Triathletes, 40-Somethings, Going for Youth
By ANN MARIE GARDNER
HE was 39 and thought he was in decent shape. But when Eric Goodman, an information technologist from Stamford, Conn., tried to run a mile on a treadmill, he could barely make it without feeling as if he were coughing up a lung.
If Mr. Goodman were younger, he might have joined a gym or played soccer, as he did in college. Instead he started doing triathlons. In a year, he lost 17 pounds and added 6 pounds of muscle, and is now able to run one mile in 6 minutes 30 seconds. He says he feels like a 20-year-old again.
“I’m not looking for my fountain of youth, but I am trying to stay as young as I can for as long I can,” said Mr. Goodman, now 40. “I didn’t realize how bad of shape I was in.”
Mr. Goodman is part of a generation of athletic, type-A men who are entering middle age and trying to hold on to their youth through triathlons — a race that combines swimming, biking and running. The sport has exploded by 51 percent since 2007, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, and men in their 40s are one of the fastest growing segments in the sport, accounting for one-third of the 1.2 million triathletes.
The phenomenon is not restricted to Americans. In London, there’s even a term for triathletes pushing middle age: Mamils, which stands for middle-aged men in Lycra.
Skip Gilbert, former executive director of USA Triathlon, the sport’s governing body, said he believes the craze started when the triathlon became part of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Before then, "the perception was that triathlon was only for Ironmen,” he said, referring to the longest and toughest category of triathlons, which involves swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running a 26.2-mile marathon.
“But shorter Olympic distance races at the Games gave more athletes a way to embrace the sport,” Mr. Gilbert said. What used to take 15 hours with Ironman competitions can now be done in as few as 3 hours in an Olympic distance race. A sprint triathlon, the shortest type, typically involves a half-mile swim, a 13-mile bike ride and a 3-mile run. “The sport gained momentum almost instantly,” he said.
In 2000, there were 50 USA Triathlon clubs. Now there are 831 throughout the country. In 2000, there were 229 USA Triathlon-certified coaches; now there are 1,800, according to USA Triathlon.
Some of the growth in the sport comes from aging long-distance runners, who switched over because of injuries, according to Dr. Michael J. Neely, the medical director at NY Sports Medicine and Physical Therapy, based in Manhattan. The shock on joints associated with running gets worse with age.
“Triathlons are much better for the body than long-distance running,” Dr. Neely said. “With triathlons, when you are injured running, you can still swim and bike.”
Ken Katz, 40, a doctor in Pittsburgh, had been running since high school and participated in one marathon and several half-marathons. But he stopped 10 years ago when he developed what he called “knee woes.”
“I got banged up and decided to diversify into triathlons, where you have the combination of the other sports to take a little of that pressure off specific injuries,” he said.
Soon, Dr. Katz was investing in bikes, traveling to races and hiring a coach.
That’s not to mention all the accessories and lifestyle brands that now cater to him and other triathletes. They can now buy TriSwim’s shampoo to remove chlorine, and sports drinks like Hammer Nutrition Heed, which is sold on Web sites like One Tri. There are aerodynamic helmets and sunglasses made for triathlons, as well as wet suits and tri-specific running sneakers made by K-Swiss, Asics, Zoots and Newton.
At Placid Planet, a bicycle and triathlon shop in Lake Placid, N.Y., the new must-have accessories are Zipp wheels and compression tights. “Zipp wheels are an aerodynamic carbon wheel that increase speed by reducing drag on the wheel,” said Kenny Boettger, the owner. Compression tights and socks, he said, help athletes recirculate oxygen and blood. “This is the big thing right now and it works,” he said.
There are also magazines like Lava, which began publishing in August and offers testosterone-fueled articles and profiles that appeal to men who dream about being Ironmen. With page after page of Lycra, equipment reviews and training tips, the magazine is geared for “hardcore triathletes who want to get right inside the fiery molten center of triathlon,” according to its mission statement.
Lava’s macho-man mantra is simple. “Forty is the new 20,” said John Duke, who publishes the monthly magazine in San Diego. “And in triathletes, 40 isn’t old. The median age of the sport is 41.”
Good thing, too, since triathlons don’t come cheap. “Forty-somethings are also the ones who can afford the sport,” said Scott Berlinger, the head coach of Full Throttle, a 120-man triathlon team that is based out of the Chelsea Piers in Manhattan. “I tell my athletes everything costs $100 — shoes, helmets, glasses — and the big purchase is your bike.”
A bicycle — the tri-world equivalent of the red sports car — can cost anywhere from several hundred dollars to more than $10,000. After the bike and the chiropractor bills, the biggest item is individual coaching, which can easily run $100 an hour.
“Triathletes are a discerning group of alpha consumers, with $175,000 average salaries,” said Erik Vervloet, vice president for sports marketing at K-Swiss, which jumped into the tri-market three years ago. “The average Ironman spends $22,000 a year on the sport.”
The high price is an issue, particularly for spouses. “I still argue with the wife about the costs,” said Mr. Goodman, the triathlete from Stamford. His gear includes a $5,000 Cervelo bicycle, a $3,000 Pinarello bicycle, Xterra Vector Pro2 wet suits, Izumi Tri Fly 111 bike shoes and a Lazer Tardiz helmet.
But his wife, Amy, eventually came around. “At first it was a bit hard for me to swallow,” said Ms. Goodman, 32, who is attending graduate school in the field of public health, “but when I saw that the bike wasn’t going to hang on the wall, I thought, in terms of self-indulgences, this is one of the best things he could be doing.”
“Hopefully that will pay off in terms of medical bills we are not paying for down the road,” she added.
Triathlons have other benefits, too. Triathletes often get a confidence boost. “He definitely appreciates the changes in his body,” Ms. Goodman said. “He looks different and he has transformed his profile, his posture.”
Mr. Goodman agreed, though his main concern now isn’t how he looks in the mirror, but making sure that he isn’t “chick-ed” at the next race — slang for being beaten by a woman.
“I’m not going to sit around and say I’m getting old,” he said. “I’m going to find a way to beat this.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 23, 2010
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the location of the 2000 Olympic Games, where the triathlon made its debut. They occured in Sydney, not Atlanta.