‘The first time is frightening, but you get used to it eventually.’ So says Eugene Lee, a veteran triathlete on the partly exhilarating, partly terrifying mass swim start of a typical triathlon, a sport that is growing fast in Singapore.
And he’s not talking about sharks, jellyfish or other creatures from the deep. No, it’s his fellow competitors that scare him. Often described by triathletes as like being inside a human washing machine, the adrenaline-fuelled beginning of the swim-bike-run race is a compelling sight when up to 2,000 athletes, arms and legs flailing, enter the water at the same time.
In Singapore races, the swim starts aren’t quite as scary. Event organisers usually set the racers off in waves, thus reducing the turbulence. If you can survive those first few frantic minutes, and don’t mind spending a couple of hours in tight lycra, then maybe triathlon is for you.
The sport is thriving here, with 4000 competitors entering into this 2007’s Osim Singapore International Triathlon at East Coast Park.
‘In 2002, when we first organised the Osim Singapore International Triathlon, we had 500 participants,’ says Mark Tay, president of the Triathlon Association of Singapore (TAS). ‘But as the awareness of the sport grew, it became less niche and more people took an interest. [2006's] race saw 3,500 participants.’ In 2007, Tay says, they capped the numbers at 3,800 as a safety measure. Also, more resources can go into improving the quality of the experience for those who take part.
Triathlons are raced over various distances. Most popular is the Olympic Distance (OD), which involves a 1.5km swim, a 40km bike ride and a 10km run. If that sounds too far, ‘Sprint’ races typically cover half the distance of an OD event.
In addition to staging both of these, the Osim Singapore International Triathlon also offers the Mini Triathlon, which covers 200 metres, 10km and 2km. Kids aged 10 to 14 have their own race over that same distance, while boys and girls aged seven to nine, compete at shorter lengths. The longest event is the Ironman, in which competitors face the full 42.2km of a marathon after a 3.8km swim and 180.2km ride.
So how does a person go about taking up triathlon?
‘It depends on the athletic background of the individual,’ says Lee, director at Synergy Multi-Sport, which has been coaching local triathletes since 2003. ‘If you are coming from a running, swimming or cycling background, then switching to triathlon is obviously easier than for someone who gets up off the couch after being inspired by watching the Ironman on TV.’
It is possible for a complete novice to train for a Mini Triathlon in seven to eight weeks, the coach says, but recommends that only those with some relevant experience tackle a Sprint within the same timeframe.
Lee explains that a beginner has to be able to commit to training four to six times a week, but the sessions don’t have to be long in duration. It’s doing them regularly that counts. ‘People have a misconception that training four to six times a week means taking a whole chunk out of your life,’ he says. ‘But if you are preparing for your first short-distance race, training sessions of 30 to 45 minutes can be effective.’
Lee also refutes the notion that to train for a triathlon a person has to swim, bike and run each time they train. ‘Actually, you want to break it up into the individual sports.’ He recommends doing the occasional session that combines two of the three elements. For example, add a short run straight after a longer bike ride. The frequency of these workouts should be increased a few weeks before the target race.
While many triathletes train on their own, Lee espouses the benefits of training in a group.
‘For a lot of working adults with kids, it is difficult for them to motivate themselves to train on their own after a hard day’s work, so having a group means they motivate each other.’
Synergy (6774 7109), a TAS event partner, offers such group sessions at the Queenstown Sports Complex three times a week. The company also specialises in one-day clinics and triathlon camps, where athletes and coaches gather for intensive training.
Other local companies, such as Strongman (6281 0716) and Tribob (6734 1594), offer training sessions at comparable prices to Synergy and there are clubs, such as the Triathlon Family, that rely on the knowledge of their members rather than on professional coaching.
If you do prep on your own, books and online programmes such as the ones at www.trifuel.com and www.beginnertriathlete.com can be a good resource. Once you’ve put in the work, there are plenty of other opportunities to race.
As for that scary swim start, Lee doesn’t downplay the potential pitfalls. ‘Never start at the front unless you are an exceptionally strong swimmer,’ he says. As far as coming to terms with how you look in lycra – well, you’re on your own.
For information on future Triathlons in Singapore, Triathlon Association of Singapore.