Triathlon boom: Short courses, easier activities make sport more approachable

Sprint triathlons have opened up the sport to people who might otherwise have never tried it.
When Brian Ingle crossed the finish line of the Cayuga Lake Triathlon in upstate New York earlier this month, he was sweaty and tired, but proud. The 38-year-old actuary had finished seventh in his division with a time of two hours, 42 minutes.

But unlike most triathletes, Mr. Ingle didn't need a week to recover. Not only were the distances in this race a fraction of those in "Ironman" competitions, he had help: His wife, Juliet, completed the one-mile swim while a friend tackled the 25-mile bike ride. All Mr. Ingle had to do was run six miles and join his teammates at a celebratory cookout to drink beer, smoke cigars and grill steaks. "We're going to change the image of the triathlete," he says.

Triathlon goes "soft"

Hold on to your stopwatches, fitness fans: The mighty triathlon, that macho emblem of athletic sadomasochism, is going soft. While grueling events like the legendary Ironman continue to grab most of the attention, the sport has quietly been expanding at the lower levels. The number of shorter "sprint" triathlons sanctioned by a national governing body has tripled in five years to 818.

The fastest growing forms of triathlon are those where the requirements are a bit lax: There are triathlons for kids, relay triathlons completed by teams of two or three, "Clydesdale" divisions for men who weigh more than 200 pounds, and events that allow contestants to run less than two miles or swim with the aid of a Styrofoam noodle.

New this summer: divisions that dispense with running in favor of power-walking. "Just because you've had a knee replacement doesn't mean you can't get out there and compete," says Gary Morgan, a triathlon organizer from Cincinnati.

While there's no telling whether the triathlon boom is a sustainable shift or just the latest fitness fad, observers say one reason for the growth is something you won't get from Pilates or kickboxing -- instant jock credentials. Years ago, being a "scratch golfer" was a bragging right for upwardly mobile executives and later, "marathoner" became popular.

But these days, according to Dennis C. Carey, a partner at the executive-recruitment firm Spencer Stuart, "triathlete" is all the rage. A triathlete himself, Mr. Carey estimates the term is showing up on resumes two or three times as often as it did five years ago.

Career enhancement isn't the only fringe benefit. To most people, the word "triathlon" conjures images of an Ironman slog with a 2.4-mile swim and a 112-mile bike ride followed by a full 26.2-mile marathon. For sprint triathletes, this misconception isn't always inconvenient. "Sometimes you don't bother to correct them," says Mackenzie Cook, a recent college graduate who got his start in sprints. "Especially if you're talking to a cutie."

Desirable demographic

While some triathletes may not be the physical specimens you'd expect, they do have one thing in plentiful quantities: money. According to Mediamark Research Inc., the average household income of subscribers to Triathlete magazine is $155,000, which is more than triple the national average.

To reach this demographic, sporting-goods companies have come up with a barrage of outlandish toys: For nearly $20,000, aspiring triathletes can buy a current-producing pool that allows them to swim in place. There's a $140 training watch with GPS and an underwater MP3 player.

In preparation for his first sprint triathlon this spring, Wes Edens, 43, the chairman and chief executive of a private-equity and hedge fund, is leaving nothing to chance. He's bought a $10,000 Seratto bike, which he took to a specialized fitter who adjusted the seat, handlebars and pedals for about $300.

After Labor Day, he'll begin twice-weekly training sessions with a former Olympian who charges $125 an hour. And he recently dropped $1,500 for a virtual-reality cycling software program called "CompuTrainer" that uses 3-D simulations of hills and turns to help riders improve their pedaling efficiency. "That's all the toys I've gotten," he says. "So far."

For those who do graduate to the elite levels of triathletes, it may only get pricier: Louis Licari, 54, a celebrity hairstylist who owns salons in New York and Beverly Hills, Calif., has competed in two Ironman competitions in six years and spends at least $50,000 for training, physical therapy, travel expenses and gear. "Some years it can be $75,000," he says.

History of triathlon

The triathlon dates back to the mid-1970s, when distance runners in San Diego invented it as a training exercise. The first Ironman event took place in Kona, Hawaii, in 1978, and the triathlon debuted as an Olympic sport in 2000. But thanks to the growth of shorter events, it's reached a new peak of popularity. Last year, governing body USA Triathlon sanctioned 1,192 adult events -- 2 1/2 times the level of five years ago -- and the number of entry passes sold to nonmembers entering its sanctioned races has jumped 26 percent in three years to 175,000.

Opening up the sport

Danskin, the sportswear company, has seen participation in its annual women's triathlons rise by 69 percent since 2000, with some 22,000 women participating. Danskin's events, which have a half-mile swim, 12-mile bike ride and three-mile run, put a strong emphasis on fitness (and finishing).

In the swim portion, athletes are allowed to float on Styrofoam noodles and are protected by a fleet of rescuers in boats who hover nearby to pluck stragglers from the brine. One Danskin participant, financial manager Elizabeth Konkle, described them as "cute boys in kayaks."

To further protect the self-esteem of its entrants, Danskin sends spokeswoman Sally Edwards to compete in every race with the express purpose of finishing last. "I do it so no other woman has to," she says.

Sponsors, organizers and racers alike say that the simplification of triathlons may not be such a bad thing at a time when so many Americans are overweight. Lee Silverman, the owner of JackRabbit, a New York triathlon store, says most of his clients who enter sprint races are primarily looking to get healthier and lose weight. "People will tell you, 'I'm doing this so I can eat a bagel and not feel guilty about it,' " he says.

Earlier this month, when one Manhattan triathlon shop launched an essay contest where the grand prize is a year's worth of triathlon training, 40 people applied in 10 days. The only hitch: The winner has to be a man who weighs more than 220 pounds or a woman who weighs more than 190.

These sprint races have opened up the sport to people who might otherwise have never tried it. Mark Cancian, a 54-year-old Pentagon analyst from Virginia, wanted to find something to do with his athletic teenage boys that wasn't too strenuous for him. The solution: sprint triathlons, or last weekend, a "supersprint" consisting of eight laps in a pool, eight miles on a bike and a 1.8-mile run. "I have three goals," Mr. Cancian says. "Not to drop dead, to finish, and to not come in last."

This June near Cincinnati, Heather Gilliam, a 34-year-old mother of two, entered her first event in which she canoed six miles down a stream with a partner, biked 18 miles and then power-walked 5 1/2 more. The last stretch of the walk nearly did her in, she says. "It was straight up 'Killer Hill.' "

Even some elite triathlons are adopting shorter formats. The Olympic race can be completed in under two hours (Ironman events take a minimum of 8 1/2) and the World Triathlon Corporation, overseers of the original Ironman, have introduced a new championship on a course that covers half the Ironman distance.

If there's a downside to all this, it's that some people, emboldened by shorter courses, will push themselves beyond their capabilities. "The danger is that some people think that if they can do the rinky-dink races, they can just go out and do an Ironman," says Mike Gostigian, a former Olympian and current triathlon trainer. (USA Triathlon requires all participants to buy insurance.)

But for the time being, freshly minted triathletes like Michael Kotlikoff, a 54-year-old physiology professor, don't seem too concerned about what exactly constitutes a triathlete. Moments after registering for a sprint relay at the Cayuga Lake Triathlon, he admitted that he hadn't trained much. But even if he doesn't finish, he added, he'll nonetheless have something in common with the most elite athletes in the field. "You still get the T-shirt," he said.

Gearing up

Once an ultra-niche market, the triathlon industry has expanded considerably in the last few years. Here's a rundown of notable training products recommended by store owners and veteran triathletes.

Polar S625X heart monitor, $370

  • Unique feature: Monitors a runner's speed and distance with the help of a lightweight foot pod.
  • Comments: Gear records heart rate and calorie output, and stores historical performance data, all of which can be downloaded onto a computer with an optional infrared device.

Shimano 'TR-02' shoes, $160

  • Unique feature: Soles made of carbon fibers, which are lighter and stiffer than traditional plastic.
  • Comments: Designed for triathlete bikers, shoes have oversized straps on the heel and upper, which help speed transition between swimming and biking. Designed to be worn without socks, shoe's insoles are ventilated and antimicrobial.

Hed Carbon Aerobars with 'S-Bend', $500

  • Unique feature: Uniquely shaped handlebars add leverage and comfort while biking in "aero" position.
  • Comments: Favored by Lance Armstrong, they've become a popular accessory for triathletes. Budget-minded racers can buy the alloy extensions, rather than the more expensive carbon.

Quintana Roo 'Ultrafull' wetsuit, $165 to $500

  • Unique feature: Slick coating on the outside cuts down on drag during swimming events.
  • Comments: Breakaway zippers and "V-cut" above the ankles makes it easier to take off quickly. Company's most expensive suits are especially thin to maximize flexibility.

Endless Pools current-generating pool, from $18,900

  • Unique feature: Slightly larger than a hot tub, this swim treadmill creates a constant, adjustable current.
  • Comments: Expensive, but company says sales increased 30 percent last year. Allows triathlon swimmers to train at home while simulating various open-water conditions.

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