Since Ironman announced its virtual training club and virtual race series (called VR) on April 1, there have been over 100,000 athletes who have signed up and done one of the VR events—either via uploading a GPS file from running or biking outside, or on a treadmill or trainer, or using the virtual platform Rouvy.
Now those athletes will have a chance to compete for more than just badges and virtual points. Ironman says it will be handing out slots to the 2020 70.3 World Championship via a four-race series starting next weekend with VR10. Around 100 slots—not yet confirmed—will be awarded to the best athletes in an omnium over the four weeks of VR 10, 11, 12, and 13. Your three best races will count out of the four virtual events: one will be 70.3 distance and worth more points, and the other three will be Olympic-distance 5150s. Slots will be allocated in typical fashion across age groups for the 2020 world championship race set to be in New Zealand. (The race, scheduled for this November, has been postponed and a new date for early 2021 has not yet been set.) All the VR races in this Championship Series will be free to compete in.
And, yes, CEO Andrew Messick knows there have been some inconsistencies in the results to date, some “dissonance.” He’s aware there are concerns about cheating on the virtual platform.
“You could get some results that were a little bit wacky,” he said, like 60-year-olds putting times down that were faster than pro athletes.
To that end, Ironman instituted two divisions: a Classic division for those who just want to participate and for which the barriers of entry are low, and a Challenger division, which comes with more rules and regulations. The idea was to allow people who just want to ride or run—and don’t want (or know how) to calibrate smart trainers, for example—to still have a place to participate, while giving the more competitive athletes a division meant for them.
In the Challenger division, all runs must be done outside—no treadmills—and all rides must be done either outside or on the Rouvy platform. The idea is that this creates some consistency across activities and calibrations.
“It was a big step forward,” said Messick. The results after the change, he said, were much more consistent. “There were familiar faces where we expect familiar faces to be.”
To participate in the new Championship series of four races and to be eligible for the Worlds slots, you must compete in the Challenger division. There will also be some additional new rules and regulations. For instance, all runs will have to be outdoors and all rides will have to be on the Rouvy platform.
According to Messick, a Rouvy rulebook is being finalized by Ironman’s referees and will be available publicly later this week. It will likely include things like calibration guidelines for smart trainers and weigh-ins for athletes. What he emphasized most, though, was how Ironman will rely on a kind of “virtual training biological passport” to ensure that the race results from athletes are consistent with their other race results.
To that end, if you’ve never done an Ironman race outside or one of their virtual events, if you sign up right now as a new athlete, then you will be required to do either this weekend or next weekend’s VR event before you can count your three races towards your point total for the world’s slots. If you’ve done an Ironman race outside or inside before, then Ironman is able to connect your athlete history and compare your new results to your old results.
How will this work?
No, they won’t be scouring every person’s results. What they will be doing is looking closely at anomalies among the top of each age group. They’ll be watching closely to see who wins the slots—and, ultimately, how those athletes do at Worlds. (Do they know how to swim? Did their performances hold up?) If there are anomalies in the VR results, then officials could then reach out to someone and ask for their power or GPS file, some confirmation data. In the future, if they add swimming to virtual races, then this might require some kind of video or third-party witness confirmation.
This is actually what the officiating staff has already been doing to try to understand where things may have gone south in the VR results to date—reaching out to the athletes whose results stand out. In general, the oddities were typically because of a lack of tech expertise or because they were simply using manual trainers without any calibration. They’re not trying to cheat; they’re just doing what they do every weekend.
This is also why the final results and leaderboards in these championship events won’t be available until the Tuesday after a VR race; to give Ironman time to spot check.
Each of the four races will be worth a certain number of points. The highest point totals over an athlete’s three best races wins the age group and gets the slot. For instance, in the 70.3 virtual event, 1st place in the age group might be worth 100 points going down to two points for 50th place. The shorter 5150 virtual events will be worth slightly less points.
Slots will then be awarded in some kind of standard roll down starting with the winner of the age group and rolling down to the next person if that first person declines, though Ironman hasn’t yet determined how that will be done or on what platform.
Slots are also only being awarded to age-groupers right now. Pros will not be able to qualify virtually.
And if you are cheating outright—not just confused about calibration, but riding your bike for your run, for example—then Messick said he has no problem potentially kicking you out of all Ironman races—virtual and outdoors.
And if none of this works, if the community hates it, then it’ll be shut down, he said. “But we’re going to have to see.”
“This a chance to really stress test virtual racing,” said Messick. “And see what happens when you really put something of value behind it.” If it works and the rules get fine-tuned, then who knows, maybe they’ll add more virtual racing with more championship slots.