Triathlons Are This Runner's Idea Of A Milder Hobby County Parks Director Is Out To Master Event

November 30, 1990|By Elise Armacost | Elise Armacost,Staff writer

The temperature was in the 90s - a perfect day for a swim. So Joe McCann jumped in the Gunpowder River and swam a mile. Then, he bicycled 26 miles and ran for another six.

"Until the last 3 miles I was all smiles," says McCann, Anne Arundel's 46-year-old, 6-foot-2, 210-pound director of recreation and parks.

Then he dehydrated. His blood pressure dropped to 90/52. His legs started cramping. He stopped smiling -- not so much because he felt bad but because he'd ruined his time by slowing down.

McCann had wanted to finish his first triathlon, the June 1989 Bud Light Triathlon Series in Baltimore, in under 3 hours. He finished in 3 hours, 2 minutes.

"I was real ticked off," he says.

One and a half years and eight triathlons later, McCann still hasn't improved on that time. In fact, he was so worn down when he competed in the Betterton Triathlon on the Eastern Shore last September that halfway through the event he suffered leg cramps so severe, "I thought someone shot me."

McCann learned a lesson in Betterton. "At my age, you can't compete every month in one of these suckers and expect to do better." So next year, he's cutting back to two or three triathlons, instead of five to eight.

Maybe the Bud Light. Maybe the Best of the West triathlon in Western Maryland -- a half-mile swim through a lake, then a 15-mile bicycle ride through the mountains capped off by a 4.5 mile run.

"That's my favorite because of the hills," he says. "I like the hills."

You may be wondering: Is this man crazy? Is he trying to kill himself?

Wouldn't he rather be playing a nice game of golf or hitting a few tennis balls?

No, no and no.

McCann is too hyper for leisurely exercise. Most athletes jogging along the highway look as if they are ready to die, but not McCann. He laughs.

"I have a lot of energy. When I'm running, I'm usually laughing or fantasizing," he says, laughing. "That's my favorite thing to do. It's not always about sex, though sometimes that does happen."

Compulsively disciplined, McCann keeps computer records of his times and distances. He trains on the weekends and during the week, shedding his business suit at lunchtime and running, swimming at the Arundel Olympic Swim Center in Annapolis or biking on a course he's mapped out around the Recreation and Parks offices in Crownsville.

"They have great hills around St. Steven's Church Road," he says. "I love hills."

A Philadelphia native who lives on Kent Island, McCann played football in high school and college and has been active in sports and the outdoors all his life. He is visibly fit and quite sane in his approach to triathlons.

In fact, he started competing in triathlons, which combine swimming, biking and running, precisely because his old hobby -- running -- was wearing out his legs. "This is much kinder to your body," he says.

McCann had been a serious runner for more than 20 years before he started training for triathlons. Though he competed in 5-kilometer, 10-kilometer and 10-mile races, he didn't care about winning (which he rarely did) as much as reaching his own goals, such as being able to run a 7-minute mile.

In 1978, after 10 years of running 8-minute miles, he started an intensive indoor short-distance training program supervised by a coach at the Naval Academy until he was able to run a 5-mile race in 34 minutes.

Once he did that, he started to get bored with running.

"I also started to get old," he says. "I didn't recover fast after a race. I hurt a lot."

So when one of McCann's assistants suggested that triathlons, with their heavy emphasis on swimming, might provide the challenge McCann wanted without killing his legs, McCann started training with fervor.

Though initially nervous about the swimming -- "I could swim across the pool and back, but I still had a little fear of the water," he says -- he read a book on triathlons and followed its training program to the letter.

His weekly schedule called for three days of swimming, two days of biking, one day of running and one day of rest.

"But if I'm honest, there were days when I didn't rest. I remember once I trained 27 days in a row. I was that determined."

Unfortunately, McCann has paid a price for this devotion to physical fitness. Separated from his wife, he admits the marriage broke up largely because of his absorption with his own pursuits.

"I paid a lot of attention to my career, I paid a lot of attention to my kids, I paid a lot of attention to my personal needs. Being a good husband was at the bottom of my list."

On the plus side, he says, his three kids, ages 25, 16 and 13, all inherited his enthusiasm for sports. They often show up to cheer him on during his triathlon events, he says.

The triathlons McCann competes in are intermediate events, unlike the famous Ironman triathlon, classified as an "ultra" event. The Ironman, held in Hawaii, consists of a 2.5-mile swim through the Pacific Ocean, a 100-mile bike ride and a 26-mile marathon.

"I'd never touch that," McCann says, not because he thinks it's crazy, but because "I'd have to train 20 hours a week, and I don't have the time."

Indeed, McCann gets positively euphoric talking about those times when he'd pushed himself to the limit. Like that first triathlon, the 1989 Bud Light. . . .

"I spent some time in the medical tent. It took a full week for me to resume training again. But I gave more in that race than in any other physical contest. I've climbed some mountains, I've played some tough football games. But that was the one I will remember. Nothing was as hard as that.

"It was three hours of non-stop testing of the mind and body."

He's still smiling about it.

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