Triathlon...The Rough Guide

An article written for the newsletter of Fleet & Crookham AC in September 1999

First a few facts:
1) Running day after day after day is boring. Well, that's not actually a fact, it's just included to wind up those obsessive runners amongst you.
2) We all suffer injuries at one time or another which prevent us from running, but are not necessarily aggravated by swimming or cycling.
3) All triathlon is not (necessarily) Ironman.
4) We are all potentially triathletes. We can all run, riding a bicycle is the first thing we learnt once we could walk, and if you have seen Titanic, been on a day trip to the Isle of Wight, and still not learnt to support yourself in water, go to page 113 for instructions on how to operate a life jacket and come back when you have seen sense.
5) Triathlon is fun.

What this adds up to is that triathlon is not a sport for the elitist, the super-fit or the cerebrally challenged, but can be a pleasant way to spend the summer month(s) doing something other than pounding the roads/paths/track.

What can I write about triathlon that would interest members of a long-established athletic club? Should I describe the sport? No, everyone knows triathlon is swim, bike, run. History of the sport? No, already well documented for those that are interested enough. What about training schedules? No, there are enough of those for running alone, far too boring. I think perhaps, as triathlon is often (incorrectly) regarded as an 'extreme' sport, it would be a good idea to look at the two extremes, as anyone considering taking part in the sport has to decide at what level they would fit in, according to budget, time and ability. The extremes mentioned are from personal experience, apologies to the under 16's (who are catered for in the form of 'mini' triathlons) and ultra-triathletes (those who insist on going longer than Ironman actually do come from one of the aforementioned categories).

The Swim:
This can be anything from 400 metres (16 lengths of a standard pool) to the 2.4 mile ocean swim of the Ironman. Minimum equipment required is a pair of trunks (and I suppose a top half for the females) and some goggles. For open water (lake, river, sea), particularly in this country, wetsuits are compulsory. You can use a standard diving/windsurfing suit though this will be less comfortable and streamlined than a made-to-measure, 250 specialist suit. The normal swim stroke used is freestyle. Breaststroke and backstroke are widely used by novices and even butterfly is allowed, although it does not make you very popular with other swimmers in narrow swim lanes! Whilst recognising that we are not all "born in the water", it is possible for everyone to learn to swim well enough to compete in triathlon with a good coach and plenty of practice. The important thing to remember is that, whatever the distance, the swim is always the shortest part of a triathlon and the main aim should be to finish it in comfort.

The Bike:
This generally starts at 20k for sprint and novice races and goes up to the 112mile (180k) Ironman distance. It is potentially the most expensive equipment outlay for those considering taking up triathlon competitively. Having said that, there are no minimum requirements for the cycle except that a helmet is compulsory and the machine must be roadworthy. I have seen butcher's bikes lined up against 5,000 monocoque frames. There is no point spending thousands on a top of the range machine if you haven't got the leg strength to push the pedals round fast enough, but then again, would you choose to run a marathon in Wellington boots? A standard road bike costing 500-750 is perfectly adequate. Depending on the distance to be covered and personal preference, you can either use running shoes and toe-clips (which also saves transition time) or use clipless pedals and cycling shoes which are more comfortable over longer distance. The addition of 'aero' bars and getting comfortable with them makes a big difference.

The Run:
All distances from 5k to marathon. You've already got all the equipment, bar perhaps a pair of lace-locks (see below). There's nothing new I can tell you about running except to say that as a runner, you have a distinct advantage over other triathletes in that you can save the best till last. Wherever you are in the field on completion of the swim and the bike, be it up with the leaders or in last place, your running strength can only improve your position! Everyone knows the importance of feeling strong, physically and mentally, in the latter stages of a race and triathlon is no exception.

The Transition:
This is the 'bit in the middle' (or rather two bits). This is where you discard your used kit and equipment and change for the next discipline. Often disregarded, this can be the most important part, where races are won and lost. Preparation is all important, deciding what to wear is a balance between time-saving and comfort. Just remember that nudity is now a DQ offence (the transition area used to be a highlight for my wife as a spectator, she rarely comes along now!). Special tri-suits are still popular as they can be worn for all three disciplines but for long distance events, some prefer to spend a little longer changing into something more comfortable. Other time-saving ideas are to leave cycle shoes attached to pedals and learn to get them on and off on the move, and the use of lace-locks on running shoes might save vital seconds.

The Race:
These are generally split into three categories, Sprint Distance (750m, 20k, 5k), Standard or 'Olympic' Distance (1500m, 40k, 10k), and Long Distance or 'Ironman' (3.8k, 180k, 42.2k). There are many other permutations, and even the advertised distances are not necessarily accurately measured (unlike road races), so it is difficult to compare performances between races. A better indication is given by position, both overall and within age-group. Most races are categorised into five-year age groups which means that you can continue to be competitive as you age, and you get to know the opposition quite well. Triathlon has a kind of community spirit which you do not get at road races.

The Cost:
Disregarding the cost of equipment which has already been covered, the cost of entering races is possibly the most contentious issue within triathlon. You can't race for a fiver! Race organisers have to spend a lot of effort justifying entry fees in the triathlon press, but even the most expensive races fill up, so it is a question of supply and demand. T-shirt and goody bag seem to be obligatory and obviously add to the cost, but you will be asked to pay anything from 15 for a small race up to $300 for the Hawaii Ironman, so you will need to be selective about racing according to budget and what you want to get out of the sport.

The People:
Even those at the top of the sport are largely anonymous to the general public. Considering our climate, Great Britain has been very successful at Olympic Distance triathlon having won the World Championship 6 times since 1992, Spencer Smith (twice) being followed by four times champion Simon Lessing. With ex-Australian Andrew Johns joining them, we have a definite chance of having three on the podium at the Sydney 2000 Olympics when triathlon will open the games as an official Olympic sport. At the other end of the scale there are the usual characters who are the back-bone of the sport. One who perhaps does more to attract attention to the sport than even the superstars is 85+ year old Patrick Barnes who has been competing ever since the sport began and even though his appearance doubles the duration of a race, he is welcomed by race organisers.

To sum up, even if you don't want to compete in triathlon, swimming and cycling can be excellent training alternatives, particularly in the summer and when injury prevents running. If you do want to compete, triathlon offers a good excuse to take off to the coast for the weekend, you may find that the Newquay Surf Triathlon generates more excitement than the Camberley Half Marathon, it offers the opportunity to meet kindred spirits at different locations, to try a fresh challenge, you may even end up swapping the basket on your bike for a set of low-profile aero bars!

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