By Tom Demerly.
We’re a victim of our own success. Triathlon
has grown so large that completing an Ironman is now a badge
of honor people may be willing to cheat for.
This past week there has been a flurry of commentary
on Dan Empfield’s Slowtwitch forum surrounding a competitor
at Ford Ironman Florida who used swim fins in the race. Photos
were posted on the forum. A good old internet witch trial was
held. Names were named and the whole thing became rather untidy
before it was reeled in by the good folk at Slowtwitch.
John Collins, Ironman founder, once said about
Ironman in an NBC telecast, “You can quit if you want
but no one else will know and you’ll always remember.”
“You can quit if
you want but no one else will know and you’ll always remember.”
Ironman Founder John Collins.
I say the cheaters are condemned to an internment
of their own conscience. It is an extrapolation of Collins’
ethos: They can cheat if they want and no one else may know
but they will always remember. The medal they won is radioactive-
it’s invalid. I can only imagine the internal strife of
trying to rationalize something like that.
For those of you reading this with an Ironman
under their belt (most of you) you know what the event does
to you. It fortifies your soul and humbles you. For better and
for worse, it is a microcosm of life, a one day interpolation
of how you approach every challenge in life. If you walk away
from the event knowing you somehow cut corners or seriously
bent the rules then you are a prisoner of your own conscience.
That’s a lonely prison.
There has been the usual outcry for the race organizers
to save us from ourselves with their rules: Smaller fields and
larger courses, categories for “recreational” Ironman
athletes, stricter qualifying, etc. The race directors aren’t
going to save us. They have a business to run and business is
good. While we can make an argument for sustainability of the
sport I wager the powers that be at Ironman often make decisions
about race field size and venues acknowledging that the Ironman
boom won’t last forever. That a race executed quickly
on a grand scale is a better business venture than a smaller,
better race executed later. This isn’t a criticism, it
is good business.
So, that throws it back to us. The responsibility
to race clean and honestly. The responsibility to act like good
sports(wo)men. The responsibility to take ownership of our own
race. As an informed athlete you know that entering a huge event
means the course will be crowded. Part of our preparation should
be deciding how we will respond. Things change during a race
so we have to have a basic ethos of how we will race.
Sometimes you and I will be on the wrong side
of the rules. At one major 70.3 race last year I spent a fair
bit of time in the draft zone. I’ll tell you I didn’t
have much of a choice because of a number of factors beyond
my control (swim cancelled, crowded course, blah, blah). Cheaters
always have excuses and rationalizations and those are mine.
Bottom line is my race result is invalid because of it and I
know that. As a result I come away from that race figuring it
was a great training day with a few thousand of my buddies.
I didn’t win anything or qualify for anything but I did
get a great workout and had a lot of fun. I am a little ashamed
of the race though.
I suppose there is some gradient of “wrongness”
to cheating in triathlons. It’s the difference between
manslaughter and first degree murder: Willfully bringing fins
to the start of an Ironman indicates some dastardly premeditation.
Going with the flow in a crowded race when there isn’t
room to not draft could be argued as somehow less severe. They
are both wrong, but it becomes this sort of Nixon-esque gradient
of “wrongness” that could be rationalized. That
is rather untidy. One of the great things about Ironman is (was?)
that it is so clear cut. You complete the distance, you did
the race. Well done. You are an Ironman. Not an “Ironman*”
How clean do you want to race? You decide that in advance and
do your best to honor that decision. The race director won’t
save you from opportunity or your own judgment. They won’t
enforce a conscience on you with rules or their enforcement
So what do we do about this? I say we start at
home. The absolute majority of you reading this race clean,
or as clean as is practical. We might be in the draft zone longer
than 15 seconds at a crowded event, not willfully, but almost
by happenstance (we rationalize). We try not to draft, and we
don’t wear swim fins in a race. That’s about all
we can do if we want to do the big events. If we want race organizers
to save us with their rules we’re counting on the wrong
people to “make” us race clean. Racing clean comes
from the competitors. When the peloton in the Tour de France
waits for a competitor who crashed it is a professional courtesy,
a matter of honor. It isn’t a rule. It’s an odd
convention considering some of the other things going on in
the Tour… Some things in our sport are the same.
Finally, there is something we haven’t considered
in all this, and it further reinforces my opinion that we should
start with managing our own affairs and perhaps end there too
before we become arbiters of others’ conduct. Let’s
suppose the fellow photographed with the swim fins had some
sort of disability. We do not know that he didn’t. Using
a wheelchair in the run is permissible for challenged athletes.
This person may have had some sort of physical limitation that
made the use of fins either prudent or necessary. Since I don’t
know him I cannot say. That’s another reason why we shouldn’t
fry someone in the kangaroo court of public opinion.
With Ironman being the new Golf (and tennis, and
marathon…) we have to make room for each other and we
have to look after our own conduct. This is the spirit upon
which the race was founded: Self sufficiency, endurance, tenacity,
honor even. John Collins said it best when he commented about
us being the owners of our own performance. If we let rules
dictate the quality of that performance it somehow off-loads
the merit of finishing Ironman. Ultimately, whether it is the
quality of our training or the quality of our conscience we
are in charge of the quality of our own race. Isn’t that
what this sport is all about? After all, it says right on the
Ironman logo: “Anything is Possible”.