Fighting Middle Age? Try a Triathlon

It took John Korff seven years to bring an Ironman triathlon to New York; it took nine minutes for the 3,000 race slots to sell out.

Luke Bell, leads triathletes exiting water after the 2.4 mile swim portion of the Ford Ironman World Championship on October 8, 2011 in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
Alvis Upitis | Getty Images
Luke Bell, leads triathletes exiting water after the 2.4 mile swim portion of the Ford Ironman World Championship on October 8, 2011 in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

Korff, a sporting events producer who runs 100-mile races and the Empire State Building stairs for kicks, had been wrangling and wooing city officials to host the event, a 140.6-mile endurance sport, which includes swimming and biking — and a 26.2-mile marathon tacked on the end.

“I felt like a business therapist saying why they should do this," says Korff, owner of Korff Enterprises.

Fortysomethings and Older

Triathlons often exist in the shadow of marathons, the endurance-sport behemoth. But in recent years, more amateur athletes — especially those ages 35 and older — have discovered the sport as a social outlet, and a way to recapture their youth and fitness. The average triathlete is 38 years old, according to USA Triathlon, the sports governing body.

“These individuals are saying to themselves, ‘I can still do the same things I did when I was younger,’ ” says Chuck Menke, a spokesman for USA Triathlon, based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

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In 2010, USA Triathlon annual membership surpassed 135,000 compared with 15,000 to 21,000 roughly a decade ago. New triathletes are older, with the biggest growth in the 35-39 and 40-44 age groups, according to USA Triathlon.

In fact, fortysomethings appear like whippersnappers compared to some triathletes. Just ask Stuart Chagrin, 68, a finance professional who has been competing in the New York City Triathlon since 2005. That race is the same distance as the Olympic event — a modest 32 miles.

“You’re finding older people doing triathlons, older people doing endurance events,” says Chagrin, who began running in his 40s. “Older is younger these days.”

Harriet Anderson
Harriet Anderson

At the 2011 Ironman World Championship in October in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, the oldest finishers were Lew Hollander, 81, from Bend, Ore. and Harriet Anderson, 76, from San Carlos, Calif. Both completed the 140.6-mile race in less than 17 hours.

The Money Factor

It makes sense that triathlons attract older athletes. Training for three sports simultaneously can be expensive. A road bike can cost anywhere from $1,000 to several thousand dollars. Tack on a wetsuit, biking accessories, fancy watches, coaches, race entry fees and travel and accommodation for races, and the total easily can exceed four figures. In contrast, running basically requires a good pair of sneakers.

Triathletes “have got discretionary income at that age, and that allows them to travel to compete in these events,” says Menke of USA Triathlon. “They can purchase some of the latest equipment and technology.”

In fact the higher-than-average entry fee for the NYC Ironman didn’t deter racers from snatching up slots. Ironman entry fees average $650 compared to $895 for the NYC Ironman.

Of course Wall Street and finance professionals will be among the 3,000 racers on Saturday, Aug. 11.

“They’re business executives, type-A personalities,” Korff says. Roughly 49 percent of triathletes have white-collar jobs, according to USA Triathlon figures.

Super Bowl, Super Sports, Super Bucks - A CNBC Special Report
Super Bowl, Super Sports, Super Bucks - A CNBC Special Report

NYC Ironman 2011

The Ironman U.S. Championship will take place in New York City and New Jersey, making it the most metropolitan environment ever to host an Ironman.

The course consists of a 2.4-mile swim in the Hudson River, a 112-mile bike race on the Palisades Interstate Parkway above the river, and a 26.2-mile run that takes competitors from suburban New Jersey (Fort Lee) to Riverside Park in Manhattan. Competitors have 17 hours to finish.

“New York and the surrounding tri-state area have a huge endurance community," says Andrew Messick, chief executive of the Tampa, Fla.-based World Triathlon Corporation, which produces the Ironman races. (The first was in Oahu, Hawaii in 1978.)

Even in the dead of winter on an early weekend morning, it's easy to spot a peloton of cyclists, zooming up the West Side Highway as they head toward the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey.

"It was important to us to bring the Ironman experience to the New York City metropolitan area to give athletes the opportunity to compete with the world’s most iconic skyline as their backdrop,” CEO Messick says.

“If you want to have your brand be a significant brand, you need to be in New York,” says Korff, whose company helps organize the shorter NYC triathlon.

The Ironman race in August is expected to bring about $50 million to the tri-state region, says Korff, whose firm organizes the shorter, annual NYC triathlon. By comparison, the NYC marathon adds more than $200 million.

Lew Hollander
Lew Hollander

The Triathlon Lifestyle

Training for three sports also is time-consuming — up to five to six days a week. But many older triathletes commit to the hours in exchange for fitness and a better work-life balance, a desire that seems to materialize later in life. Chagrin began running in his 40s before transitioning to triathlons.

Social and philanthropic reasons also attract newbies to the sport. Nonprofits, which have long used marathons as fundraising tools in exchange for training and camaraderie, now offer triathlons, too.

Chagrin runs the NYC triathlon with Team In Training, which offers support in exchange for fundraising for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Some participants don't have a personal connection to cancer but are attracted to the camranderie and training programs, says Veronica Perez, a Team In Training spokeswoman.

“It’s a social outlet as much as an athletic outlet,” says Mike May, a spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, based in Silver Spring, Md. “It’s just a lifestyle for many people and it’s addictive.”

There are roughly 2 million triathletes in the U.S., 51 percent more than 2007, according to the association.

Chagrin says his training group helps keep him — and his wife — motivated to race. “If I didn’t have a group I can train with, I probably wouldn't get up early.”

Alas, Chagrin won’t be competing in the NYC Ironman. But he thinks a half-Ironman race, 70.3 miles, is within reach: “I think it’s doable."