I began as a competitive runner. Then an injury precluded me from running and I moved over to competitive nordic skiing. Cycling seemed a good dryland training activity since I couldn't run, so I started racing bicycles.
Then, voila, I could run again. Whoopee! And then I found out about this crazy thing called the Ironman. That was in 1980. At first I was certain it had been misrepresented to me. “You mean it takes place over 3 days, right?” “No. It's gavel-to-gavel.” Wow! And then, after a couple of weeks of pondering the insanity of it: I’m in!
What was great, and what remains great, about events like this is that you don’t really know when you start if it’s even possible to finish. What about the first person to do Ötillö? Thirty of forty miles of running interspersed with 6 miles of swimming? In running shoes?
To be clear, there is not one, rather three types of triathletes. The first type is the one described above. The guy on the pointy end. There’s a guy out there right now wing suit flying and one day this will be an activity achievable by all of us, and our wives and kids and dads, as soon as it becomes safe and mainstream. But then that guy will be off doing some other leading edge thing (if he’s still alive).
I’m a pointy end guy, I think, but not as pointy as some. When we write about Don Bowie, Jay Petervary, Kilian Jornet, those guys are on the pointy end. Julie Moss lived on the pointy end of sport and she’s why a lot of you got inspired to race Ironman.
The second group consists of those who find multisport while young, and race it as a mainstream Olympic sport. Lukas Verzbicas and Tony Smoragiewicz are examples here in the U.S. and look out, world, here comes Taylor Knibb! What motivates someone to decide to run a 5k at the age of 28 is not the same as what happens when a 13-year-old goes out for the high school track team, and that’s pretty close to the two expressions of triathlon now. As we discuss what’s good or bad, right or wrong, with triathlon we need to acknowledge that our sport now includes widely divergent expressions.
Finally, many people make their marks in other ways. What animates them goes well beyond sport. But triathlon becomes for them a passion or at least a worthwhile avocation and, scaled to their sense of attachment to physical expression, is an adventure no less animating than it is for a mountain’s first ascender. I was struck(!) by the first-person account in the New York Times written by actress (Ugly Betty) America Ferrara.
This is required reading! If you want to know what built triathlon, back in the 1980s, it was what Ms. Ferrara so eloquently relates. She spoke of her "mean, scared voice,” her "internal critic,” that not only bedeviled her attempt to swim, bike and run but attended her every life endeavor. She watched a friend train for a triathlon and was "equal parts enthralled and horrified,” and "the open-water swimming was unimaginable.”
"O.K., I’ll do it!” Ms. Ferrara "yelled the words desperately,” and it is exactly how I felt upon hearing of the Hawaiian Ironman for the first time in 1980.
We all live somewhere along that spear, and maybe I’m more at the pointy end than Ms. Ferrara, but then I don’t have an Emmy! Wherever we live along that gradient it’s the same feeling we all have of wonderment, adventure, and the question of whether what we intend to do is really possible.
Our sport has been declining in numbers for 4 years, maybe 5. Now, to be clear, that’s after 14 years of remarkable growth. Still, a decline is a decline and this isn’t a blip, it’s a trend. Whose fault is it? Nobody’s. Whose job is it to bend the trendline? Everybody’s.
Everybody has a job to do. Over the next few days I’m going to talk, here, to race directors, service providers, manufacturers, governing bodies, and I’m going to talk to the “end user,” i.e., you. You have a part to play as well.
No more registration surprises
Every day I’m going to write our sport a new prescription, and here is the first: No more separate or undisclosed registration fees. Ideally, the fee should include the online registration cost. Companies like Active can do this right now. When you blame Active for that hefty fee at the end of a 30-minute online process, realize Active is doing what it was instructed by the RD of the race to do.
I’m not blaming the RD. Which among them is going to be the first to say, "My race is $85 all-in” when his competitor’s race is advertised as $65 and then you get that wet, sloppy $20 kiss ($15 one-day fee and the $5 registration fee) after 30 minutes of typing in your life story. The process is corrosive. Why not also charge extra, at the end, for timing? You want a time? $5. Aid stations? $5. It’s an insulting process and always has been.
Mind, online registration is a godsend! It does not cost triathletes extra; it saves money! It saves the RD from having to print and distribute paper entry brochures, and it saves him having to pay for data entry. It’s that our current sneering, maddening registration process turns people away from our sport.
How did it get this way? How does it remain this way? Whose job is it to change it? USA Triathlon? They haven’t addressed this. My own industry organization, TBI? It should’ve. It didn't. But I can control my own behavior and I simply will not enter a race unless the entire fee is disclosed at the onset of online registration. It’s a point of principle to me and I really don’t care how big or important the race is. I'm 60 years old in a couple of months. I age up! But, for me, Ironman, Challenge, big race or little, USAT Nats, if there's a fee at the end I wasn't apprised of at the beginning, it stops right there. Me no enter.
“Come now, and let us reason together,” as the Old Testament prophet wrote. I think tri clubs and their local RDs ought to sit down and talk about this and other issues that disenfranchise potential registrants. RDs, clubs and their members are your ballast. Have you asked them how they want the registration fees represented? Why don’t you set up a Survey Monkey survey, email out to your entire list, and ask them how they want the fees to be presented?
In 1995 our sport was a third smaller than it was in 1988. Those of us in triathlon for the long haul rolled up our sleeves and went to work. The result of that work was 14 years of steady growth. We need to go to work again.
Tomorrow I’ve got another prescription, and the day after. I’ve got a tablespoon of medicine I need to take as well, which I will share with you.