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What could motivate a group of college students to run five miles in the pouring rain before class? Every Friday throughout the school year, the Boston University Triathlon Club meets at 7 a.m. outside FitRec for a run that concludes with breakfast at Blue State Coffee. The practice often includes unpleasantries such as rain, darkness, and snow, but the athletes’ commitment remains steadfast. Triathlon Club members will tell you that it’s about training, but they say it’s also about one another.
“It’s great to have a group that you know is going to be there even if it’s raining or snowing outside,” says club vice president Nick Wendel (SAR’15). “It creates a sense of community outside of school that you can count on.”
Every community needs a leader, and the triathlon team is grateful to have as their coach one of the premier conditioning instructors in the Boston area. Vic Brown was in his second year as BU’s associate strength and conditioning coach when Brent Fortenberry (GRS’12), now a College of Arts & Sciences lecturer in archaeology, approached him about coaching the team, which he founded in 2008 as a graduate student. “I got really lucky because I found a person who was better than anybody I could have ever hoped for in Vic Brown,” he says. “He was just getting into coaching triathletes, and he was already the strength coach at BU. Vic is the number one reason why the BU triathlon team has been so successful year after year.”
Brown, who is a serious triathlete himself, says he was more than happy to give back to the sport by helping collegiate athletes learn not only how to train, but how to race.
While triathlons vary in distance, they always consist of a swim, a bike, and a run, in that order. As a member of the Northeast Collegiate Triathlon Conference (NECTC), BU competes most often in sprint triathlons, where the athletes swim a third of a mile, bike 13 miles, and run 3 miles. When BU competes in the NECTC championships on September 29 in Westchester, N.Y., team members will be racing an Olympic triathlon, which nearly doubles the distance of each leg.
People are attracted to triathlons for different reasons. Wendel says that when he joined the team several years ago, he was excited just to finish his first race, but his competitive spirit has grown with his fitness level: he finished fifth overall at the recent Lobsterman Sprint Triathlon in Freeport, Maine. The top seven finishes count towards the club’s final score in NECTC races, and BU finished first in the men’s bracket and second in the women’s at Lobsterman. The team also had the top individual performers in each group: 31-year-old Owen Kendall (MED’15) finished first in the men’s bracket, and 19-year-old club secretary Natalie Tukan (SAR’14) won the women’s.
Thanks largely to Brown’s guidance, BU has a chance to finish in the top three in the NECTC conference and qualify for the national tournament in Arizona in the spring. The coach is there for the athletes every step of the way. He distributes information packets the day before the race, yells out time splits at race checkpoints, and motivates the students at the starting line. “Vic coaches triathletes professionally, and he gives us a specific plan for our season and our goals,” Wendel says. “It’s a year-round training program that you can follow to a T, and it’s a great opportunity to benefit from a really high level of coaching.”
Many who join the triathlon team are experienced distance runners or excellent distance swimmers or powerful cyclists, but very few are capable when starting out of putting the three skills together during one race. “There’s this mystique about triathlons in that people wonder how they can blend it all together,” Brown says. “A lot of people may not know how fast to go or how to handle the transitions during a race, so I try to relay a lot of different experiences from my own multifaceted background to help them prepare for their races.”
Brown creates three different workouts for each skill level at every practice and provides plenty of guidance and demonstrations for beginner athletes. “I wasn’t a swimmer when I got here,” Wendel says. “During my first practice coach made sure I was rested and took plenty of breaks. He’s really good at catering the workout to people of varying skill levels.”
The athletes have also gone out of their way to make newcomers feel comfortable. Last fall, club treasurer Sean Matlis (MED’14) helped create the first annual tryout triathlon, a combination fundraising and recruiting platform. Interested students swam 200 meters, biked for 15 minutes, and ran a mile at FitRec to experience the transitions and challenges of triathlons. “The event was for people who like the idea of racing triathlons, but may be intimidated by the distances and think they can’t do it,” says Matlis. “We wanted to show them that anybody can, and it’s not as difficult as you think.”
Matlis felt some trepidation when he joined the club more than four years ago. “One of the reasons I wanted to join is because I was a terrible swimmer,” he says, “and I didn’t want to go through the rest of my life like that.” Brown coached him every step of the way, and he improved steadily. “For a while I felt like I was drowning,” Matlis say. “Now for the first time I can get in the water and feel relaxed.”
Over the years, he says, he’s noticed that being a member of the club seems to change people. “I’ve seen a certain type of personality develop,” he says. “People go from being scared of certain types of physical activity to meeting challenges head on and trying things that they might otherwise not attempt.”
Regardless of their goals, Wendel says, the triathlon team always has fun. “Seeing your fellow competitors on the course can be disheartening or encouraging,” he says. “The girls start behind the guys in the swim, and they always pass me, so when I see them during other parts of the course it definitely motivates me to catch up.
“The team as a whole is able to mix their desire to achieve and excel towards their own personal goals without taking themselves too seriously,” he says. “They’re able to balance their competitive nature with a healthy amount of camaraderie and togetherness, and their ability to do that impresses me every day.”