#67: Did triathlon 'come back' this year?
issue #67: Dec. 27, 2023
This week’s issue is presented by:
All-sporters, sorry this is hitting you a little later today. It’s that weird week (at least here in the U.S.) between holidays where nothing happens and many many people don’t work and it’s a bit of a break. And so today’s final newsletter of 2023 is quick-ish and coming to you a little late.
Be sure to also check out our Q&A from this past weekend that went out to paying subscribers on if too much endurance training is bad for your mental health.
We already covered the best athletes, races, and performances of the year, and our most popular newsletters. I want to also thank everyone who’s supported or helped me out over this first year. When I left Triathlete one of the things that sucked was no more people to Slack random triathlon gossip to during the day. I don’t exactly have daily colleagues anymore, and sometimes my cats just don’t care about who said what to whom. And so I appreciate (almost) everyone who texts and Whatsapps and emails and Zooms and drinks with me now—all kinds of random tips, many of which never make it into this newsletter because I am not Page Six. And I appreciate all of the support from my partners this year and from all my subscribers.
With that, let’s wrap up 2023!
Did triathlon return this year?
People have short memories. This isn’t just true in triathlon, of course, it’s true everywhere. In some ways, I suppose, it’s a good thing: We adjust our baseline expectations and adapt to whatever the new order of things is; it keeps us flexible. But, obviously, if we always forget what’s happened before then we’ll constantly forget that we made this mistake already.
There’s a bit of a collective amnesia that’s hit tri during the pandemic. Some of it’s because new people found the sport right before COVID or they found it during, and lots of old people left the sport in the same time—and there were no groups really or clubs or local races, and so there wasn’t a continuity of institutional knowledge that got passed on. Some of it’s because there just weren’t races for so long that it’s hard to remember what the “normal” used to be, and triathlon is a sport fundamentally defined by its races. And some of it’s because “normal” is a made-up thing and there are some changes that have happened now that are never going to be unchanged.
The point of all of which is to say: Triathlon took a massive hit in 2020 and 2021, an industry-killing kind of hit. We all argued it was coming back in 2022, but in reality we lied. (OK, I didn’t lie, but the tenor with which a lot of industry people kept telling me at the beginning of 2022 that the sport was coming back sounded more like they were lying to themselves.) So, now, here we are at the end of 2023 and it’s probably the first year since 2019 that we saw anything close to old numbers. Close.
We won’t know for sure for a little bit—I’ll report back on the State of the Sport industry report out of USAT’s Endurance Exchange in two weeks—but looking at the prize money stats and RunningUSA’s race trends report and the participation numbers on some key races and the worlds champs data: Yeah, sure, the graphs are going in the direction you like to see. But, and this is a big but, it’s not clear if they’ll keep going in that direction or if the new charts will catch back up to the old charts (probably not soon). I think the jury’s still out on what’s normal now, which changes are here to stay.
I think the triathlon pipeline is still not rebuilt. We have a massive local, medium-sized races problem, especially here in the U.S. The big ones survived on cash reserves and deferred liabilities. The tiny ones simply closed up shop and some are now re-emerging to a degree from the hibernation. But the medium-sized ones? They’re mostly gone. How do we get people into the sport then, where are their entry points now? How do we give them somewhere to grow from there?
I think the question of if triathlon is the future is a valid one. I think, and this is anecdotal, when you look at what people wanted to do before and what they want to do now, it’s not an old-school ‘all tri all the time’ type of season: It’s a mix of trail races and local tris and gravel rides and adventure weekends that they make up themselves. It’s less structured, it’s less planned out far in advance. It’s whatever their friends are doing—and if we don’t rebuild local clubs and camps and tri weekends, then people will just leave and go where they do have friends.
I also think a textbook defining cultural shift happened over the last few years (at least in the U.S.) and I don’t know if triathlon has yet or will fully adapt to that shift and to what the coming wave of 20-somethings expects. I think some of those things are still very much being fought out: Are we corporate in our sporting identity, are we grassroots? What does that even mean? Are we welcoming, to whom? What level of shittiness from the people in charge are we willing to accept? What are the vibes? I think, to a degree, triathlon was often defined by its Type A structured machoism and that’s not the direction the world is going in now. So, either we redefine ourselves or the world moves on.
When I was in Kona this year, a handful of people kept talking about how it was smaller than last year, how the expo used to be so massive and tents would spill over into the streets and take up the whole town, back in the good old days, and it’s just not what it used to be.
And all I could think was: No shit, there was this whole global pandemic thing that happened. All I could think was: You’re mixing up last year’s double two-times-the-people two-day two races extravaganza with the pre-COVID mid-2000s era. In reality, the expo was about the size of last year and not as big as it was back in 2017; the number of athletes was what it’d been for a one-day world champs and not as many as the two-day. Your memory is too short.
All I could think was: I don’t know if triathlon ever goes back to what it was, and some of that is probably good, it has to be something new and different now. I don’t know if triathlon really returned this year or not. But I do know this was the first year in a long time it felt like something again.
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Some stuff in our sports worth knowing about this week.
The annual Ironman World Champs show will not be on NBC this year, which is a bit of a shame since NBC is usually how people first see and hear and know about triathlon. (Change happens! What is normal now! Move on!) But mostly it’s a shame because I supposedly make an appearance and I would have really liked my NBC debut to be talking about the historic day in Kona. It’ll air instead on Outside Watch this Saturday and then be on the Ironman Youtube in January. My biggest takeaway from the preview: Is The Feed an Ironman sponsor now?? (Youtube/Triathlete)
Triathlete has the fastest and slowest Ironman races of the year—based on the data. (Triathlete)
And TriRating has my favorite thing: The *final* breakdown of prize money for 2023. Yes, Anne Haug was the top earner by virtue of locking in multiple PTO race podium + some decent Ironman brand money. But the best thing about the analysis is the trend graphs looking at overall Ironman brand prize pool money since 2015. (Hint: It was going down pre-pandemic, then went down a lot, then back up but still slightly down. Now, we’ll see next year with the Ironman Pro Series.) (TriRating)
Ruth Astle posted her annual ‘what I made and what I spent as a pro.’ Which was actually really interesting this year because it was, pretty much, half of what she made last year—and while that’s just the reality of injuries and being a pro athlete, many people would have not shared during a down year. Kudos. (Youtube)
At first I thought I was confused, but Daniela is running two fundraising giveaways right now: You can enter to win her bike & signed race helmet (and a bunch of other potential prizes) or you can bid on her world-record-breaking race suit + a Challenge Roth entry. (VIPrize/There for You)
ParkRun is one of those things the British actually do better than us: popular lowkey (free) 5Ks in parks basically everywhere and every week. And a new women’s ParkRun world record was set this week: 15:13. (ParkRun/Athletics Weekly)
There was also a women’s backwards mile world record set (which means she ran backwards): 7:24. Go America! (Runner’s World)
Ah, more and more trail runners continue organizing around/against/angsting over the behemoth of UTMB + Ironman—though I really, truly, don’t think some of the things that are being blamed on Ironman are actually Ironman, just fyi. This time, Zach Miller is trying to rally big names to all commit to a different high-profile race. Which will be interesting to see how that pans out. (Instagram)
One of my favorite newsletters that I don’t write is The Lap Count—mostly for its commitment to deeply insider jokes—and last week’s Q&A with Rai Benjamin (the Olympic medalist in the 400m hurdles & 4x400m) about picking up cycling was fascinating. (The Lap Count)
What happens at pro cycling team camps? (I mean, from my knowledge, many many many hours of riding, lots of it in the rain around here, leading to many many hours of trying to get feeling back in your fingers.) (Velo)
Is continuous lactate monitoring the next big thing, that’s really already sorta here? (Velo)
The organizers of that Chinese ultramarathon where 21 people died two years ago when a storm came into the mountains have been sentenced to jail in China. (The Guardian)
The surfing events for the Olympics next year will be held in Tahiti (yes, what?, I know) and the metal judging tower the IOC wants to build out in the lagoon would permanently damage the reef there. Local have opposed it, now the International Surfing Association opposes it. No one’s really in support of it. (Associated Press)
Simone Biles was named Athlete of the Year. When you think about how she managed to return after the Tokyo exit and not just return but win a 6th world championship 10 years after her first *and* premiere two more totally-never-before-seen moves it’s absolutely mind-blowing. Especially for gymnastics. Then, apparently, her husband (who is an NFL player) and her were on some podcast—and he was saying how he didn’t know who she was when they first met, which hahahfunny—and then he said he still considers himself the “catch” in the relationship because men are always the catch because he had to fight his (and I am not making this up) natural urges to not settle down. And, like, I’m a pretty big believer in ‘you do you’ and whatever about other people’s relationships, but if you’re married to Simone Biles, get it together. (Associated Press/People Magazine)
Outside did their round-up of health trends and predictions for 2024. Some of which seem likely and some of which seem more like wishful thinking. (Outside)
One last thing
The worst national park reviews. (In all fairness, some of these people have some valid points.)