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The High Price of Triathlon: Swim, Bike, Run (and Spend)

For fun tomorrow, I'll be practicing my triathlon transition: sticking my feet in a bucket of water, charging across our front lawn, then trying to dry my feet and put on my socks and biking shoes in a matter of seconds. My children will stand there dumbstruck, like they do this time every year, until the absurdity makes them fall over laughing. For once they'll be urging me to hurry up and get my shoes on.

Good thing the kids get some cheap thrills, because their entertainment is the only thing that's free about this sport. Stock brokers and insurance salesmen, listen up: Want to find people with disposable income? Check out your nearest triathlon. To locate the really high rollers, find an Ironman.

I'm a very amateur triathlete - I do one sprint event per year - and I try to be thrifty about it. But I decided to keep tabs on how much those 90 minutes of swim-bike-run cost my family in a year. A lot, it turns out. It was higher in 2008, when I bought my entry-level Jamis road bike for $600, although this is a fraction of the thousands that serious triathletes spend on their bikes. Some cyclists go north of $10,000 for their rides, spending more on their bikes than many people do on cars.

Even without a new bike, the expenses add up quickly. Swimming time at the local college pool is $104 for eight weeks. New shoes and pedals on sale from Price Point cost me $110. I forked over a $40 co-pay to see an orthopedist about a calf strain. (Her advice: Don't run.) A new lap swimming suit on sale from Lands' End was $24. (It's not really comfortable, but I'm wearing it, dammit!) There was $12 for a babysitter to come over one interminable snow day so I could escape for a treadmill workout. Thankfully, my husband's company provides a terrific gym for employees and their spouses. But add in the bike shorts, energy gels, a new sports watch at Target, road race entries through the year, and it all grows quickly. The family budget, in fact, needs some updating.

And entering the sprint event itself is $85. If I'm out there 90 minutes, it's roughly a dollar per minute of competition. Maybe that's incentive to go slow on Sunday: I'll be getting my money's worth.

But my expenditures pale in comparison to what one acquaintance, Eric, spends on Ironman competitions (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run). Two weeks ago he qualified for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. Entry fee is $575 for that event. Airfare for him, his wife and child to fly to Kona is $2,300, not including the $300 or so to fly his bike there. The hotels and condos in Kona (and in all Ironman towns, for that matter) require a five-night minimum. Some in Kona charge a 10-night minimum. Congratulations, Eric, you're fast. Now, pay up!

Are Eric and his wife flinching at the cost? Well, triathlon is a lifelong pursuit for him, and qualifying for Kona is the Holy Grail. So they're closing their eyes and going. It's still cheaper than other midlife crises, like the flashy sports car. Or, as one well wisher pointed out to them, a triple bypass.

At my level, triathlon is tons of fun and worth the entry fee. There's great camaraderie at the events. The adrenaline buzz is amazing. In mastering swimming, biking, and running, even if I'm not quick, I feel like I'm accomplishing much more than my daily triathlon of grocery shopping, cooking, and trading Silly Bandz.

In fact, it just dawned on me how to best amortize the year-round costs of training: I need to sign up for another one.

Triathlon photo by Flickr user Thomas Guest, CC 2.0

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