Friday, April 22, 2016

Why even tri?

I have a confession to make.

I have almost no excite for the 2016 triathlon season.

Sure, I'm still going to the pool a few times a week and even getting out on a bike here and there (now that the weather is finally starting to cooperate), but it's mostly just swimming to recover from running and some commuter cycling. For the last couple of years I've really been prioritizing running, and this year that focus has ratcheted up a notch or two.

Really, I think I may be falling out of love with tri.

Did...did I just say that out loud?
I do have my reasons, which I've spent some time thinking about recently. Namely:

1. Cost

Triathlon isn't cheap. I mean, neither is ultrarunning, but when you look at a dollars-per-hour-of entertainment (yeah, we'll go with that as a description instead of "hours-of-suffering") it's hardly even a contest. Tri might win out on distance, because you can cover quite a bit on the bike course, but in a price/time comparison ultra definitely has an edge. I understand it's because triathlon involves a great deal more overhead to produce a safe race - swim buoys need to be set out (which requires at least one boat), lifeguards must be brought in to supervise the swimmers, swim caps need to be provided, bike courses should be patrolled, there are tons of extra timing mats to procure, and the permits alone for producing a race are much more complex than just getting in touch with a conservation area or trail association and having a bunch of people show up to trot around in the woods. Hell, a lot of ultras don't even bother with chip timing because it's really not that difficult to write down the time that a runner comes past a line, but it's pretty much essential with the absurd number of split times (swim, bike, run plus two transitions) that tri races generate. I get it, and I don't grudge triathlon race directors charging more to cover their costs (or even turning a bit of a profit). That doesn't, however, mean I really want to pay for it.

2. Complexity

Racing a tri is a logistical nightmare, really. From packing up and trying to make sure you've got the yard-long list of gear you'll need to sport along just in order to get through the race - lord help you if you forget your cycling shoes at home! - through the setting up of transition, and then the actual's just so much faffing. Showing up 90mins before race time to stuff myself into a rubber sausage casing and wallow around in the water a bit to try to loosen up and get my heart ready to nearly burst from my chest. Try not to drown while negotiating my way through a gauntlet of flailing limbs and turn buoys. Endeavour not to fall on my face while attempting to remove a wetsuit, cap and goggles while running (or at least staggering)...only to arrive in transition completely out of breath and having to try to get the order of helmet-cycling shoes-number belt-pull bike from rack and run straight.

Even if I make it through all that, I'm only a third of the way done. I've still got another transition and the run left to go.

Somehow I need to get from here to there..

When I compare that to the easy-going nature of ultrarunning, it hardly seems like a fair contest. Show up at least half an hour beforehand to get my number on and use the restroom facilities. Meander up to the starting area, staying well toward the back 'cause I know my damn place. Sooner or later someone will say "go" or make a loud noise that I may or may not hear - when everyone in front of me starts heading into the woods I follow like a good little lemming. 

Pick up foot. Put down in front of other foot. Repeat until finished, too injured to continue, or dead.

That second condition can be rather relative, too.

As a bonus, the scenery tends to be much prettier, too. There are precious few off-road triathlons in this area (and history has proven that I attempt them at my peril), most taking place on country roads in rural areas. This means that pavement quality on the bike course can be bloody awful, and while rolling vistas of cornfields may be wonderful for feeding humanity they tend not to be sufficiently interesting to distract me from the horrible things the combination of uneven tarmac and the aero position is doing to my saddlery regions. 

Most of the ultras take place on trails, many of which are positively stunning in their rocky, rooty, mossy glory. I may fall on my face, but I'll generally be grinning while I do so because it's so very pretty.

It just feels...pure. I've often referred to racing an ultra as "going for a bit of a wander in the woods", because even on the worst day of ultrarunning there's going to be some point at which I simply lose myself in the glory of the trail.

I may not know where I am, but I'm right where I want to be.

3. Challenge

I originally started thinking about racing a triathlon back in the winter of 2008/2009. I had just begun running after spending about 8 months getting myself from "holy crap I've been attacked by the fat monster and can't ride a bike 2km up to the coffee shop without needing to stop repeatedly to catch my breath" into fairly decent shape, and thought that triathlon presented the ultimate challenge. Could I really swim, ride a bike and then run? Would I make it through a 750m - 30km - 7km sprint? I started hitting the pool regularly in January of 2009, added in cycling as spring rolled in, bought a triathlon bike (the same one I still ride - occasionally - to this day), and went about preparing myself in the dorkiest ways possible. I decided to race a 375m - 10km - 2.5km super sprint tri in June as a dress rehearsal, and then went to the race site and did my own swim-bike-run brick workout as a dry run before that.

I joined a tri forum or two, geeked out on details, and generally took myself far too seriously.

Which tends not to be the case at ultras.

I did ok in the super sprint despite it pouring rain for my very first race, and then made it through the sprint in September as well. I went a little nuts in 2010, racing 4 solo triathlons, a relay tri, a duathlon, plus a few other single-sport things, including my very first ultra at Horror Hill in October 2010. In total I have racked up 30 multisport races since June of 2009, all the way from super sprints through two half-iron (2k swim, 90km bike, 21.1km run) distance triathlons.

I've learned that not only can I finish a tri, I can do so while undertrained (see most of my race reports), with a broken wrist, or even a broken heart.

While I know there are longer triathlons out there, the available training hours I have limit my ability to put in the sheer volume of cycling required to race comfortably at anything above the half-iron distance. More importantly, though, I don't really have any desire to complete a full iron-distance race - I've done a century on my cyclocross bike once and the idea of spending an additional 20km learning to hate my bike in between a 3.8km swim and a full road marathon (which is a thing that sucks all on its own anyway) holds approximately zero draw for me. I may be masochistic, but I try to be marginally kinder than that to my soft bits.

The idea of spending increasingly long times frolicking in the woods, though?

I am convinced that it's only a matter of time before I attempt a 100 mile running race. I know it will require that I run an absurd amount of mileage per week, and I stand a very strong chance of not finishing my first attempt...or even my tenth.

I think that's really part of the appeal. It's both simple and incredibly difficult at the same time - as easy as putting one foot in front of the other, but as hard as walking across live coals with broken legs...which is pretty much exactly how I feel by the end of most ultras, yet with a deep sense of fulfillment.

I'm not completely giving up on triathlon yet - I do have plans to race a short one in September - but for the most part this year will be dedicated to one of the most ancient forms of human locomotion in all of its simplicity and purity.

I'm going to go out and run.



  1. I loved swimming in high school, I commute to work by bike sometimes, but have no urge to try a tri.

    Last entry you'd remarked about trying more race specific trails, if you're going to the Huron area in Kitchener, just a bit further is the hydrocut. sure, it says mountain bike, but I love running there, and with some rocks, tree roots and hilly terrain that's the best training area I've seen locally.

    1. What a coincidence - I was actually planning on heading out there this afternoon, as the trails are finally back open again after yesterday. I haven't run there yet, but I've been out there mountain biking before and it's a beautiful place! Will also head out to the GORBA trails in Guelph when they open up - have mountain biked through there as well, and while not as technical it's a lovely place to spend an afternoon (also much closer to my mountain biking skill level than Hydrocut or Puslinch Tract, which is where I ran last Saturday - another good local option for technical trails). Thanks for reading, and the suggestion!


Go on, have at me!