Triathlon Tourism: New tourism making waves
Enjoying your Saturday? Kicking back with your copy of 'Weekend', perhaps -- straining yourself only to reach for that second scone?
Spare a thought for a mad pack of athletes on the other side of the planet. This afternoon, they embark on a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile cycle and a full marathon.
The occasion is the Ironman World Championship, and it takes place on Hawaii's Kona Coast from 7am local time (5pm GMT) today. Ultra-fit competitors are allowed just 17 hours to complete this extreme endurance event.
Now, we can take it as a given that few people reading this column could hope to undertake such a brutal race -- this writer most definitely not. But haven't you noticed how triathlons of all shapes and sizes have exploded in popularity in such a short space of time?
Five years ago, Triathlon Ireland had around 600 members. This year, it has more than 5,500. In 2010, the sport's governing body was aiming to have 20,000 people participate in Irish triathlons, and by 2012 it aspires to qualify three Irish athletes for the London Olympics.
By my reckoning, that makes it one of the fastest-growing sports in the country.
Of course, triathlons are not without their moments of comedy. They are dominated by middle-aged men fighting off middle-aged paunches. They swarm with gear-fetishists, nutty jargon and grown adults vacuum-packed in Lycra.
But think about the tourism impact they are having. Just as surfing brought a whole new class of holidaymaker to the West Coast, so our taste for triathlons has mobilised hordes of athletes and onlookers at a time when Irish hospitality is crying out for ideas.
There are triathlons in Dublin, Kerry Head, Carlingford Lough and the Causeway Coast. Some 116 officially sanctioned events took place this year, ranging from the European Triathlon Championships in Athlone to the Little Bo Peep Triathlon in Kenmare, Co Kerry.
And then, last month, came the exciting announcement that Galway is to host Ireland's first-ever Ironman 70.3 (half-distance) triathlon on September 4 next year. The race will kick off with a 1.9km swim in Galway Bay. After that, there's a 90km bike ride through Connemara, before a 21.1km half-marathon brings the course to a finish in Eyre Square. Ironman 70.3 Ireland offers qualifying slots for the World Championship in Florida. It matters.
Galway is an inspired choice, too. Not only does it gift a course that will test athletes, provide spectacular viewing points and showcase the West at its best, but the city knows how to make big parties out of big events.
Irish tourism needs a shot in the arm. Triathlons bring travelling circuses to towns all over the country, with hundreds of athletes and supporters going on to eat, drink and overnight in the locality.
Because of their age profile, and the expensive gear, they're likely to bring a few bob, too. In Galway, international athletes, fans and media are expected to pump €5 million into the economy.
It's a no-brainer, and it's not confined to coastal gems or traditional beauty spots. Any town with a body of water and a tangle of roads can theoretically host a triathlon.
The first Ironman took place in 1978, when a hardy group of 15 athletes swam, cycled and ran a mad race around the island of Oahu.
Today's World Championship showcases an event on a high with some 80,000 athletes competing to qualify. Call it triathlon tourism. It's coming to a town near you.