Culture of Triathlon vs Running Culture

If you come to triathlon the way most of us do, through running, you might get a big ‘ol smack in the face when you get to the start line of your first triathlon. Sure they chat at the start line, you almost have to since you’re there way longer but the chats are different. Really different! Now I don’t want to offend anyone but this isn’t exactly a funny post either. Lining up for your first triathlon is intimidating enough on it’s own. I’m writing this not to discourage you or throw shade but just so you know what to expect and why it really doesn’t matter at all. Read on for particulars but you’re average triathlete takes themselves WAY MORE (too?) seriously and spoiler alert you’re going to finish in front of lots of them!



Holy bikes Batman. I was first a serious mountain biker, then a not at all serious triathlete and now not all that serious runner and occasional triathlete. Back in my day (read 1998) we bought bikes by reading and memorizing the technical specs of every catalogue for every bike manufacturer around. Lots of that stuck with me and I still stop short in traffic for a couple of sweet rides on a rack. I also can see through a lot of flash for a cheap special that just looks rad. When I walked up to the sprint rack at my first sprint, that’s right only the sprint rack, I was gobsmacked. And I don’t use the word gobsmacked, like ever. It was $5000 dollar bike after $5000 bike and I doubt 15% of them weighed over 20 lbs. Wait for it I walked up with that mountain bike at 33 lbs from 1998! It was like roady-weighty nirvana!  All the pedals were titanium and most clip-less, half had tri-wheels and virtually all had aero bars. Most of the helmets on the seats had fins. What had I gotten myself into? One other man didn’t have a wet-suit and about 25% of the pedals had shoes already clipped to them, nice shoes! Here I was rolling up with my entry Garneau helmet, my mountain bike and an old speedo that I had sharpie-d out the word “lifegaurd” on.

My first thought wasn’t these people are nuts but rather oh crap! These are all serious riders and swimmers. There is no one else here that’s just doing this for fun, they’re all trained elites! I didn’t do well by any stretch of the imagination but I didn’t come close to last and I had only registered on a whim ONE whole week before. I thought I’ll get through it on my tried and true steed, the water temperature is almost 20 degrees Celsius this time of year (70 f), slip on a shirt, shorts and I’ll run in the out fit I ride in. I did by goggles which broke as I hit the water and bathing cap because it was cheap but that’s it. I mean after all I wasn’t going to win! Walking up that all of a sudden seamed nuts. But it wasn’t I made it through just like I planned and what limited me was my training and well maybe my heavy bike.

Screen Shot 2015-12-27 at 1.45.59 PM
no training, no wetsuit and a heavy mountain bike. I still made it through my first sprint and didn’t finish last!

Triathlon is a gear driven sport way more than running and way more than it needs to be. There is a keeping up with the jones’ element to this one and like the car parked in the driveway this time it’s at the racks. Since then I bought a entry level used road bike and a shorty wetsuit I found at a used clothing store because why not? With some realistic triathlon training now I do alright I’ve even placed 4th in my age group out of a field of over 30! Runners however are pride themselves on the fact it’s at least in theory a cheap sport. Even if that’s not totally true it’s still in our culture. All you need is a pair of sneakers right? Don’t let this freak you out like any sport it’s the athletes that makes the winner and no amount of gear is going to help. Check out this post on what you really need to spend to participate. Like my grandma used to say “a fool and their money are easily separated” only she said it in Polish.

Competition’s on!

At a running race you’re likely to hear “just finish strong, before the van comes around at the end or meh I’m not even looking to P.R. today” when you ask about goals for a race. You’re just as likely to hear it from a seasoned elite as a beginner runner. We all line up together and get the same medal anyway and running culture prides itself on equality and celebrates when a relative unknown beats the elites at a major race. Ask the same question at a triathlon and everyone has a specific answer and really weird follow up answers like “well my try coach says” and “It’s going to be a PR I logged over 1200 kn this training cycle. You’ll also find that triathlon training plans usually have you training TWICE A DAY! That’s nuts to you too right? Here’s a link to the realistic ones for normal people I wrote. The number one piece of advise out there for dealing with the swim is not to dive in with the pack and hang back 10 seconds, literally no one there is going to do that, but you totally can. Are runners just a Buch of lazies, nah we have goals too it’s just not in our nature to cop to it. When you line up for your first triathlon expect to hear a lot of intense stuff. On another note expect over 10% of participants sometimes 20% to DNF, that’s right 1 in 10 of these super intense, competitive people won’t even finish the race.



Runners are by nature a modest bunch. We’ll say we have a race this weekend and less asked not say the distance we’re racing even if it’s a full. We say we have a race this weekend and don’t say it’s for charity. We don’t brag about or even remember the total distance we covered in training. We are likely to tell you we just signed up today and didn’t train then you find out that person came third! That doesn’t mean we don’t moan loudly about the distance of this weekend’s long run or complain about being tiered. But most of us don’t hire run coaches or admit it if we do and that’s just our vibe. At your triathlon most people will mention they train with a tri-club or have a dedicated coach. They’ll tell you you’re nuts for not having a tri suit or a wet suit. My childhood dentist was at one of mine and he still telling my sister I’m nuts three years later. I was REALLY intimidated at my first sprint and I sidled up next to a girl who was a little heavier in the sprint pack who was only wearing a shorty suit, she might be in my level right. Wrong! She had a coach, a club and the dive shop messed up her reservation and I had registered the week before! PS I beat her and a lot of other people that day too!

A few years ago I got invited to chaperone (I heard participate) in a ten year old girl’s zip lining  birthday party. One family of late comers was late because they we’re doing a triathlon. Cool right. Well … they were pretty smug about it. Every sentence out of mom and dad’s mouth was triathlon this and triathlon that, to the point it pulled all focus from the birthday girl! I asked what the distances were, 100 m swim, 2 km bike ride and a 1 k run … oh you mean a try-a-tri distance, cool. Mom wasn’t wearing her medal so I asked her where it was (dad was btw) turns out she decided not to participate at the last minute. Maybe you had to be there but it was a tad douchy and typical of the weird intensity traitlon people have.

But you know you’re not going to win right?

Have you ever lined of for a running race thinking there was a chance you might win? Neither have I! Yet we all still do it and admit it freely. Sure some of our family and friends don’t understand how you can compete and not compete to win but you know how that works as a runner. I find when I’m having these super intentse conversations with fellow triathletes I want to be like, “But you know you’re not going to win right?” literally the entire time! I know deep down they know it but wow do they take themselves seriously! I don’t really have that much more to say on the subject other than be prepared for this!

Not so simple stupid

Some of the rules for triathlon are really intense too! No leaving anything on the course is a great one but no outside pacing or support seems needlessly intense for people who aren’t going to win the race let alone do Kona. That means no music, no cheering, no you’re on track time wise from spectators or handing you anything and usually no drafting on the bike. There are other things too like where your second foot can land on you bike when you get on and where you must be on the ground by when you get off, temperature and wetsuit restrictions and thickness that must be considered and don’t get me started on transitions. Whew! That’s an intense list of don’ts! Maybe that’s what makes these kids so intense.

In a running race only the real keeners get there an hour before even if they haven’t picked up their bibs. At a triathlon especially your first showing up an hour before isn’t enough. You have to rack your bike (the ones closest to the lake went at dawn), get chipped and greased and lay out your transition area. It’s not as simple as a road race. This aspect is kind of intimidating too but for all the shade I’ve shown at triathlon people just ask someone for help they are nice fit, healthy people after all. Oh and one more thing, triathlons don’t usually give out finisher medals, sad face right?

After all that you finished behind me?

Now for all that intimidation and intensity you’re not going to finish last. Just like there are elite runners, fast runners, average runners and slow runners the same is true of triathletes. Perhaps they just don’t know (or want to admit) that. If you’ve trained or in my case didn’t and ride your mountain bike you still won’t finish last. A used or borrowed road bike is more than fine and if you really do have a natural, god-given talent for the sport you’ll be able to find that out without a wet suit, on an entry level road bike and in shorts and not a tri-suit! If you get close to winning one maybe then go all in on gear but until then…. Just be comfortable being you, with the gear you want and can afford and smirk sweetly at the intensity while you just have a great time. That’s what I do!


If you’ve crossed over to triathlon did you experience culture shock when you got there? If you’re a seasoned vet do I have it all wrong or can you shed some light on the reasons behind all this?

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