Category Archives: Tri Talk Episodes

Tri Talk Triathlon podcast, Episode 75

You can listen to the audio by clicking above, or download it here

Holographic bracelets, regional bragging rights, and a wind tunnel teaser. Today, on Tri Talk.

Welcome to Tri Talk your podcast source for triathlon tips, training, news and more. If you are listening from China, you’re not alone, welcome to the few hundred dedicated fans in that country. If you are listening from Greenland, you are a dedicated but solitary fan, and I appreciate you taking the time to listen to the podcast. My goal at Tri Talk is to help you swim, bike, and run faster, to meet your personal triathlon goals. Whether you are an elite or amateur triathlete, we cover sprint distance to Ironman distance. I’m your host, David Warden, and this is Tri Talk Episode 75.

This is going to be a long episode, based on how long it took me to prepare it. I hope you enjoy it. This is a test-heavy episode for you today. First, we’ll give you an introduction to a series of publications I’ll be doing based on wind tunnel testing with Joe Friel. This is just a teaser, and is just meant to whet your appetite for more information, but you’ll get some great and useful information out of it to help you bike faster. Next, onto a test of holographic bracelets. They’re shinny, they’re hip, but do they improve performance? We’ll see. Finally, if you can stay with me that long, I’m going to provide you with a report I did for USA Triathlon ranking each state based on triathlon performance. How do the triathletes in your state stack up with the rest of the country?

I spent last week-end at a wind tunnel with Joe Friel, and he and I will be publishing the results in our various publications over the next several weeks, and in particular over the next few Tri Talk episodes. Some of the information we have for you is amazing, and some simply reinforces what we already knew. We particularly targeted apparel, compression gear, helmets, and hydration systems, and I’m excited to be bringing the results to you over the next several weeks.

 

One of our major goals Joe had was to look further at the research John Cobb has done on aero helmets, particularly that the head down position with an aero helmet as the most aerodynamic position.

John’s theory is that the head down position is more aero because of two factors. 1) The head down position results in less frontal area, as more of your big head is below your shoulders, and 2) That the smooth surface of the top of your helmet allows for better airflow compared to presenting your bumpy face to the wind. There has also been thoughts from other leading coaches that the tail itself sticking up assists in airflow.

Another one of the things I wanted to test was if visors were universally better than no visor.

We took 8 leading aero helmets and tested all of them in both a head up and head down position, going immediately from the head up to the head down position in the tunnel, and then quickly switching helmets. Many of these helmets were tested with both the visor on and a visor off as well. For helmets with no visor, a standard par of sunglasses was used.

We also tested a standard road helmet with large vents, but we did something that we think may not have been done before. We tested the road helmet in both the head up and head down position as well. A road helmet in head down position has not been considered in the past because it has no tail, and consistent with John Cobb’s theory that the head down with an aero helmet also offers a smoother surface than a ventilated helmet, the road helmet theoretically should perform poorly head down compared to other aero helmets.

The results were very interesting, to say the least.

First, 7 of the 9 helmets tested better in the head down position, with 2 helmets testing better in the head up position. This is very consistent with John’s research, but it was interesting to know that it was not universal in our tests. But in general, a cyclist will perform better with the head down.

However, what was very interesting is that the road helmet performed better with the head down. While this is consistent with the head being lower, the fact that it exposed huge vents as its frontal area seems to indicate that head position is far more important than airflow over the helmet itself.

What was also fascinating was that of the 9 total helmets, the standard road helmet came in 5th best in both the head up and head down position. That’s correct, the road helmet outperformed 4 of the aero helmets in both head up and head down. As the owner of a triathlon retail store I find this very upsetting, that an inexpensive helmet could outperform our pricier aero helmets.

This does not mean that you should throw away your aero helmet, because remember that 4 other aero helmets performed better than the road helmet.

The visors offered more information to the puzzle, but unfortunately did not solve the puzzle. 1 of the 3 helmets tested was more aero with the visor, 1 of the 3 was less aero with the visor, and one had no change with the visor. I’m disappointed that I could not add more confidence to my theory that a visor is an important element, it really seems to depend on the helmet and the visor.

The most eye-opening thing to me for the day was the incredible distribution of helmet performance. It was eye-opening and scary. The difference between the best performer and the worst performer was terrifying. We’re talking minutes over a 40K TT, and tens of minutes over an Ironman.

How many times have you heard the phrase, “an aero helmet will give you more speed than a set of aero wheels.” Well, this is true, but only for half of the helmets we tested. I’d like to add a new statement to the triathlon world, “the wrong aero helmet will wipe out the aerodynamics gained from a set of aero wheels.”

Right now, I know what you are thinking. “Tell me which helmets did good and tell me which ones did bad!” Didn’t I say this was a teaser?

One thing that is critical for me to clarify, is that unlike wheels or apparel, or even hydration systems, rider position and body type effect aero helmets tremendously. In our case, our rider was in a fairly upright Ironman position with a rounded, not a flat back. It is very possible that a more aggressive position or flatter back could result in completely different data, and to say that one helmet is “better” than another is very irresponsible for helmets. We might be able to get away with it for other gear, but the helmet is too unique.

Therefore, the only way to confirm which helmet is the right one for you based on your position and body type, is to get to a wind tunnel.

Also, this test was only done on 15 degrees of yaw, or with the wind coming at the rider at a 15 degree angle, which while that is a very realistic racing condition, we need to test again at 0 degrees as well, and see if some helmets do better or worse with 0 degrees.

Therefore, I am not going to publish the names of the helmets yet, but commit to doing that in the future. Joe may choose to do so, and I’m OK with that, but I’m not ready to do that yet. Also, we will be releasing the hydration, apparel, and compression results with specific time saving and product names in the near future.

The second critical thing for me to say is please, please, please don’t ride with your head down. I know that based on all this data you are going to be tempted to do that. It is a dumb thing to do. It’s like removing the airbags from your car to save a bit on gas mileage. You’ve got to keep your head up when you ride. I want you to repeat after me: I promise…to always ride…with my head up…

I need to give a big thanks to Jameson King, who was the Operations Manager for the wind tunnel project. We did 180 runs of testing in our limited time, and it was all because Jameson had a system down where we could swap hydration systems and be back testing again in a matter of minutes. He was like a NASCAR pit crew, and he put some outstanding thought into the correct order of the testing to maximize our time.

Moving on. One of our most recent tests is from a leading holographic bracelet company. You’ve probably seen commercials for these, the one where they try and pull down your outstretched arm, and when wearing the bracelet you theoretically have more power and can resist. These holographs are supposed to restore your energy balance. Even if that test were true, will a stiff arm make you a faster triathlete?

For our test, we took two sets of bracelets, and removed the holograph from one set and covered both sets with tape, so that we could not tell which bracelets had the hologram and which did not. All we knew was that one set had the holograph, and one set did not, and a set included both an ankle and wristband.

The test was quite simple. After a warmup, a cyclist would try and hold a specific heart rate and cadence, which was all they could see, and we would record their power for that given heart rate, swapping in and out both the two sets, and also testing without any bracelet as well. Our test pilot was PowerTri’s general manager, Jameson King, with me managing the testing.

For example, we started without any set on the wrist and ankle, and had Jameson hold a steady heart rate for 10 minutes. We then switched to set B, not knowing if it was the holograph set or the placebo set, with a band on the wrist and ankle. We cycled for another 10 minutes with set B, and then switch to set A. We repeated this process 4 times, so both set A, B, and no bracelets each had 4 10-minute tests. Two of those tests were done in Jameson’s Zone 2, and 2 were done in Jameson’s Zone 4 heart rate, so that we could test the bracelets at different intensities.

The environment was very controlled and consistent, and we only took the final 5 minutes of each 10-minute test to ensure that heart rate and the power device were stable. We monitored temperature, and each test was done within 0.1 degree Celsius of the previous test.

The results were, frankly, perplexing. The consistent worst performer was the bracelet without the holograph. The consistent best performer was tied between no bracelet at all, and the bracelet with the holograph.

Which really does not make sense to me at all. This would seem to suggest that if you are going to wear a bracelet or an anklet, make sure it has a holograph in it or wear nothing at all. Is it perhaps that any pressure on the wrist or ankle reduces performance, but the holograph has enough of an effect to counter the problem?

Frankly, the real answer is that our test was flawed, lacked sufficient controls, and had no statistically significant value associated with it. Personally, I would not wear the bracelet, because even if you accept the results, not wearing the bracelet was as good as wearing it. I was skeptical before I did the test, and I’m just as skeptical now.

Moving on. I want to say how much I appreciate our international Tri Talk listeners. Over ¼ of you listen from outside the US, and as a result I try to make Tri Talk as global as possible. However, sometimes I just have a story that is very specific to the US, and in my defense, it is where my racing and coaching takes place. This next section may have some interest to those in the US, but really, if you are outside the US, you can hit the Next button on our device and skip this section.

But for those of you inside the US, this section is all about bragging rights and another salute to triathletes’ ability to overcome challenges.

I’ve been wanting to do this project for a long time. Over the last 7 years, I’ve had the privilege of corresponding with and coaching triathletes from all over the country. Invariably, every triathlete I talk to thinks that where they live has the most competitive triathlon environment. I get invitations to race from California to Massachusetts, all with the premise that I’ll be blown away by the level of competition that their state has to offer. They can’t all be right, can they?

This finally came to a climax when my little brother moved to Iowa for medical school, and sure enough, he called me and said that I would get my butt kicked in Iowa.

Those of you who have a little brother know that this kind of statement is unacceptable, and that it is the responsibility of an older brother to put his little brother in his place. It’s bad enough when your little brother is going to be a doctor, and you’ll have to live with that social class disparity for the rest of you life, but when he starts trash talking that he is now racing in a more competitive environment, well that’s when a Tri Talk episode is born.

So how can we do this? How can we measure which region or state has the fastest triathletes? There are multiple ways to look at this. We could look at Ironman Kona Qualifiers by state, or even qualifiers at the 70.3 distance, but that excludes athletes at the shorter distances. We could supplement that and look at the USAT National Sprint and Olympic Championships and see which states are represented, but there are problems in using that small of a sample size, and there are distinct geographic factors that would skew that analysis, based on the fact that many people can’t afford to fly to Vermont for a national championship.

Fortunately, there is robust solution already available to us. The annual USAT Ranking system gives us a huge sample size, with tens of thousands of ranked triathletes, distributed all over the country, and a formula that calculates performance independent of triathlon distance.

Now, I know that the USAT Rankings system is not perfect, but it is the best system currently available for this kind of exercise, and it is the same ranking and formula system used by other US Olympic organizations. If you have objections with using the USAT Rankings to determine which state has the fastest triathletes, I’ll conceded that this exercise is not necessarily the ultimate system for state-by-state analysis, but the best current system. Yes, I work closely with USAT, yes I’m a former Board member, yes I’m a big fan of the ranking system, but speaking objectively, this is still the best available method.

It is important that you have at least a brief understanding of how the USAT Ranking system works. You can go and listen to episode 66 and 66a, where I spent 2 full episodes describing the system. Yes, 2 full episodes. Or, I’ll give you the 2 sentence version. The system allocates pointes based on how well you performed relative to the field in a given race, which is also influenced by how the field was expected to perform based on previous rankings. It then averages the points of your top 3 races to give you a total score for the year. It usually gives out a value of between 50 and 110, with the higher score representing a faster performance.

It’s truly an under-utilized benefit from being a USAT member, and frankly another great reason to become a USAT annual member.

Although USAT publishes the annual rankings every spring, it is impossible to crunch the numbers based on that hard copy publication. I want to thank USAT for providing me with their proprietary 2009 ranking data in order to do this analysis. In fact, the full report can only be found at USAT, and that link is poasted at tri-talk.com.

I did a total of 7 different rankings based on every single triathlete ranked in 2009, and I’ll go over each of them briefly. Again, the full report can be found at USAT, and the link is at tri-talk.com.

First, lets take a look at just the pure top scores from each state. I simply took the median score off all male and female athletes from each state, and separated by male and female. However, some states only had a handful of total scores, and one state had just 4 total ranked athletes. The sample size for many states just was not enough to give a reasonable value. I therefore somewhat arbitrarily set a lower limit of 100 scores  as a minimum number of ranked triathletes. On my report at USAT, I have all the data in two sets, the raw ranking regardless of the sample size, and also a rankings only factoring in states that had at least 100 ranked triathletes.

Also, this report excludes data from Pros, it is only age-group data, so that Colorado won’t be ranked first in every ranking I did.

And can I just quickly say that someone is doing something right in Alaska, because Alaska has more ranked triathletes than Oregon and Vermont, and we’ll have had 2 USAT National Championships take place in Oregon and Vermont in 3 years. I’m going to start a campaign to have a National Championship take place in Alaska.

For the podcast today, I’m only going to list the rankings for states that had at least 100 ranked triathletes, and you can see the full unfiltered report at USAT.

The top 5 states based on median score for females are:

Minnesota

Washington

Wisconsin

Kentucky

Michigan

 

The top 5 states based on median score for males are:

Washington

Minnesota

Utah

Wisconsin

Colorado

 

That’s right, baby, Utah is number 3 in the nation based on median score for male triathletes. Score so far: Big brother 1, Little brother 0.

Kudos to Washington, Minnesota and Wisconsin who made the top 5 in both male and female median score.

I’m not going to rank the bottom 5 for each ranking. That would just be rude. So instead I’ll just send you to the full report at USAT to see the bottom 5 in a passive-aggressive manner.

Let us pause and point out the flaws with this first rankings. The truth is, states that have a more mature demographic, or a lot more triathletes who are new to the sport in emerging markets, are going to be penalized using this calculation. I agree. But that is not the point of the first ranking. Regardless of why there are more slow triathletes from a given state, the fact is that if you compete in Washington, the overall performance of the triathletes there is better than in other states.

But this first ranking still does not answer the question of a “competitive” state. Can we change the calculation to look at which states have a high % of very fast triathletes?

The second and third ranking I did tried to do just that. Instead of a median score, I looked at the total number of very fast triathletes. What do I mean by a very fast triathlete? In analyzing the USAT rankings for the last few years, I believe that an athlete with a score of 90 or better, has a reasonable chance of winning a local triathlon of 150 participants or less. At a regional or national event, they would not win, but would finish very high at the race. Another way to look at this is that a score of 90 or higher puts the athlete in the top 3% in the nation. Not the score from just 1 event, but the final USAT score based on at least 3 events. I consider these triathletes of 90 or higher to be age-group elite athletes.

Based on total number of athletes ranked 90 or higher, the states for both male and female are in general no surprise, and also they are identical.

 

California

Colorado

Florida

Texas

New York

 

Again, this ranking is identical for male and female. With the exception of Colorado, this simply follows the population size of the top 4 states, and so it makes sense that these states would also have the most number of elite age groupers. Colorado still deserves some significant recognition, because remember, these numbers exclude Pro data, it is just age groupers, and so having Colorado have more elite age grouper triathletes than Florida was unexpected.

 

But this still begs the question of the most competitive state. Sure, California has the most number of elite triathletes, but they also have the most number of total triathletes and total number of events.

 

The next ranking looks at total elite athletes as a percentage of total ranked triathletes. I consider this to be the most accurate calculation of the most “competitive” state. Which states have the highest concentration of elite athletes, not highest raw number of elites, the highest % of elite athletes as a % of the total triathlon pool.

 

If we that calculation, then ranking for females would be:

 

Washington

Wisconsin

Minnesota

Colorado

Utah

 

And for males it would be:

Minnesota

Washington

Colorado

California

Utah

 

That’s right again, baby! Utah at number 5 for the highest concentration of elite triathletes. Score: Big brother 2, Little brother 0.

 

And again, consistency between the male and female groups in this ranking, with 4 of the 5 states in both the male and female top 5.

 

Finally, I also did a ranking by age group per state. Meaning, I took all the age groups, got a median score for each age group, and gave each state a ranking for each age group. In fact, it’s too much for me to read on the podcast, and I’ll send you to the USAT report to read it.

 

There was one problem with this age group report. You’ll recall that the whole idea for this project came from the assertion that I would get my butt kicked in Iowa. Although Utah came in higher in both the overall median score and concentration of elite athletes, it turns out that Iowa has the 3rd fastest age M35-39 age group in the country, which is my age group, compared to Utah at 5th in the nation for the M35-39. It looks like there are a lot of fast guys my age in Iowa who could kick my butt.

 

Therefore, I have to concede at least 1 point. Big brother 2, Little Brother 1.

 

Overall, one of the biggest stories from this report is how consistently Minnesota and Wisconsin are in the top 5 in just about every report. Especially if you look at the male age group chart, where Minnesota has 8 of the 15 age groups in the top 3, and Wisconsin has 6 age groups in the top 3.

 

Those two states have some pretty nasty weather in the winter, and I have to say it is a tribute to triathletes that they can overcome weather-related challenges and still perform very well in the summer. In fact, the top 5 in most reports consists of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, Colorado, and Washington, and 4 out of 5 of those states have winters that make it challenging to train on the bike. Maybe it has something to do with indoor cycling training?

 

A couple of other interesting notes: South Dakota only had 4 male ranked triathletes, but one of them is really, really fast. USAT did not provide me with specific names, but all I know is that if you are ever at a race, and the guy next to you says he is from South Dakota, be very, very afraid.

 

Overall, if I had to make a pick, I would have to award Minnesota as the most competitive state in the nation. It just pops too frequently in the top 3 no matter which ranking I’m looking at.

 

Even though Utah may not be the most competitive, I think it is certainly the hotbed of triathlon in the country right now. Yes, it is my home state and I’m somewhat biased, but in addition to the tiny state of Utah being ranked twice in the top 5 USAT report, consider these interesting facts:

 

–         Utah has the highest % of it’s population Googling the term “triathlon” compared to any other state.

–         Utah has the second highest number of triathletes per capita, behind Colorado.

–         Utah is one of only 9 states in the US to host an official Ironman event, and is the second smallest state behind Idaho to do so.

–         Utah is one of only 11 states hosting the new 5150 series from Ironman.

This little tiny state keeps popping up in just about every exclusive triathlon list. So to all the triathletes who have invited me to race in their state, my response is come and race in Utah, and we’ll show you how its done.

I want to say hello to Karen at Vasa. Thanks for your help, and it’s nice to be missed.

I’ll see you next time.

Tri Talk Triathlon Podcast, Episode 77

You can listen to the audio by clicking above, or download it here

Why your choice of apparel may be more important than your choice of helmet or hydration, and what you’ve been missing from my supplemental blog. It’s textiles and typing!

Today on Tri Talk we conclude the preliminary wind tunnel test with a look at apparel. Is apparel as important as other cycling hardware? It’s certainly more important than I thought before the tests, and we’ll take a closer look. Plus, you may not know that I blog additional content that has never made it to the podcast before. I’ll give you a brief sample of what you have been missing, and I can assure you it will not help you swim bike or run faster.

Let’s get onto the good stuff!

Unlike frames, wheels, helmets, and hydration systems, triathlon apparel is rarely tested in the wind tunnel. Yet the potential for apparel to impact aerodynamics is just as great, as our recent preliminary testing indicates. The reason that testing apparel is so often disregarded is unclear to me. Is it because unlike their triathlon hardware colleagues, the textile manufacturers themselves never test nor tout the aerodynamic properties of their products? Is it because triathletes assume that anything without an airfoil is unworthy of consideration? Or could it be that self-appointed multi-sport pundits have simply neglected this section of the industry.

As one of those self-appointed pundits, I know I’m guilty. It’s not that I considered apparel irrelevant, it’s that I considered it aerodynamically insignificant. But then, two years ago, I was reviewing the results of an athlete who has done his own wind tunnel visit and had put an emphasis on apparel. I was surprised to see the significant difference in performance between his choices of apparel. I was determined to add it more rigorously to a future test.

And yet, when the time came to prioritize products in the tunnel, sure enough hydration and helmets took priority, while apparel became a secondary test “if we had time”. I regret that we did not have more time to test, because it ended up being the most eye-opening part of our preliminary tests. It seems that even when I was conscious of the neglect, apparel continues to be undervalued.

My goal going into these apparel tests was not to determine the “fastest” suit, but rather to get some idea of the delta between outfits. Would the performance difference between the best and worst be similar to what we see with hydration? Or would it be something akin to my theory about coming out of the aero position to drink: measurable, but inconsequential.

Additionally, with the growing popularity of compression gear when racing, as opposed to recovery, I wanted to get some idea of how wearing compression on the bike would impact aerodynamics. This is an interesting situation for half and full Ironman athletes, because many compression products recommend a maximum of a few hours of use during exercise, and therefore those longer-distance athletes would not wear the compression during the bike. For Olympic and Sprint distance, this would still be a relevant test.

I encourage the reader to review the Preliminary Wind Tunnel Results on Hydration Systems for disclaimers and clarifiers regarding baseline equipment, rider size and position, etc. as the apparel tests immediately followed our hydration tests during the same visit. Like that test, these apparel tests were done with 0 degrees of yaw, which makes them slightly more than interesting in terms of results. The reader may be disappointed in the limited number of products tested, due both to my limited vision plus the goal of simply determining the potential spread of apparel performance.

I’ll present this preliminary data in the same manner as the hydration results. Both in a 180k and 40k distance, with the 180k IM distance having the rider output at 150 watts, and the 40k Olympic distance at 225 watts.

What can we learn from this initial wind tunnel run? Again, not much until we complete the additional yaw tests, but there are a few things that stand out:

–         I always imagined that wind tunnel testing would bring peace and clarity to my life. Instead, it has done nothing but add anxiety. The difference between the best and least performing apparel is frightening. Gone are my innocent days of telling athletes that they can pick apparel purely based on price, carry capacity, comfort, and color. A difference of 13 minutes between 2 leading one-piece tri suits over an IM distance event is sending my adrenaline through the roof even as I write this. Ever wonder why your buddy always seems to come ahead of you on the bike, when you two have the same power to weight ratio? It’s these little unknowns. A seemingly inconsequential choice between name-brand tri suit A, B, and C can cost 13.5 minutes. My only consolation is that I have been racing with the Lift Foil for the last 4 years. Whew.

–         The fact that some two piece apparel outperformed the tri suits is scary. Perhaps this is just repeating the paragraph above, but I would have thought that all one-piece would outperform all the two-piece.

–         The compression gear result has to be the most interesting. Yes, the CEP compression improved aerodynamics, while the 2XU slightly decreased performance. All I can say is that I am looking forward to only shaving from knee to mid-thigh from now on, and let the compression gear cover the rest of my shave-scarred legs. Remember, CEP recommends that you not exercise for more than 2-3 hours at a time in their socks, so it just may not be a reasonable choice for half and full Ironman racing, but the possible time savings for CEP is quite tempting for the shorter distances. However, like the tri suits, not all compression appears to have the same aerodynamic result. It is just as possible that adding compression will slow you down as speed you up.

–         How much is additional yaw testing going to make on apparel? I would imagine not nearly as much as hydration and helmets. Considering my theories have only been right 50% of them time when going into the wind tunnel, we’ll have to wait and see.

–         Those of you who have been following the results of all 3 sets of tests (helmets, hydration, and now apparel) will note that it is an apparel item that has both the best performance (CEP Compression) and worst performance (De Soto Forza) of any other of the 36 products tested. Meaning, according to our initial tests, apparel may be the most important equipment choice you will make. When you think about it, this is really no surprise. What is going to expose to the most surface area? A water bottle, a helmet, or 50% of your body? It makes sense that apparel could be the most significant factor in your overall aerodynamics.

Overall, the apparel testing requires much more research, with both a broader range of product, and a broader range of yaw to complete the results. Until then, I’m keeping my Lift Foil and adding CEP compression to my Sprint and Oly racing, just in case.

You’ll recall my long argument against using aerodynamics as the primary factor in choosing a hydration system, and the same applies here. Sure, the Lift Foil looks good initially, but until the 2011 edition, it had no pad, and it still only comes in black. Can you imagine doing a full IM on a hot day in a black one-piece with no pad? For a Sprint-distance junkie like myself, this is no problem, but an IM athlete would have to consider comfort, temperature, price, and pockets as equally important elements in choosing a trisuit.

This report concludes our preliminary report on helmets, hydration, and apparel. I look forward to the next set of tests.

Moving on! To prove to you that you’ll want to add our blog you your browser’s home page, here are two samples of what you have been missing. The first, from June of 2010, was written after I experienced my first penalty in triathlon, entitled:

 

Crime and Punishment

It’s happened. After 7 years of triathlon, 20 years of endurance racing, and nearly 100 races, it finally happened. Like the antagonist Raskolnikov of Dostoevsky’s epic novel, from which this blog is entitled, I’m suffering the psychological and social consequences from violating the law. And as you’ll soon discover, I literally broke the law. Not only USAT Competitive Rule 5.4, but Utah Code Title 41, Chapter 6a, Section 708.

First of all, I did it. Guilty. Red handed. Culpable. I explicitly waive my Miranda rights. This blog isn’t about making excuses. I’ve talked my way out of speeding tickets, moving violations, and dirty dishes when I felt that an injustice was about to been done. In this case, as soon as the head referee told me the violation, I said to myself, “Oh yea, I remember that. I did do that.”

Let’s get something straight. It wasn’t for drafting. If you assumed my penalty was drafting, I’m insulted for 2 reasons: First, I’m so fast on the bike I can’t possibly take more than 5 seconds to pass someone, let alone 15 seconds. Second, people who draft are wicked, and I’m not wicked. There is an extra level in the Underworld for people who draft (see the Apocrypha, Book of David, Chapter 1 verse 1).

It went down like this: Already devastated from a disappointing 3rd place finish at the Cache Valley Triathlon, I was sulking and packing up when I saw the TriUtah race director, Chris Bowerbank. Apologizing that I had to leave early to start a 2 hour drive back home, and that I would not be at the awards ceremony, Chris looked sadly at me and said as gently as he could, “David, I’m sorry, you didn’t come in 3rd.” My first reaction was “Sweet! The first two got a penalty! Lousy cheaters.” Chris continued, “You got nailed with a penalty.”

Me? Ambassador to triathlon with a following of dozens? Former Vice-chair of the USAT Regional Council? Winner of the 12-participant 2010 Buffalo Duathlon? Winners of my caliber don’t break the rules. I marched over to the head referee, ready to file a protest that I did NOT draft (Excuse me, have you seen my bike splits buddy? I need to draft like Governor Arnold needs more muscles).

Verifying that my race number was correct, he confidently turned to me, and without reservation said, “Crossed a solid yellow line.”

Oh. Yeeeesssss. You mean THAT violation.

It all came back to me. Late in the bike ride, approaching a tight left turn, there were two cyclists just ahead of me. It was a clear situation where a bottleneck was going to occur, and slow me down. The turn had clear vision, and there were no cars approaching from the other direction. I deemed it “safe” to make a pass. I could have either a) held back outside the drafting zone and waited until all 3 of us had made the turn and then make the pass or b) accelerated and catch them before or at the turn. Choosing the later, we reached the turn about the same time. Letting out an authoritative “On your left!” (and I mean REALLY on the left) I took the left turn like a Cat 1 rider, cutting so far on the inside of the road I could have picked the dandelions that decorated the adjacent field. I wasn’t only riding on the left side of the road, I was riding on the inside of the shoulder of the left side of the road.

I even remember the referee riding up next to me right after that and lingering longer than I ever remember before. I thought he was just admiring my pass…

Snapping back to the present, and somewhat stunned that I really had done the violation, a few excuses for the head ref came to mind. Such as:

“Apologies, my good chap, I’m from across the pond and that’s where we ride in jolly old England.”
“You think that was dangerous? But I drive my car the same way.”
“I had to swerve to avoid a Democrat.” (an endangered species in Cache County)

But no, my shame overcame me, and all I could muster was, “You’re right. Thanks for keeping us safe.” I shook his hand, and walked to my car.

I said this blog would not be about excuses, but in my defense, it never even occurred to me at the time. I took that left turn the same way I took the multiple right turns: on the inside. But, just think if every hotdog in a triathlon did this? Inevitably, a head-on collision. Not only risking future events for everyone else, but injury and even death. That rule is a critical one. It’s not about a competitive advantage, it’s about keeping us safe.

Part of the irony is that in the TWO (yes two) pre-race meetings that took place, the outstanding official Carolyn Doll (a former USAT Board member who served with me) had gone over the rules. In both meetings she specifically covered riding on the right side of the road. I had sufficient warning.

Like Raskolnikov, I find myself isolated from the rest of the world after the crime has come to light. I haven’t spoken to another triathlete since the incident. I feel like I owe 4th place an apology, robbing him of the rare opportunity of crossing the finish line knowing he had a podium spot, with the cheer of the crowd and the smiles from his family. I feel tainted and dirty. Raskolnikov went to a Siberian prison. I went to Chevron and ate an entire box of Hostess raspberry-filled donuts (1,500 calories and one million grams of fat per box). I’m not sure who ended up suffering more, me or Raskolnikov.

There is some good that will come out of this. I hope this blog will educate others about this lesser-known rule, maybe even prevent an accident? Additionally, it has re-committed me to keeping the rules.
So here’s to the next 20 years of endurance racing. Penalty free.

And now, my never-ending complaint on:

 

Getting the Swim Distance Right

Dear Aly, Travis, Chris, Brogg, Joe, Aaron, and the hundreds of other fine race directors around the world,

Allow me to begin my letter with a brief review on how we arrived at the current situation.

In 1675 the Italian scientist Tito Livio Burattini introduced the word “metre” to the world as a proposed universal measure, to bring unity to a chaotic system of weights and measures. By 1791, France had adopted the meter as 1 millionth of ¼ of the earth’s diameter, and thus the metric system was born.

Fast-forward to 1989, and the creation of the International Triathlon Union. Based on the popular distance introduced by the U.S. Triathlon Series in the 1980s, the ITU standardizes the new Olympic distance triathlon as a 1.5 kilometer swim, 40 kilometer bike, and 10 kilometer run, and the Sprint distance as one half the Olympic.

It is tempting to argue about how “fair” this distribution of the 3 sports is. Runners and swimmers often complain that the Olympic triathlon distance is simply a steeplechase centered around the bike. To them I reply that baseball (a sport of running, throwing, and hitting) is unfairly biased toward throwing. Baseball hitters have very little opportunity to make it to first base, and in fact only do so about 20% of the time. Even if they do make it to first base, the odds of getting back home are slim due to the distance between bases. Were we to make baseball “fair” for runners and hitters, we would shorten the distances between bases, move the pitching mound back another 30 feet, and extend the outfield by another 200 feet to give hitters and runners a more even chance to score, thus bringing up an average MLB ERA from a miserly 2.0 to a 10.0. Why don’t we make baseball more fair? Because that’s the way baseball was invented! To propose that the distances in baseball or triathlon are “unfair”, “unbalanced”, and should be adjusted is an insult to the sacred institution of the respective sports. That’s just the way they were created, and if you don’t like the distances, invent your own triathlon distance and see how you fare.

Why this odd preamble regarding meters and baseball? To establish that a) a unified and consistent measurement of triathlon course distance is possible and expected and b) to pre-empt the argument that the modification of any of the 3 disciplines distances is somehow a justified protest to “balance” the sport, and c) to condemn any sort of multi-sport vigilantism in course layout. Now that I’ve established some history, and why the Olympic and Sprint distance swim are and MUST remain a 1.5 and 0.75 kilometer swim, let me share my bewilderment why it rarely is.

Race directors, I understand the need to adjust the bike and run distances for an event. Traffic, construction, intersections…it’s all about safety. You only have so much safe road to work with sometimes. I never have heartburn when the bike is cut by a couple of miles to keep me safe. Can’t fit a full 5k run into a loop in a residential area? No problem. That’s the cost of putting on a race.

But the swim, for crying out loud, is another story. Water has no intersections, potholes, or railroad tracks. You can put those buoys anywhere you want. There’s no reason for a swim not be within 2% of 1,500 meters (a 100 foot margin of error). In fact, the ITU allows a 5% variance on the bike and run portion of an ITU sanctioned course, but shows no mercy for swim distance variation. Why not? Like me, they don’t see why the swim distance can’t be precise. A body of water is a race director’s blank canvas, where they are free to create. The swim is the first impression of your race for an athlete, and represents how seriously you take your responsibility as race director and attention to detail.

Granted, I haven’t taken my meter wheel or GPS and measured your swim course, but it doesn’t take a genius to look at some of the swim splits and discern that they are way, way off. For example, at a recent local Sprint event, the median time for the top 10 swimmers in a 350-person event was 14:22. Really? The 10 best swimmers out of 350, the top 3% of the field, averaged a 1:55 per 100 meters? OK, I’ll give you 1 minute from the water to the T1 timing mat for a median time of 13:22. That’s still a pathetic 1:47 per 100 meters for the top 3% swimmers over 750 meters. I don’t think so.

Or consider another local event, where the median time for the top 3% on an advertised 800-meter course was a 16:40. I’ll even give you a 3-minute buffer from the water to T1 for a ridiculous time of 13:40 for the top swimmers, or a 1:42 per 100 meters. And there are another half dozen local events just like this with obviously incorrect swim distances.

Sometimes I wonder if the race directors have been doing this for so long, they think they can eyeball the swim course, which results in “buoy creep”. I swear they get further away every year. The only thing “unfair” about the swim distance in an Olympic or Sprint event is when an athlete has trained for 750 meters and gets 1,000.

I tell my kids that the difference between whining and constructive complaining is that whining comes without suggestions for improvement. So, to avoid whining, allow me to offer some solutions to the potential reasons for an inaccurate swim distance course:

It’s not possible to measure that precisely.

Sure it is! Modern technology has provided us with laser measurement devices for just a few hundred dollars and accurate up to 200 meters. Just plant yourself in between buoy A and B, 125 meters from you to A, 125 meters from you to B = 250 meters between buoy A and B! Piece of cake.

The wind blows the buoys overnight, it’s not my fault.

Place them in the morning, or get heavier anchors. The 2008 St. George Triathlon was so windy, hundreds of swimmers were pulled out of the water due to swell, but those buoys didn’t move a foot. See reference to whining above.

Uh, I don’t place buoys, the volunteers do.

Please. You’re their race director, not their ecclesiastical leader. You can make it happen.

Who are you again?

Oh, I’m very important. You had better take heed.

I’ve got more important things to worry about at a race. I’m not able/willing to go to the trouble to get them accurate.

I appreciate your honesty. However, please don’t advertise your event as an Olympic or Sprint event. Advertise it as “a unique triathlon experience with a surprise swim distance somewhere within 500 meters of a standard swim distance.” If you advertise the distance as 750 meters, it better be pretty close to 750 meters.

I take my measurements very seriously, but the swim times still look long.

Ah, yes. Probably the #1 reason for a longer than necessary swim, and the easiest to correct. I do see race directors take the time to really create an accurate 750-meter loop, only then to place the first buoy 200 meters from shore. Remember that your swim distance needs to account for the distance from the shore to the first/last buoy. If you place the first/last buoy 50 meters from shore, and the athletes do one 750-meter loop, they have really swam 800 meters to get to shore. As a result, your loop must be only ~700 meters, with another 50 meters to shore to equal 750 total meters.

Is swimming my weakest sport? Yes. Do I complain about drastically shortened indoor pool events? No. Is this a pathetic attempt at an aging triathlete to try and gain some competitive advantage for next season? Perhaps. Would I still be complaining about this if swimming were my strongest? After some deep soul-searching, I can honestly say “yes”, because I’m a purist at heart, and I want the sport to be consistent across the world.

Of all the local races, this is my one and only complaint to the race directors. I’m spoiled that I can race 15-20 high-quality events in my backyard every year, and all of them are some of the best in the world. I regret that I didn’t first write a 700-word article singing your praises. But, make this one change, race directors, and like the Italian scientist Tito Livio Burattini, you’ll make a huge step toward the unification of a process badly in need of repair.

That’s all for this episode, I’ll be back next month with episode 78, and by that time I will have completed my first triathlon of 2011, so that episode will either be extremely upbeat, or extremely depressing. I’m afraid you’ll all be victims of my mood.

Before I go I want to give a quick shout out to www.expresswetsuit.com who did a miracle on repairing a tear in my wetsuit. I’m not getting compensated for this prop, I just had a really good experience. I had a small tear in my awesome 2XU Velocity wetuit, and by the time expresswetsuit.com was done with it, I had a hard time even finding the original location of the tear. Check them out at www.expresswetsuit.com and tell them David Warden sent you, otherwise they are going to be really confused why they are getting so much more business all of a sudden.