Hundreds of people in shorts will gather at Lake Castaic in today's early morning light. They will swim. They will ride bicycles. They will run. Many will throw up. They will all be very happy.
Welcome to the world of the triathlon, that marvelous test of human endurance and suffering. For the privilege of swimming one kilometer, biking 40 kilometers and then running 10 kilometers, these folks have paid $35 each, well in advance.
People who need more time to decide whether to swim, ride and run themselves into air-gulping, pounding-heart collections of sweat and cramps can still enter, right up to the sound of the starting gun. But their indecision will cost them an additional $10 late charge.
The winner in both the male and female divisions will win $1,000. The second, third and fourth-place finishers also will get cash. The others will get a T-shirt, water bottle and swim cap.
Now I don't know about you, but if someone wants me to swim nearly a mile in a 72-degree pond, pedal a bike for an hour or so at top speed and then run a 10-kilometer race, they had better come up with something slightly more enticing than a T-shirt.
For others whose idea of a weekend triathlon is drinking a six-pack, smoking a pack of cigarettes and listening to Joe Garagiola attempt to make a Pittsburgh-Houston baseball game sound important, take an event-by-event look at this punishing thing called a triathlon, which, by the way, is not at all good for your knees.
At 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, just as hundreds of people are trying to sneak into their houses without waking anyone, about 600 people will plunge into the small pond beneath the Castaic dam. Above them, the early summer sun will be making a feeble attempt at warming the air. Beneath them, rainbow trout will get the thrill of their lives as the surface is churned into a white froth. Have you ever heard a rainbow trout scream?
Back among the humans, hands and feet will be pumping furiously. Some of the people will be trying to swim fast. Others will be hoping only to remain on or near the surface during this mass swim. And others will be attempting to avoid the furiously pumping hands and feet of their competitors.
"That's the worst part," said triathlete John Daniels, 20, of Granada Hills. "The swim is the most intimidating part. You're in the water and you have no control, really. You can easily get kicked in the face and lose your breath. And you can't touch the bottom. You can't stop and rest. I just try to avoid the crowd, but with 500 or 600 people all in the water at the same time, that's pretty much impossible. There is contact."
What better way to start a day than a series of sharp blows to the head while you're swimming in 20 feet of water?
When the one-kilometer swim ends, hundreds of wet people will jump onto their bikes. At this hour, the bike frames and seats will still be very cold. Ever hear 600 people scream?
For more than 30 miles they will ride. Right pedal down, left pedal up. Over and over and over again. During this time they will all be hunched over in that unusual position known only to people who ride 10-speed bikes and people who try to tie their shoes without sitting down.
"That's the toughest part, the bike portion," said Daniels, who by now has apparently forgotten that the swim was the toughest part. "Being hunched over for so long, your back starts to spasm sometimes."
Riding a bike is OK. It can even be good exercise, if you're not careful. It just seems that 600 people riding bikes for 40 kilometers could accomplish something more than completing the second part of a triathlon. Like providing enough energy to light up Maine for a week. Perhaps they could move the race course from the remote Castaic area into the heart of the San Fernando Valley. And deliver The Times.
OK, so now they've finished the swim and the long bike race. To most people, the next event would probably be known as the nap. But that's not for these folks. They've got so much adrenaline pumping through their veins at this point they might as well . . . ah, run. Yeah. Run 6.2 miles as fast as they can. Yeah, that's it.
"For me, the run is the worst part," said Clay Sherman of Granada Hills. "Getting off the bike, you're all stiff and worn out, you're real hot and you know you have to go out and pound eight miles or so. The last mile you're really hurting. Your legs ache, your cardiovascular system is overworking and your chest aches, and you get a pain in your throat from the muscles constricting. It can be pretty tough."
Running is OK. It has its place. It can come in handy. It can even enlighten and enhance our society. Imagine, for instance, the prehistoric state of men's fashion before Carl Lewis came along.
And while dozing a weekend away on the couch in front of the TV is nothing to smirk at, very few people have ever escaped a band of muggers by following the advice, "Quick. Nap for your life."