The Evolution of Triathlon

What do superathletes, fit kids, and the physically challenged have in common? Surprisingly, triathlon. These days there’s room in the race for everyone.

Triathlon was a sport born of curiosity. Two members of the San Diego Track Club, Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan, cooked up the idea in 1974 to spice up their competitions. At the time, the two couldn’t have imagined this swim-bike-run com- bination would flourish into its own sport — even making an Olympic debut in 2000.

Today, some 55,000 members comprises USA Triathlon, an organization that tracks tri events of various lengths, from sprint to ultradistance. And the traditional swim-bike-run format has morphed to include different combinations of sports, sating the ever-expanding appetites of tri maniacs, many of whom you may not recognize as such — from physically challenged athletes, to older and bigger-than- average athletes, to little kids, teens, novices, and everyone in between.

Hardcore History

As fun and accessible as triathlon is now, the sport went through a period where it seemed untouchable to “ordinary” people. The awe for the extreme nature of the sport came from media coverage that focused on the fanaticism — some might say lunacy — of the Hawaii Ironman, an event started in 1978 by John Collins, who had participated in the very first triathlon four years earlier. Sports Illustrated published a feature story about the 1979 triathlon when just 15 people started the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run, creating the first ripple of interest. Then ABC Sports covered the Julie Moss crawl-to-the-finish in 1982, securing triathlon’s place as a sport for überathletes — or the athletically insane.

The elite nature of triathlon ensured its popularity. “Triathlon came along and quite nicely scratched the itch for a reasonably safe, yet quite robust, adventure,” says Dan Empfield, a 1981 Hawaii Ironman competitor and founder of Quintana Roo, maker of triathlon-specific wetsuits and bikes. (He sold the company to Saucony, Inc., in 1995, and now operates the multisport Web site Slowtwitch.com.)

Interest in triathlon boomed in the 1980s and ’90s. Numerous short-distance races cropped up in the continental United States, but triathlon’s main event was still the Hawaii Ironman. That championship race drew participants from around the world, with only half of the competitors — about 750 — hailing from the United States. In 1999 the World Triathlon Corporation, which owns the Hawaii Ironman, started staging Ironman events in the continental United States. Before long, those races were selling out fast and drawing more than 12,000 Americans a year. Perhaps not coincidentally, between 1999 and 2005, USA Triathlon membership increased almost 200 percent.

Tri Tangents

While many people still associate triathlon with the Ironman distance, the sport is a lot like the athletes themselves — always looking for a new challenge. Triathlon continues to redefine itself, refusing to be pinned down to a specific set of events or distances. Mountain biking, snowshoeing and paddling are now well-accepted components in certain multisport events sanctioned and supported by USA Triathlon, says the group’s communications director B. J. Hoeptner Evans. There’s also an “Aquabike” pilot program for the 2005 race season. “Aquabike participants start the triathlon with everyone else, but their results stop before the run,” Evans explains. She says competitors were coming to triathlons to do the swim and bike, without starting the run, but were never officially recognized for it. “Now we’re legitimizing it,” she says.

More creative noodling among athletes led, in 1996, to the start of XTERRA’s off-road triathlon series, with an ocean swim, mountain bike and trail run on Maui. Today, some 30 Xterra off-road triathlons occur across the United States.

Open Gates

As tri formats were growing more inclusive, so were the ranks of registrants. Over the course of its 30-year history, triathlon gradually evolved from a “one-size-fits-few” to a “many- sizes-fit-all” sport. Today, there is a race for every kind of athlete. Among them:

BEGINNER-FRIENDLY SPRINT EVENTS

Short triathlons that take less than two hours to finish and have a small turnout. Sometimes the swim occurs in a pool, and it’s usually less than 800 meters. The bike leg is typically 12 to 18 miles, followed by a 5K run.

Great For: Someone new to the sport; athletes uncomfortable with a crowded course.

One to Try: The Mini-Mussel in Geneva, N.Y., is a 500-meter swim, 15-mile bike and three-mile run. The race, which offers a beginner’s training plan, is part of a weekend festival that includes a half-Ironman distance and kids’ triathlon. Visit www.musselmantri.com.

ALL-COMERS OLYMPIC-DISTANCE EVENTS

Fun, family-friendly events that usually include a pre-race expo and postrace party. These races are typically large and may attract pro athletes as well as age-groupers and first-timers. Sometimes they’re combined with a shorter- or longer-distance event. The Olympic-distance race is a 1,500-meter swim, 40K bike and 10K run.

Great For: Anybody up for an exciting event. These races are also usually well attended by “training teams” from nonprofit organizations, corporations and relay teams.

One to Try: The Life Time Fitness Triathlon in Minneapolis boasts the largest prize purse in the sport: $500,000. The world’s best triathletes compete in the novel “battle of the sexes” format — creating an additional draw for the 2,500 age-group athletes and 20,000 spectators who attend. Visit lifetimefitness.com.

OFF-THE-BEATEN-PATH EVENTS:

Races that avoid paved roads and trails, eliminating such problems as drafting, road closures and getting hit by cars.

Great For: Seasoned mountain bikers and trail runners who want to dabble in multi- sport; triathletes in search of new scenery.

One to Try: Scott Tinley’s Adventures is a weekend-long festival in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and one of the oldest off-road events. The series includes kids’ triathlons, a mountain- bike hill climb, short and long-distance off-road triathlons, and regular road triathlons, too. Visit www.tricalifornia.com/dirtyseries/2005/.

In addition to offering an expansive array of formats and distance options, a growing number of races are reaching out to specific athletic populations, including:

EVENTS FOR PHYSICALLY CHALLENGED ATHLETES

While some races are especially designated for differently abled populations, many mass-market races now include distinct categories for amputees, wheelchair athletes and the visually impaired. The courses are not altered, although physically challenged (PC) competitors are typically assigned volunteer “handlers” who might assist them in or out of the water, help them put on a prosthesis or serve as a sight guide.

One to Try: The San Diego Triathlon Challenge boasts an all-star roundup of athletes, including able-bodied age-groupers (Robin Williams is almost always a cyclist on a relay team) and PC athletes. The half-Ironman-distance race raises money for the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which provides grants for training, competition and equipment to people with any type of physical disability who wish to participate in a wide range of sports. Visit www.challengedathletes.org and www.usa triathlon.org/commissions/physchallenged_commission.htm.

EVENTS FOR BIGGER ATHLETES

Many sprint- and Olympic-distance tri events now offer special categories for athletes of a certain weight, often referred to as “Clydesdale” divisions for men and “Athena” divisions for women. For women, the weight divisions tend to be 150 to 159 lbs., 160 to 179 lbs. and more than 180 lbs. For men, weight divisions are typically 200 to 224 lbs., 225 to 249 lbs. and more than 250 lbs. Weight groups are often divided by age groups, too.

One to Try: The Accenture Chicago Triathlon hosts the Team Clydesdale Triple Crown Championship, the third race in a series to determine the Clydesdale National Champions. In addition, the top 10 percent from each weight/age-group category qualify for the Team Clydesdale World Games. Visit www.chicagotriathlon.com.

EVENTS FOR WOMEN ONLY

Women-only events range in distance from sprint to half- Ironman and strive to support women in a noncompetitive, encouraging and nurturing atmosphere. These races appeal both to women who are new to the sport (or who don’t have an athletic background) and to seasoned athletes who compete to build awareness of and win media attention for the events.

One to Try: The Danskin Women’s Triathlon Series boasts the largest, longest-running multisport series in history: 16 years. Four of their eight races — Chicagoland, Seattle, Austin and Denver — are among the best-attended triathlons in the country. Participants need not worry about finishing last; the dubious honor of “final finisher” goes to race spokesperson Sally Edwards (a professional triathlete and women’s fitness advocate), each and every time. Visit www.danskin.com/danskinonline/triathlon.html.

EVENTS FOR KIDS

Generally designed as ultrashort events, these tris allow children to experience multisport competition with a focus on fun. Race distances vary by age group (most races are for those under 14) and may or may not be timed. Flotation devices and training wheels are usually allowed. In almost every event, all children receive an award for finishing. In addition to many locally organized events, there is also a national race series, IronKids, designed for the 14-and-under crowd. While most competitors in kids’ tris are first-timers, some children may have learned the ropes from parents or other family members.

One to Try: The Dallas Athletes Kids and Family Triathlon in Coppell, Texas, hosts a triathlon for children. The event isn’t timed, and all children take home an award for finishing. Leap Frogs (4- to 6-year-olds) complete a 25-yard swim, 1-mile bike and 1⁄3-mile run. Road Runners (7- to 10-year-olds) do a 50-yard swim, 2-mile bike and 1-mile run. Gladiators (11- to 14-year-olds) compete in a 100-yard swim, 3-mile bike and 1-mile run. Parents are encouraged to run with their children across the finish line. Visit www.dallasathletes.com.

The Tri Life

With triathlon morphing into events of various distances and combinations of sport, sometimes it’s hard to know when a triathlon is still a triathlon. “I cast a wider net around multisport than other people might,” Empfield says. “I define it as ‘getting from point A to point B under human-powered locomotion, using more than one form of conveyance, whether such that requires an implement or you’re just afoot.’
The sizzle isn’t in the format, it’s in using your body for something akin to what God and nature intended.”

Such descriptions can make triathlon difficult to identify for people unfamiliar with it. But USA Triathlon, this country’s organizing body, believes it’s a challenge worth taking on, mostly because the triathletes — old and new — like it that way.

“Triathlon has retained its continuous ability to reinvent itself, to the extent that governing bodies endorse it,” says Scott Tinley, two-time winner of the Hawaii Ironman World Championship and member of the Ironman Hall of Fame. “They don’t put the big kibosh on these other formats. They respond to market trends, help make it safer, provide more coaches, more promotion. It’s a sign that triathlon is still, at its core, fighting to be nonmainstream, to not be labeled. It’s fighting to have an identity in and of itself, rather than falling into the same paradigm — of needing to win and be awarded for achievement — that defines overregulated sports.”

And that’s good for the growth of triathlon. The sport appeals to people beyond those interested in attending the next Olympic Games or winning a huge professional prize purse. For those who love triathlon, it is more lifestyle than sport. The training goes beyond working out three times a week for 30 minutes. The training goals are about besting your abilities in a variety of activities, about a commitment of time, good nutrition and overall wellness. Those are principles that all of us can — and perhaps should — live by. If nothing else, the sport reminds us that we are capable of conquering more than the daily 9-to-5 grind.

Kara Douglass Thom 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).

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