Ironman Wisconsin Champ!

Ironman Wisconsin Champ!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Calling it a season-Thinking long term-The economics of making a living as a pro triathlete

I made the decision to call my 2010 triathlon campaign complete a few weeks ago and not go forth with Ironman Florida. Basically I was tired, more so mentally than physically, and just didn't feel that I was ready to put forth the dedication to properly prepare for another Ironman. I thought about just "faking" my way through it and going through the motions with my preparations but one of the things I learned from my first experience with the 140.6 distance is the importance of being completely and totally dedicated to the task at hand when training and racing that distance. So out of respect for the distance and my body I decided not to force myself to prepare when the signs were clearly there I wasn't into it. I think that less than two months of separation between Ironmans was asking a lot, especially for the first two. The first one took so much out of me mentally and I had not quite bounced back all the way when it came time to prepare for the second. Furthermore I hadn't quite recovered physically as well as I had initially thought. After the standard week of downtime following the race I felt quite sharp actually, managed good workouts and a very solid 1:53 olympic distance performance in Iowa. Then three weeks after Rev 3 was the Powerman Muncie long course duathlon. It was during and after that race where I learned that I had some very deep rooted soreness and fatigue still in the body. I had planned to start training for Florida the day after Powerman but instead I was so sore I couldn't walk normal for two days. And with that I called it a season.

My 2010 season was rather mixed; some highs and many lows. Pretty inconsistent. It was a step forward from the disaster that was 2009 but not up to the level that I was at in 2007-08. The one big positive that I take away from this year is the way I finished the season from August onward. I took a big risk with the training I did for Rev 3, wasn't sure if I was physically capable of completing it, but surprisingly, it wasn't even the hardest training block I had ever completed despite it being by far the most volume.

I think the biggest challenge for me still remains trying to figure out where exactly triathlon fits into my life. Is triathlon something that I really want to do as a profession and try to make into a career? Or would I be happier if I lived the life of a 'normal' working person, trained 15 hours a week to keep fit, and raced triathlon as an age grouper purely for the fun of it? This is something I've been trying to figure out for multiple years now and still don't have an answer for. It's funny because I remember racing as an age-grouper back in 2007 which was probably the most motivated I've ever been towards anything in my entire life. And my motivation that year was how badly I wanted to make it as a professional triathlete. So what has happened since then to make me question what was my strongest motivation ever? Well, I became a professional triathlete. And along with becoming a professional triathlete I have lived the lifestyle of a pro triathlete for three years now and I've learned that the lifestyle isn't quite as glamorous as I envisioned as a motivated age grouper back in 2007. Don't get me wrong, being a pro triathlete is great and I love the lifestyle, but it is also hard, very hard. It's the hardest thing I've ever done. And while there are some highs which we all strive for and envision in training, there are also many lows, probably more lows than highs, and some of those lows are rock bottom low. It's those lows that you never consider when you set goals or choose to chase the dream, but they are always there and apart of the whole process. Now age group racing certainly has it's lows too, but not nearly to the extent of professional racing. The moment you decide to have this sport as your profession and way of making a living you introduce a whole new pressure into the equation, the pressure that this is where your income has to come from, this is how you will make a living. How well you race is how well you get paid. For the majority of pro triathletes there's no such thing as a stable income like a 'normal' job or even other pro sports. In most pro sports the way you perform on any given day does not impact how you are paid, you are paid based on your entire body of work. This is not the case in triathlon, you are paid almost entirely off of what you do on the day. This pressure and uncertainty is no way to make a living and can sap a lot of the fun and purity out of the sport.

I would equate making a living as a pro triathlete to the 'average' person who works 5 days/40 hours per week like this. Imagine that starting next week your current job is going to have all its employees come in to work just one day per week with the opportunity to make two weeks worth of pay. Sounds great, right? But here's the catch. At the end of the work day all the employees are going to be measured for their productivity on that day. Those whose productivity is in the top 20% of everyone will be paid an entire two week's salary, everyone else, nothing. So what will happen under this scenario? Well, those who are consistently in the top-20% of productivity every week will likely be very happy, they are getting paid quite well for one day a week of work. A select few, who can be in the top 20% more than half the time, will even be making more than one year's salary in a year. However, the number of workers who fall into this category will be very small. The vast majority of employees will be lucky to place in the top 20% once per month, many will go into the work day knowing that they have practically no chance of getting paid. As a result it won't take long for people to quit this job for something more stable or find a second job to make ends meet. This is my best analogy for what it is like trying to make a living as a pro triathlete. And I forgot to mention, also add into the above scenario the variables that there will no longer be employee insurance or health benefits, no paid time off, no sick days, no paid vacations, no retirement package, no excuses. And to make it even more in line with pro triathlon, every week your job location changes to a different city in the US, sometimes even a different country. All employees are responsible for funding their travel to the job location. What do think the chances are of any given worker making a stable, long term living at this job?

I'm not trying to complain about making a living as a pro triathlete, too many pros already do that. I feel fortunate for my time as a pro and for the opportunity of being able to experience this lifestyle. The reason I didn't pursure a career upon graduating college was because I knew I would always look back and wonder what could have been with triathlon. Well, I've now gone down that road and I know what it is to make a living in this sport. All I'm trying to say is that having lived the lifestyle as a pro for three years now I'm not sure how much longer I can see myself going like this, unless things suddenly improve drastically. I, like all pros, would love to see much more money suddenly appear in the sport but I don't see things changing anytime soon. Reality is pro triathletes are not sought after the same way as the pros in other sports. Imagine if I were to show up at an average, hometown, local triathlon with three athletes who are at the top of their games in their respective sports. Peyton Manning, Lebron James, Chris McCormack. At this local triathlon I would estimate that close to 100% of all participants are going to immediately recognize Peyton and Lebron. Yet I would also predict somewhere in the neighborhood of 20% of all participants are going to recognize Chris McCormack. And this is a triathlon we're talking about, the very sport in which Macca has reached the pinnacle. Professionals just do not carry much weight in this sport right now, and until this changes you won't see more people making a living as pro triathletes. Chrissie Wellington might be the only pro triathlete to make it as a mainstream athlete, and even that is debateable. But I still don't see even Chrissie having more than a 50% recognition rate at a given hometown triathlon. The star pros in other sports transcend the sport. Star pro triathletes are barely recognizable in their own sport.

With age group racing it's all about fun, enjoyment of the sport, healthy competition, and the lifestyle first and foremost. The moment the lows outweigh the highs you're going to stop or take a break and find a new hobby. When you commit to race as a professional it's a little different; you have to stick to the plan through all the ups and downs, even when the lows outweigh the highs. Sometimes you have to race even when you don't really want to for the purpose of making money and supporting your sponsors. The travel can be fun, visiting new places for the purpose of racing, but the travel can also become monotonous, expensive, and be more draining than the racing. Racing because you 'need' to as a professional can sap a lot of the fun away compared to an age grouper who will only race because they 'want' to. And finally, professionals live with the realization that they are working twice as hard and getting paid a fraction of what they would make if they used that college degree to get a 'real' job. All of this for the purpose of "living the dream". But what happens when 'the dream' turns out to be not nearly as appealing as you once thought? Well now I'm just getting philosophical. All I'm trying to say is I'm still questioning where triathlon fits into my life and what I hope to take away from it. I'm far from saying I'm throwing in the towel on professional racing. The good news is I do feel rejuvenated and excited again by the challenge of Ironman racing and I'm excited to head into 2011 with an Ironman focus.

A lot has happened since the season ended. My roomate, Jun, landed a great job as head coach of the Frostburg State University Men's and Women's swimming and diving teams. He has moved out to Maryland for that position. He left his previous job as Assistant coach to the women's swim team at DePauw University. With it being mid-season and nobody available to fill his position the DPU head coach offered me Jun's old position and I accepted it, as a volunteer. So it's a very interesting experience as this is my first time coaching at the collegiate level as well as my first time coaching just a women's team. And to make things even more interesting the head coach is my mom. I figure the worst that can happen out of all of this is I learn a whole lot. And with my own personal questions about my future in triathlon I've started thinking more and more about heading back to grad school and won't rule out the possibility of pursuing a coaching career. I really think that 2011 is going to be a deciding year for me. If I can put together a stellar, consistent triathlon season and have fun while doing it then I'll stick with my current profession. If I see more inconsistency, lackluster performances, and don't enjoy myself more then I think it'll be time to reconfigure my priorities and place triathlon racing on the back burner for a while. It won't be a failure if that happens, success or failure to me is based upon figuring out exactly what I want to do with my life long term and then doing it to the best of my ability! Here's to figuring things out in 2011!

Thanks for reading,

Having just read through all I wrote I declare this my favorite blog post yet. It's funny what happens when you get going, when I sat down I planned a short update about ending my season. Oops, guess I had a lot to say I didn't know about.


  1. Very good post Daniel! Just discovered your blog... I had a similar experience, didn't go professional, but did get a full time job with a triathlon production crew, Ultramax here in Missouri. When triathlon became my job, took away a lot of the fun... Got out of it as a job, back to just being a moderately successful age grouper, loving it! Wishing you the best of luck next year, hope everything clicks for you and you have an outstanding season!

  2. Interesting read. I think part of being a pro is motivating others to a higher level. One of the reasons why being a pro and a coach at the same time work so well. You seem to do very well at the coaching/motivating part so don't forget that. Triathlon is changing, to a more professional sport, but for how long, and how much money is involved is hard to say.

  3. Hope you are figuring out the Kona/Clearwater points system. I just saw that a 7th at AZ nets you more points then a WIN at Florida. COuld cause a lot of people to do the big races and stay away from the low points from the way it looks set up. I mean Cunnama has won TWO races and only in 16th place. He is going about it the toughest way possible. I think it will take people a bit to catch on as well. Maybe that Rev 3 series again is a good call. Hope you can plan a season around others all planning the points and the chasing involved. (I like the points idea bc people are encouraged to race their own race as opposed to busting a swim and bike a maybe a couple mile run as then see where they stand. I think it will help people like you who race their own race instead of gambling on that 10% day and burning up half the rest of the field in the process bc if you have 20 people gambling for their 10% race some of them are going to succeed.

  4. Daniel,
    That was a good read. Thanks for sharing.