Being a professional triathlete is similar to most professions in that the experience of those at the top of the heap is drastically different from those at the bottom. For every person making a decent living as a triathlete there are hundreds trying to figure out a way to meet basic living needs. And as former Ironman World Champion Scott Molina discusses, it’s simply getting tougher and tougher.
By Scott Molina
I vividly remember kicking in the final straight with all my might to out-sprint Scott Tinley in the first triathlon that had prize money. That was the Bud Light U.S. Triathlon Series that began in Del Mar, Calif., in June 1982. Dave Scott earned $500 that day for the win, I took home $300 for second and Scott Tinley won $200 for third. A very unlucky rookie named Mark Allen finished fourth and went home with nothing but sore legs and a love for his new sport, but he was soon to start winning his share of the spoils.
Many triathletes today know nothing at all of the U.S. Triathlon Series, which was the bread and butter for U.S.-based pros in the ’80s. After a great 10-year stint as the national series, it seemed to vanish overnight and with it went the great PR team that was largely responsible for building the sport’s profile in the eyes of the general public. It was during those years that we learned what it meant to be a pro triathlete—lots of hard work, travel and goodies from sponsors, but very little money unless you raced and won often.
Because of the profile of that series and the perception that the sport was going to be “the next big thing,” we had a plethora of sponsors getting involved to market their products. The top triathletes were seen as a good bargain in the marketing game compared to top athletes in more established pro sports or compared to the top “amateur” athletes in popular Olympic sports. Sponsorships and prize money grew at a phenomenal rate in the shorter events in the U.S. in the ’80s.
I had the good fortune to win 50 USTS events in my career. For the events from 1983 onward, my average take-home pay for each one of those wins and other non-series pro events like them was approximately $5,500, including both prize money and sponsor bonuses. It’s easy to see why a guy without a college degree and with a wife and young daughter was out busting his balls racing for dough 20 to 30 times a year.
Even tougher than the racing was the travel. I flew 60 to 70 times per year for 13 years, many of them international flights. That was draining. The effects are certainly evident now. Even though I took a nap nearly every day as a pro, I still feel sleep deprived 15 years later.
When I met Erin Baker (to whom I am now married) in 1988 she was dominating the women’s events in Europe, especially the Le Coq Sportiff Series, which had a tremendous profile in Europe in those days. She was sponsored by Le Coq and Look bicycles, and when a big, fat sponsorship check of $90,000 arrived one day she promptly went out and put a nice down payment on a resort condo as an investment. Those were the glory days!
Ironman racing was quite a different story then. Although most people knew about the race in Kona, it wasn’t until 1986 that the event had any prize money at all. Other ultra races like The World’s Toughest Triathlon in Lake Tahoe paid $10,000 for the win, The Endurance on Cape Cod gave a new car to the winners and the triathlon in Nice, France, always had a good prize purse from the very first race, but the Ironman brand events really didn’t take off until well into the 1990s.
The earliest Ironman-branded events were the Ricoh Ironman in Los Angeles, Ironman New Zealand and Ironman Japan, which had some top names solely due to appearance money. It may have been at the very first Ironman Japan that Julie Moss finished third overall (including men and women) behind Dave Scott and me.
The early Ironman events were the only races I did that didn’t have prize money. I realized early on that in order to build the perception that our sport included legitimate top athletes there had to be prize money at stake.
The general public took no notice of the events that didn’t pay. Those events were considered to be on the same level as fun runs. So some of us had to support the events that did pay prize money with our participation and boycott those that didn’t.
The ’80s saw good prize money races pop up in far-flung places and we often would jump on a jet to circle the planet if there were no other prize money events that weekend. Before the ITU came into existence, there was an event in Fremantle, Australia, in January 1987 that was billed as the short-course world championships. A lot of top pros flew in from around the world to take part. It was a Kiwi sweep with Erin Baker and Rick Wells each taking home $16,000 winner’s checks. Even though it was our off-season, it stung to see the big checks passed out to others. My measly ninth place barely covered my bar tab.
The St. Croix triathlon also had a substantial prize purse beginning in 1988, and that included beefy primes for fastest swim and fastest bike. Mark Allen and I were drowning our sorrows in the back row of the audience as Mike Pigg was called to the stage time and time again to scoop up just about every cent up for grabs, taking home $41,000 in all. In those days it was great to be the king. Pigg was grinning so hard that night it kind of stuck on him like a tattoo.
To compare the prize lists of today with the prize lists of the ’80s you need to factor inflation into the calculations. In the U.S. from 1985 to 2008, the total inflation has been 100 percent. The $10,000 I won at the World’s Toughest Triathlon in 1985 would be equivalent to $20,000 today. How many Ironman races give the winner a check that big? Other than Kona, the answer is none.
Although Kona has transformed into an event representing the pinnacle of our sport, the Ironman distance as a whole has become much more of a challenge for the average guy than an elite sporting contest. The World Triathlon Corporation (WTC ), which owns the brand, considers the top age-groupers as the “backbone of the Ironman race” and the prize money allocated to the professionals is certainly a reflection of that.
Every business must choose a market, and the WTC has had amazing success with its target market. I can certainly understand why they continue to focus on these coveted customers.
Most Ironman events have a token prize list and some of them have had the same prize list since their inception. For example, Ironman New Zealand has had the same $50,000 prize list for two decades. Inflation has run at 2.6 percent annually over those this time span, so that prize purse doesn’t go anywhere near as far as it used to.
Even though the entry fee has doubled over that time, as has the number of entrants, I’m not singling out Ironman New Zealand, as it simply represents the corporate ethos at WTC . Those events are all about the age-grouper and always have been.
Nowadays the prize money is almost all in short-course racing. Between the ITU, Life Time Fitness Series and other individual non-drafting events, a fast short-course athlete still has a chance to make some decent money. Between the $200,000 Laura Bennett won at Hy-Vee and the $500,000 Greg Bennett won through the Life Time Fitness Series races in 2007, the Bennett family is doing very well. Among all of the people hoping to make a living from the sport in Boulder, Colo., they are among those you can count on one hand who can reach out and touch the rare air of success inhabited by Graham Fraser of North America Sports, which was recently acquired by the WTC . If you’re a pro hoping to make some money from Ironman, your best bet is to work as a WTC employee.
Rising Ironman star Chris McDonald has raced as a journeyman pro since Ironman France in 2004 and has raced in 21 Ironmans since then. He’s one of the hardest working pros I’ve ever known and is a prolific racer.
He has won $30,000 at Ironman Wisconsin and $50,000 at Ironman Louisville. For his two 8:20 efforts in events he didn’t win, he brought home $2,500 at Ironman Western Australia and $3,000 at Quelle Challenge Roth. It’s easy to see why there aren’t hordes of ITU guys banging down the door to race Ironmans when that’s what an 8:20 will get you. Chris told me his daily schedule during the times he worked regular jobs during his off-season to make enough money to live:
“From 6 to 7:30 a.m. swim, nap, my ride and run for the day, three-hour sleep, work from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. at my sister’s bakery, in bed by 3:30 a.m., then back up at 5:30 a.m. to get to the swim. I did this for two months and then I worked in the building trade normal 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. hours for another two months. I did this two years running for that four-month period.”
Existing like that, a guy could get burned to a crisp in no time. Maintaining that type of schedule shows the level of commitment Chris gives to his sport, and it’s also a testament to his constitution that he’s become stronger year after year in spite of those months without any proper rest.
My younger brother Sean had some real success in this sport even though he raced as a pro for a very short time. He came to live with me in the hills above Boulder, Colo., when I split up with my first wife, and he was a very frugal roommate. He used to go to the coffee shops to grab the grocery store coupons from the newspaper when the coffee drinkers were done with the paper. Do you remember double coupons? Most coupons for boxes of breakfast cereal were usually around a dollar off, and if you got double coupons the stores would make you pay no less than one dollar per box. Sean would load up on about 30 boxes of cereal and get two gallons of skim milk to go with it. He would walk out the door having spent $34 and he had enough food for a couple of weeks. A big splurge for him was a massive pig-out at an all-you-can-eat salad bar.
Many of the pros I knew lived a similar existence—getting by as cheaply as possible so they didn’t have to work, allowing them to put all of their energy into training. a certain amount of natural athletic ability is needed to have any significant success as a pro, but the main attributes required by an aspiring pro are patience, resilience and a good work ethic.
The pros who had blinding foot speed or who grew up as swimmers always seemed to have a real advantage over the average guy trying to make it in this sport. In analyzing what I needed to be at my best, I found that I was always drawn to those athletes similar to me—people who didn’t seem to posses any significant talent yet succeeded anyway. I was a lot more interested to know what a guy like Mike Pigg did to become so great rather than a gazelle like Mark Allen, who flew from the first time he put on running shoes.
The ability to work hard week after week for years is what’s needed to make it as a pro. Some have the heart but don’t have the chassis that can hold up to the training. Some have the structure but not the patience or the discipline.
The patience to continually work on one’s weaknesses while on a performance plateau for months on end is often the critical characteristic that defines a pro.
- How long can you keep working on your swimming for hours every week while you still come out at the back of the field?
- How long can you continue to go to physical therapy for injury, or run in the pool or do inane muscle balancing exercises?
- How long can you deny yourself dietary treats normal people eat daily?
- How long can you get to bed early every night?
- How long can you sit on the damn indoor cycling trainer in the winter?
These are the questions that need to be answered. Every year that goes by while the aspiring pro waits for the body to respond and jump to the next level, the tougher it gets to keep asking: How many years does it take?
No one can give any aspiring pro a definite answer to that question. Some athletes I’ve worked with over the years who have gone from a good age-grouper to the podium are Gordo Byrn, Tara Norton, Marilyn McDonald, Chris McDonald and Lynley Allison. They were all willing to keep working at it until they got there with no real limitations of time given over to the process.
Gordo once told me that once he was significantly under one hour for an Ironman swim, he needed to swim a million more meters for every additional minute he improved after that. Knowing what it takes and then doing it for the next few years — that’s commitment.
Living the triathlon dream isn’t something many people choose to do because of the money. We’re drawn to the challenge. The sport is an opportunity and a vehicle to search for athletic excellence, but winning some money is certainly part of it. Eating cereal night and day for months or years does wear thin after a while. i
Scott would like to mention he’s starting a new training camp business for athletes over 50 years of age with “my good friend and fellow coach Kevin ‘KP ’ Purcell.” You can find the information at Fitness-over-fifty.net, and more information on Molina (and pictures of him drinking beer) at Scottmolina.com.