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.