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What is triathlon?

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If you would ask a random person to explain triathlon they would most likely say something like ”Ironman, yeah I’ve heard about it” or ”people doing that dedicate their whole life”. Well, it’s true that Ironman is a part of the triathlon concept, but not all triathletes will ever do a full length Ironman or even dedicate their whole life to the sport. But let’s take it from the beginning.

The history
Triathlon was first heard of in France in the 1920’s where some competitions involving swimming, bicycling and running took place (but not necessary in that specific order). The modern version of triathlon started in San Diego (California) in 1974 and has expanded as a recognized sport throughout the world ever since. Triathlon is since 2000 on the Olympic program and the distance is called, not totally surprisingly, Olympic distance. The first Swedish triathlon event was held in Uppsala in 1983.

The Ironman
Ironman was first organized in 1978 on Hawaii after a long-run debate between runners and swimmers about what athlete that were more fit. After reading an article that said that a Belgian cyclist had the highest ever recorded maximum oxygen uptake ever registered amongst any athlete, they decided to organize an event so they would get an answer to their biggest question. A combination of Waikiki Roughwater Swim (3 800 meters), Oahu Around the Island Bike Race (180 km) and Honolulu Marathon (42 km) created the foundation of the first ever Ironman. The 15 people that started got a short note from Commander John Collins, one of the organizers:

Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag the rest of your life!

And to tie it all together Collins also was believed to had said:

Whoever finishes first, we’ll call him the Ironman.

The true Ironman competition is held on Hawaii ever autumn and to be amongst the ”lucky” athletes you need to get a ticket by competing in a selected race around the world. These races have a certain number of slots (for Hawaii) available, so it’s very important to be among the top winners in your age group to get a ticket. Even though Ironman is a distance it’s also a trademark, which means you can not organize a competition called Ironman without the sanction from the World Triathlon Corporation. In Sweden there’s a triathlon event every year called Järnmannen. This name is a direct translation of Ironman, which comes from the fact that this is not a sanctioned Ironman competition. It is never the less the true adventure for every Swedish triathlete seeking to finish an Ironman distance without the hassle of getting a slot to Hawaii.

The distances
But as I wrote, not all triathletes will ever complete a full length Ironman. The variety of distances makes this sport perfect for all types of people looking for a worthy challenge. The Olympic distance is today one of the most common at triathlon events. It’s done in roughly 120-180 minutes, depending on your capacity and the course, and makes it perfect for both the top elites as well as everyday people looking for a decent challenge. Not all competitions are however the same. Larger triathlon events may have bigger transition areas, making the run from the water to the bike a bit longer than if you would attend a race with fewer athletes. And some bike roads and running tracks may be tougher than other, which means that comparing times from two different races with the same distance a bit hard. But one thing is however certain – if you win, you win.

The most common triathlon distances are:

Swim Bike Run
Super Sprint 400 m 10 km 2.5 km
Sprint 750 m 20 km 5 km
Olympic 1 500 m 40 km 10 km
Half Ironman 1 900 m 90 km 21.09 km
Full Ironman 3 800 m 180 km 42.2 km

The rules
I wont write an essay about the entire set of rules (please see the Triathlon article on Wikipedia for more in-depth information) but this is basically how it works:

  1. Every athlete starts together by swimming. Wearing a wetsuit is common (in Sweden often mandatory due to the colder weather).
  2. When the swimming distance has been completed you run up from the water, while getting off your wetsuit at the same time, and head for the transition area to get your bike – this is called T1 (transition 1).
  3. The cycling is as in any other cycle race, with the difference that ”drafting” is often not permitted. This is when you lie close behind another cyclist to optimize the aerodynamics of not having all the wind in your chest.
  4. When you’re back at the transition area you start T2 (transition 2), which involves finding back to your spot to leave your bike and putting on the running shoes for the last part of the race.
  5. Now you try to get your legs working for the last part which usually is the toughest one. Even a decent runner could have a hard time getting those legs up to speed after a tough bicycle race.

The time from the beginning of the swim to the end when you pass the finish line after the run is your total time. The person with the lowest time, wins. After the race you usually also get the times for all individual parts, which also includes T1 and T2 but these are often not very important since all triathlon events have their own distance to and from the transition area.

The gadgets
Even though it’s quite easy to begin your triathlon career it can be expensive when you find all the fun gadgets. The most expensive part is the cycling, but getting a cycle for around $500-$700 is often enough to get you started. Then you also need a swimsuit and a pair of running shoes. That’s basically it and you’re ready to enter a competition. When you get more experienced it’s very, very easy to put all your savings into this sport. For example: a complete carbon fitted bicycle with all the latest gadgets and nifties can hook you up on $10,000, easy.

Not just crazy people
Even though some triathletes dedicate their whole life to the sport and everything around it, you shouldn’t be scared away. Triathlon is one of the best sports for an everyday person. Just think of being able to choose what to train – swimming, cycling or running. Your body also gets an all round exercise making it stronger on all parts and more resistant against injuries.

Read more about triathlon
Here are some links to pages where you can read more about triathlon:

  • Svenska Triathlonförbundet (only in Swedish)
  • Wikipedia
  • World Triathlon Corporation

  • Säg gärna vad du tycker!