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MOST ATHLETES tend to think of themselves as athletes their whole lives. They talk the talk long after they stopped walking the walk. Even when they're fortysomething and their waistline is expanding like the base of an avalance, they still see themselves as being in better shape, more athletic, than your average person.

Which may or may not be true.In the case of former Ute offensive lineman Darryl Haley, it's true. Not only is he in better shape than the average person, he's in better shape than most athletes.

Haley, who spent eight years in the NFL with Cleveland and New England, is currently in training for the Oct. 7 Gatorade Ironman Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii. He'll not only be talking the talk, he'll also be swimming the swim, running the run and, of course, riding the ride.

"You've got to be kidding," said Ute football coach Ron McBride, who coached the offensive line when Haley played. "The guy could hardly get through a practice when he started here."

Of all the world's extreme sporting events, Hawaii's Ironman Triathlon is among the most mythical. It's a race in which several hundred people with a body fat lower than Hideo Nomo's ERA get together to see how much punishment they can take. They swim 2.4 miles in the ocean, bike 112 miles and, just for good measure, run 26 miles.

Triathlons attract a particular type; people for whom running a marathon isn't enough. While most people could swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles or run a marathon and feel good about their conditioning, triathletes do all three. In the same day.

Some triathletes, such as Haley, say they are filling the void left when they got out of competitive athletics. After retiring from the NFL, Haley stayed active, if not exactly in shape. Friends asked him to go to the gym for basketball or raquetball and he'd comply, only to find himself wondering what he was doing there.

"It wasn't the same," he said. "There was a huge void."

In Haley's case, a particularly huge void, since he was 6-6 and weighed 295.

"I'm thinking, `Now what am I gonna do?' " he continued.

When friends asked Haley if he'd be interested in doing an event that included a 11/2-mile run, an 18-mile bike ride and another 11/2-mile run, he readily agreed. "Only problem was, the first mile out, I was in oxygen debt. I'd hit the bottom of the barrel. I said, Whoa, this isn't cool," he said.

Soon, Haley found himself training for longer and longer periods. He discovered that achieving personal goals was closer to the high of pro football than was rat ball in a recreation gym. Eventually he went from shorter run-bike-run events to attempting a triathlon. But on his first time into a pool to train, he saw clearly there was a problem: he could't swim the length.

"I was pretty far out of shape," he said.

Haley noted some big differences in football and triathlons. Where football players rely on explosive power, quickness, reactions and agility over short distances, triathletes are in for the long haul.

Which is the way he views life, anyway.

"I'll be doing this for the rest of my life, as long as my body will permit. This is a sport where you can start competing at age nine and do it until you're 78 or 80."

Now a personal fitness trainer, Haley competed in Hartford and St. Croix triathlons. Last summer he flew to Hawaii to see what he'd be up against if he tried the Ironman. As he suspected, it was high temperatures, humidity, tossing waves and wind.

In other words, a challenge he couldn't resist.

With a heart rate of 42 - well below the rate he had as a football player - Haley wishes he'd done cross training in the off-season when he was in the NFL. "What if you could run the football with the explosion of strength that they have and then still have a 42 heart rate," he said. "They have 45 seconds to recover between plays, and in 20 seconds you'd be totally ready to go."

So as he prepares for the granddaddy of all triathlons, Haley arises at 3:30 each day, seeing clients for several hours - doctors, lawyers and other professionals who can only squeeze in their workouts during the wee hours of the morning. By 9 a.m. he's free to work on his own fitness. Free to run the streets and swim the waves and bike the roads.

And free to make sure when he refers to himself as an athlete, it isn't just a state of mind.