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An unlikely triathlete

Saugus resident bids on prize and ends up at the Los Angeles Triathlon

Posted: December 3, 2009 8:56 p.m.
Updated: December 4, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Jim Pilarski of Saugus holds up the medal he earned by participating in the 2009 Los Angeles Triathlon.

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He thought he was buying a personal training package for his wife Stella. That’s why Jim Pilarski bid $1,200 on the live auction item at the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Clarita Valley fundraiser in June.

Pilarski never anticipated what was really in the basket — an entrance into the Los Angeles Triathlon and a full range of tools such as a wetsuit, goggles, tennis shoes, and nutritional supplements to complete the task. It also included 10 training sessions with Andrew Gallardo, SCV Boys & Girls Club board member and regional fitness director of Kaiser Permanente, a triathlon sponsor.

“At first I thought, holy smoke,” Pilarksi said. “It turned out that basket was worth every dime.”

A self-employed land surveyor, Pilarski, 64, hadn’t seriously exercised in years. Up until he was 55, Pilarski ran 10K marathons and weighed 25 pounds less.

In the 1970s, during gas rationing, he would ride his bicycle to work from Sylmar to Van Nuys daily, a round trip of 30 miles.

But at 55, Pilarski developed prostate cancer, from which he recovered, though the process had slowed him down considerably.
“I turned into a couch potato, a sissy,” he said.

With the Oct. 4 triathlon as motivation, Pilarski resumed his formerly athletic routine — and then some — to train for the grueling event which included a 3.3-mile run, 14-mile bike ride, and half-mile swim in the Pacific Ocean.

That was the sprint course — the Olympic route entailed twice that.

Instead of running, as Pilarski suffers from cartilage damage in one knee, he and Stella started taking 3- to 4- mile “power” walks together up to three times a week.

“I call it jiggling,” he said.

Frequent bike rides from his home in Saugus to Sand Canyon became part of Pilarski’s new regime, as did pool training sessions with Gallardo every Wednesday.

The duo also spent some Sundays at Santa Monica Beach, practicing getting in and out of the waves.

“Jim was determined to get better in the swim, which is always the hardest part of a triathlon for most people. I knew that since he was tackling the hardest part, he would do well in the event,” Gallardo said. “I could sense that he knew how incredible crossing that finish line was going to be.”

Pilarski said Gallardo was a conscientious trainer.

“I’m not sure if Andy would be the same with younger folks,” Pilarski said. “He was like my son, making sure dad didn’t croak.”

Far from it. At first, Pilarksi could only complete four laps in the 25-meter pool before having to stop — as the event got closer, he worked up to 24 laps or 2,800 feet, in an hour.

He could bicycle for 15 miles without a problem.

He was ready to tackle the triathlon.

The morning of Oct. 4, Pilarski, Stella Pilarski and Andy Gallardo hit the streets of Los Angeles along with 6,000 participants broken down into different categories.

“At 40 pounds overweight, I was in the category called Clydesdale,” Pilarski said.

The swim was first.  With waves breaking at eight to 10 feet and a storm coming in, the conditions almost led to that portion of the event being cancelled.

Though his wife pleaded with him not to go through with the swim, Pilarski was undeterred.

He donned his wetsuit and took the plunge.

“It was daunting, but I wasn’t afraid. I had gotten used to the waves,” he said. “During a trial swim, I found out that my wet suit was buoyant, so if I got tired, I could just stop and still pop up like a cork.”

Next was the bike ride, which Pilarski felt most confident about.

He was riding along at a pace of 22 mph from Venice Boulevard to the Staples Center, getting fatigued, when he heard a strange voice from the sidelines.

It belonged to an elderly woman who was rooting him on. “Come on,” she said. “You can do this.”

As Pilarski rolled along, he high-fived his newfound fan. The run was last and Pilarski padded along, slowly doing his power walk, watching from behind as the pack moved ahead of him.

Two women passed him when he reached the Walt Disney Concert Hall — they were running the route backwards.
“Showoffs,” he called after them with a smile.

A rather chunky woman started to pass Pilarski next. He said “Good for you, kiddo” and she responded with the fact that she had twins just three months earlier.

“I couldn’t believe I got smoked by her,” Pilarski said.

Pilarski chided the people at the Gatorade stands along the way, telling them not to leave until he had passed.

As he came up Grand Avenue, he heard yet another voice in the distance, this time a familiar one calling for grandpa.

“I wasn’t expecting my family to show up so early. I thought they would just be at the finish line,” Pilarski said.

Gallardo joined Pilarski on the course toward the conclusion, encouraging his protégé, who said he never had a doubt about the end result.

“I was in the Marine Corps and there’s no quitting. I had been trained to complete the mission and even if I had to crawl over the finish line, I was crossing it,” Pilarski said.

He crossed over it standing, though admittedly exhausted from the effort.

“Jim did so great. He stayed calm and composed from the start. It’s very easy to get nervous watching all of the people and action, but he was ready to go,” Gallardo said.

“I think next to his wife, I was the proudest one to watch him cross that finish line,” Gallardo added.

Stella Pilarski couldn’t stop beaming at her husband.

“It was so emotional, I was like, ‘Oh my God, he finished.’ It’s such an accomplishment. It still gives me chills,” Stella Pilarski said.

Pilarski was pleasantly surprised to receive a 2009 L.A. Triathlon medal for participation; he assumed only winners scored that honor.

The colorful medal serves as motivation, as he plans on entering the 2010 event. Only he won’t be alone — Pilarski’s niece and a family friend have vowed to join him.

And don’t count him out for 2011, 2012 and so on.

“I will do this as long as I can,” Pilarski said.

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