At a fundraising luncheon several years ago I persevered in gratuitous small talk seated next to a chatty attorney, whose firm sponsored our table. Inevitably the question arose, “What do you do for fun?” I love to talk triathlon – especially to people who know little about the sport – but sometimes it’s best to leave the topic alone. It can get out of hand, because the less people comprehend it, the more energy-intensive the conversation can become.
But rather than make jokes about the mystery chicken and the sinfulness of the chocolate mousse, I answered him directly. “I’m a triathlete,” I said.
“A triathlete! Wow! That’s incredible! Are you going to the Olympics? What’s a triathlon exactly? That race in Hawaii? You swim, bike and run? How far is a marathon? It takes how long? You’re crazy!”
Crazy? Perhaps – but not because I’m some kind of wacked-out superathlete. I explained to my new friend that I wasn’t particularly athletic in college or high school and that I always considered myself “average” in all three disciplines. In fact, I still wasn’t a very good swimmer.
After providing such details as to what disciplines make up a triathlon and the typical distances in a race, I assured him that most anyone is capable of finishing a triathlon, and that training and racing was as much a social gathering of my good friends as it was good exercise.
And if that makes me crazy, then I’m in good company. USA Triathlon members nearly doubled from 21,000 in 2000 to more than 40,000 in 2002. One of the factors that contributed to this growth is its introduction as an Olympic sport in 2000. We’re in another Olympic year, and triathlon will be in the spotlight during the Olympic Games in Athens, Aug. 13–29. So if you plan to watch the Olympic race, you may need this triathlon primer and a few pointers for getting started – because seeing these races likely will motivate you to “tri” it.
1. All triathlons are not equal. Most people equate triathlon with the Hawaii Ironman, which amounts to a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile run. The first Ironman triathlon was in 1978. Today there are more than 40 Ironman-distance races around the world. What you’ll see in the Olympics is called an international-distance, also known as an Olympic-distance race. It consists of a 1,500-meter swim, 40K bike and 10K run. That equates to nearly a mile swimming, almost 25 miles of biking and just over six miles of running. Any distance shorter than that is called a sprint distance or short-course race. There are half-Ironman races of a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run, and long-course races, which typically come close to or are slightly longer than a half-Ironman.
2. The Olympics is a draft-legal race. Some pro-triathletes race and are ranked through ITU (International Triathlon Union) events. These are typically draft-legal races, which means that, as in cycling, one rider can tuck in directly behind another and conserve energy by drafting. If a pack of riders rotate the lead position, they can ride faster as a group than if they were riding alone. It also “saves the legs” for the run. This can have huge implications on the outcome of a triathlon. “In a non-drafting race you just rely on yourself,” says Joanna Zeiger, a member of the 2000 triathlon Olympic team, who also is competitive in Ironman-distance racing. “In a draft-legal race you rely on your competitors for your success, which is a paradox.” She says drafting changes the dynamics of the race because you have to be a fast swimmer to get into the lead cycling group. Weaker cyclists can have more of an advantage because they can hang on to the pack, and weaker runners usually want to push the pace to come off the bike as far ahead as possible. “Rotating doesn’t always happen and people don’t always share the work,” she says. “Sometimes there’s not a lot of cooperation and it creates strife among competitors.” In most triathlons, however, drafting is illegal, as it is for all age-group triathletes. If officials catch a rider any closer than three bike lengths behind the rider ahead, he issues a time penalty. Triathletes who receive three penalties in a race are disqualified.
3. Triathlon is a young sport. The craze began in 1973 by the San Diego Track Club as a way to cross-train. The first event consisted of a 10K run, an 8K bike and a 500-meter swim. Then, in 1978, a man named John Collins challenged his friends to the Waikiki Rough Water swim, followed by a ride around the island of Oahu, and finally to run the Honolulu marathon course. The finisher, he said, would be an Ironman. Ironically, it took the televised crawl-to-the-finish of Julie Moss in 1982 for the sport to catch on. Even though the challenge is what makes triathlon attractive, most people make it across the finish line on their feet, not their knees.
4. You don’t have to be superhuman to finish a triathlon. According to USA Triathlon, there were 850 USAT-sanctioned races in 2002 compared to only 370 in 1991. The majority of these races are short-course, or sprint races, making the sport accessible to newcomers and crossing the finish line a realistic goal. Finishing a sprint triathlon takes only about a half-hour longer than it would to run a 10K. Plus, the cross-training provides benefits that training in only one sport can’t offer. USA Triathlon’s Olympic triathlon coach Michelle Blessing says that people who get in a rut with their workouts often wonder why they’re not losing weight or improving their fitness level. “It’s because the body has adapted,” she says. “You need to change it up.” And in the process, she says you’re less likely to get bored, less likely to get injured, and another perk – because you’re training in three sports – you make more friends. And while an Ironman-distance race may sound daunting, never say never. Bill Bell of Indian Wells, Calif., became the oldest Ironman finisher when he crossed the line at Ironman California in 2001 at the age of 77.
5. Training to finish a sprint-distance triathlon is manageable. What it takes is good time-management skills, because it requires training in all three sports each week. The amount of time you put in will depend on the distance of the race and level at which you wish to compete. But you don’t have to train at all three sports to the extent you would if you were competing in just a swim meet or running race. Brian Hasenbauer, a multisport coach in Dallas, tells his clients to look at the race as one sport. To get started, it helps having a coach or a good support system. “Dealing with three sports and also having to deal with strength training and stretching can be overwhelming,” he says. “People are not sure what to do when or how much to do.” He also recommends joining a group that gets together for track workouts or a master’s swim program. “You can pick up a lot of information on races and training techniques,” he says. “There’s also the motivation factor.” Check the USAT Web site at www.usatriathlon.org for a list of coaches and triathlon clubs around the country.
Now that you’re primed on the basics of the sport, be sure to indoctrinate other curious triathlon fans. Just know there are limits to how much information people can absorb: At that luncheon, when I saw the attorney’s eyes glazing over, I made sure to ask about his golf game.