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Reflections on the Sport of Duathlon

By Brad Stulberg and Jenn Finn

My legs were burning and I could feel my heart-beat in all parts of my body. Charging up an extremely steep three-quarter-mile hill to end a race will do that to you…especially after time-trialing on the bike for 38k, which actually followed a hard 5k run that started the morning. Oh, and not to mention, all of this with a coveted spot representing Team USA at the World Championships on the line. One foot in front of the other, hamstring, quad…hamstring, quad…

726 my story 1As the final quarter mile approached, I looked at my watch, and then at the competition. Everyone seemed to have a similar look on their face — a combination of suffering, determination and achievement. Crossing the finish line well ahead of my goal time was an incredible feeling. Learning that I had earned a spot on Team USA and celebrating with new friends (strangers just two hours ago, and competition 30 minutes ago) only added to the exhilaration. Realizing countless hours of training with a strong performance, accomplishing a goal that once seemed nearly out of reach and feeling so much positive energy from a community of athletes is one heck of a way to spend a morning!

I waited for about 15 minutes to see my female teammate cross the finish line. She had the look of pure pain, agony, and excitement, or maybe that was just the sun as we hadn’t seen it in our home state of Michigan for months. She had also qualified for worlds, and ended up on the podium in her age group to boot. She felt the camaraderie at the race too, as many of her division competitors (some of whom she beat by just a tiny margin) congratulated her on an excellent bike performance following the race. Not to mention the night before when a kind ‘stranger’ had changed her specialized and hard-to-find tires (which had flatted a few days earlier on a practice ride), charging nothing for it. He knew everyone at the race and made us his quick friends too. Duathlon is like that; big enough to warrant a national championship race and small enough to know and appreciate everyone around you.

This highlights our experience at the 2011 USAT Duathlon National Championships. It is one that we won’t soon forget.

During our flight back to Ann Arbor, Michigan, we not only reflected on the incredible race weekend, but also on the sport of duathlon more broadly. The sport is an enormous and positive part of our lives, and we hold it with the highest esteem. We wanted to share some of our thoughts with you below, and apologize in advance for the more academic tone but what can we say, we are both grad students!

Duathlon is a great sport that deserves some time in the limelight. Although the sport is often viewed as the “step-child” of triathlon, we believe differently. Duathlon is a unique (not better or worse than any other multisport, simply different) event with its own challenges, requiring specific training and boasting an extremely strong and tight-knit community of athletes.

Run-bike-run places an enormous physiological stress on the body and may be the ultimate test of overall leg strength. The ability to go from pounding on the pavement, to hammering on the pedals, to pounding on the pavement yet again requires a sense of determination and willingness to push oneself to sometimes uncomfortable places. It follows that the sense of accomplishment an athlete gets out of racing duathlons is an enormous one. Although it is admittedly hard to capture in words, completely expiring just about every muscle group in the legs to generate the power and speed needed to cover a specific distance is quite empowering. Not taking anything away from swimming here, but the consistent and constant leg strain inherent to duathlon is a unique challenge, demanding a certain kind of toughness, and fostering a very specific feeling of triumph.

Along those lines, achieving duathlon goals (whether they be focused on completing a race, or finishing within a certain time) demands particular training. Being able to knock down the first run without expending too much effort takes not only rock-solid legs, but also rock-solid discipline to not go out too fast. Biking on those already heavily worked legs stresses muscle-groups in distinctive ways, bringing about a unique sensation that one must prepare for through repeated practice. Running off the bike is widely held as the most challenging part of triathlon; imagine running off the bike, off the run. Doing this well takes a special combination of strength, speed and endurance that is best acquired through training protocols that are specifically built around gaining this type of leg durability requisite for duathlon.

726 my story 2Putting all three [run, bike, run] together requires a combination of physical and mental fitness (e.g., pacing strategy, willingness to endure non-stop muscular pain in the legs, etc.) that is distinctive to duathlon. This leads us to revisit one of our main points; duathlon training isn’t harder or easier than training for any other multisport event, it is simply different, and should be recognized as such.

We do the same grueling workouts that marathoners do, like mile repeats and 800-meter repeats…and then we follow it with two hours of tempo work on the bike. Or, we do the infamous brick (bike immediately followed by a run workout) that is a mainstay in the triathlon world …only sometimes we do it twice in a row. And on the weekends, we train like road cyclists, often getting in rides of a century or more. We work hard and we work specific, just like a triathlete or any other multisport athlete does.

Duathlon is a special sport, with a tight-knit community of die-hards. There are very few of us who specialize in duathlon, and that is OK. That said, we do want to impress on the multisport world that duathlon is fun, really hard, and worth trying (and for some, sticking to!). We encourage everyone to “du” one, and see how you like it! Hopefully one day there will be more of us duathlete specialists out there. We see the sport as a “growth market.” After all, destroying one’s legs loves company!!

Brad Stulberg and Jenn Finn are both age-groupers and members of Team USA 2012. They live and train in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where they attend the University of Michigan as graduate students.