Orillia Sprint Triathlon Race Report

I usually find other people’s race reports to be a little boring, so I’ll try to keep this short and succinct. This was my first time doing this particular race, and I only found out that the distances 3 weeks beforehand; a busy summer had me dropping from last year’s Olympic distance training levels to ‘Sprint’ levels (750m swim, 20km bike, 5km run) but Orillia upped the bike-run distance by 60% (33km bike, 7km)! I was under-trained, and being underprepared is going to be a bit of a theme in this story.

An 8AM start time meant getting up a 4:45AM, and this doesn’t lead to a sharp mind by the time you’re at the race site; I hadn’t filled my water bottles, and been unable to get my bib pinned – but I had a saviour (via his mom): Trevor Clark. This young man finished 3rd in Junior Men, he’s friendly and incredibly polite, and obviously has a great future ahead of him. Most important to me, he had an extra race belt!

To calm my pre-race nerves and fears, my wife gave me the following advice: “This is something you enjoy; go out there, and take your time, you’ll be sure to finish, and have fun doing it.” Words to live by, for sure. I hit the water with barely a minute to spare, and though Lake Couchiching is big enough to have some chop, the swim was smooth and simple, and sure enough, I was enjoying myself! The swim was over all too soon.  

I found the bike course to have a lot of nice variety; country houses, farmer’s fields, shady treed lanes. There were a couple of times where I saw a turn coming, and rather than try to pass shortly before the bottleneck that would result, I kept my gear light, my cadence high and simply enjoyed the ride. It probably made my ride more efficient. There were some riders whose *bike budget clearly overpowers their swim ability* who passed me at the 8k, 15k and 25k (!) mark, but I was pleased to see an overall mix of athletes who were able to hang together (alternately passing and being passed) with bikes of various qualities and fitness levels of which to be proud. Climbing over Highway 11 near the 28km mark was nasty, as the hill was steep, and fatigue was starting to set in.

Both of my transitions were not the fastest, but it didn’t bother me since I was treating this race with more of a ‘smell the roses’ attitude anyway. The run course was all road, so I opted for my cushioned Salomons rather than my Zoot racing flats, and suffered no problems. It felt like I had a conservative start with a strong finish for a negative split, but after reviewing the statistics that doesn’t seem to be the case. The course was nice and flat, and the final half kilometer was through the park, allowing for lots of cheering (Spectator tip: “Way to go” and “great job” are always welcome but “All downhill from here” is like music to my ears).

Post race food is plentiful, and some of those snacks are right up my alley (the key ingredient is chocolate, people). World Endurance Canada still knows how to run an event (maybe more rack space though guys?).

Learn to swim you @$#%!

There are other topics I wanted to tackle but since this one is in the news a lot lately, and it’s something that I feel strongly about, that makes it the perfect subject to blog about. You’ll have to bear with me if it gets a little ‘rant-y’…

Two deaths in the NYC triathlon made headlines at the same time that a study came to light: the overwhelming majority of deaths in triathlon occur in the swim portion.

The knee-jerk reaction has been to question whether race organizers are doing enough to screen participants for health issues and swimming proficiency.

I have my own take on the matter, but I want to give you some background that has influenced my line of thinking.
When I talk to non-triathletes who have aspirations (or at least pipe-dreams) of doing a tri, it’s always a lack of swimming ability that is keeping them from taking part. Either that, or an irrational fear of open water. Swimming seems to be the biggest barrier to entry for potential triathletes.

Even within a race, I see a dearth of swimming ability where I really shouldn’t. Every single race, I’ll be anywhere from a quarter to halfway done the bike portion when I’ll be passed by a faster cyclist. I don’t just mean overtaken – these guys blow by me like I’m standing still. Now based on my results, it’s fair to say that I’m above average in swimming and below average (by age group) so this is somewhat likely: I’ll exit the water before weaker swimmers and get caught by the faster cyclists. Maybe some of them are starting in later waves. But by the time I’m at the 20k mark (out of 40k) around 70 minutes will have gone by, and I’m being passed by racers moving around 10km/h faster than me (most often on much better bikes): assuming that’s true, and they’re moving at 40km/h on average (to my 30km/h) they’ll have gotten to that 20km mark in 30 minutes, meaning it’s taken them 40 min to finish a 1.5km swim (to my 30 min). I’ve left out differences in wave times and transition, for simplicity. The ueber-cyclist will finish much faster than me (assuming equal or at least comparable run times) for being 40/30=33% faster than me on the bike compared to me being 33% faster in the swim.

I can’t blame these guys for being weak on the swim – why bother getting better when there is no apparent payoff for improving your swim? This dis-proportionality was notice by guys named Wainer and De Veaux who proposed the Equilateral Triathlon.

The ITU sanctions the following distances (from the ITU website):

Super Sprint

and the Equilateral Triathlon distances look like (times are based on world record holders):
Time per leg
10 minutes
1 km
(0.6 mi)
8.5 km
(5.3 mi)
3.9 km
(2.4 mi)
28 minutes
2.7 km
(1.7 mi)
22.4 km
(13.9 mi)
10 km
(6.2 mi)
127 minutes
12 km
(7.5 mi)
96.2 km
(59.8 mi)
42.2 km
(26.2 mi)

Now let’s look at some sample race distances around Ontario:
Milton Triathlon
Orillia ‘Sprint’ Triathlon
Goderich Triathlon

Notice anything? Race directors are adding distance to those categories on the bike and run while keeping the swim short. Or, they keep the recommended bike and run distances while shortening the swim. And I don’t blame them either; they need participants, and by making the swim shorter, the race becomes more accessible.

The main ideas of increasing the safety margin of the swim seem to be either swim proficiency testing or health testing of participants. One of the the casualties in the NYC triathlon was formerly a high-school varsity swimmer, with previous triathlon experience and only 40 years old. Certainly she had enough swim proficiency and training to complete the swim portion, and I doubt anything short of an EEG would have revealed health issues; the woman would have been observed to be in good shape by a doctor. So what would a swim test or doctor’s note really have accomplished in this case.

So here’s my idea: increase the length of the swim in most triathlons. Participants will either drop out (better yet, switch to duathlon), start taking swimming more seriously in their training to compensate. While monitoring a longer swim course with kayaks and lifeguards is a daunting proposition to the race organizer, this needs to be weighed against whatever additional measures are being proposed instead (proof of good health, open water swimming certification); what will those cost?

Swimming is a low impact, whole body exercise, and it behooves us as a society to develop it as much as possible; being a good swimmer might save your life or that of someone else. Furthermore, it’s cheap! It’s been pointed out that triathlon is expensive, and the biggest expense has to be the bike (plus helmet, shoes, shorts, jerseys, bottles, etc.). The longer the bike portion, the more the event favours the athlete with more money, and the more those who are using a simple road bike (or even a commuter/mountain bike) might feel an event isn’t for them since they’ll be too slow and it will take too long. A race that approaches the equilateral proportions might actually be both less risky and more accessible. Go figure.

Now, I’m not saying *any* change is absolutely necessary. I’m a big fan of the saying: ”Nothing is sometimes the right thing to do, and always a clever thing to say.” Statistically speaking, triathlons and endurance sports are not dangerous, and have probably saved more lives through promotion of exercise and healthy living than they have cost. Still, if change is desired, I’d prefer the sport to look at a simple modification to the race format than introducing extra levels of bureaucracy.
***UPDATE: Autopsy results on the NYC triathlon deaths were inconclusive
***UPDATE2: Death caused by cardiac arrhythmia due to prolapsed mitrial valve

What’s this all about then?

Triathlon and endurance sports are steeped in ‘Iron Man’ imagery – being made of metaphorical iron is necessary if you want to hold up against what the distances do to you.

If you’re enthusiastic about comic books, fantasy and/or martial arts the idea of a ‘Warrior’ is a kind of paragon. The warrior lives by a code of honour, and struggles against adversity. These are the ideals athletes strive for; where we equate honour with discipline, and the adversity comes through pain and fatigue.

Furthermore, the Warrior is the mascot of the University of Waterloo (my alma mater), and ‘The Iron Warrior’ is the name of the Engineering Student newspaper.

But ‘Iron Warrior’ was taken on Blogger. Which is just as well, since I’ve often been drawn more to characters who use wits, guile or even trickery rather than brute force as a means to their ends. Even at a glance, the average triathlon training program seems to be not only extremely demanding in terms of volume of time spent; but logistically difficulty with 2 disciplines (or strength training) being addressed on most days.

So what if you want to be ‘iron’-like, and live a multi-sport lifestyle while keeping enough flexibility for a ‘life’? You know, family, career, friends, or heaven forbid… Other interests and commitments; is it possible? Might there be shortcuts or loopholes to the multi-sport code of discipline? Ways to even, dare I say… cheat (in training, not in competition)?

I don’t know, but this blog is about trying to figure that out.