April  23, 2008

Starting His Retirement with a Splash

 

By Pete Williams

 

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Jeff Conine could have filled the first months of his post-baseball career with golf, fishing and travel — the usual pursuits that a 41-year-old with financial security might enjoy.

Instead, Conine, a 17-year veteran of six big-league teams, has spent long hours swimming, cycling and running in preparation for an ambitious triathlon schedule that will culminate in the Ironman world championship in Kona, Hawaii, in October. Several former teammates, accustomed to the less rigorous conditioning of baseball, have questioned his sanity.

“Guys in my position are supposed to sit back and relax, not do something ridiculous like this,” said Conine, who lives in South Florida and will make his triathlon debut here Sunday at the St. Anthony’s Triathlon.

The race attracts more than 4,000 competitors and is considered the kickoff to the sport’s national calendar. As an Olympic-distance event (0.93-mile swim, 24.8-mile bike ride, and 6.2-mile run), it is a small fraction of the grueling Ironman distance race, but longer than entry-level sprint triathlons.

Conine spent the final six weeks of last season with the Mets and is best known for his role as a first baseman and outfielder for the Florida Marlins teams that won the World Series in 1997 and 2003. A longtime follower of the Ironman world championship, he was inspired to take up the sport by David Samson, the Marlins’ president, who finished the event in 2006.

Conine, who stands 6 feet 1 inch, finished last season at 220 pounds, heavy by triathlon standards, and until recently had limited swimming experience. But he was regarded as one of baseball’s better athletes, having played professional racquetball as a minor leaguer.

He certainly looks the part, having been told for years that he resembles Lance Armstrong, a likeness that seems more pronounced as Conine loses weight while training.

Though baseball is an anaerobic sport with short bursts of activity, unlike the long aerobic nature of triathlon, Conine believes the experience of playing a mentally taxing sport over a 162-game season will ease his transition.

“It’s all about being mentally tough,” he said. “With long-distance triathlon, it’s all about knowing when to push your body and when to rest and persevering through these boring six-hour rides and three-hour runs.”

After the St. Anthony’s Triathlon, Conine plans to complete half-Ironman distance events (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run) in Orlando next month and in New Hampshire in August, working his way toward the Ironman world championship.

Most triathletes must either qualify or win a lottery spot for entry into that event. World Triathlon Corp., Ironman’s Florida-based parent company, granted Conine one of several special invitations given to athletes with compelling stories, according to the W.T.C.

The Ironman made its debut in 1978, combining three popular Hawaii races: the Waikiki Roughwater Swim (2.4 miles), the Around-Oahu Bike Race (112 miles) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles). W.T.C. stages 22 Ironman-distance races worldwide, though the year-end Hawaii event is considered the most prestigious.

“It’s the most grueling test in sports, and for some odd reason that really appeals to me,” Conine said. “I figured the first year of retirement is the time I’ll figure out what to do with the rest of my life, so why not take on the biggie now?”

Though Conine’s baseball career did not officially end until last month, when he signed a one-day contract to retire as a member of the Marlins, he had no plans to return this year and began triathlon training in October. He left baseball with no lingering ailments, but broke a collarbone the day after Christmas after falling off of his bike. Surgery followed a week later, and it was not until March that he

was fully recovered.

A typical training week for Conine this month has included nine workouts, including back-to-back “bricks” of two of the three triathlon disciplines. Two days consist of swimming 2,000 meters, followed by running for about an hour. At least once a week, he will bike for 2 hours 40 minutes, followed by a 30-minute run.

Conine rides a Cervelo P3C, a carbon-frame triathlon bicycle that retails for $4,500, mostly through Weston, the upscale community west of Fort Lauderdale where he lives. He swims at a pool and at a nearby lake, thus far without a wet suit, though he expects to wear one Sunday, when temperatures in Tampa Bay are expected to be only in the low 70s. His 12-year-old daughter, Sierra, will compete in a shorter, children’s division of the St. Anthony’s Triathlon on Saturday.

Conine figures he would go unnoticed during the event even if he was not wearing some combination of wet suit, swim goggles and cap, bike helmet and sunglasses. He certainly will not cause the stir Anna Kournikova did two weeks ago by running a relay leg of the Nautica Triathlon in Miami.

Conine says he has no plans to pursue the pro triathlon circuit, though he continues to wear the footwear and sunglasses of companies he endorsed as a baseball player. He will have plenty of reminders of his former career Sunday when the bike course takes him past Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays. The transition area is adjacent to a hotel where he stayed as a player.

“I keep telling myself I’m not looking to set the world on fire; I just want to finish,” Conine said. “But I’m sure once it starts, the competitive juices will be flowing.”

 

© Copyright 2008 The New York Times

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