Try homestay instead of a hotel next time you travel to race

Getting plenty of sleep and rest is one thing you can do to minimize the duration of an illness.  Credit: Photodisc
Inspired by the chance to help out their small Maryland community, Lex and Fred Pomeroy hosted three triathletes during the Blackwater Eagleman Half Ironman last June. Two of the athletes arrived the day before the race without a hitch.

Then I, the third athlete, called from Chicago.

Id missed my flight and couldnt get in until after midnight. Would that be a problem?

Of course it was (as it would be for most people, anyway). But the Pomeroys, whom Id never met, assured me everything would be fine. While I frantically paced around the airport, Lex picked up my race numbers. She left me encouraging messages on my home voice mail.

At 12:30 a.m., she pulled into a closed gas station in Cambridge, and led me along the dark rural roads back to their cozy farmhouse. And when I began assembling my bike in their living room at 1:30 a.m., just six hours before the race, she and Fred provided critical moral support.

It was soon obvious that meeting the Pomeroys would be the most rewarding part of a long, frustrating weekend. While saving money in an already-expensive sport is one of the greatest advantages, the intangible benefits homestays provide for both the racers and the community especially the friendships that generally form are a few reasons why race directors are increasingly trying to offer them as an alternative.

Informal homestays, of course, have been available across the world since triathlon began. But several Ironman qualifiers, including Ironman Lake Placid, Ironman Florida, Ironman Austria, Half Vineman Triathlon, Buffalo Springs Lake Triathlon and Quelle Ironman Europe, offer a limited number of homestays for professionals and foreign athletes. Other races, like Ironman Australia, hope to have the program in place for the 2001 season.

In Chicago, local age groupers are asked to open their homes for the Mrs. T's Triathlon, an opportunity packaged as a chance to Impress your friends! Host a professional triathlete! (Not to mention a chance to pick up free race advice.) Amateurs, meanwhile, are encouraged to stay in hotels and contribute to the local economy.

Ive come to love homestays, says pro Victor Plata, who has stayed in more than 25 homes during his three-year career, and keeps in touch with all of his former hosts.

Its not absolutely necessary for me anymore, but I prefer them over hotels. The beautiful thing is that 90 percent of the time youre with someone familiar with the sport and theyre excited about having you there. Plus, youre miles from home and you have an instant fan, screaming for you at the race.

Race directors in some smaller rural markets, like Cambridge, Md., where Blackwater is held, use homestay to alleviate a severe lodging shortage as well as to involve the community. Blackwater, which finds places for both age groupers and professionals, started homestay three years ago when the number of entrants soared from 200 to 600.

Last June, about 95 local families in the Cambridge area hosted more than 200 athletes, a figure that doesnt include the number who returned to their host family from the previous years race without notifying the race director.

We discovered this community is very slow to grasp something new, and the significance of an Ironman qualifier hadnt dawned on them, says volunteer coordinator Jerry Boyle. The race happens so quickly and people leave so quickly, the community doesn't grasp what exposure it brings, even internationally. Homestay is a way of spreading the word. Its as much for the community as it is for the athletes.

Days after the race, Boyle was continuing to field calls from residents who had to comment on how much they enjoyed putting up triathletes. This understandably lifted his spirits since he was also fielding complaints about Gatorade cup litter.

One of his volunteers hosted 11 couples. Another family held a massive dinner party for some of the athletes on their private island.

When we put up an athlete with a family," Boyle says, "suddenly we have volunteers, spectators and more and more people involved each year. Thats one of the spinoffs."

Homestays obviously vary; some places are palaces, others are merely a place to lay your head to rest. Some hosts pick up triathletes at the airport, take them grocery shopping, make them dinner, drive them around the course, show them where to train and arrive at the finish line or the hospital to collect their crumpled athlete.

Last year Plata crashed during a race at Oceanside and his host, Sally Hampton, tracked him down at the emergency room.

She made sure I got back to the race site, got my gear and got to the airport, Plata remembers. That one really made a big difference for me.

Other hosts are more hands-off. They provide a key, a bed, a shower and let the athlete do his or her own thing. Athletes who value their privacy and solitude before a race should probably fork out the money for a hotel room. If you need to be in the zone before a race, forget it. You will likely be invited to do something with your hosts, their children or their pets.

For people who want privacy it might be rude to stay in a homestay and not socialize because that is [the host's] enjoyment, said Chicagos Lara Fermanis, who stayed two nights with the Frego family in Cambridge with her friend Polly Reese. That is why they open their home. They want to meet people outside their community. Youre not paying with money. Youre paying with social aspects and allowing people to get to know you.

One of the greatest benefits, however, is the lasting friendships that can form. Ann Snoeyenbos, 35, a triathlete from New York City, first stayed with Bermudas Mark and Susie Edmonds when she competed in the Bermuda Tri-Gatorade five years ago. Snoeyenbos has since returned to the Edmonds home on five occasions; the Edmonds have traveled to New York to run five New York City Marathons. In addition, Snoeyenbos has skied with the Edmonds and was one of two off-island guests at their wedding.

Last year, Mark Edmonds crewed for her during a double Ironman. We just got along so well, said Snoeynbos, a reference librarian training for Earth Journey, a three-day double Ironman. Now when I go back, I travel with people who dont care about the race and go just for the homestay.

And though I was easily the Pomeroys' most high-maintenance guest, their generosity continued well after the race. Lex invited me to stay another night and when I had to decline, she fed me pie and packed food for my plane trip home.

Already, I know I will take her up on her offer to stay with their family next year. Despite disappointing race results, the homestay made the entire trip worthwhile.

Coming next: Tips for homestay.

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