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Sitting In: Team Tactics At The Ironman World Championship

  • By T.J. Murphy
  • Published Oct 2, 2012
  • Updated Oct 1, 2013 at 12:06 PM UTC

Will alliances among pros in the men’s race further dispel the idea that the Hawaii Ironman is the race of truth?

This article was originally published in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

Before USADA stalled Lance Armstrong’s momentous return to the sport, this spring he was engaged in a tense Twitter exchange with Olympic gold medalist Simon Whitfield. At the heart of the conflict was how Whitfield felt Armstrong had directly slandered the draft-legal world of Olympic triathlon when he called the format “a shampoo, blow dry and 10K foot race.”

Simon Whitfield: “Disappointed 2read @lancearmstrong comments that those of us working so hard towards our Olympic Tri dreams are participating in ‘a joke’.”

Lance Armstrong: “@simonwhitfield excuse me? when did i say it was a joke? is a draft legal tri ‘the race of truth’? NO. i certainly never called it a joke.”

As others have before him, Armstrong—holder of seven consecutive Tour de France crowns—was declaring that the Ironman was an example of the “race of truth”: a time-trial-style event designed that tests the athletes solely on the merits of their fitness across the three disciplines, where a tactic like drafting behind another racer on the bike leg to save energy is explicitly disallowed.

But in the past 15 years, the evolution of the men’s race at the Hawaii Ironman, including—among other tactics—alliances formed between competitors to take down specific favorites, begs the question: Is Ironman really the “race of truth”?

A Look Back

The first people to attempt Ironman in 1978 weren’t worried about racing each other. Their thoughts were focused on whether or not the thing could be done. In the first running of the newly hatched “Iron Man,” 11 survived, as reported by Sports Illustrated in the May 1979 feature that first put triathlon in the national spotlight:

The 1978 event began as an experiment and included a mixed bunch of casual entrants. One fellow could barely tread water. Another bought a bicycle and learned to ride it the day before the race. In the run, a contestant stopped at McDonald’s for a soft drink. The man who won the swim had a bad knee from an old karate injury and needed eight hours to complete the marathon. Organizer John Collins, a Navy commander, did not foresee that Gordon Haller and a college student named John Dunbar would bite the athletic bullet and almost kill themselves in the first contest.

But soon came the age of Dave Scott versus Mark Allen and Paula Newby-Fraser versus Erin Baker, and the fledgling sport became not only a race but one that spawned heroic rivalries. And if the phrase “the race of truth” is characterized as an effort where an athlete is unaided by the presence or tactics of others, then it can be argued that the Hawaii Ironman lost this dimension long ago.

Even if you believe a distance of 10 meters, per the current pro rules between bikes is an acceptable distance between racers to retain the notion that no one is netting a useful aerodynamic advantage from a draft (we measured it, click here), the same can’t be said for the swim or the run, which have no drafting rules. Six-time Ironman world champion Dave Scott once articulated that he felt the best way to marginalize bike draft cheats in the Ironman would be to ban drafting in the swim, thus breaking up the racers early and preventing large groups of competitors exiting en masse. This comment may have reflected his annoyance with Mark Allen following him in the Kailua Bay like a kite is followed by its tail. Drafting is both a fact of life in the 1,800-person “washing machine” swim and a legal technique. Watch the Hawaii Ironman swim, and in the moments after the cannon fires you see the first sign of packs of swimmers, single-file lines of bodies cutting through the chop. Triathletes whose strong suit is the swim are destined to be very popular in this respect unless they can break away and be on their own.

Consider a string of two triathletes swimming in the open water—in addition to the economical advantage of swimming in the slipstream of a stronger swimmer, the trailing athlete also reaps the advantage of not having to steer. The leader is doing both the extra physical and mental work while the two go the same speed and the same distance. If the leader can’t shake the follower and the two exit the water at basically the same time, the leader will have performed considerably more work in the first leg of the race. Whatever edge the stronger swimmer will have built in the months and perhaps years of training more and harder in the pool will have been rendered somewhat irrelevant through the weaker swimmer’s completely legal tactics. So when talking about how tactics have evolved in the men’s race at the Hawaii Ironman in the past 10 years or so, in which time the men’s field has grown larger and more competitive, it may be fruitful to dispense with the idea that the Ironman is the “race of truth” unless the definition is a fairly liberal one. The same can even be said for running on the heels of another runner when racing during the marathon. It is psychologically, if not also physically, a bit easier to not be the front-runner.

But forget drafting for a second—consider also how simply racing side-by-side enables a higher performance than we can get when on our own. The great Iron War took place in 1989 when Mark Allen and Dave Scott were side by side for much of the marathon—pushing one another to running splits of 2:40:04 (Allen) and 2:41:03 (Scott)—still jaw-dropping by today’s standards. The reason Allen and Scott were able to churn a 6:06 pace was because of the ferocious competitive intensity of what was in essence a long and painful street fight between the two. Allen’s win over Scott was certainly not performed within the conditions of a time trial.

But these are nuances compared to the center of controversy when it comes to the tactical advantages being gained or lost at the Hawaii Ironman. The heart of the argument is drafting on the bike. Even if athletes follow the rules and maintain proper distances between bikes, there’s clearly value to being in what is called the main pack of riders in the men’s race. All eyes are fixed on this group, with everyone wondering who from it will win. Yet there was a time when this pack didn’t dominate the bike leg as it does today.

The Evolution of the Bike Pack

Canadian Peter Reid raced Kona from 1996 to 2005, winning three times. Reid says that he watched the nature of the race change within these years.

“In my first few years in Kona it was really your own race,” he says. “I’d get out of the swim and for long stretches of the bike leg I’d be completely by myself.”

As the years progressed Reid observed the development of what is now a common aspect of the men’s race in Kona—the lead bike pack. While the first few athletes might get out of the water, through transition and onto Palani Hill alone, the men tend to come through T1 in huge clumps of athletes. Those who wanted to win the Hawaii Ironman knew it was imperative to be in this pack. The exception would be the Normann Stadler type of super-biker who could transcend the bike pack and try to build a shatter-proof lead off the bike that could be carried to the finish line. In the history of the race, only Stadler and Thomas Hellriegel have pulled off this strategy.

Reid emphasizes that the bike pack had a self-regulating doctrine of fairness to it. The athletes watched and policed one another. “I remember one year when we were coming back through Kawaihae and we had a pretty large group,” Reid says. “Jurgen Zack was riding behind me and he said, ‘You’re riding a little tight, Peter.’ I looked at where I was and I was actually getting too close to the drafting zone. That was the culture then.”

If you did do any blatant drafting, Reid says, you’d hear about it from the others. “I remember once [Thomas] Hellriegel giving Chris Legh the finger, right in his face.”

Toward the end of his career in Kona, Reid says he witnessed the beginnings of tactical alliances, a feature of modern-day Ironman racing that was documented clearly in two-time Ironman world champion Chris McCormack’s book, I’m Here to Win. In the book, McCormack writes about how he induced a team-like tactic of wearing down the running powers of Craig Alexander with an extra hard pace on the bike. In referencing the lead-up to his 2010 Kona win, McCormack writes in his book:

This was a distinct weakness in the way the nonelite runners were doing the race. Now I needed to convince the athletes I knew from the European racing circuit, who were intimidated by the dominance of the runners, that these guys were beatable with the right strategy. We needed to push the pace in that crosswind stretch of the bike. We would gain time on the top runners and force them to work on the section back into town, “burning their matches” on those legs of theirs and preventing them from running their best times in the marathon. We were allowing these guys to kill us on the marathon because we were playing their game. No more. I intended to make the runners play my game! In every interview I did with the triathlon press in the next year, I said the same thing: “Guys, this is the formula to break the runners. I’m going to do it. Come with me.” … I was trying to build a pack, because Ironman biking is pack biking. Drafting … is illegal in Ironman, but riding in groups allows you to use other cyclists to help maintain your pace. That way, you avoid inadvertently slowing down and having to expend more energy to get back up to speed.

Denmark’s Torbjørn Sindballe was a witness to McCormack’s first win in Kona from the course in 2007, when he finished third (Alexander was second). Sindballe reacted strongly after reading an excerpt from McCormack’s book about the alliances he used to beat Alexander a second time in 2010 with the help of a slight draft from other riders who worked with McCormack to establish a breakaway.

“I must admit that I was shocked when I read about how McCormack rallied people together to form a fast bike pack,” Sindballe says. “First off, I have never heard of any other pro triathlete that has tried to ‘harm’ other competitors off the race course, nor trying to rally someone together for a pack.” By “harm,” Sindballe means gain an advantage by forming a strategic alliance before race day with the goal of neutralizing one athlete.

Sindballe openly detests the new era that may be emerging in terms of team tactics.  “One of the values I hold very dear in triathlon is that the strongest athlete who brings out his potential on race day should win. Period.”

However, Sindballe says he’s sympathetic to why McCormack or another athlete might use a team tactic to counterbalance the way the men’s race currently unfolds. “I understand Macca’s intent and frustration because people save tons of energy sitting in the bike pack compared to the guys up front. There has been an unfair advantage for years in favor of the [stronger] runners.”

Sindballe explains why this is happening. “This bike pack, tactical elements and strength in numbers has come about due to two reasons: One, more pros pursue [the pack] and the top end of the race gets more congested. This is clearly seen in championship events such as Kona, where large packs come out of the water together. I raced Hawaii in 2004 and 2005, and we would often fight for the first 1,000 meters of the swim, and then the race would kind of settle down. In 2007 and 2008 the fight continued all the way to the end of the swim with more swimmers up front. I assume it has only become more intense since then.”

Sindballe says that the second reason is in regard to the officiating of the pack.

“The marshals are doing a poor job,” he says. “In 2007 I caught the lead pack of 18 guys and they were all sitting at 5–6 meters rather than the legal 10 meters, and it stayed like that for the next 20 kilometers until I left them again. The pack split up on the climb to Hawi, but they had saved massive energy on the first 90K. Because there is a draft effect even at 10 meters and because this rule is not always properly enforced, there is a reason to discuss pack tactics. I hope these aspects have improved since my days, but something tells me they have not.”

Sindballe believes that enforcement of the rules could put an end to the style of tactics McCormack employed in 2010. “The marshals should enforce policies such as ‘zero tolerance’ and ‘zero communication with [other] athletes on course’ so that athletes choose not to pursue options to draft in fear of getting caught. Once everybody knows they will be penalized for the slightest infraction, the pack tactics will be irrelevant.”

RELATED VIDEO: The Drafting Experiment

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