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I’m reposting some oldies but goodies this week.  Hope you enjoy!

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Recently, I got an interesting email from a reader that prompted an even more intriguing Google hunt and conversation with DadHTP.

Sharon emailed me to say, “While researching some upcoming races I discovered that one had a Clydesdale/Athena category. I had heard of the Clydesdale runner before but Athena? I figured it must be the equivalent for women, and at 5’11”, I knew I must fit the category. I Googled it and was surprised to see the different weight definition for Athena. It said most races put the weight at 150 pounds for Athena, but one even had it at 130 pounds! At 130 pounds, I would be severely underweight. I realize that the point is so you can compare your time with others of similar size, but if based only on weight, how can you compare a 5’ woman at 150 pounds with a 5’11” woman at 150 pounds? I’m curious to know what your opinion is on this category for races.”

 

If you’re not aware, in most triathlons (and in many running races), there are several different categories by which awards are given.  First, of course, are the overall places – i.e. first woman, first man.  But then, categories can break down in the following way:

 

  • By gender and age groups
  • By relay team (which are usually not broken down by gender; maybe if it’s a huge race)
  • By gender and novice or experienced racer
  • By gender and military involvement
  • And by Clydesdale/Athena size and age group

As alluded to in Sharon’s email, the Clydesdale/Athena categories are based on weight.  The official USA Triathlon rules state:

 

Athletes competing in the Clydesdale division must be a minimum of 220 pounds and athletes in the Athena division must be a minimum of 165 pounds.

 

Note: these weight standards are new – when I first wrote this post, it was 200 and 150 pounds.  I’ve edited the post throughout to reflect the rule change.

 

Due to my height and frame, I do not qualify for the Athena category, so I’ve never given it much thought.  But Sharon’s email really piqued my interest.  WHY do they have the Clydesdale/Athena categories in the first place?  WHAT is the purpose?  And, if you qualify, SHOULD you enter?

 

After doing some light digging on triathlon message boards, I noticed that manyexperienced male triathletes who qualified to race in the Clydesdale category wrote that they would be ‘embarrassed’ to enter the category because they thought it would be ‘cheating’ because they are experienced triathletes.  Even more surprising was how many of the men wrote that the category was for ‘less fit’ guys, despite the fact that the official rules make no assumptions about fitness level.  After all, 220 pounds for a man can be perfectly healthy and fit size for many heights, as is 165 pounds for a woman at many heights.

 

So – I asked DadHTP.  Dad was really into triathlons in the 1980s and has donehundreds of amateur cycling events.  And he’s 6’4” and 230 pounds – a Clydesdale by definition, through and through.

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“I noticed that men especially seem to think that the Clydesdale category is for newbie racers or ‘out of shape’ guys, despite the fact that 200 pounds is perfectly healthy for many heights,” I told him.  “Do you know the actual purpose of the Athena and Clydesdale categories?”

 

It turns out that, according to Dad’s theory, race officials aren’t making any assumptions about fitness level when it comes to the Athena and Clydesdale categories.  His opinion is that generally speaking, for each sport, having a larger build means you must expend a greater effort to get the same result.  Take running – if all other fitness factors are held constant, a 6’4”, 230-pound guy will struggle to run as fast as a 5’10”, 180-pound competitor, simply because he’s hauling more weight.  This is especially true in cycling when you’re doing a lot of climbing.  When we would ride together, I’d blow past him on hills, despite the fact that I’ve got 5’3.5” legs.  He’d, of course, fly past me on the downhills because he weighed more.

 

Thinking of what Sharon wrote in her email to me, I pointed out that dividing the category by weight alone isn’t totally fair because it doesn’t account for fitness level, but Dad kind of rolled his eyes and said that life isn’t fair.  Hah. Thanks, Dad.

 

In conclusion, at least according to DadHTP, the Athena and Clydesdale categories are really designed to even the playing field as much as possible for men and women with larger builds.  It’s not that smaller builds are inherently more athletic or fit; they’re just differentAthena and Clydesdale groupings are just one more way to divide competitors into categories so people are competing against other athletes with similar physical qualities to them (just as they do with gender, age, experience, etc).

 

Now, whether the reality of the Athena and Clydesdale categories is what I read about on the message boards (more for introductory novices) or what DadHTP thought it was designed for (to simply even the playing field without making an assumption about fitness level or experience) is up for debate and, I’m sure, variable from race-to-race.  I couldn’t find any official USAT language on the purpose of the categories, so I’m not sure of the official stance (but here’s an interesting NY Times blog entry about the subject).  And whether the cut-offs should be 220 pounds for men and 165 pounds for women is an entirely different discussion!

For most of my races, the only ‘alternative’ category that I’ve been able to enter was a “My First Tri” category, which was intended for people racing that distance for the first time, people who were super nervous, or people who were getting back into the sport after a long hiatus.  I entered the category not because I thought I would place – I knew that was hopeless!  I entered because I had never raced that distance before and still felt super unconfident in the water; for that race, the waves were organized by category, so I knew I’d be surrounded by other novices in the swim.  It was very comforting to know that no ‘pros’ were going to swim over me in an attempt to pass me!  Racing on an even playing field – even though I knew I wasn’t going to place – made me feel more confident, and I ended up kicking that race’s booty… by my own standards, at least.

 

Have you ever entered a race category besides age group?  Would you consider doing it now? Edited to add:  What do you think of the change from 200/150 pounds to 220/165 pounds?

{ 9 comments }

 

Leave a Comment

  • Erica { EricaDHouse.com } July 14, 2014, 9:42 am

    I’m hoping to finally get into tri’s after my next marathon/first ultra coming up, but I’ve never heard of Clydesdale or Athenas before. Thanks for explaining this!

    Reply
  • Katie July 14, 2014, 9:56 am

    I loved this post the first time around and even more so now as my first triathlon is on Saturday!!! I am definitely an athlena body right now, although if I had a healthy bmi I wouldn’t be. I’m not sure how I feel about the weight increases, and would have loved to hear their discussion about changing it. I feel like it acknowledges that we are getting heavier as a nation, but I’m not sure that is a good thing.

    Reply
  • Barbara July 14, 2014, 12:11 pm

    I just finished my first tri (an olympic) this weekend! I wanted to thank you for your many hints and tips posts over the last couple of years, they have been really great and helpful!

    I entered in the Newbie category, and appreciated going in my own swim wave, like you said. I was really nervous about getting smacked around in the swim, especially by someone larger (I am almost 110 lbs and only 5ft1). Do you think this may have any role in having categories for larger racers? Just an idea, I’m not experienced enough at all to really have insight.

    Reply
  • Keri July 14, 2014, 1:57 pm

    Whoa! I didn’t even know they had these categories. Interesting take from DadHTP—I think it does take more effort when you are larger to complete certain physical activities. I was thinking about this the other day as I was wearing my 21 pound 5 month old up three flights of stairs. I’m still no where near pre-baby shape, but I’m running again–and certainly fit enough to not get winded by walking up stairs. With the extra weight? It was hard–& it got me thinking about how much harder it is to get BACK into shape and how much we should encourage & celebrate beginners. And now I will be celebrating Clydedales/Athenas. I’m dangerously close at 5’10 & 155, but I’m hoping to trim down and tone up a little by the time my son is one. Even if I stayed the same weight or gained, I don’t think I’d register as Athena, but it would be encouragement to know I was running harder in my own mind.

    Reply
  • Laura@SneakersandSpatulas July 14, 2014, 3:35 pm

    I’ve only raced in my age group before, I wouldn’t qualify for anything else. I don’t see the point of the Athena/Clydesdale categories. If you look at pro sports, they aren’t divided out by size or weight. So why do it in a recreational triathlon?

    Reply
  • Michelle July 14, 2014, 5:49 pm

    When I started racing triathlon I raced Athena, and now a little less than a year after my first baby I’m back to racing Athena again. I debated registering for that category for a while, and honestly for my first race postbaby I ended up only registering under my age group. Horrible horrible idea. With my new size frame there was just no way I could keep up with the other women in my age group like I had only a year and a half before. That’s why I opted to register in The athena category for my next race in a couple of weeks. There’s absolutely no shame to registering in those categories at all. Your dad hit the nail on the head when he said it was about different racing. With that being said I am also glad that USAT change the weight to 165 pounds. I’m 57 and my happy weight is around 150-155 pounds. When I was at my fittest I was still in the 150 range and doing very well in my age group category. The rays of the limit to 165 I do not believe as a response to how we’re going larger as a country but in response to a healthy woman and better size ranges. With that being said the race that I just entered still classified Athena at 150. I wouldn’t fit the new category at 165 but, lady, you better believe that I took it at 150!

    Reply
  • Rachel July 15, 2014, 2:38 am

    I agree that moving a heavier body requires more effort than moving a lighter one, all other factors being equal. Unfortunately, the Clydesdale category does not at all control for other factors. As you pointed out, a smaller person can go up hills faster than a larger person, but the larger person will go down faster. Also, height can be an advantage for running and swimming. Shorter people will generally make more strides or strokes to cover the same distance, so whatever advantage they have for being lighter is probably negated by the fact that they have to move more quickly to go at the same pace.

    So a category based only on weight does seem sort of meaningless or, as you say, unfair. And yeah, life isn’t fair, but we do strive to make things fair in sports, so it’s a discussion worth having.

    These categories are designed to increase certain participants’ comfort level and to increase the odds of winning for people who are motivated by competition. The fact that they can be easily abused doesn’t diminish that too much. Unless they decide not to enter these categories, the winner of the newbie category is likely to be a seasoned athlete who recently switched sports, and the winner of the Clydesdale category is likely to be tall and muscular, and that’s okay.

    I’m curious now whether DadHTP competed as a Clydesdale… :)

    Reply
  • Caitlin July 15, 2014, 12:33 pm

    I love the eye roll from dadHTP. Typical dad.

    Reply
  • Jenn August 6, 2014, 9:47 am

    I absolutely agree with the weight increases, and actually think they should be increased even more. You get a person out there who is tall, and at a healthy weight they qualify for that division, yet clearly don’t have any issues being overweight. Maybe a better way would be to do it by BMI which takes into consideration height as well.

    I believe it does indeed level the playing the field, and gives larger athletes a chance to shine and race against similar athletes. I’m not saying heavier athletes are slower or weaker than lighter ones – I’ve seen many in this division fly past other people. Perhaps they should make it like cycling where there are categories, and once you race or win so many times within a certain division, you “cat up”. There are quite a few people racing Clydes/Athena who have been for along time, and who could very well compete in age group, but they like winning and stay in the heavier category because they have an advantage there.
    I agree that men are more embarrassed by racing that division, and it does seem that the less experienced men choose that one, whereas with women, it is certainly more competitive and just another division, though you obviously have the heavier gals who I feel really ‘need’ that division. There’s a big difference between someone who’s 5’6 at 165, and a gal who’s 5’10 at 165. 150 was indeed too low.

    Reply