Ordinary People? : * Although many question the sanity of those who compete in the 3-part contests, participants are really quite normal, assures San Clemente athlete.

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Mark Ainslie is convinced people treat him a bit, ahem, differently when he tells them what he does for fun.

What the 36-year-old San Clemente resident does is compete in triathlons, which combine running, biking and swimming in one overall test of fitness, technique and endurance. While triathlons are gaining in popularity, Ainslie suspects lots of people still don't get it.

"Spending four to six hours on the golf course is socially acceptable, but riding your bike 100 miles is not," Ainslie said. "Many people look at you as a freak for doing triathlons."

A search for social acceptance is one reason he formed an Orange County triathlon group, the Your Name Here team (now called the FIBAR team, after its main corporate sponsor), back in 1987. For triathletes, Ainslie found, there's security in numbers: "Amongst your own, it's normal."

Ainslie believes some people question the sanity of triathletes because their only exposure to the sport is the highly publicized Ironman competition in Hawaii--a 26.2-mile run, 112-mile bike ride and 2.4-mile ocean swim.

But most triathlons are much shorter. The standard international distance is a 1.5-kilometer swim, a 40K bike and 10K run, while increasingly popular "sprint" triathlons feature a 5K run, a bike ride of 15 to 20 kilometers, and a pool swim of 400 meters or less. Top competitors can finish the international competitions in less than two hours, the sprints in less than one.

These distances allow most triathletes to fit their training around regular jobs, maybe spending about 15 hours a week in training--less time than many people spend in the gym, Ainslie pointed out. He runs his own construction company, training for an hour before and after work.

"It's good to get your blood pumping in the evening, and good stress relief at night," Ainslie said, "and you can still have a normal life."

He does well in competition, usually finishing in the top five in his age group, despite persistent knee problems.

"It's a sport of compromises," he explained. "I'm never going to be a world-champion swimmer or cyclist or runner, but when you combine the three, I can be one of the best."

Marilyn Ganahl, 37, of Orange manages to be one of the top national triathletes in her age group, despite working part-time as a pharmacist and being active in charity work. She trains with her husband, John, who also competes in triathlons, and they maintain a friendly rivalry ("We can hardly wait to compare splits at the end of a race").

"The overwhelming majority" of triathletes incorporate their training "into an otherwise normal lifestyle," Marilyn Ganahl said. "Overall, I would say most of the people are quite well-balanced."

Although she usually works in at least one run or a bike ride every day, her own training is not particularly regimented. That changes, however, when she is in training for Hawaii's Ironman, in which she has competed twice (most recently in 1989, finishing in a very respectable 11 hours and 23 minutes, eighth in her division).

"I do end up having a more regimented schedule. You have to have your body and mind ready," she said. Although she admitted she "wouldn't want to do it every year," she added that there "is no feeling like crossing the Ironman finish line. It's just a real satisfying achievement."

Competing in triathlons is "a fun way to just challenge yourself and have a goal," Ganahl said. "I keep it fun and I keep it in perspective, but I'm a very competitive person."

Triathletes are "an interesting group of people," said Irvine cardiologist--and triathlete--Norman Falsetti, who specializes in sports medicine. Triathletes in general, he says, tend to be "very competitive overachievers" with full-time jobs.

He offered his own wife, Jan Christie, as an example. She gets up at 5 a.m. to run before heading to her job as an Orange County public defender by 7. She swims at noon and works out on her bicycle whenever possible. She is among the top three triathletes in her age group (35 to 39) regionally.

"Triathletes are not content unless they train (at least) 10 times a week," Falsetti said.

The forces that drive triathletes often extend to other arenas. The results of one demographic study, provided by Falsetti, show a median income for triathletes of $66,100; 74% are college graduates, and 94% have attended college. Although there are professional triathletes, fewer than 20 nationwide support themselves with the sport (through prize money and sponsorships).

While the sprint distances allow "weekend warriors" to compete with a minimum of training, serious triathletes may turn in a weekly average of 20 to 30 miles of running, 10,000 yards of swimming and 110 miles of biking. That's an average of two one-hour workouts a day.

Some triathletes, Falsetti said, have a tendency to overtrain. In general, though, triathlon training is a good overall fitness activity that cuts down on the orthopedic damage that a full-time running regimen can cause.

Thanks in part to the climate, Southern California "has a high concentration of people who are competitive" in triathlons, Falsetti said. During the competitive season, from May to October, there are triathlons practically every weekend somewhere in the Southland. Newport Beach, in fact, is home of the longest-running triathlon anywhere (the annual Human Race, 14 years old).

The sport continues to grow in Orange County. When the Irvine-based Your Name Here team started four years ago, there were 10 members; now there are more than 150. The group has won a national triathlon team competition in Palm Springs for three years running.

"We've got some real stars, and we've also got the rank beginner," Ainslie said. The team includes several world and national amateur champions in various age groups, as well as 15 All-Americans (top national competitors in individual age groups, as selected by Triathlon Today magazine).

A historical note: The women's winner of the 1982 Ironman, Julie Leach, is a Newport Beach resident.

Orange County even has a store that caters specifically to triathletes, SBR in Irvine. The shop is offering clinics designed to introduce beginners to the sport and to help hone the skills of those already in the sport (call the shop for information).

The shop's owner, Dennis Ferguson, competes in triathlons. He said the best way to get into the sport is to try one of the sprint competitions, with a pool swim, and work up to the longer races with open-water swims. The swimming, he said, is the most technical of the three sports.

"That's the most fearful to a lot of people," Ferguson said. "You can waste a lot of energy in the water."

Many local colleges and community pools offer swimming classes to the public, he said. And now there are an increasing number of "duathlons" that dispense with the swimming event altogether, employing a run/bike/run format.

As for equipment, a sturdy pair of running shoes, any kind of road or mountain bike (with helmet) and an ordinary swimsuit is acceptable for the first few races. When they get into the sport, however, many triathletes opt for specialized equipment, such as bikes ($2,000 and up) with disc wheels and triathlon handlebars, and special wet suits for open-water swims ($200).

"You can spend as many dollars as you want," Ainslie said. "The equipment can be very minimal, or it can be $10,000 invested."

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