During the summer months college sports are practically non-existent, and since new Longhorns content is hard to come by I've been given the green light to do a series of articles on sports that may not be familiar to regular BC readers. In this edition we take a look at triathlons followed by an interview with Jordan Rapp; pro triathlete, CTO of the excellent Slowtwitch.com, and prodigious wordsmith.
To many outside observers, triathlons seem less like a sport and more like a bar bet gone too far. That's because it's literally the result of a dare between runners, swimmers, and a Navy Commander. Started in 1978, the sport has grown from 15 crazy people in Hawaii to a sport that millions(of crazy people) around the world compete in every year. So let's get to it, shall we?
You swim, then you bike, then you run. In most triathlons, they have a series of bike racks with assigned spots for the athletes to setup their gear for all three disciplines. This is your transition area, and you have a limited amount of space to put whatever you need to finish the race. Most people lay out their bike shoes, helmet, running shoes, etc. in an orderly manner so they can grab it quickly and go, because the transition area time counts towards your overall finishing time.
Most people only know about the Ironman race in Kona, but there are 4 different triathlon distances.
Sprint Distance: 300 yard swim, 14 mile bike, 3.1 mile run. Sprints are the most common triathlons found around the US because they're logistically the easiest to put together for an organizer. Find a big enough high school/YMCA pool in a suburb that has decent roads & a friendly police department willing to help monitor intersections and you've got 2/3 of the race sorted out. The sprint races will vary on distance a little depending on the race, but you're generally done in under 90-120 minutes if you train for it at all. These races are the most 'beginner-friendly' of the group, and are more focused on fun than being a 'serious' race(though you will have serious racers there because there are lawyers in this world and they flock to triathlons like Johnny Manziel to a sparkler-embroidered champagne bottle). If you're looking to try the sport out, these are your best way to dip your toes in the water(/rimshot).
Olympic Distance: 1.5 kilometer swim, 24 mile bike, 6.2 mile run. You're never going to guess where they came up with the name for this distance. In addition to being the distance they run for triathlons at the Olympics, it's also the distance used for one of the two biggest pro triathlon series(International Triathlon Union, or ITU series) in the world. It's the distance where 3 of the best triathletes in the world(Javier Gomez & the Brownlee brothers, we'll get to them later) compete; they finish in under 2 hours, but the rest of us mortals will finish this distance in 2.5-3.5 hours depending on what kind of training you've done. This is basically a 'quarter-iron' triathlon with a combined race distance of ~31.25 miles.
Half-Iron Distance: 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run. Ever seen a '70.3' sticker on a car? That's how many miles a half-iron is. It takes the pros 4 hours & some change to finish this distance, most of the rest of us do it in 5-7 hours. It's worth mentioning that this is the first distance where you start seeing cut-off times at each discipline come into play. At the half-iron distance, you generally get 70 minutes to finish the swim, 4 hours after the swim cut-off to finish the bike, and the race course usually closes 8 hours after the last athlete hits the swim. Some people don't make these cut-offs for each race due to a variety of factors. Maybe they got a couple of flats on the bike, or their asthma flared up, or they didn't train enough & were just too slow...the longer the race, the more chances there are for something to go wrong. The idea of a Did Not Finish(DNF) on the race results will keep a triathlete up at night.
Iron Distance: 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run. This is the big daddy of them all, the race that started it all. 140.6 miles of pain crammed into one 17-hour race that starts at 7am and ends at midnight. Most triathletes that are getting ready for an Ironman* spend 6-12 months training 12-18 hours/week, neglecting their friends & family because why have meaningful human interaction when you can ride a bike in 100 degree heat for 6 hours, am I right? Hello? Is this thing on?
Honestly, this is probably the best summation of Ironman training out there.
And this is what it's like talking to triathletes at any point in the spring or summer. (Or fall. Or winter.)
And for no particular reason other than it's my favorite triathlon commercial ever. (Not to mention, the most accurate depiction of an open-water swim start.)
*Ironman is technically a brand, not a distance, but people generally refer to the iron distance races as 'Ironman' in the same way most people call tissues 'Kleenex'. There are non-Ironman 140.6 races, which some people prefer as they're generally cheaper to enter and don't sell out as quickly.
There are over 30 Ironman - and quite a few non-branded iron distance - races across the world, but the single race most familiar to the masses is the World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. This is the one you see on NBC every year where they cull down an entire day's worth of pain into 120 minutes of soft-focus inspiration, where they show a double-amputee finishing the race with 12 minutes to spare before midnight. With Al Trautwig's deep voice narrating stories like Dick Hoyt literally pushing his son across 140.6 miles of this earth, you might as well be freebasing Bette Midler ballads. Kona is similar to other Ironman brand races in that there are ~2500 participants, but nearly all of the participants have qualified by placing high up in their age groups at a previous Ironman. Other than a handful of sponsor exemptions(I'm looking at you, Hines Ward) and charity fundraiser slots, this is the best of the best in the amateur and professional ranks.
Javier Gomez is arguably the most complete triathlete in the world right now. He's dominating the ITU series this year(after winning the whole thing in 2013), won a half-iron in Panama, and took silver in the 2012 Olympics. If he's racing, he's probably ending up on the podium. He's a machine.
The Brownlee Brothers
Alistair & Jonathan Brownlee are Javier's main competition in the ITU series, not to mention the other 2 guys on the Olympic podium in 2012. I'm starting a petition to rename them the British Bulldogs, wrestling fans be damned.
Gwen Jorgensen isn't so much a pro triathlete as a DARPA experiment or a Terminator prototype. She's dominating triathlons to the point that TV broadcasts basically concede an ITU race to her if she's not at least 1 minute behind the leaders at the start of the run because she's by far the fastest female runner going. She's probably the most dominant female triathlete since Chrissie Wellington retired.
Dick's not a pro triathlete. Dick isn't fast, and he's not even racing Ironmans any more. Why am I mentioning him in this article? Because of this:
Yea, it's dusty in here for all of us.
Where to Watch It
Triathlons are a mainstay on Universal Sports, you can see male & female races on there multiple times a week on tape delay. They show replays of Kona on there as well, though the main Kona broadcast happens on NBC(generally in November). You can watch a live stream of most Ironman races on their site, as well as track friends & family there.
An Interview with Jordan Rapp
Jordan Rapp is an American triathlete who has been racing as a pro for several years in addition to his work as CTO of the excellent triathlon/cycling site Slowtwitch.com. What follows is an email Q&A he was kind enough to devote considerable time to for this article.
BWG: Most US triathletes don't start in the sport as kids but are drawn to it later in life for a reason. Me, I blame my girlfriend because she started this first & got me hooked. How do you go from college rowing to triathlons? Did you fall out of the racing shell, swim to shore, & think 'hey, this isn't half bad, maybe I'll go for a bike ride next'?
JR: I fell into triathlon very accidentally. But not quite as accidentally as I fell into rowing, which is really where I should start because that was the first racing/endurance sport I had ever done. The jump from rowing to triathlon is, I think, more logical than the jump from lacrosse to rowing. I was a good - but not great - high school lacrosse player. Good enough to have some interest from coaches at D1 schools, but no heavy recruiting. Princeton was, at the time, the 3-time defending national champions. So I decided to try to make the team as a walk on. I was a goalie, which I think was not to my advantage as there is less overall utility for an extra goalie than an extra, say, midfielder, and - ultimately - I did not make the team. But I had always been an athlete. So I wanted to do something.
Squash was my other best sport, but Princeton was just about as good at squash as they were at lacrosse, and only six guys play, so that didn't seem like I was improving my odds any. But rowing was a sport that welcomed and encouraged walk-ons; it still is, though as it grows at the high school level, more and more of the best rowers are guys who rowed in high school and maybe even middle school. A girl I was dating at the time was a rower, and I had some friends that had walked on who were enjoying it, so I thought I'd give it a try. I was a late entrant - most people walk on at the start of the year - but I asked if I could join in late December sometime. In a great moment of irony, of all the sports - lacrosse, squash, or rowing - Princeton was (and is) probably the best at rowing. They had were coming off an undefeated national championship season and had a long, long history of being a rowing powerhouse, much longer than they did as a lacrosse powerhouse. But - thankfully - I knew none of this. I didn't even really know what rowing was, except that you supposedly had to get up really early in the morning, which was not the case at Princeton because they have their own lake, just for the crew team (thanks, Andrew Carnegie...). So I really knew nothing. And I certainly didn't know if I'd be any good. And, at first, I wasn't. I was quite bad. And then I got sick with mono. And I came just before the season ended. I race one time that year, and it was a non remarkable fourth or fifth place finish in the 2nd freshman 4+ (four rowers plus coxswain) at Eastern Sprints.
But I was hooked. And so I rowed that summer with NYAC (the New York Athletic Club), coached by Columbia women's coach (just retired) and Princeton alum Mike Zimmer. That was really when I learned to row properly and, as it turns out, turned out to be - physiologically anyway; the technique part took a long time - pretty good at endurance sports. From there I went on to have a pretty successful college career as a rower and showed enough promise that I thought a spot on the US National Team was a possibility. So I took a job in Princeton - where the US team is based - and kept rowing on my own. But I was an idiot about how I trained. I didn't appreciate the structure and planning that our coach had built into our season, and I didn't ask for his guidance (I still don't really know why I didn't, but I guess it was the mistakes I made then that make me realize now how foolish I was), and of course I injured myself. I strained my intercostals - the rib muscles - quite badly and couldn't row for about a month. Then as soon as they felt better, I started up and did it again. I was training very haphazardly, not managing my time well, and was motivated-but-not-motivated because I had no real plan. I didn't realize it at the time, but looking back it was pretty obvious that I wasn't going anywhere as a rower with the way I was approaching it. But after I injured myself for the second time, I decided I needed to do something else for a bit, mostly because I at least was able to recognize that - it being late March - that I wasn't going to make the National team for summer races coming from zero base at that point in the year. I wasn't quite that dumb. I thought about bike racing - I had a bike I used for cross training for rowing, but when I asked about how fast the local crit races were, the speeds blew my mind (I knew nothing about riding as a group and the resultant speed increases due to aerodynamics). So I decided I didn't want to try that. But then my mother told me about a "Train for your first triathlon" course at the health club my mother went to (my parents live about 1:15 from Princeton in the Hudson Valley in NY), so I had my mom get the contact info the guy who organized it, and I started training for triathlon.
I knew how to swim. I knew how to bike. And I knew how to run. And I knew - now - that I had no idea how to train, so I paid this guy to make a plan and to be my "coach" (which was of course quite different from what I had always thought of as "coaching" based on my experience as a high school and college athlete; he just told me what to do, but I didn't actually spend much time with him, since I was living and working in Princeton), and I started doing it. I did my first race - a little local sprint triathlon - and won my age group, placing 6th overall out of about 200 people. Then I did an Olympic distance tri a few weeks later and I won my age group there too and placed 4th out of about 200. I continued to have some good results at the small local races, and around the end of the summer, my "coach" said - roughly, "you are pretty good at this. I think you should think about turning pro." Well, that sounded pretty good to me. Pro! Even Olympic medalist rowers I knew still had to work a full time job. So I decided that I would not go back to rowing, and instead, I would become a pro triathlete. How much or how little you know about triathlon will determine how funny you find this idea. Becoming a pro triathlete is not like becoming a pro in a major league sport, where you get drafted and join a team and all that. The closest is probably golf, where there are all kinds of pros. I thought getting your USAT (USA Triathlon) pro license was roughly the equivalent of getting your PGA card. It's not. Not even close. It's maybe the equivalent of getting a job at a driving range. But I knew none of this. And thankfully I learned it in small enough doses that what seemed like a good plan - which was admittedly a terrible plan, in retrospect - kept subtly shifting until it finally actually became a real plan and then thanks to a lot of good luck and the guidance and mentorship of a lot of people, but in particular Joel Filliol, who started coaching me in 2005 and who coaches me now; Simon Whitfield, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist and 2008 Olympic silver medalist in triathlon who is also one of my best friends; and Michael Krueger, my coach from 2009 - 2013. And, of course, the endless support of my parents - "Hi Mom & Dad, I've decided to quit my job and to try to become a professional triathlete. Can I move back home?" was the first of many similar requests that they happily granted and continue to grant. And that's - roughly - how I became a professional triathlete who actually does manage to earn a living doing the sport.
BWG: Note to self: interview Jordan for an article about lacrosse for future article. Maybe I should've asked if you played any Slamball & made you a one-stop Q&A shop for all my articles going forward. Compared to other sports, the pros in triathlons seem to peak a few years later in life. I've always suspected it had a lot to do with most pro triathletes having a similar story to yours, in other words they didn't start triathlons until after college as opposed to training in the sport from childhood. Do you have any ideas as to why pro triathletes seem to peak in their 30s?
With Chris 'Macca' McCormack in his 40s, Craig Alexander retiring from Ironman, & Chrissie Wellington having moved on as well, it seems as though there isn't a 'face' of Ironman right now that would be recognizable beyond those who follow triathlon. (I suppose Lance Armstrong would've been that guy if he hadn't been banned.) Do you think there is someone out there that has the potential to break through to a larger audience in the US?
JR: I have not played, but I vaguely knew what Slamball was/is. My eye-hand coordination has plummeted since I became an endurance athlete though. So I'm pretty sure I'd be terrible. Maybe if this whole triathlon thing doesn't work out. I figure I've got three to five more good years of racing, which I do think is a testament to the typical career arc of most pro triathletes. This is starting to change, though, as you do have more guys like Javier Gomez and Alistair Brownlee (probably the two best overall triathletes in the world right now) who have been - essentially - lifelong triathletes, starting triathlon - as a sport - quite early rather than being the typical prior model in the US - a runner with high school swimming experience or a swimmer with high school running experience who then learned to bike. This, of course, is for the Olympic format. The longer races still have guys who did one sport and sort of fell into the other two. But I'd say the peak coming down in terms of years, but it's probably staying somewhat consistent in terms of relative time to when you pick up the sport. I think it'd be naive to say that Alistair or Javier's best years of racing are going to be in their 30s, even if they do switch to Ironman. I think there's only so long your body can tolerate high performance training.
For me, I didn't really start endurance training until I was 18, and not even then really seriously until I was 19. And then I only started triathlon training when I was 23. And I didn't really even come in with a background in any of the three sports. So I had to learn three sports and develop proficiency in them. Plus I also then needed to develop proficiency is the specific sport of triathlon - not just swimming and biking and running but also swimming then biking then running. That takes time. That's why, with longer endurance sports, you see higher level performances from older guys. You lose your top end speed, but you gain reserves from years and years and miles and miles. That's why marathon runners tend to be older, generally speaking, than 5k and 10k runners. Every event in swimming is - by comparison - quite short, but even there, you tend to see slightly older athletes excelling at the 1500 vs the age of the typical 200 swimmer, but it's much more compressed. A marathon, by time is roughly 40x as long as the shortest "endurance" event - the 1500. Comparing the 200 to the 1500, you're looking at a something 7x as long. In cycling, the guys winning the grand tours are typically older as well, at least relative to the age at which guys might start winning classics races, though cycling is a bit more of a unique sport because there are multiple ways to "win" a grand tour - there's obviously the overall winner, but then you also typically have the best sprinter who isn't really in competition for overall time. But pretty much across the board in endurance sports, the longer it gets, the older the winners are. And even the shortest triathlon is still quite long, hence the reason that you don't have the same sort of precocious upstart teenager winning all the big races.
So I think it's a combination of things. Part of it is the somewhat haphazard career arc of many pros. But even among pros with very typical career arcs, they still have to obey the laws of physiology which dictate that it takes a very long time to develop the capacity and reserves to race well for a really long time. Certainly some people are biased one way or the other. I became quite good at Ironman racing relatively quickly, but I also had a clear physiological bias towards it. Likewise, so folks with years and years of training under their belts never find their groove at Ironman, but these are often guys who tended to excel at the speedier races. So it cuts both ways. You see a lot of folks that just assume when the more pure speedsters go long that they will dominate, but that's true less often rather than more often.
And I think that also plays into why it's hard to find a "face of triathlon," especially at the longer distance, and especially in the US. What other sport is the marquee player a guy in his mid-30s? I can't think of any. I think people - definitely in the US, but maybe elsewhere - are drawn to the brash upstart who has the loads of talent but who has to harness is to realize his full potential. That makes for great drama. Add in the fact that triathlon - especially Ironman racing - is not super dramatic to begin with in terms of highlight-worthy moments, and I think you just don't have a sport that really lends itself to creating the same sort of superstars. Macca really followed that paradigm - as you saw by his epic explosions in Hawaii before he finally nailed in 2006 coming second and then winning the following year, but he came in as a guy who had won every short course race under the sun. And he had the ego and personality to match. That's a rare combo. You can't just create another Macca. Crowie was also a very special case. He was a guy who really - for most of his career - wasn't really that good. I mean, he was good, but he wasn't a guy who won the big races. Until he won Lifetime Fitness in 2005 and took home that huge paycheck, and it sort of flipped this switch. Before that race, he almost certainly lost more races than he won. After it, he won more than he lost, including becoming probably the best long distance triathlete of all time winning five world titles (two at 70.3, three at Ironman). And Chrissie was just Chrissie. What do you say about someone who never, ever lost an Ironman race? So I think we were lucky to have all three - for a while there - racing at the same time. But that's pretty rare. That's like Magic, Byrd, Isaiah, and MJ playing basketball all at the same time. It happened, was amazing, and then it was over. And then you didn't really have another period like that until maybe recently with LeBron, Kobe, and Tim Duncan all playing. You have these periods where you have dynasties - and Macca, Crowie, and Chrissie were all dynasty-type athletes - but then those periods go away. Look at Tiger's period of dominance in golf. In some ways, he was the harbinger of his own downfall. Because he raised the bar, and then guys rise to meet it, and it becomes even that much harder to separate yourself.
Normann Stadler really raised the bar on the bike for everyone at Ironman. And then I think Macca and Crowie raised it as complete athletes. Chrissie raised it across the board, but really especially on the run. Look at all the women running sub-3:00 now. It's astonishing. So there's less margin now than there was. Everyone is better as a result of these athletes. But that also makes it harder to have an athlete who stands out and stands above. My honest opinion is that unless or until either Javier or Alistair makes the jump to Ironman, there isn't go to be a "face of the sport." And neither of those guys is American. Triathlon is probably always going to face an uphill battle for acceptance. Cycling and swimming were both "fringe" until Lance and Phelps, respectively, but the vast majority of people at least know how to ride a bike and know how to swim. And even those that don't at least understand the sport. Triathlon is inevitably more complex. But I don't see that as a problem. It's just a reality that I think you can either view as an opportunity or a limitation. I don't think triathlon needs to appeal to the masses. I think it only needs to appeal to active and potential triathletes. And I'm not even sure you need - or even want - a "face" for the sport to do that.
BWG: One of the consequences of training for triathlons(especially IM distance) is a lot of time spent out on the road on your bike, which means - for better or worse - a lot of time spent interacting with vehicles. In 2010, you were in a severe bike wreck caused by an inattentive hit & run driver, a wreck that put you in the ICU and might have been fatal if it weren't for a passing Navy sailor who helped keep a cut to your jugular from bleeding out. Could you describe how that wreck has shaped your interactions with vehicles as a cyclist and/or your interactions with cyclists when you're driving?
JR: It's made me a lot more cautious. Where I ride. How I ride. When I ride. Everything. I stick mostly to rides Northwest of my house - which is mostly orange groves and avocado orchards - now, much less vehicle traffic. Really just farmers on farm roads. I rarely ride the "typical" routes for greater LA - the Santa Monica Mountains. The Santa Monicas are beautiful, but there is much more traffic, way more in the way of blind curves, and very little shoulder. I do a lot of really boring routes - looping over the same section of "safe" road over and over and over. Safety is really my primary priority, and safety really means, to me, where am I going to see the least cars. Obviously a challenge in car-centric LA (though technically, I live just inside the Ventura County line...), but I think I do pretty well. I also ride with flashing lights all the time. And not like those little piece of shit blinker lights that use alkaline batteries. Those are okay at night, but they just aren't visible during the day. I have a bunch of lights - and I'm always looking for new ones - that use high power LEDs and high capacity battery packs, and they are visible - in the middle of the day, in direct sun, from roughly 1-2mi away. That's real visibility. I'm also much more particular about where I ride my tri bike (as opposed to my road bike). When you are in the aerobars, you are less visible, your sightline is reduced, your hands are away from the brakes, and you are usually going faster. Those are all things to be concerned. I try to only use my tri bike for very specific sessions, and I have one or two routes that I know are "safe" (enough) for that bike, and that's the only place I ride it. If I want to explore or relax or just have a bit more fun, I ride my road bike. I'm also very hardline about obeying traffic signs - and at yelling at cyclists who do not. But at some level, it definitely took a lot of enjoyment from my cycling. Will I keep riding my bike once I stop racing? Probably not. I think I'll ride a bike, just probably a mountain bike. I enjoy riding, but I'm also always a little bit nervous. And I deal with close calls very poorly. Like, if a car buzzes me, that freaks me out for at least the rest of the day, sometimes more. I love being on my bike, but I am definitely more aware than I used to be, and that's a stress. Not enough to keep me off it, but at some point, I think it will be. But the bike advocacy in this country gives me some hope. The fact that the 3-foot passing law was defeated - twice - in California and then came back and passed is huge. But, on the flipside, not only do most drivers not know about it, many law enforcement officials don't either. The laws in our country are just geared around driving, and they are not geared around cycling. There was a disturbing - but true - article on Vice that said, roughly, "if you want to kill someone, just hit them with your car and make people believe it was an accident." That's the great irony of my own accident. Really, the law probably wouldn't have done much to the guy who hit me. It was only that he hit-and-ran that was really bad. There are some stunning accounts contrasting cyclist-vs-driver in the US and the Netherlands, which is probably the most bike friendly country on earth. In the US, it's assumed it's not the drivers "fault," or even if it is, there's not much that can be done. Distracted driver laws are still rare, and even more rarely enforced. In the Netherlands, it's assumed it's the drivers fault, and the onus is on the driver to convince the police that it was the cyclist's fault if he wants to escape punishment. Even in a case of "no fault" - where it truly was just an accident - the driver is liable. The only way he's not is if the cyclist broke the law - for example, if the cyclist ran a red light and was hit, then yes, the cyclist is at fault. But it's just a different mentality. Even the way we talk about it in the US - "a car hit a cyclist," like the car operates on its own. That's true universally - "a car accident" as opposed to a "driver accident." Tom Vanderbilt's seminal work "Traffic" really should be must reading for any cyclist, though it may keep you off the roads for a bit... Americans have a very strange and passionate affair with their cars. And bikes are just seen as an obstacle to that. But that was always the case. And I do think it's important to be aware of that. As Dan Empfield said to me when I was working to get back on the bike, "the roads aren't any more dangerous; you're just aware now of how dangerous they've always been." And I think that's scary. But I also think it keeps me safe.
BWG: I'm glad you brought up Gomez & the Brownlee brothers as I was just about to ask about them. It seems as though 2 of the 3 are on the podium at nearly every ITU race, which is impressive considering the razor-thin margin of error in the ITU Olympic-distance events. I would think at least 1 or 2 of them would make the jump to Ironman events eventually, but they're probably making solid money on the ITU circuit as it is. Do you think any of the 3 is seriously contemplating making the move to Ironman distance, and if so how do you think they would fare?
JR: Short answer is no - I don't think any of the three are seriously considering Ironman. I think Javier will continue to dabble in 70.3 to the extent that he continues to feel he can just "race up" without altering his training, and the Brownlees may do likewise, but you simply cannot do that with Ironman. A 70.3 is really like a "long Olympic" in terms of pacing and nutrition. But Ironman is not. Do I think that some/all will move to Ironman eventually? Possible. But I can also see them moving - like Greg Bennett - to the 70.3 distance to close out their career. If they decided to do Ironman with a focus, I would expect that they'd do very well. I think the biggest question mark - especially for Alistair - would be the pacing aspect. Alistair likes to race hard from the gun for the whole race. You can't race Ironman that way. Could he hold back and still enjoy himself? That's a question for him. And maybe he doesn't even know the answer. Javier seems to be more content to be patient, so I think he seems - mentally - more suited to longer racing than the brothers Brownlee. Javier will race 70.3 World Champs this year. If he wins and decides to race Kona in 2015, I would say - automatically - he is the clear favorite to win. But I think he has his eyes set on a gold medal in Rio much more.
BWG: When explaining the sport of triathlon to people who haven't done it, I often have a difficult time relating to them what's so impressive about pro triathletes' performances without delving into relatively obscure topics like normalized power. For the casual observer, it easy to see why a guy like Lebron is amazing without knowing that much about basketball. Do you have an easier way to give the casual observer some perspective on why pro triathletes are impressive athletes?
JR: But I don't know that I have an easier time now explaining precisely what it is that I do that's "impressive." I often wish I had a good party trick. There was this great video someone posted of a high jumper at the OTC jumping over people at a party. That's a good trick. Track and field athletes all have good party skills. Like jumping or throwing stuff or running really fast. In general, any single sport athlete has something that's relatively easily demonstrable. People understand being really good at one sport. And, I think, they understand the breadth of skill required to be good at something like the decathlon, where again, the events are quite short. The only sport I can think of that maybe has a harder time explaining itself is Modern Pentathlon. I'm quite glad that I don't have to explain that I run, swim, shoot a pistol, fence, and ride a horse. But at least shooting and fencing are good party tricks. Me? I can swim, bike, and run kind of fast for a REALLY long time. "Hey everyone, hang out right here, I'll be back in eight hours..." I think the hardest part of it is really that the biggest difference between triathlon and other "-thlon" sports is that those are distinct events. Decathlon, really, is 10 different sports. Modern Pentathlon is five different sports. Triathlon is not really three different sports; it's a single sport made up of three disciplines. What I mean is that with those other "-thlons," you do something, and then you take a break, and then you do something else. It's not like if you throw the javelin too far that it is going to impact your pole vault. Or that if you fence too well, it might impact your horse riding. It's distinct tests of a very diverse skillset. It's incredibly challenging - no more or less challenging, I don't think, than triathlon, but it's challenging in a different way. Triathlon is a single continuous event, and even the transitions between events are critical. And you have to manage your effort both within the context of a given discipline and within the context of the overall race. How hard can you swim for 2.4 miles (or 1.2mi or 0.9)? How hard can you swim for that distance with a whole bunch of other people around you and with group dynamics being of huge importance in the water while also knowing that you then need to bike and after that you need to run? So I think the management of one's self and one's reserves and also being aware of your own skills is really important. And I think it's also unique within sport. You have to perform in three almost totally distinct (they share the element of all being endurance-based) activities, in immediate succession, and your performance is not only absolutely cumulative (it's swim time + bike time + run time = finish time) but your performance is also relatively cumulative in the sense that where you finish the swim often has a very real impact on how well you can do on the bike which then impacts your run because you have competitors around you that can impact your race (in non-draft racing like Ironman) and absolutely impact your race (in draft-legal format like The Olympics). I think people appreciate mainstream sports like baseball or basketball that some guys are great fielders but not great hitters, or great shooters but not great defenders; those skills are absolutely distinct. What's unique about triathlon is that you face all the same challenges but don't have any teammates to fill the gaps. And there's no stopping or substitutions or any of that. It's like playing a team sport only you are the whole team (and the coach, at least on gameday), and you have to manage all your players - which are your different skills - so that you come out ahead. I think what people appreciate most about a guy like LeBron or Tim Duncan is that they are able to do it all. To manage both ends of the floor. That's a necessity in triathlon. There is no other way to be good. I think if you look at triathlon in that way, it's easier for someone who might not understand the sport in depth to appreciate high level performance in triathlon. But it definitely suffers from not being a "highlight reel" sport (in general); it's more like being a ground ball pitcher - consistency comes out ahead. Maybe as sports analytics continues to grow in importance and popular acceptance, more folks will appreciate triathlon. It's definitely more impressive from a numbers perspective than from a "holy shit did you see that?!" perspective. But who would have thought that something like WHIP would have become common knowledge? People are more into that sort of thing now (thanks to Moneyball), and I think that makes explaining triathlon easier as well. People appreciate in-depth stats and analysis more now.
BWG: One of the aspects of triathlons many participants enjoy is the proximity they get to the pros. I'll never be able to shoot hoops with Kevin Durant or have a catch with Troy Aikman, but I can walk up to a pro on race morning & wish them good luck, see them riding/running on the course(as they lap me), and generally have a greater level of access to the elites than I can in most any other sport. If you could, I'd like your perspective on the other end of that interaction and give people some tips for how to interact with the pros.
JR: I susppose that might be the other big difference between the ITU and Ironman. Not that ITU guys and girls aren't approachable, but the race format is less approachable, which has it plusses minuses. Overall, I think that - at least for long course - is the key to the future growth of triathlon. It's not trying to turn it into a spectator sport, which I think it will never be. But I think if we can do more with the shared participatory nature of the sport, I think there's a lot more opportunity than is currently realized. I think both pros and races can benefit more. Because - as you said - it's the thing that is probably most special about Ironman - we are all out there on the same roads suffering together. And, in general, I think triathlon pros are really a lot more like the typical age-grouper in many other ways as well, much more so than say a typical elite marathoner is similar to an average marathoner. Some of this is because the level of ability really spans a wide range. There are guys who choose to race age-group who could be pro, and guys who race pro who could continue to race age-group, and so there isn't this very distinct line of ability. Further, I think a lot of pros struggle with a lot of the same things age-groupers do - having a family for instance. A lot of pros are married and quite a few have kids. I can't speak with any authority about other sports, but I think there's a definant "normalcy" about most long-course pros, some of which is simply a function of the fact that we are older, as I touched on earlier. But some of it is simply the nature of the sport. And some of it is sort of what has become the nature of the sport. This has it downsides too. I think there are a lot of folks - myself included - who could probably use more regular doses of the exclusive, solitary focus that I think you see more regularly in single sport athletes. I think there's a lot of good that comes from that. And I try to make sure that I take those periods of absolute focus. But I chose to have a family - and it was a choice - and so I can't live that 24/7-365. And I think age-groupers can relate to that, because the time commitment for many of them to do Ironman requires with their work a pretty solitary focus for periods. So there's some understanding of that balance that is shared. And, I also think that triathlon is both simpler and more mental than some other sports. What I mean is that LeBron might not be the best guy to help you work your jump shot even if you did have access to him. Or Tiger wouldn't be the guy to see for putting advice. For two reasons - one, they are remarkably gifted in motor skills, which I think is much harder to translate than being remarkably gifted in endurance. LeBron can just do things that you can't. There's no way to - practically - do half a tomahawk dunk. But swimming, biking, and running - especially in Ironman - are relatively simple by comparison (except swimming), and really most of triathlon is pacing, which is easy to teach. My workouts look pretty similar to an age-group triathlete's workouts. Just faster pace. That's easy to correlate. I don't think you can do that in the same way with "skill sports." Skill is much harder to "scale" than pace is. The second is that I don't know that most of those guys think quite as much as to "how" they do things. Like if you asked LeBron, "How do you shoot a jumper?" does he even know? We are generally very poor observers of our own technique (c.f. swimming for the prime triathlon example). But I think most pro triathletes have a much clearer idea of how, for example, they pace for an Ironman. Some don't - "It just feels like what I can do for a marathon." But there again, because pacing is much simpler and - generally - more mathematic, it's easier to say, "I pace at 75% of my critical power/pace." So all those things make my racing much more like your racing than LeBron's game against the Spurs is like your local game of 3-on-3. So not only am I more accessible than LeBron, I probably actually have more useful insights into how to help you with your racing than he has insights to help you with your hoops game. So that combination is really - I think - what makes triathlon and the relationship between age-groupers and pros so special. And - I think - opens the door for the future of how the sport grows. Using pros as models for success and as standard bearers for the sport, rather than as spectacles.
BWG: Finally, tell me the truth. Body Glide: great invention or GREATEST invention?
JR: I don't know about BodyGlide in particular, but I'd have quit the sport a long time ago if not for "personal lubricants." I consider myself a connoisseur and have quite the collection, BodyGlide included...
So there you have it, nearly 7800 words on a sport most Longhorn fans don't pay much attention to. Hopefully you found some of this enlightening, entertaining, and interesting enough to check out triathlon a little closer the next time you see it on TV.