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Opinion: If There Are No Triathlons, Are You Still A Triathlete?

The future of multi-sport is multiple sports.

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For months, the joke around the office—and by “office” I mean Zoom calls—has been: If there are no triathlons, are there even triathletes?

At first, we were kidding. Of course you’re still a triathlete! This is just a temporary setback! There’ll be races again…sometime, soon! But as the weeks turned into months turned into a whole season gone, I don’t think we’ve been the only ones wondering how long has to pass between triathlons before you lose your “triathlete” card. What exactly makes us triathletes without triathlons? As the joke goes: Otherwise, we’re all just really good at exercising.

Triathlon isn’t really a sport. It’s actually unique in that way. It’s a combination, a constructed contest of sorts across multiple sports. That’s why we call it multi-sport. Triathlon didn’t exist before some guys in San Diego said let’s try swimming, biking, and running all in a row, and see who’s best. And so now, in the midst of this pandemic, people are still swimming and biking and running—in fact, they’re doing some of those things in record numbers—but they’re not triathlon-ing.

And that’s OK.

I made myself a “gravel” bike earlier this month. (It’s not really, but I ride it on dirt, so whatever.) I’ve been chasing some QOMs on a fancy road bike too and falling far short of the cycling pros here. Last month, I went backpacking for the first time. (Not my thing, turns out.) Next week, I’m going to become one of the hundreds of triathletes doing the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim hike/run across the Grand Canyon. (It seems to be the thing to do right now.) And just a few days ago, I bought two pairs of cross-country skis so I can do that too.

Am I going to do a triathlon in 2020? Probably not. I may not even do a single race at all for the first year since I was 13. But I’m doing more things than ever. And I don’t think I’m alone in that. I think a lot of us are doing lots of different things right now.

I fully expect to return to triathlon races as soon as they’re back, because I love triathlon, and I expect most of you will join me. I actually expect some local races will see a resurgence and I expect that there may be a boom in our sport as all these new cyclists and runners start thinking about their next challenge in early 2021. When they’re ready, we’ll be here to help them get ready for their first triathlon and then the next one and the one after that; we’ll welcome them into the triathlete lifestyle.

But I also keep thinking maybe the triathlete lifestyle doesn’t need to be so tied to the act of doing a triathlon. Maybe that doesn’t need to be what makes someone a triathlete. Maybe what makes someone a triathlete is simply that they don’t want to just be one thing, they want to be multiple things. That’s what originally made the cyclists try swimming and the swimmers try running. And that’s why so many triathletes now want to try all the things; they want to Swimrun and trail run and gravel ride and ski and backpack and do yoga and occasionally throw heavy stuff around a gym. What makes someone a triathlete is that they think, ‘Hey, why don’t we swim *and* bike *and* run, that sounds like fun.’ That was the whole original spirit of the thing, after all. To go out there and do something that sounds crazy because why not. To not be limited by definitions that didn’t even exist then.

So whether there are triathlons soon or later, whether you do one this year or next year or in five years, you go out there and you bike and you run and you swim and you come up with your own challenges and you do whatever you want to do, you triathlete you.

A version of this appears as the editor’s note in the Nov/Dec issue.