From the outside looking in, the sport of triathlon certainly looks insane. Magic Marker numbers scrawled on bare skin. Tight racing suits, radical sunglasses and a strange variety of hats and helmets. Bikes that look more like wine bottle openers than bicycles. Wetsuits that make everyone look like a beached seal or a giant black licorice stick. All while sweat or water is pouring down faces and other body parts. What’s this all about, really?
When the sport was first popularized in the early 80s it quickly gained a reputation for attracting extreme athletes. Then came massive TV broadcasts in which athletes actually shit themselves coming into the finish line. That confirmed the craziness for many outside the sport.
Yet people tuned in because of that craziness. The limits of human endurance are somehow always fascinating. It can be a bit of a freak show. From the outside looking in, the sport of triathlon looks a bit like chaos.
But a perspective from inside the sport says something different. The craziness is more about being organized than in succumbing to chaos. The entire point of the triathlon is to control the chaos and proceed through transitions in a fashion that is both intelligent and efficient. Minutes in overall time can be saved simply by knowing how to place your gear and swapping it all in order. Explaining this to other people takes some doing.
We’ve all experienced conversations at summer parties where the sport of triathlon comes up. “I can’t even run,” someone might observe. “I don’t know how you do all that.”
The response is that you don’t typically “do all that” until actual race day. Instead, the sport remains a practice of three-part harmony until you combine them. Yes, there are “brick runs” to do coming off the bike. That helps you learn the feel of running with cycling legs. It is these moments, you could explain, that make the sport so interesting. Because the same goes for getting on the bike after the swim.
But first, you have to explain the sensations of swimming in open water, with no constraints or walls to touch. All triathletes must practice that type of swimming, and learn what it’s like to tip your head up just above the surface to read where other swimmers are located and how to site for the buoys. It’s a strange and marvelous freedom, you might explain, to be swimming in such open circumstances. Yet it takes self-control.
That trot between the water and the bike transition area is also a strange world. It makes you feel like an entirely different creature on earth, like a monster from the Black Lagoon. Then you start to strip off your monster skin as you emerge from cold water onto dry land. That wetsuit keeps you warm in water conditions that might otherwise stop you cold. But you can’t wear that suit on your bike, so you strip as you go, then suit up for the cycling portion and gingerly trot out the gates because you’re now wearing shoes with cleats on the toes that are far worse than high heels when it comes to running in them.
It might then help to explain why triathletes ride so flat on the profile of their bikes. It’s aerodynamics, plain and simple. The position far forward makes it easier to cut through air and better to pedal long distances. That position is almost like running on the bike. And sure, hills suck in that position, but it’s an ultimate tradeoff.
The trick during the bike phase is to ride hard enough to get a good bike time yet still save enough to get off the bike and run. This takes trial and error, and practice, but it is the crux of the sport to use both your mind and body to race well.
That running thing
When the run finally comes along, those first few steps can be brutal as your legs change from the cadence of the bike to the running motion. But this is where character comes in. Running when you’re already tired takes concentration. It can help to use the same tempo or cadence on the run that you were doing on the bike. The mind and body work together in strange ways.
All about the calves
That is what the sport of triathlon is all about. That and reading the numbers on the calves of other cyclists and runners as you compete. Because those numbers indicate age group categories. Passing other competitors is the name of the game. In the swim, you typically don’t know who’s who, except for the color of their caps. That indicates which “wave” a competitor was allotted. That’s how racers are coded in the swim portions.
After that, it’s all about the calves.
When you enter the final mile and realize you’ve covered the distance to the best of your ability that day, there is a sense of accomplishment in the sport of triathlon. It stimulates the mind and challenges the body. All the strangeness in gear and appearance and cultlike tribalism means not a thing. You’re a person that is challenging self-perceptions. In fact, you’re one of many people doing the same. So no matter what others may think of your strange sport, it is a satisfying way to refine your self-worth and share an intense experience with others.
That is the sport of triathlon explained to those who might be curious, and to those still trying to figure out why the hell they do it.
BE ORIGINAL. TRAIN HARD. COMPETE WELL.