What the Hell Happened to Triathlon?

The last time I planned a full triathlon season was 2011. It wasn’t cheap then, but it was still do-able.

Then I quit for a couple years, and then I did a few races here and there, let’s do an Ironman before grad school, and some collegiate stuff — which is still do-able and fun and in the original spirit of triathlon. But now, after the summer pilot project of ‘what would happen if I actually trained for serious and didn’t also work like 70 hours/week,’ I’m actually for real back into triathlon. And I’m trying to put together a whole season and plan for 2016. For the first time in five years.

It turns out in those five years triathlon got terrible and expensive.

First, I wanted to do Oceanside 70.3. A nice, early race to kick-off the year that I can drive to. Hah. Turns out that race now sells out 10 months in advance or something. Who knows. By the time I wanted to sign up seven months beforehand it was too late. Then, I wanted to do Escape from Alcatraz. I love Escape from Alcatraz. Hah. Too bad for me. It’s $750 this year, up from $420, because, I dunno, because they think it can be. Because they think they don’t need triathletes as much as triathletes need them. Because they don’t even really need triathletes at all; in the current endurance sport landscape, they can just make it a destination bucket-list recreational event. Then I thought I’d do Vineman 70.3, since I want to do a half in the summer and it’s really the only big one, and it’s a 45-minute drive from my house. I was determined not to miss registration for Vineman.

Oh, but then Vineman got bought by Ironman (World Triathlon Corporation).

So this Monday I set an alarm on my phone to make sure I was at my computer at 9 a.m. ready to register. I thought this was crazy. What has triathlon become. But I was determined not to miss registration, and every other year setting an alarm would have been enough to guarantee it. At 9 a.m. the site said registration wasn’t open. At 9:05 it still said it wasn’t open yet. At 9:06 it said it was open, but “on hold.” At that point, I checked their twitter and facebook, figured there was some kind of technical problem, and wasn’t too worried about it. I was there; I was pressing refresh; I’d get in, no worries.

At 9:20 a.m. they said all registrations were technically sold out. There were so many people in the process of registering that all spots were “on hold.” You could keep refreshing and maybe a spot would open up, if someone didn’t finish their registration, but that was it. What the hell?? I’d been there the whole time and it never even became available. I spent another hour pressing refresh. At one point, I even got in and a few steps through the registration process and then it said “on hold” again. I was not the only one having this problem. It sounded like with so many priority early club registrations and Ironman All World Athletes, there couldn’t have even been that many spots open.

At 10:20 it was officially sold out, without it ever really having become available.

The extra fun thing is that Vineman used to have a waitlist, and most people would get in off the waitlist as people dropped out. But now that it’s a WTC/Ironman-owned event, there is no waitlist anymore. Because once they sell out of general reg spots, Ironman just wants to sell Ironman Foundation spots at double the price.

I was pissed. I was so mad. What has triathlon become? I can’t afford this. But I want to do a half in the summer and even at double the price, Vineman was still my best option. All the other halves at that time would cost a flight and a hotel and bike transport. What option did I have? But I was so mad, I was close to tears. I don’t want to give them my money. I made Steve make the decision. He said, logically, it made sense to buy a Foundation spot into the race. There really isn’t a better option. So I did.

I think the Vineman crew does a good job with their races and I think their hand was forced here. There was a paragraph in the letter that they sent to past participants to announce the Ironman acquisition that said a lot:

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What that says is that you guys did this to yourselves. You wanted Ironman events and now that’s what you have.

It used to be possible to have a local season that hit the big races and didn’t bankrupt you completely. It used to be possible to do triathlon and feel like you were still doing something that was in the original spirit of getting out there and trying something hard, that wasn’t about the backpacks and logos and bragging rights and selling of manufactured dreams. And that just isn’t really possible now. Literally. The sport has changed since I last did a full season, and triathletes have no one to blame for that but themselves.

So, you fuckers better sign up for Wildflower and the back-and-better TriCal Alcatraz race. Because if TriCal goes under, I wouldn’t be surprised if they implement a scorched Earth policy on the way out. This is what you asked for.

Things I Would Change If I Was in Charge of Ironman

…I mean besides The Obvious.

And besides the general over-expansion of the race schedule, and a slight tendency to cut costs in some places, and the elimination of any real way for elite athletes to develop (which coincides with a general sport-wide tendency to overvalue the inspirational stories of “amateur” athletes as somehow better than the inspiration of “professional” athletes — which fundamentally misunderstands the value of pro athletes). Besides all those structural and systemic changes I would make, here are a couple specific and immediate things I would do differently:

  • There is no reason you can’t do registration for World Championships in a more organized and less arbitrary fashion. It would be easy — and, by easy, I mean it is already done for plenty of other events — to allow automatic qualifiers to register online within a reasonable period, like a week, and then to notify the next athlete on the list via email if the spot is turned down. It’s really a bit absurd that you have to be physically present at a certain time and run to the stage and hand over your credit card (which also, generally, means you have to know how the system works, which is not a particularly inclusive way to design a world championship event and which totally ignores that there are a TON of reasons why someone might not be physically at a random location at a specific time early in the morning the day after a hard Ironman). If it was a bit more organized, then maybe WTC wouldn’t have been handing out some of the 70.3 spots to anyone who was present, breathing and had finished the race…
  • Rolling starts should not count for those who want to win awards. I get that Ironman wanted to make Ironman races more accessible by eliminating the scariness of the mass start. I have no problem with that. But for those actually racing for awards, it’s dumb that you’re not really racing. When you all start at different times in a rolling fashion, you don’t know how you stack up, you don’t know who’s ahead or who’s behind, and you don’t know where the race really is. This would be easy to fix. Have a gun start and then behind that people can start in a rolling fashion. They already do this in big running races, where you have a chip time, but for awards or prize money purposes your gun time is your time. Because the race is the race. You can’t not be in the race and then claim you won the race.

Having been up at IM Tahoe all weekend, and having just been at IM Wisconsin — which is probably one of the most well-put-on races in the country — I also had some thoughts about how they could have done the Tahoe race differently. I love Tahoe and it’s a fantastic area to train in, but in retrospect (since everyone keeps saying this is its last year, even though a local told me it was a five-year contract) there were some obvious reasons why it struggled to find its footing:

  • It was never marketed correctly. They should have leaned in to it being a hard, epic race, instead of trying to make it slightly easier after the first year.
  • It should have been about two weeks earlier. That would have cut down on the chance of some of the weather challenges it had.
  • It was too spread out logistically — this caused a number of problems. Because the start and the finish were about 17 miles apart and there is only one main road between the two, there wasn’t an easy way to spectate. You had to either take a not super-well-advertised and not-frequently-running shuttle or you had to bike the 17 miles (which is what I did, but I think I was the ONLY one who did). That wouldn’t have even helped for long parts of the run on the bike trail, which weren’t accessible to pedestrians or cyclists. That means there literally was no way to spectate. Part of what Ironman does well is convince the community that the race is a big deal, which brings out thousands of spectators, which makes you feel like you’re a big deal. That, in turn, also gets lots of volunteers and crowds out. Both were clearly missing at Tahoe. I think there could have been a way to remedy this with a more condensed course that would have been under COMPLETE closure, instead of partially-closing such a large area.

Those are my thoughts…

Oh, look. They found three more slots for Kona. This is a pretty good open letter about some of the problems with the Women for Tri Board deciding that giving themselves three Kona spots is the best way to promote women in triathlon. I’d add as a question: Why didn’t you do a contest of some kind to give the slots to beginner female triathletes, who could have fundraised and been ambassadors to their communities in much the same way that is proposed but better?


The Case for Incivility

Last week, Slowtwitch published an op-ed about the dominance of American women in ITU racing. It’s, by the way, something I also wrote about. The premise of Slowtwitch’s piece was that, as is said in the opening line: “access begets prosperity.” The reason, it says, that the American women are so good at draft-legal racing right now is because there were so many of them swimming and running as kids and then in college through the 1990s and 2000s. That’s true. I have no quibble with that argument.

Then there’s some hand-waving and therefore, says Slowtwitch, Ironman increasing the number of professional women’s spots in Kona, so that women have an equal number of starting spots to the men, isn’t going to increase access or participation overall, because what we really need is more programs to get people into swimming and running (and cycling presumably) and access at that beginner level has nothing to do with access at the highest level.

This is pretty faulty logic, because it draws a false parallel and skips a bunch of steps. Like the step where the requirements of Title IX are what begat the increased number of women participating in swimming and running in the first place. It’s not like thousands of 10-year-old girls suddenly created their own swim programs out of nothing. Those programs were created because there was an increased demand at the college level, which then meant an increased demand at the high school level, etc. It also skips the step where USA Triathlon was able to tap into the excess of collegiate female runners and swimmers and bring them over to draft-legal triathlon, because the opportunities in ITU draft-legal triathlon existed for them to be brought into.

It seems pretty strange to argue that the success of women in ITU draft-legal racing proves that we don’t need equality in non-drafting Ironman racing. Because I feel like it might actually be an argument for the opposite.

But whatever.

That isn’t actually my main problem with the debate over 50 Women to Kona. My problem is that then Slowtwitch argues that the real issue is that people in this debate just aren’t being nice enough. This is something I keep hearing. If we could just have a civil discussion, then I’m sure everything would be fine.

Let’s concede for a second that there are problems that exist in the world about which civility is not required. There are injustices so terrible that the only appropriate reaction is anger. That is simply a fact. The disagreement, then, is over whether or not you think this is one of those things.

Clearly some people think it is.

Do I think calling someone names is a good PR move? Or that yelling at them is going to convince them of your rightness? No, not particularly. But, do I understand why someone might be upset enough to do so? Yeah, sure. And I don’t have a right to tell them not to be upset.

When you say that what we just need is more civility, what you’re saying is that others don’t have a right to be angry with you, that what you’re saying and doing is not in it’s own way more uncivil. When you say that reasonable people can disagree, what you’re really assuming is that everyone agrees you’re one of those reasonable people.

(Arguing about the size of the pier is not a reasonable argument. Can everyone please stop talking about how there just isn’t enough room on the damn pier? There used to be, when more than 100 pros did the race. If there’s not now, it’s because those spots have been reallocated to people who would pay for them. That’s fine. Ironman is a business and it has every right to make that business decision. But own that decision then. Stop acting like this is all just in the hands of Hawaiian pier builders.)

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the call for civility tends to come from those defending the status quo, or that it tends to be directed at women and minorities. “Why can’t you just be more polite about us discriminating against you?!”

Part of the reason people seem so frustrated and so unable to articulate why precisely there should be an equal number of women as men is because this fight has already been fought so many times. Literally. This exact same argument. In so many sports. So it’s hard to figure out why we’re having it again, or why we’re supposed to be nice about it.

I do think there are reasonable ways to address the pro qualification question that aren’t 50-50. I’d be fine with 30-30, though I don’t think it’s really necessary and would cause a lot of over-racing. I think a 5% rule built in, with a whole lot of other questions about the details, could work. I think going back to a system similar to the age-group qualification system would be fine. (I think the only reason Ironman even moved to the KPR system in the first place is because they want to eventually move the age-groupers to a ranking qualification system as well, which nobody wants because we might as well just start having our paychecks sent directly to WTC if that happens.)

But I think if you’re going to set an arbitrary number, as dictated by a quasi-governing body, then it needs to be an equal number. If Ironman was a nonprofit governing body and not a private for-profit company, it would have to be. I simply can not think of another sport where the governing body would allow such a discrepancy at the highest level. Even on the other side of the same sport (draft-legal triathlon) it does not happen.

Everyone keeps nodding wisely and saying it’s all so complicated. If we allow the same number of women as men, then what’s next?! But it’s not really that complicated. It might be inconvenient. It might raise some questions you’d rather ignore. It might mean, somewhere down the road, that more women do Ironmans and fewer men get spots at Kona. God forbid. It might mean that someone is going to disagree with you. But that’s life. There’s nothing that says I have to think you’re smart or that you have to like me. We just have to get an equal shot. Anything else just wouldn’t be civil.

A Few Things Right Now

1. Wednesday I was in Palos Verdes and I biked past a guy down on his hands and knees in his perfectly green manicured lawn. He had a pair of scissors and was pulling out errant strands from his perfect lawn one at a time. Obviously, he had to compete against the more perfect lawn across the street, denoted by the sign in front of it saying it won the neighborhood’s lawnscaping award. My second thought was: Don’t you know there’s a drought. But my first thought was: Man, I wish I had that kind of time.

2. You know when you time your sprint finish just perfectly, but then it turns out that the finish line is just around the corner and you end up like sort of limping across the line because you used everything up. That’s how I feel about life right now. I finished my thesis (yay!), but it turns out I still have six more weeks of grad school left after that (ah!).

3. Remember when I said I wasn’t going to apply for the Women for Tri board thing and you can too. Look, I know people think I’m a “shit-stirrer,” as was explained to me the other day. But Hillary Biscay isn’t. And if she’s saying that she’s resigning from the Women for Tri board because it is not the place to affect true change for women, then you should listen to her.

4. I wrote about the new L.A. professional frisbee team and the competing professional frisbee leagues. Yes, there are two professional frisbee leagues.

5. I know a lot about obstacle course racing right now. I think I might become a professional(ish) obstacle course racer. Watch out.

I’m Not Getting Into the 50 Women to Kona Debate (Because It’s Not a Debate)

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Sunday was International Women’s Day and, besides the fact that I had a hard time getting into a manufactured holiday that allowed brands to jump on board with pseudo-pro-women messages that they could and would quickly move on from and forget, I actually thought the #50WomentoKona campaign used the moment interestingly and effectively.

I haven’t been incredibly vocal on the internet about the fact that a world championships, of any sport, needs to have equal spots for women and men to compete. That’s not because I don’t think someone should fight the equal-spots-at-Kona battle. I do. It’s more that I haven’t gotten into it for the same reasons I wasn’t that into International Women’s Day as a whole. I’ve been trying, for my own mental health and with some success, not to fight the obvious fights. Because they shouldn’t even be fights in the first place.

I don’t need a specific day to tell me that the contributions of 50% of the population should be valued. In fact, I find doing so implicitly allows that they don’t need to be valued the other 364 days.

And I don’t feel like rationalizing why women should get the same right to start a race as men, because that implicitly allows that there’s some reasonable argument as to why they shouldn’t.

Yes, I know that there are fewer women in the sport of triathlon than there are men. That’s true across most sports. Ironman has claimed they’d like to fix that, if for no other reason than self-interest. It is also true that female participation in all sports historically has increased when opportunities for those women have increased. It’s as if no one has ever heard of Title IX and the growth in female sports participation in the decades since. (Arguably, I think Title IX should now be changed and/or amended, with the collegiate sports climate having changed so much since, but different debate.) I was going to list more examples of how opportunities at the highest levels have increased the number of women participating from the bottom up, both because they had something to shoot for and because they had role models to follow, but there’s too many examples. Google.

I don’t really know, either, if the women’s triathlon field at the top is deeper or less deep than the men’s. That seems like a rather arbitrary argument, the type of which I tune out of on sports talk shows because of its inanity. What makes something deep? What makes it competitive? A race could be close and slow; is that better than if one person runs away with it quickly? Some decent analysis suggests that the women’s races are at least close to as deep as the men’s. But, even if they’re not. Even if you want to argue that women’s racing sucks balls (because you’re a moron), are you arguing that you’re going to make it better by restricting it?

These are all the same arguments that have been used time and time again to stop women from competing in the same events as men, to limit them to shorter or smaller versions. You know, so as not to damage their reproductive systems. Oh, is that not the argument anymore? Well, it was originally. And now, after women weren’t allowed to do those things for centuries, we just can’t, for the life of us, figure out why there aren’t more women doing them currently. Guess we’ll have to wait until a competitive women’s field emerges in order to grant them permission to compete in the thing they have to first prove they have developed sufficiently in. Why didn’t women get to compete in ski jumping until this past Olympics? Why do women race the 6k instead of the 8k in collegiate cross-country? Why don’t female swimmers get to contest the 1,500 meters at the games? Because, the old white men say, they just don’t have the competitive depth to earn a right to be here. They don’t deserve it.

So, no, I’m not having that debate. It’s not a debate. It’s already been had, these battles have already been hashed. I can’t get myself excited about posting a race photo in my support of #50WomentoKona because my photo doesn’t change the facts; it shouldn’t tip the balance of what is right. I’m having a hard time getting outraged, because it’s an obvious fight. It’d be like if a company told you that only people whose eyes were blue got to do this race. You’d know that was dumb. Clearly, people with brown eyes can race too, but there’s not much point in arguing with that. Instead, you’d just start to question other things about that company, start to wonder who was running things around here and what are they thinking. Maybe you’d start to think there must be better races, where people with all kinds of eye colors get to stand on the same start line.

Ironman Buys More Races

2015 California Race Announcements

Yesterday, I was sitting in the office and picked up my phone to look at whatever new notifications I’d gotten, because that’s what you do in 2015. When I saw this email I actually exclaimed, “Oh shit!” (And, I hate the use of the word ‘exclaimed,’ but in this instance I’m not sure there is any other word that is more appropriate.) Of course, then, I had to try and explain to my co-workers why this was an ‘oh shit’ moment.

Look, maybe nothing will change with Big Kahuna or Superfrog, just because Ironman bought them as it continues its massive push towards total domination. Maybe. But, probably not.

People on the twitter are already upset that the Superfrog entry rose to $500, with $200 of that going in a mandatory donation to the Ironman Foundation. I have my unease about the Ironman Foundation and, certainly, I can’t afford a $500 half-Ironman race. But, coming as part of the announcement of the acquisition, the price increase was actually probably agreed to by the old owners of the event and shouldn’t be a huge shock.

What I think is more interesting is what exactly all this means for Ironman’s plans.

The company now has three California races in the span of three weeks—two of which are one week apart in Northern California and attract very similar competitors. (I’m actually going to guess that part of what convinced Big Kahuna to sell to Ironman was that they felt it was just going to get harder and harder to compete with Tahoe 70.3 and the other M-dot races.) So, now you own all these California races—races that used to be known for their independence and grassroots feel. If you’re a business and, no one disputes, a savvy one, what do you do?

I see no way that something doesn’t eventually get moved and/or cancelled. Not this year, obviously, but 2016 or 2017? Definitely. Maybe the company is hedging its bets against Tahoe, since originally it was weighing Ironman Tahoe or Ironman Santa Cruz, and so far Tahoe has had two rough years. Maybe if they actually have a year where they can do the full Ironman Tahoe and the 70.3 on the same day, they’ll decide that event format is a huge money-maker and move Big Kahuna to the spring or early summer, and roll out same day 70.3s and fulls around the country. Maybe they’re just eliminating the competition. Ironman also bought some of the smaller events that the Superfrog and Big Kahuna production companies put on. I’d be shocked if those continue beyond the next couple years.

Or, maybe, alternatively, I’m totally wrong, and this is all just part of a plan to own everything everywhere in all event formats and distances.

Either way, I’m not sure how all the buying up and squashing of competition in the last five to ten years hasn’t violated plenty of anti-trust laws. I don’t love anti-trust laws, because the line between what is just capitalism and what is illegal capitalism seems to change often, but they exist. And, if these kind of monopolistic practices were happening in another industry, I’m not sure they’d be allowed.

Which isn’t to say that, obviously, Ironman will probably do a great job with the races and Big Kahuna—sorry, IRONMAN SANTA CRUZ 70.3 now—could become wildly popular. I was, actually, originally rooting for Ironman Santa Cruz over Tahoe. And, maybe, everything Ironman does is totally beneficial to the sport, and the company is simply trying to serve a need on the West Coast. But, man, oh shit.