Over the years, I have heard many explanations of what Triathlon is, usually from folks who have never done one. Most triathletes never discuss it amongst themselves, it just is.
What is interesting though is all those explanations from non-triathletes actually hit the mark, as they explain the distances (varied), and the time allotted (usually shorter than they think), and what the “tough” part is. Triathlon is actually broken down into four distances: Sprint, Olympic, Half (70.3 total miles), and Full (140.6 total miles) or the “Ironman.” Ironman is the Holy Grail. It is usually the most recognizable and oft-referenced example of what a triathlon is. The triathlon started in the mid-70s, in 1974 as legend has it, was when the first triathlon was held, but the “Iron man” as it was referenced then, as opposed to “Ironman” now, didn’t happen until 1978.
The first Triathlon was held in San Francisco in 1974. The distance wasn’t close to Ironman distances, but the husband and wife team there took the idea home, to Oahu, Hawaii and with some other endurance athletes spawned the idea of the “Iron man” (Ironman) distance of a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike then ending with a 26.2-mile marathon distance run, in total 140.6 miles. So, when you see a car or T-Shirt with “140.6” emblazoned or stuck on the rear windshield, you are presumably in the company of an Ironman. Of course, anyone can buy one on the Internet, and pose, some do. Always fun to engage in a conversation with them, make them sweat a bit. I have one on the back of my car, and yes, T-Shirts too! I am a 3X Ironman finisher, but, in my own mind, I am still a poser, as I am working to a finish time in the 12-hour range, which I consider “legit”, but that is my own metric and my last race was 13 hours and 28 minutes, within striking distance, and hopefully on my fourth, I will get under 13 hours. Speaking of time, you are given 17 hours to complete the Ironman 140.6.
Ironman is not necessarily the hardest, or the toughest race, believe it or not, it is unique in that it takes a completely different mindset, and preparation plan to complete successfully. For instance, the two shorter formats of “Sprint” and “Olympic” also known as an “Oly” are what I call full redline races. They can be completed at Wide Open Throttle; you are basically going all out the entire time. I have finished these races with foam flying off my mouth and my elbows as the sweat will lather up as you burn through a Sprint or Oly, and honestly, I fear them more than an Ironman in some ways. Everything is going to hurt and scream if you are out there to win.
All Triathlons have the same format of Swim, followed by Bike, followed by a run. The most often overlooked part of this Swim, Bike, Run format though is the Transition, known as T1 and T2. T1 covers the transition from Swim to Bike, and T2 covers the transition from Bike to Run. Sprint distance Triathlons generally follow distances of about 400 to 800 yard/meter swim, with a 10 to 20-mile bike, and then typically a 5K or 3.1-mile run, sometimes 5 miles. Olympic distance Triathlons cover 1.5K swim (.93 mile), 40k bike (24.8 miles), and a 10k run or 6.2 miles. Both the Sprint and Oly are what I call Wide Open Throttle races. You redline the entire time, super fun!
Typically, you are red-lined not by choice, but due to the swim, which can best be described as chaotically fighting with everyone else through the water. Most Sprint and Oly distance races are mass starts, that are in waves by Professional, Age Group, Masters, Clydesdale or Athena – as are all Triathlon races.
Professional is pretty obvious, there for the money, Age Group (or Groupers, like me) are in it to smoke those younger than them, and to smoke the folks in their AG out to smoke them. Masters are older AG’s who are still kicking butt well into their 60’s, 70’s and lately 80’s and 90’s. Clydesdale’s would be men that run on the heavy side, and Athena’s are women that run on the heavier side. There are also groups for handicap and physically disabled.
Regardless of the Group you are in, at any Triathlon distance, you are assigned a swim wave, which is typically a mass start. Most races of any distance a mass swim start will be 50 to 300. At a Sprint or Oly distance, that basically means everyone is amped up, ready to get out and away from everyone, and they will club you in the head to do so. I hate mass swim starts for Sprint and Oly. I am a good swimmer, cannot remember ever not swimming. I have no recollection of not being comfortable in the water. When I swim, it is like walking, I don’t even think about it.
I sure as hell think about it at the mass start of a Sprint or Oly, because I will be swam over, and I will swim over people. I will be pushed under, and I will drive people under me to get a clear line. You need to keep your powder dry when your goggles get knocked off, or you get kicked in the side, or punched in the head. Even had an altercation with a fella during an Ironman swim that wouldn’t quit drafting off my side and getting under my right arm. I had to roll over on my back push him away and yell “Get the f*$*! off me”. Mass start Sprint and Oly’s are just all out, and when you come out of the water you are heaving, with your heart hammering, sprinting all out to get to T1.
Because Transitions are free speed, so you go all out to get to them, and through them. The transition can win or lose a race, Transition is where you can spot where you are at in relation to others, who came out ahead of you, and if you smoked someone you are targeting if you beat them out of the water. Yes, I race to beat my previous times, and those around me. I look up stats, I check past results, I like to podium – which doesn’t happen that often, but as an AG junkie, I do get a rush from it when I do.
Unfortunately, we have most deaths in the Triathlon community every year from the swim portion. Usually heart attack, sometimes drowning. Once you have cleared the water and thanked your lucky stars, T1 is calling, and getting out of your wet-suit or changing to get on the bike and out of T1 is all you are thinking about. As fast as you can, because a short T1 is free time, and you are not ripping your lungs out to maintain a swim/bike/run pace. All you have to do is get smoothly through transition, and out onto your bike quickly, so as to get a jump on any competition.
Transitions are an art form, and most often overlooked by new Triathletes. Myself, wet suit or no, I Bike and Run in what I swim in. Which is usually some spandexy tight thing, that is aerodynamic and works in the water. You learn really quick to leave modesty out the door in Tri, because not a lot is left to the imagination in the pursuit of speed. If I am not stripping off a wet-suit (or having a wet suit stripper do it for me – yes, those exist) I simply grab my bike while tossing my swim goggles and swim cap to the ground. My shoes are already mounted on the pedals, via “clip-less” pedals, they mount to the pedal with a cleat. Smack my helmet on, buckle it up (automatic disqualification if exiting T1 without a properly secured helmet), jump on my bike, and jam my feet on top of my attached biking shoes and start pedaling. Once I get moving, I will reach down and insert my feet into my shoes on a coasting hill or section, and get my feet secured. I can get through T1 in as little as 50 seconds when I first started, I would take 3 to 4 minutes and was getting beat because of Transition times only. I could out swim, bike, run someone, and miss a podium AG finish due to Transition times.
Needless to say, you never stop, and at a Sprint or Oly, you are never really resting, you start hammering on the bike right out of the water and into the run – Wide Open Throttle. For me, that means my heart rate is floating around 165 to 178 beats per minute and over the distance of a Sprint or Oly that will be true for an hour or up to 2.5 hours.
When you get into the 70.3 (Half) and 140.6 (Full) distances, both considered “Ironman” races, then things change. The hurt doesn’t, but the tempo training and strategy do.
Ironman is a licensed trademark, owned by the WTC “World Triathlon Corporation” and since it is a U.S. invention, the rules and conventions for racing a 70.3 or 140.6 are set by USAT “USA Triathlon” – which includes distance, time allotted, and rules regarding racing.
One of the primary rules is drafting on the bike. For any distance USAT sanctioned race, bike drafting is a big no-no, and similar to watching a line of NASCAR vehicles line up behind the lead car, and then try to slingshot around, while the lead vehicle burns all the energy and power to overcome wind resistance. Triathlon is considered a solo sport, no pacelines, no drafting. At an IM event, if you are caught drafting (or even a shorter event), you will be “carded” and penalized for each infraction. First infraction 3 minutes, then 5, then 8, 4th infraction is DQ, disqualification. I forget the exact duration, but trust me, 3 minutes added to your time is the difference between first place and 30th place in Tri, they are that close. Which again takes me back to the transition strategy, free time!! OR you can drop a coin in aerodynamic wheels, which really do work, and will add about 1 mph to your average speed, in Tri time, that translates to minutes over distance, the longer the ride, the more time you get from these puppies.
Ironman competitions at the 140.6 distance number about 30 to 40 globally, and they all count towards the iconic race at Kona, which is considered the World Championship for Ironman. Not to say that it is the toughest IM, as it isn’t, many consider the IM Philippines to be the toughest IM out there. Personally, I have done 3 all at the same location, which is Louisville KY, ranked 5th toughest in the world due to heat (when it was held in August), and elevation climbing on the bike, about 6K feet. So yeah, biking 112 miles while climbing 6K feet, and then running a marathon after that, hurts, and hurts because you are running in summer heat afterward in Louisville which is hell. This was my first two experiences in Louisville, the 3rd they moved to October because you guessed, the heat! I have a couple more left in me, plan on something different, but COVID pretty much shut down racing this year.
While I love the Oly distance, and honestly it can hurt more than any other distance, the IM is the holy grail for Triathletes. It is “the” badge of honor or the measure of yourself against similar peers. Getting to IM weeds out all but the most committed. Even those that arrive on race day, 15 to 30 percent will drop before ever crossing the line, the attrition is that high. The Louisville course will routinely see DNF (Did not Finish) in the high 20 to 30 percent region. That would be with a starting group of about 5,000 one year about 1750 dropped at one of my August races. When you do cross the line, it is still humbling, because the pros will have finished 3 to 4 hours in front of you, and many will finish 3 to 4 hours behind you. I have seen many just stagger over to the side of the run course or pull over on their bike and just sit down, head in hand – it is over, they know it, and you do too. You can’t help but feel bad for them. It is a long day, anything can happen, even the most prepared have been brought low by circumstance.
IM or Triathlon, in general, was planted in my brain in 1982, a few years after the first IM ABC Wide World of Sports was covering the race, and I got hooked on watching it, that was the year that Julie Moss became famous. She is the competitor in the “Agony of defeat” ABC montage that you see collapsing within yards of the finish line and crawls on her elbows as her legs just quit working, to the finish line. I remember that moment very clearly, and wondered time and again “what does it take to demolish yourself like that, what kind of person can do that? I want to figure that out, I want to be that person”, so in my 30’s I started and am still racing in my late 50’s. Twenty years of racing Triathlons, and I have seen a lot of changes.
I will say though that Triathletes, in general, are some of the most optimistic, generous people around. Even though I am there for personal reasons around speed and time, I always enjoy my time around Triathletes because they are an uplifting community, and very supportive of each other. Hell, it is the only professional sport where you can pal around, and race with the pros. I have swum with and trained with Dave Scott 6X IM Champion and Chris McCormack “Macca” (an Aussie for our Aussie friends!) You can mix it up with the pros in Tri, on race day, something that would never happen in other professional sports. That is the great thing about Triathlon, there is no boundary or “talent scouts” because it is not a “team” sport, it is an individual sport, the irony being is that is what makes it such an open accessible sport to the masses.
IM training will eat up most of your life. For me, when I am peaking for an IM race, you are training a minimum of 18 hours per week, and maxing out at 20 to 22 hours per week, on top of your job, family, etc. In Tri, we have an expression of the “Iron Widow,” which is the wife, husband, or significant other all fade to memory as you work and train sunup till sundown. Up at 4 a.m. for a 1 to 2-hour session, go to work, and home for another 2 hour or longer session, every day, day in day out. The food man, the amount of food you will consume is stupefying especially on weekends when you are burning 6-hour long workouts. I will put down 6,000 calories a day and still lose weight, the last IM I burned 12,000 calories in a 13 hour day, and always end up in medical getting an IV because I urinate brown for a couple of days after, one race my veins had collapsed and they just..kept…sticking Me! If you entertain the idea of IM, get ready to abandon your family, yard work, honey-do jobs, etc. Be ready to plow through food, and rack up grocery bills, not to mention the shoes and other gear you will need to race in. IM isn’t cheap to get into, nor train for. But you get a nice T-Shirt, sometimes an IM bag, and a big chunk of metal as a medal, more than likely made in China (Geo).
Or as they say, “Pain is temporary, finishing an IM is for life.”
Editor’s note: This article was written by SOFREP Team Room superstar, Mason.