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To Each, Their Own.
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 of them.

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”.


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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