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The Rise of Triathlon
Year the first race was staged, in San Diego
Year triathlon debuted as an Olympic sport
Races USA Triathlon sanctions each year
Millions of people who raced a tri in 2010
Triathletes who competed in two or more events in 2010 (compared with 140,000 who ran two or more marathons)
AFTER RETIRING from an 11-year career in the major leagues, outfielder Eric Byrnes entered his first triathlon on a whim. In the summer of 2010, just three months after hanging up his glove, Byrnes was convinced by friends that two weeks of training was enough to get ready for the Olympic-distance Triathlon at Pacific Grove, near Monterey, California. His plan was to swim in a surfing wetsuit and bike on a beach cruiser.
The way Byrnes tells it, he nearly drowned in the ocean, got crushed during the bike portion, then ran a couple good miles to finish 21st out of 44 in his age group—and dead last among his friends.
“I looked at them and said, ‘That’s the last time any of you will ever beat me,’ ” says Byrnes, now a broadcaster for the MLB Network. He bought a tri bike the next day and barely a year later completed his first Ironman, in Arizona. “I’m just in love with it now,” he says.
Byrnes is one of many high-profile converts. Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, and TV chefs Joe Bastianich and Rocco DiSpirito all recently began competing in triathlons. Indy-car driver Tony Kanaan says the cross-training helps his focus. MMA fighter Nick Diaz and former NFL defensive end Coleman Rudolph both race regularly for fun. Together they are part of an estimated 2.3 million people in the United States who participated in a tri in 2010, a 55 percent increase over 2009.
“It’s unlike any other racing,” says Rob Urbach, CEO of USA Triathlon (USAT), the sport’s governing body in the United States, which has seen membership increase an astounding 557 percent in the past ten years. “There’s something about the three sports combined that’s transformational.”
The surging numbers derive partly from the fact that triathlon has maintained its mystique even while becoming so much more accessible. “It was the intrigue of the unknown,” says Byrnes of his initial interest. (He’s since become obsessed with the details: swim technique, transition tactics, race strategies.)
More powerful still is the allure of truly balanced, enduring fitness. Joe Friel, author of The Triathlete’s Training Bible and a former runner who turned to triathlon to help him recover from various injuries, believes multisport training leads to the kind of lean, strong body that nearly all athletes seek. “The risk of burnout and injury are diminished because it encourages people to do so many different things,” he says.
According to Matt Dixon, owner of Purplepatch Fitness (see The Outside Challenge), cross-training imparts far more balanced fitness benefits than single-sport workouts do. “You can expect body composition improvements and increased cardiorespiratory health,” he adds.
For many athletes, a first triathlon soon turns into a way of life. Take Matt Lieto, who as a 20-year-old college student was 75 pounds overweight. Then he watched his older brother, pro triathlete Chris Lieto, compete in the Ironman World Championship in 1998. He was amazed by the competitors’ “energy and enthusiasm and lust for life,” he says. Lieto started racing himself and within 18 months went from a self-described “slob” to consistently placing in the top ten at events. Now a pro himself, he still recalls his first race, California’s Wildflower Triathlon, as a life changer. “I was full of joy and energy that whole day,” he recalls. “I had never experienced anything like it.”
USAT’s Urbach has heard it before. “Not everyone can remember their first running race,” he says. “But everyone remembers their first triathlon.”