Why pros loafing to an Ironman finish shouldn’t be castigated.
For some, the spirit of the sport of triathlon centers on honest competition that rewards effort, determination and persistence. Some may say that Tim O’Donnell and Mirinda Carfrae went against that spirit by cruising to intentionally sub-standard finishes at Ironman Florida last weekend. Their decision wasn’t an insult to the sport or the other athletes racing to the limit on that day. Carfrae and O’Donnell did so in defense of their livelihood and for the right to control how they prepare their bodies for next year’s Ironman World Championship.
Pro triathletes have very little control over the races they rely on to make a living. This is especially true for long-course specialists. Ironman dominates. While Challenge Family, Rev3 and other race organizers offer the opportunity to earn a paycheck for racing fast, endorsements in the U.S. center around an athlete’s prominence on the Ironman and Ironman 70.3 circuit.
Furthermore, the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), the company behind the Ironman brand, owns most of the long races with a prize purse. The crown jewel in the WTC portfolio, the Ironman World Championship, offers the biggest prize purse for any iron-distance race in the world in addition to holding tremendous influence as the career-maker for any long-course pro triathlete. Win that race, and you’re set. Win everything else and struggle in Hawaii, and the endorsement checks will be a fraction of the size. WTC uses that substantial influence to compel every pro triathlete to race an Ironman in the year leading up to Kona, a system that was instituted starting with the 2011 qualifying season. Champions aren’t exceptions.
Carfrae, the newly crowned Ironman world champion, crossed the finish at Ironman Florida fourth to last among the professional women, more than an hour behind the winner. She tweeted a picture of herself eating Pop Chips during the marathon. O’Donnell didn’t finish much faster. These meager finishes weren’t the product of fatigue from racing a second 140.6-mile race in three weeks. Both started the race with the intention to cruise. In doing so, both athletes earned the right to control their 2014 race season instead of stretching their capabilities by peaking for and racing another Ironman a few months before Kona.
Six-time Kona champ Mark Allen believes this decision could help the pair achieve the best possible results in next year’s world championship. Allen was asked by Bob Babbitt during a Competitor Radio interview if he thinks requiring a second full-distance race every year puts the careers of the pros in jeopardy. “I think so,” Allen said. “I think as they get older it gets very, very hard just to come back and do Ironman [Hawaii]. … All the other competitors are going to have their out-of-this-universe performance, and you have to be ready to beat that. That’s hard enough as an aging athlete … but to throw other Ironmans on top of that as an aging athlete I think … it may not shorten their career but it definitely will reduce the quality of their performance when they get to the big show.”
Craig Alexander faced those consequences first hand. He decided that he would never race an Ironman with less-than-complete effort, and that might be considered noble. But when his body finally failed him, he cited the inevitable fatigue as part of the problem. “Fifteen years as a professional athlete, seven or more coming [to Kona] and in recent times having to qualify with another Ironman in a year, it’s certainly a lot harder,” Alexander said after this year’s Ironman Hawaii. “People say, ‘Dave [Scott] was able to do it as a 40 year old.’ Back in those days they only had to do one Ironman a year. It’s getting harder to do it, that’s the truth.” There is no guarantee that loafing to a slow finish in a year-end Ironman to punch his ticket would have afforded Alexander another year at the top, but he thinks there is a chance it would have. Instead he won Ironman Coeur d’Alene in 2011, smashed Ironman Melbourne the following year and broke eight hours for the first time, then finished third at Melbourne earlier this year. These results added to his legendary career at a cost that finally caught up to the aging champion in 2012 and 2013.
Shortly after finishing 23rd in Kona last month Alexander lamented, “The rules are the rules, I don’t make them. I follow them.” While that statement is technically true, he only had to cross the finish line. The three-time world champ did have an alternative to enduring the exhausting training and massive one-day hit that comes from turning one’s body inside out for 140.6 miles. That’s exactly what Carfrae and O’Donnell decided to do. Andreas Raelert did the same thing in 2011 at Ironman Regensburg. Leanda Cave did it at the end of 2012 at Ironman Arizona, saying, “I’m not racing, I’m validating. I’m enjoying everyone else’s victories and performances out there on the weekend and just having fun for a change.”
The soon-to-be-weds still greeted fans at Ironman Florida, took part in the press conference, donated to the Team RWB charity and took advantage of the opportunity to thank volunteers on the course—the only difference was the effort on race day. The notion of a professional triathlete sandbagging a race might seem offensive, but validating Kona qualification in this way is one of the few choices a long-course pro can make to reassert control over his or her season. Ironman has the right to set up any qualification system it sees fit for the race it owns, but if we onlookers expect superhuman performance on the lava fields, we have the obligation to respect an athlete’s right to decide the best way to prepare his or her body in the 12 months between without casting judgment.
After finishing Ironman Florida, Carfrae tweeted, “#konavalidate that is all.” She and O’Donnell not only validated, they demonstrated absolute commitment to their ultimate goal. And that’s what competing in triathlon is really all about.
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