Don’t Get The Wrong Impression About Off-Road Triathlon

Do you want in on a little secret? Here it is – off-road triathlons are incredibly fun! In fact, they are way more fun than you may realize. However, since their creation, off-road tris have been ignored by the media, looked at as 2nd teir, and treated like a red-headed stepchild. But don’t get the wrong impression, that’s the farthest thing from the truth.

So how did they get this bad rap? Let’s take a look at how these misconceptions came about, what’s really going on in the sport today, why things are the way they are, and what the future may hold.

How We Got To Today

Off-road triathlon is a very young sport. Combining swimming, mountain biking, and trail running was around prior to 1997, but there was no coordinated series or organization. The XTERRA brand was created in 1997, by Team Unlimited and has been the dominant entity in the industry ever since. Since that time, the sport has grown to over 4 million athletes worldwide.

The Speedo was the clothing of choice even in off-road triathlon back in 1997. Photo: XTERRA
The Speedo was the clothing of choice for any triathlete back in 1997, whether on-road or off-road. Photo: XTERRA

Despite this growth over the years, no dedicated media source has been established. An occasional “off-road” issue from a few publications have come and gone, but regular communication about the sport on the whole, has been nearly non-existent. Don’t get the wrong impression, Team Unlimited as done a fantastic job of promoting their brand XTERRA and becoming synonymous with off-road triathlon, but as for the sport of cross triathlon**, it has been lacking a unified voice.

**Note: The term ‘off-road triathlon’ has been the most common name for a swim, mountain bike, trail run event, until recent years. In 2011, the ITU defined ‘cross triathlon’ as their official term for an off-road style triathlon.  As the sport of off-road triathlon grows beyond the XTERRA brand being the only global race series, the term ‘cross triathlon’ is slowly becoming adapted as the official name.

This lack of communication about the sport has led to the wrong impression. Human nature is to assume that if you are not hearing news about something, that nothing is happening or that it must not be important. Along with this, there is a mindset, especially in America, that if you are not growing, you are dying. These two perceptions have led many to the wrong impression about the state of cross triathlon.

What’s Really Going On?

What is really going on is cross triathlon has been quietly growing year after year, despite being under the radar of many in the endurance sports world. Participation numbers continue to increase each year, and though some races have been discontinued, many others are selling out time and time again. Along with that, new races are popping up all the time.

Did you know…

  • The biggest races in the sport, XTERRA France, XTERRA South Africa, and XTERRA New Zealand have been drawing over 1,000 competitors each,  year after year, for the past 10 years.
  • XTERRA Lory in Colorado has sold out every year since 2011. There were 350 athletes this year. They had to stop putting athletes on a waitlist for the race because it was getting to big (over 75 people).
  • XTERRA Vestkysten in Denmark has already sold out with over 1,000 participants and the race isn’t until August 28th, 2016.
  • In2Adventure, an Australian based production company, was started in 2006 and now has over a dozen events around country, including the upcoming 2016 ITU Cross Triathlon World Championship.
  • XTERRA Blackwater in Florida sold out for the 2nd year in a row at 150 participants (limit set by the venue) and they expect a waitlist of 25-30 athletes.
  • In its inaugural year, XTERRA Belgium sold out with over a 1,000 athletes.
Over the weekend, thousands of athletes take part in the Paymark XTERRA Rotorua Festival in New Zealand. It's a huge off-road triathlon festival. Photo: Paymark XTERRA Rotorua Festival
Over the weekend, thousands of athletes take part in the Paymark XTERRA Rotorua Festival in New Zealand. Photo: Paymark XTERRA Rotorua Festival

Insight Into Two Races

Tony Panigutti, from Without Limits, the producer of XTERRA Lory, one of the largest XTERRAs in the USA and Ben Dillon, from SMOL Racing, the producer of XTERRA Blackwater in Florida share some insight as to why their races sell out.

Without limits produtions and SOML Racing are off-road triathlon event producers.

DirtTRI: Without Limits has three XTERRAs in 2016. XTERRA Lory sold out back in June, do you anticipate Aspen Valley and Buffalo Creek XTERRAs to sell out as well? (the other two off-road triathlons that Without Limits puts on).

Tony Panigutti: Yes, registrations for Aspen Valley and Buffalo Creek is ahead of last year so I would anticipate those selling out as well.  There’s been a nice resurgence in triathlon this year and with one less race on the schedule in the Colorado area for XTERRA we’re seeing larger field sizes. (One of their races was cancelled for 2016 due to trail construction).


DirtTRI: Why do you think your races have sold out and continue to do so?

Tony Panigutti: I’d say it’s a combination of venue, course, food, atmosphere, and organization.  It’s a great time of the year when athletes are ready to hit the trails and get their first XTERRA under their belt for the season [XTERRA Lory was in early June].  The venue is a great one for those who are looking to try out the sport, but also good for seasoned veterans to get the first race in for the year.  The XTERRA Lory Slip n Slide finish line is also a big hit!

The XTERRA Lory off-road triathlon finish line is a Slip n Slide. Now who doesnt think thats fun?! Photo: 303Triathlon
The XTERRA Lory finish line is a Slip n Slide. Now who doesnt think thats fun?! Photo: 303Triathlon


Ben Dillon: The XTERRA Southeast Region has 12+ on-road triathlons, but currently our event is the only off-road triathlon in Florida. The Pensacola area is quite ripe for triathlons and ours is unique in the simple fact its off-road. We [SOML Racing] received high remarks from the inaugural event last year that is was well produced. Bear Lake is a very nice park in the Blackwater River State Forest. My good looks may have been mentioned by a few of the single, female athletes, haha.

Then What’s Going Wrong?!?

If cross triathlon is doing so well, why are races like the XTERRA East Championship, XTERRA Spain, James River Off-Road Triathlon, and others being cancelled? What you may not realize is that the demand for events hasn’t been the problem. Those defunct races are more commonly due to inexperience or lapses on the part of the organizer or organization. Cross triathletes want more events to take part in, but when the following errors are made, it’s clear to see why an event will inevitably be nixed.

  • Poor Venue Choice – If the venue is difficult to get to athletes won’t go. If the course isn’t fun, they aren’t excited to do it. Costly venues are difficult for race organizations to justify the expense. Small venues limit the number of athletes and consequently spectators, and therefore limit the potential for growth and interest from sponsors.
  • Inadequate Marketing – For athletes, spectators, and others to take part in an event, they need to know about it first. It’s that simple – Market your event or no one will know about it.
  • Atrocious Sponsor Representation – When a sponsor invests money in a race, they are not only looking to help out a local event, but they are looking for a return on their investment. Poorly representing as sponsor ensures they won’t return the following year because there was no benefit to them.
  • Shoddy Execution – Athletes talk. Word gets around. If the event is train-wreck before, during, or after for the athletes, sponsors, spectators, and anyone else involved, you can count on the word spreading.
  • Lousy Financial Choices – Putting on an off-road triathlon is a difficult feat to make highly profitable. Many race organizers are passionate and produce events for the love of the sport, but unintentionally make poor financial choices. Just like any other business, bad monetary decisions will inevitably lead to failure.
  • A Myriad of Other Missteps – There are a million factors that go into putting on a successful race and pulling all of those together is a difficult and complicated task. Some can do it, but many fail because they don’t understand or pay attention to all of the details (and there are a lot).

Last month, the James River Off-Road Triathlon in Richmond, VA was postponed. The Richmond cross triathlon community has now been left hanging twice in recent months after XTERRA announced they would no longer continue the XTERRA East Championship, a race that up until that point was one of the longest running off-road tris in the world. Those races weren’t cancelled due to lack of willing participants. The community was eager and vocal about having an event, but both organizations weren’t able to bring things together. Several of the mistakes listed above were made and the races died.

What Does The Future Hold?

Predicting the future is an impossible task, but taking action to guide it in a specific direction is a realistic ambition. When you merge the factors above, you stumble upon some of the driving forces that have lead to the creation of DirtTRI.  In the coming years, here are some of the goals that DirtTRI Magazine is working towards:

  1. Promotion – There is now a media source available to share any and all cross triathlon related information. Discover races in your area. Learn about new products on the market. Read training tips from the pros. Understand why the sport is unique. Check out stories from other athletes. Keep up on industry news. And of course, entertainment. Whether you are an athlete, a business, an advocacy organization, a governing body, event producer, or anyone else, is the place for you to connect with the off-road community.
  2. Growth – As the number of participants continues to grow (as it has been doing), so should the number of events. And trails for all to use. And sponsors. And prize money. And everything else related to the sport. DirtTRI is here to assist in making all of that a reality.
  3. Advocacy of the Sport – Every sport needs a champion. Someone to shout from the roof tops about how great it is. Opening the sport up to people around the world. We all know that it’s a wonderful sport, so let’s share that with others. DirtTRI will be working with USA Triathlon, the ITU, IMBA, and other governing bodies, advocacy groups, event promotors, and whoever possible to help the sport of cross triathlon reach it’s full potential.


Is there something you’d like DirtTRI to do for you? Let us know in the comments below and thank you for your support as we work to make a big difference in the world of cross triathlon.




Will Kelsay

Will Kelsay is one of the top cross triathletes in the world with a 10 year career spanning 5 continents competing in more than 18 countries. He has 20 career wins and more than 70 top 5 finishes. Anyone who has met him knows his passion for the sport is only overshadowed by his huge smile & his appetite for fun.

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