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.

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