Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Open Letter To Lance Armstrong

Dear Lance,

Welcome back to the sport of triathlon. It's good to see you back to your roots!

You don't know me at all. However, we did share a few laughs over a beer at the Bermuda International triathlon back in the late 80's. Good times!

I noticed last night on Twitter that you and your Nike brethren Simon Whitfield had a bit of  "discussion" about drafting in triathlon. Since you have been away from the sport for many years, I sense that you have missed many of the great drafting debates that has lead us to where we are today.

After you left triathlon for cycling, triathlon grew tremendously, particularly at the Elite/Professional level. The International Triathlon Union( ITU) was formed and the first World Cups and World Championships were held. It was becoming apparent that the gentleman's and sportsman's agreement to not draft on the bike, and to treat it like an Individual Time Trial in cycling, was not working out so well any more. This was due mostly to the size of the race fields and the competitiveness of the athletes. It was becoming harder and harder to enforce the no-drafting rules. Self policing was not working. Putting a number of Drafting Marshals on the course was also having limited impact.

The situation reached it's nadir in the early '90's, when with penalties, disqualifications, appeals to deal with after each big race, it was hard to know who won and who placed where. The arguments and discussions after-the races were over would seem to go on for ever. We would not even know who won or who was on the podium, until well after the race was over( hours!)

At the time, Triathlon had started a quiet campaign to be included in the Olympic Games. Then President of the ITU, Les MacDondald had been advised that if the sport were to be taken seriously by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), one thing thy had to do was to clean things up so that the athlete across the finish line first in most circumstances, was the race winner. The IOC does not like messy things and triathlon at this level had become a bit messy. So the the ITU, in their wisdom, after much discussion and consultation, said, fine: swim, bike and run however, you want in all three sports and the first athlete across the line is the winner. That's simple, clean and easy to understand.

Obviously, this meant that drafting on the bike would now be allowed, in ITU level racing for Elites/Pros in their races. It did change the dynamic and the strategy of the racing. The swim became much more important - a few seconds now mattered. The bike, was admittedly different in philosophy, but became more strategic. Physiologic demands were not that much less, but again different now - it became more like a bike road race. And the run was always the same - of high importance, if for no other reason than it was last!

It did simplify the racing and the officiating for this level of racing dramatically. The IOC liked what they saw and by the late '90's, the sport of triathlon was accepted into the Olympic Games, and as you and just about everyone knows, Simon Whitfield won the Gold Medal that first Olympic Games triathlon in dramatic fashion in Sydney, in 2000.

The previous is obviously all about Elite racing at the ITU level. All Age-Group racing and Pro/Elite racing in longer races, particularly the World Triathlon Corporation's world wide series of Ironman and 70.3 races are still contested under the "old" rules of no drafting allowed on the bike. In the Pro ranks, which are now for the most part separated from the Age-Groupers, the old gentleman's agreement with a bit of "help" from race officials, still seems to work. Field sizes are small, and there is often lots of road and room to work with. I have worked with your good friend Jimmy Riccitello as a Drafting Marshal in the past, and today's Pro Triathletes get the rules - they push the limits of the no-drafting rules right to the edge, as the best athletes tend to do in any sport, but they rarely go over. It's actually beautiful thing to see at a race like Ironman Hawaii with 20 - 25 of the best triathletes all strung out with exactly 10m between them in a 250m long legal pace line out on the Lava Fields

The story back in the Age-Group ranks in many big triathlons is a bit muddier, and less clear. Back there, it's really a question, of numbers and physics. If you stood at the exit to T1 in any big, 2000+ athlete Ironman at about the 60 - 70 minute mark of the race ( something that I would urge you to do when you have a chance), when massive numbers of triathletes are literally flooding onto the bike course you would know what I am getting at. The no-drafting rules are clear, but at times and places on the bike course, the rules are asking the athletes to do something that is physically impossible to do! There is simply not enough room on the road, for them all. Drafting back here, can be a real problem. Officials try and do what they can, but they can't be everywhere on the bike course all the time. Back here there needs to be some give-and-take on the part of both officials and athletes to try and work it out and make it a fair race for everyone, but it can get messy. It's accepted now that passive or inadvertent drafting may happen. Good race officials like Jimmy, know what to look for - for the athlete, who is purposly drafting to gain advantage. It does go on.

The great drafting debate in the sport of triathlon can get quite heated. Just go to the Slowtwitch Forum and put the word, "Drafting" in the forum's search function, to get a sense for this. It's almost as lively a debates about what's better, clinchers or tubulars, or which frame is more aerodynamic!

It's not about which format or style of racing is better. There is room, a reason and respect for both in Triathlon. Perhaps, not exactly the same but in cycling - you were a Stage Race specialist, who re-defined the approach to the biggest stage races like the Tour de France. Whereas, say, a Tom Boonen, will focus on one day cobbled classics of the spring. Both of you are great cyclists!

Hopefully you have found this helpful. Again, welcome back. Best wishes with the training and the racing on your road to Kona. It will be great to see you on the starting line there in October.

Best regards,


P.S. If you are considering adding another Ironman race to your resume this year, I would highly recommend Ironman Canada. It's one of the original five Ironman races and is truly iconic in the sport. The bike course is a beaut, and the course record for it is one that I am sure only someone with your credentials could bring down!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Randy Starkman R.I.P.

Amateur and Olympic sports in Canada lost a huge friend and supporter today. As reported earlier in the day, Toronto Star Sports Writer Randy Starkman died suddenly today, due to complications from a bout of pneumonia.

In the world of sports media in North America the lines are pretty clearly drawn - there are the Pro League team sports - Baseball, Football, Basketball and Hockey, also Tennis & Golf, and then there is everything else - the "other" sports. Most mainstream media outlets these days don't even bother with the "other" sports. But this was Randy's beat. In Canada, I believe he was the only one that was on that "other" sports beat, 365 days a year, year in year out.

Every four years, as we'll see in a few months there is an orgy of coverage of the "other" sports at the Olympic Games. However Randy tried to keep many of those Olympic and Amateur sports, everything from Athletics to Archery, in the spot-light all the time! It was Randy who kept the lights on in the 3 years and 50 weeks, between Olympic Games! Kudos to the Star for giving him the leeway and latitude over the years to do this - I really don't know of anyone else in Canada who would cover and report on cycling and canoeing, or bobsleigh, or nordic skiing the way Randy did. Certainly no one who did it with the depth of knowledge, detail, and the passion that he did!

My interactions over the years with Randy have been limited. We would see one another from time to time, at triathlon races and industry events and I recall a few lengthy phone chats over the years about triathlon, and also, sports development. He was a huge fan of the sport of triathlon and despite, following so many diverse sports, he had a great knowledge and enthusiasm for the sport of triathlon. And when he didn't know something he had no shame in asking a question about that sport!

Of course it's doubly tragic that we are in an Olympic year, and while there will be that usual flurry and frenzy of coverage during the actual games from all media, in London in August, it was Randy who was at the Swim Canada Olympic Trials just over a week ago, writing and blogging about the highs and the heart-break of who made it and who did not! It was Randy who was at the announcement of the new Toronto Triathlon Festival recently, and the one doing the interview with Olympic Triathlon Gold and Silver Medalist, Simon Whitfield trying to understand what Whitfield's drive was to go for a fourth Olympic Games.

These will be HUGE shoes to fill, for The Star, and for all of us who are fans, and followers of these "other" sports. We have lost a massive fan, supporter and friend. As Olympic & World Champion Kayaker Adam Van Koverden put it in another tribute today: "Randy was a steadfast devotee. He Loved us. He was our fan, our colleague & our friend"!

My condolences to the Starkman family. I am sorry for your loss. We will all miss Randy.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Being Out There

My friend Jimmy Riccitello wrote a great blog recently that summed it up really well. In short, the really great athletes want to be out there! The subject of that blog was Lance Armstrong and the fact that despite ferocious winds, Armstrong was out on the Ironman Hawaii bike course doing what he loves to do - riding his bike. Riccitello, called it desire!

In fact Armstrong makes this clear in the very first chapter of his first book, "It's not About The Bike", that there is nothing he would rather be doing, than being out there on his bike!

With the recent huge growth in recreational endurance sports, strangely, this is the dirty little secret, that never seems to get addressed. That regardless of the weather, how you feel, your hectic schedule, or whatever, there is nothing else you would rather be doing, than being out there doing what you love to do.

The great athletes rarely have to be told what to do. More often they need to be told what not to do - when not to train. When not to go too hard or too long. I recall the round of interviews several years ago with coach Brett Sutton, when the great Chrissie Wellington broke out and started on her magnificent run of long distance triathlon dominance. Sutton who was coaching Wellington at the time, was getting poked and prodded for his "secret". Sutton's best line in several of those articles was: "I have to have strong biceps with athletes like Chrissie - to hold them back!"

The picture at the top of this blog, was taken on a damp, cold and foggy day a few weeks ago. When I got up in the morning I really did not feel like riding. Yet, I prepped myself and the bike, and headed out. Fifteen minutes into the ride, I realized I had a grin on my face - this is what I wanted to be doing. This is what I really loved to be doing. Out there riding my bike!

Reflecting back on my own "career" as an endurance athlete, with the help of age and a better perspective, I have come to the conclusion that I was a better trainer than racer. I wanted to be out there, doing it, whatever it was, as much as I could. There is no doubt in my mind that I probably left some of my best performances on the training track or road and not in real races. Yet, I realize also that I would not have experienced the modest "success" that I did achieve, if I truly did not love being out there!

I don't mean to discredit anyone here, but when I engage with modern endurance athletes, the questions all seem to be about everything else, but that love of being out there and that desire. It's all about the gear, the graphs, the numbers, the program . . . . etc They seem to want the results, and to move forward, but what seems lacking from the questions I get and the discussions I am involved with and listen to, is that, love of being out there and that desire.

The bottom line is that if you have the love and the desire, the results will come!

Do you really love being out there?

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