Since the warm spring weather has settled into Pensacola, plenty of people have gotten outside to enjoy the many spoils of our seaside surroundings while getting some physical activity. From the area’s vibrant running community, to the spandex-clad cyclists zipping down the streets, to the swimmers splashing through the Gulf, this area makes for a gorgeous backdrop to a little outdoor cardio. But how would you feel about combining all three of those activities into one challenging and exhilarating event? A triathlon does just that and local club TriGulfCoast, which presents the Santa Rosa Island Triathlon each October, is working hard to promote a love of the sport through camaraderie and community.
Triathlon as a sport might feel intimidating at first glance, even to seasoned athletes who may participate in one or two tri activities regularly, but with a good training regimen and a little help from some 100-plus friends, mere mortals can indeed complete triathlons. It’s this idea that inspired the name of TriGulfCoast’s summer training group, the Mere Mortals. Mere Mortals is a volunteer-led group that meets on Casino Beach on Sunday mornings from June through September to train together for the Santa Rosa Island Triathlon. Each Saturday kicks off with a 6:30 am meeting at the Gulfside Pavilion stage, followed generally by a group run, bike, swim, or a combination of two or three activities.
“It’s beginner focused and it’s meant to take people who have thought about triathlons and have thought about training for it on their own, and getting them in a once a week group setting,” says TGC Mere Mortals chairperson Tom Henderson. “We do a lot to help people learn from the stage at morning meetings, but as much or more of the learning that they have comes from the people that are right next to them.”
The purpose of Mere Mortals is ultimately to prepare participants for the Santa Rosa Island Triathlon, which this year will be held Oct. 3. The race consists of a 600-yard swim, an 18mile bike ride, and a 3.1-mile run. Participants need only register for membership in TriGulfCoast for a fee of $45 to take advantage of the training program and other member events. Mere Mortals start off getting accustomed to each sport in the group setting, and focus on various areas throughout the season, which culminates in a full practice triathlon for TriGulfCoast members only that utilizes the same course as the SRI Tri.
For most of the between 100 and 200 participants at each Mere Mortals training session, swimming is far and away the most daunting part of the sport. With very little group open water training available in the area, Mere Mortals spends a lot of time getting people comfortable with the swim portion of the race. They start out with a short swim on the calmer sound side after the first orientation, but from there they move to the Gulf whenever conditions allow it, and they have buoys placed to mark the distances for each swim. There’s a great safety network for swimmers, as TGC makes use of volunteers in kayaks and on paddleboards that unsure swimmers can hold onto if need be, and it’s perfectly legal to do the same during actual triathlons, as long as the vessel isn’t propelling forward. Experienced swimmers are on hand to keep an eye on anyone who might need help. There’s also a devoted swim clinic day early in the season where swim coaches do presentations on land and there are stations where people can learn about buoy sighting as well as practice getting in and out of the surf, which is its own challenge separate from the swim itself.
“We’ve got people that come specifically for the purpose of hanging out with the people that are less comfortable,” Henderson says. “A lot of people have a tough time getting used to the idea of putting their face down in the water, so we spend the first three or four weeks just doing that.”
Biking and running are the more straightforward portions of the race, though both of those aspects get plenty of attention during Mere Mortal training. Organizers that lead the group help answer questions and concerns, and the wide and varying skill levels within the club can also offer a place for newer athletes to get support and help.
“There’s an opportunity to train not only alongside other people who are just now learning the sport and hear their questions, but also there’s some really experienced, really good triathletes out too, and they’re more often than not the ones that will ride up alongside you and say, ‘that seat looks too high on your bike,’ or ‘your back tire looks low,’ or give all kinds of tips that the people that are organizing it might never have seen.”
The diversity both in demographic and skill level in the athletes training alongside one another is something unique to the triathlon community. One passionate member of the group is Margaret Oskins. The 70-year-old retiree had competed in two triathlons in Philadelphia before moving to Florida three years ago, and this year she starts her fourth season with Mere Mortals.
“I did one, I got hooked. I struggled through and I finished,” Oskins says. “So I did another one the next year and then we had a snow storm in Philly and I said, ‘We’re moving to Florida.’ First thing I checked: what about triathlons?”
Before relocating, Oskins says she trained for her triathlons mostly on her own. She found out about TriGulfCoast through other runners at Running Wild and immediately joined. She says the group has made a huge impact on her life and she’s even recruited a fellow septegenarian last year who will be joining the group again this year.
“Being retired, it gives me a purpose,” Oskins says. “When I wake up in the morning I know the schedule. Today’s my swim, so I go to PSC to swim. I go to Running Wild and to Phat Girlz on Wednesday. I’ve got a reason to go ride my bike.”
Like most newer triathletes, Oskins says her biggest challenge is the swim portion. Many people who come to the sport are already runners, who’ve maybe added some cycling to their routine for variety, but haven’t made the jump into swimming, which is why Mere Mortals has such a strong focus on getting participants confident in their swimming skills. For many triathletes, ambitions of a place on the podium are very much secondary to the challenge of becoming proficient in each sport and just completing a race.
“Most people don’t train to race, they race so they have something to train for,” Henderson says. “And triathlon forces you to have some variety in your training.”
In addition to training participants to complete the swimming, biking and running portions of a triathlon, Mere Mortals prepares you in ways you may not have even thought of if you trained on your own. Advice and practice time is dedicated to things like setting up a transition area— the small area where bikes, towels, running shoes and other gear are placed to be used when moving between each section of the race— and performing each transition efficiently. At one meeting there’s also a special presentation by a certified referee about triathlon rules that help Mere Mortals members avoid penalties on race day.
The gear required for triathlon training can be fairly basic with options for specialization for those that get more serious. Henderson says beginners are discouraged from spending large amounts of money on expensive tri-specific gear until They’ve been at it for a while. For beginners, the swim portion requires a swimsuit or triathlon suit, goggles and a swim cap. For cycling, a geared bicycle and helmet are necessary, and for running, athletic shoes and clothes are all that are needed. Water bottles and a visor are also recommended. For those interested in getting active this summer or just looking for a new challenge in their life, Mere Mortals offers a great introduction to the triathlon community, which hooks new participants each year. Both Oskins and Henderson cite the supportive and enthusiastic volunteers and members as one of the huge draws to the sport.
“You get cheered,” says Oskins. “We’re out on the run and everybody’s coming back and we’re just starting out and they’re yelling, ‘You’re looking good!’ And you’re high fiving everyone.”
Longtime members and athletes are quick to offer help and encouragement to new members. Young or old, fast or slow, the community is accepting of all aspiring triathletes.
“There’s people who really are mere mortals just like me out there,” Henderson says. “There’s such a wide variety of skill levels and it really is kind of amazing that everybody manages to train together and support each other.”
To become a Mere Mortal, register as a member of TriGulfCoast at trigulfcoast.com, and join them at 6:30 am Sunday mornings June through September. Participants should arrive at least 15 minutes early to set up transition area as meetings begin promptly at 6:30.