A different take on the Tokyo Test Event drama, a sigh of relief as two Kona favorites get their qualifying spots, and a breakthrough star turns in one of the fastest times ever.
You’ve heard the phrase “rules are made to be broken,” which is a paraphrase of a quote from General Douglas MacArthur. His actual words were: “Rules are mostly made to be broken, and are too often for the lazy to hide behind.”
MacArthur died in 1964, but if he were alive today and happened to have an interest in triathlon (he wouldn’t) I believe he would’ve taken serious issue with the absurd rules infraction that occurred in Japan on Thursday.
If you’re reading this column, I’ll assume that by now you’ve heard British athletes Jessica Learmouth and Georgia Taylor-Brown were disqualified from the Tokyo Test Event for finishing hand-in-hand. That [arguably] violated section 2.11.f of the ITU’s archaic and unending rulebook that basically says finishing in a “contrived” manner isn’t cool and will get you DQ’d.
Perhaps I have a higher burden of proof for what constitutes a “contrived” finish, but Learmouth and Taylor-Brown—who are close friends—raising each other’s hand in a spontaneous moment of merriment doesn’t meet my standards of “contrived.” I’m pretty sure neither athlete knew they’d be in that position when they woke up on Thursday morning.
I understand the need for extensive rules in an international sport that is still [hopefully] growing. The ITU’s former president, the late Les McDonald, fought like hell to get triathlon into the Olympics, and part of that fight involved creating an exhaustive set of rules to ensure a fair field of play. The ITU takes its Technical Official program very seriously and they do an exponentially better job of training officials than any event organizer I’ve come across in any endurance sport. They probably do a better job than the NFL.
But maybe, like the good general once suggested, there can be a little wiggle room, especially when the violation doesn’t live up to the spirit of why the rule was put in place. The rules in any sport are seldom black and white. Watch any sport—football, soccer, or especially basketball—and you’ll see athletes and officials operating in a gray area. Perhaps the technical official who flagged Learmouth and Taylor-Brown could’ve let this one slide. Maybe the appeals committee could’ve considered the optics for a few minutes longer. It’s never a good look for a sport when the athlete(s) who wins a race fair and square isn’t declared the winner(s). (For a different take on the controversy, check out this opinion piece from fellow Triathlete contributor Kelly O’Mara.)
But I’m over it. Mostly. I’ll be fine. Let’s talk about some much longer races where random strangers shuffle across the finish hand-in-hand all the time. There was a lot of Ironman racing around the world this weekend and it marked professional athletes’ final chance to qualify for this year’s Ironman World Championship under the new (and awesome) qualifying format. And don’t worry: your and your mother’s favorite Ironman athletes—Lionel Sanders and Sarah True—will be back on the Big Island this October.
The big story of the day had nothing to do with Sanders or True, however, as Cody Beals put on a clinic en route to winning back-to-back Mont-Tremblant titles. The 28-year-old Canadian has quietly been one of the best Ironman athletes on the planet since making his debut at the distance last year. He’s a late-comer to the sport relative to most of his peers, and it seems like he’s just scratching the surface of his talent. His time of 7:58:34 (with a 2:42 marathon split) on Sunday shaved 12 minutes off his course-record time from a year ago. If he continues on that kind of trajectory, he may in fact be Canada’s best hope for a Kona title over the next few years.
But don’t tell that to Lionel Sanders, who has already proven himself in Kona and will have a chance to do it again thanks to his runner-up finish on Sunday. I believe Sanders would’ve made it a thrilling finish if he needed the win to qualify. But Beals already had his Kona slot locked up (he won Ironman Chattanooga last fall) so second place was as good as a win in Sanders’ big picture. Lionel Sanders Version 1.0 would’ve buried himself to fight out the win. After a few seasons of pushing past his limits, it looks like he now understands the importance of saving something for October.
Women’s winner Carrie Lester also had her Kona slot in the bag thanks to a win at Ironman France, which meant True didn’t have to respond when Lester shot off like a rocket ship at the start of the bike. True ended the day 16 minutes abaft of Lester, but it was good enough to get to Kona, and she didn’t have to dig too deep to do it (she’s done that enough already this year). Lester’s 4:48 bike split was 11 minutes faster than any other woman and would’ve been the seventh-best among the men. Couple that bike power with front-pack swim speed, and you can expect the Aussie to be mixing it up at the pointy-end of the race in Kona.
Speaking of the pointy-end of the race in Kona, Anne Haug may be the greatest threat yet to the Ryf Dynasty. Her 8:31:32 finish in Copenhagen is the second-best in Ironman history (I’m not including Melissa Hauschildt’s 2018 time from a shortened course at Ironman Texas). Only Ryf has gone faster at an Ironman-branded event (8:26:15 in Kona last year). The 36-year-old former ITU standout appears to just be finding her long-distance legs, and she should at least have a shot of running down Lucy Charles-Barclay for the runner-up spot (if Ryf does that thing where she has the race locked up at the start of the marathon again.)
Runner-up Camilla Pedersen had already qualified, so the final spot for the 2019 world championship rolled down to Denmark’s Maja Stage Nielsen. Canadian Angela Naeth finished fourth, missing out on a Hawaii slot by five minutes. Also absent from Kona this year will be Denmark’s Michelle Vesterby, who finished fifth just three months after becoming a mom. There was no professional men’s race at Copenhagen this year.
Barring any dropouts between now and October, there will be 56 pro men and 44 pro women in Kona. Last year there were 53 men and 39 women. So the new qualifying format did inch things closer to 50 and 50, even if it was just by accident.