Look Who's Trying Triathlons
This sounds like a fun way to spend a morning: Swim half a
mile, dash out of the water and jump on your bicycle, bike 24 miles, then jump
off and run another six miles. Why? Because you can.
We're talking about triathlon, a sporting event that combines
swimming, biking, and running -- from the shorter "sprint" and
"Olympic" distance triathlons, up to the brutal "Ironman," in
which competitors swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, then run a marathon.
Triathlon has exploded in popularity over the past 10 years -- novice
participation in the sport has increased 94% since 1994, according to the
national sanctioning body USA Triathlon, and next year more than 40,000
athletes will compete in some 700 sanctioned races.
If you watch a triathlon, you'll probably notice something. The
competitors aren't all lean, buff, hardbody types. You'll see white-haired
grandfathers, middle-aged moms, and a fair number of people who look as if the
furthest distance they run is from the couch to the fridge. And as they
approach the finish line, at least one athletic-looking guy will be eating the
dust of at least one sweet-looking grandmother.
Endurance for Everyone?
Why does triathlon appeal to such a wide range of people --
many of them people you might not think of as "traditional" athletes,
and many who have never thought of themselves as athletes before?
In part, says Margaret Hawkins, who manages the American
Association of Retired Persons' "Tri-Umph" triathlon series for people
over 50, it's the combination of sports. Putting swimming, biking, and running
together means that you don't have to do one sport to exhaustion -- and in the
time it takes to train for a marathon, people who can't imagine themselves
running over 26 miles straight can cross-train and be ready for a
Tri-Umph, which began last year with six triathlons across the
country, is sponsoring 15 races this year. Although most participants are in
their 50s, a substantial chunk -- up to 30% in some areas -- are between ages
60 and 74. In addition to the benefits of cross-training, Hawkins says older
athletes, and probably younger people of a less athletic bent as well, are
drawn to triathlon because it calls on mental strength as much as physical.
"I think mental endurance and focus really play a
role," she says. "It's not that they're streaking out to be the best
runner, swimmer, or cyclist -- they're just determined to keep going. We even
have participants walking the run course, but they're still competing and
"The goal for most participants in triathlon is not to beat
the pack," agrees Fred Apple, MD, medical director of clinical laboratories
at Hennepin County Medical Center. "You might have an individual person you
compete against, and try to pass them at the finish line, but the competition
is based on your personal record. Everyone's got their own personal best, and
everyone's competing with themselves."
The world record for a particular triathlon might be two hours
-- but if you finish in five hours this year and four hours, 58 minutes next
year, that's an enormous achievement. "The goal is to endure and maintain,
and the sense of accomplishment is tremendous," says Apple, who is also
professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of