Rest day ramblings – There’s more to triathlon than Ironman

I have noticed an interesting phenomenon since my return to the sport after a 14 year absence:  it seems that you are no longer a triathlete unless you complete an Ironman. Well, that’s what the magazines in my local newsagency seem to tell anyway. I even read an article somewhere (possibly online) about how you are not a real triathlete if you wear a race shirt from a sprint or Olympic distance event because it shows you’ve never done a real race (i.e. an Ironman).

Now, I’m not knocking the challenge of doing an Ironman. There are many positive things to be said for pushing your body and soul to its limits in the hope of expanding your horizons. And there are triathletes who specialise in long distance events, pushing all else aside to focus on the grueling hours of training needed to complete a 3.2km swim, 180km cycle and 42.2km run. But is a once-a-season (or once in a lifetime) race really what our sport is all about? And does that focus scare newcomers away from a sport that has so much to offer people of all abilities?

I’ll put this disclaimer out there from the word go: I’m not drawn to the challenge of Ironman. Yes, I might one day decide to try my hand at the challenge but I don’t see that as my ultimate goal in the sport. My ultimate goal is to enjoy the sport for many years to come and to experience all the many things it has to offer. So, yes, I guess that will have to include Ironman but there is so much more to do first.

Triathlon races cover the spectrum from what I call short course races through to Ironman events. Here in Queensland, Australia events are held most weekends from late August through to May. You can build your triathlon goals around specific series races, or just select them based on their location or distance. Most races are sprint distance or shorter (sprint distance is 750m swim, 20km bike, 5km run). That is, most people who do at least one swim, bike and run session a week (i.e. three training sessions) should be able to complete a short course triathlon (e.g. 400m swim, 10km cycle, 3km run) with their dignity in tact.  Sure, to be competitive you probably need to train a little bit more but even if you don’t win there will be people cheering you throughout the course and at the finish line.

The great thing about the sprint distance and shorter races is that you can back them up easily. The only thing stopping you from entering a race every week, fortnight or month is the depth of your hip pocket, and of course the leave passes from your family. You don’t have to feel like you need to train for months just to make it through one long race. And while you race you will meet lots of other like-minded triathletes who will probably help boost your confidence to either race faster or tackle longer events (if that interests you).

Shorter events are enormously popular here where I live. Many sprint distance or shorter races are capped at up to 1,000 entrants, with more needing to be turned away. With those sorts of numbers turning up on a regular basis to compete in the short events it’s interesting to see the focus that Ironman receives. That’s not to say Ironman isn’t popular. I read somewhere that most Australian Ironman events reach their capacity within a day or two of entries opening – so they must be a popular challenge. Though I wonder how many of those entrants are one-off racers who will only enter one triathlon in their lifetime and how many are regular weekend tri-warriors.

That’s not to say one-off entrants don’t deserve their moment of glory when they cross the line after an Ironman. I have deep respect for everyone who completes the triple discipline marathon. In fact, I have great respect for the courage it takes just to toe the start line, even for those who will ultimately not make the distance. Perhaps they are braver than me because I haven’t yet dared enter such an enormous challenge. I appreciate the awesome sense of achievement that completing an Ironman will bring to everyone who crosses the finish line because I have twice completed the 100km Oxfam Trailwalker challenge, walking through warm days and cold nights almost non-stop for about 36 hours. And I think everyone should have the opportunity to feel that sensation of personal power and pride.

I just hope the focus on Ironman doesn’t start to detract from the pride and enjoyment each triathlete should experience when they cross the line at shorter races. I hope short distance, sprint distance and Olympic distance events aren’t seen as mere stepping stones to ‘the real thing’. Because they are far more than that. They too are ‘the real thing’. And everyone who completes them is a triathlete.


“Honey I need a mountain bike so that I can do some adventure races and off-road triathlons this year.”

My partner rolls her eyes and gives me ‘that’ look. You know the one. The one that says “what are you getting into this time?” and “I guess that’s why I love you” all rolled into one. Well, I like to think it says that. Perhaps it’s more like “what are you spending our money on this time?” and “I think you’re a nutter”.

“But don’t worry honey. I have that old $200 purple beast in the garage that I got from the bike recyclers. The gears don’t work but I can strip them off and convert the bike to single speed for about a hundred bucks.”

I’m having flash backs to September 2011 when my partner and I had a similar conversation about my triathlon bike. She watched me race a double triathlon at Rainbow Beach where I broke my toe clip (yes, I still had toe clips back then) and we talked about upgrading my bike. Somewhere in the conversation I missed the part where she gave me permission to spend our joint finances on a new bike.

Or perhaps I was silly enough to open my mouth and mention that an entry level racing bike would set me back somewhere in the range of $AU1,200 in the current market unless I could find a super special. And that was just for something that was of similar quality as the old red 2006 Giant OCR3 I was riding at the time. So instead I took my 2006 Giant OCR3 to a bike shop along with a 1996 Trek OCLV5200 that had been sitting in my parents’ shed since I gave up triathlon in 1997. The boys probably regretted the low quote they gave me for what turned out to be a huge job to swap the running gear off the Giant and only the OCLV. It cost me about $250 by the time they finished. I added clipless pedals, cycling shoes and cleats, tri bars, racing tyres for my old Zipp 530 wheels and some new bar tape to bring the total cost of my racing steed to about $600 – not bad for a full carbon bike with proper racing wheels.

After helping out at the Tre-X B2B off-road triathlon last weekend I realised that off-roading looks like so much fun that I want to give it a go next season. The Tre-X series includes four off-road races so I’m just going to enter them all. Add to that the Adventure Race Australia in June 2012 and I’ve got five MTB events to look forward to. That means I probably won’t get away with just hiring a bike on race day; I’ll actually have to do some MTB training.

New running gear for my old purple beast will probably set me back an arm and a leg so it makes sense to me to convert the bike to a single speed for less than $100. No doubt I’ll add some clipless pedals, shoes and cleats to my kit too but shh, don’t tell my partner 🙂

In my next post I’ll share photos of how I performed the conversion. I’m not at all mechanically minded so it will be an interesting challenge in its own right.

© 2011 All Rights Reserved Andrew Gills


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