FEAT: Triathlon races gaining in popularity throughout the U.S.

On a brisk Sunday morning this fall, Tim Shallcross woke up earlier than normal to drive to Skyland State Park in New Jersey. When he arrived, over a thousand athletes were already gathered. Everyone was making last-minute adjustments to high-tech bicycles, swim goggles and running shoes. Although this scene may seem foreign to most readers, for anyone who has ever participated in a triathlon, this scene would be familiar. The sport of triathlon is an individual endurance sport that revolves around swimming, then bicycling and finally running.

Perhaps the best-known example of the sport is the Hawaii Ironman in which athletes swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run a full marathon of 26.2 miles. Shallcross was not at a small state park to compete in an Ironman, however. Instead, he was there to compete in a sprint distance triathlon, which is one of several shorter distance races. It consists of around a half-mile swim, a 15-mile bike and a 3-mile run, depending on who is hosting the event.

“I got into triathlons a few years ago after a buddy of mine from Wall Street started doing them and got me into my first one,” said Shallcross, a 46-year-old Wall Street bond trader. “I love my wife and kids, but sometimes when they are busy, I need something to do for myself to get away. Training for triathlon isn’t always fun, but I still love to do it. Every time I finish a race, I immediately start thinking about how to improve my times for the next one.”

Shallcross doesn’t always finish, however. Last year at the Skylands Triathlon, he crashed his bike just yards from completing the biking section of the course.

“It was a bad fall,” he said. “But as soon as my bike was fixed and I was healed enough to start riding again, that’s exactly what I did.”

Shallcross is just one of thousands of Americans who have gotten into the sport of triathlon in the past few years. According to the Web site of USA Triathlon, the governing body of all sanctioned triathlons in the United States, the sport was officially started in 1974 in California by several friends who were looking for a way to take a break in their training for marathons. A few years later the first Ironman took place in Kona, Hawaii, although less than 15 racers finished the first time. In 1994 the Olympic distance triathlon, which consists of a 1.5-kilometer swim, 40-kilometer bike and 10-kilometer run, was accepted as an official Olympic sport. Since the first Olympic race at the Sydney games in 2000, the sport has been constantly gaining popularity.

One group with whom the race has gained much popularity is businessmen like Shallcross. An article titled “Racing to the top? Try the Triathlon” released by US News & World Report on Feb. 27 delved into the move of CEOs and other businessmen from the golf course to the triathlon course. The article reveals that “Type A corporate overachievers seem to have a particular affinity for the ordeal.” The trend has become so popular that the Hawaii Ironman even sets aside spots for business executives who compete in the CEO Challenge to qualify for the event.

For college students who want to get a jump start on their fitness, or their careers in business, USA Triathlon also has collegiate clubs. The Web site reports that “USA Triathlon saw an increase in collegiate clubs from 35 in 2005 to 72 in 2006 – an increase of over 100 percent in just one year. USA Triathlon is actively developing programs for colleges and universities to start and maintain multi-sport clubs.”

Shallcross’ participation in the Skylands Triathlon this year went well, but it was just for fun, he said. He finished without injury, and although he was disappointed with the running portion of his race, he was still pleased with the result.

“I’m never going to win one of these,” he said. “I will keep racing, though, because in the long run it makes me a healthier, happier person for myself and for my family.”