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What is a "Real" Triathlete/Duathlete?

By Steve Jonas | July 16, 2013, 12 a.m. (ET)

As you know by now, triathlons and duathlons come in a variety of distances and levels of difficulty. Back in the October 2008 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine, a letter writer said, in part: “Some time ago, I participated in a sprint-distance triathlon. The race took me a few months to prepare for, was a lot of fun and got me excited about mulĀ­tisport…Here's my problem: [Some say] that I didn’t really do a triathlon and that I’m lying whenever I tell people I did, even though I always use the ‘sprint-distance’ qualifier. [Some say] that only the Ironman distance counts as a real triathlon. Am I misleading people, including myself, when I say I did a triathlon if the race was only a sprint?"

So let’s see. Is there some absolute standard for what qualifies a particular race as "real?" Well as of this writing, I’ve been racing for 31 years and have done 234 triathlons and duathlons. And I don’t think so. If for the person who told the letter-writer that the only "real" triathlon is an Ironman, all that means is that the only “real” triathlon, for him or for her, is an Ironman. For what does the word “real” really mean, in personal — not scientific — terms? It means something that you experience objectively, something that you can see or taste or hear or feel, that has an actual existence for you, not necessarily to anybody else. So whether the race is long, short or in between; on a hot, cold, windy, calm, or in between day; hilly, flat, or in between; was it real for you? Was getting to the start line and then crossing the finish line whether you went fast, or slow, or in between, real for you? That’s all that matters. Then for you it was a real race, a real experience.

Then how about doing a sprint triathlon or a standard-distance duathlon that the quoted letter-writer put down? Are none of the folks who compete in them real triathletes/duathletes?  What does that makes those age-groupers who compete in the USA Triathlon Sprint (triathlon) or Duathlon National Championships or the International Triathlon Union Sprint Triathlon or Duathlon World Championships, both events now held every year? Over the course of my career, I've raced up to the Ironman distance (started five, finished three, ran out of time on the marathon in the other two) as well as several ITU World Championship triathlons at both the Olympic and sprint distances. 

But every race that I have done, whether one of those or one of the standard-distance duathlons that I do two or three times a year in New York City's Central Park, has been, as the word is defined above, "real" for me, in the context of that race, on the day of that race. Regardless of your finishing time or the length of the race, if you've had a good time at the race, if you feel good and feel good about yourself after the race, then you are a real du- or triathlete.

Dr. George Sheehan, the 1970s guru of running, put it this way: "Excellence is being the best George Sheehan I can be." And actually, on some days if you did the best that you could do on that particular day and didn’t happen to finish, as USA Triathlon Hall-of-Famer Dave Scott — who in my view is the greatest triathlete of all time — said a long time ago: "I encourage all…triathletes to reach for their goals, whether they be to win or just to try. The trying is everything."

This series of thoughts and recommendations for beginner and recreational triathletes and duathletes by Dr. Steve Jonas is drawn in part from his book, 101 Ideas and Insights for Triathletes and Duathletes (Monterey, CA: Healthy Learning/Coaches Choice, 2011), text used with permission. The book can be purchased at:” Steve’s most recent multisport book is Duathlon Training and Racing for Ordinary Mortals®: Getting Started and Staying with It (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press/FalconGuides, 2012), available at Duathlon Training and Racing for Ordinary Mortals.” His original book, Triathloning for Ordinary Mortals®, 2nd. Ed, can be found at, and Barnes and