Wednesday, March 12, 2008

My letter to the, er...editor?

I found this article today, titled "What's the Most Pressing Issue Facing Triathlon in the Next Five Years?" written by Timothy Carlson and Jeff Henderson.

According to Mr. Henderson, the real issue is this:
I would argue that maintaining accessibility to all kinds of people, from all kinds of backgrounds, stands as the issue that most needs addressing in the near future. Social sustainability, if you will.

Our sport is gentrifying. You can see it at small races all the way up to large productions, at every distance. Barriers to entry are going up, and though the sport is still growing, its appeal is at risk of tarnishing.

Mmhmm. I have totally seen that. The other quote I rather enjoyed, written by Mr. Carlson was this:
Triathlon must be a welcoming sport - not a group of great races that need the obsessive drive of Ivy League college applicants and the Internet skills of a renegade hacker to get in.

Tell me about it! Finally, one thing that really brought it home, I felt, was Mr. Henderson's mention of the steep learning curve that awaits newbies:
Our sport is not as friendly as it could be to beginners. There's a steep learning curve already present with the three disciplines - chances are any given beginner will not have a background in at least one. And once the first-timer shows up at a race, he or she needs to figure out what to do and where to go and how to not look silly in the process. In the meantime, $6,000 bikes gleam in the sun and $500 wetsuits lie in wait. In today's world of triathlon, it takes a bit of gumption to show up with a mountain bike or hybrid.
Sigh. It's all so true. So, I wrote a letter to the editor, or whoever's email it was at the bottom of the article, just thanking these gentleman for calling attention to this issue. It really is a problem. Here was my letter:

This is in response to the article written yesterday, "What's the Most Pressing Issue Facing Triathlon in the Next 5 Years?" by Timothy Carlson and Jeff Henderson.

I couldn't agree more with the point of view that triathlons have become Starbuck's races. Timothy's quote about "Triathlon must be a welcoming sport - not a group of great races that need the obsessive drive of Ivy League college applicants and the Internet skills of a renegade hacker to get in." was spot-on.

I am now in my 4th year of triathlon and am simply getting tired of people being there to show off how much money they have and cherry-pick races based on the competition so they can feed their ego and feel good about themselves for coming in first in a local, low-key race. That's another problem all itself - last year the Wall Street Journal had an article about people who choose races based on the competition so that they'll place and can have bragging rights (wouldn't it be cheaper for them to see a psychologist for their ego issues?). Therefore, even the smaller, sprint-style races that are meant for beginners and supposed to be 'relaxed' become usurped by the people who know the ex-pros won't be there and can squash out the newbies. Hmph.

My favorite times were before I purchased my Cervelo P2 (that I feel I EARNED and worked my non-profit butt off for); I was on my Trek OCLV road bike that probably dates back to 2000, and would just zip past these guys that dropped thousands of dollars on their bikes. Or the woman who gave my bike a 'look' last year like "oh yeah, right" - and I passed her during the race as well.

Still, I digress a bit. I would love to see a 'fun tri.' One that involved rafts and big wheels and potato sacks or something. I wonder if I, too, will eventually be priced out of racing. I work for a non-profit. I buy my own training books and work hard to build on the potential I know I have. I had to save for awhile to buy that bike. In only the last three years, though, I've seen prices go up, races getting sold out earlier and earlier (which, again, for those of us who have to plan out when we're going to purchase our races after saving for x number of months...kind of wrecks that idea and my credit card takes another hit), and the overall attitude of triathletes become more and more elite instead of more welcoming.

Triathlon is an amazing sport. I try to share it with everybody, but people seem so intimidated. They say things like "I could never do that," or "I wouldn't know where to start." I was lucky enough to join with a club that had great support. But what about the people that are motivated enough to stick their toes in on their own? Who do they turn to? As Jeff said, the folks who have the nerve to bring a hybrid out there are to be admired.

Whenever I get into the transition zone on race morning, I instantly begin to freeze up. "Look at those bikes...those helmets...awww crap" and my dreams of placing begin to be dashed. Then I remember how it's all just a show and I have to ignore it and just go HAVE FUN.

That's why we do it, right? Because it's fun. Because it's rewarding, no matter where you end up in the results.

I just hope that this strategic plan will include these concerns and help to steer triathlon into a direction that will help it to be accessible to anybody who wants to give it a shot.

Thank you for the well-written article. I apologize for my long e-mail, but I really felt like you brought a voice to the observations I began to make last year.

Best regards,

Sarah Trejo
Santa Rosa, CA

Basically, what we're saying here, is let's keep having fun with it. But add more races! Diversify the races! Have some fun with them! Why not do a fun race the same weekend as the serious one? Why not have more serious tri clubs put on races? As a swim meet director for two years in a row, I know sanctioned races take a butt-load of work to put on. But if more of us want to participate in the fun, then maybe we need to start thinking about participating in the work, too.

I'll close with this final quote from the article, which I just laughed at the thought of - sounds like SO MUCH FUN -
Attached to bigger triathlons and as small, standalone races, triathlon needs events where people are encouraged to show up to with beach cruisers, floaties and roller skates if they don’t like the run. No timing. No rules except to have fun.
No rules except to have fun. :)


Anonymous said...

Good point Sarah. I think USAT should encourage more clubs to form by offering incentives. Clubs are key to bringing in the newbies, helping them feel confident on race day and drawing in members of the community that might not otherwise ever try a triathlon. I went to a Danskin race a few years ago and I was at the hotel in the morning before the race and one woman had already put on her wetsuit and was walking around the hotel in it 2 hours before the race! She was so excited that it was her first triathlon and all I could think was that if she would have been in a club, her teammates would have told she could wait until she at least got to the venue to but her wetsuit on. The triathlon club I started six years ago had our first African American woman sign up and we are thrilled to add to our diverse group of women! - AF

Sarah said...

Hey AF,

Thanks for sharing. I'm glad I'm not the only person who feels this way. That is so cute about that woman, but you're right - had she belonged to a club or some sort of supportive group, she wouldn't have had to wear that thing for so long.

I think that is SO COMPLETELY AWESOME that you started a club and you're helping to add some diversity to the sport as well. It is nice to see what the Danskin races and IronGirl races are also doing to encourage more women to participate. That's a whole other can of worms - talk about a COMPLETE imbalance!

If there's anything that also needs some serious help besides getting newbies, it's the lack of women and lack of minorities in the sport...

Anyway - I appreciate your thoughts and way to go on your progress!


Ida said...

Well I am a super green newbie. I am contemplating doing a triathlon. It seems such a task though. From a novice brain here all the preparation, which bike to buy, do I really need a wet suit, etc. I am a mom to 3 little ones ,I am busy all the training plans out there is so confusing. Thanks for giving me a another perspective.
Someday when I complete my first tri I hope I don't look like a complete idiot out there. LOL

Sarah said...


Thanks for your post. There are so many great resources out there for beginners to triathlon. Don't let all of the aspects of it overwhelm you!

I totally think you should do one and all you have to do is just start looking at message boards and articles. Any seasoned triathlete would probably be happy to answer your questions as well (including me!).

Trust me, you won't look like an idiot - nobody does - we're all too busy focusing on ourselves to notice anybody else. :)

Good luck with your running!

Courtenay said...

hi sarah-
thanks for the comment! i like your blog. i am reading it as i sit in my apartment for hour #5 waiting for my sneakers to get delivered... i need a life.

anyhow i totally agree with you. i started competing in triathlons last fall after a few years in bike racing. the contrast between the two is still enormous to me. bike racing has its own challenges to growth and entry, but those challenges boil down to whether the rider has the guts and the talent, NOT whether they have the big bucks. mr fancy race wheels in the cat 5s can parade around the start line all he wants but chances are he's not the winner. plus cycling clubs do a great job of helping newbies get into the sport and get involved on a team in what is ultimately a team sport.

i am now reminded of a comment i once left on loren's blog regarding bike racing vs. triathlon. once again: i need a life!

it would be cool though if each sport could borrow a little from the other - which might be hard because triathlon is totally not a team sport, and because you can't sell 1,500 starting spots in a bike race, nor can you celebrate everyone being a winner for having finished the event. so yeah maybe the solution is for triathlon to borrow a bit from the elementary school carnival! i'd do it if ice skates were involved.

all right i am going back to the window to look for UPS.

lorenpokorny said...

Sort of funny that you found my blog. I read your comment in the magazine and was actually not thrilled with you not because I went to an Ivy League School (we played lacrosse against them though) but because I have gleaming $500 wetsuits and the $8,000 bike - but it really comes down to your genetics and what you're capable of doing. Ben Collins (2007 World Amateur Champ, Ivy Leaguer and my friend) won the US National Championships (finishing 2nd the year before) on a 21lb bike with Ultegra. Triathlon is about you, not about anyone else. It's not that serious as you say, it's fun. After all, who can be serious when everyone pees their pants before and event. If you don't, you're missing out on part of the fun.

Sarah said...

Hey Loren,

Don't get me wrong; I have nothing against $8,000 bikes and $500 wetsuits!

(Except of course that I can't afford them :) )

I guess it's frustrating to feel, however, that you have some people buying them for the wrong reason.

What I don't want is people coming into the sport and thinking they have to buy all of those things just to compete. When I first started, I was completely overwhelmed by that aspect and if it weren't for my triathlon club friends showing me the way, I would've thought that I was way out of my league even being there.

By the way...the ivy league statement and thousand-dollar bike statement was from one of the writers, not me. I just agreed with it. ;)

Who am I to say how people spend their money? I don't really care. I just want this sport to be welcoming to people.

My other point, I guess that I was trying to make is that let's be real: the fancy stuff is really suited to people who excel in this sport. Disc wheels don't really do much unless you're averaging 21-23 mph. Yet I see so many people out there with them, going much slower than that. I didn't buy my TT bike until I really felt like it was truly going to make a difference in my race.

The $500 wetsuit won't really help much more than a $300 wetsuit unless those precious seconds really matter - how many people are THAT competitive among age-groupers? Save for the folks along the top - not that many.

So...I hope that clarifies things. I appreciated your commment, though. :)

Loren Pokorny said...

PS - ping me at and we'll hook up at Oceanside. I'll also give you a bunch of GU that I get from them. I'll also show you my bike, which I put more miles on than my car.