Fan Girl's Guide to the Triathlon
Hey there Oiselle fans, running enthusiasts, recently-introduced-thanks-to-Kara visitors, it’s FanGirl here. Spring is all around us - outdoor track season is underway and Marathon Monday kicked off the distance lovers’ year with an epic takeback of the finish line in Boston… but I’m here to talk about something else.
As the resident endurance newbie, I couldn’t help being intimidated by the task of breaking down not one, not two, but THREE SPORTS cutely muddled into one ultimate super-sport. Getting the hang of this run-fan business has been difficult enough, and now we’ve got swimming and cycling to take on? Crap! I’m sweating just thinking about the opportunities of saying something dumb.
But, I guess that’s my job here. To knock out all the “dumb” questions and get everyone on an equal cheer-portunity (<-- so cheesy) level so we can all Fan Girl and Boy together. Cowbells, on your mark!
Let’s get started. First of all, a triathlon is any race including a swim portion, bike portion, and a run portion, no matter the distances. Just like how your office 5k fun run is not a “marathon” like Jim in Accounting thinks it is, each triathlon race distance has it’s own title:
- “Sprint” is a .5 mile swim, 12 mile bike, and 3.1 mile run.
- “Olympic” ~1mi swim, 25mi bike, 10.2mi run.
- “Long Course” or “Half-Ironman*” 1.2mi swim, 56mi bike, 13.1mi run. = 70.3
- “Ultra” or “Ironman*” 2.4mi swim, 112mi bike, 26.2mi run. = 140.6
*technically “Ironman” is a brand, like the Rock n Roll road race series.
Not all 140.6 mile tris are Ironmans, but all Ironmans are 140.6 mile tris.
Ergo, “triathlon” is to “road race” as “Long Course” is to “Half Marathon.”
To make things even more confusing, some races are run in bass-ackwards order, like a Reverse Triathlon (or “rev tri”) where athletes run, bike, then swim. This seems insanely dangerous to me because at least if you hit a wall while on the run you can stop and walk. I’m pretty sure the aqua equivalent of that is drowning.
As a runner, the concept of triathloning is pretty incomprehensible to me for one reason: knowing the pain of running races. Sure, a lot has to do with training and pacing, but I simply cannot fathom what it would take to swim and bike a buttload of miles before even getting to start the run. Especially the long distances - run a marathon after performing two other equally-exhaustive activities?? Nope, my brain just overheated thinking about it. Sitting down to back-to-back-to-back max effort Thanksgiving dinners is the closest I can come to understanding that kind of endurance, stamina, and pain.
Now that we’ve kind of got the ground rules covered and I’m craving pumpkin pie, let’s run through a mock race to prepare ourselves for our foray into tri-cheering.
The day starts with the swim, sometimes an OWS, or Open Water Swim. Lake, ocean, pond, pool… any body of water gets assaulted with hundreds of thousands of bodies as they dive in, kicking each other in the face swimming through the first leg of the race.
Once that terrifying nightmare is over, they run out of the water headed towards the first transition area, or “T1”, which is basically a giant field with row after row of bikes hanging on racks, and gear bags full of cycling crap waiting below where they’ll get suited up for the next leg.
While running to T1 they simultaneously start yanking off their wetsuit, where they’ve hopefully not forgotten to put their “tri-kit” (spandex top and shorts) on underneath. I envision T1 to be like a sweaty metamorphosis, but instead of a caterpillar to a butterfly they’re changing from a neoprene-encased goggle face to a helmet head about to be hunched over handlebars for hours.
That’s not really the pretty picture I planned on painting...
sidenote: Some larger races have “strippers” which are, contrary to popular belief, people who take off other people’s clothes for no money. I’d imagine having someone yank your wetsuit the rest of the way off you is a pretty significant energy saver and kind of fun.
The frenzy out of transition zones is a race in itself - in recaps you’ll hear “I had a 57 second T2” (good) or “I spent 10 minutes in T1” (bad) - but once they’ve ditched the swim gear they hop on the bike to start the second leg.
The majority of the race is spent “in the saddle” on their bike, I’m talking 6+ hours for an ultra distance. Here you’ll hear people talk about “aero” or aerodynamic, referring to either fancy helmets or the position they’re in.
Other things I’ve been told happen on the bike:
- Flat tires, broken chains, etc - apparently “mechanic” is another requirement of tris?
- Snacks - cyclists get to eat much more fun fuel than runners. Energy bars, Poptarts, Combos, Pringles, PBJ, Coke… I’d consider tri’ing just for the snacks.
- Pee breaks - Just kidding, after extensive polling (sample size = 4) it’s estimated that 38% of cyclists don’t bother dismounting for little old #1, and 99% have thought about it or wished they could. Is that a sprinkler you just rode through? pro tip: it’s not ok to practice the “saddle flow” in non-race situations.
Lastly, after ditching the helmet and cycling shoes in T2, they’re off for the finale, our favorite: the run. I don’t think this part really needs explaining - we’ve got a handle on that business, right? - so let’s just finish with the cutest finish line photo ever taken in the history of the world.
Mirinda Carfrae and then-fiance, now husband Tim O’Donnell after her record-setting win at the mother of all tris, Kona (credit K.Mcfarland)
Wildflower is this weekend in central California, which is one of the largest triathlons in the world and apparently a pretty exciting deal. Oiselle’s Alyssa Godesky and Cathleen Knutson will be racing, and in the significant other category, Mr Lauren Fleshman (Jesse Thomas) is back as the 3x returning champ. There, now you have two Volees and an afro to cheer for. Virtual cowbells = ready!
The O.G. FanGirl,