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Competing for Wishes

McLean resident prepares for 23rd annual Make-A-Wish Triathlon.

John Scarry first started competing in triathlons after graduating from college. Given his athletic history, the running, swimming and cycling format of a triathlon seemed to be a perfect fit.

"I was a runner in high school and then I went out to college on the west coast and picked up surfing out there, so I felt like I had some good combinations as a runner and a swimmer and I thought I could be competitive," said Scarry.

Scarry, 37, has been competing in triathlons on and off since 1992. As he grew older, he found them to be a great way to stay in shape, but in the last three years, they have become a full-fledged passion.

"I started competing in the Ironman competitions, and that has kind of re-energized my commitment to the sport and raised my excitement about racing," said Scarry, who lives in McLean with his wife and two children. "Over the last three years I've really focused, so my fitness has changed completely from being just an average fit person to actually being able to race fairly competitively. I'm still at the learning stage though."

SCARRY HAS ONLY participated in two Ironman competitions to date, but he estimates that he has completed 30-40 triathlons over the course of his life. He is currently training for the 23rd annual Make-A-Wish Triathlon at Sea Colony in Bethany Beach, Del. The triathlon will take place on Sept. 23, and will help to raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation of the Mid-Atlantic.

"Our triathlon generally raises about $500,000," said Kevin Flintosh, public relations coordinator with the Make-A-Wish Foundation of the Mid-Atlantic. "It's our largest fund-raiser, so it's a pretty big deal for us. "

The Make-A-Wish Foundation of the Mid-Atlantic was founded in 1983 and serves residents of Maryland, Washington D.C. , Northern Virginia and Delaware. The foundation fulfills the wishes of children facing life-threatening medical conditions. The triathlon has a capacity for up to 1,000 participants, and usually registers anywhere between 900-1,000 people each year.

"It's good for us because it allows us to keep doing what we do," said Flintosh. "Fund-raising is a pretty time intensive process, so this is a good way to get people involved in a program and activity that is beneficial to them, but is also a good cause. It's a fun day at the beach, it's a physical activity, and it helps us to raise money to help grant the wishes of sick children."

Scarry has participated in several Make-A-Wish triathlons over the years.

"When I initially found this race it was sort of a bet about who could win between myself and another guy," said Scarry. "I didn't know anything about it, but since then I've gotten to know the organization, and it just seems to be very special as far as the things they do. At the race they usually bring out one of the children that is receiving a wish and talk about their situation, and it 's pretty heart-wrenching."

When participants register for the triathlon they sign a commitment to bring in at least $200 of donation money. Scarry said he typically asks his friends and family for contributions, and tries to collect as much as he can.

"It's amazing to see what some of these kids have gone through," said Scarry. "A lot of the stories have been very moving for me, and it feels good that they 're able to help young children out."

THE MAKE-A-WISH triathlon is made up of three segments – a 0.9-mile ocean swim, a 22.4-mile bike ride and a 6.2-mile run. Winners typically complete the course in approximately two hours. This year, Scarry hopes to come in at 2 hours and 5 minutes.

"It's the same distances that they use in the Olympics," said Scarry.

In contrast, an Ironman triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. However, according to Scarry, both competitions are incredibly taxing.

"The triathlon is shorter distances, but the intensity is a lot higher," he said.

To train for the Make-A-Wish triathlon, Scarry usually swims early in the morning before work and then runs either before his lunch break, or when he gets home. On the weekends he wakes up early to do a 60-mile bike ride, as well as a 10-mile run on Sunday mornings.

"That's just in the basic season," said Scarry. "During the Ironman peak season, I usually run anywhere from 18-20 miles."

Scarry tries to compete in one triathlon per year and said that he expects to improve his performance in the coming years. He currently falls into the 35-39 year-old age group, which is the most competitive triathlon category.

"Triathlons are mostly won by this age group," said Scarry. "You see a lot of people going back into the sport at that age, and also, your endurance increases as you get older."

Scarry partially attributes the increased endurance to the wisdom that comes with age.

"For marathon runners it becomes an endurance factor," said Scarry. "At the Ironman distance it becomes a race of strategy — you have to be smart about how you race instead of just trying to go fast."

Due to the extreme nature of triathlons, it is a given that all tri-athletes will hit a point of total exhaustion during some portion of the race.

"That's a part of the excitement of the sport — you can really find out what your limits are," said Scarry. "The sport becomes very mental."