Swim. Bike. Run.
With this simple formula, triathlons are drawing record numbers of weekend warriors to races that take anywhere from 90 minutes to 17 hours to cross the finish line.
On Sunday, 3,200 people will take the plunge in the nation's largest triathlon event – Subaru Ironman Canada – in Penticton, B.C. Each has paid $675 (U.S.) for the privilege of sweating their way through a four-kilometre swim followed by an 180-kilometre bike ride and a 42-kilometre run – a full marathon.
Ironman – conceived in 1978 by a group of Navy Seals stationed in Hawaii – has kept its status as the triathlon for elites. But shorter-distance triathlons have become the fastest growing tri-events since 2000, when Simon Whitfield won a gold medal for Canada in the sport's debut at the Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
Legions of midlife professionals are entering sprint triathlons, notes Alan Trivett, executive director of Triathlon Canada. Most use them as a stepping stone to the Olympic distance, a 1.5-km swim, 40-km ride and 10-km run.
"They wear the fact that they're a triathlete as a badge of honour."
Triathlon Canada doesn't collect statistics on the number of Canadians participating in the sport. But in the United States, the number of one-day memberships in USA Triathlon, which are required to race in its sanctioned events, has risen to 326,732 in 2010 from 100,000 in 2000.
RaceTwitch.com founder and blogger Wayne Kurtz compares the scene to the go-go years of the stock market in the 1990s. Entry spots are selling out, including at Trisport Canada competitions, and athletes are being put on pages-long waitlists.
"Races are filling up all around the world," Mr. Trivett says.. After competing in the Kelowna Apple Triathlon last weekend, the buff-looking schoolteacher says she plans to train for a full marathon later this year, and maybe an Ironman down the road.
Meanwhile, she has adopted a quote from Victorian author George Eliot as her motto: "It's never too late to be what you might have been."