What USA Triathlon Collegiate Nationals Is Like

Here’s a story: At nationals, there was a Snapchat that everyone used. It wasn’t official. Just some guy from one of the colleges had made an account. All 1,200 athletes friended him, sent in snaps, which he screenshot-ed and then added to the nationals story. And then everyone clicked through all thousands of snaps. It was The Thing in Clemson. Most of it was selfies with funny captions or random pictures of people. There were poop jokes, a few bare asses, party plans, basically anything that was sort of ridiculous and fun. USAT must have gotten word of how all the kids were into the Snapchat, because then they made an official one. It was only official-like stuff of the actual races, nothing untoward or crazy. And no one used it. No one.

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 10.32.55 PM

Here are some observations and things that happened:

  • The official type people said at the awards ceremony that the nationals club championship has been happening since the early 1990s. Um, yeah. I dunno about that. Not unless you’re counting all those years Wildflower declared itself “the national college championships.” The first USAT-produced nationals was in 2007, I’m pretty sure.
  • The official type people also talked a lot about the sport becoming NCAA and the future of draft-legal racing. But I’m not sure they’ve actually talked to all the college students they’re supposedly speaking for. Because everyone I talked to didn’t really know too much about what the official people were talking about.
  • Another thing that happened at the awards ceremony: one team dressed up in horse heads staged an impromptu horse race around the gym.
  • When it came time to compete for the spirit award (which we should have won, by the way), the Santa Barbara team got up and did a song dressed as Pac-Man and whatever those things are that Pac-Man eats. Halfway through the song there was a turn and they stripped off their pants and started running around as underwear Pac-Man. The USAT official people didn’t seem to quite know what to do with that either.
  • Everyone shows up for nationals a few days early. Lots of driving overnight and long-distance bus trips. Then the hotels all get overrun with college triathletes.
  • There are more parents and friends that come to watch too than there used to be.
  • The main race (the non-drafting Olympic) is also much more serious than it used to be. There is seeding and a set number of spots for each team for each of the waves. There’s a gap between the men’s and women’s races. Transition closes early and there’s tons of USAT officials. It is very legit.
  • It is also very competitive.
  • Arguably, the top 3-5 were always pretty competitive. But now it’s competitive all the way through the top 100 or something. The depth has evolved. Especially on the women’s side—a development that I think you can see across the sport actually. Here are two charts The Kids made (I’m not 100% sure what analysis is suggested by these charts or what conclusions can be made in a broader sense, so let me know if you have analysis thoughts):

    11160008_10152841930883693_6627277816867358912_ncC939Q1
  • The swim is the most brutal part. There’s so many fast swimmers collegiately. But that’s not true in the age groups, so where do they all go? Do they forget how to swim?
  • Colorado always has really good bikers.
  • Surprisingly, I don’t think there were any bad accidents. Even in the rain.
  • And, then, as is the custom, mostly everyone goes out after the awards ceremony and has a huge party that is sort of just declared a party wherever there happen to be triathletes in the same place. I felt kind of bad for the regular Clemson students who were confused by all these people wandering around their bars. And, then, everyone has to start the overnight bus rides and early morning cross-country flights back…

Race Report: Collegiate Nationals

Last Wednesday afternoon, 25 of us flew to Atlanta and then drove to Clemson, South Carolina. We raced Saturday, in the rain, and then flew back Sunday morning. You would think that being in Clemson for four days with nothing but a two-hour race to do, there would have been some free time.

Hah.

USA Triathlon Collegiate Nationals was fun and exhausting and insanely competitive and maybe what it was and what USA Triathlon thinks it was are not exactly the same thing. But that’s another topic.

Short version: I raced harder than I have in a while. Maybe since Alcatraz last year (though IM Canada was a different kind of hard). Saturday, I swam and I biked hard and then I hung on during the run and tried not to throw up before the finish line. And it almost all came together for a really crazy good day. Instead, it was just a good day, which I’m still very happy with, and I finished 17th in 2:16.

Long version: It was pouring on Saturday morning. And the boys raced first (in the downpour). That meant I ended up with four hours to kill in the rain. We went and slept in the car for a little bit, turned on the heater some, and tried to eat enough for all the extra time but not so much that we threw up. I was struggling with this last thing. By the time we finally did start at 10:40 a.m., I was hungry, but also had been gagging on everything I tried to eat. Basically, I was not dealing well with the anticipation of the hurt that was to come. Even if you know you do better in the rain and when conditions suck, that doesn’t mean you’re going to enjoy it.

And, even with all those hours, I still managed to lose my timing chip and had to run to get to the start on time. Naturally. (Side note: If you sprint up to the officials’ tent, wearing a sweatshirt and a gold skirt over running tights, and gasp out “Ilostmytimingchip,” they really won’t know what to do.)

10379805_891466397561438_637135978615770736_o

The swim start was awful. I’m pretty sure collegiate swim starts are what give me nightmares about triathlon. It was insanely aggressive and there was nowhere to go when the people behind you and the people next to you decided that you were the only thing between them and their dreams of glory. Eventually, it calmed down a little bit. And, then, I just swam hard. I would have told you that I always swim hard and that I didn’t feel like I was swimming any harder this time. In fact, I had no idea if I was sucking or doing great. It turns out that in the past, apparently, I have not been swimming as hard as I could have. I came out of the water in 23:15ish, which was really fast for the day, and put me pretty high up (for me) going into the bike.

There’s some kind of lesson here, but I don’t really know what I did differently other than not even a little breaststroke.

My real goal for the day was to bike hard. I have not been killing it on my bike lately, so I wanted to put in a really solid effort. It stopped raining for the girls race, so it was just overcast (which is great) and cool-ish (for South Carolina). But, when I put my head down to get to work, I couldn’t find anything. I was up and down, all over the place that first lap. I got passed by some girls, which doesn’t usually happen that early, but I suppose it was a result of swimming faster than usual. I had a gel and tried to drink some and hoped I could will the legs to come around. Eventually, they sort of did. My second and third laps were stronger, with the last lap actually feeling the best and, by then, I was edge of throwing up, so I figured that meant I was going pretty hard.

It turned out, though, that all my laps were pretty evenly split, so it may have all been in my head. It also got more crowded those last laps, so it might have just been easier mentally to pick people off. Either way, I biked a fairly strong 1:07:45ish and my head told me I was doing pretty good.

Apparently, I decided to do a trackstand in the middle of the race?
Apparently, I decided to do a trackstand in the middle of the race?

Originally, I had thought I’d get through the swim, move up on the bike, and then pick off some more places on the run. But doing better on the swim-bike meant there just weren’t that many more places I was capable of moving up on the run. Maybe that’d be different if I could run a 37. But, I can’t (for now…). Instead, I was killing myself to simply maintain position.

11167984_891467044228040_8083509082553734851_o

The run was an out and back. They called it two laps, but you had to go back and forth twice each lap, so it was really basically four laps. Every one of those there was a long false flat hill we went up and then down. I started out right on the heels of two very fast runners and by halfway through the first lap I realized they weren’t opening up the gap on me (which meant I must be running pretty good) and I was just hanging off a big pack of girls that included 10th, but I also realized vomit was coming up the back of my throat. It was getting very muggy at that point and I became seriously concerned about my ability to complete the course.

I’m not sure what I thought about then. It’s sort of a blur. But I think the middle of the run was one of the few times on the day I sort of lost focus. Eventually, I realized that I was only having to swallow vomit on the uphill sections and that I was making up time on the downhills, so it was easier to get through then. Also, there were so many people on course the second lap, I had no idea who was ahead and who was behind.

On the last uphill, with a half-mile to go, someone said that a girl was coming up on me. I literally mouthed, “Fuck.” What did I have left to give? I tried to pick it up some and, as I got closer, everyone was yelling that she was coming and I needed to go. I picked it up more. I made the sharp turn onto the grass, through a mud pit, another sharp turn in what was a bog by then, and I was full-on as hard as I could go. I made it across the finish line, fell over, and threw up a little bit. It took me a few minutes to get off the ground.

It was ugly and it was rough, but I’m pretty sure that I could not have gone any harder on Saturday. And that’s really all you can ask of yourself.

The day before it started raining. Everyone actually did well too, and I wish they would tell us how we placed, because I think it wasn't bad.
The day before it started raining. Everyone actually did well too, and I wish they would tell us how we placed, because I think it wasn’t bad.

Becoming and Being a Professional Triathlete 101

It became clear recently, in some online triathlon debates, that there isn’t a really firm understanding of how the triathlon elite/professional system works. Kelly (another Kelly) and I thought it made sense to lay this all out very simply. So here is being a professional triathlete 101:

To earn your elite triathlete card, there are a number of qualification standards you can meet per USA Triathlon, but the main ones are:

  • Top 10 overall amateur at worlds (ITU or Kona)
  • Top 5 overall amateur at nationals
  • Top 3 overall amateur at a qualifying race, being any race that has a corresponding elite race offering at least a $20,000 prize purse — as a approximation of quality of field and size

There is also a draft-legal pathway for qualification primarily aimed at junior elites and development athletes, but the gist is the same.

You can take your elite card after racing once and qualifying, or you can qualify dozens of times and not take it, keep on racing as an amateur. There are no rules that govern sandbagging. (Cycling, conversely, has a categorization system that starts at the lowest category, 5, and goes to Cat 1. People move up by earning a certain number of points at each category level. Earning too many points above, though, is a forced upgrade. You’re not allowed to keep winning races without moving up eventually.)

If you decide to “go pro” in triathlon, you pay USAT for your license, fill out your application, and you’re a professional. Either nothing changes after that or lots does; it’s up to you.

USAT does not appear to have a public list anymore of how many registered elite athletes there are. The last time I checked, in 2009, there were about 400 elite athletes registered with USA Triathlon. I have heard the numbers now are closer to 1,000, but I don’t know. (Maybe someone else knows where that list is now? UPDATE: Emily also has my belief that the “1,000” number is the number of pros who have raced one race with World Triathlon Corporation, so it’s not just US pros.)

What is fairly certain is that more men than women opt for their elite cards. I have theories about that.

Once you’re a registered elite or “pro,” you can continue to register and race as you always have, but now you’re in the elite/pro fields (which has different drafting rules, fyi, and obviously which means you can be part of random drug testing, but that’s another topic). Many races are free for elite racers. Some (mostly smaller races) also provide host housing for elites. Some races also have prize purses. Some don’t. Typically, a prize purse is split in half for men and women, then about half of that goes to 1st place with a steep drop-off. It is rare for prize purses to pay past 5th or 6th, sometimes 10th at the biggest races. For example, Vineman 70.3 (an incredibly competitive and popular race) pays like so:

1st – $10,000
2nd – $5,000
3rd – $3,250
4th – $2,500
5th – $1,750
6th – $1,250
7th  –  $750
8th  – $500

To be clear, 9th place at Vineman is no joke. Last year, 9th was Luke Bell, who is a full-time professional triathlete and who earned no money at that race. Of course, if you’re just taking your elite/pro license because you want to challenge yourself, or for whatever reasons you might have, then there are certainly perks.

While most USAT-governed races do not require separate registration as a professional triathlete, the Ironman brand (World Triathlon Corporation) does. It costs $800 to register as a professional with WTC for the year, or $430 for a single Ironman or $215 for a single half.

There are, of course, two major racing and points systems that are of concern as a professional triathlete:

1. The Kona Points Ranking – If you want to qualify to Kona as a pro, then you must earn points at WTC races, finish in the top 50 or 35 of the points rankings overall, depending on if you’re a man or woman, and complete an Ironman-distance race. Qualifying for Kona isn’t really my thing, but if I was trying to weigh the amount of points I thought I needed against flight costs and possible races, especially in light of the pro fields being cut from a number of U.S. races last year, well, it would make my head hurt.

2. ITU Points – If you want to race draft-legal and aim for the Olympics, which is the primary goal of draft-legal racers, then there’s another system you need to understand. The International Triathlon Union runs its own rankings. To race at their biggest events, the World Triathlon Series, you have to start at smaller ITU races, move up to things like Continental Cups, then World Cups, and get appointed to the national team. There is funding on the national team level, up to $20,000/year + living at the Olympic Training Center + travel costs, if you meet the highest standards, ie. top 8 in the ITU final rankings of the year. From there down to the developmental level smaller amounts of support vary in proportion to your results.

OK. Got it?

Of course, the other factor of being a professional triathlete is that you are training a lot, so you can’t always work a regular job, so how do you make money?

  • Prize money (see above)
  • Sponsors (yay! good luck with that — another topic)
  • Other triathlon-related jobs, like coaching, speaking at clinics, writing articles, etc.
  • Non-triathlon jobs
  • Family (lol, no really)

You won’t be surprised that most “professional” triathletes aren’t making professional amounts at triathlon. They do it for other reasons.

To continue racing as an elite, you have to re-qualify once every three years by finishing within 8% of the winner’s time at a race offering at least a $5,000 prize purse. My understanding is that at the end of any year you can opt to not renew your license.

That’s more or less the basics. Though it can get a lot more complicated.

Any questions?

Can You Buy Event Participant Insurance for an Ironman?

In a word: No.

Who’s to blame for that? WTC or Active or Allianz — depending on who you ask.

Despite the fact that last fall Active unveiled a much ballyhooed race registration insurance program for all races on its platform, it does not appear to be possible to buy it for World Triathlon Corporation (commonly known as Ironman Co.) Ironman events. That is to say: I don’t know if you can buy it for Ironman-distance events put on by other race organizers and some people have reported success buying it for WTC’s 70.3 and 5150 races. But, when I tried to purchase the insurance for IM Coeur d’Alene, it was not possible.

In an interview with Slowtwitch, Active explained that the when athletes registered for races on Active’s system, they would have the option of purchasing a $7 insurance plan through Allianz insurance. This was something Allianz and Active were providing — NOT the race organizer. If the athlete then had to pull out before the race and never started, they could make a claim — and would have to go through a normal claim process like with any insurance — and get their registration money back. Obviously, for a $670 Ironman (once you pay the extra “convenience fees” from Active) that you have to register for nearly a year in advance, this is a deal. Active told Slowtwitch at the time that it would be available for all races and that, basically, they were counting on a lot of people paying the $7 for smaller, cheaper races and that it would balance out. They explicitly said, at the time, that it WAS available for Ironman races.

Now, not so much.

Checking around it seems that some people were able to purchase the insurance when they registered for Ironmans right after it was announced. But, then that stopped.

When I registered for IM CDA, the insurance wasn’t an option in the registration process. So, I called Allianz to purchase it directly. The Allianz rep told me it was only a product offered through Active, so I needed to call Active. He transferred me.

The woman at Active told me if it wasn’t an option in the registration process online, then that meant that the race organizer (in this case: WTC) wasn’t offering it. If the race organizer hadn’t decided to provide this option, then I couldn’t buy it directly through Active. (Which, on a side point, doesn’t even make any sense, because it’s an Active/Allianz insurance product that has nothing to do with the race organizer. The race organizer carries no risk for the product or cost, so why shouldn’t you be able to purchase it directly.)

The Active rep then said that no Ironman races offer the insurance option, because of a policy of USAT. I said you mean WTC, because USAT is USA Triathlon and why would a national governing body have a policy that doesn’t allow athletes to insure their most high-risk race registrations?

And, she said, nope, USAT has a policy.

Um, ok. Phone call ended.

Then, I emailed WTC/the race organizers and asked them. I got a perfectly nice email back that said:

We are not mandating that type of insurance for our events, but I am sure you are more than welcome to purchase it through Active if you want their coverage.

So, right. Obviously, I emailed them back saying that wasn’t exactly what Active had said. But, I haven’t gotten a response.

The more I think about it, the more it makes no sense. In theory, Allianz and Active are third-party providers. Their plan, all along, was to sell insurance, take on that risk, and make money. The race organizer gets the registrations either way; they don’t have to offer the refunds. It seems the options for what happened then are limited: Either Allianz and Active realized they weren’t going to make money on Ironman races, so they came up with a fake policy. But, why couldn’t they have just charged more for Ironmans and then the business model would make sense again and most people would pay $40 to insure that expensive a race? Or, USAT really banned them from selling it, which, I dunno, doesn’t seem logical. Or, WTC, which does a whole LOT of business with Active, basically came up with a policy and told them that was not going to be an option for their races. I don’t know why they’d do that, but I do know WTC signs a whole lot of contracts with vendors and cities and hotels and every part of the experience that they can sell you, so it seems like they must have some reason up their sleeve?

Have you been able to buy registration insurance for a race?

Why More Triathletes Should Take Their ‘Pro’ License

I was reading the newest issue of Inside Tri this weekend and they featured a section of pros spouting off anonymously. That included this quote, which I suspect is an attitude many people (women) have:

Say shit anonymously that you'd never cop to in real life, sure.
Say shit anonymously that you’d never cop to in real life, sure.

This is idiotic. The idea that you shouldn’t take your elite license, challenge yourself, move up in competition, because you don’t meet some other imaginary standard — besides the actual standard that has been set by USA Triathlon — and won’t be good enough and should be embarrassed is wrong-headed and is hurting the women’s side of the sport. When seven women show up for a race where the prize money goes ten deep, the problem clearly isn’t that there are too many professional women.

The elite license is an ELITE license, not a professional license and certainly not commentary on whether or not you make a living racing — or, really, racing and coaching and putting on clinics and shilling for sponsors and media appearances and writing and providing analysis — because few people do make a living that way. USA Triathlon is very clear and specific about this. It is an elite license. It is simply a categorization that says you hit the ceiling in terms of performance, and nothing else. (Really, triathlon would be better off if there were more categories, like in cycling, with mandatory upgrades and a clear process of development.)

Because let’s be very clear. If you keep winning your age group and overall amateur titles and qualify repeatedly for your elite license, you have hit the ceiling in age group competition. Contrary to what this anonymous person says, you should not be happy continuing to beat on people that you’ve already beaten on.

There are lots of individual reasons people might not take their elite license in triathlon — because they’re waiting until next year or they have some specific goal they want to achieve first or their sponsors asked them not to (though *COUGH* why there are such big sponsors in amateur competition is another quandary for another day) or they don’t want to focus on triathlon — so I’m not attempting to judge any of those individual reasons. But, the fact remains that far, far fewer women who have qualified again and again and again choose to get their elite license. Largely, this is because women are afraid they’ll be last or embarrassed or people will judge them or they won’t get to stand on a podium and be admired or they think they’re not real “professionals.” Most women read this anonymous quote and think, ‘Oh my god, that’s true. That would be so embarrassing.’ Most male triathletes I know read it and think, ‘Screw you. I’m going to do great.’

Before I took my elite license in 2010, I never lost my age group. (Actually, that’s not true. I lost it at Age Group Nationals where I had a terrible race and fell apart and had a mechanical and had to get an IV, etc, etc.) I set an age group course record at Pacific Grove, which was previously held by another woman who is now a successful pro. Clearly I was near the top of the overall amateur field, because you have to be in order to qualify for your elite license. (Contrary to what this anonymous person says you can’t get your elite license and race as a pro if you’re just competitive or top five in your age group.) But, I wasn’t the best, not even close. I hadn’t won Nationals overall or a super big race like Alcatraz and there were tons of women I had never beat.

But, when I looked at those women I found that they were all women who had qualified repeatedly and repeatedly to get their elite license and hadn’t done so. In terms of quality, they weren’t amateurs — no matter what their card said.

I opted instead of continuing to sandbag my age group, to get my elite license. And, I did not do well in the pro fields, finishing near the back or back of the middle almost always. There are lots of reasons in my own life for this. But, for the most part I actually was performing about the same or better, but there is such a gap between the top pro girls and the top amateur girls, that I kept being made to feel like I was a failure, even though I wasn’t.

By comparison, the equivalent people on the men’s side have lots of competition around them and it fosters the development of the up-and-comers. If there were more women, if more women didn’t listen to the haters, if more women who are at that top of the amateur field opted to become ‘pros,’ then it would be better for all of them/us. It would be better for the sport, both in terms of developing the lower-level pros and also in terms of encouraging those amateurs who now would have a shot at the podium once these un-beatable girls have moved on. It would be a better race and it would be more fun.

So, female triathletes, let me encourage you for a second:

Plenty of girls who were the same speed as me, a couple minutes faster or a couple minutes slower, have gone on to be very successful pros. You don’t know how it’s going to turn out until you try. (The first year as a pro, everyone will tell you, is almost always hard – especially for women. Because there are so few women, it can be pretty desolate out there racing. It can be very different and very challenging. You know what would fix that? More women going ‘pro.’ And, once you get through that, it gets better.) Nearly everyone who is good now was not at some point. Even this anonymous person who is saying they’d be embarrassed to finish so far back, probably finished pretty far back at the beginning of their career.

The help that comes with getting your elite license — some race fees here and there or a little prize money or a homestay at some races — can be enough to make a difference if you’re on the cusp. It can be enough to help develop someone into a great triathlete. And, also, it’s way better than paying for all that stuff.

Didn’t you, really, get into this sport to see what you could do? Wasn’t that the whole point in the first place? It wasn’t to qualify for such-and-such a race or have people think you’re hot shit or earn sponsorships or get to stand on the top of a podium. It was to see how well you could do. So? Do that. There’s no reason that changes just because of this line that is being drawn. Step over that line and keep going.

Look, I have come in D.F.L. in a pro race. Dead fucking last. It sucks. But, you know what would have been really embarrassing? Continuing to take age group prizes from some girl who deserves it more, who probably would never get the chance if I kept doing the same thing I always did just so I could feel good about myself. That would be embarrassing.

And, I’m not even saying so anonymously.

USAT Elite Triathlete Bulletins and the 2013 Prize Money Calendar

When you’re a registered “elite” triathlete with USA Triathlon (what most people call pro, but pro sort of denotes that you, like, make money), you receive monthly Elite Beat newsletters. I received my last one this month, since I absolutely did not renew my license for 2013 and really only did two local triathlons in 2012.

There was a big debate last year when the Olympic qualifying for the US triathlon team turned into a bit of a shit show, with some high-level athletes saying they never knew they needed to officially submit their names for such-and-such qualifying race, as opposed to just telling the coordinator they wanted to be on the list, or they didn’t know that the start lists procedures had changed. The counterpoint, at the time, was that USAT communicates with it’s elite athletes every month, so they should have known.

I’m pretty sure that we all get the same bulletin every month. I’d kind of assume there’s some other communication with US Team athletes or people living at the Olympic Training Center. But, the fall back is supposed to be that all 400-or-so of us get this same bulletin every month. I, generally, read the bulletins, because they’re fascinating. But they’re also usually a few thousand words long with lots of lists and odd information (ie. Want to try out for Olympic Sprint Team Triathlon? A new sport hoping to premier in 2016!) and it’s hard to pick out what might be relevant to you or what you absolutely need to know.

I thought other people might be interested, so here are most of the topics covered in the January bulletin, with each having a heading and some having multiple sub-categories underneath it in the email:

  • 2013 Elite National Championships
  • 2013 Non-Olympic World Championships
  • MEDEX International Insurance
  • 2013 Membership Renewal
  • 2013 Elite Money Calendar
  • Venue Change for ITU Santiago Continental Cup
  • ITU PanAmerican Cup Events
  • 2013 ITU World Cup Schedule
  • 2013 ITU World Triathlon Series Schedule
  • ITU World Cup and WTS Series Start List Creation
  • ITU Rolling Points Calendar
  • 2013 ITU WC, WTS, and PATCO Calendar with entered names listed for each event and deadlines to enter each event.

The most relevant of these — if you want to make money, I guess — is the money calendar. It’s a round-up of all the races with big prize purses this year. The PDF is too big to embed in the post, so here is the 2013 Prize Money Calendar.

The thing to keep in mind is if it says $50,000 prize purse, that means $25,000 per men and $25,000 per woman (yay equality!), which then  is broken up typically like this:

  1. $10,000
  2. $5,500
  3. $3,500
  4. $2,500
  5. $2,000
  6. $1,500

So, if you get 7th at a big $50,000 race like Vineman or Oceanside, you’re walking home with no money. And it’s not like 7th place is easy — 7th woman at Vineman was Joanna Lawn and 7th man at Oceanside was Chris McDonald. No slouches!

(And, yes, sure, they may get sponsorship deals depending on who they are and who they know and all that. But, remember, this is triathlon. It’s not like companies are paying out lots of salaries.) I’m not saying you should feel bad for anyone; I’m just saying this is how it is. Thought some people might find this information interesting.