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Why is the triathlon the Rodney Dangerfield of sports? While volleyball and water polo are discussed with perfectly straight faces, the triathlon is dismissed as a mutt sport, a sideshow of wretched aerobic excess. Just recently I have seen it referred to as little more than an exercise in narcissism.

As a recreational triathlete, I take particular exception to that last slur. I would have taken exception to it more quickly, but I was busy craning my neck to admire the pronounced definition of my calves. You should see my calves since I took up triathloning. People behind me in supermarket checkout lines whisper, "They must be implants." It's incredibly gratifying.

Oh, O.K. But, Yes, I do exercise to improve my appearance. If you don't, you ought to. I also exercise because I live and work in New York City, which instills a certain amount of angst in its citizens. If I didn't work out a lot, I would seize the next investment banker who cut me off in pedestrian traffic by his lapels and garrote him with his pink power tie. If you want to meet a real narcissist, fast, go stand between a bodybuilder and the nearest mirror.

Purists who disdain the triathlon as a "mongrel" sport can be muzzled with one word: decathlon. If you have more time, mention modern pentathlon, biathlon and, for that matter, football. Others dismiss triathlons as freak shows. Why, however, don't we hear those same voices raised against the Tour de France? Twi-night doubleheaders? The 24 Hours of Daytona? It seems that Americans are quite receptive to wretched excesses and exercises in masochism—provided they come with the proper pedigree.

That triathlons are an amalgam of three sports may explain their burgeoning appeal to Americans, who are, after all, citizens of a mongrel nation. This year, if I may lapse momentarily into USA Today-ese factoids, 250,000 of us will participate in triathlons, 10 times the number who did so in 1983. Ten months ago Triathlon Federation/USA moved its headquarters from Davis, Calif., to Colorado Springs, site of the U.S. Olympic Committee's headquarters, to underscore its commitment to making the triathlon an Olympic sport by 1996. I know a lot of Americans who would love to see the triathlon become an Olympic sport if for no other reason than that it would give the U.S. another surefire gold medal. In August, the U.S. team kicked butt at the triathlon world championships in Avignon, France. Both the men and women won the team titles.

Not long ago I helped an idealistic coworker train for his first triathlon. Three weeks before the race, he concluded that the whole business had been an inexcusable waste of time. "I could be using this time to improve the world," he implied during a training ride.

If you want to scold everyone who indulges in pastimes that do not directly benefit the planet or its inhabitants, I responded, your argument is not just with triathletes; it is with all mankind. "But no one needs to be this physically fit," he said. In retrospect, I wish he had gone home that instant and eaten Oreos or had decided to spend the next three weeks saving the whales. On race day the disrespectful upstart beat me by four minutes.

He remains baffled by the thrill I still hope to wring from swimming a mile, biking 25 miles and running 6.2 miles in less than 2:20—a reasonable goal. As for me, I just cannot grasp the appeal of sitting on one's duff in some baseball stadium, pushing franks in one's face for three hours, trying desperately not to blink lest one miss any of the 90 seconds of action.

Contrary to popular opinion, one can train for a triathlon and lead a normal life. The average triathlete is not the grim-faced, rippling specimen you see on those tape-delayed, truncated broadcasts of the Ironman. The average triathlete doesn't train 20, or even 10, hours a week. Nor does he appear on the cover of Triathlete magazine or shave his body to reduce wind drag. Sure, during fleeting moments of peak efficiency, we feel as if we could match. Paula Newby-Fraser stroke for stroke or stay with Mike Pigg on the bike. Then comes a steep ascent—and reality.

Average triathletes set their alarm clocks an hour early and get in a few miles before breakfast. They hustle over to the Y at noon for 50-or-so laps and eat lunch at their desks. The next day they might bike for 90 minutes after work. Two or three times a summer, they'll lash the bike to the roof of the car and go find a race.

Triathlons are not wrecking their marriages or stunting their careers. On the contrary, the discipline it takes to lace on one's running shoes at 6 a.m. is available throughout the day for non- triathlon-related activities as well. Adhering to a training schedule forces one to set priorities. In my case, Jeopardy! bit the dust. I have more energy, need less sleep and, in general, feel that I am more productive. Other perks: I have an excuse to wear sunglasses with Day-Glo frames. I eat everything, stopping only to sleep.

My calves you already know about.