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Argus Leader: Father and Son Alumni are "First Family of Area Triathlon"

Triple play

Formerly known for its grueling demands, triathlon is sweeping the Sioux Falls area as a more accessible way to push the limits

Terry Vandrovec, Argus Leader

One of the growing sports in Sioux Falls actually encompasses three.

Triathlon - an endurance race that combines swimming, cycling and running - has been gaining popularity in the area the past few years.

The evidence: There's a competition within driving distance just about every summer weekend, some of which draw more than 100 participants. What's more, local sporting good stores are carrying more triathlon gear - maybe the surest sign of actual interest considering the current economic climate.

"There's just more people here," says triathlon enthusiast Howard Bich (shown right). "More people who want to do something that can help them stay in shape for their entire life."

The 69-year-old Bich is proof.

A retired teacher and coach, the Sioux Falls resident picked up the sport 15 years ago after his son, Brian, got involved. He now does about 10 sprint triathlons - a popular format that commonly consists of swimming 750 meters, biking for 12.4 miles and a 5K run - each summer around the region.

Bich has also become an advocate for a sport that has 100-year-old roots, but only a 25-year history in America. Most casual followers know triathlon from the Ironman, a grueling annual event in Hawaii that consists of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26-mile run.

But Bich wanted to bring sport closer to home - on a more accessible scale.

Four years ago, he founded the Dakota Man Triathlon, an annual race at Lake Alvin that serves as the South Dakota qualifier for the Best in the U.S. National Championship.

Incredibly, the triathlon has become a family affair, with three Bich generations competing this summer. Most notably, Brian, a former Augustana basketball player who now lives in Duluth, Minn., is the reigning USA Triathlon Master Triathlete of the Year.

"I got done with college and was in grad school and had no more (athletic) goals anymore," said Brian Bich, 43, a professor at a community college. "I thought about doing running, but I didn't want to do just running because I didn't think it was very healthy. So I bought a triathlon magazine and started reading it and was like, 'This is what I'm going to do.' "

That was 17 years ago.

Bich's story is not uncommon, even if his level of accomplishment is. Barry Hein, a local anesthesiologist, was a former NCAA Division I swimmer looking for a way to stay fit without becoming a slave to one activity.

Bryan Brinkman began as an avid cyclist - he still works in that field at Scheels - and made the transition to triathlon.

All three men believe that triathlon is enjoyable because it offers variety and leads to fewer repetitive movement injuries.

"Giving yourself a break from one of the other disciplines and doing the other is really beneficial," said Hein, whose wife, Kristina, won the female division at the Dakota Man this year. "I think you achieve a better level of fitness."

Hein is training for a half-Ironman in Madison, Wis. To prepare, he is spending 10 hours on his bike, about six hours running and two hours swimming each week. But he sneaks in some of those workouts by running or biking to work, and often takes the long way home.

Triathlon may be a lifestyle, but it's still fairly accessible.

Kendra Lamberty is a 40-year-old single mother of four with a full-time job at a local middle school. She got involved in the sport by buying a $500 bike - relatively cheap by triathlon standards - and a good pair of shoes. She's been competing for eight years, hitting up a local event pretty much every weekend this summer.

Lamberty came for the fitness and stayed for the camaraderie.

"It's a group of people that you get to know, and it's growing more and more so you keep making new friends," she said. "I totally promote it and think anybody can do it."

Brian Bich believes that more and more people will take to triathlon in the Sioux Falls area, given its growing population and proximity to Minnesota and Iowa, two hotbeds for the sport. He won't be surprised if the Dakota Man, which began with 78 participants, hits 300 within five years.

"I think it's bigger and bigger, and there's still room to grow," he said. "Sioux Falls is a good-size town and people are starting to realize what a healthy lifestyle it is. You get to do three sports, and it's fun to improve at each one."