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The Cost of Triathlon: Swim Bike Mom’s Take

Excerpt, Abridged, Updated, and Funnified from
Triathlon for the Every Woman: You Can Be a Triathlete. Yes. You.

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There’s a post floating around (I think it’s from Active.com) about the so-called fact that it will cost you $2,000- $25,000 to make it to an Ironman start line.

I think that they are totally right–you can absolutely fall anywhere within that $23,000 range.

Yeah Yeah Yeah…

Triathlon IS an expensive sport.

And we’re beating a dead horse about that.  Any sport or hobby can be expensive. (Have you looked at freaking scrapbooking?? For the love, triathlon is cheaper than scrapbooking!) Anything that requires dedication or membership or equipment or a uniform will cost money.  (Hello. Little League. Beginner LAX for a seven year old….whaaaaaa?)

So yes. It costs money.  [So does every other thing in the entire world.  Children. Pets. Spouses. Lawns. Houses. Cars.]  I’m not being insensitive, so please feel free to hold the comments about me not being #sensitive.  Oh, but here’s me being authentic… (Eye roll.)

…But seriously, any sport or hobby can break the bank if you immerse yourself in it.   Gaming (hello!). Hunting. Swimming. Basketball. Motorcycles. Home projects (hello!!!!). Music (have you priced out a new piano lately??!). Computers.  Reading. Writing.  Adult coloring (I can’t imagine how many colored pencils I will need for my new curse word adult coloring book.)

You name the project, hobby or interest—and there’s something to pay.

The question is:  is it worth it to YOU and your family?  3rwg61

If it’s worth it… then, then you take a big breath, you swallow, you accept it, and you stop bitching about it–and figure out what to do about it.

(Oh, and by the way.  Don’t complain about being totally broke all the time on Facebook, and yet register for 100 races each year.  Oh, and don’t buy a new bike and an aero helmet and post it on Facebook if you are “sooooo broke.”  People see through that sh*t and get tired of it. And they certainly won’t be giving money to your “poor” fund in the future. #carryon)

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ALL THE GEAR

Regardless of how confused I was about triathlon [when I started out in 2010], I knew one thing was certain: the sport required a lot of stuff. I would need to budget for the stuff and figure out where to buy the stuff.

Most importantly, I would need to figure out if my bodily stuff could possible squeeze into any triathlon-sized stuff on the market.

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If you are a gear and gadget junkie, then you have landed on a great sport.

Three sports mean three times the paraphernalia, which equates to twelve times the confusion.

Here’s the quick and dirty scoop on the equipment needed to head towards triathlon as quickly as humanly possible.

THE BIKE AND THE RACE…Well, that IS THE ‘PROBLEM’

If you take the sport as a whole, the “problem” with the expense is really two things:  the bike and the race travel.  Race fees can be reasonable, if you are smart. The bike–however—that’s really a tough thing to avoid in a triathlon. You need it, and if you don’t have a bike at all… it’s tough to NOT have to buy one. Even with great deals, that can be a problem.1163_024176 (2)

So if you are thinking about that sport, those two things are the main things to keep in mind:  bike and race travel.  If you can get your mind wrapped around those things… then you’re thinking the right way.

Plan!  Make your lists of what you ‘need’ and how you need it.  Make a timeline for purchases and when race fees are due, and budget this stuff into your life like you would anything else.  Lists are key!

TRIATHLON ON THE CHEAP

“Cheap triathlon” is, as previously mentioned, kind of an oxymoron. Still, with a bit of creativity, you can probably be in and out of your first triathlon for as cheap as $200 or $300.

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Many of us have a bike stashed in storage and an old, ugly one-piece swimsuit. Yes, the bike probably stinks and is old as all Christmas, but it might be enough to get you through for a bit.  At the bare minimum, take the old bike to your LBS (local bike shop) and get it adjusted to fit you as best as possible.

For riding, padded shorts are a necessity. Pain on the Queen will deter your return to the bike. (Who is the Queen? If you can’t figure it out, then ride an ill-fitting bike without padded shorts…and you’ll learn.) Investing in a pair of padded (chamois) shorts will make cycling life more tolerable.

Finally, even on the “cheap,” you need excellent running shoes (discussed below).

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Do not forget about eBay, Facebook groups and Craigslist as a starting point for deals on gear either. Additionally, races will often have swim caps, water bottles and discounted gear at the day-before-race expo events.

In my Tri-Fecta group, we host a “Free Stuff Friday,” where I encourage everyone to donate their unused triathlon things. Sometimes we have ah-maz-ing things come up for grabs.  So keep your eyes open for that.  (I also have many discount codes and the like that I manage to snag sometimes, so if you aren’t a member of that group already.)  While I do not allow selling in the group, there are DOZENS of sales groups on Facebook for used and cheap gear. Definitely join those, as well.IMG_3986

ON THE CHEAP SUMMARY

Swim: an old one-piece tank swimsuit; goggles ($15); swim cap ($5); borrow/rent a wetsuit for open water practices, if necessary
Bike: your old bike in the garage; a new helmet ($30-50); water bottle ($5); access to a gym with a cycling class ($20-65 a month); chamois (padded) shorts ($50-60); find an old tire pump
Run: sports bra ($20); excellent shoes and socks ($110)
Race Entry: scout out a deal, email the race director and ask if he/she has free work you can do in exchange for an entry. You’ll want to race local if you want to save the coin.
Race Day: borrow a triathlon top and shorts, or get creative with your own do-it-yourself tri outfit (see post here, section “Do It Yourself”); borrow/rent a wetsuit if necessary for that race

*Honestly, this little on the cheap list will get you to your first indoor, sprint and maybe Olympic distance race.  It’s not all inclusive, so save the commentary of “YOU TOTALLY FORGOT X.”  For the love, it’s meant to be a helpful guide.]

For longer distances, (and I would say even at Olympic distance), the training is longer – so you are probably going to need to bite the bike-buying bullet.

TRIATHLON ON THE SEMI-CHEAP

The next step-up in budgetary considerations would be to purchase a bike and a swimsuit.

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Andy Potts has nothing to do with this post. But who doesn’t love a little Andy thrown in, every blue moon. Carry on.

Swimsuit.  Swimsuit? Swimsuit? The horror! Trust me, I completely understand. Still, if we are talking triathlon, we’ve gotta talk swimsuits. You will want a one-piece, sensible suit (no skirts or tanks or board shorts). The shoulder and back straps should be reasonably thick and supportive. If the suit “holds you in” and feels comfortable, then it’s doing the job. If you are an average-sized gal, something from Athleta or Speedo is going to suit you just fine. The larger crowd (my people) may not fit into these brands. Although one-piece swimming suits are absolutely hideous and scream “Watch out, here comes the tubby swimmer,” I found a comfortable and practical tank suit at Junonia.com when I was starting out. Later, I could wear an XL Tall in Athleta suits when wearing size 14/16 clothing.  I am now hooked on the Tyr Diamondback – it’s nice and long for my long-torso’d self.  [You will learn that triathlon clothing can be exceptionally undersized, which can be incredibly discouraging for anyone over a size 10. I wrote an entire post on this. It’s here.]

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Bike.  If your bike is a piece of crap, causes you physical pain to ride or feels “off,” then you are probably in the market for a new(er) bike that fits you. Proper bike fit is monumental. The bike, of course, is your biggest investment, which is why I mentioned using the old dusty one in the garage for a bit. Still, a proper bike fit is something I cannot emphasize enough. From a motivational standpoint, if your bike is troublesome, you will hate the sport or think you are in worse shape than you actually are. Therefore, investing in a reasonable bike should take high priority. Many bike stores carry used bikes, and the folks there can advise on your bike fit. Either way: get fitted.

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Excellent running shoes are absolutely non-negotiable. Find a running store in your town (or in the closest city). You should look for one of the places where the folks make you run on the treadmill while watching your gait, and where the employees look like they stepped off a twenty-mile trail run. These are the loco running people you can trust. Listen to what they say and buy what they recommend. Eight or nine times out of ten, they’ll put you in a great shoe—and if not, they usually have great “run and return” policies if you have trouble with the fit.

I won’t get into the great shoe debate: minimalist, stability, neutral, orthotics, inserts, barefoot or the brands.

Just go get a professional shoe fit and go from there. You will learn what makes your runs more comfortable, enjoyable and injury-free. The best way to figure out which type of shoe you love is to run in different kinds of shoes. I happen to like a more neutral shoe now… where I started on a more stability shoe just from the sheer impact factor (my weight). My friend Mountain Goat runs almost on her bare hooves (she’s tiny). Just one word to the group of us who are, er, heavier—don’t let someone talk you into a minimalist or barefoot-style shoe. Starting out, the pounding will be too great on the body—you will want some sort of cushion on the bottoms of your feet… just trust me–someone who is not a doctor or a shoe expert—but from a semi-fat girl… trust me. Cushion is nice. Eventually, you may decide to transition to something more minimalist, but go slowly into this transition.

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The below items can hit your purse for around $750-$1000–and that includes a new-to-you bike. Note: I have not listed the essential winter gear you may need to run or ride outside. This list is assuming that you will do most of your training indoors during the colds months, and hoping that you can catch the end of season winter sales for the next year.

SEMI-CHEAP SUMMARY

Swim: one-piece tank swimsuit ($65); goggles ($15); swim cap ($5); borrow a wetsuit for practices in open water
Bike: an entry level/used road bike with bottle cage ($350-800); water bottles ($5); new helmet ($30); access to a gym with a cycling class ($25-75 a month); chamois (padded) shorts ($30-80); bike pump ($25)
Run: sports bra – you may want 2 or 3 ($20); excellent shoes and socks ($100); heart rate monitor ($90); Fuel Belt ($50)
Race Entry: scout out a deal. You’ll want to stay local if you want to save the coin.  Or plan far enough in advance to book cheaper hotels and get the intro race fees.
Race Day: Discount tri shorts and top ($60); borrow/rent a wetsuit

Oh, and new tri friends!? Free!!

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What about GPS Watches and Electronic Gadgets?

I love the gadgets. Nothing will tell you the truth like heartrace, pace and power.

The good news is that, from the time I wrote my book, this area of technology has come a LONG way, and there are many things you can do with your iPhone or Android, from a fitness perspective.  Check out some of these, to name a few:  Strava, Map My Ride, CVT Mobile (by Cycleops), Runtastic, Trainer Road, Zwift, and Pear Sports–lots of apps to get you some data, when you don’t want to drop $500 on a new GPS watch.

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What about a Coach or a Training Plan?

I wrote a post awhile back about a coach… and here it is.  I won’t cover it here.  I believe in having a coach.  Yes, they are an added layer of expense. But if you are paying a ton for the sport, I see having a coach as part of ensuring that I get to enjoy all that money I am spending on the race–to make sure I get there.  #MyTwoCents

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If you don’t have a coach, then you should have a training plan–at a minimum.  You can get free training plans.  You can get cheap training plans. You can get expensive training plans. You can get two-coach, group supported plans, like Brett and I offer.

All in all, assessing what you really need is key, and then moving forward and implementing it.

TRIATHLON: THE BEGINNER’S VERSION OF ‘ALL THE THINGS’

If you have and want to sink some cashola into a “hobby,” you have chosen the right money pit. You will be surprised how quickly you will justify the extravagant expenditures for the sake of health, when really, you just want the shiny new Shimano shoes and Pearl Izumi arm warmers (in the summer). But I justify blowing cash for the benefit of my triathlon lifestyle because…well, it’s for my health.  🙂

Repeat after me: These fancy new socks are for my health. My $170 bike saddle is for my health.  [Which actually, it is. A good saddle will save the Queen’s health. (Again, if you don’t know who the Queen is yet, you will—especially if you skimp on a good saddle)]

The below items can hit your purse like lightning, but if you have the cash to blow, triathlon is your playground.

Welcome to it.

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Swim: one-piece tank swimsuit ($75 – you’ll ‘need’ three of them); goggles, 3 pair ($75); swim caps (save the money, race a lot and use the free ones); wetsuit ($250-$850); TriSlide ($12); kickboard ($30); fins ($50); paddles ($40); swim mesh bag ($20); hair care for swimming ($40)
Bike: road bike ($1000-6500) or tri bike ($1500-$25,000) and saddle ($200); new helmet ($100-250); cycling shoes ($200-350); pedals ($100); water bottles ($15); rear bottle cage/hydration system ($40-150); bike bento box ($25); access to a gym with a cycling class ($75 a month); chamois (padded) shorts ($90); pump ($50); tubes, C02 cartridges ($40); sunglasses ($100); bicycle trainer / indoor Spinning bike for house ($250-450); cycling jersey ($90); arm warmers ($30); shoe covers ($30); cycling tights ($60); outer layer jacket ($100)
Run: sports bras – you’ll need several ($100); two pairs of excellent shoes and many pairs of excellent socks ($200); GPS heart rate monitor ($500); wicking running shirts ($150); several pairs of running shorts ($150); running capris ($50); warm-up pants ($60); compression socks/sleeves ($60); visors – you’ll need approximately 15-20 🙂 ($25); Fuel Belt ($50); Camelbak ($75)
Race Entries:  If you race all the things, you can spend $120 for a local race, $350-450 for a half Ironman, and as much as $850 for an Ironman (non-Foundation spot)… so yes, that’s ridiculously expensive.
Race Day: triathlon suit / shorts & top ($165); transition mat ($30); gear bag ($75)

IRONMAN

I really can’t even stress how expensive it might be to jump to Ironman (and depending on where–the half Ironman. If it’s a long-distance travel race (e.g., a flight), then it’s crazy).

If you choose Ironman, it’s expensive, because by that point, you are declared legal insane. And you suddenly “need” many, many of the things.  Okay, so not everyone does… but Ironman probably deserves its own post about expenses, just because of the additional layers of crazy.

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See? Crazy.

Here’s just some small food for thought:

  • Race Entry fees – literally double when you jump up from Olympics to half or full Ironmans
  • Travel – you may have to go further to find these races.  And sometimes the Big Events require often minimum # of night stays for hotels
  • Special Needs bags (many of the things you take to the race, you might not get back. So if you need an extra pair of socks or shoes…then sometimes those are throw-aways…and gone forever)
  • Bike Transport (whether you use Tri Bike Transport or fly with your bike, there’s an added layer of expense)IMG_0247[1]
  • Race Day Clothing (weather is often unpredictable at best on race day. You may need to bring and dress for all four seasons – and you may lose, or not get back many pieces of this clothing)
  • Nutrition (real food and race day nutrition is expensive with all that training. Also much of that is trial and error – you may not like 3/4 of the stuff you buy for nutrition, and that’s just a money pit)
  • Physical Therapy / Massage (this is suddenly more of an issue with the longer training… you need to care for the body in ways you may not have needed to at Sprint or Olympic distance.)
  • Laundry detergent and deodorant.  Stock up on it.  You will stink.

*Ironman brand is going to cost you more than a non-branded race.  Rev3 and other series races are going to be cheaper, and might not require the minimum stays for hotels, etc.  Something to keep in mind and prioritize as you proceed.

SUMMARY

Yes, triathlon is expensive.

But here’s the thing.  You will save money in other areas of your life.  You will be happier and healthier from all those endorphins from exercising. Does it make you happy?  Does it help you show your kids what working hard is all about?  Does it make your life better?

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Then do it.

For example:

  • You’ll never buy another t-shirt again
  • You aren’t ordering pizza as often
  • You are getting the exercise high, so that saves you money in therapy
  • You should drink less (allegedly) – and that saves money, because a wine habit is ‘spensive
  • You wear stretchy clothes out to public functions, so you don’t need or care about those nice clothes as much

Happy Triathlon-ing! 🙂

*Y’all fee free to post in the comments some of the things you love, that are budget-friendly.

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17 Comments

  • Jeannie

    January 26, 2016 at 1:37 pm

    Also…I only by swimsuits at swimoutlet.com and buy their “grab bag suits” where I order by size and brand. I don’t pick the styling, but they fit and are cheap!

    Reply
    • Kris

      January 26, 2016 at 2:12 pm

      I love those posts about triathlon (does anyone else always type triathlong? TG for spellcheck!) being so expensive. My husband hunts and fishes. I don’t even think about what he spends a year on those. We just bought a new to him boat. It’s 12 yrs old and cost over $20k. It’s going to take me many years to spend that much on triathlon and by then he’ll want a new boat. Do I care, nope. The hubs is happy.
      Triathlon keeps me busy, active and mostly sane. I’m happy.
      We’re both happy and that’s all that really matters.
      Hobbies can be inexpensive or expensive. It’s all in how far you want to take it.

      Budget friendly – don’t buy all the damn gadgets!! Although I am loving my 920XT but that was a gift 🙂

      Reply
  • Megan

    January 26, 2016 at 4:56 pm

    An unfortunate reality for those of us who are, ahem, well endowed up top is that we likely can’t/shouldn’t rely on the $20 sports bras. I’m in the broad “DD+” category and find, even on sale I usually need to spend $40-60 on each bra. Amazon and Herroom.com are good for sales/clearance once you know what brands and sizes work for you.

    Reply
  • Steve

    January 26, 2016 at 5:20 pm

    You didn’t even mention golf as a hobby. Talk about expensive! I think triathlon is half the cost of that insanity.

    I think I did my first sprint triathlon for less than $100 total:

    Swim suit: $0 for that old one I had in the drawer (talk about chaffing on the run!)

    Powder for after the race to help with the chaffing from the swim suit: $3

    Goggles: $0 for the old ones I in the drawer. The water was too dirty to see anything so it didn’t matter that I couldn’t see out of the googles.

    Old mountain bike I had in the garage: $0 and good for a 12 mph average. Woo-hoo.

    WD-40 $4 to make the bike stop making that squeaking sound

    Old helmet I had in the garage: $0

    Old tee shirt to bike and run in: $0 – talk about not being aero!

    Sunglasses that I already had: $0.

    Old sneakers that I already had: $0.

    Race entry fee: $45

    Travel to the race: $35 for half tank of gas

    Lodging: $12 for one night camping reservation at the nearby campground

    Total expense: $99.

    Experience: Priceless.

    It is always best to do the first triathlon on the cheap so you can figure out just how bad the addiction is going to be. There is always time later to spend thousands and thousands of dollars.

    Reply
  • stephanie

    January 26, 2016 at 5:46 pm

    My first race ever was on Mother’s Day. In Massachusetts. Water is still COLD then so my investments focused on the swim – I had a mountain bike I loved (yes, I used a mountain bike for my first three races) and a decent pair of sneakers. I splurged on a good wet suit, my tri suit (so I wasn’t *that girl*), and a gym membership with a pool so I could learn to swim.

    Over the last three years I’ve added a road bike, wet suit socks and hat, and upgraded my sneakers.

    I’m still doing local sprint distance races, but building up slowly has kept the costs manageable. I probably won’t ever do an IronMan because I look at the cost and there are about 100 items on my bucket list to do with that money before an IronMan, but I’ve made peace with that – as Meredith says, there’s always some cost to a hobby and you need to decide what that hobby is worth to you. It was really hard to admit to myself that an IronMan isn’t a priority for me but it’s just not and I enjoy my little races more now that I’m not stressing about not prioritizing an IronMan.

    Tri’s are manageable when you know what your priorities are!

    Reply
  • Duckie

    January 26, 2016 at 6:40 pm

    Thanks for the giggle! Yep. I’m one of those that posted the thingy that’s flying around FB. I thought it was funny. Seriously… You hit the nail on the head with the whole new level of insanity with signing up for an Ironman. I thought running was expensive but.. then I started Triathlon… then I signed up for a full IM. WTF was I thinking?
    Yes. It can be done “on the cheap” but unfortunately I am that little girl in the photo.. “I want it and I want it now”. sigh. (I am a princess in my own mind.) I keep on signing up for races. I keep buying more gear. If I didn’t get an inheritance last year I wouldn’t have most of what I have right now.
    I LOVE this stuff. LOVE IT! I have everything I need. I think. For now?
    My official training started this week and I’m thankful I was able to purchase up front all of the stuff I (don’t really) need, including; a bike, accessories, a nice saddle, Zipps, a computrainer, all of my coaching, personal training, gym membership, etc so I don’t have to worry about it until AFTER IMLP.
    I am rambling.. oh my god.
    Anyhoo. I love this post. It is absolutely a sport that can be done on the cheap. I however, have champagne tastes (non alcoholic of course) and now that I’m back to my ginger ale budget I will have to reign myself in.
    I’m gonna suck it up like a good little buttercup from here on in and not complain! I promise. 🙂

    Reply
  • dave

    January 26, 2016 at 7:33 pm

    Still in the sport on the cheap…going on 35 years and (1) have one suit/pair of goggles (2) road bike w/bars (3)one pair of running shoes (4) clothes I have worn for swim/bike;run for years and (5) race locally until I plan for a BIG race. I don’t care what I look like when I am competing and usually compete in a bathing suit if any shorter than an IM. No gadgets, no coach, but still collect AG awards. All fun.

    Reply
  • seewead

    January 26, 2016 at 7:34 pm

    Still in the sport on the cheap…going on 35 years and (1) have one suit/pair of goggles (2) road bike w/bars (3)one pair of running shoes (4) clothes I have worn for swim/bike;run for years and (5) race locally until I plan for a BIG race. I don’t care what I look like when I am competing and usually compete in a bathing suit if any shorter than an IM. No gadgets, no coach, but still collect AG awards. All fun.

    Reply
  • Stephanie

    January 27, 2016 at 3:19 am

    I did my first triathlon as an intern, it can be done but it’s about prioritizing. There’s a lot less young people involved in triathlon and most of the time the complaint I hear is about the price. I roll my eyes because you can’t tell me you don’t want to spend $60 on a good swimsuit when you’re dropping $200 a week on bar tabs going downtown all the time.

    As for getting races cheap, surprisingly I think joining a local tri club is key here. They’ll know about the local races and when the prices are cheap, you can find people to split lodging to most “popular” races in your area, and they might even have discount codes! My tri club membership was $35 a year and you can easily justify that in discounts alone, not counting the resource of people happy to lend whatever gear you might need.

    Reply
  • Lorena

    January 27, 2016 at 8:54 am

    For people that are hell-bent on doing an IM-branded race, doing it on one of the charity slots is a great way to save money. For IMFL, I raised $5000 for the Children’s Tumor Foundation. Most of that was self-generating, once donors start advertising for you. But, when you sign on, they provide one or two coaches that have done that race, they provide a Training Peaks training plan that is monitored by that coach, you get a deep discount on a REALLY good hotel that’s 200 yards from the race venue, you get a kit, you get a running shirt, you get discounted TriBike transport (and free if you raise $7500, if I remember the amount correctly). The kiddos in support get free cowbells and water bottles and supporter t-shirts. And, they also pay for your entry. AND, it’s one of the only way to get into venues that sell out fast.

    Reply
  • cherie

    January 27, 2016 at 10:59 am

    Still doing tris on the cheap after 33 years of participating…have one suit, one pair of shoes, race in my suit most of the time (sprint and oly) and put aero bars on a road bike. For me it’s all about earning my gear. I won’t get a tri bike until my next IM and I can guarantee I can go over a certain MPH in my race.

    Reply
  • Andrea

    January 27, 2016 at 5:40 pm

    Awesome. I love the NO EXCUSES vibe around here! Can I throw out a crazy idea to further cheapen things up?

    I do what I call “home spun” events. I swim at a local lake or the Y, plot a bike course, transition at home and run an out and back from there. I’ve done a couple of Olympic Distance and one 70.3 like this (another coming this June!) My husband trained and completed the 70.3 in 2014.

    It costs $0 for entry fee, lodging or travel. I train on the course for race day. I have my friends bike and run some of the distances with me, and I never feel guilty about spending too much time or money on my sport. 🙂

    For my 70.3, I ordered myself a finishers medal – calling the event Lincoln IronMorton 70.3 (my last name is Morton). I realize this isn’t for everyone – but it works for me!

    Reply
  • Seewead

    January 28, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    Do a race on an army/air force base…they are usually really inexpensive due to many volunteers and a closed to traffic race course- AND you get a tech t!

    Reply

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