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West Fargo High School junior Alec Rowland runs during his Life and Fitness Triathlon class. Submitted photo

West Fargo High School gives new class a tri

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Competing in a triathlon is not for the faint of heart - or body, for that matter. Individually racing in swimming, biking or running is tough enough, but doing all three at once takes a high degree of dedication and overall fitness.

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Until recently, most would-be triathloners had to train for race day on their own. But a handful of students at West Fargo High School are getting hands-on experience and a guiding hand - and earning school credits, too.

Life and Fitness Triathlon is one of more than a half dozen new classes offered through the WFHS physical education department for the 2011-12 school year. These classes, which range from Aerobic Dance to Advanced Strength Training, were created for one purpose: to help students get fit and stay fit past graduation.

"With childhood obesity on the rise, it's important that we promote physical activity by helping students find activities they enjoy," WFHS physical education teacher Leah Swedberg said. "When people find enjoyment in physical activity, they are more likely to stick with it and carry it with them into the future."

Life and Fitness Triathlon - the first triathlon-based course in the Fargo-Moorhead area - is an example of efforts by educators to give students more options aside from general physical education classes. And while the triathlon course only garnered about 12 students its first go-around, the response during its inaugural quarter has been more than positive.

"There's a buzz about it," Swedberg said.

In fact, of her dozen pupils, Swedberg said six have expressed interest in coming back next year to take it again.

One of them is Alec Rowland. The junior raced during the Prairie Rose Games last summer, competing alongside his cousin and aunt in the triathlon. Rowland thought a course focusing solely on the triathlon might help him train during the school year, but said he honestly didn't know what it would entail.

"I figured we'd go into it and do some running and biking, but I had no idea we'd be swimming twice a week, too," Rowland said.

An Olympic-distance triathlon consists of a 0.92-mile swim, a 24.8-mile bike ride, and a 6.2-mile run. Racing such a gauntlet is a test even for seasoned veterans, which is why the West Fargo phys-ed class will be shooting for a sprint-distance triathlon comprised of a 0.47-mile swim, 12.4-mile bike ride, and 3.1-mile run.

While running only requires a pair of good sneakers, which most kids have, the other two legs require a bit of specialized equipment.

The physical education department supplied Swedberg's class with goggles for swimming, and Sanford Health donated 20 helmets for the bike ride.

As for bikes themselves, Swedberg said they had planned to use stationary bikes at first. But after the students came, most were able to supply their own bikes. The West Fargo Police Department also donated a bike to a student who did not have one, Swedberg said.

With equipment in place, all that remained was the training. Along with student-teacher Lance Wittnebel of Minnesota State University-Moorhead, Swedberg designed her course with "a prescription on what I think would lead to good results, and it's up to (the students) to follow it," she said.

And while her pupils spend most days training their bodies, they shift gear one day to focus on their brains.

"Fridays we either do a field trip or have speakers, or go to the computer lab" for research, Swedberg said.

This quarter, for instance, the students traveled to the Great Northern Bike Shop in downtown Fargo to learn more about their pedaled modes of transportation. Local triathlon athletes also recently paid a visit to the class, giving the students first-hand knowledge from their racing experiences.

When surfing the internet, students look up "the history of triathlons, or how to transition from one event to another," which can be the most difficult part of the race, Swedberg said. Learning about nutrition, and specifically what to eat while training, and before, during and after races, is key, too, she said.

Last weekend, the triathloners in training took part in a "trial run;" a 50-minute indoor race broken into a 10-minute swim, a 20-minute bike in the cycling studio, and a 20-minute treadmill run. Swedberg said the idea was to see how far athletes traveled in the given time period, so they could have a number to shoot for in an actual race.

That race will be Oct. 25 at 8:30 a.m. beginning at the LE Berger Pool and ending at the high school track. At that time, the students will have trained for eight weeks.

For Rowland, the day will be something to celebrate; a culmination of all his and his fellow classmates hard work throughout the quarter.

"I absolutely love it; it's so much fun," he said. "It gets you going every day and wakes you up because it's a morning class.

"And it's a great class, and I encourage people that want to push themselves to take it. It's really fun."

For Swedberg, she'll just be happy if every one of her students has the opportunity to cross the tape.

"My only goal for the students is that they finish the sprint triathlon with a smile on their faces," she said.

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