Midwest Multisport Races went straight to the source to find out how they can attract beginner triathletes.

My First Tri is going all-in on newbies.

After a meteoric rise, triathlon participation rates have leveled out. In part, this is because the explosive growth of 2008 to 2012, where participation rates shot up by almost one million triathletes per year, was simply not sustainable. Race directors have started paying more attention to how they can attract new athletes to the sport—and how to keep them in it for the long haul.

At Midwest Multisport Races, they went straight to the source. By surveying current and former athletes, they realized that a big contributor to the decline was that athletes simply weren’t enjoying the race environment. Many beginners felt they were unwelcome in the sport, where so many athletes seemed to be focused on bagging podiums and Kona qualifications. They felt judged for not having the latest and best gear or not knowing what they were doing – there simply wasn’t room for newbies.

“It’s important to have a space that allows people to try new things in a place they feel free of judgment,” says Judi Fluger of Midwest Multisport Races, who says athletes surveyed, especially beginner athletes, overwhelmingly said they wanted “a healthy community that cheers each other on.”

Their solution: My First Tri, a super-sprint race series in Minnesota exclusively reserved for first-time triathletes. Held twice per summer, My First Tri is the first-ever triathlon in the United States where newbies make up 100 percent of the race field.

“We wanted to create a race where we could take out the most obvious barriers to an athlete’s entrance into triathlon,” says Fluger. “We felt the best way to do that was to provide a race that was only for newbies, thereby leveling the playing field.”

All aspects of the race are designed to address specific concerns of beginner triathletes. “One of the biggest stumbling blocks for newbies is the fear that they will be run over by a wave of experienced and aggressive athletes swimming over them,” says Fluger. In response, My First Tri utilizes a time-trial start. This also allows athletes to seed themselves where they are most comfortable, and for volunteers to say encouraging words to every racer that enters the water.

A smaller competition also allows for individualized attention – by limiting the field size to only 200 entrants, My First Tri participants are able to get their questions personally answered by Fluger. They also get one-on-one support from volunteers, and can even sign up for a mentor program, where an experienced triathlete will race alongside the newbie.

By focusing only on newbies, My First Tri has created an encouraging and supportive atmosphere set apart from races that simply offer a separate wave for newcomers to the sport. By making the first triathlon special and supportive, My First Tri hopes to retain triathletes for years to come. “We wanted this initial triathlon experience to be unforgettable for all the right reasons – because it was fun and the athlete’s success was guaranteed.”

So far, My First Tri is working. Brad Booher, who did his first race with My First Tri last summer, says the experience was exactly what he needed as a newbie.

“While you can always find experienced triathletes at any local event, they are often focused on their own race prep and may not have the time/interest in answering a bunch of beginner questions,” says Booher. “It’s also more intimidating to think about approaching other athletes whom you are competing against. My First Tri was a great way to get exposure to the sport without the pressure of feeling like you need to compete. I also enjoyed being able to share the experience with other beginners.”

After his first triathlon experience, Booher was hooked – and loyal to Midwest Multisport Races. In the past year, he’s participated in almost a half-dozen races by the event company. He’s also taken on other local events, and is currently training for his first Ironman this fall. It’s a success story that is common to My First Tri, leading other race organizations to consider the My First Tri model as a way to not only attract new triathletes, but retain them for years to come.