The Broke Ass Triathlete’s Guide to Planning a Cheaper Race Season

It’s that time of year again! Time to scramble to plan the 2014 race season and register for races during the “early bird pricing” period, before they go up on Jan 1st. Here are 10-ish tips from your veteran broke ass triathlete (14 years experience and counting!):

1. Sign up early but not too early. You want to sign up early enough for events where the price goes up the closer to the event, but not too early, as you never know about unexpected injuries, changes in your fitness level, or if there are other life stressors or events that may be happening (weddings, graduations, big project at work). You don’t want to throw away money on entry fees if you end up not even getting to the starting line, as there are so many with a no-refund policy. (This happened to me at the very first Ironman I signed up for back in 2001. Bye-bye $350. At least it wasn’t $675 like it is now…)

I personally like to limit myself to 6 months in advance. At this point, I’ll sign up for triathlons in May and June, along with some trail running events before then, but am holding off on anything afterward. It’s just too far out to plan. I know this doesn’t work if you are trying to get into an event that sells out crazy early, but see “race smaller grassroots events” below.

2. Local races vs. destination races: Race locally. You save on travel expenses (gas and hotels) and get to sleep in your own bed and eat foods you are familiar with. I recently signed up for an annual membership to this local running club; for just $35 per year, you get free entry to one or two running events they hold every month! There are no t-shirts or finisher medals, but I’ve done so many for so long that I don’t really need all that swag unless it’s a very special race. Last year I committed to only racing triathlons (and running races) that were within driving distance, because flying with your bicycle is a whole ‘nother hassle (and major expense if you don’t know how to work the system).

3. Race smaller grassroots events. I used to race a lot of the big name, “brand name” events (*cough* WTC *cough* Ironman), but found over time that the prices have gotten overinflated, they’re less personal, the events are over crowded and you get less “bang for your buck.” They also tend to sell out a year in advance, which is too far out for me to plan these days. I love doing smaller events because you get to meet the race director and a lot of times it’s a family affair; you get to see that they really put their heart and soul in it and care about the athletes. They charge less and you can usually still sign up a month in advance, if not the morning of the event.

4. Opt out of the race t-shirt. I signed up for a trail running race recently where there was an option to not get the race t-shirt, in which case you could save $5 off the registration price. I have enough shirts, so I checked this box to save a little bit of cash, and room in my dresser!

5. Make those destination races count–with friends! If you do want to go further from home, plan to race and travel with friends to split up costs. Sharing the race experience with friends is what makes it extra fun, after all! I love to do this because some of my favorite triathlon friends don’t even live in the same state that I do, so we hardly see each other as it is. So why not make the race a reunion as well, and save on costs together? Genius.

6. Discount codes. Before handing your credit card number over, do the same thing that you would do if you were shopping online (at least what I would do, anyway): Google the race name and “discount code”. Sometimes they are posted on Facebook pages, local club websites, or even printed in magazines. I’m also a member of a big national club, Team RWB, which costs nothing to join, and gives huge discounts on races they want big club representation at. Disclaimer: I’m a member of the club because I support their cause, not for the discounts as I didn’t even know about them til later! Bonus perks 😉

7. Limit race frequency. Really think about if you’ll be prepared enough to do every race you’ve written down, or if you may end up half assing them. I used to race TONS, and I know there’s truth in the theory of “racing yourself into shape.” At the same time, racing very frequently does not always produce the best results if you are not able to train much in between races, or give yourself adequate recovery. Moreso, going with the purpose of this post, racing frequently as a way to get faster is not cheap at all. I’d rather put in some solid training for free, and have a handful of races that I can really perform well in. Originally I had up to two Olympic triathlons per month on my tentative 2014 schedule until I realized that racing every other weekend was too expensive and just not practical in terms of building up the speed and endurance I wanted. Especially since I only ended up putting in enough training to race one triathlon (an Olympic distance) last year–let’s not bite off more than I can chew. (I’m really good at that.) I’m limiting it to one Olympic triathlon per month, some even 6 weeks apart.

8. Limit length of the race season to prevent burnout too. For me, triathlon season is May through September (or even October), and I’ll do some running races from November through April. A pretty even 6 month/6 month split, with some overlap as I’ll still throw in some running races throughout tri season to keep some spark in the running legs.  I like to be done before Halloween, so I can enjoy that holiday along with Thanksgiving and Christmas (as evidenced by my current state of fitness…). When I used to race more competitively, it was a February through November triathlon season. Whew. That was exhausting to both my body and my bank account! This year I may “only” do 4 Olympic triathlons. We’ll see.

9. Take into consideration the types and distances of the events that will keep your mind, body, and wallet from getting burnt out. Triathlons tend to be more expensive than running races, but Olympic triathlons are also much cheaper than half and full Ironmans. (They also require less training, which match my current work demands much better.) Right now, “early bird pricing” on some local Olympic triathlon events are as low as the $75-$80 range, which is similar pricing to (if not cheaper than) some of the big name marathons and half marathons. I’ve seen typical Olympic tri pricing more in the $120-$160 range, ugh. Tiny local running events (as mentioned above with no shirts or medals) can be found as low as the $5 to $10 range.

10. Set aside an annual budget for racing. This is something I haven’t employed before, as I used to throw race expenses into my monthly “Fun Fund”, which didn’t always work as there are many times you sign up for something x months in advance. Or like around this time of year, when you may sign up for 3 or 4 events at all once. I like the idea of limiting myself to how much I can spend in terms of entry fees and travel expenses for each event. These costs tend to be spread over the course of the year, so it makes sense to lump them into an annual budget vs. a monthly budget. I have yet to come up with a number for the annual racing budget, and I’ll probably do an annual travel budget as well. They’re in the works!

Bonus tip from college racing days! Camp instead of booking a hotel, or get hooked up with a homestay. When I was a young little tri newbie in college, we always picked the camping option as many races are at lakes with campgrounds. This could be as low as $20 or cheaper for a tent spot, compared to about $80-$100/night for a hotel/motel. You can also cast your net wide in your circle of friends, teammates, or alumni networks (hello, Facebook!) and try to get hooked up with a homestay. When I rowed in grad school, we would often get hosted by a local alumni family at regattas that were in the next state over. The other great thing about being a part of a national team like Team RWB? You can take turns hosting or homestaying with other teammates in different parts of the country!

Good luck this upcoming season! Any tips I’ve left out on how to keep your racing costs down?

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