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What Happens At The Back Of The Pack?

Ironman and Challenge Family explain cutoff times, removing slower athletes from the course.

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Ironman and Challenge Family explain cutoff times, removing slower athletes from the course.

During 2014 Ironman Arizona, Larissa Lewis knew her odds of finishing before the 17-hour cutoff were slim. Still, she made her way down the dark sidewalks of Tempe.

“I felt horribly nauseous, my legs were finished working, my brain was completely fried, and boy, did I want to finish. But I never wanted to quit,” recalls Lewis of bringing up the back of the pack, “I didn’t care if the gates were shut and the lights were off once I got there. I was going to run down the dark sidewalk until my watch hit 26.2.”

Lewis was shocked to round the final corner and still hear Mike Reilly’s voice. Though she crossed the finish line two minutes past the cutoff time and is not documented as an official finisher in Ironman records, Lewis counts Arizona as the most memorable of her eight Ironman races.

“I was floored by what was in front of me. I imagined the only noise I would hear at the finish was my watch’s alert that I had reached 26.2. Instead, there was a squadron of cheering volunteers, the voice of my boyfriend rising above the crowd, flashbulbs bursting and the wonderful Meredith Kessler [who won the women’s professional race earlier that day] walking towards me with a beautiful medal.”

Lewis’ story epitomizes the glory of the “final finisher” of athletes tackling 140.6 miles of swim, bike and run. Many spectators at such events stay until midnight to cheer on athletes who have been in constant forward motion for over 16 hours.

But for every midnight finisher, there are dozens more who never get to experience the same glory. Cutoff times loom ominously over the back of the pack at every race, and race directors frequently need to make judgment calls on removing athletes who struggle to finish an event in time.

Cutoff times can vary from race to race, but iron-distance athletes are usually allowed around 2 hours and 15 minutes from the starting gun to complete the swim; between 8 and 10 hours from the starting gun to complete the bike; and 16 to 17 hours after race start to cross the finish line. Along the way, there may be intermediate cutoffsor example, failing to reach the halfway point of the run by a certain time might result in removal from the course.

These deadlines are important from both logistical and safety standpoints, as city officials usually allow races to close down roads for a certain amount of time. Once the barriers are removed, athletes still on the course are subject to unsafe road conditions without traffic management. Cutoffs are also in place to ensure athletes are not on the course without access to aid stations (a critical element of any athletic feat, much less one in excess of 16 hours) and emergency medical support.

However, these times are not set in stone. Race officials are given authority to use their best judgment in determining an athlete’s ability to make up time in the next discipline. Those within minutes of a cutoff time, like Lewis, are usually allowed to continue on.

“We do not believe in shattering a person’s dreams for the sake of 10 seconds, or even 10 minutes, says Victoria Murray-Orr of Challenge Family. “If someone is a few minutes over the cutoff time and they are in good physical and mental health, they will be allowed to continue. We take the viewpoint they have trained for a year for this and it is our job to help them achieve their dreams. They might be a terrible biker, but a fast runner. They might swim like a stone, but ride like the wind. All this information is assessed on a case-by-case basis and if they are not any danger to themselves, then we will cheer them on to the finish.”

Still, many athletes are removed from the course at every event. Rough water can lead to a high athlete removal rate in the swim portion of a race, while harsh weather conditions often contribute to a high number of athletes failing to get within cutoff times on the bike and run.

“At all races there is a tail-end Charlie [a boat, van or truck following the last racer in each discipline],” says Murray-Orr. “Each athlete at the back of the field is carefully monitored and it becomes apparent quite early on who is going to struggle to make the bike cut-off. If they are miles off, then they are withdrawn from the race.”

Ironman also stations officials along the bike and run courses to enforce course cutoffs, says Phillip LaHaye, Vice President of North American Operations for Ironman.

“It’s one of the most difficult things we have to do,” says LaHaye. “We are there to try to get each and every athlete across the line and we want to help athletes to achieve their goals. We hate to see anyone’s day end shy of them reaching the finish.”

Both LaHaye and Murray-Orr say enforcing cutoff times requires both compassion and tact.

“One of the hardest things to do is tell someone something they don’t want to hear,” says LaHaye. “I don’t think there is any right way to do that aside from being caring and understanding.”

Murray-Orr agrees: “Telling the athlete is always done very tactfully and mindful of the disappointment the athlete will feel. In the case where we have to remove someone from the course, it is always in the interest of their safety and for the most part they realize that.”

Reactions from athletes range from sadness to anger to relief. Some become cross with the officialsalmost all swear to try again.

“It’s a hard thing to do and you can’t help but to feel for the athlete,” says LaHaye. “But I give them all the respect in the world for not giving up.”

“We see many of them come back, even more determined than before,” says Murray-Orr. “They come back with a better understanding of the distance and what is required and it’s always wonderful to welcome them across the finish line and share their celebrations with them.”

“Keep moving forward as long as you can,” advises Lewis, who plans to continue racing. “If, in the end, you have to make your own finish line and the only sounds are the watch-beep of 26.2you made it.”

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