Forget Triathlons. It's Time for Aquabike.
Updated: Feb 12, 2019
Forget Triathlons. It’s Time for Aquabike.
For triathletes who hate the running part, there’s a new sport that oers a path to glory
Kathleen A. Hughes competed in the ITU Aquabike World Championships earlier this year in Penticton, British Columbia. PHOTO: FINISHERPIX.COM
By Kathleen A. Hughes
Nov. 12, 2017 1012 p.m. ET
When I proudly told friends that I had qualified for the world championships in aquabike this past August, at age 60, I faced blank stares and concerned questions.
“How does the bike move in the water?” “Do you practice on a stationary bike in the pool?” my brother-in-law asked.
The answer is that aquabike is a relatively new sport in triathlon, a race that normally includes a swim, bike and run. In aquabike, you get to skip the run.
While races vary, the most common distance is a 1.2-mile swim and a 56-mile bike ride. “Swim, bike, done,” enthusiasts say.
While the number of participants in triathlons has declined in the past few years, aquabike is growing rapidly, partly by appealing to older athletes with running injuries.
“It’s growing like a weed,” says Chuck Graziano, a director of USA Triathlon who has a titanium knee and competes in aquabike. “It doesn’t include the pounding of running. It can be age- related, injury-related, or people who just prefer not to run.”
Indeed, the number of aquabike races sanctioned by USA Triathlon, the sport’s governing body, has more than doubled in five years to 562 races with 5,160 aquabikers last year.
Its creation follows other race variations with equally weird names: Duathlon is a run, bike, run competition, and aquathlon is usually a swim, run contest. But aquabike, the first hybrid to nix running, gained status this past August when it was included in the 2017 International Triathlon Union’s multisport world championships in Penticton, British Columbia.
That elevation of aquabike gave me—a distinctly below-average triathlete and a slow runner—a new loophole to qualify for Team USA and attend the world championship, a goal that had eluded me despite a great deal of effort.
As I detailed in an earlier article about taking up triathlons in my late 50s, it seemed like a quick path to glory. I could land on the podium in small, local races—simply because so few women in my age division showed up.
I quickly became addicted.
But when the smaller races qualified me for national championships—where the top 18 qualify for Team USA—I made an unwelcome discovery: Lots of women in the 60-64 division showed up from all over the country.
And they’re fast.
Case in point: When I went to the national championships in Milwaukee in 2015, I was 59th out of 70 in the Olympic distance triathlon, with a time of 3:23:41. Many of my competitors sailed past me in the run—wearing sleek Team USA triathlon suits with their names on their butts.
And when I qualified for the national
championships in Omaha the next year: same
thing. I moved up just one notch, to 58th place out
of 68 in my division, with an even slower time of
It all seemed hopeless, particularly the run. I have arthritis in my knees, and when I took up speed intervals, trying to become faster, I tore my hamstring, broke my foot and developed plantar fasciitis, in that order.
Last year, USA Triathlon ranked me 300th out of 449 in my age division, female 60-64. Bottom half.
Two things were becoming clear: I needed a coach to help me get faster. And I really wanted the Team USA outfit with my name on the butt.
Mostly, I wanted the outfit.
I hired a coach and began to train upward of 12 hours a week, made easier by the fact that I had put aside my freelance writing to focus on this one goal. I began to get faster, but my run times were lagging.
Then, in the summer of 2016, my coach emailed, saying aquabike had just been included in the national championships, scheduled for Miami in November. Here was my chance to qualify for Team USA, wear the uniform, and legitimately compete at the world championships in British Columbia, she wrote.
At first, I was insulted. Aquabike is a weird name. Triathlon conjures up Ironman races and the uber-fit. Aquabike conjures up...a bike underwater. It also seemed like a triathlon for people who can’t run.
But as I studied the sign-ups, I realized she was right. The top 18 in each age group would qualify for Team USA, and just a few had signed up so far. I realized, incredibly, it might be possible to get the Team USA outfit and be at a world championship by default.
I signed up, and after swimming the 1.2 miles in a lake and biking the 56 flat miles through farmland, I came in 7th of 12 in my division with a time of 3:59:55.
I didn’t make the podium, but no matter: All 12 of us had qualified for Team USA, and we shared a collective joy at our statistical good fortune. We were in.
I’ll take two
As soon as the team outfits became available, I ordered two. They were spectacular in a sleek blue compressive fabric with red, white and blue stripes on the sides and stars on the legs. Best of all, they were emblazoned with my name, right on the butt.
It took me a while to grasp that the British Columbia world championships meant there would be athletes from 38 countries competing over 11 days in a long series of races. I would be among those representing the United States of America in aquabike.
If you’re prone to anxiety, it can be alarming to realize that you have qualified for a world championship—thanks to a statistical quirk. Also, having an age-division ranking of 300 out of 449 doesn’t inspire confidence. It’s like landing on the U.S. Olympics pole-vaulting team by mistake.
While I sometimes wavered, I also knew, at age 61, this would likely be my one shot at a world championship. Ever.
But the training assignments were now harder. The course at the world championships was a third-again longer than the race in Miami, with a swim of 3 kilometers and a bike course of 120 kilometers. My days were now dominated by four-hour bike rides and 3,000-yard swims.
My coach thought I was ready.
Arriving in British Columbia, I soon found a support group of six women who had mostly qualified the way I did. “I just don’t know if I’m going to finish the bike,” was the refrain.
That was a stark contrast to the international athletes pouring into the place, including the ultrabuff set from places like New Zealand. They looked like a different species.
Our newly formed support group prepared by driving the bike course, commenting that it seemed long, with intimidating hills, unlike Miami.
My biggest problem was the idea of a world championship. I was too nervous to sleep. By the time the designated morning of Aug. 27 arrived, I was emotionally done. I set the alarm for 4 a.m., and drove my group of equally wired teammates to the site in the dark.
The starting gun went off for women in aquabike at 6:55 a.m., beginning a 3-kilometer swim around Okanagan Lake. I was eighth coming out of the water—out of 15 in my age division.
After being stripped of my wetsuit by volunteers, I set out on the bike, and began the three challenging, if highly scenic, loops that made up the 120-kilometer bike course.
It was hot. A Japanese athlete was walking her bike up a steep hill. New Zealand, Canada and South Africa riders all zoomed past me.
“Go Hughes! Go U.S.A.!” bystanders screamed. (How could they know my name, I wondered, momentarily forgetting that outfit I was so proud of.)
I finished with a time of 5:55:20, 11th out of 15—although two in my age division had a dreaded “DNF”—did not finish.
So it could have been worse.
After racking my bike, I ran across the finish line for my photo, smiling broadly.
But, of course, that wasn’t the end. I now own a major collection of Team USA triathlon suits, swimsuits and a parade outfit, inspiring me to sign up, once again, to compete at the national championships in Miami—which took place yesterday.
More women signed up in my age group this year and I nervously tracked the totals right up until the night before the race. Next year’s world championship is in Denmark.
I finished 11th out of 16 finishers with a time of 4:07:05, pending official results. Whew. I really want to go to Denmark. And I already have the outfit. Ms. Hughes is a writer living in California and New York. Email: email@example.com. Appeared in the November 13, 2017, print edition.
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