I’m racing open/elite at a local triathlon, and here’s why

Last year, I noticed something curious at a lot of the smaller local triathlons.  The races often had categories for elite/open racers – meaning they all start in the first wave and race against each other for overall positions, regardless of their age – and the men’s elite/open waves would have a dozen or more triathletes.

The women’s elite/open wave, though?  We’d be doing real good if we had four triathletes signed up for that wave.

Well, I didn’t like seeing that one bit.  I know triathlon as a sport tends to skew sausage, but I also knew there were tons of really fast women racing as age-groupers who would be right at home in the open/elite wave.

Part of it, I’m sure, is just a lack of awareness about the option. My friend Yova, who is one of the best local triathletes in the area, found out about it the hard way when she posted the fastest time at a sprint tri but lost the overall female spot because she wasn’t aware she could sign up to race as elite/open.

But that’s only part of it, and I’ll get to that in a bit.

Anyway I decided I was going to be the change I would like to see in the world.  (Bumper sticker wisdom!)  I thought maybe if I signed up to race open/elite, it might send a signal to other female triathletes to consider it as an option, and that hopefully the days of a two-woman open/elite field will soon be in the past.

So earlier this year, I set a few goals for myself for the coming triathlon seasons, and one of those goals was to get fast enough so that I could race in the open division without, quote, “totally embarrassing myself.”

I figured I’d go for one of those smaller local races – not one of the bigger world-class ones like St. Anthony’s or Escape from Alcatraz – where I’d actually have a fighting chance against the rest of the field. (And definitely not something like an Ironman-branded race, where the faster racers are superhumanly fit freaks of nature who think nothing of riding a five-hour century on the weekend for funsies.)

Well, that smaller race is next weekend – an Olympic distance triathlon in Siesta Key.  I checked the start list, realized the women’s open division was incredibly small and I thought that maybe this would be a good opportunity to try.  I emailed the race director and asked to be changed to the open division, knowing full well that I was trading in my opportunity for a likely AG award in the process.

Plus I’ve also been feeling pretty fit and fast lately.  I ran a 5K in heat and humidity and was the 12th woman out of nearly a thousand.  I raced a sprint triathlon last weekend and was the fifth female age-grouper across the finish line.  I’m a decent local-level athlete, so why not, right?

The truth is – I could think of a lot of reasons why not.  For one, am I really that fast?  When I think of elite/open triathletes, I think of the elite racers on my team, of the woman who started racing pro after cleaning up at every local race, of Yova….but not really of me. I’ve written in the past about my struggles with thinking of myself as one of the faster local athletes. It’s still a struggle for me to think of myself in those terms.

But here’s the real fear underlying all of that – what if I embarrassed myself?  What if I was so far behind the other elite/open racers that I looked foolish?  What if I failed?  And compounding it is the fact that it’s a public failure, not a private one.  I’m making a public claim about myself – I think I’m good enough to be at the front – and if I fail to perform well, then I’m exposing myself as full of hubris and unwarranted ego.

Elle recently published a couple of things about failure – including an essay by Melissa Harris-Perry and one entitled Why Women Are Afraid of Failure – that caused me to really think hard about the way I was thinking about all of this. Check out this paragraph on the introduction to the MHP essay:

Nobody likes to fail. But women take failure particularly hard—studies have shown that women are so averse to failure that they don’t apply for jobs unless they feel 100 percent qualified. This hesitancy is understandable: When they do fail, women are judged more harshly than their male counterparts. Men, on the other hand, throw veritable failure parties; they’re more likely to embrace “what doesn’t kill you …” and plow ahead.

I totally have that hesitancy too.  I mean, when I was applying for my new job, I had to choose between positions as an assistant editor and a managing editor.  I ended up applying for the assistant editor position because I was 100% qualified for that job, and passing on the managing editor position because I was only about 70% qualified for that one. (My new bosses apparently recognized this without me even having to say anything, which is why they hired me as an mid-level editor.)

But that’s, you know, a JOB, which means regular paychecks and benefits and other things that go a long way towards having a stable life, and so I was fine with going for the safe option.

But racing…racing is really not that important.  I mean, yes, it’s important to me, but in the grand scheme of things?  It’s a fucking hobby.  It’s like knitting or gardening – an enjoyable way of spending my free time.  It’s not that important.

I talked about this with my friend Scott, who races men’s open at smaller races, and he told me that his attitude is basically, “Who even cares? No one.” And then he quoted Tom Cruise to me and said, “Sometimes you’ve just gotta say ‘What the fuck.'”

That “what the fuck” attitude, the veritable failure parties, the mentality of just going for something, outcomes be damned – I think that’s why you see five times as many amateur guys sign up as open/elite than women.  I think a lot of women are like me in that they only want to go for something if they feel like they’ve checked off all the boxes and hit all of the prerequisites, whereas a lot of guys are like Scott and they say “what the fuck” and they just go for it.

(And I may be wrong about this but I suspect the same dynamic is at play in the ranks of the pros, where there are a ton of men and not nearly as many women.  This, despite the fact that triathlon’s superstars are pretty evenly split between the genders.)

When I thought about it, I realized that Scott’s right – who really does care?  I am the only person who cares.  No one else cares! (Seriously, the spotlight effect is a real, documented thing.)  Okay, maybe Brian cares, but that’s really about it.

At most someone might give my failure a passing scornful thought, but unless they’re coming up to me to talk shit to my face, I’ll never know, which is functionally the same to me as no one actually caring.

It’s such a liberating realization, to understand that the person likely to judge my failures the most harshly is me, and thus the person I have the most control over.

And OK, say I do fail – what’s the worst that can happen?  I feel embarrassed for a while? Disappointed?  Those feelings fade with time. Trust me, I know from experience.

Plus if I’ve learned anything in my 36 years on earth, it’s that I’m capable of drawing tons of motivation from drawbacks and obstacles, so taking a hard swing at something and whiffing – as much as it might suck in the moment – would actually do me good in the long run.

No doubt, I’m nervous about the way this will all turn out, but I’m always a little nervous before races because I care so much about doing well.  And I’m also mostly excited, because it’s going to be fun!  Racing is loads of fun – that’s why so many of us keep doing this.

Best of all, I’m excited about trying something new and pushing myself a little harder and being a little more ambitious. I hope that racing with the fast kids will help me become a little faster in the process.

And yes, part of me hopes that maybe I’ll inspire other women like myself to consider doing the same – or at least making it a goal for the future – at their own local races.  That’s why I wrote about that in the first place instead of just keeping it to myself.

I want more women – myself included – to feel comfortable with ambition and also with failure, as the two things often go hand-in-hand. And if we can get comfortable with these things on the race course, just imagine what’ll happen when we take that confidence out into the rest of the world.

20 responses to “I’m racing open/elite at a local triathlon, and here’s why

  1. Yes! This is totally accurate and what the fuck, who cares — if you want to push yourself in the elite/open, then why not! Hopefully more women do too.

  2. I kind of feel the same way about entering the Athena category and I have committed to doing so when I return to racing. Yes I am very qualified to race in an over 80kg category – but to admit that and possibly be judged?? (Who am I kidding – there’s no escaping the fact I look like I am over 80kg either) But for a similar reason – I’ve decided that is what I am doing.
    On elite vs age group – as an also-ran in the pack I am pretty much in awe of anyone who is faster than me, doubly so of the age group speedsters, triply of the open.
    I agree it would be fantastic if every woman who placed top 5 or came close to in age group bumped themselves up to open and raced.
    Would open chance of age group win to the next rank and put even more weight behind 50womentokona and the like.
    Good luck with the race – I hope you have a fantastic one – I mean, how very tantalising to know that EVERY woman you pass in the race is taking you one closer to the win. (If you’re not in front already) – and if you are in front – every single woman in the event is behind you – killer motivation right there!!!!

    • Your point about opening up the AG awards for more women is a really good one, and definitely worth considering. I know how excited I get whenever I win one and how motivating I find it, and if taking on a new challenge means opening up that opportunity for another woman, then I am ALL FOR IT.

      Also I hear you on the Athena category. I understand why they have it but I also understand why some women are less than enthusiastic about signing up for it, even though they may qualify. I’m glad you’re going for it, though! Good for you!

  3. Really enjoyed reading this Caitlin. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, fears, dreams and aspirations. Love the “what the fuck” attitude. Wishing all the very best. And yep, you’ve inspired me to get my arse back into triathlon – because WTF, right?! Georgia 🙂 x


  4. Caitlin, no doubt you are strong, fit, fast, and powerful enough to be elite. Best of luck!

    AND, meanwhile, a further something to ponder: I think another reason lots of guys just go for it is because guys are socialised to feel natural taking up space. It’s not just “what the fuck?”; behind that there’s an ingrained assumption that they have a right to be there, to give it a shot. (And perhaps also a responsibility to be there, even if they themselves aren’t so sure… to participate in team guy?) I see this all the time at work, in my cycling club, and in the world generally. It’s not a bad thing necessarily (I would love to be granted the power to take up space without thinking about it!!), nor is it a conscious one, but it DOES have the knock-on effect of reinforcing for women that perhaps they don’t have the same right, because look, there’s all these guys… is there really room for me?

    Now go kick ass!

    • Thanks for this added perspective! I know there’s a whole bunch to the socialization aspect but I will be honest and say that I don’t feel like I have a good enough grasp on the subject, so rather than writing about it in vague terms that might not be correct, I opted to go for my personal experience. So I appreciate your comment for bringing more context to the discussion!

      And yes, I’m working on feeling like I have the right and the power to take up space, but my god it is not coming easily to me! It would be great to not have to think about it at all – or at least be able to feel comfortable doing it while still being aware of the needs/circumstances of other people – but I think simply trying is a good first step.

  5. This is so exciting! If nothing else, the fear and challenge will provide ample opportunities for learning.

    I have every faith you’re going to kick ass in this race, but for the record, if I saw someone in the open/elite category trailing behind I’d just assume they were having an off day and be wowed that they were running anyway. No judgments would sneak in.

    Also, I love this: “Sometimes you’ve just gotta say ‘What the fuck.’”

    I’ve been working on “Why not me?” and I feel like this will add nicely to that.

    • “If nothing else, the fear and challenge will provide ample opportunities for learning.”

      That’s what I’m hoping! And I appreciate you saying you’d assume the person was having an off day. 😀 I mostly assume that people don’t really think that much about me at all, but if they do I’d prefer they offer a charitable interpretation of events rather than a harsh one.

      “I’ve been working on “Why not me?” and I feel like this will add nicely to that.”

      Why NOT you? I mean, it has to be SOMEONE so why not? I’m glad we’re both working on this “what the fuck” and “why not me” attitude together.

  6. Inspirational post, Caitlin. When you wrote the part about making a public claim that you are good enough to race elite, I read this is something more. You’ll also saying, you want to put yourself in the absolute best racing environment by going in the first wave, because you want to RACE. Elite isn’t just a time, it’s an attitude. You have an elite attitude, ergo, you are an elite. As long as the race organization recognizes that and allows you to race elite, you can.

    Now, there are some problems with the word “elite” here, like it is somehow better than non-elite. It is not, it is just more focused on time, and measuring your success based on numbers.

    This reminds me of another common issue- when the women’s winner’s time is much slower compared to the men’s winning time, and how this is reported. For example, in a small local inaugural marathon last year, the men’s winning time was 2:40 something, which is pretty much elite, or sub-elite. The women’s winning time was 3:47 or something, which is a very solid time, but not equivalent to the men’s 2:40. The reporters were gone by the time she got through, there was no mention of her in the article (which was only about the men’s race), and no one talked about it, even the race itself. Now, one can argue that a 3:47, winning by a large margin is not as exciting as a back-and-forth among three guys in the 2:40s. However, what if you or I are reading it, we we think, hey! I can do 3:47, I’m going to train to WIN the blah-blah marathon. That gets more women at the top for next year to race, and hey, isn’t this the point of racing! (The same applies to the reverse, if the women’s race is stacked, and the men’s isn’t as interesting).

    Wow, this is a long comment. Anyway, my point is, a “soft winning time” like the 3:47 is stil WINNING for THAT day. A “soft elite” field, like in the small local triathlon, is still elite for that day, and you’re presence will make that elite field better and more competitive, because that group on the start line will be bigger.

    P.S. the man who won the marathon was my husband. When we noticed the reporters left, we waited until the first woman finished so that I could grab of picture of them together holding their awards and then I sent it in to the paper and they printed a follow up article the next day. 🙂

    • First of all, congratulations to your husband! How exciting that must have been for both of you. And that was SUCH a class act on the part of you and your husband, making sure the female winner got her recognition for what she’d done. I think that’s fantastic.

      The rest of your comment is also really great, and I appreciate you taking the time to write that out because you’ve given me a lot to think about. And, I mean, you’re right – I know I do so much better when I’m trying to keep pace with or stay ahead of other women, especially ones I regard as strong athletes, and I hope that I can offer a little bit of that to others. That’s kind of the fun thing about smaller races – that you don’t have to be incredibly fast to still be competitive. You can still get that thrill of racing – and man, it is SO thrilling – without being national-class elite.

      Thank you SO much for your comment. I love the perspective you’ve offered. 😀

  7. Hey Caitlin, recently I’ve been reading your blog posts and as a soon to be freshman in university, I find them very motivating. I think that women have to stop being such huge perfectionists and afraid of criticism and that they should focus more on trying new challenges no matter what, because embarrassment is no worse than stagnation.
    I myself love sports however I never feared being judged which has helped me being good at a lot of disciplines, but I witnessed this fear in many of my female friends who lack of confidence in this area and so I plan on sharing this blog post with them 😋 .
    Besides, I would love to do marathons in the future but I’m not really sure on how to train and where to train like, is it better to run outside or inside?
    Thanks in advance for reading ^^

    Oh and by the way, the name of your blog kind of inspired me to create a bunch of logos for you and I was wondering if you’d like to see them and eventually use one of them (for free of course) 😁

    • Hi! I had been meaning to come back to your comment to thank you for this! I’m so glad this post was helpful for you with regards to dealing with your fears. Best of luck to you and your friends!

      Regarding training for a marathon – I tend to prefer training outside because it more closely mimics the conditions you’ll experience on race day (dealing with wind, gravity, weather, etc.) but if it’s really hot or really cold, then by all means, the treadmill is great for that.

      I would love to see the logos you created. Where can I email you? That’s very sweet of you to offer to do that!

  8. What a great post and thanks for sharing! I’m considering doing a triathlon my self and you have just pushed me one step closer! You are an inspiration

    • Yay! I’m so glad to hear that! I love triathlon a lot and am delighted that you’re considering doing one yourself. 😀

  9. Pingback: Race Report: Tri Siesta Key Olympic Triathlon | Fit and Feminist·

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