What's a real triathlon?

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Knowing of my interest in triathlon, people have been pointing me to WSJ's recent article on the topic. The theme they're pushing is that the bar for what constitutes a triathlete is being lowered.
But unlike most triathletes, Mr. Ingle didn't need a week to recover. Not only were the distances in this race a fraction of those in "Ironman" competitions, he had help: His wife, Juliet, completed the one-mile swim while a friend tackled the 25-mile bike ride. All Mr. Ingle had to do was run six miles and join his teammates at a celebratory cookout to drink beer, smoke cigars and grill steaks. "We're going to change the image of the triathlete," he says.

Hold on to your stopwatches, fitness fans: The mighty triathlon, that macho emblem of athletic sadomasochism, is going soft. While grueling events like the legendary Ironman continue to grab most of the attention, the sport has quietly been expanding at the lower levels. The number of shorter "sprint" triathlons sanctioned by a national governing body has tripled in five years to 818.

The fastest growing forms of triathlon are those where the requirements are a bit lax: There are triathlons for kids, relay triathlons completed by teams of two or three, "Clydesdale" divisions for men who weigh more than 200 pounds, and events that allow contestants to run less than two miles or swim with the aid of a Styrofoam noodle. New this summer: divisions that dispense with running in favor of power-walking. "Just because you've had a knee replacement doesn't mean you can't get out there and compete," says Gary Morgan, a triathlon organizer from Cincinnati.

While there's no telling whether the triathlon boom is a sustainable shift or just the latest fitness fad, observers say one reason for the growth is something you won't get from Pilates or kickboxing -- instant jock credentials. Years ago, being a "scratch golfer" was a bragging right for upwardly mobile executives and later, "marathoner" became popular. But these days, according to Dennis C. Carey, a partner at the executive-recruitment firm Spencer Stuart, "triathlete" is all the rage. A triathlete himself, Mr. Carey estimates the term is showing up on resumes two or three times as often as it did five years ago.

A little background here. There are three major standardized triathlon distances:

Ironman2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run
Half Ironman1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run
Olympic/International1.5k swim, 40k bike, 10k run

Then there's "sprint" which isn't standardized but is less than Olympic. Typically it's something like .5k swim, 20k bike, 5k run. There's also a grand prix format that's done primarily at the pro level. The International Triathlon Union (ITU) has been pushing their "long distance" (halfway between half and full Ironman) as part of their war with the people who run Ironman but that's never really caught on with the long distance crowd.

The basic premise of this article is partly right: non-triathletes tend to think that the only kind of triathlon is Ironman and if you tell them that you've only done half or short course, it's not too uncommon to get asked "when are you doing a full triathlon"? But this isn't a new development at all. On the contrary, it's been happening at least since I was initially involved in triathlon back in 1998. Short course triathlons were popular back then, too.

What the article has wrong is that nearly everyone in the sport thinks it's total nonsense, like saying Haile Gebrselassie isn't a real runner if he hasn't done a marathon. Inside the sport, the minimal standard is an Olympic/International distance race (or maybe a sprint if people are feeling generous). It's important to remember at this point that two hours is an incredibly long time to be out on the race course--and only the best short course triathletes finish in under two hours. Stepping up a notch, a good time for a half (and by good I mean has a reasonable chance of qualifying for Ironman Hawaii) is around 4:30. I've never heard anybody claim that someone who's only done halfs isn't a real triathlete.

The Journal's implication to the contrary, I'm not sure the situation has changed much, either. It's true that sprint events have gotten more popular, but so have triathlons in general. When I first started, the United States had no official Ironman races other than Kona and only a small number of unofficial ones like VineMan. In 2006 there will be eight (Wisconsin, Florida, California, Arizona, Eagleman, Buffalo Springs, Coeur d'Alene, Lake Placid). I don't have hard data, but I suspect that the big story is how much tri has grown, not how much easier it's gotten to call yourself a triathlete.

One thing I do agree with, though. Relays don't count. There's nothing wrong with doing a triathlon as a relay. I've had friends who did it and I hear it's fun. It just doesn't make you a triathlete.

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5 Comments

Having just completed my first triathlon, an Olympic distance event, I completely agree. I think the article misses the general consensus --most non-athletes I know looked at me with bewilderment, fear and respect when I told them I was doing a triathlon, even Olympic distance. Swimming is my biggest challenge at the moment. It's interesting how when you look at the three types of tri events, the swimming distances don't necessarily look proportionate to the bike and run distances. For the Olympic course, as a struggling swimmer, there's a big difference between 1 miles and 1.5 miles -- I wish it were only one.

I'm still holding out hope for international recognition of the moderate triathlon.

The point of a triathlon is not to be some kind of killer event. There are ultramarathons, swimming the English Channel, and similar extreme versions of any sport. The extremeness of the Ironman is not what makes it a triathlon.

The defining principle of a triathlon is that it requires a degree of skill in each of swimming, biking and running. To some extent you can compensate for a weakness in one if you are really good at the others, but generally you have to be pretty decent at all three to be a contender.

Given this requirement, there is no reason a triathlon has to last even two hours. You could have a one hour triathlon, or even shorter.

The only real limitation is that if it gets too short, time spent in the transitions becomes too large a fraction of the whole event. In effect you end up giving the medal to the guy who's fastest at tearing off his wet suit, which is not the point of the sport. But as long as you avoid going too far in this direction, there is no need to think of triathlons as being any more strenuous than other competitions.

I do sprint triathlons that are even a little shorter than the one you describe. It's a fun kind of race, and I think you're less likely to have injuries because the different events all work your muscles and joints differently.

Well, if the point of a triathlon is to test skill or ability at three different sports, then why not hold the events separately, with a break in between--as decathletes and pentathletes do--and develop a weighted combined scoring system? Perhaps we naive onlookers can be forgiven for getting the impression that a sequence of three endurance events held in direct succession is meant to be a test of extreme endurance, rather than a mere test of skill in three distinct sports...

In my experience, "real triathlete" is associated more with body type than competitive skills. Although, as Eric suggests, within the sport the elites compare times for a given course.

Some courses are more difficult than others, which allows anyone that completes Escape from Alcatraz (a relatively short event) without drowning, crashing or being reduced to a walk for the entire run course to be respected as a real triathlete.

Some data for total distances of all 3 events:

Ironman: 140.6 miles
Half IM: 70.3 miles
Olympic: ~32 miles
Escape from Alcatraz: ~28 miles
Sprint: ~16 miles

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