s why I don’t have time for garbage miles. Some people say they train 300 miles a week on a bike, but they’re not pushing themselves. Those are garbage miles.”

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With the unorthodox cemented as his specialty, McCarthy gets along best under his own training rules--except during the race.

“It’s tough when I’m running by myself (in a race), without anyone pushing me, because you have no one to gauge yourself off of to see whether you’re slowing down or holding your pace. And it’s not good to look behind you, because that’s a sign of weakness.”

McCarthy was holding fast to his philosophy during the San Jose event, leading the pack through the swimming and biking portions. That’s when Pigg, a noted biker, came riding up behind him.

“And he passed by me, as usual, and I figured, It’s about time for this guy to know who I am. So I caught up to him and passed him back, and nobody ever does that to Pigg, and he’s looking over me like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ ”

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As sort of a topping on McCarthy’s cherries-and-cream personality, he also hot-dogged a bit by waving at a friend in the pace vehicle cruising alongside the pair. “He (Pigg) must have been rolling his eyes,” he said, clearly amused with himself.

Along with his new success on the triathlon circuit comes fame. But that too is handled in an amused, everyday manner by McCarthy. He is still getting used to signing autographs (“I feel a little funny about someone asking me to sign my name”) and people asking for training advice.

He especially has problems responding to the latter request. “I guess they (fans) expect me to be a health nut, or to have a rigid training program. I don’t strain my cottage cheese, I don’t eat granola and my favorite snack is a one-pound bag of M and M’s. And I drink beer, so I don’t know what to tell them,” he says, laughing.

His beer-drinking claim is backed up by Downs: “He likes to go have his share of beers, but you wouldn’t tell by looking at his body.”

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Actually, a person couldn’t tell McCarthy runs triathlons by looking at his body.

The sport is tailor-made for long-legged striders with huge lungs and endless stamina. Most world-class swimmers, bikers and runners fit that category. So what’s McCarthy--5 feet, 6 inches with padded loafers underfoot--doing excelling in a lanky man’s game?

“He is a tremendous swimmer,” said Downs. “His forte is swimming. He is always the first out of the water.”

That is the biggest advantage that has helped McCarthy stroke into the company of the elite names of the sport.

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He swam for four years for perennial power USC, wrapping up his career in 1986. He was on scholarship for only three years, however. He volunteered his scholarship during his junior year so that the Trojans could use it to sign a blue-chip prep swimmer.

“I gave it up so that I could be on a winning team. We were ranked 15th my sophomore year, whereas we were always ranked in the top three,” he said. With the new team member aboard, USC’s tradition was restored with a top-five ranking in McCarthy’s senior year. “I would rather swim and pay my own way than be on a sub-par team,” he said.

McCarthy is a one-man team now and sifting his way easily through the demanding rigors of being a triathlete. He especially gets a thrill out of one part of being a top-notch performer in a growing sport--endorsements.

“It’s kind of neat to get $150 a month to wear a certain brand of sunglasses. I probably would have worn them anyway,” he said. McCarthy’s endorsement deals are in the infantile stage, nowhere near the annual thousands earned by the Tinleys and the Allens. But he refuses to market himself for more money, even though his degree from USC was earned in marketing.

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“To me, it would be like showing off if I went to all these companies touting myself,” he said.

Even so, he was thrilled when the sunglasses company sent him a bonus check for having his picture, with glasses on, appear in a recent issue of Gentleman’s Quarterly.

Certainly his act is far from the so-called civilized reaches of that publication, but McCarthy seems to do things just fine his own way.

And he staunchly defends his method of training, which seems intent with defiance but is actually quite natural within his attitude toward life.

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“I wouldn’t have fun eating granola, cottage cheese, stuff like that. To me, the mentality of training always overcomes the body. If you’re enjoying what you’re eating, and doing, you’re going to have a better frame of mind. If you’re always saying, ‘Aw, this sucks, I have to eat this stuff,’ then you get down on yourself, and in turn it’s going to affect your body.”

So if you’re a so-so athlete training to keep in shape, you may not want to sign up for McCarthy’s techniques. But if you’re a world-class competitor in one of the world’s toughest sports, then, well, you probably still wouldn’t want to.

“I don’t know what makes me do so well,” McCarthy said. “I guess I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing.”


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