SLO Triathlon draws athletes with ‘can-do’ spirit

Gene Gomez will be running the SLO Triathlon for the second year in a row.
Gene Gomez will be running the SLO Triathlon for the second year in a row.

Like it will be for many competitors in Sunday’s 32nd annual running, the 2010 SLO Triathlon was an introduction to the sport for Gene Gomez.

Event organizers always promote the race as a non-competitive, non-threatening way to get out and exercise, and the 1,000 entries a year are largely taken up by novice participants.

And that’s about the only typical aspect to the 49-year-old San Luis Obispo resident’s story.

Gomez is back for his second attempt at the Triathlon after last year’s 2 hour, 16 minute and 3 second swim, bike and run marked an important milestone in his 300-pound weight loss.

Since moving to the Central Coast in 2006 and joining a diet program in 2008, Gomez whittled his weight from 525 to 210 pounds. He’s kept it off since last year, and the Kennedy Club Fitness membership consultant has gotten in even better shape thanks to his determination to better his time.

“It was just like the next step,” Gomez said about his decision to enter last year’s race. “I’d lost the weight, and people had asked me ‘What are you going to do now?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to do a triathlon.’ I didn’t really know what it was about, but it kind of forced me to push though my training.

“I wasn’t swimming, biking or running that much. I started taking spin classes at Kennedy. The swim director showed me how to breathe on a piece of paper at the front desk. He showed me how to actually take three strokes, turn my head to the side and breathe. He gave me a couple pointers, too.”

Arroyo Grande High swimming coach Chris Stehula, a local triathlon pro and former Cuesta College athlete and Cal Poly club national triathlon champion, is also back for what’s become an annual romp though the course, which starts and ends at Sinsheimer Park and takes cyclists and runners on a route up and down Orcutt Road and the Railroad Recreational Trail.

Even though Stehula has had the best overall individual time six of the seven years he’s competed, including the past three, the spirit of the event is to celebrate people like Gomez and Robert Broughton, who city recreation supervisor Rich Ogden said will be the first Special Olympian to compete solo in Ogden’s 25 years as an organizer.

“Gene is one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met,” Stehula said. “He’s actually worked with a lot of people that were in a similar situation, and I know he’s changed a lot of people’s lives.”

Since last year, Gomez has run a marathon for the first time, and after walking the Miracle Miles for Kids 10K from Morro Bay to Cayucos on two occasions, he was finally able to run the entire 6.2-mile course for the first time.

He’s also done some public speaking and has helped inspire Kennedy to start a Biggest Loser program.

“It can be done,” Gomez said. “It’s not rocket science. You gotta eat right. You gotta change your lifestyle. If you change the way you eat and you exercise, your quality of life is going to be better.”

Ogden said he expects approximately 1,200 people to compete throughout the day Sunday. Though the maximum entries accepted is only 1,000, more than 80 teams are signed up.

The triathlon allows up to three people to split up the half–mile swim, 15.3-mile bike and 3.1-mile run that make up the race, which qualifies as a short-course or sprint triathlon.

Though a majority of the entrants hail from San Luis Obispo County, the triathlon is also a major draw for out-of-towners.

More than 35 percent of this year’s field list hometowns outside of the county borders, and 20 competitors have come in from out of state.

It’s a different side of the community than vacationers usually see.

“It’s great because of the way the community supports this event,” Gomez said. “As you’re going along out of the track, people are cheering for you, and people are sitting out on lawn chairs, clapping as you go along.”