You've devoted untold hours to training; you've probably spent far too much money on a bike; you may have squeezed your newly toned body into some bright and potentially unflattering Lycra; and, with a little luck and a lot of determination, you've achieved your goal - completing a triathlon. And then another.
But now something's not quite right. There's an itch that hasn't been scratched to your satisfaction. You're wondering could you have gone any faster, trained harder, perhaps overtaken the guy riding the shopping bike with the buckled wheels. How good could you be, you wonder, if you carried on training. Good enough to represent your country? If you're going to tri, you may as well try hard.
One of the (many) great things about triathlon is its age-group structure. However old you are, triathlon gives you the opportunity to compete against other athletes of a similar vintage. This means you can race for your country whether you're 25 or 85 without being a full-time, professional athlete. And it may not be as hard to qualify as you probably think it is.
British Triathlon takes teams to a range of European and World Championship events, including duathlon, aquathlon, cross triathlon, sprint and long-distance triathlon. For most of these events, Great Britain can enter up to 20 men and 20 women for each five-year age-group band. In other words, there are plenty of opportunities to don a GB tri suit.
"We can take teams in excess of 1,000 people to Triathlon World Championship events," says Howard Vine, director of Age Group Teams with British Triathlon.
Such an event can be the highlight of a triathlete's year. Richard Dunbabin took part in the World Sprint Triathlon Championships in Hamburg in 2007 and in Vancouver in 2008, where he finished sixth in the 50-54 age group. "I love the buzz of the big event, meeting people afflicted by the same triathlon madness as myself and being pushed to be the best I can be," he says.
Variety is the spice
You may already be wondering how good you have to be to compete at international level. Unlike its constituent sports, progress in triathlon is hard to measure by comparing times over fixed distances. Every event is unique. Even if two races have exactly equivalent distances, they will most likely have different transition times, different terrain and be held in different weather conditions.
As a result there are no qualifying times in triathlon, as there are for age-group swimming championships, for example. Instead, you have to prove your worth in head-to-head competition at an official qualifying event (see below).
Some age groups and distances are more hotly contested than others. "For men, there's a lot of competition across all the age groups between 35 and 55, and it's particularly intense for the 35-39-year-olds," says Vine. "Unfortunately, we don't have the same levels of participation from women. While there are good levels of interest in the women's 35-39 and 40-44 age groups, we don't always fill all the available slots in other age bands. As for distance, the greatest demand is for Olympic-format races."
At the top, standards are high and improving, especially for Olympic-distance triathlons. Alan Rose, Event Director for Just Racing, organiser of several qualifier events, has been managing triathlons for nine years.
"There is no doubt competition is becoming increasingly intense. If an event we organise has World Championship-qualifying status, lots of entrants and fierce racing are guaranteed," he says. Vine agrees: "Twenty years ago, anyone who finished an Olympic-distance triathlon in two hours was a god. Now you see 50-year-olds doing it."
There are several factors behind these improving standards. "We see a lot of people coming into triathlon from other sports, and they have strong competitive backgrounds and high levels of fitness," says Rose. "Many more people are working with coaches, too, and this can make a huge difference, plus there's a lot of information out there now about how to train, eat and race. Finally, many people are now riding the kind of top-end bikes that would have been available only to professionals a few years ago."
There is a 'boys and toys' factor when it comes to kit - and women are by no means exempt in this area - but Rose has no doubt that having the right stuff can help you go faster, even when the benefits are mainly psychological.
So while it may be becoming tougher to qualify, there are still plenty of opportunities. Dunbabin, for example, completed his first triathlon at Blenheim in 2005. "I started running in my forties and ran the London Marathon five times, but then I became injured and was looking for something else," he says. "After the Blenheim Triathlon I was hooked."
Dunbabin sets aside 6-10 hours per week for training, occasionally pushing this to 13 hours. This consists, roughly, of one swim, two runs, three bike rides and one core-strength session in the gym. He fits all this into lunchtimes and evenings (he's not keen on training early in the morning) and ensures he has one rest day every week.
Top triathlon coach Ben Bright says, "Qualifying to compete for Great Britain is tough, and it's becoming tougher each year, but it's still an achievable goal for many triathletes if they're prepared to commit to a significant structured training load. I'd estimate at least 10 hours per week over 18 months, but this does depend on age, gender and prior fitness levels."
What keeps these athletes motivated? For Dunbabin it's the bike. "I'm new to cycling and learning things all the time. I'm still improving," he says. He also likes to keep fit and says this aspect becomes more important as he gets older. For others, it's simply the desire to become faster.
The money matter
The downside to becoming a Great Britain triathlete is the cost. Australia is hosting the 2009 Age Group World Championships in September. The flight and accommodation package isn't cheap and on top of that, competitors must pay entry fees, as well as forking out for race kit and anything else they may need for the event, such as a bike box.
Of course, there's no need to book the official package if you can make your own arrangements, and not all events are on the other side of the world. The 2007 World Championships took place in Hamburg and some competitors drove and stayed with friends, but event veterans would say most of the fun comes from travelling with the rest of the team.
Some athletes also manage to secure some funding. "We are happy for people to seek sponsorship," says Vine. "However, we do insist competitors make it clear they are racing as age-group triathletes rather than elites."
The key, according to Vine, is to be creative and ask the right people. Some companies sponsor their employees and it's always worth a chat with the owner of your local bike or running shop. "You rarely see big national companies sponsoring age-group athletes but you'd be surprised how many people do manage to raise something," says Vine.
Not everyone is comfortable asking for money. "I'm 50 years old and the managing director of a financial services firm," says Dunbabin. "I couldn't really ask for someone else to pay for what is essentially a jolly."
At the very least you'll end up using some of your holiday time travelling and competing, but some triathletes go one step further and rearrange their lives to fit in with the demands of the sport. Vine once took a year out of work specifically to train and qualify for the triathlon Age-Group World Championships. Peter Howard, currently competing in the 70-74 age group, has competed in every World Triathlon Championship since the first event in Avignon, in 1989, and he's won a host of medals in that time.
Some triathletes, including Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington and Long Distance World Champion (25-29) Dion Harrison, have used success at age-group events as a stepping stone to a professional triathlon career. (Harrison turned professional this year.)
Simply completing a triathlon might be enough, but if you want to know how good you are compared with other competitors, qualifying and racing for your country is a great way to find out. Great Britain usually sends strong teams to World and European Triathlon Championships. In 2008, British age-group athletes won 44 gold, 33 silver and 46 bronze medals at these events. You could be part of that team.
How to qualify
- Visit www.britishtriathlon.org and click the Age Group tab.
- Scroll down the page to find the event you wish to enter and follow the link.
- Qualification for most events is through defined qualifier races. These are listed. Enter these qualifier races as you would any other.
- You must register your intention with British Triathlon to qualify before the qualifier race (usually by 5pm of the Friday before the event). There is a small fee payable to register.
- Train hard, race harder and aim to come in the top four of your age group.
- Additionally, you pre-qualify if: you have won a World Championship medal or a European Championship gold medal in the same event and same age group the preceding year; you are the British national champion for that event and age group; you win the British Ranking Series.
- Long-course races have different entry procedures. Athletes need to demonstrate through their track record their ability to compete at the required level. See the British Triathlon website for more details.