In 1978, former Navy Capt. John Collins got into an argument with some of his buddies about which Hawaiian sporting event – the 2.4 mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the 26.2-mile Honolulu Marathon or the 112-mile bike race around Oahu – was the toughest?

The result of that debate is the Hawaii Ironman, the most famous and prestigious triathlon in the world. Since the birth of the Hawaii Ironman, many people have asked, “Why would anyone willingly subject themselves to those mind-boggling distances?”

“It’s the challenge,” said freshman triathlete Liz Alexander, one of the 35 members of UCSB’s triathlon club team. “It’s accomplishing something you didn’t think you were capable of.”

Though a collegiate triathlon consists of only a 0.9-mile swim, a 24.8-mile bike ride and a 6.2-mile run, it is nonetheless a grueling challenge few can begin to imagine.

Anyone who decides to spend some time with Santa Barbara’s triathlon squad will soon find the spirit of racing reflected in the student-athletes, who push themselves to their limits. Training consumes their schedules, with an average week involving five days of biking, running and swimming.

“It’s especially tough now, since [former Head Coach] Bert [Bolea] left,” senior team president Morgan Miles said. “It’s hard enough to get yourself to constantly train, but having to also get other people to train is pretty tough.”

Involved with the program since 1993, when he was an undergraduate at UCSB, Bolea recently left due to the financial strain of volunteering for a job as demanding as a triathlon coach.

“I’m most impressed with the reactions from everybody. Nobody quit,” Miles said. “It could have been very different. This is a fairly young team, and we could have slid a bit. But we stayed strong and I believe it’s going to pay off at nationals.”

On April 3-6, UCSB competed in Puerto Penasco, Mexico, which easily boasted the largest collegiate field the team will see until nationals.

“That was a lot of fun. Even though the swimming portion of the race was canceled because of the weather, it was a great time,” graduate student Matt Hirschey said. “The team really bonded.”

Hirschey placed fifth at the event, while Alexander took first place overall for the women – both outstanding finishes in a field that numbered nearly 200 collegiate racers.

The team will be in Arizona from April 24-27 for the USA Triathlon Collegiate Nationals. After that, UCSB will travel north to Lake San Antonio in Monterey County, Calif., home of the annual Wildflower Triathlon, the largest triathlon in the nation.

“We’re really looking forward to Wildflower,” Hirschey said. “It’s a great way to gauge yourself, because 6,000 triathletes will be there and there are some incredible athletes around.”