At an outdoor cafe across from the Art Institute, two men are enjoying hefty portions of pasta, bread, salads, and chicken parmesan, twirling fettuccine into their skinny selves with the gusto of lumberjacks as a chubby gourmand journalist watches enviously.

The men are Chris Farrell, a Chicago folksinger who recently released his first album, Night Ballads, and David Houle, one of the owners of the cafe, Mania Mia! Pasta, a classy Italian fast-food restaurant that serves ample portions at very reasonable rates. Both are in training for their first international distance triathlon, the Chicago Bud Light USTS Triathlon, which is expected to draw its limit of 3,500 contestants. Starting this Sunday around 7 AM, Farrell and Houle both intend to swim 1.5 kilometers (roughly a mile) in the lake, then to bike 40 kilometers (not quite 25 miles) on Lake Shore Drive, and finally to run 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) along the lakefront. They expect to finish in about three hours.

Hitting the starch before a triathlon is one of the less onerous aspects of a triathlete’s preparation. “The weekend before the triathlon,” explains Houle, between gulps of whole-wheat fettuccine in butter, “I’ll really push myself on the bike, run, and swim so that I deplete all my energy reserves in my body. This week is an easy training week, so I’ll deprive myself of carbohydrates early in the week to create a craving for them. Then a couple days before the race, I’ll go into almost total carbohydrate consumption. The theory is that normal energy reserves will supply enough power for two hours of intense exercise. For a pro triathlete who finishes in less than two hours, that’s enough. But someone like me needs extra reserves to get him past the two-hour mark.

“One thing that you do to replenish reserves during the race is to drink some carbo-rich-liquid when you get on the bike after the swim–flat Coke, Gatorade, or Exceed. About the only other thing you can do to get you through that extra half hour or hour is to carbo-load before the race.”

Farrell comes up for air from a pasta tomato salad (tomato-basil pasta shells tossed with tuna, olives, mozzarella cheese, and Italian dressing) to explain the purpose of carbohydrate deprivation early in the week. “Scientifically, what you’re doing is stimulating the carbohydrate-storing enzyme.

“An important point which many people don’t understand is not to overeat,” Farrell continues. It’s called carbo-loading, not carbo-overloading. If you overeat, you can get into constipation or diarrhea problems.

“I don’t consciously carbo-load during training, but I have always eaten lots of carbohydrates. When I would do my weekly 20-mile run, when I was marathoning, I found that eating pizza, pasta, or doughnuts the night before would help me during the run.

Farrell, whose repertoire includes “Reason to Run” and “Jogging With Jesus,” the latter a favorite on WFMT’s Midnight Special, says that compared to marathoning, the triathlon “is a breeze–just because of the variety of the training and in the race itself. You’re not stuck doing one thing–in a marathon, for 3 hours and 28 minutes I was doing one thing.”

“Triathletics is a real accessible thing,” says Houle. “All it takes is a certain amount of physical fitness and a tremendous amount of dedication and commitment. On the other hand, it’s easy to run up a tab in this sport. This year, I’ve spent a thousand dollars on a bike, wet suit, running and other gear. It doesn’t need to be, but it’s become an upscale sport. If there are 3,500 people competing the Bud Light, there is probably four to five million dollars worth of equipment out there.”

The equipment gets a lot of use–even nonpros like Farrell and Houle train three hours a day, six days a week.

“In the off season, I lifted weights and did long runs and aerobics,” Farrell says. “That’s a base. But when it’s the time of year to do the sport, I stick with running, swimming, and biking. Three days a week, I’ll do a 2-mile swim, then a 10- or 12-mile run, and then a 25-mile bike ride; on alternate days, I’ll do easier versions of all three, and one day a week I rest.

“As the event approaches, I concentrate more on transitions–those are the tricky things. In a run, for instance, all you have to do is run. But after 85 or 90 minutes of bicycling in a triathlon, certain leg muscles get very swollen, so when you begin to run, your legs feel like lead. Plus, after zipping along on the bike, you feel as if you’re going slow motion. I found that had to hold myself back at the beginning of the run, because I felt that I was moving too slowly, when I was actually running so fast that I would die out toward the end. Mentally, it’s the weirdest thing to tell myself to go slower when I feel so lead-ass slow.”

Houle’s training has been totally event-related: “There’s a certain base level that you have to get to just to compete in a triathlon, and I decided just this year to compete in one. So I don’t do anything but the three events, because there is so much that I have to get to just to finish. I’m undertrained in terms of time, but adequately trained to finish. The joke in the sport is that you can’t work full-time and be a triathlete–the sport consumes you.”

While the moment of greatest challenge comes at the tail end of a marathon, Houle says that “the conventional wisdom is that the first two miles of the run is the hardest moment of the triathlon. From swimming to cycling is an easier transition, because you’re going from an upper body sport to a lower body sport. But from biking to running, you’re making the same muscle groups do different actions.”

“The hardest transition of all for me is the time of the event,” grouses Farrell, who as a musician works late into the night. “I’m used to getting to sleep at 5 or 6 in the morning–that day, I’ll have to get up at 4:30 or 5 AM having had enough sleep to be rested for a three-hour endurance event.”

Athletes will begin signing in at Illinois Street near the lake at 4 AM Sunday. The swimming from Oak Street back to the Illinois transition site will start with the stars like Scott Tinley, Paula Newby-Fraser, Joanne Ernst, and six-time Ironman champ Dave Scott at 7 AM. After them, swimmers will enter the water by age group; the top 50 finishers and the best in each age group will qualify for a national competition to be held in November at Hilton Head, South Carolina.

The winning time for the entire race should be “1:50, 2 hours, barring bad weather or high waves,” both first-timers agreed. Late entries for the triathlon will be taken Saturday between 8 AM and 4 PM at the Drake Hotel (space permitting)–$50 per person, $85 for relay teams (the money benefits the Midwest Association for Sickle-Cell Anemia).

Houle’s three Mama Mia! Pasta restaurants (116 S. Michigan, 145 N. Dearborn, and 711 N. State) are offering free second helpings of pasta to any triathlete bringing in a preregistration form on Friday or Saturday (the Dearborn location is closed on Saturdays, all are closed on Sundays). In fact, anyone entered in an endurance event this summer can get the same deal two days before his or her race–“It’s my way of networking with other athletes,” says Houle, frowning at my plate, the only one on the table still containing food.

As we carry our trays inside the spiffy tiled interior of the restaurant, Farrell voices his approval of the free seconds promotion: “Two of my primary reasons for athletics are vanity and gluttony.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Larry Rand.