The idea for this post was born on one of my morning runs, as many of my blog posts are. I got to thinking about the differences between running races and triathlons, and which one was better than the other in certain respects. So here it is: the grudge match between triathlon and running races and who comes out on top, according to moi.
This one is easy. It takes competing in just one triathlon to appreciate the sweet simplicity of a road race. For a road race you just wear your running clothes, sneakers, maybe an iPod and bring whatever nutrition you need. Done!! For a triathlon, oh, it is far more complex with checklists and bags and gear and not just stuff that would be nice to have, but stuff that you absolutely have to have or you cannot compete. You need your swim cap, towels, goggles, wetsuit, towels, ankle chip strap, bike, bike shoes, helmet, nutrition and hydration for the bike, running shoes, running hat, race belt, and various other items for your tri bag. Oh yeah, don't forget your tri bag.
Thought the Rock and Roll race fees were steep at $100+ a pop? Triathlon race fees are staggering. Hundreds more. If you do more than three races in a year, even at smaller distances, you're easily looking at $1,000 in race fees alone. It pays for the site support and it makes sense. But yeah. It will pinch the pocketbook. The longer the distance, the more you will pay. My Ironman registration fee was more than a weekend's stay at the Four Seasons ... but it's a bucket list item, so priceless. Kinda.
FTW: ROAD RACE
This one kind of depends on your love. If you are a runner at heart, like I am, you may wish you were running when it's time to ride or swim. But even with my love of running, I love the constant variety of tri training. I'm learning to like the bike (notice I didn't say love. -- there's a loooooooooong way and miles and miles to go before that happens) and I really love swimming. And I find that when I've spent time in the saddle or in the water, when it is time to return to running, I appreciate it even more. By the time tri season is over (this coming weekend this year!), I am ready to commit to just running again. But for the bulk of the year, for me, tri training is where it's at.
Race Day Zen
This is kind of like the gear category: it's a no-brainer. For a road race, all you have to do is run: watch your pace, listen to your music or zone out, think about nutrition and run to that finish line. For a tri? Oh no no ... not so simple. You are constantly thinking about what's next. In the water you have to watch other athletes, sight the buoys and keep an eye on the conditions. Then you start thinking about getting out of the water: will it be slippery? Stairs? A beach? Will my wetsuit get stuck? Then your bike: will I find it in transition? Once you do find your bike, then you have to change to your cycling gear: helmet? Check. Bike shoes? Check. Glasses? Check. On the bike you need to watch road conditions, fellow cyclists and traffic and remember to eat and drink so you don't die on the run. Then it's time to change to the run. Change shoes. Put on visor and race belt. Rack the bike. Don't forget to take the helmet off. Finally when it's run time you can settle into a zone because all that's left to do is finish. But don't expect to be able to turn on an iPod and zone out ... there is a strict rule where no iPods are allowed on the run (or the bike). Some races are more lax than others, but by and large, most races will not let you put on music.
Race Day Camaraderie
I love triathletes. I really do. Sure, there are a handful of idiots who love to make themselves feel great by making others feel bad, but by and large, I have found triathletes to be supportive, encouraging and just really cool people. Unlike a road race, triathletes will encourage one another on the course (and frankly, if they see you are not in their age group, they'll be even more encouraging). At the beginning of a race, you can't help but talk to your fellow competitors in the transition area. Everyone checks out each other's gear, bike, wetsuits ... lots of people swap race stories and race reviews. On the course, it's very similar. On the bike and on the run, I cannot tell you how many times competitors that pass me or that I pass will encourage me, say "great job" or make a quick joke. I like to do the same. For me, a tri doesn't really feel like a competition against my fellow athletes as much as it is a competition against myself and against the clock. I may feel different if I were someone who had a real chance of winning, though. Road races are different. The competitive vibe is stronger, and there isn't as much interaction between competitors.
That Which Shall Not Be Named
I'm talking about the bathroom. And what happens when you really gotta go on the race. This is another area in which triathletes are my chosen people. It is perfectly acceptable, in fact encouraged, to go when you gotta. Everyone pees in the water (do not - I repeat - do not get a mouthful of the water at a swim start. ever). Everyone's goal is to learn to pee on the bike (truly - while biking). And for some of us, peeing on the run is something that cannot be helped. Sure, there are portapotties on the race, but who wants to waste time? It's like Billy Madison says, "it's cool to pee your pants!" Road races, mmm not so much. There is not that same level of acceptance of peeing one's pants. I am pleased to say I have mastered peeing in every leg of the triathlon. Because, (to steal another line from Billy Madison), if peeing your pants is cool, consider me Miles Davis.
Post Race Spread
This totally depends on the race, because I have been to triathlons that had nothing but bananas and soft pretzels and water at the end, and I've been to running races where they've given out bratwurst and beer at the end (Oktoberfest Half Marathon!) or Manco & Manco pizza and Johnson's caramel corn (Ocean City Half Marathon). But generally, I've found the food at the end of a tri is a little better, and more plentiful, than the food at a running race. One of the things I think about on a tri is how much I will be able to eat when the race is over (ok ok, I think about food all the time, regardless of whether I am in a race or not). I'm never hungry right after a race though - the only thing I ever want when I finish a long run or a race is a Sprite. But after a bit, I get hungry, and when I do, watch out. Tris usually have sandwiches, pizza, fruit, pretzels, all sorts of goodies.
Time & Money Investment
This goes hand in hand with "gear". Running gear is simple: sneakers, socks, watch, some body glide for long runs, nice running clothes. Triathlon gear? OMG. There is always something better and it's all expensive. Wetsuits are hundreds of dollars. Some of them are even approaching $1000. Bikes are in the thousands. Do I get a tri bike or a road bike? If you get a road bike and you are doing longer distance tris, you will want (or need) aero bars. Tri watches, which can go in the water, are hundreds of dollars (and worth every single penny!). Bike shoes and pedals. Special tri bags in which to cart all your gear to the race. USAT (USA Triathlon) membership. Then the food. On the run, you don't need as much. On the bike? Endurance powders, bars, chews, Gu. And if you eat as much as I do, it adds up. Then the time. For running all you need is a few hours on a weekend for a long run. If you want to do a long bike, you'll need more than a "few" - think 3, 4, 5 hours on the bike. And with three disciplines, you have to make sure to pay attention to all three so that you're prepared on race day. I also work with a swim coach to improve my technique, and Amy and Bill and I will hire a coach for Ironman. All this to say: triathlon is expensive and time consuming.
Satisfaction After the Race
This one is impossible to answer. It depends on the race, your performance, your experience, your expectations and how you feel when you cross that finish line. My finish line experience is never the same. It runs the gamut from sheer euphoria because I had the race of my life and/or just had a PR to sheer demoralization because the race was hard or I fell way short of what I knew I could do, and everything in between. There are very few feelings in life better than crossing a finish line in a race (at least according to me). I don't think it matters what finish line it is. This one's a tie.
I can't believe that my half-iron tri this weekend marks the official end of my 2013 triathlon season! I've done 2 sprints (came in 4th and 3rd in my age group), 1 olympic and 1 "half-lite", with my half iron left to go. I feel the way I felt at the end of tri season last year: ready to focus on running. I will still bike and swim, just not as often as I do when actively training. And next year, with Ironman Lake Placid a reality, I will be swim-bike-running more than ever.