Record numbers are signing up to triathlons for the ultimate physical challenge—but what’s the personal impact of this high-intensity sport? Lucy Fry finds out.
I’m running through deep, dank mud
…while the wind blows hard against my face. Blighted by Northumbrian rain, lifting each foot takes supreme physical effort. My lungs are creaking while my mind flip-flops against the possibility of stopping. Is anything really meant to hurt this much? I think. My thighs ache from a 25-mile cycle and before that a mile-long swim, mostly spent trying to keep afloat amid the thrashing competitive limbs. Now I face a six-mile run. Nobody does triathlon because it’s easy. Nor do they do it because it’s straightforward—or cheap for that matter. So why, exactly, do they do it?
First, a bit of history: the race comes in different lengths, anything from a sprint (half-mile swim, 12-mile ride, three-mile run) to an Olympic (one-mile swim, 25-mile ride, six-mile run), Half Ironman (one-mile swim, 56-mile ride, 13-mile run) and Ironman (two-mile swim, 100-mile ride and 25-mile run). The first-ever triathlon was an Ironman, held in California in 1974, and the first British triathlon took place near Reading in 1983.
"Moderation is a dirty word, looked upon by many devotees with contempt."
By 2000 it had become an Olympic sport, announcing itself across the globe. It’s not just for the professionals either. According to official participation figures from British Triathlon, the number of people taking part between 2009 and 2014 increased by 75,600, taking the total recorded race starts in Great Britain up to nearly 200,000. There’s also been a 63 per cent increase in events held across the country between 2012 and 2016, taking the average weekly number up to 24.
It was exactly this surge in popularity that caught my eye a couple of years ago when—as a runner, gym bunny and all-round fitness fanatic—I became intrigued by this young, dynamic sport. It seemed that everywhere I looked, friends, family and acquaintances were talking about triathlon; a new hobby that was healthy and social to boot.
At that stage I still couldn’t think of anything worse than floating about in a wetsuit that stank of seaweed, yet there was something in the groundswell of enthusiasm for multidisciplinary sporting events that I wanted to understand. I decided to jump right in, spending a year immersed in the world of triathlon with the intention of writing a book about my experiences.
Quick to learn
Triathlon is a lifestyle and an attitude as much as a sport, offering the opportunity to set fitness and health goals as well as recapturing lost self-esteem. So many of the triathletes I met had heartfelt reasons for getting involved in the sport. Forty-something Katharine Peters, a part-time district nurse and mother of five who did her first super-sprint triathlon in Tockington, north Bristol, says, “For me it wasn’t about being a triathlete, more about proving something to myself and having a focus. I lost two-and-a-half stone during the training process and in the race showed myself that I wasn’t useless any more. I could do something just for me.”
For Suzanne, in her thirties, triathlon began with a New Year’s resolution to do an Ironman just seven months later. She’d run a marathon once before but knew little of triathlon and had done virtually no open-water swimming or cycling. Yet after endless gruelling hours of training (usually twice a day) juggled around her demanding corporate job, Suzanne made it to the starting line in Bolton.
Weather conditions couldn’t have been worse, with the preceding day’s storms leaving the course a total washout. It was the toughest 15 hours, 32 minutes and 15 seconds imaginable, but Suzanne finished her first Ironman that day. Since then, she’s gone on to do many more, as well as other endurance events, including a swim across the Strait of Gibraltar.
Triathlon transformed Suzanne’s life for the better: “It’s changed what I think I’m capable of, where I go on holiday, what I eat, what I look like, who I hang out with and how I spend my time. So basically everything!”
The first six months were intense
First, there was the pain. Multiple training sessions a week left me hungry and tired, not to mention time-poor. As I quickly learned, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing because for triathletes (and many other fitness-obsessed types I’ve met along the way) pain isn’t a failing. In fact, being able to take yourself into what’s known as “the hurt locker” is often considered a sign of strength.
Among the most dedicated triathletes, pushing through physical and mental limits merits respect, while fatigue offers bragging rights. Injuries are commonplace and often treated as a mere nuisance. Moderation remains a dirty word, looked upon by many with confusion and even contempt. It’s hard to remain clear-headed in such a fervid, success-orientated culture. Many triathletes, particularly those involved in the longer distances, suffer from disordered relationships to food, body image and exercise.
Fifty-one-year-old Rob Popper, a triathlon coach and sports masseuse who discovered triathlon back in 2001, admits, “Throughout my long relationship with triathlon, both as an athlete and a coach, there have been lots of ups and downs. I experienced passion for the work I was doing, improvement in my personal performance, greater understanding about how the amazing human body works and the chance to motivate some brilliant people. Simultaneously I’ve had less time with my kids, my wife, my friends. Actually, less time for me, too. Periods where friends had to sit me down and ask me if I was developing an eating disorder. Separation and eventual divorce from my wife. Launching a very expensive business that went sour and wiped me out financially. Suffice to say I’ve definitely sacrificed important aspects of my life to make room for this obsessional sport.”
When it's not going well
The world of triathlon can be a dark place. Professional triathlete Jodie Swallow has blogged about the pressure to reach the ideal “performance weight”, as well as the bulimia and depression she suffered from during her earlier years in the sport. I came across similar stories about triathlon instigating or exacerbating existing mental-health issues.
“The world of triathlon engulfed me as it engulfed many,” says former competitive triathlete, Olivia. “I always suffered from bulimia but when triathlon came along it exaggerated my tendencies tenfold. I saw women who were struggling and tried to believe that I wasn’t like them. I saw men who were obsessed with their physique and their stamina. Training wasn’t just a way of life—it determined life. When one race was done you’d book another one to keep up the momentum. Guilt, anxiety and pressure, all self-inflicted, were daily emotions. A missed training session would bring on a desire to train harder, push harder, work harder and, of course, eat less."
The financial costs are hardly insignificant either. The average entry to an Olympic-distance triathlon is around £40–£80 and Ironman entries are £300–£500. Then there’s the kit. You’ll need a tri-suit (base layer), wetsuit, bike (alongside optional go-faster extras such as cleated cycling shoes), helmet, sports clothes, swimming costume, hat and goggles, plus some running shoes. Most people also need coaching as well as a bespoke training schedule. Despite borrowing a racing bike from someone for the duration, my kit costs alone added up to over £600.
There were also overnight stays in Blenheim and Newcastle before their respective triathlons (around £350), money spent on petrol, flights and train tickets (£700) and the warm weather training camp in Lanzarote (around £800 in total). My original plans to race around a château in France had to be ditched as the ferry and accommodation alone would have come to £400.
Since the logistics of triathlon are tricky without anybody to help carry kit and proffer support, I needed a wingman, which meant that cost would be doubled (£800). And yet, despite being poorer, both financially and temporally, there’s something undeniably electrifying about it. I trained for months for that Olympic-distance triathlon, spending mornings, evenings and weekends doing laps in the pool and around the park, sacrificing lie-ins, nights out and almost all my relaxation time—all of it culminating in two hours and 55 minutes of ceaseless endeavour."
I promise myself I'll finish
After swallowing energy gels and water while remembering to breathe, I finally cross the line, hands held high, before collapsing in an exhausted heap enveloped by a sweet, ephemeral kind of ecstasy. It’s not just endorphins but also an intense and longed-for sense of satisfaction, the kind that comes from tackling three sports in one (not to mention the ludicrous costume changes in between, known as “transitions”) and surviving to tell the sweaty tale. All around me people celebrate—some grinning, some in tears—because they’ve achieved something unforgettable.
Deeper still, there’s the sense of purpose that triathlon offers. Running, swimming and cycling give a respite from existential angst—as the gruelling training schedules leave little room for contemplation of the bigger life questions—as well as opportunity for personal growth. Ali Hendry-Ballard, 47, first dipped her toe in triathlon during a difficult period in her life.
“I really needed something positive to focus on while going through some major life changes,” she says. “Though I’d never been interested in sport, I started jogging short distances and soon caught the bug. I started doing half marathons and very quickly found myself training for a triathlon. I love mixing the disciplines; there’s something that appeals to all sides of my personality. I’ve never felt so in tune with my body, or felt so aware of both its strengths and its limitations.”
For me too, triathlon has resulted in an increased awareness of what is and isn’t possible, physically, mentally, emotionally and even spiritually. Combating the fear of being dragged under by other swimmers during an open-water start, learning to take a wetsuit off at speed and trusting that I can handle whatever comes my way during the course of any race—all these things have helped me to become a stronger, braver person.
There’s a paradox here for me too. Triathlon takes from its devotees every bit as much as it gives and yet, somehow, you end up giving even more than it requires. It’s a greedy pastime and it attracts obsessional, determined types. Yet it’s also a social, fun-filled hobby that can offer fresh chances to travel, experience and dream.
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