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ORANGE COUNTY ON THE GO

Forging An Iron Will

Cowdrey Has Made the Facets of the Triathlon a Part of His Life, as He Prepares for the Ironman

May 18, 2000|MARTIN BECK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Everybody thinks I'm crazy," says triathlete Mike Cowdrey, who is attempting his first Ironman event Saturday in Oceanside. That's a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run--triathlon's toughest test and 10 or so hours of pain--but that's not the only reason friends often question his sanity.

Consider:

* Cowdrey doesn't own a car--he commutes up to 35 miles on his bicycle to work, college and just about anywhere else he needs to go.

* He doesn't eat during his lunch hour--he swims, punching out long enough from his job in a Home Depot garden department to churn through a half-hour session at a nearby health club.

* He has a thing about palm trees--he's got about 50 in pots scattered around his home in Irvine.

* And he bakes a mean brownie, financing his $400 entry fee into Saturday's Ironman California by selling chocolate chip Heath Bar crunch brownies that he makes from scratch. "I really pump them up," Cowdrey said. "I call them Ironman brownies."

Cowdrey isn't crazy; he's just a little quirky: a 29-year-old starving-student type whose passion for triathlon has dovetailed nicely with his main form of transportation.

Happier on two wheels

Cowdrey hasn't owned a car since 1992--a situation prompted because he didn't need one as a student at Penn State. When he moved back to his native Orange County in 1995, he couldn't afford to buy or maintain an automobile.

He still finds himself in a similar financial state, supporting himself by working full-time while studying physical therapy at Cerritos College and Long Beach State. He accepts occasional rides from his fiancee, Kim Thomer, and sometimes borrows her car, but he usually gets places under his own power.

"I prefer to ride my bike," Cowdrey said. "I get frustrated when I drive because everyone is in my way.

"I was talking with someone at a bike show the other day and they had a T-shirt that said 'One Less Car on the Road.' I kind of wanted to get it, but you know, it cost 20 bucks."

Soon the money might not be as much as an issue--this month he finished a program for physical therapy assistants at Cerritos and will be looking for a job in the field--but Cowdrey doesn't plan to give up bike commuting.

It's too valuable a pastime for a triathlete pressed for time. It has been especially helpful during training for the Ironman as he has increased his weekly riding to more than 300 miles. He also finds time to run 50 miles a week and swims almost every day.

The Ironman distance is unknown territory for Cowdrey, who has never run a marathon. He decided to tackle Saturday's race largely because it will be the first time an Ironman has been held in California. He hopes to finish in less than 10 hours.

"Everybody's goal is to do an Ironman," Cowdrey said. "Hopefully after Saturday, I'll have accomplished that goal and I can move onto bigger things."

That would be his dream to make the U.S. Olympic trials in triathlon in 2004. The Olympic distance--.75-mile swim, 25-mile bike, 10-kilometer run--is better suited for Cowdrey, who was an outstanding distance runner at Trabuco Hills High School. He won the Pacific Coast League cross-country title and made the state meet as a senior in 1989.

He ran one season of cross-country for Saddleback College but gave up intercollegiate competition after transferring to Penn State. Soon, he said, he felt like something was missing. So he bought a mountain bike and entered and won his age group in a duathlon, a running and biking event.

Back in California in 1995, he tried his first triathlon, a sprint-distance event in Newport Beach. His introduction to swimming was rough.

"I sank like a rock," he said.

The water's fine

Cowdrey got through the half-mile swim in the lagoon at Newport Dunes, depending heavily on breaststroke and backstroke and doing his best to avoid the competitors splashing past him.

"Afterward, I told my girlfriend," Cowdrey said, " 'Don't ever let me do one of these things again.' "

But he came back for many more and slashed his swimming times. "Don't ask me how, but swimming has become my strongest event," he said.

In the last year, Cowdrey has started to leave the water with the elite competitors, which prompted him to aim toward becoming professional triathlete.

Irvine's Phil Molina, who was a professional triathlete in the 1980s, said he believes Cowdrey has what it takes.

"He's full of questions," said Molina, whose brother Scott won the Hawaii Ironman in 1988. "When he can, he trains and races with fellow triathletes and he picks up things. He reads like there's no tomorrow.

"He's starting to come out of the water closer to the leaders where he can put to good use his cycling and running skills to stick with those guys."

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