Trends & Features

Nick Rusling, CEO of Human Race, wants to make triathlon a mass participation sport

This year marked the 25th anniversary of Human Race, a trailblazing company that organises events such as the Windsor Triathlon, as well as individual running, swimming and cycling races.

Triathlon is growing, with British Triathlon figures showing an increase of almost 16 per cent in member numbers from 2009 to 2011 and 400 more registered events in 2014 compared to 2009.

New people
And new people are taking part. Human Race triathlon events have, since the Brownlee brother’s success in the 2012 Olympics, attracted a massive 27 per cent of first-time entries, which it says shows the growth potential of the sport.

However, Human Race readily admits there are some significant barriers to the sport, including cost. For example, according to research from the Triathlon Industry Association, an organisation Human Race CEO Nick Rusling is chairman of and in which Human Race plays a significant role, the average amount spent on a racing bike in 2012 was £1,900.

In addition, a 2012 Triathlon Industry Association survey found that the average salary of participants was £45,000, 83 per cent of whom were college/degree educated. So there’s still a way to go before this largely middle class sport becomes accessible to all.

Another reason more people haven’t already taken up the sport is because of its swimming element. Rusling says: “Ironically, swimming is the UK’s most participated sport and Sport England found that 2.7 million of us swam regularly in 2013/14. Yet according to our research, swimming is still said to be one of the biggest barriers for those considering triathlon.”

Open water swimming is something many would-be triathletes fear, because of the combination of deep, murky water and the ‘violence’ of mass starts.

“To tackle this, we have a series of training days, so that people can acclimatise and learn techniques to swim better in turbulent water,” Rusling says. “However, after an event, the feedback is that swimming in open water is never as bad as participants fear.”

Other Human Race initiatives include ‘mates waves’, where family groups, friends and colleagues can enter races together, either as part of a team or as individuals, which is a break from the traditional triathlon age group structure.

“Camaraderie is key,” Rusling adds. “There’s nothing like peer pressure, whether at the office, or among a group of friends from your local club, to get you to enter and train for an event.”

Human Race also organises triathlons as relays, meaning participants can play to their strengths and also get a feel for being part of a multisport event. “Relays appeal to competitive triathlon club members, as well as being a fantastic way to introduce more people to the sport and help grow it as a mass participation event,” Rusling says.

Female participation
Another way to encourage people to take up triathlon is to get more women taking part. “In the world of running, the participation ratio is 60/40, men to women,” Rusling says. “In triathlon, it’s 70/30 and in cycling it’s 85/15.”

The London Triathlon Show, held last February, seemed to reflect this, with pink apparel dominating one part of the venue (the running section) and a Top Gear-style, back-of-the-garage feel to the cycling section, with triathlon in the middle providing a pathway between the two areas.

To counter this, Human Race organises women-only running, swimming, triathlon and cycling events, which Rusling says have proved to be a bit controversial: “However, it’s worth remembering this is the norm in the elite sector, with women and men racing separately. And men in Lycra can be intimidating. Organising a women-only event simply puts another event environment out there that will appeal to a particular group of people. It’s not about making a statement.”

Human Race has also entered the corporate market, with big events held exclusively for the property and finance sectors providing healthy competition and networking opportunities – and turning triathlon into the golf of the 21st century.

Rusling says: “It is an expensive sport, but we’re working hard to deliver an experience, not just an event. A day at a triathlon can include the whole family and will positively reinforce a healthier and happier lifestyle, which bodies such as Sport England are working hard to promote. If it costs around £70 for a great family day out, it’s got to be worth it. Bikes can be hired at our events, as can wetsuits.”

The Triathlon Industry Association is backing organisations such as Go TRI, which has ambitions to become the parkrun of triathlon by organising inner-city events and using leisure centres for swims in order to keep entry fees as low as £10.

“We are working with venues, and town/city authorities to deliver an experience and show them it’s worth the investment,” Rusling says.

As well as offering mates waves and equipment hire, Human Race is reaching out to the nervous newbie by having ‘First Timer’ marked on their race pack, so that registration staff know they’re taking part in their first triathlon, can offer advice, wish them luck and answer any last minute questions.

The success of events such as the London Marathon have been largely associated with fundraising and charity partnerships are something Human Race and other event companies include as part of their packages.

“The British culture is amazing when it comes to raising money for charity,” Rusling says, whose first job was at the children’s charity Sparks. “The London Marathon has been a catalyst for the partnership between fundraising and events.”

Providing the drive
In growing its events business, Human Race will help drive the triathlon industry forward. As well as its role in the Triathlon Industry Association, the organisation is putting on a number of events for children. It says events such as the SuperTri for four to 19-year-olds are growing in popularity, a good sign for a relatively new sport.

Another growth area, Rusling says, is the 50-plus ‘empty nester’ age group. It seems that with knackered knees and spare cash, triathlon is their sport of choice.

Making triathlon less middle class and exclusive is going to be more of a challenge, but it appears it’s one the triathlon industry is taking on.

“The British Triathlon Foundation’s Kids of Steel Events are getting to schools with dry triathlons and kids duathlons, which are accessible and affordable,” Rusling says. “And with the 2016 Olympics to inspire us, we can only expect the sport to continue to thrive and go from strength to strength.”

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