Thursday, May 27, 2010

BLOOMINGTON -- Triathlete Mike Bernico isn't sure how much he weighed at his peak two years ago. His scale didn't go higher than 380, and the needle was pinned.

"I was almost 400," guessed the technical analyst at State Farm Insurance Cos.

He stood 5 feet, 10 inches tall and his waist was 50 inches around. Today, Bernico, 32, weighs 178 pounds as he prepares for the upcoming Tri Sharks Classic Triathlon at Comlara Park near Hudson on June 5. His body fat measures just 8.1 percent. His waist is 32 inches.

Bernico made small lifestyle changes at first.

"Like not having an entire pizza for dinner," he said with a smile.

Better menus and portion control came next. At 330 pounds, he started strength training. He bought a recumbent bicycle trainer and started to spin his legs. His knee withstood the challenge. After a time, he bought a road bike and rode outside. By the end of 2008, he could go up to 60 miles at a time.

That's when someone urged him to complete a triathlon, where participants are timed as they swim, bike and run. One of the fastest growing sports in America, participation grew by nearly 70 percent to nearly 1.1 million from 2006-2008, according to the Outdoor Foundation. USA Triathlon, the sports governing organization, had 53,000 members in 2004. That number is more than twice that today.

Approached with the idea of being a triathlete, Bernico's response was, "No way."

But he found a couch-to-5K (3.1 mile) training course that gradually ramps up running time and distance. He practiced swimming. He did a short triathlon in Sullivan in April 2009.

Last June, he found himself on the shore of Evergreen Lake at Comlara Park with other triathletes ready to hit the water at the start of the Tri-Sharks Classic Triathlon, a sprint-distance race named after Bloomington's triathlon club. Athletes swim 600 yards, bike 12.5 miles and run 3.1 miles.

McLean County is becoming a hub of triathlon and endurance sports in Illinois and the Midwest. The field of 600 fills up in a matter of minutes when registration opens several months before the event, said race director Colleen Klein. Bernico will be joined by his fiancée, Lana Fryer, 27, a Bloomington pharmacist, who will compete in her first triathlon.

Mike Mikel of Bloomington also will do his first sprint triathlon. Mikel started bike riding and later added swimming and running to get back in shape before he turned 40. He signed up for the triathlon when he realized he was doing all three sports during workouts.

"This (competing in triathlons) gives me another goal," said Mikel, who also is using triathlons as a way to raise money for The Children's Foundation of Children's Home + Aid, where he is a board member. (See the outdoor column on F-1.) The Children's Foundation will be title charity sponsor for the Tri Sharks Classic in 2011.

As for Bernico, he plans to do an Olympic-distance race at the Evergreen International Triathlon July 17 at Comlara Park, where he placed fifth in his age group last year. Distances are doubled to 1,200 yards in the water, 25 miles on a bike and a 6.2 mile run. He also will compete at Steelhead, a half Ironman in Bentown Harbor, Mich., at the end of July.

In 2011, he plans to complete an Ironman triathlon, which many consider the most grueling athletic test of all. The race tests the limits of physical endurance with a swim of 2.4 miles, a bike competition of 112 miles and a marathon distance run of 26.2 miles. Competitors must complete the entire 140.6 miles in 17 hours. Bernico, who blogs at, weighs and logs everything he eats now. Those small healthy changes have led to a diet without processed foods.

"I'm very careful," he said.

Still, he exercises so much now he still loses weight even though he's eating a normal 3,000 calories a day. The irony amuses him.

"I'll just have to eat more," he said, with a laugh.

Perhaps more important than the weight loss is the attitude change that has accompanied his transition, he said. He's gone through tough times with a more positive outlook.

"It's changed everything in my life," Bernico said. "It's brought a different perspective into things. I've learned about nutrition, staying active and healthy, but I've learned no matter how bad things get, no matter what happens, I can suffer through it. After you do a triathlon, there is nothing you can't do. It's the triathlete mindset."


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