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home > community > viewpoint > triathlon: multi-sport mania or multi-sport malaise?

Triathlon: Multi-Sport Mania or Multi-Sport Malaise?
In the summer of 1980, four years after I started running and less than a year after completing my first marathon, I saw a flyer for a race called a "triathlon." I had read a little bit about this new sport combining swimming, cycling, and running, but really knew nothing more than it was a race consisting of all three of these sports.

Triathlon: Multi-Sport Mania or Multi-Sport Malaise?

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Related info:
An Interview with Race Promoter Rich Havens

By Don Allison
Posted Friday, 19 September, 1997

In the summer of 1980, four years after I started running and less than a year after completing my first marathon, I saw a flyer for a race called a "triathlon." I had read a little bit about this new sport combining swimming, cycling, and running, but really knew nothing more than it was a race consisting of all three of these sports. As I considered myself an accomplished runner, had cycled since my days as a paper boy, and dabbled in swimming during a running injury, I pronounced myself ready for this new challenge. The race was a one mile swim, followed by a 40 mile bike, and 10 mile run. That first effort resulted in my never getting past the swim portion of the event, as I had made the mistake of training in a pool for an ocean swim. Eventually I got the hang of it however, and went on to complete about a dozen triathlons during the next six or seven years.

The public learned of the sport primarily through television's graphic portrayal of the Hawaii IronMan race, and specifically Julie Moss' coming unglued in the final miles in 1982. Dave McGillvaray was the first Easterner to race the IronMan. He was so impressed that he brought the sport back East with him, setting up a management firm to conduct events, including an IronMan distance race. In the early years, many thought all triathlons were made up of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run, like the torturous Hawaii race. Soon enough however, shorter triathlons began to pop up. In the early to mid 1980s, the triathlon boom took off, as many road runners, cyclists, and swimmers accepted the multi-sport challenge.

I was swept up in this boom for a while, but eventually gave up multi-sport racing, settling back into road racing. It really was not a conscious decision, more like a gradual process. Although I continued to incorporate some swimming and cycling in my overall fitness program, the races themselves lost some of their initial appeal. It seemed bike technology was advancing so rapidly, it offered an unfair advantage to those who were willing and able to remain on the cutting edge. Entry fees to triathlons skyrocketed as well. Mid-range events were charging from 50 to 75 dollars long before road races even dared charge more than 15 bucks.

The biggest factor for me however, was that the challenge had dissipated somewhat. Although I never tried the IronMan distance, I learned just finishing anything shorter was not all that difficult. Sure it required planning, preparation, and some gutting it out, but I knew I would finish. Since I was strictly a mid-packer, the lure of winning or placing high was non-existent. Times were also pretty much meaningless, as each course was different, and anyone who has done a number of triathlons knows that course measurement is notoriously inaccurate. What it came down to however in the end was that I just couldn't get all that exited about racing a triathlon. So I stopped doing it.

There were still plenty of folks who did however, joined by newcomers every year. Triathlon has continued to maintain a healthy glow in New England and beyond. Both FIRM and Time-Out Productions stage a full slate of races every year. There are also other variations of the triathlon, including duathlons, which are usually cycling and running with no swim. A completely different kind of event has developed from multi-sport—the "adventure" or "extreme" races, like the Eco challenge. These extreme challenges often involve seemingly limb and life-threatening tests like rappelling up the side of a mountain, hiking through the night in the wilds, or swimming across rock strewn rapids. The "challenge" of extreme events has upped the excitement and danger ante from triathlon; they have captured the energy and athletic imagination much like triathlon did in the early 80s. Compared with extreme events, triathlons look pretty tame.

Ironically, the image of the triathlete as a hard-core, supremely fit, adventure-seeking iconoclast has now been assumed by extreme racers. The image of triathletes by many these days is of an unfriendly, scantily-clad, West coast, latte-drinking, sunglass-wearing, high-tech, pretty boy. This image is mostly gleaned from the Hawaii IronMan as shown on television. Surely this is an exaggerated and unflattering view, but it is one held by many outside triathlon circles.

One major coup for the sport of triathlon worldwide is its inclusion in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. It has been a long, tough road to the Olympics, but the visibility of triathlon among the non-participating sporting public will no doubt increase dramatically. The top triathletes in the world will all be pointing to win that first-ever Gold medal in Australia. Much like Joan Samuelson in the first women's Olympic Marathon in 1984, the winners will claim a large piece of triathlon history and sizable sponsorship package to boot.

This year I finally came around again to the sport of triathlon, competing in the FIRM half IronMan distance race in Narraganset, Rhode Island a few weeks ago. Some friends in my running club have branched out to cycling, swimming and multi-sport events. With a fairly modern bike and a wet-suit for the ocean swim, I completed the race in 5 hours, 5 minutes, good for 73rd place of about 200 entrants. My experience was that most of the other participants were friendly, but serious athletes who went about the business of the race with remarkable efficiency. I'm sure I spent more time in the transition area than anyone else in the race. I was happy with my swim and bike performance, and caught a fair number of runners, but also got passed by a few as well. In all, it was a fun, if expensive, racing experience. A few of us are planning to move on to the Canadian IronMan race in Penticton, Canada next August. Now that will be a challenge.

Every sport goes through a process of growth and evolution. Triathlon has done that and now appears to be settling into middle-age. Participants are seen not as "freaks", but as serious athletes. It is a professional sport; a fair number of athletes make their living from prize money and sponsorship. Some of the top IronMan competitors, such as Karen Smyers, Paula Newby-Fraser, Dave Scott, and Greg Welch are well known by those who follow the sport even casually.

For the middle-of-the packers, triathlon will always have the appeal of the "challenge". Can you swim, bike, and run? It takes a fairly accomplished athletes to do all three sports proficiently enough to compete in a race. That challenge will always draw new participants. It's also fun to switch from sport to sport and use different muscles in a race setting. The downside it that for the average working guy or gal, it takes a big time commitment to train in all three sports. Forget about just putting on your running shoes and going out the door. Finding a pool in which to swim or laying out a 50 mile cycling route are time consuming activities. This is not to mention the costly nature of triathlon. Bike upkeep alone can run into hundreds of dollars per season. If you are thinking about racing a triathlon, by all means, give it a shot. Seasoned road runners may find it actually helps their running to train for different endurance sports. And don't worry—road running will be here waiting for you when you decide to come back.



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