What I Bought for My First Triathlon

One of my biggest worries at the start of triathlon training — and there were many, many worries — was how to pay for all of the gear. I read You Are an Ironman earlier this year, and it includes some pretty stunning statistics about triathlon expenses, the average income of triathletes, and other things that made this sound like a sport for the very, very rich.

I remembered reading this post about doing a triathlon for less than $10, so I knew there were ways to do things relatively cheaply. I already had a lot of running gear that I figured I could use or repurpose, and I’d been swimming for a while, so that covered most of my non-bike basics. I also hoped that I’d love triathlons enough that I’d get several seasons of use out of most of what I bought (spoiler alert: I think that’s true) … or that I could sell some of the bigger-ticket items if I ended up hating it. Still, at one of our first group workouts, one of the other triathlon newbies said her weekends had become an endless string of “What $200 item should I buy this week?” and I couldn’t disagree. It was overwhelming, at first, trying to figure out what was necessary, what was optional, what was a good price, what I could wait to buy, etc.

So, in the hopes that this might be useful to someone somewhere, I took an inventory of what gear I’m using for my first triathlon and what it cost. Yes, I’m going to talk about money on the internet.

First, a disclaimer: When it comes to money, I can be a little completely nuts. I created a spreadsheet of all the things I wanted to buy, their priority, their expected cost, and what discounts I had coming my way. I jumped on every Groupon/Amazon offer/Living Social deal for sporting goods stores, which got me discounts at my bike shop, REI, and Sports Basement. My triathlon club has a constant 10% discount at Sports Basement and fairly regular 20%-off shopping nights. I often ask for REI, Athleta, and Amazon gift cards for birthdays and holidays, so I had a few of those around. The shop where I bought my bike has a loyalty program that gives a percentage of what you spend back in rewards certificates, and buying a bike meant lots of rewards certificates. And training coincided nicely with the arrival of my REI dividend, so while there were a couple of weeks where I was basically sitting on my hands to keep from online-ordering a ton of stuff before the check arrived, getting $200+ of free stuff was very much worth the wait.

In other words, I did not pay for everything below out of pocket, nor did I buy it all within the last three months. But the prices I’ve listed are either what I actually paid OR what I would have paid had I a) not already owned it or b) not had a discount offer. I’ve linked to some things in the list that follows, but the links are purely informational, not somehow putting cash in my pocket. (Belieeeeeve me, I’m making no money on any part of this.)

I’m also well aware that I didn’t always take the cheapest way out. My wetsuit, in particular, was an unnecessary investment that I’m really hoping pays off (meaning I need to swim in it during at least five different months; who wants to jump in the Bay with me?). I could have done this on a tighter budget; I also could have spent far more.

My biggest advice — other than hoarding gift certificates and coupons, which really cannot be overstated — is to buy all of the things you absolutely need to get started (for me, that was everything I’d need for the first four weeks of workouts) and then set a cap for how much you’ll spend after that. My fairly arbitrary cap was $800, including the cost of the training weekend. I almost made it, and would have come in a little under if I’d remembered to budget for a bike tune-up.

I really tried to include e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g on this list. So it’s long. Just saying.

The Basics

Running shoes. I did most of my running in a new pair of Adrenalines. My training plan wasn’t particularly heavy on running mileage, but I’ve still put more than 100 miles on my shoes over the 10 weeks, and my old ones were somewhere between 250-300 miles, so I didn’t want to push it. I got these particular shoes (last year’s model) on sale for $52.

A bike. I know any bike will do at first, but because I was investing from scratch, I wanted something that would carry me through a few years. My group’s coach’s advice was to go to three different shops and ride three different bikes at each. As a 5’1″ lady, I see that as an awesome plan that proved impossible as shop after shop told me they didn’t have any frames in my size. Between the bikes I did get to ride and the research into pricing and components I did in between shopping weekends, I knew I was getting a good deal when I found the 2011 Trek Lexa SLX for well under that MSRP. I paid a bit more than $1100 for Penelope, including tax.

A bike helmet. I had an old one from the rollerblade race and had it checked out at the bike shop to make sure it was in appropriate condition for riding. If I’d needed a helmet, it would have been around $30 at the low end.

A bike rack. My group often meets 25 miles north of the city, and our car is miniature, so this was required. If you have a tiny hatchback, I cannot say enough nice things about the Saris Bones 3, especially if you live in an urban area where you have to take the darn thing off every single time you park. $160.

A swimsuit. A few years ago, I signed up for swim lessons, sure I had a one-piece suit in my dresser. I did not. I discovered this ~30 minutes before the first swim lesson, took a cab to REI, and bought the first suit I saw in my size. It was $70. I think triathlon training has finally made that purchase worth it.

A swim cap. Mine is silicone and cost about $6, I think? Between races and other triathlon-related events, swim caps now rain down on me like manna from heaven, so I don’t expect to be buying another one for a long time.

Goggles. I use an old pair from Target (price unknown) and a nicer Speedo pair that I picked up during a SwimOutlet sale. $12ish.

Basic sporty clothes. Wicking fabrics, blah blah, etc. I managed not to get a proper tri top/bike jersey thanks to my obsessive searching for/hoarding of running tops with stash pockets, but if I’d bought a tri top through my group, it would have been $50-60.

Bike…padding. Back when I was thinking about trying spinning but wasn’t sure I’d like it, I bought this bike underwear from REI that more or less turns any workout pants into bike pants. Not awesome, but definitely the most cost-effective way I found to put some distance between the bike seat and your bits. $25.

Access to a pool. Somewhat challenging and potentially spendy in San Francisco, but the bargain-basement 24 Hour Fitness I already belonged to has a pool.

A GPS watch. Not necessary, but I already had it. The Nike+ watch is definitely not made for biking, but it still records my overall time, my lap or mile times, and my route (via GPS). Theoretically, I can also get my bike speed in miles per hour, though I have to set that on the computer — no way to toggle it from the watch itself — and so usually just keep it in the running pace (minutes per mile) mode. Yes, Nike+ now thinks I’ve run a 3:09 mile. $170.

The Swim

A wetsuit. A relative necessity for swimming in the San Francisco Bay, much to the disdain of the older lady who power-walked by my group on Saturday sneering, “real Bay swimmers do not wear wetsuits. You’re cheating.” If I lived somewhere else, I probably would have gotten a sleeveless wetsuit to be less constricted. I live here, so mine has sleeves. I could have rented for $50 a month, but I’m hoping this investment lasts for years, so I bought while I had the tri club discount. $240.

A waterproof watch. Not necessary but easier for me than trying to track my swim times on my pool’s clock. Mine is basically this Timex. $35.

Foggle wipes. I loved my goggles in the pool, but they fogged like crazy during my first open-water swim. I can’t tell if the Foggle wipes actually work or if it’s the placebo effect (or would be achieved just as easily with water/spit), but now I’m superstitious about it. $4.50/six.

The Bike

Bike pants. I have capri-length tights with a fair amount of padding for my longer rides. Bought on clearance during an REI sale last year, no idea how much they cost, but let’s call it $70.

A cadence sensor. Some Garmins can track cadence with an add-on sensor, but no such luck with the Nike+ watch, so I bought a stand-alone wireless speed and cadence sensor (also tracks distance, total time, and some other things I’ve never used). I broke it three seconds after taking it out of the box, but it works most of the time and, coupled with the watch data, gives me a pretty good idea of how I’m doing on a ride. $60 (though the same model is now listed for $90 on Amazon, so apparently the price fluctuates).

Bike emergency kit. I carry two canisters of CO2, two spare tubes, and a bunch of tire levers. Bought in bits and pieces over time, but I’m guessing all of that plus the bag to keep it in was around $25-30.

Sunglasses. I would not have bought these without my REI dividend, because my regular cheapie Target sunglasses were working fine. After a few cloudy days when I had to choose between the world being very dark and my eyes watering on every downhill, though, I started thinking about sunglasses with different lens tints. I honestly can’t tell any of the sunglasses on the REI site apart, but the ones I got are made by Tifosi and came with three interchangeable lenses (clear, gray, and pink). $90?

A bento box. If you’re not super-comfortable reaching into your pockets while riding, this is a good solution for holding food. I bought this one from Nathan because of all the stretchy mesh pockets (no fumbling with a zipper mid-ride required). If I can get food out of this, anyone can. $17.

Water bottle holders. I have the normal, boring $1.50 ones.

Bike lights and locks. None of this has been strictly necessary for training, but it’s all good to have. I have a cable lock, a Kryptonite U-lock, a USB-charged front light, and a blinking rear light. Let’s say $80.

Bike pedals and clip-in shoes. I bought these together with a coupon and paid $115 for the pair. Amazon lists the pedals for $35 and the shoes for $90.

A bike pump. We’re a two-bike household now, so we should’ve had one of these anyway. $45.

Miscellaneous

A hand-held water bottle. I’ve had this for running for a while, and while I got it mostly for training runs, it turns out I like not relying on aid stations at races, too. I have the small Nathan one with the thumb-hole; apparently it comes in cute colors now. $12.

Tri shorts. I put off buying these until I knew I was racing, because I’d rather train with a little more padding. Around $55.

A gear bag. I used a small backpack I already owned for 2/3 of training, but I could not for the life of me cram my wetsuit into it, and for Wildflower in particular, I have to bike all my stuff a couple of miles into transition. I could have just used my larger hiking backpack, but when I thought I was coming in under my budget, I splurged on something new with plenty of pockets. $100.

A race belt. Easier than safety pins, especially if I’m taking layers off/on. I got a basic one (e.g. no gel pockets) for $8.

A camping towel. One of those small, super-absorbent ones for drying off after the swim. $15.

Sunscreen. You probably already have sunscreen. If you don’t, buy sunscreen. If you do, buy more. I have gone through an absurd amount of sunscreen. $20.

Body Glide. I have also used an absurd amount of this. $6.

Ride Glide. Yeah, this. $20.

Racing/training fuel. Some of this is stuff I eat anyway or have on hand from years of running, so it’s hard to give a budget, but I’ve gone through probably 6 packets of Shot Bloks/Gu Chomps, a couple of tubes of Nuun, a gazillion protein/energy bars of various sorts, and several packets of Gu in the past 10 weeks. $35?

Things I Bought but Rarely Use

Bike gloves. I was going to take an REI learn-to-ride class for which these were required equipment. Then the class got canceled, and I learned I dislike riding with gloves. Maybe I’ll be happy to have them when the weather gets colder or when I’m riding longer, but so far, not the best $30 I’ve ever spent.

Things I Wish I’d Budgeted For

A bike tune-up. If I’d thought about this before, oh, this week, I wouldn’t have bought the backpack. $120.

A bike fit. The No. 1 thing I’m doing for next year, if not even sooner. I did get a mini-fit when I got my pedals, but the more I ride, the more I can tell what’s not quite working for me. I’ve started researching places and have seen anything from $100-$300.

There are also a few things I debated purchasing but ultimately decided against, including a heart rate monitor (I’ve never used one; there’s only one that’s compatible with my watch, so it’s mostly a question of comfort at this point), the official racing gear from my group (fewer people will recognize/cheer for me along the course; I think I’ll live), and real armwarmers/legwarmers.

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9 thoughts on “What I Bought for My First Triathlon

  1. Kelly says:

    HOLY MOLY. That is so much stuff! And so much to think about! definitely an intimidation when it comes to thinking about doing a tri. Not sure I will ever take the plunge, even though it’s so intriguing!

    • kimretta says:

      Writing it all out like that was pretty shocking, I have to admit. One of the hardest things was holding back from buying new regular running/workout clothes (which I really enjoy!) in lieu of saving that money for a wetsuit or something somewhat less exciting.

  2. Diana says:

    Hahahahahaha…..I’m laughing because I’m having the same experience. Except that I’m not tracking it because I just don’t want to know 🙂 I JUST got that same bento box in the mail, and am undecided on it. What do you think? At least it matches Lexa, right? 🙂

    Here’s my list of recent purchases:
    Bike, bike pump, bike shorts, pedals with toe straps, 2 saddle bags
    Tri shorts, tri top, running shoes, speed laces, nice running socks
    New running shirt/shorts for workouts
    Sleeveless wetsuit
    (I too love REI dividends, Active Schwaggle groupons, and gear swap sales at my local tri store! And the TREK credit card.)

    Current shopping list:
    shoes/pedals for clipping in
    new swimsuit for training
    Body Glide
    Non hipster/more race-y bike helmet

    Wish List:
    Bike sensor
    New gear bag

    Money saving tip on goggles: licking the inside of the goggles before putting them on reduces fog.

    • kimretta says:

      I ended up having to duct-tape the inside straps of the bento down so it wouldn’t move all over the place — doesn’t the velcro part seem like it’s just a little too short? I mostly use the bigger mesh pocket — I’ll put a bunch of different shot bloks/chomps in a plastic baggie and stick that baggie in the pocket. I *can* unzip the main compartment when I ride now, but I still try to keep things in there that I won’t necessarily need (backup food, my phone, etc)

  3. Kristina says:

    That’s a pretty amazing breakdown of the gear (and the cost!). I remember when I did my first backpacking trip with a group, as the leader went down the list and lost her place, she said “Where are we?” and one of the hikers said “About a thousand dollars later.”
    I wish that I could say that since this is season 2 for me, I spent less money, but I upgraded my bike and got a bike fitting, so that tipped the scale just a bit. I’m also looking at new shoes/pedal system for the summer.
    While I don’t think this is a sport only for the very, very rich, when money was tight a few years ago, there is no way that I would have ever been able to commit to it.

    • kimretta says:

      “About a thousand dollars later.” — haha, I love that so much. I already have my running list of things I’ll want for season 2!

  4. Beth says:

    And THIS is why I don’t add it all up. Yikes!

    If you bought your bike from a local shop, they’ll probably adjust your bike for free. Maybe not a 2-3 hour fitting session, but a good 30 minutes of making sure its right for you. Doesn’t hurt to ask!

    • kimretta says:

      Very good point — they’ve actually done that for me twice, once when I got the shoes/pedals and again when one of the tweaks they made during that process didn’t quite work. Both were quick hop-on-trainer/hop-off things, and they were pretty up-front about not being the best fitters in town, but they helped a lot.

      And, after I wrote this post, I went to get my bike and they told me the tune-up was free. Which guarantees I will spend that $120 on something else there soon, because that was awesome.

  5. Rachel says:

    i’ve been keeping a spreadsheet of all my costs for Ironman and holy cow it’s ridiculous. as much as i love triathlon, there is no denying that it requires a lot of gear and can get very expensive. fortunately i’ve been able to save a lot of money with some perks from my job but it still adds up!

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