Text by Kelly O’Mara | Photo from: Kaori Photo / Wildflower Experience 2018

‘If We Were Riding’ is a weekly triathlon-ish newsletter written by Kelly O’Mara and produced by Live Feisty MediaSubscribe to get it in your inbox every Wednesday morning. You can also read past issues. This episode is from May 16, 2018.

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I’m doing the stave-off-injury dance this week. The twinges and aches, the seizing up of a calf and swelling and icing and seeing all the specialists. I didn’t run for about a week. Then I was talking to another athlete at the gym who also hadn’t run in two weeks, hoping her calf would come around before her next race. It’s like we’re all always flirting with the line. If we were riding, here’s what I’d have to say.

One Simple Thing Makes All The Difference

OK, no burying the lede; here is my proposal: Start the pro women 20 minutes before the pro men in 70.3 races. Then proceed as usual. The upsides are numerous. The downsides? Well, I’ve spent the last week trying to think of them, and I came up with two.

Running did this 14 years ago. Almost all the big marathons now start the pro women 20-25 minutes ahead of the men. For good reason. While the timing would be slightly different for triathlon, you don’t necessarily need to time it for the men and women to finish at the *same* time (like they do in marathons). Even just a bit of a headstart would make most triathlons cleaner and better races.

The Upsides

A few weeks ago I was going through press photos from a race looking for a good picture for a story. There weren’t many photos of the women to choose from, and I ended up going with one of a man farther back. The logistical reality is there are always more photos and coverage of the men. It’s not even necessarily a sexist choice. It’s a simple matter of timing and logistics. The men are out on course first, and it’s only them out there for a long time. There’s no one else to talk about or take photos of. While the photographer is hanging around at the finish line waiting for the women, they take pictures of the fourth place man and the fifth and the seventh. By the time the top three women come in—if they can wait long enough for all three—then they’re done. There are almost never any photos of the rest of the women.

(When I’ve been on the other side, covering races, this is still the case. I hung around for hours and hours one time just so we could interview the third place woman at a 100-miler. It was 2 a.m.; we didn’t wait for fourth. Yet, while we were hanging out, we interviewed tons of the men.)

This seems like not a big deal, but it’s a huge deal. More coverage equals more attention equals more sponsors equals more money.

Right now, the pro women in triathlon are sandwiched between the pro men and the age group men. Sometimes, they don’t even get five minutes before the age group men start. This is a joke. Every pro woman knows it’s a joke and sometimes, like at Ironman Texas, the joke becomes super obvious to everyone else too.

Putting the women 20 minutes ahead of the pro men would eliminate any of the front pro women catching the back of the pro men during the swim (which happens at championship events). And it would eliminate the swarms that always happen on the bike when groups of age group men swallow up the middle of the women’s pro field. It would space things out, so that by the time passing happens on the bike, the athletes would be spread farther apart. It’d be cleaner, safer, and fairer.

The Downsides

Here are the downsides I see: you’d have to have the infrastructure—volunteers, T1, early bike aid stations—ready to go 20 minutes earlier; and some people are going to say the pro men having to pass the pro women in the second half of the bike will mess up the men’s race.

The first issue is semi-fair, but I think it’s manageable (if the organizers wanted to manage it). Twenty minutes earlier on the swim isn’t nuts for a race director’s permits. And by the second half of the bike, the timing would catch up to itself, since the first pro men would essentially catch the first pro women towards the end of the bike.

Which brings us to the second issue and my reaction to those critics: ARE YOU FOR REAL. Obviously, it’s a weak argument to suggest it’s a problem for the pro men to have to pass the occasional pro woman at a point when they’re fairly spread out, but that it’s *less of a problem* for the pro women to be all mixed up in the amateur men’s race.

Both these issues might be more challenging if there were hordes of pro women, but when we get to that point it’ll be a good problem to have. And, there are already “equalizer” triathlons that time the headstart so the men and women will be racing head to head down the chute. All I’m suggesting is 20 minutes for 70.3s, and potentially 30 minutes for full Ironmans. It’d make all the difference.

What would you do?

After the whole Ironman Texas overcrowding kerfuffle—and all the talk about pro women’s bike times being weirdly fast, Slowtwitch did an odd interview with the new Ironman bike record holder, Jen Annett. The questions definitely implied she benefitted from being a slow swimmer and drafting off age-group men. Then, they asked for her power file to prove… something?? She said she wasn’t allowed to share it. I’d have said something much more like, “Hahahahahaha, no. Who made you the arbiter of what my power should or shouldn’t be?”

Ironman Champion?

I was at Ironman Santa Rosa this past weekend to cheer on some friends. There wasn’t a pro race, so it was one of those odd events now, with all the athletes starting at different times within the rolling start and you can’t exactly tell who’s winning. Everyone’s just exercising really hard around the same time! When the first woman crossed the line, though, they let her break the finish line tape, asked her some questions over the microphone, and announced her as an “Ironman champion.” I even got a press release later that day announcing her and the male winner as Ironman champions.

How do we feel about this? Obviously, she worked hard and she won the race on the day. That makes her the winner. In no way am I suggesting she or the men’s winner didn’t deserve to win. But, traditionally, Ironman champion is a title that’s reserved for Lucy Charles or Daniela Ryf. It’s a big deal in triathlon. As an age-grouper, I was the second woman at an Ironman once, because there was no pro race. It was incredibly fun—I highly recommend it—and none of the random spectators on the sidelines cared that I was probably 20-25 minutes slower than the second place woman would usually be. But, still, I always feel weird, like I want to put an asterisk on the result.

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If We Were Riding’ is a weekly triathlon-ish newsletter written by Kelly O’Mara and produced by Live Feisty Media. Subscribe to get it in your inbox every Wednesday morning. You can also read past issues or listen to the semi-related podcast of the same name on Fridays. Press reply to tell Kelly what you think. And press forward to send to a friend.

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4 Responses

  1. Amy Stone

    I think that you might want to also consider the impact to the amateur race if you add another 20 minutes to the race day. Whether it’s right or wrong the back of the pack is historically really vocal about how much time they have on an Ironman course. This is certainly not an insurmountable problem. There are many Ironman courses where the time allowed on course is much less than the legendary 17 hours. Just like there are many courses where the bike is known to be short. While it doesn’t affect the pro race at all it is something I thought was worth mentioning.

    Reply
    • Feisty Reporter

      I think the suggestion here is that the amateur race starts at the same time it would otherwise — nothing changes for them — but the pro women are simply moved 20 minutes earlier.

      ie. Right now: 7:00 a.m pro men, 7:05 pro women, 7:10 AG rolling start
      Instead: 6:40 a.m pro women, 7:00 a.m. pro men, 7:10 AG rolling start

      Reply

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