By Tom Demerly.
If there is one thing that typifies our
sport over the past decade it is growth.
More people have become endurance athletes over
the past decade than in the previous five decades. Participation
in endurance sports, even in difficult economic times, has grown
steadily. Perhaps endurance sports have become a social and
individual catharsis. As individuals and society has been placed
under greater strains, the need for this catharsis seems to
A few years ago you may have thought that people
did triathlons because they had no other challenges in life.
Things were too easy. Survival wasn’t a challenge. Endurance
sports became surrogate survival. So much for that theory. With
an economic crisis of international proportions suffice it to
say there are plenty of opportunities for people to exercise
their survival instincts. They don’t need triathlons for
But triathlons continue to grow. Why?
Here in Michigan we welcome a new race series
by one of the stars of our sport, Sheila Toarmina. Ms. Toarmina’s
event promotion company EST Events adds 3 new and unique multisport
events to the calendar in 2009. Randy Step of Running Fit fame
brings a new series of three mid-week events to the table for
the Michigan calendar. This year our pick of favorite races
in the Michigan, Indiana, Ohio area is up to 26 events from
only 17 last year. That is 35% growth in events we like with
at least six of them being all new for 2009. Additionally, Jim
and Joyce Donaldson of Elite Endeavors have seen steady growth
in their participation numbers in classic events like the Ann
Arbor Triathlon, the Sylvania Triathlon and their new Women’s
Ask yourself this: Why did you start this sport?
What got you to your first start line? What did you hope to
achieve, to take away from your participation in the sport?
Now, if you are an old timer with more than a
few seasons under your belt, answer this question: Why have
you stayed in this sport?
Steven Covey, author of “The Seven Habits
of Highly Effective People” developed a concept called
the “maturity continuum” that describes an individual’s
emotional and intellectual growth from dependence to independence
to interdependence. It’s a fascinating theory, especially
when Covey discusses the difficult adult transition from independence
Triathletes, I suggest, go through a similar progression
of motives for participating. I’ll call it the “Motive
Continuum” to borrow from the esteemed Mr. Covey. This
is how it may work:
Phase One: “Conspicuous Participation”.
Athletes enter the sport to improve their fitness,
as a result of repetitive running injuries and/or to loose weight
and regain fitness if they are a former athlete. Their motives
are centered on gaining something from the sport that may benefit
them: fitness, self esteem, camaraderie. It’s a noble
set of motives often combined with a healthy dose of philanthropy
in the case of athletes like Team in Training athletes who train
and race along with raising money for a cause. Along the way
they often learn a lot about themselves, a beneficial dividend
for all parties. While there may be a conspicuous element to
this level of involvement it is also a great time of growth
and learning; about the sport and our self.
Also in this phase are a small sub-set of athletes
who participate in the sport as a line on a checklist for life:
They want to finish a triathlon, an Ironman perhaps, to check
it off a “bucket list” of achievements in life.
This culture of athletes may be transient in our sport, but
they understand that life’s beauty is in the doing, the
experiencing. They may have come to the sport from any background
and may leave the sport headed for other horizons. They came,
they saw, they participated. The experience shapes who they
are and they own it forever.
Conspicuous Participation may have a superficial
ring to it, but that is too shallow an interpretation of the
motives of most new athletes. For most new endurance athletes,
it is a voyage of discovery and growth. For the large culture
of collegiate and high school athletes returning to athletics
after starting a career and/or a family, it is a time of reaffirming
the work ethics they learned in early sports participation and
then applied to adult life.
Additionally, participation in endurance sports,
especially when social and economic pressures abound in our
society, is a very finite way of achieving a tangible goal.
You commit, you train, you race, you finish. Few journeys in
life are so linear, so clear cut. For those in the early phase
of their journey through endurance sports Conspicuous Participation
is a time of growth and learning and reward at many levels that
bolster our life experience and self esteem.
Phase Two: “Competitive Actualization”.
The great cycling columnist Maynard Hershon once
wrote about “Drawing the blanket of racing around one’s
shoulders”. The culture of athletes who race anything-
from Roman Chariots to Formula 1 cars to triathlons, is a tight
knit society with unique norms, conventions and morays. When
an athlete enters this phase of participation, they are a racer.
Their emphasis shifts distinctly, albeit often inconspicuously,
from participation to competition.
Competition takes on several forms, and while results are tabulated
in an event based on a continuum of other participants, that
is only one way to measure performance and tabulate results.
A very constructive competitive motive is for self improvement.
Athletes in Competitive Actualization may not
be trying to place relative to other athletes, but may be trying
to improve competitively against some personal benchmark: “I
want to do an Olympic distance triathlon in less than 3 hours”,
“I want to finish Ironman before the cut-off time”,
“I want to improve my bike split until I can average 20
Regardless of their level of performance, these
people are racers. Their motives are noble: Improvement,
This is an internal focus tempered with learning
from internal and external resources and integrating these into
personal performance. It is a time of concentrated growth with
many rewards, but fraught with pitfalls as well.
One pitfall athletes face during this phase is
focusing too heavily on specific performance goals. Whether
it is an improvement goal, a competitive goal relative to other
athletes or even a finishing goal, the nature of goals is that
they are commonly not achieved. There is a great opportunity
for athletes to learn and grow from the experience of falling
short of a goal, but some athletes may not be able to cope effectively
with the frustration and disappointment of failing to achieve
a tangible goal. In all sports, the complete measure of a competitor
includes not only their successes, but their response to inevitable
The “Competitive Actualization” phase
of development is an opulent one. Within the culture of people
who race anything there are delightful conventions such as wearing
special clothing, using exotic equipment, meticulous physical
preparation and even unique vernacular shared only by “insiders”
to communicate specifics of the racing experience. When columnist
and author Maynard Hershon wrote about “Drawing the blanket
of racing around you” he was certainly describing the
snug feeling of being initiated into a time honored culture
of athletes: The Racer.
Phase Three: “Tacit Integration”.
As the history of triathlons stretches into its
third decade there is a small population of athletes who have
been in the sport for more than 20 years. These athletes may
have competed in up to six different age categories. For these
athletes it is likely they have made a progression to another
level or motive for participation: “Tacit Integration”.
For some of these athletes there may have been
a period spent at the highest competitive level of the sport.
They may have won their age category, they may have won races.
Author, scholar and professional triathlete Scott Tinley, a
member of the original, elite “Big Four” of triathlon
that includes Tinley, Mark Allen, Dave Scott and Scott Molina
during the 1980’s , wrote extensively about his experiences
in triathlon and the transition from elite competitor to former
elite competitor. His book, “Racing the Sunset: An Athlete's
Quest for Life After Sport” chronicles a number of athlete’s
experiences that competed for years and then left their sport.
This experience is contrasted by the other three
of the big four, Dave Scott, Mark Allen and Scott Molina. Dave
Scott coaches actively (as has Tinley) but also returned to
the Hawaii Ironman as a Master’s competitor. Scott Molina
was seen on the race course at the Laguna Phuket Triathlon in
Thailand only a few years ago. Mark Allen continues to be active
in the sport in similar ways to Tinley such as writing with
his fine new book, “Fit Soul, Fit Body: 9 Keys to a Healthier,
Happier You.” The book even includes a forward by Steven
Covey, the fellow who coined the “Seven Habits”
we originally talked about above.
The simple truth of many athletes in this category
is that the sport has been integrated into their lives to the
degree that it is part of their identity. Their motive to continue
in it is tied to what defines them. It is simply part of who
they are. Results are secondary to participation. The finish
line is almost non-existent, or at least it is moving constantly
in front of them. It is not so much about finishing a race,
winning a race as it is about simply racing.
This is a graceful place to be in our sport but
can be a frail one. When an athlete reaches this phase they
may take their athletic gifts for granted. They have always
been there, so they may always remain. For an athlete in this
phase a physical disability or other obstacle to participation
can be a serious obstacle that threatens one’s self esteem.
It is tough to refocus on other activities when such an intense
activity defined us, partially because it may take years to
reach the depth of experience and appreciation in the sport
to simply be at ease with participating. To be denied that hurts.
Often times the “Tacit Integrator”
participates in many levels of the sport such as the Big Four
do now: Coaching, writing, race organization, mentoring, volunteering
at races and officiating become additional outlets for these
legacy athletes. It is not so much that they are a part of the
sport, but that the sport is a part of them.
It’s not the Destination, it’s
If any of this theorizing holds true the common
theme is that people may begin doing endurance sports for finite
reasons, such as a goal of finishing an event or improving fitness.
They may, however, continue in endurance sports for another
set of reasons that have grown from their involvement, what
they’ve put into the sport and what the sport has provided
to them in return.
The value in examining this topic may lie
with another one of Steven Covey’s interesting principles”
Begin with the End in Mind”. If our athletic “end
game” is one of improved health and fitness along with
an engaging and fascinating pastime with many benefits, well
then, perhaps there is no more reason to analyze our motives.