It's near midnight and a woman teeters toward the finish line, her face washed with fatigue and her legs wobbling from exhaustion. A television camera zooms in for a close-up of her anguished expression as an announcer wonders aloud whether her body or her endurance is going to give out first.
Most Americans got their first glimpse of an odd, new athletic phenomenon known as the triathlon when ABC-TV began, in 1980, broadcasting this human-endurance contest, which combines swimming, running and cycling. The Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii, which includes a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run, became synonymous with the ultra-endurance sport.
Ron O'Keefe, 42, of Camarillo, is acutely aware of the image of triathletes that was popularized by television. It's an image he wants people to forget.
"Most people think of a triathlon as being like the Ironman on TV," O'Keefe said. "You start the race at sunrise, crawl in at midnight and you lose control of your bowels and start throwing up. That's not the reality of triathlons."
O'Keefe has been promoting triathlons since 1985, when he started the Camarillo-based Tri-Club of Ventura County. His biggest task has been to dispel the myth that triathletes are fitness maniacs who train 10 hours a day and compete in triathlons every weekend.
Of the more than 2,000 triathlons contested annually in the United States, many employ the international distance--a one-mile swim, six-mile run and 24-mile bike ride. These shorter-distance triathlons are appealing to triathletes like O'Keefe, who cross-train simply to stay in shape and never hope to win the Ironman.
"The international distances are getting to be common for most triathlons," O'Keefe said. "You can comfortably compete at those distances without having to train so hard that you get a divorce or lose your job."
O'Keefe took up triathlons as therapy for a bad back.
"I was just a mess in the late '70s," he said. "I did not want to rush into back surgery, so I was on painkillers and muscle relaxants when a chiropractor told me to start taking some walks.
"He then said to start swimming and I found that the more I pushed, the better I felt. So much of my problem was that my muscles simply were not doing what they were supposed to do any more."
O'Keefe never had back surgery. He became a triathlete instead and his back problems disappeared.
Through his club, O'Keefe has won converts to the triathlon. After starting with 12 triathletes, the Tri-Club reached a peak membership of 120 two years ago before leveling off to about 50.
But while the membership in O'Keefe's club has leveled off, triathlons have steadily grown in popularity over the last 10 years. Today, there are an estimated one million Americans who cross-train regularly.
Vern Scott, of Davis, Calif., a former executive director of the Colorado-based Triathlon Federation/USA--an organization which oversees triathlon competitions throughout the United States--has seen firsthand the burgeoning growth in the sport.
In the three years he was involved with the Triathlon Federation/USA, membership jumped from 4,000 to 40,000, and it has continued to climb steadily since 1986.
Scott's son, Dave, a former Ironman Triathlon champion, is one of the superstars of the sport. The Scotts were competing in triathlons in 1974, long before most Americans had heard of the sport.
Vern Scott has a theory why triathlons have become popular during the last 10 years.
"We all like to have diversity in our everyday lives and that is what triathlons offer," Scott said. "I think it is symptomatic of our society that people are looking for diversity in everything they do. The diversity of this sport offers not only excitement and challenge, but the potential for overriding injury is greater than with other sports."
O'Keefe's club attracts members from Lancaster to Santa Monica and it is the only triathlon club in Ventura County. It holds monthly meetings and training sessions where club members can bike, swim and run together or train for an upcoming triathlon.
O'Keefe also conducts clinics and invites guest speakers, who discuss topics ranging from the proper swimming techniques to what shoes to wear for a triathlon.
O'Keefe stresses mental conditioning as well as physical training to his club members.
"If the physical benefits are not enough, the mental advantages of triathlons are also attractive," O'Keefe said. "With triathlons you don't get bored because you're not doing the same thing day after day.
"You swim one day and bike another day. If you can keep a rotation going in your training it's better for your body because you are allowing other parts of your body to rest by not doing the same thing every day."
In addition to running his club, O'Keefe is active in spreading the gospel of triathlons. He is involved with the Triathlon Federation/USA, which is working to get the triathlon introduced as an exhibition sport at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.