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Commentary: Is 100K the Perfect Race Distance?

The Professional Triathletes Organization think so. But is 2km-80km-18km the future for multisport athletes, or is it "cramping" their style?

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First it was Alistair Brownlee clutching his stomach, face contorted in agony. Then it was Kristian Blummenfelt brought to a standstill, grimacing at the pain in his thigh. Two Olympic champions down, French race leader Sam Laidlow to follow—looking like he’d taken a catapult to the glute as he pulled up lame. 

The Pope’s trip to Edmonton coincided with the inaugural PTO Tour Canadian Open event, but while the Professional Triathletes Organization wanted drama, I’m not sure this was the divine intervention they had in mind. 

WATCH: O+ members can watch the replay of the PTO races on Outside Watch

It’s a small sample size admittedly, but cramping does seem particularly prevalent at the pointy end of these 100-kilometer races. It was a similar story in the PTO Championship race in in December 2020, where the triathletes departed T2 after 50 miles on the oval of the Daytona International Speedway and looked ready to enroll in Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.

For all the funding that goes into sports science research, it seems remarkable that we’ve reached the summer of 2022 and we’re still none the wiser as to what causes cramping. For Edmonton, the “science,” ie. the experts of Twitter, posited that over an unfamiliar and shorter distance against unusually high caliber fields, triathletes pushed too hard on the bike, attacking it with Olympic distance relish rather than the 70.3 format it’s much closer too. 

Allied to this was not having respite from being aero, as the 20-meter drafting distance—even if not always perfectly observed—left competitors less inclined to sit up and stretch out. Shortened hip flexors, a tight lower back, and hamstring on stretch for the best part of two hours seems a lethal combination. But is it that much different from any other race?

What the men’s cramping epidemic did provide was jeopardy. The PTO are keen to establish the 100K distance in the psyche of tri fans and create must-watch triathlon, and in the men’s race it worked to a point. You could never be quite sure that even the mystical power of Gustav Iden’s Taiwanese temple cap would be enough to ward off the infliction that zapped his Norwegian comrade. As it happened, it was.

Cramps aside, is the 100K here to stay?

It’s not been introduced without forethought. Understandably, the PTO want to distance themselves from Ironman. It’s no secret there’s little love lost between the two organizations—though they’re playing nicely for now—and rather than just map across the 70.3 or iron-distance, the PTO want to rubber stamp their own. They’ve decided to do that with a nod to the rest of the non-American world, by using kilometers rather than miles. A round 100K (as 2km, 80km, 18km) sounds neater than a 1.24-mile swim and 11.2-mile run.

But it’s also about trying to find the right balance for the best short and long, draft-legal and non-drafting triathletes to compete and meet somewhere in the middle. For the right showcase, it must be tempting enough for the best of Olympic contenders to consider stepping up, but still hold true to the value of supporting long-course pros (the original premise of the PTO).

And all while being appealing enough for TV audiences. Common wisdom might say shorter is better for broadcast but that’s not necessarily the case either. As long as the broadcast quality is high enough, it’s comparatively cheap content to roll out that advertising can be wrapped around. Depending on the network, that could be quite appealing.

It’s a tricky balance, but evidence suggests the PTO have it just about right. Where schedules allow, they are attracting the best triathletes from across the board and there haven’t been many detractors about the distance. That said, when there is $1 million on the line, you don’t tend to hear many dissenting voices—at least not publicly.

What were there dissenting voices about? Well. Despite some wrinkles—particularly in the women’s race over the weekend—having a 20-meter draft rule should make for fairer racing. Even if it’s not always enforced (and there is a wider problem there, given the implicit contradictions of the PTO being a cuddly, athlete co-owned organization) it takes us a step further away from nose-to-tail pacelines we can see elsewhere. Yes, it might not be 20 meters all the time, but if it’s 15 meters that’s an improvement while we wait to remove the guesswork from officiating with the introduction of the Race Ranger tech that the PTO should be looking to embrace.

The emergence of the 100K has also chimed nicely with the rising profile of middle-distance competition as a whole. Triathletes who don’t have the swim or run speed for an Olympic challenge, or have become disaffected by national federation politics, are finding there’s a career to be forged where they can have more autonomy, as well as racing more frequently and earning more money than going straight to full Ironman races.

Will the distance stick in the popular imagination? It’ll take work. Most triathletes have a semblance of an idea what it means to go Sub-10, 12, or 14 hours for an Ironman, or sub-5, 6, or 7 for a half. But for 100 kilometers? Sub what? [For the record, the winning pro times in Canada were 3:10 (men) and 3:30 (women).]

There’s a feel-good vibe around what the PTO are trying to do, at least among the pros—who are willing then to give a new distance a painful chance for a payday. Whether the cramping curse will be solved by the Collins Cup next month or the U.S. Open in September remains to be seen, but as long as the organization sticks around the 100K distance doesn’t show any sign of budging either.

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