Would You Commit an Endurance Racer’s Ultimate Sin?

There is one aspect to racing guaranteed to bring me to an absolute Tazmanian devil fever-pitch full-on boil.

Cheating. In particular, course cutting.

My husband chuckled over his coffee because I was in full Taz mode, talking aloud to the  New York Times spread before me. (Clearly, he doesn’t mind this early morning behavior or we wouldn’t still be together.)

What had me going was Sarah Lyall’s excellent article, “Swim. Bike. Cheat?” Oh, how I love a story that really explores details and passions, and this latest feature from NYT’s SportsSunday section does just that.

Some Background, or What You Need to Know about Ironman Training

Photo of green and blue Ironman cookie, the m dot.

In a galaxy long, long ago, I made the huge mental, physical, and financial commitment to train for an Ironman-distance triathlon. I can’t imagine anyone wakes up one morning and casually says, “Huh – why don’t I do an Ironman next week?”

I certainly didn’t. Most amateur athletes make that decision a year or more in advance.

It takes time to put all the necessary Ironman ducks in a row. There’s signing up; brand name event registration typically opens the day after the race (there are also Ironman-distance races outside the trademarked “M Dot” franchise; these may open and fill later). It’s hard — and no fun — to train alone, so friends must be cajoled and, because fields fill fast, everyone must register ASAP.

Once the goal race is secured, friends roped in, and a horrific amount of money committed (final registration for 2016 Ironman Coeur d’Alene, the one I completed in 2008: $725), there’s a wee small matter of actually training.

Leah Marty Cathy at 2008 Shiner GASP Ride
Marty (center), Cathy (right), and I trained together for Ironman Coeur d’Alene. We’re enjoying a post-ride beer after completing the 2008 Shiner GASP, part of our cycling preparation.

As athletes prepare to take on 140.6 total miles of racing (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run), they practice at many, many other events. At least, the dedicated, smart ones who want to show up prepared and ready for that big daddy triathlon do. In the process of completing weekend rides, local running races, shorter distance tris, and open water swim events, athletes obsessively track training and competition results, become intimately acquainted with workout partners, and discover exactly who comprises their age divisions. Compiling all of this data leads to uncannily accurate performance predictions.

If you train right, there are very few real surprises at Ironman.

When race day arrives, a whole cadre of support tags along. Coaches, spouses, family, friends, and dedicated others who may act as “Ironman sherpas” (buddies who schlep gear around and provide educated moral support) join in. At out of town Ironman events, those people cheer compulsively for friends and random folks who happen to hail from their hometown.

Winning at Any Cost

Back to Lyall’s great story. A quick summary: the runners-up in the women’s 40–44 age group at 2015 Ironman Canada became convinced that the No. 1 medalist, Julie Miller, had cut the course. No one could remember seeing her pass, yet she’d come out of nowhere to win. Miller claimed she’d lost her timing chip after it had somehow separated from the ankle strap during her transition from bike to run.

The true fun of the article is following the logic behind the investigation. I muttered as I read: “I’ve NEVER seen anyone lose a timing chip without losing the strap, too.” Spectators noted they hadn’t seen Miller enough on the run course, and I flashed back to a trail race with many switchbacks. Someone behind me suddenly moved ahead in the final loop…without me ever seeing her pass.

Grrrr.

And then there was the trail race where I took a wrong turn on the course. Like Miller, I told aid station volunteers that something was off; unlike Miller, I immediately consulted with a race official to determine what I’d missed and then ran backward to correct the mileage before crossing the finish line…where I fully expected to be disqualified.

After all, I hadn’t run the course as required.

I never had an instance in a triathlon that required negotiation. The rules are the rules. And as close as I came to missing the bike cut-off at Ironman Coeur d’Alene, it NEVER occurred to me to cheat.

I’d finish or I wouldn’t.

The parameters of the test — required course, cut-off times, competitive field — are what make Ironman difficult and ultimately, worth doing.

Leah Nyfeler Sprint Triathlon Run
Running in the 2010 Varsity Tri, my son’s first triathlon and my last. Ironically, we both placed 3rd in our age groups, my only triathlon podium finish.

All somebody like me has is the integrity of her performance. I’m not going to win outright, and there will always be somebody faster. An age group award? Why, age group awards are like sprinkles on a particularly tasty ice cream cone: that treat can be savored just fine without them.

Age group awards exist to give competitive folks another method to measure results. Many, many athletes train and race without ever achieving any sort of award or win.

So what ultimately drives the majority of participants, we hobbyists toiling away in obscurity behind the elites and pros?

It’s the honesty inherent in our effort.

Racing at any distance provides a finite field for testing. Endurance events, such as an Ironman-distance triathlon, simply take that testing to 11. And there on the field, we discover our collective mettle.

What you learn about yourself by doing an Ironman is priceless.

That’s why I can treasure a DNF as much as any PR. It’s why I’d finish a course past cut-off. It’s what drives me, out in the middle of nowhere, with no one watching, to stay on course.

Competitors come and go. Times are relative. What matters, what lasts, what makes you who you are, happens in the challenge on the course. Ultimately, when I strip away the anger over her actions, I feel sorry for Miller for so completely missing the point of competition. Think of what she has lost by choosing awards over integrity.

Why cheat yourself out of that glory?

Read More

That trail event where I screwed up the course? The details around that adventuresome 50K at Palo Duro Canyon are all here: “What a Race!”

Another truly fabulous piece in NYT SportsSunday was “Fight” by Dan Barry, about a young boxer and the tragedy surrounding his first pro fight.

 

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