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Behind the curtain of the sometimes glamorous but mostly not-so-glitzy triathlon life.
When I started my professional triathlon career four years ago, I was just a snot-nosed 30-year-old with a borrowed bike, hand-me-down kit and $8 aviators. I clearly didn’t know what I was doing, or what to expect. And surprisingly, there is no “Entertainment Tonight” for triathlon. No matter how much we see of Kimye and Brangelina, nobody gives us insider access to Rimmy CarDonnell. It’s hard to know what really goes on behind the curtain of superstardom. Is it all glitz, glamour and scream-crying crazy-ass fans? How hard do you have to work? How much money can you make? When does Letterman call?
But after four years of being pro, I’ve discovered the answers to most of those questions (still wondering about Letterman). The veil behind professional triathlon has been lifted. And while a lot of it is what I expected, some of it is unexpected.
Now, I know not all of you want to go pro. I’d bet that the majority of people reading this column have no desire to wear compression socks for a living. But I know that some of you do—I get questions about it regularly. And if you don’t, then at least you’ll have some insight into the (maybe not so) glitzy, glamorous, scream-crying professional triathlon life.
Things to know before turning pro
When telling people you are a pro triathlete, they will respond with either “Do you make money doing that?” or “Great, but what’s your job?” Clearly, it isn’t the same response you get from pro basketball, baseball or even poker. But yes, you can make money doing it, and call it your job.
However, it is unlikely you’ll make a lot of money. Yes, there is a chance you’ll do great, but the odds are tough, and the slope is very slippery. Let’s make my college stats class worth it and assume there are roughly 100 men in the world who competed in Kona, 70.3 worlds and/or Hy-Vee. Here’s my rough guess at their triathlon-related income:
About 20 of them make $200,000 or more (for a very select few, quite a bit more)
About 20 of them make $100,000–$200,000
About 30 of them make $50,000–$100,000
The other 30 likely supplement with some other type of income.
I might be off a bit on those ranges, but I’d bet they’re fairly close. This, of course, is gross earnings, before expenses, which are considerable because of tons of travel (I’ll spend about $25,000 this year on travel), physical therapy, massage, etc., most of which isn’t covered by sponsors or race organizers. Also, that is the top 100 guys in the world. There were something like 500 men on the Ironman 70.3 list in 2013, which means 400 dudes with pro licenses are making little to no money from the sport.
I’m less familiar with the female side. I know most if not all prize money purses are equal, which is awesome, but I’d bet that businesses spend fewer sponsorship dollars because of less female participation, unfortunately. I could be wrong, but my guess is it’s even harder as a woman in the sport.
Your income potential will be very risky. It’s a sliding scale, but of the 70 or so guys who “make a living” in the sport, my guess is that anywhere from 30–80 percent of their income is from performance incentives—sponsor bonuses plus some prize money (see below). Obviously, this is money that you do not get if you’re injured or have a bad race. When I was injured for a year from mid-2013 to mid-2014, my income dropped by about 60 percent. You will need to plan for those fluctuations in your spending and lifestyle.
Prize money will not pay your living. Unless you place in the top three at a world championship, Hy-Vee or Challenge Bahrain, you can’t survive off of just prize money. As an example, here’s my prize money total for a decent post-injury 2014:
First place at Wildflower Long Course: $5,000
First place at Ironman 70.3 Mont-Tremblant: $3,000
Second place at Ironman 70.3 Princeton: $2,000
Third place at Ironman 70.3 Buffalo Springs: $1,000
Fifth place at NYC Triathlon: $750
Sixth place at Ironman 70.3 Vineman: $1,500
12th place at Ironman 70.3 World Championship: $0
Total: $13,250, before taxes
Now, some guys made more than that, but many made a lot less. If I survived only on prize money, my son, Jude, would be running around diaper-less. Nobody wants that.
You need to help (sponsors) sell stuff. Unless you have a sugar mama or are a recent lottery winner, prize money won’t pay the bills, so you must have sponsors. Because sponsors can only pay you if they get paid for selling their products, your primary job for them will be to … help them sell their products! I know, it’s like a GMAT logic game, but it’s the truth.
You need to market yourself. Of course, winning races will certainly help you sell stuff, but how well you sell will be determined as much or more by how well you market yourself, connect with your sponsor’s customers and become an influencer. Sponsors are most interested in athletes who do more than just win races—they have a combination of these abilities as well because ultimately they bring the most value to sponsors’ businesses.
You will get really bored. While exercising all day sounds awesome on the surface, I can tell you that it gets pretty dang boring as well. Obviously, the pool’s black line is the most boring thing in the history of the world, but even a spectacular run or ride gets stale after the 479th time you’ve done it. There are times I do easy rides on the trainer instead of outside because I’d rather just watch two more episodes of “The Mindy Project.”
You’ll travel a lot and miss your family. Between camps, sponsor commitments, and races, I was away from home about 60 percent of 2014. If you have a kid, you’ll miss that little burrito and his mom like no other thing you’ve ever missed in your life. The travel can be demanding and repetitive. Races can feel like business trips. You may forget where you are. It isn’t all amazing jet-setting around the globe.
You will make some really cool friends. I’m not sure why—maybe it’s because it’s such a hard sport, and a tough, up-and-down lifestyle—but in general, pro triathletes are really cool to each other. I’d even say most of us are friends. Sure, there are rifts in any group, but the majority of pros I’ve met in the sport are stand-up people working their asses off trying to make a living and succeed. They are surprisingly generous with their time, energy and information to their competitors. It’s a collegial environment, and one of the coolest things about the sport.
You can inspire, motivate, and encourage lots of people. Maybe the most unexpected thing I’ve gotten out of the sport is a sense of purpose beyond my own self-interest. Like many pros, I receive notes and messages from followers of the sport who say I’ve had an impact on their athletic pursuits. I don’t think there is a greater value to be gained from pursuing any profession, and it easily makes all the stuff above worth it.
That’s my honest take on some of the unexpected realities of my four years in professional triathlon. Knowing all this beforehand, would I still do it? Of course. It sounds cheesy, but I’m living my dream. Sure there are upsides and downsides, but I’m fulfilling a passion and impacting people while doing so. Ultimately, it doesn’t get much better than that.