They Might Be Giants

For Clydesdales, life on the run can be heavy going

"It's hard with women, a sort of double whammy," Smith says. "Of course, I only opened up the category at all because I didn't want to be sexist. And we don't call the women Clydesdales anymore, either. We got too many letters saying, 'Don't call me that.' Finally we came up with Bonniedale, as in Bonnie-and-Clydesdale."

"I call them Athenas," says Robert Vigorito, director of the Columbia Triathlon in Maryland. "I was always into Greek mythology, and she was the big goddess of something or other, so I suggested it to the USA Triathlon committee."

One of the reasons Vigorito landed on the Clydesdale committee was his proximity to Law, an enthusiastic participant in the Columbia Triathlon and a personal friend. "I was probably one of the last people to see him alive," Vigorito recalls. "It wasn't long after the Triathlon, he had had a great race, there was no sign of trauma or turmoil--but oh, man, he had his heart and soul in this Clydesdale thing. He always compared it to boxing: Would you put a 145-pound guy up against George Foreman just because both were professionally trained boxers? No, you would not.

"Law made this almost into a cult. He had seven, eight hundred members in his Clydesdale Running Club. He went around to races promoting his dream. It may have been too much," Vigorito concludes.

Had he lived, Law would have seen his dream come to life. Competition in Vigorito's Triathlon has intensified to the point that Clydesdale contestants must be weighed before the race in order to detect, and thus foil, thin wannabes. The Columbia Triathlon now serves as the Mid-Atlantic Regional Clydesdale Championship--and last year the Clydesdale category drew more than two hundred participants. In the men's division, that is.

"Women are still reluctant to enter this category," Vigorito adds. "They're reluctant to tell you their weight. Guys don't give a crap."

"Why do you think that is?" I ask.
"Well," Vigorito says, struggling for clarity, "a big guy is a big guy. A big woman--well, women carry more fat. It's notorious. A big woman isEwell, what?"

Despite their notorious fat, seven or eight women enter the Athena division of the Columbia Triathlon every year. The one who usually wins it, Vigorito says, "is a brick, a stone--just totally built, all 160 pounds of her."

The brick is actually Sue Altman, a former competitive swimmer who has just moved to Atlanta.

"Vig," she sighs. "I like him, but his real opinion is that for women, the Clydesdale division is a starter group that might give you incentive to lose weight. That's ridiculous. I'm 5'10" and 160 pounds. I'm built big-boned. I look like an athlete, but not like your classic real thin runner. I am never gonna be skinny, and to me that's under 150 pounds. One-fifty is light for me. Any lighter than that and I wouldn't have the energy to compete."

Though she went through a high school phase of "starving herself," the 33-year-old Altman has trouble being ashamed of her current weight and is disgusted by the small turnout in Athena categories.

"You have to put your weight on the Columbia Triathlon entry form," she says, "and one year Vig gave me a printout of all the women in the right weight range. I called 25 women across the country, trying to build interest, trying to get them to compete. But they didn't want to, and usually they said something like, 'I've been classified as big my whole life. I don't want to stick out anymore.'"

Parthenia Jones Potts thinks all athletes should stick out.
The 44-year-old Potts, a deputy marshal for the City of Aurora, has been a dedicated "heavyset runner" for twenty years. Six years ago she came up with the notion of starting a race series of her own, after completing the Bolder Boulder and noticing that "they only focus on people who win. I went the same distance," she recalls. "It just took me longer."

Potts holds four "Potts' Trotters" races every year, with the goal of recognizing every non-traditional runner in the pack. "I would give everyone an award when I had the money," she says. "I give out a caboose award to whoever finished last. The people who are seventy-some years old--I give them a bunch of awards. I give an award to whoever can answer my trivia question. And I knew the big women had no chance of winning in their age group, so I made them into a regular Clydesdale team, which is fun, fun, fun."

Instead of those T-shirts that Dave Alexander covets, Potts tries to give out "wonderful goodies"--which, in the past, have included coffee mugs, bouquets of flowers, tubes of deodorant and stained-glass ornaments. And sometimes she holds a very non-traditional race, at which contestants need only show up at the Aurora Police Department, run for as long as they like, and still receive a prize.

None of these hijinks masks the fact that Potts marks all entry fees for charity--always a good cause of a homegrown, immediate nature. "One of my friends had a double mastectomy, but the cancer is back and we need to pay some medical bills," she says of this year's June 22 race. "Basically, I raise money for people who are sick, when the big organizations can't do it fast enough. I try to make it fun, and it is."

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