Commentary: Age-Group v. Pro—Two Very Different Worlds At St. George

As a storm came through, the age-groupers faced a very different race than the pros. But that wasn't the only place they differed this weekend. For the two worlds, the question of moving Kona also presents very different answers.

Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

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For five minutes on Saturday, at the 70.3 World Championships in St. George, I thought someone was going to die.

The lightning had come closer and closer, the thunder started to rip through the sky, and then all of a sudden I was standing in a sideways downpour as barricades whipped across the roads and into oncoming bikers. In town, where T2 and the finish line are based, the course was fairly empty and so volunteers and bystanders were able to rush out and pull the tipped over barricades out of the way before anyone got seriously hurt. The pros were mostly out on the run and the age-groupers hadn’t arrived yet. And so, at first, it seemed like just an oddity of the day. The motto for the race, after all, was: Rise to it.

But if you’ve done this course, then you know how fast that descent into town can be, how hot you can hit the roundabouts, and you know how much rolling there is out there as you loop through the desert, how hard the winds can blow, and how much it can feel terrifying even when it’s not a flash flood. And if you’ve done any race, this one or not, then you know one of the basic facts of triathlon: We might all be on the same course, pros and back-of-the-packers, but we’re in different races. On Saturday, they were wildly different races.

As the pros ran uphill through the rain, they could see the age-groupers coming down the hill towards them on the bike, where the courses cross. And as Daniel Baekkegard, who took third, said afterwards, “I wouldn’t have traded places. They got the bulk of it. Kudos to them.” It was a different day, a different race.

When the storm hit, the pros were almost done, but there were waves of age-group women still in the water. There had been a lot of worry beforehand that it’s a different race when you start at 10 a.m. v. 7 a.m. That turned out to be true, but not in the way so many had been concerned about. Out at T1, barricades were blown all the way across the empty parking lot. And about 80 women were pulled from the water, picked up by boats or turned back, and told they could still get on their bikes, times would be adjusted later. But what were you supposed to do once you were on your bike? At least dozens out on the bike course crashed (though there are, currently, no reported severe injuries). I saw more than one broken collarbone and we’re reporting a story of a woman who stopped to help a fallen competitor and gave up finishing her own race. One friend told me she was out on the open rolling part of the course when the winds came and they could barely stay upright on their bikes; at the next intersection, where there were volunteers and spectators, the women around her all stopped and dropped out. It was a different race for them.

One of the things that makes our sport quintessentially our sport is that we’re all out there together. You can get lapped by Lucy or try to high-five Sam Long as he runs by. (I saw one guy ask for Kristian Blummenfelt’s autograph while the Olympic champ was “jogging” it in after his flat tire.) We’re all on the same course, with the same cut-offs, for better or worse.

But, in reality, we’re in completely different races. Most middle-of-the-pack age-groupers have no conception, nor should they, of the challenges of solo-ing by yourself off the front for four hours. They can’t imagine the intricacies of pro pack dynamics even at a legal range or what it’s like to supertuck a 10-mile descent to bridge up to the group. (Please, for the love of God, do not super tuck in the age-group field when you’re surrounded by other athletes.) The very concept of being in the race and reacting, or not, to other competitors, to making moves and attacks, or not, is actually antithetical to most of our age-group success, where you so often must stick to your own plan.

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Yet, conversely, most pros have never had to really consider the logistics of a five- or six- or seven-hour day. They don’t understand the heat of leaving T2 into an afternoon sweltering slog. They’ve never finished in the dark or been surrounded by other athletes and had to navigate the challenges of a crowded course; they’ve probably never been accidentally put into a barricade by someone who thinks “on your left” means they should turn left. And, on Saturday, they didn’t have to contend with the monsoon that descended on the bulk of the racers.

Probably the biggest news to come out of Utah this past weekend wasn’t about the race at all. It was about a different race. The possibility that the Ironman World Championships could be moved from Kona. Lots of people have had lots of strong opinions—triathletes are not a low-key bunch—but I will tell you that overwhelmingly the opinions of the pros and of the age-groupers differ widely.

For the pros and for most brands and sponsors, rotating the world championship race makes a lot of sense. They want it to be a true world championship event, where the focus is on a fair determination of who is the best in the world across a variety of conditions, terrains, locations, and days. Leaving it in one spot year after year isn’t really the way to do that. Rotating the world championship race, as almost all sports do, would even the playing field, spread triathlon more widely, and decrease the barriers to entry on a small expensive island—where so many pros lose money just making the appearances they hope will pay off down the road. For them, the question of moving the race is a bit of a no-brainer.

But for the age-groupers, for those who have dreamed of one day racing in Kona specifically, it’s a different kind of event—especially for American triathletes who were raised on the Julie Moss crawl and the yearly NBC special. To so many of them, it’s not about creating the best world championship race, it’s about the chance to tough it out through the Energy Lab and down the Queen K, specifically, on the same route as all the greats who have been there before. It’s a different kind of day, a different goal, for many of them.

Triathlon is one of those sports that was started, not that long ago, out of a distinctly average-guy bet. The kind that comes after a few beers: Let’s see what happens. Almost all of that has changed since then, much of it changed very very quickly, mostly for the better. But that fundamental idea that we’re all out here together still persists, that we’re going through this together, that everyone (even the great Jan Frodeno) has had to walk an Ironman marathon at least once. We’re all the same kind of animal, we tell ourselves, just a different species.

Every triathlon, we’re all out there on the same course, but with different days ahead of us, different lives, different paths it took to get here, different goals, different stories, and, on Saturday, very different races.

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