Ordinary Mortals: Who is a Real Triathlete?

By Dr. Steve Jonas | Aug. 20, 2019, 5:37 p.m. (ET)

Legacy Triathlon

In a recent column in the Spring 2019 issue of USA Triathlon Magazine, our CEO Rocky Harris commented on the new, growing relationship between USA Triathlon and IRONMAN. 

Overall, this new relationship is going to be very positive for us and the for the sport. At the same time, we do have to deal with the perception held by some, both inside the sport and outside, that the only “real” triathlon is an IRONMAN.  

At the end of his column, Rocky had this to say about our sport, from the perspective of USA-Triathlon:

“Triathlon is all about the joy of swimming, biking and running.  It’s about the amazing places we get to go, whether we’re discovering a new running trail in our hometown or traveling across the world for a destination race.  It’s about living a healthy lifestyle, achieving the goals we set for ourselves and being strong role models for our nation’s youth.

“Whether you race long-course, short-course, off-road, duathlon, aquabike, aquathlon, indoor, gravel tri, youth or women’s only races — does it really matter?  I want each of you to take this to heart: You don’t have to complete a certain distance, earn a certain time or place, or do a certain number of races to earn the right to call yourself a triathlete.  If you swim, bike and run, you are a triathlete — and if you do any combination of those things, you are a multi-sport athlete.  Believe that for yourself, and share it with others who are new to our sport.  We’re all a part of the USA Triathlon community — and what a wonderful community it is.”

At about the same time I read an editorial in another triathlon magazine that was talking about drawing more women into the sport — certainly a laudable goal — through a new organization. But what struck me in particular about that column was its emphasis on IRONMAN races. Those words brought me back to words that I myself have written, on several occasions, most recently in this space. They are very much in sync, in my view, with what Rocky had to say, above. I thought to share an edited version of them with you again, here.  

Is there some absolute standard for what qualifies a particular race as a “real triathlon?” Well, as of this writing, while taking this year off due to illness and injury (from which I am now fully recovered — hoping to return to racing in 2020), I have raced for 36 years and completed 256 triathlons and duathlons (including, as it happens, three at the IRONMAN distance.)  

I surely don’t think there is some absolute standard for that qualification. If some folks think that the only “real’" triathlon is an IRONMAN (or at least a half), all that means is that the only “real” triathlon, for him or for her, is an IRONMAN (or at least a half).  

Over the course of my triathlon career, every race that I have done, whether one of the ultras or one of the sprint-distance duathlons that I used to do two or three times a year in New York City's Central Park, has been “real” for me, in the context of that race, on the day of that race.

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 for anybody else.

So, whether the race is long, short or in between; whether it’s on a hot, cold, windy, calm, or in between day; on a hilly, flat, or in between course; the question is: was it real for you, not anyone else? 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, a real triathlon or duathlon.

Are none of the folks who compete only in the sprint- or Olympic-distance events real triathletes/duathletes? What does that make those age-groupers who compete in the USA Triathlon National Championships (duathlon and triathlon) or the International Triathlon Union World Championships (duathlon and triathlon)?

For me, regardless of your finishing time or the length of the race, or if you started the race, didn’t make the finish for one reason or another, but have resolved to try again, then you are a real duathlete or triathlete.

I just think of the 250-pound woman I met at a race a couple of years ago at which she finished her first sprint triathlon, last overall. (I did the du that day and finished not too far in front of her.)  She is likely in her mid-50s. She told me that she had already lost 50 pounds and that by the next year she would be another 100 pounds lighter and would be coming back to do her next triathlon then.

Believe me, as she crossed the finish line that race was real for her and her next one would be too! 

THAT is “real-ness” for you!


This series of thoughts and recommendations about multi-sport racing by Dr. Steve Jonas is, over time, drawn in part from his book, 101 Ideas and Insights for Triathletes and Duathletes (Monterey, CA: Healthy Learning/Coaches Choice, 2011), from which text is used with permission. The book can be purchased here and is available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. 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 Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. His first book on multi-sport racing, Triathloning for Ordinary Mortals®, 2nd Ed. (New York: WW Norton, 2006) also can be found at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Steve has been racing tri’s and du’s since 1983.  At the end of his 36th season in the sport, 2018, he had done a total of 256 races.