The appeal of long-distance triathlon

We investigate why more and more triathletes are going long for their first race



by Julie-Anne Ryan

challenge roth triathlon
Long-distance event Challenge Roth

Once upon a time long-distance triathlon was seen as something of a grail, holy or unholy, depending on how you felt about a 140-mile race. It was the preserve of the experienced, the specialists and, maybe, the slightly unhinged. Not any more.
 
Now it is perfectly normal for new triathletes to choose a long-distance race as their debut event.  Blame Chrissie Wellington. This remarkable woman has proved an outstanding role model, not just in terms of her world-beating ability, but also because of her boundless warmth and exuberance, and her tireless support for all triathletes at every event she attends.

For many, the seemingly unstoppable Wellington has become the smiling face of endurance sport, and the inspiration she provides could be one of the reasons why long-distance events are no longer seen as an unattainable goal for newcomers.

Planning ahead

So what's going to happen further down the line? If more and more people are setting their sights on long-distance  racing as soon as they get a whiff of neoprene or a hankering for race wheels, what's going to happen to the shorter distances on which triathletes usually cut their teeth?

The logical conclusion is that in years to come some of the most talented young triathletes might decide to leapfrog Olympic-distance races and head straight for the 140-mile challenge straight out of school.

Brownlee's ambitions

Alistair Brownlee, who at 23 has already been ITU World Champion at junior, under 23 and senior level at Olympic distance, is among those who plan to go long in the future.

"Definitely. I am looking forward to trying some different distances and events - once the London Olympics and, perhaps, the 2016 Games are behind me. But it's still a long way off and I have no idea what I will be doing in five to 10 years' time."

Brownlee believes that anything that increases the popularity and exposure of the sport is a good thing. "However, having lots of different events with their associated titles can make it confusing and possibly devalues the individual events. I don't know how it will shape the sport in years to come but it is a shame there are conflicts within the sport because there isn't the exposure or athletes to spread around."

Doing what makes sense

Long-distance triathlete Jenny Gowans, 35, is part of Team Freespeed. A winner of the Norseman and a multiple age-group Ironman winner, she believes the rise in popularity of long-distance events won't have an impact on the strength of competition at Olympic distance:

"I think athletes need to be in different shape to be good at the different distances - especially if you are talking about someone coming into triathlon at a younger age. Also, most of the bright young things are coming through a pretty controlled development in either triathlon or one of the other disciplines and so they will be fed into shorter racing, initially.

I think it is very hard for anyone to jump onto the long-distance stage and instantly be very good - long-distance racing does require a certain amount of specific training so there needs to be some element of higher volume involved."

Gowans believes that there must be a conscious decision to pursue longer racing, and that the planning involved means elite athletes have chosen the race distance that best suits them.

Age-group racing

"On the other hand I think it [the appeal of long distance] has more impact on amateur and age-group racing. Long-distance racing has become the new marathon, something people want to be part of. I think this has meant a huge number of new triathletes have gone straight to long distance and don't experience what shorter distance races can offer.

On the next page: 
Discover the training demands of going long and the impact on the club culture.


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