The trend has been seen and talked about for more than a few years now, the numbers of athletes competing at local races (i.e., one of a kind races), triathlons and running, is down. As best anyone can guess there are potentially many different reasons, starting with the fact that the Baby Boomer generation that fueled the initial rise in attendance is getting older, the Gen X athletes are out there but are busy with their lives, and the millennial athletes seem to have less interest in endurance sports or have too many other options, like Spartan races and mud runs, where you can race and have fun, versus being more serious in your training and racing triathlons.
While I did not focus specifically on racing smaller and locally organized triathlons this year, by the end of the year the four races I finished were run by a local Race Director. It’s not that I’m against racing the larger events, I did that for many years, but life and work have forced me to scale back my training and racing to sprints and Olympic distance, and therefore the races I picked just happened to be independently run. Having raced or at least followed each of these races for years, I know that they are all suffering from a significant drop in the number of athletes racing them, in some cases way down from historic highs, and this is worrisome.
If you’re relatively new to the sport of triathlon, competing less than say five years, then the triathlon racing calendar seems very full, starting in March and going right through into October and beyond. There are still a seemingly large number of races to choose from, and hopefully some are close by where you live; there’s really nothing better than being able to just roll out of your own bed and then down to the start of a triathlon to keep it simple.
If you’ve been racing triathlons for say 5-10 years, then you have likely noticed the drop off in the number of athletes that were competing at races since you started, at least for the local races and you have probably also noticed that some of those races have disappeared. This is of course nothing new, races come and go, people’s interest in a recreational sport changes over time, and we’re seeing this in the continued drop off in the number of racers at the smaller events that have survived.
On the other hand, those races promoted by the World Triathlon Corp (WTC), all the official Ironman and 70.3 Ironman distance triathlons, have been growing and expanding the number of races offered each year. Most of these are new and many of them are in foreign countries to US athletes or they have incorporated an existing races under their banner. These races typically have thousands of entrants and regularly sell out, although not as quickly as they used to. I mention this solely as a point of reference, to say that what has been good for the WTC and their racing series has likely been to the detriment of many local races, which is itself a touchy subject. Search the internet for editorials and forums on this subject, how when a WTC event moves into your region, many of the local races suffer as a consequence.
I’m not blaming WTC for trying to run a successful business, but it can have the same affect that a Home Depot has when it moves into your town, many of the local hardware stores just can’t compete on price and selection and fold. The same phenomenon is happening with the local triathlons, which have had to raise their prices over the years to cover the increased costs of running their races, and in some cases to also make up for the drop in attendance at their events. Every event has a financial break-even point and some of these races are in peril of being on the wrong side of the equation and are playing it year-to-year with respect to keeping their race alive for next season.
I’m also not blaming any athlete who wants to compete in half or full IM distance triathlons, we have all succumb to that desire, to test our mettle against the course and the clock over increasingly longer distances as our endurance increases, always seeking a new challenge. But here’s where we all have to make a decision for the very future of the local races that are trying to stay afloat (and possibly the future of our sport), how do we balance the races we do and still support our local race directors?
Way back when a sprint distance triathlon cost $40-60 and an Olympic distance triathlon less than $100, people would race a lot, but those days are gone. Today, if an athlete is planning on racing a half or full IM triathlon (with their very high registration fees, plus the cost of travel and hotels, etc.), they are probably going to compete in less races overall. And guess which races they are dropping from their schedule? You guessed it, many of the local tris.
So what I’m asking everyone to consider for next year, and beyond, are these three things.
- Compete in a local triathlon
- Volunteer at a local triathlon
- Spectate at a local triathlon
Go Racing – For some people this can be your “A” race and that’s great, but if it conflicts with your true “A” race, then race it as a “B” race and get in a good training day. You can always practice your transitions and work on honing your race craft, something you only gain and improve on by practicing. I personally feel that athletes are moving on to longer distance tris prematurely, before working on improving their skills in each of the sports, but that’s a topic for another day…
Help Out – Now this sounds obvious, to come out and support the local triathlon community, but yet people don’t. If you’ve ever run or volunteered at an event then you know firsthand that getting enough people to help is a real PITA. As a matter of fact, a local half marathon was recently cancelled on race day morning due to not enough volunteers showing up; the CHP told the RD that they had not met their requirement for staffing the various intersections and they said they could not start the race. Every triathlon relies heavily on experienced athletes to man the more important car/bike/run intersections to get all the athletes through them safely and without incident. You wouldn’t want your race marred by nobody being on course to help you through it, would you?
Root for Your Friends – If for some reason you can’t race and can’t or don’t want to volunteer, at least go out there and show your support for your local tri club and friends that are racing that day. How many races have you done where you spirits have been flagging at some point of the race and how good it was to hear somebody cheering you on, pulling for you to get over the last part of the hill, to catch the person in front of you, etc.? Come out and be that person and help someone finish their race.
In the end we are all going to speak with our racing dollars so I hope you can add one or more local races to your calendar. If the cost of adding more races is an issue, join your local triathlon club and see if they get a club discount to races to help defray the cost. If we do nothing then some of these races are doing to disappear, we’ll compete in less races, and then in time we will all be travelling longer distances to race.
When your local favorite race is gone, the decision having been made to finally cut their loses, you will have one less chance to roll out of bed and test yourself against the best local athletes and all your friends and training partners, and that will be a shame.