So You Want to Be a Triathlete?
If you’ve never done a triathlon and plan to do your first race this year, a word of caution: Intense feelings of elation and pride after crossing the finish line may lead to addiction.
It happened to me, my friends, and may happen to you.
I can still remember showing up at my first race, a sprint triathlon (0.47 mile swim, a 12.4-mile bike ride and a 3.1-mile run (5K run)), at Mission Bay in San Diego thinking, “You just have to make it through the swim.”
At age 37, I had just barely learned about proper freestyle technique and was somewhat terrified of swimming in the ocean, let alone, facing a pack start (also called a wave start).
In triathlon, amateur athletes (called age groupers) compete against each other in age groups of five-year increments.
Knowing that biking would be my strength, I was relieved and full of joy when I exited the water to run into T1 (the first transition area between the swim and bike segments).
I stripped off my wetsuit, goggles and swim cap and put on my socks, bike shoes, sun glasses and a helmet as quickly as I could, determined to make up valuable time by picking off competitors who had passed me on the swim.
And there were plenty to be caught, which became painfully obvious in T1 by the many empty bike racks.
In triathlon, racers get “marked” (with a pen) before race start: This entails marking your age on your calves and your race number on your arms. This, in turn, allows you to find your competitors on the race course and them to find you. I managed to pick off quite a few rivals on the bike course that day.
I would later learn that competitors can be away ahead of you or come up from behind when you least expect it.
Every athlete should know the rules (which can vary, depending on the governing body of the event). Most bike courses follow a non-drafting rule, which if violated, can result in a time penalty, or even disqualification. Race officials on the course enforce the rules, but good sportsmanship means racing fairly, and that’s up to the individuals.
Good cyclists can often make up significant time on the bike leg. But, ultimately, the race comes down to the last leg, the run.
Memorable Moments in the Sport
Among the most memorable moments in triathlon history were the legendary Julie Moss and the ultimate showdown between Dave Scott and Mark Allen.
In 1982, during the Ironman in Hawaii (a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run), Moss was leading the women’s competition, when she stumbled and fell, and then crawled to the finish line. Thousands of Ironman competitors to this day cite these last defining moments captured by ABC television as the reason why they wanted to try this sport.
Then, in 1989, at the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, six-time Ironman World Champ Dave Scott "The Man" (he was kind enough to pose for a photo below) and Mark Allen raced neck to neck until mile 23 in the marathon when Allen made his move and pulled away, defeating Scott. This too, was a historic moment in the sport and another one that inspired thousands to give the often grueling Ironman distance a try.
A young sport (it started in San Diego in 1974), what makes triathlon unique and awesome to me and others, is that age-groupers race alongside the Pros. Not only that.
Triathletes can also always count on the unwavering support of others on the race course: Fellow athletes (including competitors, who often become your friends), the volunteers working at the aid stations, the spectators and strangers, who offer a helping hand when you least expect it.
Ironman European Championship in Germany
I’ve seen this many times in racing, but it never meant more to me than during my first Ironman race in my hometown Frankfurt, Germany on July 5, 2009.
My good friend, Jens, who raced the same course the year prior, and closest friends accompanied me from the very beginning that day—out of bed at 2:15 a.m. to 11 p.m., when I exited the athletes' area.
Many people liken the atmosphere at this particular event, IM Germany, to the Tour de France with thousands of locals and visitors lining the streets to cheer on the athletes from dawn to dusk.
I will always remain grateful to my friends and so many people I’ll never get to meet, who during this long day, called out my name to encourage me with cowbells at hand, handed me cups filled with coke, pretzels and salt water, and wet sponges to cool off during this very hot and humid summer day.
It would take me exactly 12 hours, 25 minutes and 1 second to finish my first Ironman, which put me in 24th place in my age group. To put this in perspective: The winner in the 40-44 women age group finished in 10 hours, 44 seconds (a phenomenal time); with the last woman coming in at 15 hours, 56 minutes, 59 seconds, beating the 17-hour cut-off time by more than one hour.
Among the professional, Germany’s hopeful Timo Bracht finished in 7 hours, 59 minutes and 15 seconds; Sandra Wallenhorst took 8 hours, 58 minutes and 08 seconds—breaking 8 hours for the men and 9 hours for the women is an incredible achievement for Pros in the IM distance.
I’ve heard other triathletes liken the emotions of finishing an Ironman to the joy they experienced of entering into marriage or seeing their child for the first time.
For me, the experience was a celebration of life, a homecoming and a tribute to my late parents, who I know were with me that entire day.
In training for triathlons and racing, you get to know yourself: Your mental strength; dealing with obstacles, such as injury, coming back from injury, a hard training day, feeling fatigued or sore. It gives you a greater appreciation for experiencing life, because the lows will make the highs more meaningful. You will appreciate the gift of having a healthy body and mind.
Like most triathletes, I was hooked on the sport after finishing my first sprint distance race in 2004 and immediately signed up for the next challenge: The International Distance: A 0.9-mile swim, 24.8-mile bike ride and 6.2 mile run (10K run). I went on from there to compete in several Half Ironman distance races (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run) races, and finally, my first Ironman race last July.
According to USA Triathlon, the sport of triathlon has seen phenomenal growth.
USAT membership has climbed from 84,787 by the end of 2006 to 100,674 members in 2007, with the actual number of multi-sports enthusiasts being much higher.
Of all novices, people in their 40s represent the fastest-growing segment in the sport with the sprint remaining the fastest-growing race distance.
According to a USAT-sponsored study conducted in 2009, the highest participation of racers was in the sprint distance (78%), followed by 58% in the Olympic distance (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run); 39% in the Half Ironman distance; and 17% in the Ironman distance.
Many triathletes never participate in the longer distance races, often citing time constraints to train. At the same time, interest in fitness and healthy living, a rising number of clubs combined with peer pressure and an ego trip to call oneself a “triathlete” have all given triathlon a boost, USAT reported.
Now is a great time to enter or get back into the sport, because people are coming back from the Holiday season ready and pumped to plan out their 2010 triathlon season.
You have to plan early, because the rising popularity of triathlon racing actually means that races can sell out fast—Ironman participants need to register one year in advance and it’s not unheard of that races fill up on opening registration day online (IMs can cost $500 and more to enter).
Great places to learn about triathlon races near you include www.trifind.com and www.competitor.com.
As I get ready for my own triathlon season, I look forward to hearing about your first triathlon and read your feedback on various topics.
Next week, look for my blog on basic equipment to get started in this sport.
Marion Webb is the managing editor of the American Council on Exercise and an ACE-certified Personal Trainer and Group Fitness Instructor. Prior to joining ACE, Webb worked as a longtime award-winning business journalist, covering fitness, small business, health care and biotech issues. A competitive age-group triathlete, Webb focuses on long-distance triathlon races; the Half Ironman (70.3 miles) and (104.6 miles) Ironman distances.