LONDON–Swim. Cycle. Run. Do those three one after another – adding some fairly comedy costume changes in between – and you can call yourself a triathlete.
These days it seems, even if you aren’t personally involved in this tripartite sport you are likely bound to have a friend (or a friend-of-a-friend) who is. Since its inception in U.S. in 1974 and U.K. in 1983, Triathlon’s popularity has skyrocketed and becoming an Olympic sport in 2000.
It’s not just for professional sportswomen either. Triathlon has become a household name; late last year British Triathlon—the national governing body for Triathlon, Aquathlon and Duathlon in Great Britain— reported a continued surge in female participation with 50% of beginner triathlon GO TRI entrants being women.
So just what is the crazy attraction of Triathlon? And what does it really mean to take part in such a demanding sport – one that requires not just a variety of skills but also a fire-cracking combination of strength, endurance and determination from all of its devotees?
For 12 intense months between 2014 and 2015 I attempted to get some answers to these questions by immersing myself completely in the hypnotic and alluring world of Triathlon (alongside writing a book about it). I was intrigued by why and how this sport had captured the bodies, hearts and minds of so many people I knew. I was also interested in why I had such a strong internal resistance to doing a Triathlon myself. After all, I’d tried plenty of other challenging sports such as marathon running, boxing, kickboxing and CrossFit.
“Life begins on the edge of your comfort zone” is a phrase that holds great meaning for me, and so I decided it was time to find out first-hand what Triathlon really meant. During that immersive year I undertook endless hours of training, usually around five to eight sessions per week, either in the pool, on my bike or on the run. I hired a coach and I bought the gear. I went on a two-week Triathlon training camp at Club La Santa in Lanzarote, Spain and committed to completing five races of both (so-called) Sprint and Olympic distance, the former being 750m swim, 20km ride and 5km run and the latter being double those distances.
But this hardly made me extraordinary. In fact, among other triathletes at least, it barely even made me normal. When I told anybody who hadn’t yet acquired the endurance exercise bug that I was setting myself these goals, they tended to splutter amazement into their coffee. Yet when I mentioned it to another triathlete, the response was usually somewhat cooler. “Nice,” they’d say, “but why just five races in a year? You could do so much more than that.”
During my year immersed in the world of Triathlon, I met all kinds of different women, each of whom enjoyed the sport for all kinds of different reasons. Some were desperate to find an activity that didn’t just allow them to become more active but also to recapture a sense of their own identity after the early stages of motherhood. Others wanted a new goal, others a social way to keep fit. Some too were hoping to find romance a not uncommon consequence of joining any sporting group. While others had demons to fight: thoughts and feelings they wished to block out with the pulsing rigors of having not just one but three sports to fit into an already busy schedule.
One thing all these women shared however was their total lack of healthy respect for moderation. I can think of only two people that I met in an entire year who approached Triathlon with a sense of balance and perspective. Of all the others –including myself— each of the female triathletes was in some way obsessive about exercise and in another way dependent on endorphins. And, to some extent, so what? Surely sport is a healthier obsession to have. It’s better than being addicted to alcohol or drugs and better too than obsessing about the lottery or tidiness or sex.
Perhaps, I’d say but also perhaps not since full-blown exercise addiction has very real and serious consequences. There’s no doubt that Triathlon offers women (and men, of course) all sorts of fantastic opportunities. First and foremost it is generally a meritocratic and egalitarian sport where women and men have always received the same prize money and, in the ultra-endurance Triathlon called Ironman (3.8km swim, 180km ride and 42km run) both sexes often race alongside each other. Second, Triathlon offers its participants the chance to challenge themselves, to find out a little more about who they really are, what characteristics shine through when their mettle is truly tested. Thirdly, there are the fitness benefits; swimming in particular is a very low-impact way of improving heart-health and lung capacity.
Much of what is discovered during one’s triathlon journey can be both surprising and life affirming. For example, I found myself to be tougher and more positive than I’d imagined— singing and smiling through the challenge of cycling up a Lanzarote hill against a 40 mph wind, and determinedly facing my fear of the open water. Yet the sport also allowed me to tap into the more self-hating parts of myself too. It is usually exactly the go-getting, alpha, self-motivated types who are attracted to Triathlon for whom it can be the most dangerous, and for whom it can become both a legitimized (and revered by others) way to self punish. As one Ironman athlete I interviewed, Suzanne put it: ‘I see Ironman as the chance to knock, knock on the door and see who’s on the other side’.
Looking at Suzanne’s training and racing schedule however (often three sessions a day alongside a full time corporate job and a relationship) you’d be forgiven for wondering just how healthy it could be for anyone to knock quite so hard on any proverbial door of potential. It didn’t take long during my year of immersion to notice that plenty of triathletes weren’t so much overjoyed by their chosen sport as obsessed by it, chained (rather than loosely tied) to their training diaries and micro-managed by their race schedule. Such people weren’t liberated by Triathlon, they were imprisoned by it, not to mention suffering from the kinds of eating disorders that often go alongside heavy training and strict performance goals.
Perhaps the bottom line is that there’s a difference between sport and health. Sometimes the risks are entirely worth it and often it depends on what the end-goal is. We never criticize Olympians, for example, for risking their health and wellbeing for the chance to win a gold. But at what point does an ordinary person become extraordinary? And is that an external or internal shift? Having experienced both addiction and obsession first hand I am now forever watchful that I don’t keep knocking so hard and so often on the door of my potential as to completely miss the here-and-now. As for Triathlon? It’s wonderful, exhilarating, challenging, life-affirming and extremely addictive. Approach with care, but approach nonetheless.
Lucy Fry is a London-based freelance journalist, author and columnist specializing in health, fitness and adventure. Her narrative non-fiction book on women’s triathlon ‘Run, Ride, Sink or Swim’ was published in UK in 2015 and in USA 2017. www.lucyfry.co.uk
Photo courtesy Shutterstock; graphic, Lucy Fry