June 15, 2003 11:00 pm
Nicki Ebel ().
Nicki Ebel ().

By Pierre LaBossire

Observer Staff Writer

The Second Annual Solstice Triathlon set for Saturday in the mountains, above La Grande, attracts all sorts of athletes from states all over the Pacific Northwest.

But one of the things all the athletes have in common is that they'd be serious about what they're getting into when they come to Morgan Lake.

La Grande's Nicki Ebel and Mary Ellen LaBerge are at opposite ends of the spectrum of the kinds of athletes drawn to triathlons.

Ebel will be participating in her first triathlon and admits being worried that she might be "way out of my depth." LaBerge, who helped organize the formation of this triathlon, is a veteran of many triathlons and marathons, particularly in Alaska. LaBerge also points out that Ebel has been doing great in her training.

Ebel doesn't have a goal of finishing in a certain time or place. She is simply hoping to finish, period. (Ebel added she wants to finish without having to stop on the steep hills, but she was told numerous people last year had to get off their bikes on some hills and push.) Meanwhile LaBerge, who trains with her dog Maggie, says she's "in it for the fun of it."

Ebel decided to try out the triathlon as a goal to help her get back in shape after being pregnant (she gave birth to her fourth child, Callum, in November).

She said she had some swimming experience, but was new to the cross country running and mountain biking. She's gained the confidence that she can handle the distances involved in this triathlon. "It's not the distance, it's the terrain that's the challenge," she said.

While the rugged terrain is tough, she's finding herself more and more enthusiastic about the training.

"I enjoy the riding aspect. I don't want to run or cycle on roads anymore," she said.

"I'm pretty hooked," she said, adding jokingly, "maybe I won't be hooked after the triathlon."

LaBerge agreed that the distances are not that daunting. The swim is one kilometer, the bike ride is 20K and the trail run is 10K. But, because of the elevations ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 feet and rough terrain, many triathletes have told her "it's as depleting" as longer triathlons. She said other than a triathlon in Bend, there isn't anything like this event in Oregon, and because of the unique nature of the race, the event is part of the XTERRA Points Series.

LaBerge said that when James Hasse, one of the triathlon co-organizers, designed the course last year, he put together a more challenging route than expected on trails and old roads winding through and up and down the Blue Mountains. At first, she thought, "no way in hell people will do this."

After competitors were asked to evaluate the triathlon last year, they registered some complaints that the running and mountain bike courses were too technical. But, LaBerge said that almost to a tee, they added, "don't change a thing.

"They were saying, ‘it's very difficult, but we like it,'" she said.

LaBerge said some of the competitors were concerned about the condition of Morgan Lake before last year's inaugural event, but later said the water was perfect. Ebel said she is overcoming a mental block of swimming in Morgan Lake. "I was imagining the fish swimming right past you," she said.

Ebel said one of the reasons she's been able to train for the event is the encouragement of her husband, Dave, and three older boys, Joshua and Bryce, both 5, and Michael, 3.

"You have to have the support of the rest of your family," she said. She added that Joshua and Bryce understand she's training very hard for a difficult race, though they "don't really have the concept that it's not a race. They keep asking me if I'm going to win."

LaBerge said competitors will come from all around Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Colorado and California. She said triathlon organizers are trying to get more locals involved, especially local men. "There's a great group of local women beating ourselves up out there," she said. "It just takes heart and guts."