Even after 25 years of organizing the Columbia Triathlon, Robert Vigorito gets emotional about the race.
As he prepared for Sunday's event, Vigorito, 60, described what the day will be like - the waves of swimmers running down the boat ramp and into Centennial Lake starting at 6:45 a.m., the athletes, many competing for the first time, pushing themselves to achieve more than they thought possible and, finally, the triumph at the finish line.
He gets tears in his eyes just thinking about it.
Vigorito, president and race director of the nonprofit Columbia Triathlon Association, doesn't just talk the talk. He has competed in many triathlons, including the famed Ironman in Hawaii, which he has raced five times, most recently in 2006.
Michael Silverman, 47, a physician who lives in Ellicott City, is one of many people who have tried, but failed, to resist Vigorito's enthusiasm. Silverman was an avid bicyclist but told Vigorito he had no interest in taking up swimming and running to compete in the triathlon. Vigorito wore him down, Silverman said.
"He continued to espouse how much fun it was, the benefits of it," Silverman said.
On Sunday, Silverman will be participating in the Columbia Triathlon for the fourth time.
"It's hard to say no to Robert Vigorito," he said.
Silverman noted that Vigorito has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for local charities, including the ARC of Howard County and the Ulman Cancer Fund, through the races.
Vigorito, known to nearly everybody as Vigo, was born in Connecticut and moved to Howard County in 1976. He is director of the brain bank at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the University of Maryland Medical School in Baltimore. In that job, he helps scientists find cures for diseases such as autism by working with brain donors.
Vigorito was always athletic, he said, "but not aerobically so." He played team sports. But he became interested in triathlons after watching the stunning finish of one of the first triathlons, the Ironman in Hawaii in 1982.
Julie Moss, the front-runner, collapsed just feet from the finish line, Vigorito recalled. Telling the story in detail, as though he had witnessed it in person, Vigorito partly acted out the scene as he described how Moss pulled herself to her feet and staggered across the finish, in second place.
"That's what got me turned on to triathlons," said Vigorito, who has since met Moss, he said. "I said to myself, 'Who would do such a crazy thing?'"
Before long, he was working to start a triathlon in Columbia. It wouldn't be an Ironman, which combines a 2.4-mile swim with a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run, but it would be challenging at the "intermediate" level, with a swim of .93 miles, a "pretty hilly" 25.2-mile bike ride through western Howard County and a run of 6.2 miles.
The first triathlon in Columbia was in 1983, before Centennial Park was created. Ninety people took part in the event, which finished with a swim in the indoor Columbia Swim Center at Wilde Lake, Vigorito said. Normally, the swimming portion is first in a triathlon, when the athletes are freshest.
The next year, 125 people took part, he said. In 1986 and 1987, participants swam in Wilde Lake. In 1988, the event moved to the newly opened Centennial Park, where it has been held ever since.
This year, about 2,400 athletes from 38 states and six countries are expected to take part, Vigorito said.
Participants will include Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Fenty's father, Phil Fenty, who have also competed in past years, and Australian Chris McCormack, who has qualified for the Olympics. "We have so many people from all walks of life," Vigorito said.
The Columbia Triathlon will cause traffic delays between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m. Sunday, according to the Howard County Police Department. About 2,400 athletes are expected to participate in the event, which includes bicycling and running courses on county roads.
The bicycle route includes Route 108, Ten Mills Road, Harper's Farm Road, Homewood Road, Folly Quarter Road, Triadelphia Road, Triadelphia Mill Road, Green Bridge Road, Howard Road and Linthicum Road.
After the bicycle course, the athletes will run on Old Annapolis Road, Carillon Drive, Cross Country Drive, Century Drive and Colonial Drive.
Police urge residents to plan ahead and allow for extra time if they have to travel on these roads. Police officers will be directing traffic.