For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
It’s time to get back to the adventurous roots of multisport.
There I was running boring loops around another parking lot at another generic race site that looked the same as the last place I raced, when I realized: This isn’t what triathlon is supposed to be about!
Triathlon is supposed to be weird and crazy and fun. It’s supposed to be a unique, one-of-a-kind challenge. That was the whole point in the first place. It’s supposed to be about making it up as we go just to see if we can do something that sounds impossible, and not worrying about fast courses or PRs. Where has that wacky ‘why not’ spirit gone? Where’s the sense of adventure? Wasn’t that the whole reason the sport was invented anyway—half on a dare? Early triathlons varied wildly in format and distance and order of events. They involved finish lines based on the whims of whoever was in charge. Because why not race your friends around a made-up course just to see who’s fastest? An Ironman isn’t the distance it is because it made any sense or was routine. It’s that long because that’s how long biking around Oahu was, minus three miles for logistical convenience. Ironman wasn’t standardized until it was invented.
Chasing branded distances has done more to kill the funkiness of tri than anything else. 140.6 or bust! Who cares if you covered the mileage in endless loops around a city dump, or earned your 2.4-mile swim PR by targeting a down-stream event. (Cough, Chattanooga, cough.) Now you can proudly tell your masters buddies you went sub-1 hour in an Ironman swim, as you push off on a five-minute interval for your 100s set. Let’s bring the crazy back. Let’s make the stories about that insane hill somewhere in the second-half of the bike. About the buffalo you stared down on the run. About that stream you had to decide to run straight through or take your shoes off then put them back on. About all the unexpectedly strange and wonderful things that happened to you on course.
It must have been exciting to race triathlon in the 1980s and early 90s, when no one knew what it was, when nothing was standard because it was still being created, when you felt like a pioneer breaking new ground. It’s probably that same pioneering spirit that’s leading so many athletes to the new events popping up now: Swimrun, Ultraman, Xtreme triathlons like Norseman, multi-day mixed-order formats. These things are tapping back into the original excitement of the challenge. What if we swam from this island to that one and ran over it before swimming to the next one? What if we triathlon’d across the state of Florida or the length of Norway self-supported? What if we did something weirder than run up and down a bike path in search of a “fast” course devoid of hills or weather? What if?
See that point over there? I’ll race you to it.