Triathlon: Is it a Race or an Event?

Common sense tells you that a triathlon is a race, right?  After all, there’s an overall winner, and there are people who win their age groups.  There are national championships, race series championships, and even world championships.  Some races offer prize money or goods for the folks who come in first.  There are trophies or plaques given to the people who cross the tape first.  All of that is evidence that triathlon is, indeed, a race.

Given the popularity of our sport, however, one might deduce that the sport is less about racing than it is about the event.

Race companies put on huge spectacles at their finish lines.  Race expos are huge.  There are events leading up to race-day for families to participate in.  In some cases, race festivities happen for a full week prior to the event.  Races, in and of themselves, are events.

There’s nothing wrong with that.  I love a great finish experience as much as the next guy does.  Personally, I think that many of the events and hoopla that accompany races make our sport more enticing and entertaining.  Many new athletes are drawn to our sport because of these very events, and so they are unquestionably good.

On top of the “event” nature of races, for lots of folks, triathlon isn’t about winning.  It isn’t about getting a Kona spot.  The reality is that the vast majority of us will never win an age group, let alone an entire race.  Lots of folks are quite genuinly happy with just finishing.

The Wall Street Journal recently printed an article that posited that younger athletes appear to be slower and less competitive than older athletes.  The author didn’t claim that we more mature athletes are defying the aging process and getting faster; rather the argument was that younger athletes just don’t have the competitive drive to make a race out of an event.

As evidence, the author mentioned some endurance type races where there is literally no timing done (the Color Me Rad type races and even some of the Tough Mudder type races were examples).  People participate just for the experience.  The fun.  But not to win.  The author then shared the fact that even though he finished in the top 15% of his Chicago Triathlon age group, that he finished in the overall top 11% for the entire race.  This bolstered his opinion that youngsters are slower than the oldies among us.  He claimed that his fact portends a major forthcoming slippage in our global competitiveness in sports in the future.

Bunk, I say.

First of all, what does it matter that older athletes seemingly are outperforming younger athletes?  Could it instead be a sign that we’ve learned how to better take care of our bodies?  That we’ve adapted training such that we can maintain high intensity well into our 40’s or even 50’s?  I just don’t buy it that there aren’t fast people who are younger than me.  I’m not worried that future U.S. athletes will be at a disadvantage down the road.

Secondly, I think that swimming, running, and biking are fun – and likely so do you.  Others, perhaps, aren’t quite as sure of that.  Maybe they find entering a “race” a little daunting or overwhelming.  It could be that an event that is “just” for fun might drive someone to get off the couch and stay off the couch.  Given the obese state of the majority of the country (alas, the world), turning a couch potato into a budding athlete is an exceptional thing.

Finally, it’s in a race organizer’s best interest to make their race compelling – not just for the person racing, but for their family and friends too.  People have to want to go to a race.  A boring race experience likely won’t invite returning competitors.  On the other hand, a super race environment might compel a non-participant in one year to actually sign up to race in the following year.

At the end of the day, triathlon (and other events be they running, cycling, swimming, stand up paddle boarding, kayyaking, etc) should be both a race and an event!

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4 thoughts on “Triathlon: Is it a Race or an Event?

  1. Interesting…I am 36 years old and will admit that I am one of the “experience” racers most of the time. I simply do not want to prioritize training over family time and will only make so much of a $$ investment on a hobby. With two young kids and a marriage (triathletes have one of the highest divorce rates) to focus on I just choose not to focus too much on this hobby. Now if I was still playing ball (just retired this year) I would still be very competitive. I have played ball all my life and had a pretty good “career” – not paid – of it. I think it comes down to where people are in life. When you hit a certain age you have more flexibility to train more hence get faster. Thanks for this thought provoking article.

  2. Good for you! 😉 Great article. A lot of kids I see are very competitive and have grown frustrated with the “everyone gets a medal” attitude. Now some soccer games at the younger ages are actually keeping score again. Go figure.
    I’m almost 50 and only a few years ago started “doing” triathlon just to finish. I want to be healthy like my mom–who is not competitive, but can swim a mile without thinking twice (she’s 78). Hmmm. Just random thoughts, but great post.

  3. Great article. I believe triathlon is just as much as mental achievement as a physical achievement. As we get older experience and determination helps us to become more mentally strong and that is why I think the ‘older’ generation are producing better performances.

  4. Triathlons are events – challenges and achievements for me.
    I love finishing especially at new longer distances.
    Getting 7th Ag finish in my first 70.3 was just a bonus and cherry on the top.

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