Swim. Bike. Run.

For a growing number of athletes, those aren't just sports options to choose from on a given day — that's the order they do them in.

Back-to-back-back.

Three sports in one event at one setting for the price of one word: triathlon.

According to USA Triathlon, the national governing body with 100,000-plus members, the multisport activity is "one of the fastest growing sports in the world" and that's despite — or perhaps because of — the fact triathletes have to swim anywhere from 300 yards to 2.4 miles, then bike between 12 and 112 miles and then cap the day's busy to-do list off with a run that ranges from a 5K to a full marathon before hitting the finish line.

That, by the way, can take anywhere between 50-some-odd minutes and 14 hours, depending on the race and the athlete.

In this era of multitasking, combo meals and bigger-is-better mentalities, it really isn't all that surprising that triathlons are making a splash, so to speak, in the sports world.

And Utah is no exception.

Look at a summer event calendar, and it's easy to see the sport is thriving in the Beehive State.

"It's definitely growing quick (in Utah)," said Alex McKinley, an avid triathlete and the publisher of a regional multisport magazine and Web site called www.trihive.com. "In the last two or three years, it's gone absolutely nuts."

That's especially the case with the "sprint" races, which are the shortest and usually consist of a 400- or 800-yard swim, a 12-mile bike ride and a 5K run. Next in the length and popularity line is the Olympic or International distance (about 1-mile swim, 25-mile bike, 10K run).

Kelly McPherson, who is the membership officer of the Desert Sharks Triathlon Club based in Salt Lake City, has definitely noticed how "huge" triathlons have become in Utah during the five years that she's been involved in the sport. She predicts that the sport in the state likely is only "going to get bigger," too.

TriUtah co-owner Sheri Anderson's multisport-event promoting company will put on five of the state's bigger triathlons this year. She believes the sport has never been as popular as it is now. TriUtah first did the well-known Jordanelle Triathlon 10 years ago, and that event experienced from 100 to 200 percent growth in participation in each of its first five years. It's expected to sell out of its 1,000-athlete slots for the sixth straight year before the Aug. 23 race.

Other races across the state are also experiencing a surge. Anderson said the popularity and participation rates are having "just exponential" growth.

McPherson experienced one unpleasant aspect of the sport's mass appeal just last month. She tried to enter the Woman of Steel Triathlon in American Fork, but the state's sole women-only event had already reached its capacity of almost 600 participants. That, she said, "totally bummed" her out.

TriUtah had a waiting list of 150 women who wanted to participate in that event but couldn't. Triathlons have become so popular with women recently that Anderson, her husband and the company's other two owners are considering putting on another women's-only event. Tris used to be about 75 percent men, but Anderson said it's now about an even 50-50 gender split.

"The sport has really taken off," she said. "Women are really catching onto it."

McPherson hasn't been the only bummed-out and turned-away triathlete his year, either. The St. George Triathlon — perhaps the state's most popular tri, McKinley said — maxed out on its entrants in May, the TimpTriClub Icebreaker Triathlon reached its capacity in March and this week's Salem Spring Triathlon is full as well.

Fortunately for triathletes of all shapes, sizes and skill levels, plenty of races remain on the schedule. From the Battle at Midway, the Utah Summer Games triathlon and the Pleasant Grove swim team's fundraiser event on June 14 to a couple of "turkey triathlons" in November in Ogden and Orem, more than 25 triathlons will take place the rest of this year in Utah. Many are open-water courses, which, McKinley said, is up from just a few similar races less than a decade ago.

It's great to see," Anderson said. "We're a health-conscious people. We're learning to be healthy."

McPherson believes "the challenge" of completing these endurance races is enticing more people into the sport, while completing them is quite gratifying to those who try a tri. Anderson said people who get bored with just running like the change of pace working other sports provides. Doing the cross-training, she added, is also good for injury prevention.

"This sounds weird," McKinley said, "but there's something sexy and cool (about saying) that I'm going to tackle three sports in a day. It's the ultimate challenge to kind of tackle three events like that."

A corrective exercise specialist, McPherson is among the many who tackled triathlon training for the health benefits. McPherson dropped 60 pounds thanks to her dedication to swim, bike and run with the best of 'em.

"I needed something I could stay focused on and have fun doing," she said. "It's addicting. There's always something to work on."

There's an added bonus. She says the reactions from people who find out what she and other triathletes do for a hobby are priceless.

"When somebody says they're a triathlete, there's kind of an, 'Oooh' (response)," she said. "You kind of get addicted to that 'Oooh.'"

She helped many kids and adults get that "Oooh" response this past Saturday as the race director of her club's Shark Attack Triathlon at Crystal Hot Springs. McPherson loves hearing triumphant stories and seeing smiles on faces of first-timers, who made up more than 60 percent of the 300 Shark Attack participants. She beamed while telling of a female participant who lost 250 pounds.

McKinley has completed 50-plus triathlons, including four Ironman races (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run) and 10 Half Ironman races (also known as a 70.3).

"It keeps you focused," McKinley said. "It's kind of the carrot dangling in front of you that keeps you training."

"It's very addicting," Anderson added. "The reward is how you feel accomplishing that event. It's a big achievement, not to just finish a 5K but to finish a 12-mile bike ride and a half-mile swim."

McKinley, who really got into the sport about eight years ago, said he isn't surprised it's catching on in this recreation-rich state.

"I feel like for Utahns our culture is outdoors," he said. "I think we're a health-minded state, and it creates an environment for people to challenge themselves and push themselves a little bit."

Depending on how competitive triathletes want to get — n whether they simply want to challenge themselves or go for podium finishes — n triathlons can make a dent in the wallet. Some costs are almost unavoidable, such as paying for a place to swim, purchasing decent running shoes and buying a reliable bike (usually, but not always, a road bike), which can cost from the low hundreds to upwards of $10,000. Race entry fees usually cost at least $50 as well, not including travel.

Then there are luxury items like tri shorts — n which many athletes wear as bottoms for all three events to save changing time in transition — heart-rate monitors, GPS equipment, aerodynamic helmets, tri wetsuits, nutritional and personal products, and tri-specific bikes. Those can can really make the costs skyrocket.

"The drawback to the sport," McKinley said, "is the financial commitment."

It isn't, he insists, the time commitment. McKinley says people can easily work toward doing triathlons on a half-hour or an hour a day. The key is making it a priority.

"When you talk to people the first time they are in awe (and ask), 'How do you do that? How do you find time to do that?"' he said. "I'm on the other side. 'How do you not do it?' There's plenty of time in the day to prepare yourself. ... It takes a lot less to prepare than people realize."

Once people decide to jump in, McKinley said they are usually embraced by the triathlon community because fellow triathletes know the devotion and dedication it takes to continue training.

"More than anything, people need to know that it's a non-hostile environment," he said. "Everybody's very welcoming."

Well, as long as you sign up in time.


E-mail: [email protected]