These guys are good
by Greg Hitchcock 7.7.01

On Father's Day I bowled 197. That was personal record. A big PR. Kids took me out to the bowling lanes on that special day. I have bowled maybe a total of 8 games in the last 30 years, most of them in the last few years. I've got no spin, and only a little power; just an aim for the third arrow kind of guy.

In bowling it is a matter of scaled excellence if you can bowl your weight (that's 2.2 pounds per kilogram for those needing to convert). I didn't quite make it. It was that darn split in the 7th frame that botched up my slash and X score sheet.

I have also taken to whipping the table tennis balls around at our office complex table. Bigger balls are in now -- 40 millimeters versus the old 38 millimeter balls provide 20% or so more volume -- and cause distinctly different flight patterns and speeds. In contrast to my bowling strategy, I employ a nice assortment of spins, mixed with power to be at or near the top of our little amateur office heap. But as good as I might look against a bunch of pale, office drones, you'll never see me on the same highlight tape as the ballistic Asians and Swedes who dominate the sport. My favorite such tape, and I'm not making this up, is "Table Tennis Beyond Imagination!" (available at I have to admit my imagination runs in a different direction altogether, but there's some pretty impressive stuff there.

So I've come out feeling like I've been gypped in this triathlon deal. They picked the wrong three sports! If we wanted to have a really fair sport that factored in endurance, strength, agility and eye/hand coordination (the four components of athleticism, leaving out flexibility because I have none), the ITU would have sanctioned running, bowling and table tennis. Being a jack of many sports (at different times in my life I have also been pretty good at basketball, tennis, cross country skiing, and air resistance-rowing, among others), but not a true master at any, I might have been Mr. Triathlon, if the right three sports had been chosen.

For awhile, I thought I could at least do the duathlon. But one look up close at Kenny Souza's speed and excellence in bike handling, and I figured that was one of those ideas whose time would never come. If the riding portion was on a health club exercise bike, I might have had a chance since there are not too many spills off Monarchs.

Similarly, I thought I might be competent in the water until I saw a low-level competitive swimmer move through the water like he had a motor strapped to his belly.

This is a round about way of saying the guys who are tops in triathlon are good. Real good. What makes them so good is their excellence across three demanding sports.

This would seem pretty obvious, especially to visitors to this site. However, there have been comments on the forum over the past few months that if So-and-So were to take up triathlon, we would really see something. This echoes comments I heard from time to time from the running community. I would submit that we really are seeing something with the guys that are already doing triathlon.

We can appreciate those who are great at just one sport. But the vast majority of those who are tops at running (or swimming or cycling) would not do well in the other two disciplines. I have been around a lot of world-class runners and very few were accomplished in other sports. I never saw a top runner who could beat me on a bike or in the pool, at least when they were beating me at running. So, if there are hidden champion triathletes hanging out in the running ranks, they are pretty rare and pretty well hidden at that.

There is a good reason for this. To be good at running, it is advantageous to be light weight, including having skinny legs. But strong legs are needed to do well at cycling, and strong (not necessarily big) muscles are needed in both torso and legs for swimming. Conversely, athletes with good-sized muscles for swimming and cycling will be at a disadvantage in running. This is why any top regional runner can beat the best triathlete in a running race. Heck, I once had a mediocre race and beat Mark Allen in his prime by over a minute and half in a 15k run, but I can assure you that I would not come within a few minutes of him in a 1k swim.

For those few top runners with some talent at swimming and biking, it would take years of practice at those disciplines to get good enough to even think about competing at the top level in triathlon. And then they would lose some of their running advantage as they ceased to specialize.

One of America's best runners of the 1990s, Greg Whitely, proved this. He was a member of the U.S. track team at the World Championships. He converted to duathlon and then triathlon, and through a lot of hard work developing his prodigious talent he went from being among the best American distance runners to being a pretty good American triathlete. But while he has been competitive, he has not dominated in multisport, for the reasons I mentioned above.

Whitely showed that rare combination of both talent and desire to make the transition. Not many top runners would have the same talent to become competent at both swimming and cycling. And of those with the talent, only a small fraction would have the desire to increase training from the two hours that running requires to the four to eight hours per day that world-class triathlon demands. And some of those athletes would be frightened by the high speeds of bicycling and the murky, deep waters of the swim.

So the next time you are tempted to think "what if" a great runner (or swimmer or bicyclist) were to do the triathlon, just remember, there is a lot of water to slog through and pavement to torch at speeds of 27 mph and up before the run even starts. Those athletes who do all three very well and end up on the podium are not just good. They are the best in the world, period.