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Should Men and Women Compete in Separate Triathlons?

Posted Feb 11 2009 3:49pm

My favorite memory of my first road race:

Man 1: (To buddy, right after I passed them going uphill) Dude, you just got passed by a girl.

Man 2: Yeah, well. So did you, dude.

Man 1: You think we can catch her?

They did not catch me. A fact that made me glow with pride every time I thought about that race afterward. Now, make no mistake - I'm not that fast of a runner. I usually hit in the top 30% but I have never won a race. I do pass some folks, but more often than not I'm the one getting passed. And yet, I did beat those two men that day. I think I giggled.

Part of the behind-the-scenes work for this blog is that I field a lot ( a lot) of queries from PR people schilling everything from fitness books to toaster ovens to pinhole glasses. They want me to promote their product/event/insane website. The nice ones give me stuff to try out and give away to you guys. The courteous ones get my name right. But the majority of press releases I read are anonymous, hastily written, often irrelevant blog-o-mercials. They get deleted very quickly. Normally.

But this afternoon I got one that caught my eye. Despite doing everything wrong - the greeting simply read "hi", it was obvious they had no idea what my blog was about other than generic fitness and the "promotion" was entirely self-serving - they got my attention because they had a novel concept. They were pimping the TREK Women's Triathlon Series, in their words, "the first triathlon created by women, run by women and exclusively for women."

My first reaction was why on earth would you want to do that? I don't run races for men - in fact I don't chat with anyone, regardless of their gender, when I'm racing - and yet I certainly don't mind them being there. I've never had a bad experience with a man in an athletic competition of any sort. In addition to motivating me to go faster, they've given me directions to the biffies, talked down my nerves on the bus ride to the starting line, given me high fives and thumbs up, cheered when I crossed the finish line and offered me mole skin for a blister among other niceities. Of course women have helped me tremendously as well.

In every competition I've been in, it just feels like everyone there is an athlete and their gender is irrelevant. Sure, a man always gets the fastest time but that doesn't make me feel badly about my performance. Lots of women beat me too! Men and women are built differently. Men have narrower hips, longer legs and more lung capacity, all boons when it comes to racing. Besides, the anatomical edge is ameliorated by having seperate finishing categories. My gut reaction: Women already rock traditional triathlons so why would we need a separate race?

But then I was talking to my sister on the phone this afternoon (as I do every afternoon - seriously, the only dark spot in my luminescent life is the fact that my siblings live so far away from me!) and her take was the polar opposite. "I can totally see why women would want a women's-only triathlon," she exclaimed.

"But don't you think it's patronizing? I mean it's a Sprint Tri distance (1/2 mile swim, 12 mile bike ride, 3.1 mile run) and yet instead of calling it a Sprint Tri, they call it a 'women's tri'? As if women could only be expected to do the shortest competition distance?"

"You're being too sensitive," she said in her best mommy voice. (Side note: when did she get old enough to have a mommy voice and when did I get old enough to recognize it?) "Lots of women are intimidated by triathlons. The distance and the lack of men is just supposed to overcome that hurdle - to get women competing who wouldn't otherwise try it. "

"Hmph."

"Besides, it's all girl power. And I'm all about women banding together. I mean, that's the whole appeal of Curves, right?"

So now I'm asking you guys: Is there an advantage to separating the sexes in athletic competitions such as road races and triathlons? Would you be more likely to compete in an event that was only open to people of your gender? What if someone started advertising a Men's Only Tri? Have you ever had a bad experience with someone of the opposite gender in a race? Do you run faster in a mixed-gender setting? Do you feel like I've suddenly sprung a pop quiz on you and now your palms are sweaty and your mind is blank? I have that effect on people...

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