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Hankens to compete in Ironman Triathlon in October

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Cherokee's Deb Hankens will compete in the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii October 21. Photo by Dan Whitney.
When she was a high school student at Sioux Falls Lincoln High School, Deb Miller didn't compete in any sports, because "back then, girls didn't have sports." Over the past 29 years, though, the third (of eleven) child of Jean and the late Tom Miller, has more than made up for her non-athletic teenage years.

Miller married Cherokee attorney Steve Hankens 32 years ago, and gave birth to two sons, Jeff, now 31, and Kevin, now 28. After Kevin's birth, Deb Hankens decided, in 1977, that running might be a "good way to stay in shape." After she began running, though, Hankens soon came to realize that she was not IN shape, so the running became her means of getting in shape, rather than staying in shape.

Hankens found that she really enjoyed running, not to mention being in top-notch physical condition, and soon developed a "positive addiction" to running. After a bit, she began running marathons (26.2 miles), but in the early 80s, she switched to the triathlon event.

The triathlon, from the Greek, is an athletic event which is made up of three contests. In contemporary usage, the term "triathlon" is usually applied to the combination of swimming, cycling, and running. The "modern" triathlon was reinvented in San Diego's Mission Bay in 1974, when a group of friends began training together.

Some of the people were runners, some swimmers, and still others cyclists. Before too long, they conceived the idea of a competition involving all three events. The first Mission Bay Triathlon was held on September 25, 1974, and involved 46 athletes. This date is considered as the first day of the modern triathlon.

Over the ensuing years, a number of variations have been adapted, over varying distances. For example, the sport made its debut on the Olympic program at the Sydney Games in 2000 over the "Olympic Distance" (1500 m swim - 40 km bike - 10 km run).

The "real" triathlon, in many people's minds, is the Ironman Triathlon, named after a Hawaiian runner who was notorious for his demanding workouts. This event, held on the Kona Coast in Hawaii, was conceived by U.S. Navy Commander John Collins. Collins and some friends were debating which sport's athletes were the most fit. Collins and his wife Judy (no, not THAT Judy Collins) had taken part in triathlons staged in and around Mission Bay, Calif., so they were familiar with the triathlon concept.

Commander Collins suggested that three existing long-distance events - the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the Around-Oahu Bike Race, and the Honolulu Marathon, be combined, and this would settle the argument about which were the most fit athletes.

The course set for the "Ironman" Triathlon was a 2.4 mile swim in the Pacific Ocean, followed by 112 miles of biking over lava flats on the "big island" of Hawaii, and a full 26.2 mile marathon. The original event, was held on Feb. 18, 1978, had fifteen entrants (all male), and twelve completed the race. The winner, who was given the title "Ironman," was Gordon Haller, who completed the event in 11 hours, 46 minutes, and 58 seconds.

This event remains the most famous triathlon in the world, and competing in this event is a goal Deb Hankens set for herself several years ago. She has competed in four "Ironman" competitions, including one in Wisconsin, one in California, and two in Switzerland, as well as several "non-Ironman" triathlons in various locales.

Some events are designated as qualifying events for the Hawaii Ironman competition, and Hankens competed in one such qualifying event - the Buffalo Springs "Half-Ironman" (70.3 total miles, compared to the 140.6 miles at the Hawaii Ironman) - at Lubbock, Texas, on June 25, 2006. Hankens won the event for her age group (55-59), and thus qualified for her dream Ironman competition in Hawaii.

Hankens will be leaving on Oct. 14 for the Oct. 21 competition, where she will compete with a large field of athletes, both professionals and amateurs. Places will be awarded within designated age groups.

Triathletes obviously have to be extraordinarily fit to compete in their event. Because all three events are endurance sports, nearly all triathlon training methods involve cardiovascular exercise. Hankens has been training six days a week, doing at least one of the three disciplines (swimming, cycling, running) each day.

Now, though, she says, she'll have to "ramp up" her training, as the event draws closer. One method of "transition training," called "bricks," consists of back-to-back workouts involving two of the three disciplines (usually cycling and running).

Some of the equipment used by triathletes has been specially developed for the sport. Hankens' bike, for example, is a "time trial bike," optimized for aerodynamics with special handlebars, called aerobars. Her bike also has a steep seat-tube angle, both to improve aerodynamics, and to spare muscle groups needed for running. Helmets, of course, are mandatory for riders. Hankens said that athletes cannot touch a bike without having their helmet on.

Hankens has tried different types of clothing in the triathlons she has run, but feels she will wear the tri-suit in Hawaii. This is a specially-developed type of wet suit, which can be worn comfortably when running and biking, as well as swimming. This enables the athlete to cut down on the transition time between events, as they do not have to change clothes.

Sunscreen is another important piece of "equipment" for the triathlete in Hawaii. Temperatures of 100 degrees are common, and winds are also often a factor in the competition, with speeds up to 60 miles per hour having been reported.

Deb Hankens is employed as a guidance counselor in the Cherokee School System, and also coaches the girls' cross-country team. Let me assure you that this is one coach who, though she may put her girls through tough workouts, will never ask the athletes to do something she wouldn't do herself.

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