Self-Transcendence Times Three

February 2004: The Self-Transcendence Triathlon was a pioneer of Australia's triathlon scene. After 20 years, it is still going strong

When the first Self-Transcendence Triathlon was held in 1984, it was a microcosm of the future - not just of the event itself, but for the sport of triathlon. At the time, it was a new sport, gradually winning favour among those willing to combine the three distinct challenges of swimming, cycling and running. The Self-Transcendence race, held along Canberra's Lake Burley Griffin, was one of Australia's first triathlons, attracting a small field of 55 competitors who were willing to brave not only the three-in-one race, but also the uncharacteristically wet weather.

            To some people, triathlon had always seemed an elite sport. For starters, it helps to be super-fit. Running 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) is a challenge on its own, but try it just after swimming 1500 metres and cycling 40 km (24.85 miles). That's the Olympic distance. Presumably, you would need to be equal parts Grant Hackett, Lance Armstrong and Alberto Salazar.

            Moreover, triathlon fashion was a few steps up from swimming trunks and running shoes. The flamboyant, all-purpose triathlon costumes, even the state-of-the-art bicycles, gave it a reputation as a sport for "yuppies". In the early days, the greatest sceptics even dismissed the sport as a fad for yuppies.

            That was then. By 1999, the Self-Transcendence Triathlon Festival, easily Australia's biggest triathlon event, attracted a record field: 3,726 competitors. It has gone from a single-race weekend to a three-day event. Not bad for an eighties "fad".

            The event is staged by students of Sri Chinmoy, and as such, avoids many characteristics of a major sporting event: elitism, corporate sponsorship, spectator fees, large cash prizes. World champions and Olympic medallists have flocked to Canberra for this event, but the organisers' main focus is on the thousands of amateur athletes who travel from around Australia (and overseas). While triathlon centres like Geelong and the Sunshine Coast focused on elite events, Canberra became a Mecca for the everyday sportspeople who wanted to throw themselves into the experience.

            Walter Burley Griffin, the American architect who designed Canberra a century ago, would never have heard of triathlons. However, in some mystical way, it seems that he designed the city for that very purpose. (Most of Canberra's triathlons are held in and around the lake that bears his name.) The inland beaches, the running tracks, the roads that lead from the city to the bush in a matter of minutes, provide a triathlon course which has been lauded by athletes as one of the most scenic in the world.

             Of course, the three-day weekend does not have only one race. It has eight separate races, ranging from the short "joyathons" for schoolchildren and novices to the 3-Day Ultra-Triathlon (15 km [9.3-mile] swim, 400 km [248.5-mile] cycle, 100 km [62-mile] run). The most popular races, however, are the intense Sprint Triathlon (500-metre swim, 20 km [12.4-mile] cycle, 5 km [3.1-mile] run) and the original race (2.2 km [1.37-mile] swim, 80 km [49.7-mile] cycle, 10 km [6.2-mile] run), re-christened the Legendary Long-Course in recent years.

            These races have attracted some of the world's best. Two world champions, Greg Welch and Michellie Jones (later an Olympic silver medallist), were the Sprint Triathlon winners in 1993, proving that it wasn't just a race for novices. (The joyathons were yet to come, so the sprint race was, at that time, the shortest of the weekend.)

            A few years later, an unknown Canadian youngster named Simon Whitfield entered the Long-Course event. The favourites soon realised that he was a boy to watch -- as indeed, they watched him cycle ahead of them, giving himself a convincing lead.

            They overtook him in the run, robbing him of an upset victory. But since then, Whitfield has more than redeemed himself. In 2000, he became the first man to win an Olympic gold medal for triathlon.

            By 1994, the Long-Course had become so renowned that professional triathlete Miles Stewart, another world champion, entered the race -- despite the lack of prize money. To nobody's surprise, he won easily, claiming a trophy -- and extra prestige -- for his efforts.

            As its reputation continued to grow, the Long-Course spent a few years as the national triathlon championships, attracting a who's who of Australian super-triathletes. However, according to the less elite competitors, it was unspoiled by its new status, remaining a "people's triathlon".

            As with fun runs, charity cycles and other popular events, most of the competitors barely gave a thought to the fact that they were in the same race as several elites. Most of us aren't nearly as powerful as Miles Stewart, but triathlon is a race in which athletes compete against themselves, rising to the challenge. OK, it hasn't yet attracted the proud non-athletes, the way fun runs tend to draw in the walkers. (The idea of dog-paddlers, Sunday riders and power-walkers lining up behind the "real" triathletes is still somewhat impractical.) However, perhaps that is part of the sport's beauty. With their egalitarian status, the eight events (even the formidable Ultra-Triathlon) inspire the average person to do the unthinkable: things like serious exercise (as opposed to walking to the shops) and dietary care. As those who have raced a triathlon will happily tell you, there is more reason to exercise than simple weight loss, or even physical health (important though that is).

           Completing a triathlon can be a transcendent, even meditative experience. Naturally, this isn't just a lazy day out -- a casual stroll, allowing you to say "gee, I'm getting fit" without exerting much effort. This is a real buzz. For 20 years, athletes have converged on Lake Burley Griffin to experience this for themselves.