Thursday, September 13, 2018

Triathlon on a "budget" - why you need to be realistic

riathlon, or multi sport in general, is in a tough spot. Smaller races are losing numbers, causing events to cancel, smaller race companies are leaving the market, or pivoting to things akin to Spartan or OCR, or ultra trail runs, that cover adverse terrain in the hopes of staying relevant. Simultaneously, the Ironman company is selling out its events at a steady clip, and show no sign of making the entry more user friendly. In fact, the cost of the precious "I-dot" races continues to go up every year, for both the 70.3 and full distance. Caught somewhere in the middle, unsurprisingly, are the athletes. Let me be more specific. The athletes who want to do an Ironman branded event, with a family, or who don't have the same disposable income as say their peers, are in a tough spot.
There was a time, and I'm dating myself here, when you could do a 70.3 without breaking the bank. You could also qualify for Kona at events like Ironhorse, in Springfield, IL, the former Mrs. T's Olympic distance triathlon in Chicago, (it's where I got my slot in 1994) as well as other Olympic distances like the Wilkes-Barre Tri. I am not sure how well a fast Olympic distance finish fared at Ironman, but I had enough sense to pass at the time. And if you don't care about the I-dot, you still can. Some race companies, HFP, 3Discipines, American Multisport , still host 70.3 distance events, and do a pretty nice job in the process. But the road to the World Championships don't go through those events, so they don't get near the attention they should.
Whatdo veterans or newbies do? They are now bombarded by some rather conflicting, and in some cases, just flat out wrong advice. I was alerted to the fact that "experts" (remember when that title actually meant something?) who are all over the inter-webs telling you that you can do well in a triathlon, on the cheap. Or, on a budget.
Let's be clear, even Jeff Bezos would have a budget if he chose to do Ironman. His "budget" just looks a lot different than say the local cashier at Whole Foods. So I don't like the notion of using that word. But that aside, some that would have you believe that its a conspiracy between bike manufacturers, wheel manufacturers, wetsuit companies, etc, etc, to get you to spend thousands of dollars to do a local tri. As someone who takes great issue with the price of things related to this sport, I can say with certainty, there's no conspiracy. Last I checked, this is still America, and you aren't being forced to buy anything. So please, stop with the conspiracy talk. Now, with that said, let me answer the question, "can I do a triathlon without spending, say 2k, or 1500 dollars?" The answer is yes. Depending solely on your goals. Let me explain.
If you are new to the sport, and I mean haven't done one race yet, haven't trained with a plan of any kind, I mean brand new, then I suggest not investing a ton of money into something you may not like. That's more common sense than anything. If you are doing it for a charity, or because your friends are doing it, or whatever your "why", pick a short race, close to home, consider borrowing a bike or use the one you currently have, spend some time learning to swim well, follow a plan, and go have fun. You can rent a wetsuit if you want. Even by doing it this way, your still looking at a 500 dollar investment, not including any health club/pool fees. It also doesn't include your sweat equity, the amount of time you will spend preparing for the race. That has a dollar amount attached to it, perhaps not as cut and dry, but your time is worth something. At the end of the event, you will get a pretty good sense whether this is something you want to continue to pursue, or simply check it off your bucket list and move on.
However, if you plan on continuing, even as a recreational athlete, you will have to make some investments to ensure safety more than speed. A decent bike, one that you can put some miles on, and count on not falling apart after 10-15 rides, you are looking at spending 500-800 dollars. That's low end, but they are worth the money. Look, even if you are only planning on racing 3-4 times a year, you figure you will be riding 2-3 days a week, most likely outside, so you want durable, lightish weight and reliable. I know what some "experts" say, "well if you weigh 200 lbs, and the bike weighs 40 lbs, what does it matter? Do you really need a 20 lb bike?" You're the only one who can answer than, but I will say, its pretty easy math - 20 lbs is less than 40. Carrying less weight over time is easier. And if you are going to be racing more than once a year, yes, its worth the investment. Odds are,the 20 lb bike is made with better materials, designed to withstand the rigors of a couple rides a week, plus your races. Not to mention, it makes riding enjoyable. Go to your local bike shop. Talk to the people who work there. Get to know them. They are going to be more helpful than you can imagine. And if it feels like you're being over-sold, walk out. It really is that simple.
The rest of your gear, and the investment that is required, is entirely up to you. Do you want your feet to hurt every time you run? No? Then buy shoes that are designed for running. (I would also argue you should learn how to run, but a topic for another day) Wetsuit? Even with a few races a year, its probably an investment worth making. Like all things, if you treat it right, it will treat you right. Wetsuits do matter. They make a difference. Does that mean you need a 1000 dollar wetsuit? Probably not. But don't skimp on the things that actually help and make the sport more enjoyable. I'll go back to my bike example - is swimming without a wetsuit in open water possible? Yes. Is it easier with a wetsuit? Yes. The top athletes wear them for a reason. And its not about being sponsored. If it didn't provide an advantage, they wouldn't be used.
Wheels. Do aero/lighter rims help. Yes. Do you need them. If you are not planning on racing long distance, or you aren't planning on racing more than a few times a year, you probably don't. But great news if you're on the fence, you can rent them. Like the wetsuit. All the other gadgets, GPS, power meters, etc, etc, start by spending money on a comfortable pair of tri shorts and tri top. Don't train in the often. Keep them in good condition. You don't want a tri top choking you on race day.
So for the casual athlete, if you decide you like triathlon, but not enough to do it more than a few times a year, you're probably looking at a 1500-2000 dollar investment. In my opinion, money well spent. Not having a raw bottom every time you ride, and not carrying a piano with you every ride is worth it. And if you really want to enjoy it more, remember, you can always drop a few lbs, follow a structured plan, train with a bit of intensity and see where that takes you.
The above advice is for those who aren't looking to race often, or race long. Why? Well, if you are going to dive into the deep end right away, and I can't stress how bad of an idea that is, and do a 70.3 or full Ironman as your first race, its important to understand something. Simply getting your spot, plus booking a hotel, and travel accomodations, you will be anywhere from 1500-2500 dollars in the hole before you spend 5 minutes actually training for the race. At the rate those events sell out, you have to register almost a year to 9 months in advance, which means you have to book your hotel that early as well. Those prices aren't controlled by bike companies, or wheel companies. That's the Ironman brand. The investment you make after registering is really about how safe, comfortable and serious are you.
56 miles ona bike, or 112, you're going to want to be aero. But you're going to want to practice that, so you're going to have to invest in a tri/TT bike. Does it mean you need the lightest carbon bike on the market? No. But you do want something that fits right - this is where it helps to know your local bike shop - is relatively aero and reliable. Safety and comfort. Think 1500 dollars. Trying to make a DIY aero bar, or rear bottle cage, its simply not safe. Not just for you, but for those around you on race day. I'm not saying you should spend your kids tuition on a set up, but trying to strap a beer coozy to your saddle with duct tape in the hopes it will hold your 1000 calorie bottle isn't a great plan. Because when it shakes loose, its going to hit the same pavement your fellow athletes will be riding. Its a hazard. And you are now short a lot of necessary calories for your race. These "hacks" are exactly that - hacks. They aren't proven or safe. And let's be honest, if you dropped all that money to get in the race, do you really want to skimp on a rear bottle cage? Maybe you make your own coffee for a month instead of Starbucks. If it means enough to you, you'll do it.
I do want to add one critical thing. No amount of gadgetry will replace good, smart, training. You don't need a 15 lb bike when you know you could stand to lose a few lbs. You don't need a power meter when you have no clue how to use it, nor do you plan on taking the time to do so. But folks, some things, well, yeah, you have to pay the freight.
I also want to make it clear that I don't consider myself an expert. I've been in this sport for the better part of 25 years, on and off. I've witnessed its evolution, or evolutions, the products, the hottest new thing to gain you 1 minute over 112, and nothing beats hard work. But if you are going to spend the dough to go long, be smart about your investment in yourself. Talk to people at your local bike shop, tri shop, running shoe store. Get to know them. They too have seen a lot. They do want to help. But please stop with telling people they can do an Ironman on a 300 dollar bike and get the same results as someone on a 3000 dollar bike. Don't let the "hacks" get in the way of common sense.