Oakland Triathlon Debuts in August

A new run-bike-swim club wants to popularize an elite sport for everyone.


Club founder Chris Van Luen.

Sarah Cypher


On Sunday, Aug. 31, Oakland will see something new. Over 1,000 triathletes in wetsuits will jump into the water from the revitalized Estuary Park and start swimming in the newly clean inner harbor. They’ll mount their bikes and loop downtown Oakland, and then run around Lake Merritt and finish their race in Jack London Square. Expected to rival the Oakland marathon’s energy, the first-ever Oakland triathlon may become one of the West Coast’s largest urban triathlons—showcasing the city and its emerging health-and-fitness culture. And seeded among the competitors will be dozens of athletes sporting the green, yellow, and gray racing kits of the Oakland Triathlon Club: the race’s ambassador club whose rapid growth seeks to give a populist vibe to an often-expensive activity.

The story begins in March 2013, when founder Chris Van Luen wanted workout partners. An East Bay native and firefighter/paramedic, Van Luen was pulling 48-hour shifts and needed a way to keep fit on his days off. But it was tough to turn his sometimes-solitary sports of swimming, cycling, and running into something more than just a way to stay healthy. He posted an inaugural meeting on Meetup.com, expecting his friend David Wild and two or three other people.

The turnout was over 70.

“It amazed me that there were so many. But I was even more surprised that no club like this already existed in Oakland.”

This was the birth of the Oakland Triathlon Club, a nonprofit fitness group that in a year has become the fastest-growing triathlon club on the West Coast and was voted Best Club by Competitor Magazine. It was a natural fit for talented local athletes who were tired of traveling across the Bay to train with clubs on the Peninsula, but more impressive, OTC’s dues-paying members have swelled past 150 on the strength of first-time athletes. What makes OTC so hot among the Bay Area’s 30 other triathlon clubs?

Triathlon is a California-born-and-bred sport but has gone global in its 40-year history. In some ways OTC is a microcosm; triathlon caters to a diversity of goals and abilities and gives athletes at all levels and ages an opportunity to be successful. For speedsters, that means taking home an age-group award, and for others, it means shaving off time or simply completing the event. In 2012 there were 4,300 USA Triathlon-sanctioned races and 2.2 million participants nationwide competing in a variety of distances—from newcomer-friendly sprints to the famous 140.6-mile Ironman Kona championship. And over the winter, something bigger happened: The NCAA sanctioned triathlon as a women’s collegiate sport. This means that suddenly a wealth of new scholarship money is available for girls who show athletic promise.

Responding quickly, within OTC’s first year it established a juniors program and an elite development team, staging a space from which kids ages 8–17 can train and compete for college scholarships. This move is part of its core mission as an Oakland organization: to offer triathlon as a positive force in a diverse city and make it a feature of the city’s emerging new character. In this intent, it joins others like the Downtown Oakland YMCA, which offers a two-month kids’ triathlon training program culminating in a race.

“We are working on community outreach to introduce the sport to kids in underserved areas. We are close,” says OTC’s Van Luen, “but it still needs work.” Triathlon can be notoriously bourgeoisie; and in this, its challenges mirror those in gentrifying Oakland neighborhoods. Residents are quick to boast about Oakland’s diversity, but it is hard to give equal access to a sport whose typical athlete is middle-aged, earns a median annual income of $126,000, and spends around $5,000 a year on race fees and gear.

One attempt to equalize the sport’s Cadillac factor is simply to apportion proceeds from an event to charity, such as the Oakland Triathlon did with its youth-focused beneficiaries this year. OTC wants to take it further, making a priority of connecting youth and adult members to loaner gear, offering race discounts and free coached workouts, and supporting community clubs. “I met a woman who coaches African-American kids how to run track after school,” Van Luen shared. “She was setting up a fundraiser to raise $400 so 20 kids could have sweat suits. I said, ‘Uh, no. Those kids are getting sweat suits,’ and I cut her a check for $400 on behalf of OTC. She cried.”

The club’s bright uniforms, or “kits,” are another strategy to create curiosity and gain members. So far, it’s working. Member Clay Walsh says, “[It] must be the most diverse club out there in terms of race, gender, age, and sexual orientation.” Karim Baer says, “Everyone in this club is so damn friendly and wants to share ideas, tips, and equipment.” And for new residents, running and biking have been ways to get acquainted with the area.

Oakland is very much a city whose urban landscape supports healthful endeavors, evidenced now by OTC’s feature spot at the upcoming Oakland Triathlon. What is interesting, though, is that rather than creating a “high-rent district” in which affluent residents get fit, the club is actively trying to reconcile the sport to its environment. Time will tell, but if the OTC’s first year is an indicator, maybe the multiport spectacle of the Oakland Triathlon on Aug. 30 will become a more frequent sight around town.

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