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The Prohibitive Cost of Racing Triathlons and What Can Be Done to Fix It

Posted Oct 17 2009 12:00am

Those of us who participate in the sport of triathlon do so for a number of reasons. We love the challenge of competing against ourselves and our peers in a test of both physical and mental endurance. We enjoy the camaraderie of the triathlon community—sharing our knowledge of gear, nutrition, courses and training. We appreciate just how insanely dedicated our fellow triathletes are who wake up at five a.m. throughout the year to allow time for them to negotiate their jobs, families and training.


Unfortunately, for many athletes that I train with, the sport has also become a test of financial endurance. I recently heard a statistic that was published in Triathlete magazine, which stated that the average annual income of triathletes was $120,000. This statistic might not be taking into account the modest group of athletes that I train with who talk about the prohibitive costs associated with running triathlons. In some respects, triathlon has become the new "sport of kings" with serious age group triathletes having to spend a small fortune just to own the gear, let alone shell out the dough to participate. Think about it: wetsuit, bike, shoes. Those are the basics. Then there are the ongoing costs associated with training: nutrition, shoes, bathing suits, goggles. The last category of expenditures falls into the sleuth of peripheral "toys" we feel are necessary to make us faster athletes: GPS, tri shorts and top, heart monitors, wattage monitor, lap counter. Sure, I put tri shorts and top here. I raced this whole past season in my Speedo Jammers—Jammers, I said—I did not go "old school" (thank goodness) like Farris al Sultan and sport the bikinis. Of course, triathlon is the only sport in which a man can wear Speedos and sport a crop top and be considered one of the manliest hombre's on the planet. I just did not see the need to shell out an additional $65 dollars for something I can live without. Sure, my butt was a little sore after riding 56 miles without a chamois, but I survived.


We see professionals race on their full carbon bikes and think that we need to shell out serious dough to take our bike leg to the next level, after all, bike manufacturers tell us all the time that their bike is the fastest bike on the planet, in the wind tunnel, milky way galaxy, universe. I could shave as much as 12 seconds per 40 kilometers or almost a minute over the course of an Ironman bike. Wow! I am sure to give Craig Alexander a real run for his money with that kind of improvement. More, the rider accounts for 85% of the overall drag on the bike, yet amateur triathletes everywhere are searching for the most "aero" bike affordable in the hopes that it will guarantee them an unprecedented bike split on race day. I have been fortunate to have decent splits on the bike this season. I attribute that to training really hard. I am pretty sure that if I had my "dream bike" complete with NASA engineered aerodynamics built with carbon and space age materials, and I rode my proverbial a _ _ off, I would still not be faster than Lance Armstrong riding a Schwinn ten speed on his worst day. Someone once told me "there is no substitute for youth." That being true, there is also no substitute for training your tail off and wanting to improve way more than someone your racing against. A friend of mine raced to two top 5 overall finishes on a Schwinn 10-speed for a sprint. No kidding!


Now, lets talk about the costs of races. The average sprint cost—a race comprised of a 800 yard open water swim, 16 mile bike ride and a 5K is around $70. As the distances increase, so do the costs. The average Ironman costs averaging around $500. Yes, $500. I have done some simple arithmetic to hep you understand just how much per hour of your hard earned cash you are shelling out to go out and beat the hell out of your body for 11+ hours:


12 hour Ironman=$42 an hour, 13 hours=$38 hour, 17 hours=$29 hour


It seems to me that if you are going to be running an Ironman, a shade under 17 hours would give you the most bang for your buck. Be out there as long as possible. Pocket as many Hammer Gels to use later on training runs. Get an i.v.—even if you don't need one. After the race, do the post-race massage, chiropractor, ice bath—you've paid for it!


Maybe it's the law of supply and demand. In the early days of Ironman, Valerie Silk had to work hard to increase the number of participants from 100 to 300 (You can read the complete history of the Ironman race here .) Coincidentally, losing Budweiser as an official sponsor along the way might have been a decent idea. Now, over 60,000 athletes compete for a chance to win a spot to the most coveted Ironman distance race in the world: The Ford Ironman World Championships in Kona. I once read that "...a product only retains currency so long as it is current," and triathlon is very current right now. I have my theories as to the huge explosion of the sport, but that might be a post for another occasion. Back to Kona; let's examine just how much money is made on the entrance fees alone. Approximately 1800 athletes participated in the 2009 Ford Ironman in Kona:


$550X1800=$990,000. Nice, just shy of a cool million. That is not counting the throngs of corporate sponsors who shell out big bucks to participate in expos, be an official race sponsor, or have their products used on the course. I am sure that the job of Race Director for any Ironman distance event is no small task, and there has to be some administrative costs associated with the team of people that work year round putting these events together, as well as insurance, permits, etc, I am just not sure if I can commit to racing an Ironman AND smaller races in preparation for that event without the help of winning the lottery. My friends and I would do a lot more races if they were more affordable. So what can be done?


Grass roots friends! Look, there is no substitute for participating in an official USAT sanctioned event. Nothing beats the excitement of rolling your trusty steed into transition at some unGodly hour with a thousand other nervous, anxious athletes setting up their transition area and mentally preparing for a 7:00 a.m. swim in brisk water. However, that does not mean you can not grab a group of athletes from your local triathlon club for a little friendly weekend competition. This past summer, I held a "Poor Man's F1" from my house: run 2, bike 10, run 1, bike 10, run 2. It was the same day as an "official" F1 event that all of us wanted to run, but were unwilling to shell out the $85 dollar entrance fee to race an hour and a half. Four of us competed and we each won our age groups. Seriously, we were all very competitive. We set up a transition area on my lawn and raced into transition with every intention of getting out of transition area as quickly as possible. This past season, I have spoke to many triathletes who are interested in putting together an athlete run triathlon. Can we get enough athletes to volunteer their time, resources and some dough to put it together? I am not talking anything extraordinary here. The theory is that we all know enough people that we could set up aid stations along a course. Of course, their is the little issue of a safe bike course. But, how is it any different than a group of bicyclists going out for a Sunday ride? When you go on weekend rides, some folks fall back, and others forge ahead. Of course, we usually stop and wait for the slower riders to catch up. I liken it to going out on a country ride by myself. I guess I just need to remember to wear my Road I.D. I don't have any idea how much police escorts cost, professional road sweeping and other costs associated with triathlon, but I would like to do some research. If any of you have any ideas or commentary, I welcome it. Wouldn't it be cool to design your own finishing medal?!

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