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What’s Triathlon?

What is a Triathlon?
by Scott Hughes

What a Triathlon Is

A triathlon is a competitive athletic event consisting of swimming, cycling and running, in that order. In the majority of modern triathlons, those events are placed end-to-end in immediate sequence and a competitor’s official time includes the time spent transitioning between individual legs of the race, including any time spent changing shoes and attire. For that reason, talent in swimming, running, and cycling cannot guarantee a triathlete a competitive time by itself; A trained triathlete must also learn to race each stage in such a way that preserves their endurance and energy for the remaining stages, and the triathlete must transition quickly.

The History of the Triathlon

Scott Tinley, former Ironman Champion and triathlon historian, says that the triathlon is based on a French race during the 1920-1930s. Since the 1930s, very little was heard about triathlon until 1974, when a group of friends began training together in San Diego, California. The Californian incident is well-documented and not based on the old French event. The group consisted of runners, swimmers and cyclists. Soon training sessions turned into informal races. Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan conceived and directed the first Mission Bay Triathlon, which involved 46 athletes and took place on September 25th 1974. That date is celebrated as the birth of the modern triathlon.

The Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon was the first modern long-distance triathlon event. In 1989, the International Triathlon Union (ITU) was founded with the chief goal of putting triathlon on the Olympic program. The sport debuted on the Olympic program at the Sydney Games in 2000.

Since its founding, triathlon has grown drastically and currently includes hundreds of thousands of competitors racing in thousands of events worldwide each year. Scott Tinley documents the history of the sport in his book, Triathlon: A Personal History.

How Triathlons Work

Typically, racers arrive at the triathlon venue at least an hour prior to the start of the race, and proceed to set up their spot in the “transition area”. If the bicycle stage doesn’t end where it begins, then there will be two transition areas.

After setting up the transition, the athletes prepare for swimming, usually in a lake, river, or ocean. Depending on the type and size of the race, all the athletes will enter the water either at a single signal, in waves spaced every few minutes, or individually.

The swim leg typically proceeds around a series of marked buoys and ends near the transition area. The competitors then run out of the water and try to change into cycling gear as quickly as possible. The cycling stage then ensues around a marked course and ends back at the transition area. Then, racers rack their bicycles and change speedily into running shoes, and the run finishes at a finish line usually near the start and transition areas

Although it is not officially sanctioned in any of the professional or Olympic events, some triathlons separate the heavier competitors into their own group. “Clydesdale” athletes are those men over 200 pounds, while “Athena” athletes are women over 150 pounds.

There is usually an age minimum for the longer triathlons. However, many shorter triathlons have been organized to allow children and teens to compete.

Triathlon Events

There are many legendary and well-known triathlon events, including Hawaii Ironman World Championship, Escape from Alcatraz, Wildflower, Life Time Fitness Triathlon, HP Norseman Xtreme Triathlon, Enduroman “Arch to Arc Challenge”, Chicago Triathlon, and Ironkids.