accessibility · advertising · athletes · body image · competition · fitness · inclusiveness · triathalon

Athena, motivation, and getting real about who competes in triathlon

There are a lot of motivational Facebook groups out there relevant to my fitness interests but the one I’m enjoying the most at the moment is the group for Athena triathletes and duathletes.

Athena group: This group is for triathletes who compete as or empathize with those who race multisport in the Athena class (165+ pounds). Note: You will not get kicked out of the group if you no longer qualify under the USAT rule for the Athena class and go below 165 pounds.

It’s a totally wonderful group. As a plus sized endurance athlete, it can sometimes feel like you’re the only one out there given the prevalent imagery of swimmers, runners, and cyclists.

It’s not a weight loss free group, unlike other Facebook groups of which I’m a member. But neither is it focused on food and size. Some people are happy competing at the weight they’re at , others have lost weight and still others want to keep losing. But weight loss isn’t the point. Triathlon, and duathlon, are the point. This group has interested even me in swimming.

I’ve expresssed my doubts about the Athena category before. See here.

The Athena/Clydesdale categories are an attempt to equalize competition in non-elite running and multisport events between big and small people. For men, Clydesdale is anyone over 200 lbs and for women the minimum weight for an Athena division runner is either 140 lbs or 150 lbs. But there are at least two problems with the Athena category. First, you have to select to run in it. And almost no women do.

Hint: It’s a great way to get medals. I’ve “won” the Athena division twice in duathlon events by being the only woman in the class.

I’m not sure if that’s because most women object to the weigh-in (a routine part of lots of sports, all of them with weight categories) but I didn’t actually have to weigh in since I’m clearly over that weight limit, or because they don’t want to be identified as part of the heavier group.

Second, as I looked around it seemed to me that most of the women competing were over that weight. Is it just wrong as a category? Am I wrong to think that 200 lbs seems okay for men but 140/150 seems small for women? As I mentioned with my bodpod results, my lean mass is 122 lbs so assuming I can retain that, I’ll always be an Athena class runner/multisport athlete.

I guess the Athena cut off is different in different places? The group’s description suggests 165 which is more reasonable than our local 150 lbs.  And it would be different in places where the fields of competitors are more populated. Locally it seems to me to fail to address the worry it sets out to address.

So while I have doubts about Athena as a racing category I have zero doubts about how supportive this group is.

Recently a group member posted about having to do a 2.5 hour workout on her bike trainer and not feeling inspired. The group came through with the impressive set of images and slogans below. I think it’s okay to share them as there’s no personal content and they’re a lot of fun.

Although as usual when it comes to motivational sayings and images, your mileage may vary. See the following posts  on fitness motivation:

Here’s my favourite though I was too late to share it with the group:


Back to the group: It’s great seeing all these Athena sized triathletes completing all the distances. The images make my Facebook a happy and inspirational place.

I’ve been struck by the difference between these pictures and the pictures in triathlon advertising. And then I read this article by Tom Demerly which is right on the same point. It’s All About That Bass: How The Triathlon Industry Gets It Wrong.

Who does triathlons in the United States today? What does the “average” triathlete look like?

Industry dogma suggests all triathletes are high wage earners between 30 and 45 who aspire to race Ironman (or already have). They own a $10K bike, race wheels and a power meter. Their household income is above $120K and they have a graduate level degree. They are the marketer’s dream come true: Young, affluent, fit and shopping.

There are two problems with that “demographic”: it’s outdated and likely wrong. Why?

(Stuff about income assumptions and how they’re false too not included. If you are interested go read the article.)

Americans have also changed physically. We’re heavier- all of us. The number of svelte, uber-athletes is smaller now than it was 20 years ago relative to the general populace, who apparently has been spending what’s left of their shrinking discretionary incomes on Krispy-Kremes, not qualifying for Kona.

As a result of this economic and health demographic shift triathlon has filled from the bottom. The sport is growing from an increasing number of new athletes who are more average, heavier, less athletic but still inspired to participate– if not necessarily compete.

This is good news for the triathlon industry if they become more pragmatic about who is really doing triathlons. History suggests the triathlon industry isn’t very realistic about its own consumership. It continues to (try to) market to the svelte, Kona demographic in print and internet media- even though the inspirational stories that bring people into the sport are usually the saga of the everyman participant who had to overcome to participate, and doesn’t really compete.

This fundamental misunderstanding of the distinction between Participation and Competition is what continues to hold the triathlon industry back. It is also why retailers have a hard time earning consistent profits from a market they are increasingly out of touch with.

There has never been an ad campaign in triathlon featuring realistically sized, average age group triathletes. In fact, the same rebellion that has happened in women’s apparel marketing with consumers raging against brands like Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch is ready to happen in triathlon. The middle 90% wants triathlon to “get real” about who is actually participating, and they don’t care about who’s racing in Kona.

12 thoughts on “Athena, motivation, and getting real about who competes in triathlon

  1. Thanks for the post– I just sent a request to join the Athena group (you’ve probably spawned dozens of such requests this morning alone…) One thing about the Tom Demerly blog post that got under my skin a little: this distinction he draws between “participation” vs. “competing”. Of course there’s the obvious distinction– are you in it to try to win (say, your age category), or not? However, as so many posts on this blog show, we participate in marathons (as Tracy just did– yay again, Tracy!) or charity rides, or century rides, etc. with a variety of goals in mind. Setting personal records comes to mind– while it’s not competition in this narrow sense, it does not seem exactly like participation. (apologies to other readers for being a philosopher here…) Have y’all written about this? I’m sure you have; any refs would be welcome (am thinking about this now…)

    1. I think we’ve written about racing versus taking part in different contexts though maybe not explicitly. Lots not to like about his post, did people really get fat eating doughnuts? But I love the inclusion idea and the dealing with the reality you have part…

  2. It sounds like a very supportive group. I wonder if there are similar groups for women who are not in the Athena category and yet are still far from the typical triathlete?

  3. I love the name “Athena Class” makes me want to start training for a triathlon just for the association with the kick ass greek goddess!

  4. I agree with you on the 150 vs. 200 distinction seeming a little off! I haven’t considered opting for the Athena category (I’d be just included if this was the cut-off), but I have heard of people who will defiantly NOT put themselves in it or the Clydesdale option. I don’t really look for races I can win or options to get me on the podium–if I did, I’d be racing duathlons and not waking up at 5a.m. to fit in my swim workouts, but I also think there’s something to be said for doing triathlon because it challenges me and keeps me out of my (most) comfort(able) zone!

    As for the range of body sizes in triathlons vs. in triathlon-advertising, I was reminded of the “Body Issue” that comes out from Triathlon Magazine each year (I think this is what it’s called). It features what they think are the finest bodies of the sport, and I always wonder if they could toss in some bodies that do the sport despite not being shaped naturally to excel in it — the women with short arms or the men with giant shoulders who might have to take a little longer, but approach the sport with the same passion!

    One final note: I’ve noticed in CrossFit magazines, as I’ve been thesis-ing, that they do feature a range of body sizes and shapes, but often only alongside articles that are focused on accepting your body, and usually only targeting women. There are articles about “Fit-fitters” or the people who don’t aspire to be top level athletes but just want to be “healthy” with their “normal” bodies on display. I don’t find this particularly promising, as I think that the fact that they require the stories and explanations regarding accepting one’s (im)perfect body reiterates that any bodies that don’t fit the “ideal” mould are the different ones.

    I’m ready for the days where there isn’t the need to justify showing bodies in motion that are outside the box–and I think with blogs and social media and the interwebs more generally, we have a platform to do that without the magazines getting on board. AKA let’s all take more selfies, leave them unfiltered, and get on racing/competing/playing–without apologizing for how we look while we do it!

  5. If you asked most people they would say I am thin and I am only 10 pounds away from Athena class if the cut-off was 140 lbs! It seems like the ideal weight for women was created in an era where women were discouraged from exercising because our uteruses would fall out (and assorted other nonsense justifications for women to be still and quiet) and we’re still stuck there.

    It seems most people haven’t given any thought to what a woman who exercises regularly would weigh normally, it’s just “Oh you’re 5′ 6″, you should be 120 pounds.” What if you lift weights? What if you do triathalons and so you’re always running, swimming, and biking? What if you roller skate and your loop includes five hills with a total 320 ft elevation gain and now your thighs are huge (compared to when you didn’t exercise, anyway)? No one knows what to do with you then, if you’re a woman. They’re still stuck on what you should supposedly weigh if you had no muscle, and very little fat too.

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