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Picture an athlete running down the chute towards the finish line, tears streaming down her face. Family and friends cheering as she breaks the tape, arms outstretched towards the sky.
Did she just do something easy? Or is she overcome with emotion because she did something hard—whatever hard means to her?
No matter how fit you are, triathlon is hard. But we do these hard things for a reason. Doing hard things inspires us to become stronger, to work on our weaknesses, to find something deep inside us that we didn’t know existed before. It enables us to achieve goals, to fulfill our dreams, to be part of something bigger than ourselves. So why is it that for so many of us, as soon as we click the race registration button, we start trying to find an easy way out? Why is trying to sell this as easier than it is part of our sport’s marketing?
Can I do an Ironman on ten hours of training per week? Can I skip the long run? Do I really need to swim that much? What if I just buy nicer equipment?
“Have you ever heard someone share a story about this really great, easy experience that totally changed their life? Like, ‘I had this really easy span of five years that totally made me step up and become a better person.’ No. We’re successful, in large part, because of the hard times that have made us into the people we are,” said Robbie Bruce, coach at C26 Triathlon and host of the Crushing Iron podcast.
Isn’t that why we sign up for races in the first place? For those challenges, for the gritty moments when we’re expending every last bit of effort and energy, and we reach that point where we dig deeper than we thought we could—and then we surprise ourselves.
“We want to be in control of the hard days with those healthy, uncomfortable feelings. So, the next time, in everyday life, you can look back on your resume of training and racing and say, ‘Hey, I did that, so I can do this.’ It’s another feather in the cap of possibility,” he said.
Welcoming Doesn’t Mean Easy
In order to preserve the future of our sport, we need to grow it—and to grow it generally means we need to remove the barriers to people from different ages, genders, races, and groups getting started in triathlon. But removing barriers is not the same as just making everything easier. In fact, treating some people like they need it to be easy is mildly insulting.
“Take ultra running in the mountains as an example. The route is what it is. You can run it, hike it, or walk it, but you have to get through it,” said Bruce. Or look at the booming sport of swimrun, where the gender split is nearly 50-50 and co-ed teams are routinely near the front of the standings—but the ocean swims and technical trails are known for their challenge.
“Being welcoming to the sport of triathlon is more of a community problem than a ‘it’s hard’ problem. Take an athlete, just starting out, who does sprints and Olympics for two years before doing her first 70.3. As soon as she finishes that race, she will receive the inevitable question, ‘When are you doing a full Ironman?’”
That’s a perception issue, in our larger community, that needs to stop. Longer doesn’t mean better and it doesn’t necessarily mean harder. There’s a race for every skill level and distance. Someone who’s a top-level Olympic-distance athlete is not somehow less of a triathlete than someone who’s completed an iron-distance race. Triathletes need to welcome new athletes, without pushing them to check some box just for the sake of checking it—which then pushes them to find the easiest way to check that box, because that’s what’s been sold to them.
“Sport is not created to limit people,” said Bruce. “Sport is meant to show people what they’re able to accomplish. We challenge ourselves, not because it makes us better triathletes, but because it makes us better people.”
Of course, it’s no secret that triathlon is a pricey sport with gadgets and gizmos galore. There are super bikes, supershoes, disc wheels, power meters, heart rate monitors, smart trainers. We have swimskins to make us swim faster and electronic shifting to make us shift more efficiently.
But just because you can buy something doesn’t mean you need to buy something.
“Sometimes, we assume that just because products are available and marketed to us that means they’re necessary,” said Bruce. But that’s not the case. If you look at the fastest times from the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, all those athletes had was a basic watch and a Speedo. Yet, “99.9% of today’s triathletes aren’t going to come close to those records.”
And, while we want to tell ourselves that we lost to our age-group rival because they have a fancier bike or a nicer set of wheels, that’s probably not always the case. Plus, there’s the whole chicken-egg question: Are you cycling faster because you have the latest, greatest bike? Or, do you love that bike, so you’re spending more time training on it, therefore your fitness has increased, so you’re getting faster?
Picking ‘Easy’ Races
And then there are the races we pick. When signing up for a race, what factors go into the decision? Location, cost, friends, the course? If you don’t like riding up hills, then it only makes sense that you might not pick a hilly race. If you’re not a strong swimmer, then you might select a river swim as opposed to one in the ocean.
Race directors know how you think. Just read a few course descriptions: “Your journey begins with ease as you glide down the Brazos River.” They might even oversell how easy it’s going to be. This year’s 70.3 Chattanooga was highly prized for the “idyllic weather” and downriver swim—which turned out to be an 85-90 degree blazer with no current to be found. Or what about St. George with its “hilly bike” course? The beast that is Snow Canyon might be insulted if it knew it was being described as merely hilly.
It’s all marketing, and it works. There’s a reason why race descriptions don’t read like this: Begin your journey in a double red flag, washing machine tempest before biking into 20 mph wind coming from all directions, and try not to heatstroke on what feels like the surface of the sun before stumbling to the finish line, incoherent and delirious. Nobody would sign up. OK, almost nobody.
“Races are also businesses,” Bruce said. If they can make it sound more appealing, then you’re more likely to sign up. The more people who sign up, the better for business.
The problem is if you think an event is going to be easy, you might not train as hard as you probably should in order to ensure you’re prepared. If you think a certain leg of the race will be no big deal, you may not be prepared for it. With so many efforts to make things seem and sound easier than they are we risk too many athletes being unprepared for what they’ve gotten into.
We Can Do Hard Things
So we should be welcoming and bring people into the sport without assuming they need us to dumb it down, but without terrifying them either, and we should stop overselling the need for the fanciest equipment and the easiest course. We should embrace the challenge. Why? Because that’s the point.
If someone were to ask you what stood out about 2019, you might struggle to recall a particular moment. But it’s a safe bet that everyone remembers 2020. Because it was hard.
“More and more, in the next few years, I think people will have found out that they need something more in their lives,” Bruce said. “There will be high expectations, goals, and emotions, simply because of how hard last year was. Maybe, what we used to think was hard might not be so hard anymore. The pandemic was the greatest example of how we’ve come to appreciate getting through hard things.”
As a coach, when Bruce watches one of his athletes cross the finish line, it’s a celebration of the journey they went through to get to this point.
“It’s a fast-forward time lapse of the hard days, the divorces, a child getting sick, job loss, job gain, marriages, and moves. That’s what you see being celebrated at the end of a race. Triathlon empowers people. It’s uplifting. It forces us to grow and take a hard look at ourselves in the mirror.”
“Triathlon and training gives us a chance to question our belief in ourselves, and that’s what’s so invaluable. I honestly believe it can change people. It can save people. It can empower them and show them what they’re capable of. Very few sports challenge us in the way that triathlon does. It’s a sport that demands so much of us. But, life is the ultimate endurance event, and triathlon helps prepare us for that.”