The sport of triathlon was born from a spirit of innovation. In the early days, the first triathletes were single sport athletes that sought out ways to create a more challenging test of their fitness. Whether spicing up a run workout with a swim across a body of water or adding in a bike to the top of the steepest nearby hill, the first triathlons had little in common other than their search for challenges and exploration of the unknown.
Since those beginnings, the number of events and triathletes grew; the sport moved away from its ad-hoc organization and races became increasingly standardized. It seems nearly impossible today to speak of a triathlon without talking about a distance category. We now have as standard measuring units the sprint distance, the Olympic distance, the IRONMAN distance and the half-IRONMAN.
Standardized distances allowed us to bring legitimacy to a growing sport and measure efforts against other performances. It created the platform for race series and regional, national, and world championship events. And it helped athletes to differentiate their focus of training-will you be racing long or short this year; or attempting both?
Our sport now stands on firmly established ground-triathlon is an Olympic event, the IRONMAN series is as big as ever, and the number of athletes competing in the sport has reached critical mass. I certainly wouldn’t trade in the success of triathlon in its current state, but as with anything gained there has been something lost. And as inevitable as it was, the excitement that comes from newness has given way to the routine of establishment. The jump into the unknown was bound to be replaced by marks of precedence. The oddly plotted race courses and unique distances were bound to give away to standard measurements.
Triathlon today is still an exciting sport, full of challenges. But it’s not exciting in the same way. The choices for racing are all laid out on the table; it’s simply a matter of choosing from the selection of pre-formatted, pre-established events.
While the sport becomes increasingly standardized and established, it would be nice to see it become equally diversified and ground-breaking. Perhaps that is a lot to ask, but the spirit of innovation that once sparked the advent of the sport can still be seen operating.
Mountain bike triathlons broke the mold in the ’90s. In road triathlons, Australia came up with Formula-One racing. And more recently, winter multi-sport has come onto the stage-in 2001, the first USA winter triathlon championship took place. And the popular Mount Taylor Winter Quadrathlon has been a favorite for years, while smaller events like Breckenridge’s Imperial Challenge provide unique challenges to triathletes bored with the same old standard fare. Incidentally, it’s no surprise that many of today’s best adventure racers started out in triathlons before taking that need for a different challenge to new dimensions.
Even in the realm of summer swim-bike-run events, there is still a plethora of innovative events waiting to be created. And while standardized events are important, I’d love to see more race directors breaking out of the mold. How about some events that shuffle the order of events? Run-bike-swim. Bike-swim-run. And there’s no need to finish each individual discipline in one single leg. The race can be as unique as the terrain on which it’s held, like the ad-hoc events in southern California in the late-’70s and early-’80s with multiple transitions-swim-run-swim-run-bike. Or how about some simple swim-run events? Or events without transitions that are spread out over three separate, individual stages whose cumulative time is then added together.
With this spirit of multi-sport innovation in mind, special recognition must go to race director Darrin Eisman for his work in putting together the first ever off-road IRONMAN-distance event in western Colorado. This takes the idea of mountain bike triathlon to the extreme and offers a unique variation on the triathlon theme. The 112-mile mountain bike leg tops out at 9,200 feet after a 3,000 foot climb in the Roan Cliffs and Hubbard Mesa area near Rifle…and that climb is done twice. A trail marathon caps off the race. Hats off to Eisman for making this is a reality! It’s a fine example of multi-sport innovation, providing a unique, unparalleled opportunity for athletes to test their mettle in a never before tested domain. While the distance is familiar, it has never been tried on this type of off-road terrain before and it will be exciting to see what kind of times and experiences are had by the competitors. Eisman’s event will no doubt provide an exciting glimpse into the unknown. And it is an example of the mold-breaking innovation that is welcome and needed for our continually evolving sport.