Beyond Fast Times in Ironman

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Four-time triathlon world champion Chris “Macca” McCormack discusses why accurate distances are important when talking about personal bests, but also why times shouldn’t be the end-all be-all for triathlon.

With course records being broken at Ironman Hawaii but on a far different course to that raced 20 years ago, and full distance world records being set on courses with current-assisted swims or shorter-than-advertised distances, you have to ask: are we comparing apples to apples?

I personally believe IRONMAN needs to ratify their distances more seriously. If you went to the London Marathon and it was only 38 kilometres long, you’d be pissed off rather than consider your result a new personal best – because it’s not a marathon. World Athletics and the IAAF have been so strict around what a marathon is, and major marathons all over the world seek certification that their courses are the whole 42.2 kilometre distance. There is no “that’s close enough” because close enough is not good enough.

I don’t know why there is not much more pushback by the amateurs doing IRONMAN that the races they do have distances that aren’t exact. Maybe it’s because of the obsession with fast times regardless of the actual course and conditions.

Let’s take a look back at one of the legends of our sport: Mark Allen. If you look at his palmares, he won Kona, he won the ITU world championship – but he also won Ironman Nice which is one of the toughest courses in the world. He won the Powerman duathlon in Zofingen. I used to live in Zofingen and it is just ridiculously mountainous; any athlete that can conquer that is one of the best in the world.

Wildflower is another of these races that were built hard, because the whole premise of triathlon used to be to creating a difficult test for people and determining who was hard enough (“Iron” Man, right?) and who crossed the finish line first.

The obsession with time came later, with the fast course in Roth and breaking eight hours for the first time. Age groupers started comparing times, and we saw the rise of flat courses selling out because you could achieve impressive times on these. It’s a direction I wish we could pivot from and get back to recognising the value of difficulty and assessing performances on different courses separately.

I understand time is always going to creep into the discussion, because it is naturally something to measure improvement against yourself or your peers. That’s why when we built our Sub7 Sub8 course we had every portion of it ratified. Think they swam slow because Kristian went 38 minutes in Cozumel? No, they swam the right distance for the first time ever. The bike course was 180 kilometres – not 179.4, not 183. The marathon was set to the exact distance of 42.190 kilometres. It was our responsibility to get these distances down correctly because I know the athletes wanted reality, not something to pump up their egos. It’s important that if you’re going to go after something like this and make the claim that they went that fast over the full distance, it needs to be legit.

It’s whether or not the athletes want that ratification that will determine if the sport moves in that direction.

At the same time, multisport has room for various distances that can cater to different kinds of athletes. Ironman and half-ironman will always be key because there’s so much history there, but challenge yourself sometimes. I think there should be races like those with a 4K swim and a 50K bike so the swimmers get a bit of an advantage (if you don’t like to swim, that’s fine you don’t have to do that sort of race). There were great concepts like the 222 Series which was a 1K swim, draft-legal 100K bike, and a 10K run.

I do think there’s a desire to do these sorts of things and the more races there are out there, the better.


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