In Women Who Tri, Alicia DiFabio explores the triathlon phenomenon that gripped her town and swept the nation. She explores the surge of women into endurance sports while telling her own personal story and profiling the inspiring women who have overcome challenges to find their inner athlete. Read an excerpt below.
The simple act of joining a tri club may be the single most important thing a newcomer to the sport can do. The encouragement, instruction and guidance that a club offers are invaluable. But clubs aren’t just for the newbie. The confident and seasoned triathlete thrives in a group that supports her as she pushes herself toward new goals. She can also learn new techniques and training tips, and build friendships with like-minded women along the way.
There is an undeniable correlation between the rising number of clubs and the increase in triathlon participation. In 2000, there were only 50 USAT-sanctioned triathlon clubs in existence across America. A decade later, that number had grown to 831. Today, there are more than 1,000 triathlon clubs registered with USAT, and counting. From California to Maine, Michigan to Texas, tri-clubs are cropping up like dandelions. They range from the largest co-ed club, located in southern Florida, to one of the smallest, on the island of Nantucket. Whether they include serious Ironman competitors, casual weekend enthusiasts, or some combination of both, tri-clubs make the same promise to their members. They offer training, support and camaraderie for individuals intent on unlocking their inner athlete.
“Before the tri-club, I went to races by myself,” Megan H. says. She was disciplined about working out but fumbled through her triathlon training alone and without much support. At her first races, she’d be so nervous she couldn’t even speak. Then, at one race, she saw a few women with matching pink shirts. It was those girls in pink! That’s when she learned about the MHWTC, and it was just the support she needed.
No matter their gender composition, triathlon clubs serve two main purposes. The first purpose is what I’ll call the Practicalities. That includes things like training plans, group workouts and sometimes professional coaching. Many clubs offer fitness-related workshops on topics like injury prevention, open-water swim technique and nutrition for athletes. They may also hold how-to clinics, like how to fix a flat or shift gears on your road bike, or how to reduce panic during open-water swims. Supplemental workouts (such as boot camp or yoga), discounts to local fitness stores, mentoring and invitations to exclusive club-only parties round out the list of tangible club benefits. By creating a forum for members to ask questions, learn from each other, find training buddies, carpool to races, and receive advice on a multitude of triathlon-related questions, a triathlon club cultivates a rich environment of training opportunities, advice, and education.
“The thing I liked most of all about joining the tri-club was the opportunity to meet over 100 new women,” Heather S. says. “It’s hard to make friends sometimes as an adult, and this club gave me a chance to meet some great people.”
Heather S.’s sentiment is shared by many, which leads me to the second purpose of a triathlon club, arguably even more powerful than the first. Tri-clubs offer what I call the Intangibles—friendship, inspiration, belongingness, and emotional connectedness. Although triathlon is an individual sport, clubs create a sense of being on the same “team,” of belonging to the same tribe.
Bridget S. trains regularly with a group of tri-club members who have become her closest friends. “When you race with someone and share that experience, you have so much more in common,” she explains. These women not only bond through training, but push each other to achieve their personal bests. “I never thought I had it in me to be able to run quickly,” she says. “I never pushed myself before. I did not push myself until I started running with them.”
Triathlon is a race, and a race involves competition. For many triathletes, especially at the recreational level, that competition lies within. It’s about beating that little voice in their head that fills them with doubt and angst. For a select group of triathletes gunning for a spot on the podium, there’s no denying they need people to eat their dust. Yet many triathletes, even very competitive ones, are often less focused on beating someone else than on besting their own personal time. Winning is simply a byproduct of being their best. When a community’s entire paradigm shifts from competing against to competing within, racing takes on a different vibe. Club triathletes seem to truly celebrate each and every tribe member’s personal victory while pursuing their own.
Climbing The Pyramid
Can motivation to tri come from a sense of community and friendship? Let’s get psychological for a moment. Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow is best known for his theory of human motivation, which he developed back in 1943. The crowning jewel of this theory was his Hierarchy of Needs. The diagram seen in all Psych 101 textbooks depicts this hierarchy in the shape of a pyramid, neatly subdivided into five stacked, color-coded sections representing each stage. Essentially, Maslow theorized that all human beings are motivated by unsatisfied needs. As we work toward satisfying them, we work our way up the pyramid toward the tiny triangle at the top. That top, the peak of the pyramid and that which we all strive to embody, is called Self-Actualization. It’s a state of complete self-fulfillment, where the “ideal” self meets the “real” self—the embodiment of a human’s full potential. In other words, it is when you become your best self.
Sounds easy enough, right? Well, to summit this pyramid, one must fully satisfy all the lower needs along the journey. If a need is left unmet or partially met, that person remains stuck at that level, striving to fill that void. The most basic needs are at the pyramid’s base: food, drink, warmth, sleep. Every human being requires these things for survival, and if deprived, she can’t even begin to work toward anything more existential. Above the Physiological needs are the Safety needs for shelter, security, stability, law, and order. Once those two sets of needs are met, the next step toward self-actualization involves the Belongingness needs: love, friendship, intimacy, affection, and relationships. Theoretically, without those needs being satisfied, an individual will not be able to advance into the two top tiers of Self- Esteem and Self-Actualization.
That intrinsic drive to find caring, reciprocal, healthy, supportive relationships is the very thing that helps people achieve their higher goals and dreams. Belongingness fortifies self-esteem, which paves the road to self-actualization. In this respect, triathlon clubs make a lot of sense. And, if you think about it, triathlon by its very nature is a self-actualizing endeavor. Let’s face it, no one “needs” to do a triathlon to survive, to eat, to stay safe and warm. In fact, triathlon is the opposite of staying safe and warm. It was doctored by those and for those who want to challenge themselves. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that securing basic belongingness needs via a triathlon club helps make the journey to the top of Maslow’s pyramid, or the finish line of a triathlon, a reality.
Research supports this notion as well. Social factors, group identification, and belongingness are powerful motivators for people participating in endurance sports. Nearly 40 percent of endurance sport competitors enter these races at the encouragement of friends or family. This suggests that people can be talked into a great many things in the name of friendship.
A perfect example of this is Megan H. After a brutal swim in freezing cold water, Megan crossed the finish line of her first 70.3 and promised herself to never, ever race that distance again. Enter friends, stage left. Next thing she knew, she was signed up for another 70.3 with her buddies. When I asked her if she caved because of friendship, Megan laughed and admitted, “Yes!”
Jenny Thullier of the Transcend Racing Triathlon Club in California confesses that triathlon legitimizes spending time with her friends. “There’s a lot more justification to say we’re going away together for a race,” she laughs. Training and racing become fun social events. When those events are broadcast on social media, people get a serious case of FOMO (fear of missing out). “You get caught up in the energy,” Jenny explains. “You don’t want to miss anything!”
Triathlon clubs use friendship, fun, fitness, and a dash of good old-fashioned peer pressure to pull others in. But I didn’t need to read a bunch of research to figure that out, being a woman myself. There are exceptions to every rule, but a large majority of women aren’t eager to sign up, train for, and travel to their first triathlon alone. Especially after we’ve spent our adolescence going to the bathroom in packs. Seriously, women make just about anything into a social opportunity: the PTA, girls’ nights out, book clubs, Bunco, and even the gaggle of bridesmaids at our wedding. Many of us find comfort in numbers. We find comfort in friendship. And when we feel there is a high risk of embarrassing ourselves, we like to travel with a human shield.
While there is no way to definitively know whether female-only tri-clubs lure a subgroup of women who might normally shy away, it might well be a tipping point for those on the fence. Certainly coed tri-clubs offer the same mentoring, support, and guidance, but many women, especially those new to the sport, are simply more comfortable with a “No Boys Allowed” policy. Particularly for someone feeling past her prime, who hadn’t shed that baby weight, never played a sport in her life, or was insecure about her fitness level and conspicuous about her body in Lycra. One could see where a dude-heavy environment might be intimidating and even a deterrent for some . . . even if the stereotype of the ultracompetitive, testosterone-ridden male isn’t always true.
Both co-ed and all-female tri-clubs can provide a safe atmosphere where women can thrive. The MHWTC chose to follow a women-only philosophy, and it has worked well. They attract every type of athlete: the sub-7-minute milers who podium at races and the easygoing, recreational triathletes who walk the entire run. There are those who have conquered the Ironman, those who do only one sprint a year, and those who just stick to running races. There are Type A obsessives and Type B socializers, those who crush the course and those who can be found reapplying lip gloss before hopping on their old beach cruiser bike with a basket on the front. Megan H. says she’s one of those people applying lip gloss during the swim-to-bike transition. “I don’t try to PR,” she laughs. “I try to FI—Finish Intact. You get the same medal as everyone else as long as you finish.”
Megan sums up the dynamic of the MHWTC perfectly: “The club is challenging people to step outside their comfort zone. But the key is you’re not doing it alone.”