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>>Seattle-area 2010 triathlon calendar

Darcy Jacobson looked out across the cold lake, ready to jump in. She had prepared well for her first triathlon and had taken open-water swim classes, but when the starting gun went off and other participant’s arms and legs began flailing all around her, she began to panic. She started to hyperventilate in the water and veered off course. But she made it.

“When I finished, I cried like a crazy person,” says Jacobson. “It felt like if I can do this, I can do anything.”

Jacobson is one of thousands of Seattleites who completed a sprint triathlon last year, typically a half-mile swim, 12-mile bike ride and 3-mile run. Not long ago it was hard to find any triathlons in the area, but this year more than 35 sprint triathlons for men and women were scheduled around the state.

“Seattle is more conducive to outdoor fitness and sports than some other cities we visit,” says Margaret Sullivan, director of the Danskin Triathlon Series, who thinks the healthy lifestyle in the Pacific Northwest is what makes triathlons so popular here. The female-only Danskin events take place across the country, but Seattle’s is one of the most popular races and the second largest in the nation.

“Since we started in Seattle [in 1993], there has been a straight upward climb in interest,” says Sullivan, who remembers attending Seattle’s first Danskin race, which attracted 463 participants. “I knew they were doing something so exciting and rewarding that they would tell their friends and next year we would have more.” She was right. Last year, the Seattle Danskin sold out in a day, and 3,316 women completed it. For 50 percent of them, it was their first triathlon ever.

Where triathlon was once a male-dominated sport, Brooke Sillers, owner of the Speedy Reedy store in Fremont, says her customer base is now evenly split between men and women. She says many become interested because it sounds like a fun challenge, but then they discover the benefits of cross-training–building fitness from doing more than just one sport. Triathletes learn that their efforts in one activity increase endurance and efficiency in the others.

Such was the case for Patricia Buchanan, who completed her first triathlon at age 50, when she says she was so out of shape she couldn’t run a block or swim a lap.

“I was hooked from the very first race and I couldn’t believe I had never known about this before,” says Buchanan, who made a deal with herself to start training about seven months before the Whidbey Island Triathlon, which started in 1997. She found that she lost weight, but the psychological benefit of finding time for herself and the overall sense of accomplishment really sold her.

Buchanan has qualified for and competed in two world championships, including one after being diagnosed with cancer.

Last year, Mary Meyer, a trainer and swim coordinator for Danskin, started her own triathlon, the Cottage Lake Tri and Tri Again in Woodinville, which covers shorter distances than the Danskin. The turnout was 325 in June and 400 in September, more than she expected.

“Maybe people want to get healthier because that’s the one thing they can control right now,” says Meyer, noting the economic downturn. “A lot of people need a goal to keep them going.” True, feeling the burn beats getting burned. Still, triathletes have to put up with more pain than most of us care to contemplate, not to mention the occasional injury.

“But that’s the amazing thing,” says Jacobson, who has completed two