Battle of the Sexes

The most physically fit becomes the most fiscally fit.

The 2003 Life Time Fitness Triathlon, Aug. 2 in Minneapolis, brought the “who’s who” of triathlon together with more than 2,000 amateur triathletes, offered a $500,000 prize purse (the largest for any triathlon in the world), aired that day on NBC television, and rocked the race site at Lake Nokomis with a post-race festival that included enough food and live music to keep participants and spectators entertained well into the afternoon.

Sound like fun? Well it was – even for those who competed in the two races, finishing a .4-mile swim, 10.5-mile bike, and 2.1-mile run; or a .75-mile swim, 21.3-mile bike, and 4.7-mile run.

Certainly no one enjoyed herself more than repeat winner Barb Lindquist, a pro triathlete from Victor, Idaho, who won the race’s Equalizer format beating fellow female competitors and the men’s field, too. The Equalizer was calculated this year at 9 minutes 41 seconds, giving the women a head start over the men. But the first five competitors in any gender to cross the line won the bonus prize purse. Lindquist crossed the line first in 1:35:52, winning $250,000.

“It’s an honor to win such an important title within the triathlon community and to be competing against the best female and male triathletes in the world,” Lindquist says.

That honor is all the more validated considering she beat second place finisher and 2000 Olympic gold medal winner Simon Whitfield, from Canada, by 43 seconds. The next 10 athletes to cross the finish line behind Lindquist were all separated by an average of only seven seconds, which is a testament to the accuracy of the Equalizer and Lindquist’s off-the-chart performance.

“Barb’s a great athlete,” Whitfield says. “She prepared exclusively for this race and it showed.”

Whitfield took home $50,000 for second but says it was more important for him to compete in a non-drafting race. “Many of us race in the drafting World Cup series and take some heat for not knowing how to ride a bike,” Whitfield says. “We did the absolute best job we could today at not drafting. Everybody put in as honest of an effort as they could. It was important that the World Cup guys came here just to say we have this covered too, we’re all good athletes.”

The next seven to cross the finish line were all world-class male triathletes: Australian Greg Bennett in 1:36:40; New Zealand’s Bevan Docherty in 1:37:00; England’s Simon Lessing in 1:37:09; Australian Craig Walton in 1:37:16; New Zealand’s Hamish Carter in 1:37:24; and American Hunter Kemper in 1:37:27. Rina Hill from Australia was the second woman and ninth finisher to cross the line in 1:37:31.

Sixth place finisher Walton was last year’s first male and third-place finisher. He led the men from the start, finishing the swim nearly a minute and a half ahead of them. But as he closed in on the Equalizer time that separated him from the women, the men began to close in on him, eventually overtaking him on the run.

“Craig’s an awesome swimmer and biker,” says third-place finisher Greg Bennett. “I knew he’d be tough to beat like last year when I was second male. This year I knew I’d have to run even harder to get him.

“To be a part of this elite group of athletes – the difference between us on any given day is 1 percent,” Bennett adds. “It could have been anybody’s win.”

But a win for the men meant a second overall finish.

“I’ve worked really hard on the bike this winter for this race – it paid off today,” Lindquist says. She was second out of the water after Sheila Taormina but quickly took the lead on the bike, posting the fastest female bike split in 50:44. And none of the women had a fast enough run to catch her. To win this race, she says, takes being strong in all three disciplines. “You can’t have a weakness to win here. It has to be your key race because it’s so competitive.”

Dave Scott, triathlon legend and coach to Simon Lessing, was on hand as a spectator and says Lindquist’s strategy was brilliant. “She got on the bike and just lost them,” he says. “While they’re juggling back and forth they lose time because they’re concerned about drafting. She just opened up her margin. And she’s been able to run away from everyone in the last couple of years, so she had a good enough buffer, and it worked.”

When Lindquist won in 2002 she collapsed across the finish with her competitors a mere 10 and 15 seconds behind her. This year she returned not only to defend her title, but also to enjoy the finish. Nearing the end she looked over her shoulder with only meters to run to see that her margin of victory was as solid as her determination to win.

Lindquist knows that sometimes determination and victory don’t go hand in hand, like in 2000 when she was favored to medal in the first ever triathlon event at the Sydney Olympics, but failed to make the team during the Olympic trials. In fact by winning this race she hopes to turn her $250,000 winnings into Olympic gold in Athens next year.

Lindquist says the money from this race helps take the pressure off of having to compete for a living and instead focus on training. “Especially coming into an Olympic year, that’s very important,” she says. “That extra money will allow me to fly my coach to races and do special testing without having to worry if it’s financially worth it. It helps me reach my full potential.”

Although Lindquist was the undisputed winner, she wasn’t the only woman to reign supreme that day. Some of the age-group triathletes got in on the battle-of-the-sexes format. Debbie Wehrs, 37, from Prior Lake, Minn., had a four-minute handicap over her boyfriend. Even though it was her first triathlon and she trained while juggling a full-time job and raising two children, she beat him by a minute and a half.

Her winnings won’t match Lindquist’s $250,000. Still she’s pleased with her performance, her bragging rights, and her modest winnings. “I get a steak dinner tonight,” she says.

Why Tri

Many triathletes believe triathlon is more than a sport, it’s a way of life.

In 2002, USA Triathlon reported a 40 percent increase in its membership, a surge that can partly be attributed to its Olympic debut in 2000. But for the bulk of people who sign up to compete in a triathlon, it’s more personal than that, it’s about taking on a challenge. And once challenged, the multisport training leaves them feeling so good, they can’t give it up.

Pat McMorrow, 56, of Eden Prairie, Minn., competed in his first triathlon in 1990. “I got third place and I was hooked,” he says. He has since finished numerous triathlons – most recently the second annual Life Time Fitness Triathlon – and says he has gotten more “serious” about it over the years but appreciates what triathlon offers people at all levels. “There are people out to do super fast times and people out just to finish,” he says. “Everyone gets a chance to race the way they want to do it. I like that.”

Triathlons that appeal to both hardcore and “funcore” athletes alike are what make the sport approachable to people who might otherwise be intimidated by a swim, bike and run event.

“I am new to any type of competition, so it seemed very daunting,” says Anne Ulseth, 47, of Minneapolis, who participated as the cyclist on a relay team at the event. “I’ve taken cycling classes and done recreational biking, but this was the longest I’ve ever ridden. Now having done it I want to train more so I can do better next year. I’ll definitely be back. I had a great time. I got a lot of support from people, and being a little bit older, I felt people were looking after me – it was great.”

Even Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak participated in the event. “People in Minneapolis get up off the couch and do things – no matter what the weather – and as mayor of Minneapolis I feel I should do my part.” He says his way to relax is to exercise, so entering the race was more than a political appearance. “It’s a nice way to do my job but also to selfishly get into something that I like, too.”

He admits that his triathlon training is somewhat unconventional. “I run in the parades all summer – shaking hands and running at the same time – that’s how I get my road work in.” Swimming and cycling happen in between budget hearings and other mayoral obligations. “It’s tough to squeeze it all in,” he says. “But if I have time to train, others have time to train.” And his expectations are modest: “My goal is to finish without breathing too heavily.”

Steve Locke, president of USA Triathlon attended the Life Time Fitness Triathlon and believes the race is an important addition to the race calendar – not only for the pros who compete for a $500,000 prize purse, but also as a way to indoctrinate future triathletes who watch the race on NBC’s same-day network telecast.

“People in the mainstream, by virtue of this telecast, are seeing it’s doable by anybody,” Locke says. “People are realizing it’s not a drudgery-laden sport. They don’t have to do the Ironman-distance (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run) to do triathlon.”

Locke adds that the Life Time Fitness Triathlon is significant because it converges with the growth of triathlon, which he says is growing at a faster percentage rate than any other Olympic sport. And by marketing the sport, he says, Life Time Fitness becomes an “owner” of triathlon in the sense of backing an Olympic sport. “Plus it fits in to Life Time’s mission of providing a fitter America and a fitter young America. It supports getting away from obesity and the erosion of mental and physical skills that aren’t used.”

Why Life Time Fitness

“Triathlon is a healthy-way-of-life sport and Life Time Fitness is a healthy-way-of-life company,” says Bahram Akradi, Life Time Fitness CEO. In addition to providing health clubs, nutritional products and health and fitness education, he says Life Time Fitness is in the business of putting on events.

“By providing healthy events, we can provide motivation,” Akradi says. “When you sign up for an event, whether a 5K run or an Ironman-distance triathlon, it dramatically effects your mindset about training. It gives you a goal. For me personally, I am 10 times more regimented to do a workout. I will ride in the rain if I have to because I’m not willing to forfeit a workout. If I don’t have a goal, I’m more relaxed about missing a workout if the weather isn’t perfect.”

Akradi’s vision for the Life Time Fitness race is to take it to the level of other world-class sporting events. “The athletes that are able to win this race are no less athletes than the athletes winning in other events,” he says. “Triathlon includes the pillar sports of the Olympics – and by pulling them together you have a phenomenal event. Why shouldn’t triathlon get an equal amount of attention as the Boston Marathon, Tour de France, or Olympic swimming?”

Recently retired triathlete-turned-sports-commentator Siri Lindley, who was ranked the world’s No. 1 triathlete in 2001 and 2002, believes the event is well on its way to accomplishing that.

“The excitement surrounding the event not only generates from the athletes themselves but the spectators who want to be part of something new,” Lindley says. “And we all want to be part of a sport that is growing in popularity and becoming one of the best sports in the world.”

Why $500,000

The $500,000 prize purse – the largest of any triathlon in the world – makes this a key race for the athletes, according to Lindley. “It’s a definite step toward getting this sport the respect and notoriety it deserves. There should be more opportunities like this where athletes can become the best they can be with financial support.”

For two-time Life Time Fitness Triathlon winner Barb Lindquist, the money has helped her do just that. She returned after winning $50,000 last year to win by a bigger margin and secure this year’s bonus of $250,000.

“Last year’s prize purse was huge,” Lindquist says. “I was almost embarrassed to tell people how much money I won for swimming, biking, and running. But the thing is, I shouldn’t be. The prize purse this year will have an even bigger impact.”

She says the money will help fine-tune her training, which is important with the 2004 Olympic Games in her plans.

Second-place finisher and first male, Simon Whitfield, took home $50,000 for his effort. The 2000 Olympic gold medalist says it’s the combination of the competition and the money that makes it significant. “In the history of our sport you’ll be the person who won the biggest prize purse. I like those landmarks.”

Whitfield points out that the higher stakes haven’t changed the dynamics among the competitors. “I like that we’ve maintained the camaraderie and that’s a testament to the people who compete in our sport,” he says. “We race hard and then we go out together, then ride the next day together. I’m glad this race hasn’t changed that.”

Why an Equalizer

But the race does change whom you’re competing against. In the Life Time Fitness Triathlon, women and men compete head on for the prize money after a time adjustment called the Equalizer. This year’s time adjustment allowed the women to start racing 9 minutes and 41 seconds ahead of the men.

“The Equalizer adds so much drama,” Akradi says about the unique race format. “It allows everyone to have an interest in the race. You want the best athlete to win. It’s more fun for the viewers. And the athletes like the added competition. The men have to wonder when they will catch the women. The women have the anticipation of wondering if the men will catch them.”

Renee MacDonald, 29, traveled to the race from Chicago with other members of the Chicago Triathlon Club. She participated in the race last year and enjoyed her own experience enough to return, but also, she says, because it was an opportunity to see the best pros in the sport compete.

According to Ken Cooper, Life Time Fitness director of finance, the Equalizer is based on four criteria: world records of the distances the athletes will race in; statistical averages of 54 other international distance races; 11 years of course history; and race course records.

“There is one additional criterion we factor in that is nearly unmeasurable,” Cooper says. “That’s human performance. We study the athletes. We almost know them better than they know themselves. We know where they’re strong and we know where they’re weak. We know their history and we know how they’re currently racing. It’s all researched and it’s all factored in.”

He says another determination is to include how many athletes and which gender will accept the challenge. “How many athletes will race as if their life depends on it? Because that’s the type of effort it takes to take home a quarter of a million dollars,” he says. “This year we predicted that there were more men in attack mode. Because of that we made them work a little bit harder to win the battle of the sexes.”

And work they did, because most of the men didn’t catch the women’s field until the end of the run, making for a steady stream of athletes across the finish line. After Lindquist’s 43-second lead, the next 24 athletes finished on average within eight seconds of each other.

Living the Tri Life

If you ever had to run laps in grade school, ride your bike to a friend’s house, or take swim lessons at your community pool, then you’ve gotten your start in triathlon. Most people typically have some experience in one of the three disciplines (yes, running after a 3-year-old counts) so it’s only a matter of strengthening your abilities in one or two other sports.

The idea of cross-training is one of the factors that make triathlon appealing, not only to keep workouts interesting but also to prevent injuries. Another benefit of the sport is the training partners who often become close friends. These are the people who make it hard to be a couch potato because they’re counting on you to meet them for that early-morning run. They also might encourage you to sign up for that race, motivate you to train, and keep you from giving up.

“There is a definite social component,” says Marilyn Franzen, director of athletic events at Life Time Fitness and the Life Time Fitness Triathlon race director. “It’s a great way to have friendships when it’s around such a healthy activity.”

Franzen finished her first triathlon in 1981 and says she grew up with the sport. “I enjoyed every activity so much, and being a person who loves all kinds of fitness – swim, bike, run fit into who I was – it was an extension of my life.”

This “extension” is what makes triathlon a way of life for many people. Finishing a triathlon is a great reminder that anything is possible, and that confidence spills over into “real” life. Triathlon is a lifestyle above and beyond the training it involves, most notably because it gives people the sense they’re living more fully. And who wouldn’t want to get hooked on that?


Kara Douglass Thom is a triathlete and fitness writer whose work has appeared in Sports Illustrated Women and Southwest Airlines' Spirit and Dandelion. She is the author of Becoming An Ironman: First Encounters with the Ultimate Endurance Event (Breakaway Books, 2001) and a children's book, See Mom Run (Breakaway Books 2003). She can be reached at kara_thom@yahoo.com.

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