As you are probably painfully aware, I am still recovering from surgery last fall. I have been able to begin to return to increased biking and swimming and soon I’ll be allowed to conservatively introduce running again. Great! So I can start thinking about triathlon training again right? Well, maybe. Okay, probably. Despite some misgivings the last couple years, I really still do enjoy doing triathlon. As I have recovered from surgery I also realize I really do enjoy doing other things too and doing triathlon doesn’t have to exclude doing other things.
I began doing triathlon at the tail end of it’s last big growth spurt which corresponded with the recession of the late 2000s. While at a glance it seems contrary that an expensive sport would decline precipitously with the growth of a booming economy, I think the very fact that the participants suddenly had disposable income again is a primary factor in the slow death of a great sport.
My first race was in 2011. At that time, it was still really hard to get into an event. They all quickly sold out. This included nearly every local event as well as every Ironman up to the 140.6 distance. There were tons of crazy people willing to go sacrifice themselves in swim, bike, run. But when you looked around the race course, every athlete was not wearing kits worth hundreds of dollars or perched on top of $7,000.00 super bikes, or clicking “start” on pricey multisport watches.
They rode whatever bike they happened to have or at least a lot of them did. Race entry fees were not exorbitant, and almost nobody participating had a coach they paid hundreds of dollars a month. But then the economy improved and we all got money in our pockets that we were willing to spend to get faster and faster and faster to the point of every single MOP1 age group athlete looking as though they were showing up for the Olympic trials at every race. Even a local sprint looks like a whose who of triathlon equipment manufacturers. I can’t imagine what it would like to be a newbie wheeling a Huffy hybrid
into transition for my first race and being overwhelmed by shiny carbon fiber, the buzz of electronic shifting, and beeping of expensive sports computers being programmed.
The other inescapable fact is that when the newbie looks around transition he sees mostly old people. Triathlon has sort of become the shuffleboard of the Tenties (2010-2019). The vast majority of participants at any race are men in their 40s-60s with those age groups in women making up the second biggest chunk. To Millenials, triathlon is something their Dad does. Spartan racing, Tough Mudder, trail running, mountain biking. Those are what young hipsters do to stay fit.
I’m sure there a a gazillion other factors and I’m equally sure my theories above are just that: my theories. I do know that triathlon, as it is, is in severe decline. One local race after another has died off including some of the most iconic in the US. It doesn’t help that there is a fanatical obsession with Ironman and the full 140.6 distance. Somewhere along the line it has become the norm that, for a triathlete to be considered genuine, they must do the full 140.6 distance Ironman. The community seems obsessed with it precluding all other distances and events because “I am training for an Ironman”.
I was there once. I would ride the trainer and watch the finish of every Ironman event I could find on Youtube. I would watch the heart wrenching personal stories of all those that overcame great odds to complete their 140.6 mile journey. I’d wish I was there with them crossing the line to hear Mike Reilly say “You are an Ironman!”. They could die happy now because someone bestowed a title on them. Oh did I mention the $700.00-$1200 they paid to have that honor?
In my one and only full attempt, we should not have been racing. Ironman Lake Placid 2014 was hit with tremendous and violent thunderstorms on race morning. It was not safe to be outside. But this was an Ironman! We’d all done preposterous amounts of training, the town was paid for, systems were in place. Everything was a go because 2500 age group athletes getting to be called an Ironman is worth the chance of someone getting killed by a one billion volt lightning strike. Thankfully that didn’t happen, but they did shorten the swim. Not everyone got to complete the 2.4 mile swim because it wasn’t safe. (But by all means head on the 112 mile bike . . ’cause you’ll be safe out there.)
The upshot of it was I know dozens of athletes that didn’t consider themselves “complete” because they didn’t really get to do the full event. Many of them “only” got to do a 1.5 mile swim or a 2 mile swim. NOT 2.4. After all what kind of an accomplishment is a 139.6 mile event!? This is the obsession of the full Ironman. This is why people no longer do sprint triathlons every week, or a few Olympics a year. It is all about the full distance. Meanwhile, local race directors search for an influx of new participants that isn’t showing up.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking the full distance. There is certainly a place for it in triathlon. And if you are one of those nut jobs that truly loves devoting your entire training year to one event that may or may not go well, God love ya’ and I am happy for you. But I have to say that the number of post Ironman finishers I talk to that are happy with how their day went is pretty slim. There are so many things that can go wrong. A slight, nagging injury gets magnified over 140.6 miles. Poor nutrition is a race enjoyment killer. (Nobody likes spending 2/3s of the day in the loo).
The uncontrollable weather factor always plays a part. Seldom is the day perfect and any given race will almost inevitably be altered or shortened due to weather events before or during the race. But don’t worry if the day doesn’t go as you hoped there is always next year’s event.
Even if race day goes well, there is almost nobody that really enjoys the full distance training cycle. It is full of long, lonesome sessions in the pool, day after day of lengthy bike rides requiring certain pacing, wattages, and extremely understanding spouses. Then tack on the transition run or marathon training session. Again, I know many people that love those long training blocks and can’t get enough of them. I know just as many whom I wonder why they keep signing up as they seem miserable throughout training. (Language warning on the following video. Sorry.)
I remember during one of my 100 mile bike sessions by myself wondering what the hell I was doing? I was using time off to go and ride my bike. I wasn’t riding a cool, fun ride, a Grand Fondo, or some scenic event. I had mapped out 100 miles from my house that included hills, highways, and bike trails. I had a targeted wattage and a targeted timeframe to get done. It poured rain most of the day and I remember at mile 75 wishing I was done and wishing I’d never signed up for the full distance. I was miserable. I had taken valuable time off from work (where I am miserable) to go out and be miserable.
Again, to put this in perspective, I consider crossing the line at Lake Placid on the Olympic oval to be the single greatest accomplishment of my life. At the time, I thought I’d like to do another one (See!? There really is something wrong with people like me.) but after talking it through with my spouse I was secretly happy when she said she really never wanted me to do another full. I was never home and spent all my time when I wasn’t at work out training.
Wait. Where was I before I went off on that 140.6 mile tangent? Oh . . triathlon . . fun. Right. The last couple years I have focused on shorter distances. Two years ago it was by choice. Last year I was supposed to do a 70.3 in Ohio but was able to cancel due to injury. Instead I did just two Olympic distance events and had a lot of fun doing both.
Still, once signed up for races, the triathlete mentality has taken over. A weekend rolls around and I’d really like to go fishing. But instead I think “I MUST get a 30 mile ride in at a solid pace and wattage. I MUST get out on my triathlon bike and spend as much time as I can down on the aero bars”3. So instead of going fishing, I take my bike and set out. Don’t get me wrong. I do love riding my bike and it is fun when I find a quiet back road to drop down on the bars, go to the smallest cog on the cassette and drop the hammer. At least it’s fun until some MAMIL2 with a big belly rides up next to me to ask directions while he munches on a gel clearly gently pedaling. You see, when I “drop the hammer” I’m still really not all that fast on a bike, and probably never will be.
When I first started riding a few short years ago it seemed like I would never be able to keep up with the seasoned riders in my bike club. I can do that now, but I’m still a middle-to-back-of-packer in my age group in triathlon as far as the bike is concerned. This despite one of those fancy, expensive bikes with fancy expensive wheels and a lot of time and effort spent at getting faster.
As it is I’m only moderately faster than I was on my aluminum roadie. I miss taking my bike and just going for a ride or riding more with the bike club. I also have to admit to a tad bit of jealousy when riding by a coffee shop or beer house on a beautiful summer day and see the local riding group hanging out sipping their favorite beverage. But I must ride on! There is wattage to be attained!!
What to do? The answer is I’m not quite sure yet. My new policy for triathlon, or running, or tiddlywinks is not to sign up for anything in advance. I’ve pitched away so much money in race fees for races I did not start the last couple years that I’d rather pay higher race-day entry fees than to continue to engender the mentality of “I signed up I better be ready”. Also, I plan to start looking at more fun events. The multisport world is diversifying. Swim-Run is taking over much of Europe and is growing quickly in the US. Gravel bike racing and gravel triathlon is up and coming. And in triathlon itself many organizations and race directors are realizing they need to make better, more fun, more appealing events or triathlon will become “modern pentathlon” with a few rich people providing their own sport for their own amusement.
I have some ideas for the coming years. I have to wait until I finish healing and see what I’m capable of physically before I act. But I have ideas. that should be fun. Meanwhile, I ask my fellow triathletes to encourage your friends, especially your young friends to give triathlon a go. It is still a great sport and you don’t need all the fancy equipment to get started (or even in the long term). Watch out for fun, new formats and give them a try. The world won’t end if you don’t do an Ironman event this year. More importantly, support your local races and race directors. Triathlon started with grassroots races and they are disappearing at an alarming rate. If you are having fun doing what you are doing now, by all means continue but consider adding in a little adventure too.
1MOP – Middle-of-Pack
2MAMIL – Middle Aged Man In Latex
3 Aero Bars – A triathlon device designed specifically to torture the neck and back of a MAMILs.