The Spirit of Triathlon
Triathlon racing has been around since the early 1970’s. In 2019, the mention of a race probably inspired images of 1000 plus athletes in a transition area, platoons of volunteers, loud music at crowded finish lines, and expensive entry fees. Take away all of that and you are left with one vital component: you. The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to examine what racing means and why we, as individuals, race.
In this post, I am going to convince you that, regardless of adjustments for social distancing, races will still be worth racing.
SENSE OF COMMUNITY
Without the fanfare and medals and crowds, can you still have a race? Do you still want to race? I asked that question before racing the TriRiot 70.5. In fact, I’ve been asking that question for a long time. Fourteen years ago one of the most enjoyable aspects of triathlon, for me, was the social aspect and sense of community. Thinking about standing on a podium in front of friends and family was a strong motivator.
Without explanation, much of that changed about four years ago.
While training for IRONMAN North Carolina 2016, I found myself running and biking alone most of the time. My training tribe disbanded. Mike took some time off. Marty was spending more time with his wonderful wife and two beautiful children, and Erin, Sami, Misty, et. al were busy training for different events in other parts of the globe. The surprising thing is that, even though I miss training and racing with them, I enjoy the solitude. What emerged was a sense of self: a sense of pushing against my own boundries. I discovered my “why.”
To me, the race was no longer an expensive event with crowds of spectators lined up along the finish chute. The race became the struggle within. The purpose of big events with hundreds or thousands of athletes evolved into showcases where talents are displayed and failures are magnified. Showcases, as such, still make great experiences, but personal struggles and inner demons must first be confronted in solitude. For me, that’s the way it has to be.
THE BIG SHOW
How did we get to the point that a real race must have t-shirts, medals, pre-race socials, post-race parties, fancy finish lines, crowds of onlookers, and hundreds of fellow athletes?
The beginnings of triathlon and IRONMAN are quite humble. In 1977, John Collins issued a challenge to a group of swimmers, bikers and runners to decide which group was more fit. What resulted was a 140.6 mile event that had little intention of becoming what it is today.
Early competitors in the IRONMAN, like Bob Babbitt and Scott Tinley, talk about a self supported event with few onlookers, barren finish lines and a t-shirt or a carved wood trophy as the main prize. If you read Scott Tinley’s philosophical perspective on endurance sport in Finding Triathlon: How Endurance Sport Explains the World, you might conclude that the reasons for participating in such a sufferfest lie deep within our psyche, our DNA and our culture.
But we need to remember that even the most iconic triathlon in the world was, at one time, nothing more than a group of people racing to see who would come in first regardless of their inner motives. They were kids on the playground: “Race you to the other side!” There was nothing at stake and nothing to lose.
The success of that first IRONMAN spread by word of mouth and before long it was obvious that the challenge would be repeated on an annual basis. Valerie Silk took control of the event in 1981 and began a cycle of making each year better than the previous year. She knew how to grow the event.
I don’t know all the details of IRONMAN history, but it’s human nature to grow: to get bigger, stronger, better.
I used to work for the Leachman family in Billings Montana. In the 1990’s they sold more bulls than any other ranch in the world. Each Spring we would prepare for a three day event: the bull sale.
If you are not from a ranching background this may seem silly and you might dismiss it as no big deal, but this was no small time operation. It was big business.
Each year we had to make the bull sale better and more attractive than the sale from the previous year, because that was our showcase. That is how we attracted and maintained customers. One year, the family patriarch, Jim, gathered everyone for a meeting to come up with ideas of how to make the sale better. It had become such an extravaganza and circus, that it was getting difficult to outdo the previous year’s event. The reality of it all was that a rancher could still buy high quality bulls; but that reality was underneath the whole facade.
Circumstances that I don’t fully know forced changes in the way they sold bulls. The grandiose reputation for extravagance seems to have been replaced with the reputation of selling quality bulls. They are still in business today.
We have a similar situation in the world of endurance sport, except today we are being forced to tone down the social aspects of racing because of COVID-19. Races in 2020 may just have to return to the minimalist style that we saw in the original triathlons of the 1970s in order to comply with social distancing.
I hear rumors of athletes saying they won’t participate without the post-race party. They won’t race without a big, crowded finish line and an awards ceremony. They won’t race if they have to carry their own water on the run. I’ll miss them, but maybe their reasons for racing are just different from mine.
Underneath the finish line celebrations and post-race parties and cheering spectators lies the original, true spirit of triathlon which can only come from the athletes themselves. Two weeks after the TriRiot 70.5, I raced with several athletes in my coach’s training group. It was an Olympic distance race and it felt very real… it was real.
If IRONMAN 70.3 Chattanooga takes away the finish line party and makes other adjustments for COVID-19, it won’t matter to me. It won’t matter to many other athletes either, because there are thousands of us who will take or leave the facade and strive for the true spirit of triathlon.
Come August 23rd, 2020 I’ll be racing… with or without the fanfare.
So how did I do? Did I convince you?
Until next time…