Cheaters, Drafters, and Ironman Texas

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    CdA BIke

This past weekend, Ironman Texas rose to the top of the list as worst clusterf*** of all time.  Initial reports were describing ridiculous amounts of drafting and dangerous conditions on the bike course.  I wanted to wait until I spoke with someone I trusted before making an opinion and what was described on the interwebs was confirmed.

When racing this distance, the reason why I chose the Ironman brand over the other events was that they always put on a topnotch production.  They were well staffed, aid stations were well stocked, good crowds, decent venues for travel purposes, and they were safe.  Even though I cringed a little when they took away the mass swim start, I understood why and I appreciated that they were concerned about the safety of the athletes racing. 

Granted, everyone has a bad day and Ironman was no different but on the whole, their events were well-oiled machines. 

I don’t know where things have gone wrong.  It could be the expansion of the brand, the acquisition of independent races with their homegrown race directors, or it could be that they are more concerned with profits.  And no, I’m not jumping on that bandwagon of – “Ironman is greedy”.  In the past, I had zero issues paying the entry fee, even when it continued to increase because as I mentioned above, the races were superior to the non-Ironman branded races.  To me, it was worth the cost for races that were accurate in distance, safe, with large crowds, and in locations where travel was easy. 

I did an event many years ago that was out in the middle of nowhere.  When you can only promise 100+ people, most towns aren’t willing to catch crap for all-day road closures.  So you have to find a town in BFE.  That’s not Ironman.  Ironman Arizona is held in Tempe, Wisconsin in Madison, etc. – places you’ve heard of, towns with airports close by, venues with lots of hotels and restaurants. 

I do think that maybe some of these larger towns are becoming less hospitable.  Ironman Coeur d’Alene would loop its run course through Hayden and then one year they changed the course and pushed it out onto the highway.  There was some debate over whether or not the town of Hayden complained and there was finger pointing.  Honestly, I don’t remember if I ever learned the true reason for the course change.  What I do know is that the course was less scenic and it got slightly harder. 

That brings up another point.  If the course is hard, people complain and they won’t do the race.  If the course is easy, people complain, it creates a situation where drafting is sometimes difficult to avoid, people complain about that, but people come back to the event because they like fast times.

I touched on the “d” word.  There are several situations that can create drafting.  If you have a flat course, a course with multiple loops, or both, you’re going to see drafting.  When it was still the location for 70.3 Worlds, Clearwater was notorious for creating drafting situations.  I think pretty much any time you have people coming out of the water in large groups coupled with flat bike sections, you’re going to create that situation.  Take Oceanside for example – because of the nature of the swim and the initial part of the bike course, you’re going to see large groups of bikes.  Fortunately, the course starts rolling, the hills appear, and the only time you’re seeing people bunched up is when they are intentionally drafting. 

Kona is the same way.  I would say the majority of the swimmers are coming out of the water at the one hour mark.  That many top level athletes hitting the bike course at the same time coupled with the flat-ish start of the bike course creates an impossible situation.  But!  As soon as you get to Palani, the packs start to break up.  And once you’re out on the Queen K, they break up further.  Maybe 15 miles into this race, if packs exist, it’s because they want to be in packs.

One of the athletes I coach raced Texas this past weekend.  He said if he wanted, he could have jumped into one of those large packs to shave off at least 20-30 minutes.  I’m sure he was conflicted given that everyone else was doing it but I’m proud that he didn’t.  Race your own race as best you can and follow the rules. 

I’ve raced a ton of Ironman and Ironman 70.3 events and I’ve never taken a penalty.  I’m sure every so often someone takes a penalty for something they didn’t do but in my experience, the refs are going after the most egregious offenders.  I’ve never seen them giving penalties at the start of the Kona bike course.  Instead, they go out about 20 miles and then they start their work.  You might see a motorcycle on Kuakini but I doubt a penalty has ever been given in the first 10-15 miles.  I could be wrong but like I said, I think they understand the difference between a no-win situation and drafting. 

In situations like the start of the Kona bike course, I soft pedal, hydrate, take in calories, let riders blow past me, and I get my ass up Palani – then it’s game on.  Any situations where riders are bunching up, I take that as an opportunity to do what I just described.  Yes, I’m probably losing a few seconds but I’m also lowering my heart rate, taking care of my body, and maybe it’s a wash.  Or maybe I lose some time but it probably creates a better run.  Who knows really but I’m not drafting and at the end of the day, regardless of pace, I know I raced honest.

I was talking to another coach on Monday and she mentioned that people were implying that everyone who raced Texas was drafting / cheating.  I saw some guy on Twitter doing the exact same thing.  He actually called out a specific person by position and age group.  While he didn’t do it by name, he essentially did it indirectly.  His complaint was her bike split versus other races.  I tried looking her up to see her results and I gave up not long after because I couldn’t find her quick enough for my attention span and it was that important to me.  However, I did Tweet back some questions to him – he did not reply.  So I guess he’d like to let this disappear into the ether rather than discuss it.  I don’t know the person he’s questioning but I do take offense at the one-sided accusation.  If it were my athlete, I wouldn’t have let it go.

His accusation was that this athlete rode approximately 30 minutes slower in previous Ironman events.  Given that the bike course was 110 miles instead of 112 and that the athlete finished at a pace of over 20 MPH, we can immediately account for at least six minutes.  The next question is – which other events did this athlete race??  If it’s Ironman Coeur d’Alene, Ironman Wisconsin, or any course with hills, I can easily see how someone could PR their bike split at Ironman Texas.

Just thinking about my own bike splits:

Ironman CdA, easy course:  5:54, 5:29, 5:20
Ironman CdA, hard course:  5:29, 5:17
Ironman World Champs:  5:34, 5:24, 5:47, 5:20

34 Minutes between my slowest and fastest on the CdA easy course.  37 minutes between my best and worst on both CdA courses.  Back to back years in Hawaii, I’m 27 minutes faster. 

The fine print – between 5:54 and 5:29 at CdA easy, those were two years apart.  That aside, you just see a natural progression of bike fitness, a reset of the clock time with the harder course, and then another progression of fitness.  With Hawaii, the bike course varies from year to year as well as my approach.  The year I rode 5:20 was the calmest day on the bike I’d experienced on that course.  If I wasn’t screwing around that day, I would have ridden a lot faster and I probably would have broken 10 hours.  But I’m not bitter. 

When someone starts calling people out, I want to see a little more proof so I can understand the situation.  From where I’m standing, that gap does not sound unreasonable.  Again, I’m not saying this athlete is innocent, I just want to see more details.  I’m certain there were athletes trying to race honest and they probably PR’d. 

What’s the phrase? – fences keep honest people honest.  The nature of this bike course and the lack of refs created a situation where honest people weren’t being honest.  The photos and videos I’ve seen make that abundantly clear.  Bottom-line is WTC needs to figure out where they went wrong with this race because there were multiple failures.

I don’t have an exact answer for this problem but I do know that even small hills will break up packs because some riders are just better at climbing than others.  At the very least, stop making courses pancake flat and stop eliminating the so-called “hard” courses. 

One more thing – a World Championship should be hard.  I think it’s time to bring back Ironman St. George for the new North American World Championship.  My .02 + registration fee.