What to Expect at a Winter Triathlon

Powder Hound Winter Triathlon

Run, bike, and ski: It's not your standard multisport event but, in the middle of the offseason, winter triathlons are a fun and adventurous way to stay in shape.

The events typically include running, mountain biking and cross-country skiing, however, the races themselves are anything but typical.

"Winter triathlons are unlike traditional tris that have predictable courses and well-conditioned roads and trails," says Chris Axelson, event director for the Powder Hound Winter Triathlon near Butte, Montana. "Racers and race directors have to have a degree of patience and flexibility."

"PRs don't really exist," he adds. "We aim for a 5K [run], a 10K [bike] and a 5K [ski], but if you're using a cross-country ski course that's 5.4 miles, that's what you get; you can't come out of the woods sooner."

It's not just the distances that vary.

Weather is incredibly unpredictable, which means trails that were groomed prior to race day could be covered in snow the day of the event. If the temperature drops below freezing, racers have to worry about ice.

Even if the weather cooperates, snowy trails get churned up once the race begins.

"Downhills are like riding your bike in sand, and on uphills you're spinning your wheels: There's a lot of on and off the bike."

If you think it sounds more like an adventure race than a triathlon, you're right. Axelson credits the adventurous nature of the race as what fosters a greater camaraderie among the participants.

While the atmosphere at summer triathlons is often tense and intimidating, that's not the case at a winter event. 

Everybody is racing in the same unpredictable conditions and dealing with the same obstacles. "At the end of the day, there's a lot to talk about," he says.

Just like many winter triathlons, Powder Hound draws athletes of all levels and abilities. Some folks might be strong road bikers but new to mountain biking, others might be solid runners but unaccustomed to running on snow; and many newcomers have never been on skis before.

According to Axelson, experienced mountain bikers probably have the advantage. "The mountain biking section is where people can really get ahead," he says. "If you can ride through sloppy conditions, stay on the bike, and keep moving, you can put a lot of time on the field."

His race is no exception, where a flat and fast bike start could create a few gaps early on.

To complete the Powder Hound course, Axelson employed the use of three different trails: The run takes place on a major ski trail, the bike section follows a creek drainage, and the cross-country trail is a combination of meadows and tree skiing.

The bike course is flat and rolling to start but requires a great deal of fitness for the finish, while technical ability will come in handy on the ski course.

Previously the Northwest Regional Championship event, Powder Hound was recently chosen to host the USAT Winter Triathlon National Championships. To accommodate more participants, Alexson revamped the staging area, and reviewed the course to make sure it had a good variety of terrain and enough open area for passing.

"We want to make sure it's fair for everybody," Axelson says.

"Of course if it snows 12 inches the night before the race, the racers are going to have a difficult time; there's only so much we can do."

The best part of the course, however, just might be the view:

"It's in a high valley just under the continental divide," he says. "It's a beautiful place to come and race."

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