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. This episode is from May 22, 2019.

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Hello to all the new subscribers joining us from Ironwomen. Hopefully, we don’t scare you off and also, hopefully, I don’t fall asleep while writing this because that keeps happening lately.

I’ve got a bunch of small things this week and no huge plans for the holiday weekend. So if we were riding right now, here’s what we might be talking about…

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Clean sweep

(Photo: Delly Carr/ITU Media)

Katie Zaferes won her third consecutive WTS race this weekend — thoroughly establishing herself as the one to beat. (Plus, if you don’t have a Triathlon Livesubscription to watch all the WTS races, Katie’s husband Tommy does excellent behind-the-scenes photos and Insta commentary.)

Equally interesting in Yokohama was the American sweep of the women’s podium, led by Katie.

This isn’t the first time that’s happened (for America or for other countries). Back before the last Olympics, there was another American trio that dominated podiums: Gwen before she decamped for the marathon, Sarah True before she decamped for Ironman, and still Katie Zaferes. I wrote, at the time, about why the U.S. women are so good at triathlon. It has something to do with years of access and opportunity, a targeted Collegiate Recruitment Program, and the whole women’s teamwork thing everyone keeps talking about in running too. Maybe this is the start of a new dynasty?

What happens when there’s access + opportunity + goals

On that note, a follow-up to last week’s discussion about what’s happening with the pro races.

We’re conceding the North American 70.3 races (and, to a degree, some of the European ones) have had stupid deep women’s pro fields this year. And, yes, to a degree, that is because the points and prize money system has changed, and the pro fields are being a bit gutted. No reason to far away for no incentive, might as well stay at home.

But a couple of things were pointed out to me about this. One is that there are obviously more pro women in North America. Partially that’s because the criteria for taking your pro license is slightly easier here than in some European countries or Australia. [And, yes, we definitely need a world standard on this. And, yes, making it harder is dumb.] Partially, though, there’s also a longer history of dedicated access for women’s sports in North America than in South America or Asia, for instance. Title IX made a difference. Resources made a difference. The second thing that was pointed out to me, though, is that there are actually equal 70.3 world champ slots for the pro men and women.

So, you add access + resources — which creates the ability for there to be more people doing something — + opportunity — which has given more women a reason to chase a 70.3 worlds spot. And maybe it’s just inevitable that the formula adds up to = deeper competitive female pro fields at 70.3 races. Maybe this is what we’ve been arguing for all along. Or maybe it’s just because there’s no prize money anywhere and everyone’s making some last ditch convenient race choices for fun before they quit. Either way.

And one more thought about pregnancy

We talked more on the podcast about pregnancy clauses in athlete contracts. And since the NYT op-ed, a number of companies have announced they’ve added specific language protecting their athletes through pregnancy. (And plenty of companies already did that to be clear.) There’s even been Congressional reps getting involved for some reason.

Maybe women are just having a marketing moment. Maybe there’ll be long-lasting change. I don’t know yet. But, either way, it still isn’t easy being a world-class athlete and having a kid. Hell, it isn’t really easy being anything and a mom in most corporate or athletic environments. And everyone has thoughts about what you should do with your body and how you should do it. (This was one of the more bizarre responses IMO.) Nothing about being pregnant and an athlete is easy. It’s just, maybe, that more women are doing it now.

Blowing up v. pacing appropriately

As someone who has blown myself up on plenty of occasions (and who, conversely, raced too safe in St. George), I appreciated this ode to learning to love the blow-up. “The point is not to show off your discipline and prediction skills, to always negative split. The point of racing, part of the reason I fell in love with it, is to push yourself, to find out what you can make your body do on that day, in that race, and to sometimes surprise yourself along the way.”

However, I don’t think those are the only two options in racing: Either you risk too much and fail OR you go too safe and finish easy. The thing I think this misses is that just because you don’t slow down doesn’t mean it was easy. If you go for it, sometimes you succeed. If you go for it and barely hold onto it and cross the finish line spent, sometimes that’s the whole fucking goal.

Another contamination case

Word spread this week of another female triathlete serving a doping ban for ostarine from what appears to be a contaminated supplement. This one is an elite age-grouper, former pro, who is also a coach. That makes five now (six?). Plus there have been a whole bunch of UFC cases too.

Look, I am not going to ever be able to say if all these people are telling the truth or not. Only they can know that — though I will say the logic of some of them willfully doping on ostarine doesn’t make a ton of sense. (Not that doping ever really makes sense.) What we do know is USADA doesn’t, generally, reduce bans to six months unless they can show to some degree it’s a case of accidental contamination. We also know there are plenty of contamination issues in supplements. And we know supplements are not FDA regulated — and “supplement” covers drink powder, salt pills, gels.

So let’s suppose at least some contamination is happening in non-Safe Sport certified products. But, because of ongoing lawsuits (and additional legal fights about to happen), we don’t know exactly which companies are to blame. We also know USADA publishes a list of high-risk supplements, but we don’t know which ones on the list are the issue here. And the only way to even guess is to create a login for the list, scour the whole site for companies that sound familiar, and then wait until USADA makes its official press release and see if you can spot whether they added something to the list.

It’s not hard to see why paranoia is starting to run rampant through triathlon. The process is making the whole anti-doping system seem sketchier than it actually is. It’s making it all seem haphazard and capricious.

That’s why it’s time for someone official to say something clearly about what was contaminated, how it got that way, and if there is anything triathletes really need to worry about. 

Before they tell me they can’t say anything because of the libel and liability and legal issues, let me tell you why they should: Anti-doping systems are built on a framework of buy-in. The athletes have to believe the system is at least mostly just and fair and that it primarily catches those who are doing things wrong. This buy-in is more important than actually catching and punishing every single doper, because it is the buy-in that keeps clean athletes faithful, that keeps them doing the right thing even if they know they probably wouldn’t get caught anyway. When people start to lose faith in the system, when paranoia begins to run rampant, that’s when the system starts to break down. And then you risk a deterioration of the buy-in and, eventually, an erosion of clean athletes staying clean. This is why USADA or USAT or Ironman needs to say something clearly and succinctly about what is and isn’t happening here, before Slowtwitch forums leak over into the real world and the sport.

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  • Gwen Jorgensen announced she had surgery for essentially a bone spur on her heel. Also, the last two minutes of the video are of drugged-up Gwen post-surgery and worth watching. (Youtube)
  • Ironman acquired a whole bunch of running events and a triathlon in Australia, including the world’s largest fun run, which apparently has 80,000 people? (Endurance Business)
  • After her bad crash at Galveston, Sika Henry has some thoughts about how to help resolve some of the crowding and safety issue. We all know I think there should be a mass start (or a couple of age group waves, ie. 40+ etc) for people going for awards and then a rolling start after for everyone just looking to finish. But her point is valid that you should know when you register which you’re signing up for. (Slowtwitch)
  • Allyson Felix testified in front of Congress about disparities in maternal health. Which are truly messed up. (Women’s Running)
  • I had basically forgotten about Mary Cain and then suddenly it started to seem like she was everywhere lately. (Probably because she raced again.) I even got sucked down her Instagram. But if you’ve been curious where she’s at, this Citius Mag podcast is worth listening to. (LetsRun/Instagram/Soundcloud)
  • As far as I’m aware the first names were released in that whole blood doping scandal from a month or so ago. The cyclists named were pulled from their respective races, but remember: there were supposedly triathletes implicated in the raids too. (Cycling Weekly)
  • The second medalist from the 2016 Olympic marathon podium has been suspended for doping. But, yes, both of them will keep their medals from Rio because the failed tests didn’t happen in any time around the Olympics. (Twitter)
  • The ASO won’t provide the required TV coverage of the women’s cycling races, so Flèche-Wallone and Liège-Bastogne-Liège are both being pulled from the women’s world tour schedule. *face-palm* (Cycling Tips)
  • The most badass woman in bike racing is back(Bicycling)
  • The second oldest woman to qualify for the marathon Olympic Trials has only gotten better with age(Runner’s World) 
  • I actually really wanted to run around Mont Blanc this summer (and I’m totally obsessed with Killian Jornet), but just add it to the list of things people are doing and dying at — unprepared and encouraged by social media. (Trail Runner)
  • Just as there are first ascents, there will be last ascents — the last time before climate change made that climb no longer possible. (High Country News)
  • In case you’ve missed the memo: Sports science is failing women(The Telegraph)
  • A rather amazing and ingenious and hilarious idea for staying safe on cross-country bike trips: Get yourself a pool noodle(Quartz)

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Comments & thoughts

– Sara polled on Insta Stories (gone now) if she should start her inaccurately named ‘Tales from My Box’ column or if I’m right and it makes no sense. Apparently, you all agreed she should start the column even if it makes no sense.

– Taryn agreed sponsors should ‘read the fucking room’ when it comes to pregnancy clauses.

– And Alison said she’ll yell at me and say hi in Victoria.