A Diverse Tri Club Whose Diversity Surprised Even its Founder

Marcus Fitts saw that there were very few persons like himself engaged in the sport that he loves. So he decided to do something about bringing more people of color into triathlon and endurance sports.

Three years ago Fitts founded the District Triathlon club, centered in the Washington D.C. area. District Tri began with five enthusiasts and today there are 80 members in a thriving enterprise bringing swimmers, cyclists and runners together. Fitts, who earned his USA Triathlon Level 1 coaching certification, has brought together experts in the various disciplines of triathlon to lead daily workouts and training programs for beginners, intermediates and advanced athletes. Fitts also organizes expeditions to many nearby and some faraway triathlons.

Slowtwitch: Why did you form District Triathlon and why did you think it was important to attract African-American triathletes?

Marcus Fitts: District Triathlon was formed because I noticed a lack of diversity in a sport that I came to enjoy. When we attend races and the people in the competition don’t look like us, like our neighbors, like our community, this raised alarm. Less than 1% of triathletes are African-American. Studies show that physical activity and sports can positively impact an individual. Knowing that this sport was expensive, I thought forming a 501(c)3 non-profit organization would be the best move. The hope was that through donations, grant-funded programs and low cost membership we could offset the high cost of gear and make this sport more attractive. The gear and branding and community were also important. I also knew it needed to look aesthetically pleasing and look like a place where members could have fun.

ST: Is the major factor of the relatively low number of blacks in triathlon economic – bikes, run and swim gear cost a lot for people starting out?

Marcus: Huge factor. The District of Columbia is fortunate that it contains many people that can afford to participate in the sport no matter their race. The average age of our members is mid- to late-30s. The cost for younger athletes interested in the sport is much more of a factor. With the expense of sporting equipment (bikes, running shoes, tri suits - the list goes on) many of our members make a significant investment to take on triathlon. For parents with young athletes and the fact that most high schools, colleges and universities neither have a triathlon team nor provide athletic scholarships doesn’t help.

ST: Given your mission statement I can see that DT would be attractive to all races. Does DT have persons of all colors - and what is the draw?

Marcus: DT is an all-inclusive team with a focus on increasing the participation of people of color in triathlon and endurance sports. We have a really diverse team not just racially but we include athletes with various disabilities as well. That draw is that we have fun and have a call to action to make change. And we try to make everyone feel welcomed and comfortable. District Tri has 12 members who identify as white.

ST: What sets District Triathlon apart from other triathlon clubs?

Marcus: I think there are many club options for those interested in seeking them. The magic that sets District Triathlon apart is that we’ve created something for people of color.

ST: Are you aware of any top black triathletes – amateur or pro?

Marcus: The only professional triathlete of color we are aware of is Max Fennell. We hope to add District Triathlon members to that list.

ST: What was your essential pitch to attract that crew I saw in a photograph on your website?

Marcus: District Triathlon delivers consistent, quality workouts for our team members and our community multiple times a week to support the development of a triathlete. At least five of seven days a week there is an organized team workout, free for all members. We have certified coaches who volunteer their time to engage in teammate development. Some members just starting out figure a triathlon is a far off dream, whereas others initial members have successfully completed an Ironman. Regardless of where a teammate is in their development, there is someone there to help them move forward to reach their goals.

[And now, the question and answer that spawned the title of this interview.]

ST: What have been some of the more surprising things you have discovered in your first wave of triathletes?

Marcus: I didn’t expect to have a majority of black women! I anticipated more males, especially since we were primarily swim and run focused starting off.

ST: What leads to the increasing number of black women you see in District Tri?

Marcus: I think in general, women, especially black women, feel a sense of empowerment, especially having inspirational leaders in government. DC is a very fit city and that only fuels the flame. [When you contemplate this] it's not a surprise that so many District Tri members are women.

ST: What have been some of the best biking and running roads and trails your triathletes use in the DC area?

Marcus: Haines Point has been a blessing for our team. It gives a perfect bike loop, 5k run and space to practice transitions. We do not have to worry about cars, traffic or too many pedestrians crossing the roads and it provides a scenic view. The Mt. Vernon Trail is great for beginners and gives 17 miles of scenic roads from Georgetown to the Mt. Vernon George Washington House in Virginia.

ST: What are your best swimming facilities?

Marcus: All of DC’s facilities managed by Department of Parks and Rec have been amazing. The best part is that the public pools and recreation facilities are free for DC Residents with a small entrance fee for non-residents. We chose Takoma Aquatic Center as our home pool, and rotate pools sometimes to mix it up when they set up for long course.

ST: What led you to triathlon?

Marcus: I helped lead a running crew here as a captain from 2014-2016. After several 5ks, 10ks and half marathons I got a bit bored and needed something else to push me, that had little lateral movement. My transition was due to a tibial tubercle osteotomy and MPFL [Medial Patellofemoral Ligament] reconstruction surgery. Short story is my patella dislocated very easily and need to be repaired if I wanted to hold on to my right knee. I found myself ready to accept a new challenge before I had the procedure so I said screw it and registered for the Nations Triathlon September 11, 2015 with my surgery scheduled December 2015. I purchased my first tri bike a day before the bike drop off with insurance money I got after being hit by a car 2 days prior while on the road bike I would have competed on. After completing the race I was instantly hooked. Eight months after surgery, my first triathlon was the Hagerstown Sprint Triathlon.

ST: What was your athletic background?

Marcus: I played football, swam and ran track and cross country in high school. I was the captain of my high school varsity swim team my senior year. Entering Savannah College of Art and Design I received an athletic scholarship for swimming. I also competed on their track team and with other local track clubs in the area. Being good in the pool and running definitely made a transition into triathlon much easier and made me much more confident to push my limits. I’ve also served as the head coach for seven years for the Northwestern High School varsity swim team, located in Hyattsville, Maryland.

ST: How do you mix your business as a designer with District Tri?

Marcus: I’m not really sure if I mix the design business in with District Tri but my skill set definitely helps us save money on software, designs, marketing and printer costs. I may hire a designer to assist from time to time. I use the tri team as a design playground - I have the creative freedom to do what I want and how I want. It’s an opportunity to build brand consistency and make dope stuff!

ST: Is your design business your sole job?

Marcus: Majority of my day is spent as an Interactive Art Director/Communications Specialist in the food retail industry. Design was once my main passion but it has quickly turned into a job and the means to pay the bills. I typically do an array of freelance work to keep my mind engaged and skills current. I have mad respect for Kristin Mayer of Betty Designs. She was able to combine her passion for the sport and continue to make it a huge success. I keep up the branding for District Triathlon. Although I'm not getting paid (yet) it helps keep our overhead low.

ST: What excites you about triathlon?

Marcus: I love everything about triathlon except how expensive it is. I love to see hard work pay off. Triathlon is a sport where you get what you put in. It combines so many elements and people from all walks of life. It helps me escape reality and takes me to a place every day where I can wake up and tell myself I am going to be better than yesterday. The pursuit of pushing past where my body told me to stop is an endorphin release and a feeling of accomplishment that leaves me feeling I can do anything.

ST: How do you impart that feeling to District Tri?

Marcus: With District Tri, I see the discipline, grit and determination required of a triathlete fueling people's everyday lives and influencing their work ethic. Members become better at time management and create unique bonds. Triathletes tend to be loners when it comes to training and racing and we want to make it more of a social sport. Let’s show people we can both kickass in group training, have fun and still podium at races.

ST: How long before more elite level black triathletes contend at Olympic distance and Ironman World Championships?

Marcus: I think that time is here. I’ve met a handful of black and minority athletes ready to make that transition. A couple are on the fence due to the expensive lifestyle of a professional triathlete and the process of obtaining a pro card.

ST: Has USAT helped with your District Tri club?

Marcus: I’ve applied for and received $1,500 in USAT Club grants. We’ve used them to fund coaching certifications and attend continued coaching education opportunities. Beyond that I have not been approached by USAT for support in helping grow District Triathlon.

ST: What has given you the greatest satisfaction in developing District Tri?

Marcus: The best gifts are experiences. As a group we’ve been fortunate to share those first moments with teammates. It’s always rewarding to reflect on how the group has positively impacted the community, brought a smile to someone's life and/or witness a member achieve a goal. Any win big or small is greatly satisfying.

ST: What preconceptions have District Tri broken?

Marcus: One may argue that triathlon (like swimming, hockey, and golf) are generally activities embraced more commonly by white, middle class society. This fact that this sport requires expensive facilities, considerable time, and adequate financial resources, may suggest that people of color would be unable to participate. Another may be that we wouldn’t be good at the sport due to a lack of swimming ability. We made swimming our focus and proved that false. We’ve had many members podium and as an organization won the 2017 D3 Mid Atlantic Club Championships.

ST: What might District Tri lead to in terms of growing black and persons of color participating in triathlon?

Marcus: We are going into our third year and have been consumed by a vortex of possibilities and outcomes District Tri could potentially create and not just in triathlon. We’ve been setting up opportunities to introduce more certified swim and triathlon coaches, elite and professional athletes, along with high school programs for youth development. We’ve teamed up with a youth tri club called Strive2tri to assist in youth development and also serve as a feeder program for youngsters as they age up and need an adult program to continue their journey.

ST: How long before more elite level black triathletes contend at Olympic distance and Ironman World Championships?

Marcus: I think that time is here. I’ve met a handful of black and minority athletes ready to make that transition. A couple are on the fence due to the expensive lifestyle of a professional triathlete and the process of obtaining a pro card.