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Tri’s Race to Survive

For small race directors, coaches, and triathlon companies, adapting to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic has required tapping into the resilience and flexibility that make us triathletes. Now they’re trying to stay afloat and look ahead to a possible boom.

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Resilience isn’t something new to triathletes. Finishing a race as long as an Ironman is all about finding a way to put one foot in front of the other. And trying to make a living in the triathlon industry is usually an exercise of resilience and adaptability. It turns out now that’s a good thing, because times have never been harder for a lot of the small businesses that are the heartbeat of the sport.

From a purely numbers perspective, the biggest players stand to lose the most money from this triathlon season. Ironman, ITU, Challenge, and USA Triathlon are looking at a loss of millions of dollars from the COVID-19 hiatus on events and from the pandemic pause on budgets and sponsor spending. But the largest race organizers and governing bodies also have the financial backing to take a multi-million-dollar hit and come out the other end of this potentially unscathed. Those who make a living from local events and from the smaller grassroots of the triathlon community might not be so lucky.

“Our concern throughout the pandemic has been on the small races, coaches, clubs, and small businesses that make up the sport,” USAT CEO Rocky Harris said. “We want to do all we can to make sure the most vulnerable parts of the triathlon community weather this, since most aren’t set up to handle a few months without revenue. No one planned for the possibility of a season without races.”

To that end, Ironman and USAT were part of a group of endurance sports organizations and companies that established the Endurance Sports Coalition (along with Spartan, Tough Mudder, and USA Cycling) to lobby the government for relief for the endurance industry. While it’s helped secure Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans for a number of triathlon businesses, it doesn’t help individuals, businesses, and nonprofits without a payroll, which make up a large portion of our sport.

Many endurance athletes have turned to working out out from home. Photo: Simon Hofmann/ Getty Images

To provide some relief to those coaches, clubs, race directors, and tri-specific organizations and charities, USAT launched the COVID-19 relief fund, which raised more than $100,000 and began taking applications in mid-May. (As of this writing, no grants had yet been allocated.) While it may not sound like much, a few thousand dollars could go a long way for a local coach or small business.

“It really hit home when a friend of ours who’s a coach asked if she could borrow a few bucks to buy groceries. She literally couldn’t feed her family. That’s when we knew we needed a grant program to provide some emergency relief for those in the triathlon community who need it most,” Harris said.

The coaches hardest hit are those who rely on in-person training and camps to make a living. Like event directors, they’re faced with the grim reality of month after month without large gatherings and without income—and these are the individuals USAT is looking to support through its grant program. Fortunately, a larger number of triathlon coaches already work remotely and online with their clients, so for many of them not much has changed with their business model. And, with virtual racing catching on at just the right time, plenty of triathletes are still motivated to train—and pay their coaches.

“When I realized this was going to last months—not weeks—my first thought was that 50% of my athletes would no longer want coaching,” Nate Llerandi said, who runs his online coaching business out of Boulder, Colorado. “But I’ve found most athletes have doubled-down on the importance of training. With so much uncertainty right now, I think triathletes are clinging to the structure that triathlon provides. They need that outlet.”

With so much uncertainty right now, I think triathletes are clinging to the structure that triathlon provides.

That kind of enthusiastic consumer is all our industry can really hope for right now. While it may take some businesses years to recover financially, the number of actual triathletes hasn’t shrunk at all. They’re tapping into their communities for virtual challenges and buying at-home training equipment as fast as it can be delivered, and it’s only a matter of time until they start spending money on travel and races again too.

“We’ve been looking at this as a holding pattern, financially speaking,” said AJ Lawson, president of the Triathlon Club of San Diego. “We’re not bringing in much revenue, but we’re not spending much either. We had some big plans on how to grow membership this year, and unfortunately we’ll have to put those on hold, but I really feel like the triathlon community in San Diego is more passionate than ever, and we’re going to bounce back in a big way.”

Not only is the existing tri community as eager as ever to race, there might finally be an opportunity here for new interest in the sport to spurt instead of sputter. Some fitness tracker data suggests more people started cycling and running during the pandemic, as gyms remained closed. And bike shops around the U.S. have consistently been reporting increases in sales of beginner bikes and a swarm of people wheeling in whatever they find in their garage for a tune-up. Will all these new cyclists and runners keep at it once the crisis is over? Expecting another triathlon boom like we saw in the early 2000s might be a bit optimistic, but there could be a triathlon blip on the radar, and it might help those who need it most.

“It’s up to us to bring new runners and cyclists into triathlon. That’s what we’re working on now, and maybe that’s the silver lining at the other end of this,” Harris said. “The first events that we’ll see return are local events. I think those events are going to see a renewed interest. A lot of us have been traveling around the country or world to race, and we’ve forgotten about the smaller events in our own backyards. We’ve taken them for granted. I don’t think that will be the case as we start racing again.”