What It’s Like To Be A Professional Triathlete

Anonymous pro triathletes get honest about the perceptions vs. realities of what it takes to be on top of the podium.

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Anonymous pro triathletes get honest about the perceptions vs. realities of what it takes to be on top of the podium.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

To an age grouper accustomed to a 9–5 in a cubicle, the life of a professional triathlete sounds pretty incredible. Who wouldn’t want free cutting-edge gear, the chance to travel the world and the lifestyle of someone whose main objective is to swim, bike and run?

What makes triathlon unique is that we get to race on the same course as the professionals do, and we can relate to their feelings about a triumphant PR or an epic workout bonk. But for the elite group of athletes good enough to win races, the pressures of living podium-paycheck-to-podium-paycheck isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.

We had candid conversations with a wide range of professional triathletes—world champions, veterans, rookie pros—to see what they would say when they were promised anonymity. Here’s what they shared.

On misperceptions:

“There is an understandable misconception about pro triathletes that all we do is train, eat and sleep. However, most of us are spending nearly as much time in front of a computer as we did as age groupers working a 60-hour-per-week job. As a pro triathlete, you need to develop a brand and your business in order to attract sponsors and earn income to pay for your racing. We normally don’t have the support system in place like athletes in the four major American sports. We are our own sales, marketing, human resources and event planning divisions. On any given day, we wake up and train, fuel and hydrate. We then work on our businesses, which for me includes coaching, social media marketing, managing sponsor/media requests, returning fan questions, making sure gear is in order, etc.—all crucial components of our job. You are constantly trying to figure out ways to make sure you have alternate income because race winnings are inadequate to maintain your racing schedule.”

“To start out with, in order to be a pro, you have to get good enough to be a pro. Generally you’re working full-time while trying to do enough training so that you get good enough. I used to work in a bike shop, earning $9 per hour, and get up at 4 a.m. to train. I think the perception from the amateurs is, ‘If I could train all day, maybe I could be as good as you.’ It’s like, for one, probably not. For two, I’ve had to bust my ass and work full-time to get to this point.”

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On the lifestyle:

“The beauty of the sport is most everyone competes because of their enthusiasm for swimming, biking and running; camaraderie is on display in every race, which is special. I worry about athletes not breaking out of their own selfish bubble where they have a very narrow view of the world. The spirit of triathlon is one of friendship, belonging and passion, and I never want to see that dissipate.”

“I’ve been lucky that I’m in a position to not stress too much. It probably gets to a point where if it’s not going well, you should grow up. It doesn’t feel like a real job. You look at swimmers who only perform until 22, track athletes get to 30. If you look at the age in triathlon now, there’s at least a decade being added on.”

“It’s very obvious that it’s a really selfish sport. I look around at people who don’t have kids and how they balance their day is different. The need to support a family creates a lot of motivation. When you go off to a race and you want to support them, you have to make it work. It’s now just not going to a race to have a holiday in Thailand—you go to Thailand with a purpose. When you realize as an athlete what you’re there for—to make a living, to sell product, to help evolve products and grow the sport—you become more content and realize what your role is and it’s not just a selfish pursuit anymore.”

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On competition:

“For the most part, people are supportive. I do find that dichotomy weird—I’ll be head to head with someone and afterward it’s like, ‘Oh, hey!’ and all cheery. That’s something I find hard, to be friends because you know you’re going to have to race them. I’d rather not know them at all.”

“I view racing just like any other job—outside the office we are buds, but when it is time to put my head down and do work, it is all down to business.  It is hard sometimes though, I won’t lie. If you have a crappy race and a close friend has an awesome one, you have to be happy and supportive of them and celebrate their day, yet at the same time, whether a friend or someone else, the competitive fire is always there and having a bad race sucks. It can be hard at times to externally show a happy and supportive attitude when you are pissed on the inside! I think nastiness between competitors stems from a lack of confidence though. If you believe in yourself and what you can do, and understand some days will be better than others, it is easier to embrace the success of others. I believe people who lack confidence sometimes put up these fronts to their competitors to gain a mental edge for themselves.”

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On sponsorships:

“I do have great relationships with the majority of my sponsors, but there are always a few that stick in your mind after a complicated experience. You’re trying to get behind a product and believe in it, even if you don’t like it—which you can’t tell them because they get pissy with you. You have to blog about products and tweet about them, and you feel like such an idiot. It’s so transparent. How many likes do I get when I say, ‘Oh I just had a bottle of X sports drink’? About two. Because people want to get to know your personality, and through that, they’ll see the product association.”

“At times I’ve given up slightly higher paychecks to remain with my loyal sponsors. I think people need to do that more. It has to be reciprocal too—you want your sponsors to be there when you’re having an off year and having some injury or illnesses, but that’s what you need as an athlete. You don’t want that pressure every time you line up at a start line.”

“Nothing surprises me anymore in the negotiation dance between triathlete and sponsor. The problem is that what you are offered is all about timing, which is out of your control. I have seen companies throw incentives at athletes, but I have not been able to participate because I was under contract with a competing company. You go back to that company a year later after your contract has expired and they are over budget or do not sponsor triathletes anymore. In reality, it is a business and, no matter how great the relationship, you could get dumped in a heartbeat!”

“Sponsors all want you to do Ironman, which is built up by the community. ‘Are you going to do an Ironman?’ That’s like saying to a marathon runner, ‘Are you going to do the 100-meter sprint?’ No, because that’s not my specialty. Maybe I’ll try one but I don’t particularly enjoy it. They never say that to ITU racers.”

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On money:

“You soon realize that the amount of money you make as a professional, even if you’re at a top-caliber level, isn’t that much. You’ve got a short period of time in which you can earn your money. So in a very, very good year, with a coaching business and winning [a top-tier race], I think I earned $110,000 last year, which I think is phenomenal, but most athletes will be lucky if they’re earning $20,000–30,000. I mean, what are you supposed to do with that? If you’re consistently up there, if you have a good year, you are maybe earning $150K. Still you have to consider: Where’s your pension? What if you get injured?”

“Your sponsors don’t pay for your flight, your accommodations, your bike box, stuff like that. Sometimes races will, but only if you’re well known. Your expenses are so high that it throws up a red flag to the IRS. This year I actually got audited as a result—it was a total nightmare. We had to go through and itemize everything, I think it was 5,000 different credit card transactions that all had to be allocated. It was right before a world championship. That just goes to show you how many expenses you have as a pro. Then you get the comments from the amateurs who just don’t get it. ‘Oh you’ve got your bike ride … I’ve got to go to work … you’re so lucky,’ and it’s like, yes we are lucky and I feel grateful, but it’s a lot of hard work. You have to truly love the sport because the return, certainly financially, is not great. But nobody does professional triathlon for the financial gain.”

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On Kona:

“The [Kona Pro Rankings] system gears all the athletes toward Kona but does not emphasize the other races on the schedule. If it is ingrained that Kona is what every triathlete is striving for, you will not get the top competitors at other races around the world, which hurts the sport as a whole. There is something wrong with a system where some of the top competitors only race one Ironman race to qualify for Kona. It does not benefit them to enter other races because the focus is so much on Kona, including sponsor dollars, podium incentives, and the general perception from the public. It can only hurt them physically to enter other races if there is no need to do it, since prize money is insignificant to what can be earned from an appearance in Kona. If we want the sport of triathlon to gain more visibility, we need the top athletes racing, not preparing for Kona for 75 percent of the year.”

“Sponsors haven’t embraced racing non-Ironman events. And you find the security and higher percentage of your income comes from sponsors. There’s still so much emphasis on Kona and until that changes, there’s always going to be that lure to race the Ironman events. Obviously they’ve got the television exposure and to overcome that, the other players are going to have to be better at race-day media. Hawaii is Hawaii, and it’s got the exposure and that’s what sponsors want.”

“The whole validating thing—I like to see people make a bit of a joke of it and just cross the line. Like Greg Bennett last year. The whole Hy-Vee qualifying decision was made early in the year. [In early 2012, WTC, the corporation behind Ironman, decided to allow winners of the Hy-Vee Triathlon and Ironman World Championship 70.3 to get an automatic Kona spot with an Ironman validation.] Then Greg went to validate in Melbourne, and I don’t know what his goals were, but he jogged around the course and at the end of the day didn’t have a great race. But Craig Alexander, Joe Gambles, Cam Brown dragged their butts around for the next two months recovering from a hard race. Then Greg could go to the U.S., he’s fresh, because he hasn’t run a 2:40 marathon. If he had his game together and wanted to, he could run around and do short-course races for good prize money. So with this whole validation thing, you might as well just walk. It’s just strange.”

“I guess the appeal of the sport was always Kona. I think the more you get wrapped up in it and the more you get to know the politics, it becomes more and more frustrating. It’s still viewed as the pinnacle of the sport, and it is. It would’ve been great to have a revolving [location for the Ironman] World Championship. You can’t change it, it makes for legends, but Hawaii doesn’t suit every athlete. I think you’d see different winners if you moved it to Asia-Pacific, had one race in Europe and every fourth year it returned. I think you’d see a change in the world champions.”

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On going pro:

“There are 800-plus registered professionals with WTC and I’m not sure how many people are paying mortgages/rents from their sponsorship. Why are people turning professional when it’s not their profession? I look at a lot of age-group athletes who are great athletes, and for some reason they want to race professionally and finish 40 minutes behind the field when they should feel content being competitive in their age groups and winning or getting top five, or whatever they do. They’re trying to balance jobs and family, and they should be happy with what they’re trying to achieve, instead of walking around saying you’re a professional and never earning a cent. It’s a weird thing for me. I feel embarrassed if I race that badly. I think a lot of the real professionals think, ‘Why would you put yourself through that?’”

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On doping:

“The scary part is now age groupers are getting tested and the results are showing up positive. It is usually money that influences an individual to start doping. If age groupers are doing it, pride and gaining a competitive advantage is the sole culprit, meaning money is not even a factor. This is a slippery slope we are now treading where the push for athletic recognition will only continue to get stronger, and the pressure to cheat and get away with it will continue to be one step ahead of the testing organizations. Cheating to get ahead is becoming ingrained in human nature, which is frightening.”

“Because triathlon is a newer sport, the culture is ‘cleaner.’ I also think there’s less money in the sport because it’s a minority sport, and that makes the sport cleaner. However, as we found by the revelation of some athletes who have been doping, it tends to be the athletes who are on the cusp of making it, rather than those who are higher up or who have made it. I think drug testing is pretty stringent if you’re in the real top tier, but the ones who are trying to make it to the top-tier level, it seems that that’s where most of the doping might be happening. But then again, I don’t know if I’m incredibly naïve. In my experience, I’ve never been offered anything and I’ve never heard or been aware of anyone around or in my circles. I feel like it’s the up-and-comers who don’t have any money—because, let’s be honest, there’s not a lot of money in this sport anyway. If you’re an up-and-coming professional, where do you get your income? If you’re not winning races or getting any sort of exposure, you’re not getting any support. There’s none whatsoever. That doesn’t justify taking drugs; I just see that as a motivation.”

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On races:

“Prize money is a disgrace. WTC keeps throwing it out there that there’s a big pull, that there’s more money to be won. But there are three times as many races and you can’t race three times as many times. Some of the prize money has gone down at races—there should be no reason for an event to go backward. Some of the smaller races are $3,000 to win, [such as] Ironman Lake Placid. … I’m training for an Ironman now and turning up is barely worth the effort. It’s garbage. It’s three months to train, a month to recover, and that’s four months of the year.”

“I think we looked at Providence [the equity firm that owns WTC] coming in and saying what direction Ironman was going to take, and they went and acquired all these other events. They obviously have one mission: to make money. I think the soul of the races is gone. These independent races used to have character, and each race director had their own style, and it was fun. There were other ways to make money, with appearance fees, etc., but those opportunities are gone. If there are any, they’re limited and controlled by Ironman. There are some really healthy things that have been wiped out. There’s a lot of support, but it’s diluted by the amount of registered pro athletes. At the end of the day the whole thing now is a spreadsheet and the bottom line. I don’t think it’s been a positive thing for the sport.”

“People like Rinny [Mirinda Carfrae], Chrissie [Wellington] and Craig [Alexander] get looked after, but now you get a stipend, which doesn’t even cover your bike fees—and that’s only for a couple of athletes for an event. Back in the day, you could have your expenses covered, you’d get an appearance fee and you knew you were starting ahead, and you had a great rapport with the race. To me that’s when the sport was headed in the right direction. Right now, it’s just driven by the investors. It’s a shame because all the new people wouldn’t know any different. The sport has been fantastic to me, but it’s sad people don’t know what has deteriorated. New athletes come into the sport and history disappears very quickly.”

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On the mentality:

“I can relate to the Lance Armstrong thing. Not because of the drugs, but because of the two different ‘characters.’ He’s obviously got a split personality, and you find yourself creating a character just to get through the day. If it’s a six- or seven-hour day of training and you’ve got intervals and this and that, you’re in this zone just to get through it. If you’ve spent six or seven hours in that character, sometimes that character is driven by anger or hate or frustration, then it’s difficult to come out of that and be this happy, spunky person. I’ve struggled with that. Say you’re on a group ride and you have intense intervals … and you have these people rolling up to you and asking, ‘When’s your next race?’ And you’re like, ‘Fuck, I can barely turn the pedals. I do not want to talk about my next race.’ And then you feel bad because these people are so nice, it’s not their fault, it’s your choice that you’ve chosen this career. So you go back and forth between this guilt and this kind of drive to want to improve all the time. It’s really bizarre. After a seven-hour day, I’ve literally given it everything I’ve got. So by hour 6 and 59 minutes I’m fucking dead. You walk up these stairs and you’re just … grumpy. Then I think, ‘What kind of life is this that I spend so much time being grumpy?’ That side of it is really hard.”

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On eating:

“I get asked all the time about what my eating habits are, and if I can eat anything I want, and if there are eating disorders in the sport, etc. My general feeling is that anorexia doesn’t exist in Ironman and 70.3, but it does in Olympic. I just think you couldn’t survive in Ironman or 70.3 by starving yourself, whereas nutrition isn’t as important or as essential of a part of Olympic-style racing. That being said, I think as professional athletes, whether triathletes or other, we all suffer from disordered eating. I try to eat balanced and healthy, but in race season I do restrict myself from indulging too much or too frequently. And when I look at my body weight fluctuations, in my post-season I completely indulge in pizza, burgers, beer, ice cream—whatever I want, whenever I want. I gain weight, I bloat, but it is all part of the mental and emotional and physical release for me. Then when I start training again, I go back onto a much healthier, cleaner and regimented diet and I lose that. I eat a lot, but it is just very clean, not processed—I take out all the fluff. I feel like this cycle isn’t necessarily as healthy as a constant, steady, balanced system, but it is also part of being a pro. Being as lean as possible without compromising power and speed is key. And focusing on eating foods that benefit us and help our training and racing is part of our job. But as sports go, when you look at the body types of most triathletes, we look healthy, and I feel that promotes a positive message to kids and adults alike. I like the fact that to be successful in this sport you have to eat to be able to manage the training load we do. I guess that is kind of a mixed message. Do we eat and eat a lot to train for 70.3 or Ironman? Yes, we do. But does that mean it is not without sacrifice? No it doesn’t, and for that reason I do think our eating patterns can be viewed as disordered.”

“Oh my God, eating is a nightmare. There are so many issues. Being lean and the vision of what that means. Also, it does improve performance, so you’re always conscious about what you’re eating. And as a girl, and as someone with an eating disorder when I was younger, it’s always there. But just the same as someone wouldn’t put the wrong program on their computer, I can’t put the wrong stuff in my body, and most people don’t get that.”

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