Is triathlon going soft?

Ironman CEO Andrew Messick is categorical: “The race course has to be safe for everybody, not just people who are young and strong.” Ironman has its critics on many issues, but Messick knows this stance cannot easily be challenged. Whether it’s rough seas, blue-green algae, cold water, hot weather, flooding, landslides, bush fires or sharks, you name it, we’ve had it in triathlon in the past few years. 


Nobody wants to see a sporting event end in tragedy, but neither do triathletes want to spend hundreds of pounds on a race and have part or all of it cancelled, as has been happening with increasing frequency. It can’t all be blamed on Mother Nature either. The climate might be changing, but so are attitudes to risk – predicated on an increasing blame culture – that means erring on the side of caution like never before. Competitors often sacrifice their entry fees due to hardline ‘no refund’ policies because organisers’ costs are already sunk, and everyone is left feeling compromised and underwhelmed. 

There is a paradox here, though. Ironman is billed as the hardest one-day event on the planet, yet its owners preside over a finance-driven model which demands as many bodies on the start-line as possible, regardless of athletic competence. 

The aspirational marketing that claims ‘Anything Is Possible’ for anyone has a flipside – it downplays the challenge. Not in the surface level hype or in the small print of the disclaimers, but in decisions on race day, where the novice who might rarely leave the pool, now encounters the swell of a sea swim, and the race director isn’t confident to proceed.

Ironman is a very different beast to parkrun, for example, that happily celebrates its average times getting slower because it encourages mass participation. A 3.8km swim, 180km bike and 42.2km run puts a severe load on anyone’s body, but the achievement of completing it has been normalised in recent years. It’s no longer the preserve of the quirky few with years of endurance sport experience and the resilience to cope with inclement conditions. Too many of us now turn up wide-eyed and underprepared. Even if organisers don’t encourage it, they have to cater for it, so when there’s a large show of hands at the start of an iron-distance race from those admitting it’s their first triathlon, there should be concern not applause.

Whether an example of society’s increasing need for quick gratification or not, we should question the impulse to go longer and harder at the earliest opportunity. Perceptions have become skewed. After all, a sprint triathlon is an oxymoron. It’s not a 100-yard dash but a solid test of aerobic capacity and a great way of racing more frequently, mastering skills and building an endurance base. 


And if more of us concentrate on strengthening these foundations, then when it comes to eventually going long, it will also help instil confidence in event organisers that their triathletes are conditioned to race in testing conditions. The
result? Everybody benefits.

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