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Fifty and Fine: Bound for Reston Triathlon

Local Fiftysomethings prepare for Reston Triathlon on Sept. 8.

Presuming all goes according to plan this Sunday, local athletes, Maria Nusbaum of Reston and Jerry Bonnes of Herndon, will have completed a combined 19 Reston Triathlons between the two of them. After swimming one-mile, biking 22 more and running 10-kilometers, Bonnes will finish his 18th Reston race, Nusbaum her first. While there experience levels are varied, the goals for the veteran Bonnes and the rookie Nusbaum are the same. "Finish, just finish," they said.

Nearly six hundred athletes, including local favorites Nusbaum and Bonnes, will descend upon Northern Virginia this Sunday for the 19th Annual Reston Triathlon when the gun sounds at 7 a.m. at Lake Audubon.

Surely, there was a time when seasoned athletes like Bonnes, whose wife Bunny is one of the event's directors, would set goals about finish times and placement. That was before 1998 when the owner of Mail Boxes Etc. franchise in Reston's Plaza America went under surgery to have his "heart rewired." Today, just finishing is victory enough for the 55-year-old father of two grown daughters.

Undoubtedly, there will come a time when rookie triathletes like Nusbaum, who has volunteered at Reston's annual fitness event for several years, will set goals about finish time and placement. "That time will probably come next year," she said. "First, I need a time to build upon and to shoot for later and that comes this year." Today, just finishing will be satisfying enough for the 50-year-old native Colombian.

<b>"I'VE DONE EVERY </b>single race but one," Bonnes, the Pennsylvania-native, said. "That was the year I was physically unable to perform." The year was 1998 and Bonnes' health had deteriorated because of his endocarditas, an inflammation of the heart valve lining. In September of 1998, he sat on the sidelines wearing an intravenous pump that rushed antibiotics into his blood to fight off infections, and potentially deadly, bacteria. A mile swim was out of the question, his doctors told him. Grudgingly, he listened. This local Ironman's streak was snapped, but his will was not. Bonnes had surgery to repair the faulty valve in his heart on Feb. 8, 1999; seven months later, he picked up where he left off. "Fortunately, I was able to do the race the following September," he said with his trademark modesty. "There was never any doubt in my mind that I wouldn't at least try."

Before and after the surgery, Bonnes said he does have goals, before adding: "I usually never meet them."

Bunny, Bonnes' wife, said she was in full support of his comeback. "He's pretty special," she said, while sorting through a pile of maps of this year's course.

Much like Bunny Bonnes, John Nusbaum, Maria's husband, has been supportive of his wife's exhausting training sessions. "He's very supportive, I go swimming from 8 to 9:30 and the poor guy is home all by himself."

It was John who convinced Maria to give the triathlon a shot. Part dare, part challenge, John, Maria and four friends agreed to train for and compete in the 2002 edition of the Reston Triathlon. Three of the six people, including John, backed out of the event. "It was John's idea to do the Triathlon, but then once we got in he quit on me," she said, laughing. "Two months after coming up with the idea, he went back to Bunny and asked for his money back."

<b>WHILE BONNES' PERSONAL BEST</b> in the Reston event is two hours and 28 minutes. The Herndon resident and Reston shop owner has set his sights on three hours this year. In the 1999 race, after his operation, Bonnes, understandably, came in at 3:20, nearly one hour more than his best time.

Another year has gone by since Bonnes' surgery and his health has improved. "My biking and swimming has come back," he said. "The running hasn't."

With a re-tooled ticker and aging knees, Bonnes says he isn't the runner he once was. "It's difficult and I don't always relish getting out there and running," he said. "But you know what? One good run wipes out all of the memories of the bad runs."

Like Bonnes, and many triathlon competitors, Nusbaum has a "weakest link." For the four-foot, 11-inch, long-distance runner, it is the bike portion.

"I'm nervous about the biking part. The biking part makes me very uptight," she said. Because of her four-foot, 11-inch frame, Nusbaum had to special order her bike; she couldn't start training until it arrived earlier this spring. "You can't just go to a bike store and buy a bike for someone my size," she said. "I am very confident in the water, I might not be fast, but I know at least I can do it. With running, you fall down but you get back up, but you don't break anything. I have never had a biking accident, so that's what makes me scared."

Nusbaum has fallen down while running (she has three stress fractures to prove it), but she insists that those injuries were "nothing big."

If biking is her chief worry, running is her strength. "I love to run," she said. Nusbaum has five marathons under her built, including the 100th running of the famous Boston Marathon. In fact, marathons are like a cakewalk for this 50-year-old. Nusbaum clearly isn't satisfied with 26 miles, because she has run three 50-mile-long distance races — the JFK— in Maryland. Each race lasted around ten hours from start to finish.

<b>AT HIS PEAK</b>, Bonnes would swim, bike and run in three to four triathlons a year, he estimated that he has participated in nearly 40 triathlons since his mid-30s, but Reston is the only one he has done since his health scare. Perhaps the most asked question of a triathlete is: Why keep doing it? "It gives me a focus, because otherwise I probably wouldn't do the biking, the swimming, the running."

And Bonnes, who is a member of the Reston Runners and bike clubs, shows no signs of letting up soon. "There are five people that have done every race, and 10 that have done all but one and none of us are going to give up soon," the veteran said laughing. "So I guess we have as many races in us as we can physically do."

It all started in 1981, when at the age of 34, Bonnes decided he was out of shape and overweight. "I needed to do something," he remembered thinking. He said that he couldn't even run a quarter of a mile when he first started. Bonnes was a quick study. He ran his first marathon in 1982 and his first triathlon in 1984. Later that same year, he ran the world-famous Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii, the holy grail for triathletes; in fact, Bonnes used the first Reston triathlon in 1984, to train for Iron-man in Hawaii.

<b>DESPITE HEALTH PROBLEMS</b>, Bonnes has kept at it. "I don't just do it to train," he said. "I love to do it."

So does the veteran have advice to novices like Nusbaum? "Two things, first realize they are starting from ground zero and second when you are doing an event that is where fantasy meets reality," he said. "Like anything, if you have a focus on a goal, and you want to achieve that goal then you will do whatever is required to attain it."

Bonnes said it is common for someone to watch a sport and then "try it at home."

"When you are watching any sport, it is easy to say, 'hey, that looks easy, I am going to try that,'" he said. "But the reality is that when you do the event, you realize 'hey, this is hard.' Newcomers must train and make the commitment. It's just a matter of putting out the effort."

One look at Nusbaum's regimented four-month long training schedule, and veterans like Bonnes can see the potential for success.

Nusbaum, sounding like a Nike ad from the 1990s has only one piece of advice for the for people thinking of training for their first triathlon. "Just do it. Start training and enjoy the training and just do it for fun the first time."