How to Conquer a Triathlon
Record numbers are signing up to triathlons for the ultimate physical challenge – but what’s the personal impact of this highintensity sport?
I’m running through deep, dank mud while the wind blows hard against my face. Blighted by rain, lifting each foot takes supreme physical effort. My lungs are creaking while my mind flip-flops against the possibility of stopping. Is anything really meant to hurt this much? I think. My thighs ache from a 40-km cycle and before that a 1.6-km swim, mostly spent trying to keep afloat amid the thrashing limbs of competitors. Now I face a 10-km run.
Nobody does triathlon because it’s easy. Nor do they do it because it’s straightforward – or cheap for that matter. So why, exactly, do they do it?
First, a bit of history: the race comes in different lengths, and can be anything from a super-sprint ( 400- m swim, 10-km ride, 2.5-km run) to an Olympic (1.5-km swim, 40-km ride, 10-km run), Half Ironman (1.9-km swim, 90-km ride, 21.1-km run) and Ironman (3.8-km swim, 180.2-km ride and 42.2-km run).
The first-ever triathlon was an Ironman, held in California in 1974, and the first New Zealand triathlon took place in Auckland in 1979. Australia was quick to follow, with the first triathlon held in Port Macquarie, New South Wales, in 1985. When the International Triathlon Union was formed in 1989, Australia and New Zealand were both founding members – and by 2000 it had become a fully fledged Olympic sport, with Sydney’s Harbour Bridge and Opera House forming the backdrop to the event’s progression onto the world stage.
It’s not just for professionals, either. According to Triathlon Australia, the number of people taking part in sanctioned events between 2011 and 2014 increased by more than 46,000, taking the total recorded race starts up to 181,000. There’s also been a significant increase in the number of juniors taking up the sport, with a 109 per cent jump in Australian junior programme participants between 2014 and 2015. New Zealand numbers are also on the rise, with overall race entrants more than doubling between 2000 and 2009.
It was exactly this surge in popularity that caught my eye a couple of years ago when – as a runner, gym bunny and all-round fitness fanatic – I became intrigued by this young, dynamic sport. It seemed that wherever I looked, friends, family and acquaintances were talking about triathlon: a new hobby that was healthy and social to boot.
At that stage I still couldn’t think of anything worse than floating about in a wetsuit that stank of seaweed, yet there was something in the groundswell of enthusiasm for multidisciplinary sporting events that I wanted to understand.
I decided to jump right in, spending a year immersed in the world of triathlon with the intention of writing a book about my experiences.
MODERATION IS A DIRTY WORD, LOOKED UPON BY MANY DEVOTEES WITH CONTEMPT
I QUICKLY LEARNED that triathlon is a lifestyle and an attitude as much as a sport, offering the opportunity to set fitness and health goals as well as recapturing lost self-esteem.
So many of the triathletes I met had heartfelt reasons f or ge tt i ng involved in the sport. Katharine Peters, a 40-something part-time nurse and mother of five who did her first super-sprint triathlon in Bristol, UK, says, “For me it wasn’t about being a triathlete, more about proving something to myself and having a focus. I lost 15 kg during training and in the race showed myself that I wasn’t useless any more. I could do something just for me.”
For Suzanne, in her 30s, triathlon began with a New Year’s resolution to do an Ironman just seven months later. She’d run a marathon once before but knew little of triathlon and had done virtually no cycling or open-water swimming. Yet after endless gruelling hours of training (usually twice a day) juggled around her demanding corporate job, Suzanne made it to the starting line. Weather conditions couldn’t have been worse, with the preceding day’s storms leaving the course a total wash-out. It was the toughest 15 hours, 32 minutes and 15 seconds imaginable, but Suzanne finished her first Ironman that day. Since then, she’s gone on to do many more, as well as other endurance events.
Triathlon transformed Suzanne’s life for the better: “It’s changed what I think I’m capable of, where I go on holiday, what I eat, what I look like, who I hang out with and how I spend my time. So basically everything!”
The first Olympic triathlon race took place in Sydney in 2000
FOR ME, the first six months were intense. First, there was the pain. Multiple training sessions a week left me hungry and tired, not to mention time-poor. As I quickly learned, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing because for triathletes (and many other fitness-obsessed types I’ve met along the way) feeling pain isn’t a failing. In fact, being able to take yourself into what’s known as ‘the hurt locker’ is often considered a sign of strength.
Among the most dedicated triathletes, pushing through physical and mental limits merits respect, while fatigue offers bragging rights. Injuries are commonplace and often treated as a mere nuisance. Moderation remains a dirty word, looked upon by many with confusion and even contempt.
It’s hard to remain clear-headed in such a fervid, success-orientated culture. Many triathletes, particularly those involved in the longer distances, suffer from disordered relationships to food, body image and exercise.
Rob Popper, a 51-year-old triathlon coach and sports masseur who discovered the sport in 2001, admits, “Throughout my long relationship with triathlon, both as an athlete and a coach, there have been lots of ups and downs. I experienced passion for the work I was doing, improvement in my personal performance, greater understanding about how the amazing human body works and the chance to motivate some brilliant people.
“Simultaneously I’ve had less time with my kids, my wife, my friends. Actually, less time for me, too. Periods where friends had to sit me down and ask me if I was developing an eating disorder. Separation and eventual divorce from my wife. Launching a very expensive business that went sour and
wiped me out financially. Suffice to say I’ve definitely sacrificed important aspects of my life to make room for this obsessional sport.”
WHEN IT’S NOT GOING WELL, the world of triathlon is a dark place. Professional triathlete Jodie Swallow has blogged about the pressure to reach the ideal ‘performance weight’, as well as the bulimia and depression she suffered from during her earlier years in the sport. I came across similar stories about triathlon instigating or exacerbating existing mental-health issues.
“The world of triathlon engulfed me as it engulfed many,” says former competitive triathlete Olivia. “I always suffered from bulimia but when triathlon came along it exaggerated my tendencies tenfold. I saw women who were struggling and tried to believe that I wasn’t like them. I saw men who were obsessed with their physique and their stamina.
“Training wasn’t just a way of life – it determined life. When one race was done you’d book another one to keep up the momentum. Guilt, anxiety and pressure, all self-inflicted, were daily emotions. A missed training session would bring on a desire to train harder, push harder, work harder and, of course, eat less.”
The financial costs are hardly insignificant, either. The average entry to an Olympic- distance triathlon is around $ 100-$ 135 and Ironman entries can be as much as $800-$1000. Then there’s the kit. You’ll need a trisuit (base layer), wetsuit, bike (alongside optional go-faster extras such as cleated cycling shoes), helmet, sports clothes, swimming costume, hat and goggles, plus some running shoes. Most people also need coaching as well as a bespoke training schedule. Despite borrowing a racing bike from someone for the duration, my kit costs alone added up to over $950.
There were also overnight stays before two of the triathlons I competed in (around $550), money spent
Charlotte McShane competing in the women’s triathlon at the Rio Olympics
on petrol, flights and train tickets ($1200) and a warm-weather training camp that I attended (around $1300 in total). My original plans to race around a château in France had to be ditched as the transport and accommodation alone would have come to $650. Since the logistics of triathlon without anybody to help carry kit and proffer support are tricky, I needed a wingman, which meant that cost would be doubled.
And yet, despite being poorer, both financially and temporally, there’s something undeniably electrifying about it. I trained for months for that Olympic-distance triathlon, spending mornings, evenings and weekends doing laps in the pool and around the park, sacrificing sleep-ins, nights out and almost all my relaxation time – all of it culminating in two hours and 55 minutes of ceaseless endeavour.
I PROMISE MYSELF I’ll finish, swallowing energy gels and water while remembering to breathe. Finally, I cross the line, hands held high, before collapsing in an exhausted heap enveloped by a sweet, ephemeral kind of ecstasy.
It’s not just endorphins but also an intense and longed-for sense of satisfaction, the kind that comes from tackling three sports in one (not to mention the ludicrous costume changes in between, known as ‘transitions’) and surviving to tell the sweaty tale. All around me people celebrate – some grinning, some in tears – because they’ve achieved something unforgettable.
Deeper still, there’s the sense of purpose that triathlon offers. Running, swimming and cycling give a respite from existential angst – as the gruelling training schedules leave little room for contemplation of the
bigger life questions – as well as an opportunity for personal growth.
Ali Hendry-Ballard, 47, first dipped her toe in triathlon during a difficult period in her life. “I really needed something positive to focus on while going through some major life changes,” she says.
“Though I’d never been interested in sport, I started jogging short distances and soon caught the bug. I started doing half marathons and very quickly found myself training for a triathlon. I love mixing the disciplines; there’s something that appeals to all sides of my personality. I’ve never felt so in tune with my body, or so aware of its strengths and its limitations.”
For me, too, triathlon has resulted in an increased awareness of what is and isn’t possible, physically, mentally, emotionally and even spiritually. Combating the fear of being dragged under by other swimmers during an open-water start, learning to take a wetsuit off at speed and trusting that I can handle whatever comes my way during the course of any race – all these things have helped me to become a stronger, braver person.
There’s a paradox here for me, too. Triathlon takes from its devotees every bit as much as it gives and yet, somehow, you end up giving even more than it requires. It’s a greedy pastime and it attracts obsessional, determined types. Yet it’s also a social, fun-filled hobby that can offer fresh chances to travel, experience and dream.
Lucy Fry’s Run, Ride, Sink or Swim: A Rookie’s Guide to Triathlon is out now.
Rob Popper has made difficult sacrifices for the obsessional sport
Lucy Fry spares a moment to smile at her dad, who’s come to support her