Duathlon, formerly known as biathlon, is a race including two disciplines, typically biking and running. Unlike other multisport events, like the pentathlon and decathlon, disciplines in a duathlon are done without any time breaks, and athletes must quickly transition from one event to the other. Various formats, distances, and settings exist for the sport, although there are several standardized distances and formats that prevail in many of the most popular events. In most cases, duathlons are formatted run/bike/run. Athletes begin by running, then cycle, and finish with a second running leg.
A near relative of the more popular and established sport of triathlon, duathlon has historically been overshadowed by triathlon. Perhaps because triathlon was perceived as more grueling or perhaps due to more aggressive marketing of triathlon, duathlon has consistently lagged behind triathlon in media and fan support as well as the number of events and participants.While duathlon did reach a fairly lofty peak in the mid- to late 1980s, it soon thereafter plummeted in popularity.The sport has enjoyed a considerable resurgence in popularity in the past few years, in part due to corporate sponsorship of events around the United States.
The official origins of duathlon are hazy at best, particularly as early examples of the sport differ greatly from their later evolutions. In many ways, variants of duathlon led to the later creation of triathlon (in 1974), although not in a formal sense. In the early 1970s, swim/run events were common in Southern California. These informal competitions were popular with lifeguards and more adventurous runners and swimmers. A few such races were bike/swim races. These events, which differ greatly from the running and biking events of today, were called biathlons, indicative of their dual sport nature. As the sport of triathlon began to grow in popularity in the late 1970s and 1980s, particularly with the intrigue created by television coverage of the Ironman Triathlon, these events became a secondary diversion to the more formalized offspring.
Events similar to the run/bike/run duathlon events we see today emerged in the early 1980s. However, the growth of this sport, which was still called biathlon, occurred slowly at the onset, particularly when juxtaposed to the triathlon explosion of the mid-1980s. Biathlons did not begin to grow in number or in number of participants until the late 1980s, when major corporate sponsors helped to fund the growth of the sport. This growth was fairly pronounced. In 1984, only fifteen biathlons were staged in America. According to the U.S. Biathlon Association, this number grew only to twentyseven in 1986.The New York Biathlon Series, which included races throughout New York City and were staged by the Big Apple Triathlon Club, were among these early races. Nineteen eighty-six was also the first year the sport named a national championship race, that year held at the New York City Biathlon.While some races numbered in the hundreds of participants, they still catered to amateur athletes. As such, races didn’t include large monetary prizes for winners, nor did they involve large national sponsorships.
This began to change in 1987, when the sport grew exponentially, with approximately three hundred races run throughout the course of the year. Races also started to see more elite participants, both crossover athletes from triathlon and athletes who were dedicated exclusively to biathlons. Many athletes who either disliked swimming or were weak swimmers enjoyed greater success in biathlon than in triathlon. Particularly as triathletes became equally proficient in all three sports, those who were strong runners and cyclists but novice swimmers began to fall farther back in triathlons, often beginning the cycling leg far behind their swifter-swimming competitors. In biathlon, however, this was not the case, and this was a likely component in the exponential growth of the sport. There was similar acceptance of this sport amongst international athletes as well, and the first world duathlon championship was held in 1990—only one year later than triathlon.
Capitalizing on this explosive growth, Coors sponsored a nationwide biathlon series that would become the most visible and recognizable duathlon races in the country. This series included a considerable cash prize purse for elite athletes, an obvious factor in the increased professionalization of the sport. The Coors Light Biathlon Series began in 1988 with twelve races across the country. By 1991, the series had grown to fifteen races and distributed $100,000 in prize money. The largest races in the series, such as the annual event in Chicago, attracted nearly 2,500 participants at the height of the biathlon boom. Additionally, the amount of money to be made at these races attracted increasingly elite athletes who, like in endurance sports such as marathon running and triathlon, made their living through sport. These races sponsored by Coors were only but fifteen of hundreds across the country, but they served as the driving force and the increasingly public face of the sport in America. Thus, when the series was discontinued after 1992 due to general sponsor disinterest and decreasing race participation, the sport of biathlon would take a considerable fall in popularity from which it might never truly recover.
Several conditions caused the rise of biathlon to ebb and quickly subside. First, corporate sponsorships, such as that from Coors, were pulled, ending the viability of popular races and series. Second, public interest began to wane, leading to fewer participants in the shrinking number of races. Many biathlon competitors searched for other athletic challenges, most notably mountain biking, marathon racing, or triathlon.The sport also did not receive the institutional support from its own governing body. USA Triathlon, then know as Tri-Fed, was in charge of the growth and management of both triathlon and biathlon, setting rules for the sports and helping to market and grow these sports. As triathlon began to achieve its goal of inclusion in the Olympic Games (accomplished in 2000), Tri-Fed spent much more of its promotional resources growing the sport of triathlon. Interest in biathlon fell in conjunction with the growth of other endurance events.
Further hindering growth, the sport of biathlon was forced to change its name in the early 1990s to avoid legal conflicts with the older Olympic sport of biathlon, which paired shooting with either cross-country skiing or running. Therefore, the sport of biathlon became known as duathlon, which is still the name of the twodiscipline sport.While this change was largely semantic, duathlon, more so than its predecessor biathlon, only referred to events that were staged with the runbike- run format. Therefore, swim-run events or swimbike events (which were exceptionally rare) would not be called duathlons. So while this name change did represent a loss to the rarely contested Olympic biathlon and a virtual loss of sporting heritage, it also provided an increased formalization of the sport that allowed participants and spectators to have a more concise understanding of the sport.
With the demise of the Coors-sponsored race series and increased attention placed by Tri-Fed on the sport of triathlon, duathlon enjoyed little growth through the mid-1990s. One bright spot, however, came as the company Dannon began to sponsor a new duathlon series in 1995. Although it began with only two races and was not nearly as extravagant as its predecessor, this series did attract those who had committed to racing as professional duathletes, as well as elite amateur athletes and recreational athletes. Race distances varied slightly in this series, but most followed the 5K run– 30K bike–5K run format.This series has never reached the same popularity as the Coors race series, and some of the races have been expanded to include triathlon events. However, it has remained a constant that helped stabilize participation in the sport.
In addition to shorter races, duathletes have also looked to longer, more challenging events—both in America and abroad. Much of this has been spurred by the famed race in Switzerland known as Powerman Zofingen, which has often been referred to as duathlon’s version of the Hawaiian Ironman. The distances for the race are typically 10K run (originally 8.5K)– 150K bike–30K run, and much of the race is contested over rigorous mountain terrain. Started in 1989, the race has been contested by many of the sport’s top athletes, as well as several top triathletes and Ironman champions. Financial difficulties nearly sidelined the race in 2003, but necessary sponsorship was found to afford the race and its generous prize purse of approximately $50,000. In addition to the famed Swiss race, many other races in the Powerman Series have been added in recent years. Most of these events contest approximately half the distance of Zofingen, and the series includes venues in Europe and the United States.There are currently eleven races in the Powerman Series.
The current state of duathlon finds the sport in a relatively stable position, even if the sport remains far from its peak and nowhere near its former goal of Olympic recognition. Race distances range from sprint distance races (3K run–16K bike–3K run) up to Powerman distance races. USA Triathlon has organized a “grand prix” system, a group of twenty-one duathlons that would award points and modest prizes to series winners. USA Triathlon currently certifies over one hundred duathlons each year, merely a fraction of the number of triathlons certified by the governing body. At least for the time being, the sport of duathlon seems poised to remain a stepchild of the sport of triathlon, one that will support the overall efforts of triathlon but not challenge the sport in its status or popularity.
Rules, Governance, and Championships
The national governing body for duathlon in the United States is USA Triathlon, although much more of their efforts are placed toward the growth and promotion of triathlon. USA Triathlon employs a duathlon commission chair, and there are also several elected regional representatives. USA Triathlon’s primary jobs include certifying duathlons across the country, establishing rules, overseeing a system of national rankings, selecting national and regional championship events, and organizing the team to participate in world championship events.To accomplish this, USA Triathlon must rely on a limited staff and a loyal group of volunteers.
The rules of duathlon are effectively the same as those for triathlon, and they share the same official USA Triathlon rule book.While there are many details to the rule book, the spirit of the rules—that each participant must complete the course unassisted—is fairly straightforward. After the first run segment, athletes enter a designated transition area, where they have left their bicycles, and begin the cycling leg of the race. At the end of the bike segment, athletes again enter the transition area, leaving their bicycles and exiting for the final run segment. Many athletes change shoes during each transition area, allowing them to wear specialized cycling shoes that fit into aerodynamic pedals. Athletes must also wear a helmet during the cycling leg.
The most regulated and often most controversial rule in duathlon is that prohibiting drafting, or riding in a pack or pace line during the cycling leg. This common practice in cycling races makes athletes able to ride faster with less effort. Since duathlon, like triathlon, is to be an individual effort, drafting is not allowed and is monitored by race officials. If athletes are caught drafting, time penalties are assessed after the race. Multiple penalties result in disqualification. Adding to the controversy of drafting are the different rules for professional and amateur athletes. In recent years, certified professional athletes have been allowed to draft during certain races, although not all. This change has been made to increase spectator interest in professional duathlon. Amateur athletes, however, are still prohibited from drafting.This rule change has not been embraced by all in the sport, especially those that view duathlon as a personal voyage instead of a group competition. Additionally, the difference in rules between amateurs and professionals has alienated some from a sport that originally adhered to an egalitarian ethic.
Duathletes have the opportunity to compete in regional, national, and international championships at a variety of distances.The national championships rotate amongst different race sites, as do international championships, which are organized by the International Triathlon Union (ITU). In order to participate in ITU duathlon championships, athletes must qualify by ranking at qualifier races set by their national governing body, which for Americans is USA Triathlon. Professional duathletes race in separate divisions in these championships—often draft legal—with several thousands of dollars for top finishers. Championships aside, Powerman Zofingen is still generally regarded as the premier duathlon in the world and still the ultimate prize for most amateur and professional duathletes.
Perhaps the American most synonymous with duathlon in history is Kenny Souza, who dominated the sport throughout the sport’s heyday of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Souza won eight national championships and one world championship. He also garnered attention for his flamboyant clothing and hairstyles. Michael Tobin was also a frequent top duathlon finisher and a series champion of the 1991 Coors Biathlon Series. On the women’s side, Liz Downing dominated American racing for years, also taking the 1991 Coors series title and winning two world championships. Downing retired from professional racing in 1994. Many duathlons were won by athletes who primarily competed in triathlons, yet raced in duathlons both for additional competition and for more chances for prize money.
In recent years, Greg Watson has led all American duathletes, and he remains one of the few elite athletes to focus exclusively on duathlon.Watson won his first ITU duathlon world championship in 2004, and he has won several Dannon Duathlon Series titles. Eric Schwartz also regularly finishes at the top of the professional ranks. Anne Curi-Pressig is one of the leading American women in the sport, although European athletes have largely dominated the sport in recent years. Clearly, the sport continues to be driven by less competitive, amateur athletes. Approximately one thousand amateur athletes compete in at least three duathlons per year (the minimum number to gain a national ranking by USA Triathlon), and many events still attract several hundred athletes. While this is only a fraction of the number of athletes ranked for triathlon, there remains a loyal base of amateur duathletes maintaining the sport.
The future of duathlon, as it is still a relatively new sport, lies in the hands of race and series organizers, such as those for the Dannon Duathlon Series, and loyal amateur athletes who continue to race duathlons despite their stepchild image. It appears, at least for the near future, duathlon will not achieve its original goal of Olympic inclusion. It also seems that duathlon will continue to trail the Olympic sport of triathlon in both number of participants and promotional efforts. That said, perhaps the greatest asset for the sport of duathlon will be its shared lineage with triathlon. An increasing number of events now offer triathlon and duathlon choices at the same race. Additionally, triathletes will continue to compete in duathlons as part of their triathlon preparation and to vary their racing experiences. This is particularly true during the spring and fall,when lakes and oceans are often too cold for swimming. So while duathlon may not soon equal its peak of the late 1980s, it is well positioned to attract loyal elite and amateur participants seeking a varied athletic challenge.