Text by Kelly O’Mara | Photo by Tessa Capistrano

‘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 2, 2018.

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I’m racing my first real race in a long time this weekend. Wildflower! Even though I’m excited and fit (for April), it’s been seven months since I finished a triathlon, and I’d be lying if I said I’m not quite a bit stressed about that fact. It’s so much more pleasant—in a terrible kind of way—when you’re racing so frequently that you don’t even think about racing anymore. If you’re at Wildflower this weekend, say hi to me. And if I look like I’m going to vomit, well, don’t take it personally. 

Drafting is a choice, math isn’t

There is a concept in political science that essentially says: In democratic nations, the state only has power insomuch as we choose to give it power. The state maintains its authority as long as the system retains legitimacy, and so when the system is no longer seen as legitimate by its constituents, there starts to be a breakdown in buy-in. And power erodes.

Ironman has a legitimacy problem. And if it doesn’t fix itself, the authority we have given it in the sport will erode.

Or put another way: It’s easier to keep an existing customer than to get a new one, and right now the shine is starting to wear off for existing customers.

The photo above is Jen Annett on her way to a bike course record at Ironman Texas. Or not. Or maybe. (Photo by Tessa Capistranosee the full IMTX gallery.) Ironman first announced it wouldn’t recognize any records from the race because the course had been impromtu shortened for safety reasons. This prompted Michelle Vesterby to go back out and ride the extra two miles late at night (and make her one of my new favorites), and also spurred some harsh words from Annett.

Ironman then took it back and said they would recognize the new records after all. It’s not that there aren’t arguments for one way or the other, but if Ironman can’t decide what counts as a record, then how the hell are we supposed to know.

That holds true too when it comes to one of the growing fundamental problems in so many Ironman races: drafting.

It’s easy to say that athletes could just choose not to draft—and, sure, to a degree that’s true—but if the choices we’re being presented with don’t mathematically add up to a course where it is physically possible for everyone to ride a clean race, then that’s not really a choice at all. What choice are you exactly supposed to make in this picture?

As far as I understand it, drafting at Ironman Texas was really bad. If you want to know how bad and haven’t seen it yet: watch this insane video of a peloton go down in a massive crash. (And, no, not all the people involved deserved to crash. At least one woman who went to the hospital with a concussion had just been overtaken by the group, and one of the guys far behind the group still finished all messed up and bloody.) Ironman Texas was so bad that officials were pulled off a large section of the course because they couldn’t safely ride in the third lane designated for motorcycles and officials.

Yes, it’s on the individual athletes to make the best choices available to them. But it’s on the race organizers to give them choices that make some goddamn sense. If you can’t put on a legitimate race, eventually people are going to stop buying in. Eventually, they’re going to lose interest and your existing customers are going to leave to do a gravel race or whatever is cool this week. They’re going to choose to stop caring about this bullshit.

Ironman: Fix yourself.

You can also see all the interviews and coverage Sara and Ashley did while in Texas on the Ironwomen Facebook page.

The old college try

Triathlon Collegiate Club Nationals was this past weekend in a modified duathlon race. Navy won the men’s and overall titles, and UC Berkeley (go bears!) claimed the women’s title. ASU, which has the only DI Varsity program currently, does not appear to have competed. They won the Women’s Collegiate Triathlon Championship this past fall. If you’re confused, well, it’s a little confusing. To sum up: Triathlon is in the process of becoming an NCAA women’s sport. (In fact, the 23rd school announced it was signing on this week.) In the meantime, during the transition, collegiate clubs are still the primary place for most collegiate triathletes to compete, and the club competition is still a REALLY BIG DEAL. The club teams also have a history of being welcoming to beginners and a little rougher around the edges than NCAA-regulated sports.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again here: there are some potential downsides to triathlon becoming NCAA. Yes, there are upsides: recognition, money, opportunities for junior elites. But I really, really hope all of that doesn’t stop collegiate triathlon from still being a place someone who doesn’t know how to ride a bike (ie. 19-year-old me) can learn.

Testosterone makes the woman?

I’d argue, no, it doesn’t. But the IAAF—the international governing body for track and field—says it does. The organization announced a new rule this week that would put a cap on testosterone limits for women to compete in certain events but not others. This is part of an ongoing debate over sex and gender testing in the sport. (For a lot of background, here’s my story during the Rio Olympics.) The Court of Arbitration for Sport had previously rejected the IAAF’s rule limiting testosterone amounts for women and basically said: Come back with some proof this is a problem. (Which, if it’s so obvious that testosterone = higher performance = men beating women = intersex women have to be regulated, then it should be easy to prove. Spoiler: it’s not.) The IAAF has now come back with some very flawed evidence finding some correlation in some events but not others. Here’s a whole science-y thread explaining why the court will likely reject this new rule if it gets appealed, which it almost certainly will. Not to mention: attempting to test and regulate gender is a bad idea, period.

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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. If you like what you read (or hear), consider forwarding to a friend who might be interested in triathlon-adjacent news.
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