So Long, and Thanks For All the Backpacks

If you understand both references in the title of this post, then your invitation to the triathlon sci-fi geeks club should already be in the mail. Next week we’ll be re-enacting the Battle of Endor with TT bikes. It’s totally safe. Completely. (but be sure to sign those waivers… you know, just in case).

This will be my last “last” triathlon post. There were just a few things left unsaid, and a few things worth repeating, that I wanted to put into a proper farewell post. I’ll start with what I will and won’t miss, and finish with why I actually left. And no these lists aren’t comprehensive, just some of the highlights.

Not pictured: IMAZ

Bye, bye, baby, it’s been a sweet love

What I’ll miss

The novel challenge

When I decided to try triathlon 3 years ago, it was an interesting challenge. I’ve always enjoyed trying things largely to see if I could do them. Sometimes the answer is a quick no (I struggle to draw even a stick figure); sometimes it’s a no after a more prolonged effort (more on that whole swimming thing later); and sometimes I discover I have some hidden talent or thing I enjoy that I never would have known about.

Up next: cheesecake chef.

When I started, triathlon was 2/3 a completely new challenge. I had always enjoyed riding my bike, but I had never done it seriously. It was mostly just how I got to my friends’ houses as a kid and how I got around campus in college. And swimming… well on swimming I was absolutely clueless. So, I signed up for an Ironman, got a bike off Craigslist, and joined the local pool.

Alright, who’s ready to race? (I’m on the far right)

Obviously triathlon is not completely new to me anymore, but I will still very much miss that novel challenge: something that gets me outside my comfort zone and keeps me from just settling into a mindless / unfocused rhythm. It’s also a much more difficult optimization problem. What do I do when I have time to train for running? I run. What do I do when I have time for triathlon training? It depends. Which discipline would currently give me the biggest bang for my buck?

Far-flung exploration

My favorite part of endurance sports is exploration. I love getting out on the trails and discovering new places and seeing new things. My bike allows me to do the same thing, just much faster and farther (I’ll also miss that feeling of speed and power on a road bike). I know rural Maryland like the back of my hand, and it’s crazy to me to think about all the places I’m intimately familiar with that most people living near me don’t even know exist.

One of my favorite things to do on long rides was to pick a destination and meet my wife and kids, who would drive there. Not only did it make for a fun family day, it meant I could explore twice as far! The exploration aspect, though, is unfortunately something that’s non-existent with swimming in a pool.

Oh, the places you’ll go!

The people

As I’ve said in many posts before, I was fortunate to become part of a great community in triathlon. From the local to the international level most people were incredibly kind, supportive, and inspiring, with unique stories and perspectives that I would have otherwise never been exposed to. Sure, there are plenty of those kinds of people outside triathlon as well, but the sport really does have a great, concentrated cross-section of them.

I’m kind of a loner, or I guess “introvert” is the acceptable term. I never really expected to meet people through triathlon, but I did. And they were great! Photo: Talbot Cox

Getting out of the water

“What is joy without sorrow? What is success without failure? What is a win without a loss? What is health without illness? You have to experience each if you are to appreciate the other. There is always going to be suffering. It’s how you look at your suffering, how you deal with it, that will define you.” – Mark Twain

There are countless variations on this quote, and honestly I’m not 100% sure if Twain even said that. It’s one of the ones that came up when I googled it. But the sentiment is consistent: you can’t have pleasure without pain. I want to be clear: this is starkly different from masochism, which is pleasure in the pain (a difference I find myself continually reiterating with respect to Barkley). And I would even argue against seeking suffering with the goal of finding or enhancing joy.

Where this quote and ones like it carry weight is when suffering is accepted as a necessary obstacle on the road to joy. Joy is the target, with some suffering a byproduct, not vice versa. Sure the semantics on this could be argued all day, but when I went into the water in triathlon I didn’t view it as a form of self-torture to make running feel better. I viewed it as a necessary challenge to get to the thrill and achievement of the finish line. And I will definitely miss that feeling of coming out of the water and thinking, “alright, showtime!”

If I could ever feel even a tiny fraction of what Clark Kent must feel like taking off his glasses, coming out of the water was it.

Though this feeling I can’t change

What I won’t miss

Drafting in races that aren’t draft legal

I’ve already said my piece on this. I don’t think there’s anything I can add, nor do I want to revisit the topic. I just hope it is revisited by others until the situation is improved, for the integrity and safety of the sport (the safety aspect of riders who generally aren’t experienced riding in groups being in pelotons on time trial bikes is an aspect I didn’t really touch on in my previous post). And until it is improved, returning to something like Kona holds absolutely zero appeal to me.

Age groups and qualifying

Awards and qualifying requirements leave quite a bit of room for improvement in triathlon. In most races (outside of triathlon), there is 18-39, then Masters (40-49), Grand Masters (50-59), and sometimes additional divisions or slight variations on that. It makes sense, both physiologically and in terms of having age groups large enough to reduce the chance of a biased sample.

In triathlon, age groups are every 5 years. First, there is negligible if any difference in potential in endurance sports between, for example, a 35 year old and a 29 year old (which are 2 age groups apart). Second, by structuring awards and qualifying purely after these age groups, it’s as much a matter of who shows up as it is how someone performs. It is, and always should be, like that in competing for overall wins. But in putting so much focus on tiny age groups it disproportionately awards performances. Yes, with 2 Ironman age group wins and an ITU World Championship age group win this did benefit me a few times this year. As much as I might want the rules to be different, once I’m out there I’ve got to race based on what the rules are, not what I wish they would be.

I’ll admit, I was not thinking about age groups as I was about to step up onto this podium. Photo: Kristin Simpson

Kona qualifying works by N number of slots being awarded to each age group, with N being proportional to how many finishers there are in each age group. It has nothing to do with quality, only quantity. If there are 500 people in an age group without any standout performances, that age group still gets more slots than one with 200 finishers including a handful of former professionals. I’ve seen races where the 3rd place overall amateur finisher didn’t get a Kona slot because they were also 3rd in their age group.

Furthermore, if someone doesn’t accept their qualifying slot then the slot “rolls down” to the next person in the age group, continuously until there is not a single finisher left in that age group. I’ve seen this result in someone who was 9th in their age group getting a slot while someone who was 4th overall amateur and 2nd in their age group (behind only the overall amateur winner) did not.

Now I don’t like to point out problems without offering solutions. There are quite a few that I’ve thought of here, ranging from impossibly complex and difficult to understand, to pretty straight forward and simple. I’ll stick to the latter here.

The easiest solution, we’ll call it solution 1, is to stop making the age groups so small and use what most other races do. Base the age groups on what ages are actually competitively similar. The larger sample size would produce somewhat uniform levels of competition across different races.

Solution 2: do the other thing nearly every other type of race does and pull aside the top overall finishers before going to age group awards: top N overall amateurs get slots and then age group allocation begins. This would create a slight bias towards the faster age groups, though, which wouldn’t be an issue with solution 1. Regardless, at least something should be done to recognize the top overall amateurs, which as far Ironman is concerned don’t even exist.

I would have rather us been 1-2-3 at IM Boulder, without affecting age group Kona slots, than 1-1-1 and taking those slots.

Solution 3: this one starts going a little ways down the road of complicated solutions, but I think is still pretty reasonable. Determine handicaps for each age group based on historical times of the top finishers in each age group (I know there’s enough data by now to do this) and then just take the top N finishers regardless of age group after applying those handicaps. People in the same age group would still be directly competing with each other during the race, but the number of slots per age group would be determined based on performance of the age group rather than size. And people would have motivation to actually compete against people outside their age group (with handicapped live tracking amplifying that motivation). As it is people in other age groups might as well not even exist from a competition standpoint. Ironman is even sure to mark the age on the back of everyone’s leg so that when people get passed they know whether or not they need to actually try.

Solution 4: this one for me falls in the category of “wait, they’re not already doing that?” In the example I mentioned before where the 9th place age group finisher got a slot over 2nd place in another age group, I was shocked to learn it worked that way. At the absolute minimum, an unclaimed slot should go to the next age group that would have gotten a slot, not remain in the same age group until there is literally no one left in that age group.

Before I move on from the subject that it turns out could have been its own blog post, I have to address the somewhat reverse side of the coin: qualifying for the ITU multisport festival (all events except Olympic and Sprint Triathlon). Basically, show up at the “qualifying race” and get a slot. Just make sure you register in the correct division, lest you actually try to compete fairly and cheat yourself out of a spot.

When I qualified for Team USA for the Long Course World Championship, basically everyone who showed up at the qualifying race got a slot. Except I almost didn’t, because despite finishing 2nd overall behind only a non-US pro, the division I registered for was apparently the “remove yourself from any amateur benefits without having any pro benefits either” division. It was the same division that I usually register for except that particular race apparently had its own definition for it. I was told that I only got a slot because there weren’t enough people at the race in my age group to fill all the slots. I mean, really?

How ya like me now, USAT? Photo: Kristin Simpson

Solution: have the majority of slots allocated through USAT’s age group ranking system, which is actually quite good, and have a few reserved for a qualifying race. Right now only “leftover” slots are allocated via the rankings. Also, eliminate 100% completely pointless and confusing divisions that people can mistakenly register for.

The WTC economy

I had to think for a minute for a title to this section that wouldn’t sound disparaging to the whole sport, but unfortunately WTC (the company that owns Ironman) has an enormous amount of power and overall influence over the sport. And they continually demonstrate that they care about absolutely nothing but money; not the well-being of the sport or the athletes it depends on. This is a large part of why the qualifying rules above are what they are. It’s why things like drafting and doping are mostly brushed aside, along with any other competition or safety issues that might interfere with how many people they can stuff onto a course and get registration fees and merchandise sales from.

This has a trickle down effect on the whole sport, creating an economy that exploits amateur athletes and can’t support professionals. Most prize purses are meager, and sponsorships aren’t based on performance as much as they are how much someone is willing and able to post straight-up ads on social media. Yes, I realize this is rather ironic and hypocritical being said in what is essentially a social media post from a formerly sponsored amateur triathlete who competed in 4 Ironmans this year, but the dynamics at play and the WTC mindset is something that I really only came to fully understand throughout this year. And yes, this is happening in many sports, but the WTC culture and the costs associated with the sport have exacerbated the issue in triathlon. When you don’t “need” $20K worth of gear to compete for something like those Kona slots, the economics are a bit different.

Gear getting ready for Kona.
Gear getting ready for Bandera 100K. Pants optional.

I said earlier that I don’t like noting problems without giving solutions, but I’ll admit I don’t have anything great here. WTC is a corporation, and while it’s reasonable to expect some level of corporate responsibility, it’s also unreasonable to expect them to not care about money. Regulatory bodies like USAT and ITU could certainly try to step in and enforce better enforcement of things like drafting and doping, but at this point WTC is honestly more powerful than those regulatory bodies.

In the end, the only reliable way of enforcing change by a corporation is through mass action of its consumers. But in this case WTC has a high demand, inelastic product and they know it: Kona. They own Kona, the most storied and sought after event in the sport, and on top of that they own the only way to get to Kona. Imagine if the only way to get into the Boston Marathon were to run a BAA-owned marathon.

So the only real thing I can suggest is for people to race local, or to at least race in other events (e.g. Roth, Savageman). The one that I’ve come across recently that really gives me hope, despite the name, is the Xtri (eXtreme triathlon) World Tour. Not only are these events in incredible locations with challenging, beautiful, and unique courses, the mindset of the organization seems to be entirely different.

There’s a quote from the Ironman founder that is plastered everywhere and makes me cringe every time I see it. I would have just typed it, but I thought it’d be better to show it right on the front of this year’s Kona race program.


“Swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, run 26.2 miles- Brag for the rest of your life. ”

I’m sorry, but if you’re doing these things in order to brag about them it’s not only the wrong approach in terms of being truly happy with your accomplishments but you’ll also never accomplish as much with extrinsic motivation. For comparison, a quote from the Xtri founder is below.

“I want to create a completely different race, make it a journey through the most beautiful nature of Norway, let the experience be more important than the finish time, and let the participants share their experience with family and friends, who will form their support. Let the race end on top of a mountain, to make it the toughest full distance triathlon on planet earth.” – Hårek Stranheim, founder of the Norseman Xtreme Triathlon, first in the Xtri World Tour

But please don’t take it so badly, cause Lord knows I’m to blame

Why I left

Finally, the real point of all this. I think.

Abilities

Something else to reiterate: the novel challenge is something that I thoroughly enjoyed. Does that mean that I enjoyed swimming? No. But I enjoyed testing myself outside my comfort zone for a while. And I tried, I really did.

I’ve heard or seen a number of comments along the lines of “should’ve done more swim training.” I joined a Masters group, I consistently went to the pool as much as I could, and my abilities just plateaued. I don’t know if it’s something physiological, or psychological, or something with my form that numerous people couldn’t see. I’m sure if I had all the time in the world to train (and the ability to mentally endure more swim training) that I could swim a sub 1 hour 2.4 miles. But I would never do it in under 50 minutes, and if I took my limited training budget and allocated that much time to swimming then my bike and run would suffer by more than the swim improved.

So I kind of hit the ceiling on what I think I’m really capable of in triathlon. I’ll never be able to compete at the very top if I’m giving people a 30 minute head start coming out of the water. And that’s fine. I’m glad I tried, and I found that limit. But the same way that practicing more basketball wouldn’t have made me a 5’ 8” Lebron James, spending more time in the pool wouldn’t have made me a top swimmer.

My potential in ultrarunning is higher, and I want to fully explore that potential while I still have it.

We were almost there. Just a few more hours in the gym and we would’ve won that rec league national championship. Then the Bulls would’ve drafted me.

Time

Triathlon not only has a significant monetary cost; it has a steep time cost. Overall the training takes more time, and then add on top of that the logistics of maintaining a bike, packing for races, getting to / from the pool, etc. and it’s just a much bigger time sink. I’ve done some pretty creative things to make the best use of what time I can find, but in the end it’s still a finite resource. And frankly, with 3 kids and a job at a startup, I just don’t have much of it.

I really hoped that all those Instagram posts and age group wins would pay the bills and send the kids to college, but it turns out I still have to work and stuff.

Passion

To put it simply, I just enjoy running on trails. It gives me that feeling of exploration and complete freedom. Every trail / race also has its own unique feel. To me triathlons, for the most part, all kind of seem the same eventually (water, then asphalt). I also enjoy challenging, mountainous, technical courses that require strategy that goes far beyond “how fast should I go right now and how much should I eat.”

Not all joy need involve suffering.

Culture

I want to be sure to fully separate WTC from the athletes themselves. Yes, there are some bad apples in the sport (the “elitist jerk” types), but as noted earlier in the “things I’ll miss” section the community at large is a wonderful group of people who truly support each other.

There’s nothing wrong with the overall triathlon culture; it’s just not me. There will always be grown-up equivalents of freaks, geeks, jocks, goths, and whatever other high school clique you can think of. The difference (hopefully) is that as adults we realize there is nothing wrong with the other groups and that we should encourage inclusivity rather than exclusivity. But in the end people like different things and prefer different environments. And that’s fine. I happen to prefer being in the laid-back casual environments of ultrarunning.

At Kona someone asked me if I ever plan on doing UTMB. They said something along the lines of, “it’s like this, except ultrarunning! All the hype and the crowds!” I looked at them and said, “you know that’s a main reason that I’m leaving triathlon, right?” (yes I do plan on doing UTMB someday, but because it seems like an opportunity to compete against the best on an amazing course that is very well-suited to me).

The scene at the finish line of what I consider my 2nd greatest athletic accomplishment (behind Barkley).

This bird you cannot change

Will I be back?

I get asked this quite a bit, or even flat out told “oh you’ll be back.” Will I? I don’t know. I’m not much of one to ever say never, but I will say that right now I definitely don’t regret my decision. As I’ve described here, there are a lot of things I’ll miss. But there are more things that I’m looking forward to being able to do as a result of not doing triathlon. I also have absolutely no desire right now to give WTC any more of my money.

Maybe I’ll do some local races, or one of those Xtri races “just for fun” (i.e. without seriously training for it). And I do have some pretty big plans already to pursue some projects that involve connecting multiple trail running routes by biking between them (no swimming). And who knows, maybe in a decade or two if WTC has fixed some of its issues I’ll take another stab at Kona.

In the meantime, you can find me in the mountains.

Photo: Justin Diamond (IG handle: @lukeomaha27)

14 thoughts on “So Long, and Thanks For All the Backpacks

  • December 28, 2018 at 3:49 pm
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    Captivating read, Gods speed.

    Reply
  • December 28, 2018 at 4:52 pm
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    All that makes so much sense to me 🙂 good luck out on the trails!

    Reply
  • December 29, 2018 at 2:10 pm
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    This just reassured me why I will stick with trail running and avoid branching out to triathlons. Thanks for the great post!

    Reply
    • December 29, 2018 at 4:16 pm
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      Thanks, but definitely don’t be afraid to give triathlons a go! I’m glad I did, and you might find you really enjoy it.

      Reply
  • December 30, 2018 at 8:11 pm
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    Favorite reference: “If I could ever feel even a tiny fraction of what Clark Kent must feel like taking off his glasses, coming out of the water was it.”

    As always, thank you for sharing 🙂

    Reply
    • December 30, 2018 at 9:55 pm
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      Thanks for reading, and hope everything’s going well wherever you are these days!

      Reply
  • December 31, 2018 at 10:08 pm
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    I thought I recognized that TWOT parking lot. Good luck with your future endeavo.rs

    Reply
  • January 1, 2019 at 7:03 am
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    As someone who loves trails and is just getting into triathlon, this was a great and very timely read…thanks!

    Reply

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