If Brian Duffy doesn't feel like rolling out of bed, lacing up his shoes, and hitting the road for a run one morning, there's no coach there to get in his face and tell him he must. If his legs ache after a long bike ride, it's his problem, and his problem alone. If another lap in the pool seems like too much for his lungs to bear, he's welcome to quit.
But Duffy, a Duke sophomore, doesn't quit. He is of a distinctive breed: the triathlete. Not only does the sport—at least its competitive form—require mastery of three very different athletic disciplines, but it also takes more self-motivation than most. Sure, tennis players or runners compete individually. But even as middle-school students, they are already congregating on teams where their coaches and fellow athletes push them to be the best they can be. Though the triathlon is beginning to grow in popularity, most young athletes are on their own to scrap for coaching, equipment, and inspiration.
In just a few years of competing in sprint-distance triathlons, Duffy has achieved remarkable success. He placed fourth in the 2007 junior national championships, and this past August, he took three days off from school to travel to Hamburg, Germany, and compete in the International Triathlon Union's World Sprint Triathlon Age Group Championships.
On what was essentially an extended weekend trip, it was tough to adjust to the six-hour time change and the local cuisine, he says. But the morning of the race, he woke up feeling great. "I felt awesome. Everything was clicking."
The 750-meter swim and twenty-two-kilometer bike portions of the race went well, and he entered the run in the lead pack. "I had never felt so good in my life," he says. He took over the race's final phase, a five-kilometer run, a half-mile in, and led the rest of the way, winning his age group by twelve seconds.
He later found out that he'd not only won his age group but also defeated all other age-groupers. ("Elite" competitors raced different courses.)
Duffy swam competitively as a child and took up cross-country running in middle school. Inspired by a Lance Armstrong memoir, he competed in his first triathlon the summer after his freshman year of high school. "It was very grueling," he recalls. But he loved it. Throughout high school, he ran cross-country in the fall, swam in the winter, ran track in the spring, and then trained for triathlons in the summer. It was a sort of piecemeal approach, but it worked well for him. The summer after his junior year, in his fourth race, he won the Philadelphia Independence Triathlon.
Since coming to Duke, Duffy has boosted his efforts, training in all three disciplines year round. "I've found that having a nine-month base on the bike going into the summer is much more beneficial than having only three or four months to play catch-up," he says. He walked on to Duke's cross-country and track teams, and he's been pushing himself in the pool, sometimes swimming with the Duke club team and sometimes going it alone.
At his peak during the summer, he runs every day, bikes five or six times a week, and swims four or five, regularly training four to six hours a day. Even during the school year—technically his off-season—he works out multiple times each day.
Over the winter, Duffy gave up his spot on the cross-country and track teams in order to allow himself more flexibility in his workout schedule. Now he's gearing up for USA Triathlon's Collegiate National Championships, scheduled for April. "When I'm doing it on my own, there's a greater sense of self-discipline," he says of training. "I'm responsible for myself. I would feel guilty if I didn't get out there and run. I can push myself harder."
Brian Duffy, tenacious triathlete
January 31, 2008