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The ITU debacle

While most are content to accept the heavily corporatised product served up to us by the Ironman brand, a for-profit entity, the Olympic ringed ITU should be a different story.

I went to the WTS Hamburg race last weekend and was 20 metres from 2 of the multiple crashes during the women’s and men’s races. These crashes were horrific and seeing the faces of athletes knowing they were going to come down is haunting.

Races are now described as ‘the product’, and athletes as ‘the assets’. These obnoxious terms are used publicly. At Hamburg the assets would be better named ‘the cannon fodder’, in what the ITU call the jewel in the crown of their WTS Series. But the cannon fodder happens now to be the super champs – Murray, Schoeman, Yee, Brownlee, Zaferes. All crashed during the bike course. Even on the run they were falling, Nicola Spirig went down, as did others on the tiny tight turns. This was not bad luck, or bad riding, this was total negligence by the governing body.  

‘when you get a large group on narrow roads…’

On every level (except for hefty license fee paid to the ITU from the local government and the size of crowds), this is the worst race for ‘the assets’ that has ever been devised. 

Let me take you through it –
– it has to be a sprint race because of the course itself 
– 6 laps of 3.5km per lap for 21km
– do I need to show you the turns… 

WTS Hamburg Bike Course

As you can see each 3.5km lap has two 180 degree stop dead turns, and 8 turns of ~90 degrees, most a maximum of 3m wide, with over 60 athletes trying to squeeze around. 

There are cobblestones and pavement bricks in some turns. The course has painted pedestrian lines and painted traffic lines all over it. All of you know how fun it is to negotiate painted lines on the road in the wet! Ever attempted it in a pack of 60 during a race? The only thing missing was tram lines.

The arrogance of the ITU officials didn’t help, as I saw one walk straight into Taylor Knibb – but that can happen…

WTS Hamburg Women’s professional race

Being a professional coach and wanting to understand the course to be able to relay details and race tactics to my athletes, I walked the course on the morning of the race. To say I was horrified is an understatement. As well as the already mentioned issues with corners, cobbles, and lines painted on the road; the lake and trees that surrounded the course looked beautiful for the cameras, but only added to the hazards of the bike course. There were 100’s of leaves on the road, on the very corners where the horrific crashes in both men and women’s races occurred.  

After 30 minutes picking up leaves from the corners, the rain came and I really got worried. I stopped and left to talk to an official about the danger this would create only to be told ‘this is not my job’. Total apathy and indifference to the danger. I asked one to use their walkie talkie to contact the race referees to explain the danger and request a crew or a street sweep vehicle to sweep the corners. To my horror I was told, ‘that’s the city’s job not ours’. 

Thus all the audience was treated to not only a triathlon but a smash up derby that saw at least two athletes leave in ambulances with career threatening injuries. If one remembers back to WTS Dubai in 2016, nobody has learned anything from the horrendous crash that nearly ended the then current Olympic Champion’s career (Down but not Out). Fortunate to escape with a broken hand after hitting concrete ‘street furniture’ only several feet from the course. Since then there have been no course changes, no greater thought to the safety of the athletes, pardon me, the ‘assets’. 

After the Women’s race in Hamburg, when one attempted to point out the absolute danger before the Men’s race, they were not so politely told – ‘if you and your athletes feel it’s too dangerous for their skills then they shouldn’t race!’.

WTS Hamburg Mens professional race

This course should never have more than 25 to 30 athletes on it. Simple as that – if they are going to race on it at all. 

‘Sutto, you are full of criticisms but short on solutions.’
Just like Ironman racing, I’m full of solutions, for those who will listen. This could be accommodated by heats and finals as it is a two day closed circuit race. So there could have been two races of 30 or even 3 races of 20 athletes, with the best 10 athletes going through to the final to be held on the next day. Then the crowd we so clamour for could see some fantastic racing over a weekend. 

I’m pleading with people to start and put athletes first. We as a society of Triathletes need to make the organisations accountable for their actions. Olympic funded sport should not make money the first and only priority. The first priority should always be the athletes and their safety should always be the first consideration.

Main photo credit ITU Media.

Project Ironman – The Bike: 3 Preparation Tips

Ironman distance racing is ultimately about energy management. How you control and distribute your effort throughout the day is essential to a good finish. The ironman bike leg plays a crucial component to this end, as it normally represents the bulk of one’s total race time. Regrettably many still race the bike leg as if nothing were to follow, either caught up in the excitement of the day or on the quest for that new bike split PB. Yet the success of the subsequent run (assuming adequate training preparation) is very much predicated on what you do on the bike, from energy expenditure (pacing) to energy intake (feeding).

Here are three simple suggestions to help prepare your bike leg to have a positive impact on your run.

Technique – Practice Feeding

I will take a road less travelled. No talk about goal TSS, IF, cadence, peddling foot motion or about ideal head, back, hand position etc. Instead, a crucial fundamental – practicing the mechanics of getting nutrition from its storage place on the bike, or on your person, into you while staying comfortably in control of your bike.

This may sound presumptuous to many but forgive me. There is reason. I have personally encountered/witnessed individuals who were committed to an IM, kitted with slick race bikes, yet (in training) refused – literally – to reach for a water bottle (from a seated position let alone from the aero position) unless at a full stop, one leg on terra firma. All will agree that feeding is imperative in ironman racing. It is the 4th discipline. However, all the best nutritional advice and formulations are for naught if it remains affixed to the bike frame by T2.

It all starts with the set up – using kit or makeshift solutions that suit your comfort and ability/experience level. It is all fine and dandy that the latest trendy slick water bottle mount between the aerobars will save you 45s to 1min over 40k (in a wind tunnel).  It is of little value to you aerodynamically in an ironman if every time you have to drink you need to break position by sitting up or you lose directional control of the bike, because holding course with one forearm is precarious for you. In this instance, perhaps using a refillable aero bottle may be more suitable. Yes the wind tunnel numbers may show +0.0001g more aero drag on that straw than the former set up.  But if it helps you minimize movement on the bike while drinking then you will feel more comfortable to sip regularly whilst holding a better aero position for longer (win-win). And don’t feel belittled…. remember our World Champ…

Chrissie in Kona

Therefore comfort of access is crucial. If you are apprehensive to reach for items the more likely you will not eat or drink sufficiently. If you have a seat mounted cage, practice reaching back extracting and returning while keeping your eyes on the road. If you have a refillable bottle between the bars, practice refilling from another bottle on the fly. Likewise, practice ripping off gels taped to the top tube, reaching into your top tube food box or your jersey back pocket using either hand. Being ambidextrous is also advantageous. Should you race in a country where they drive on the opposite side of what you are accustomed to back home, the aid stations will likely be on that “new’ side. [Tip – practice your feeding mechanics while riding the turbo as well instead of having a buffet table alongside.]

So, whatever set up you chose for hydration and nutrition, you must practice using it as you would on race day. Learn to reach for things, and place them back on the move. If you are reluctant to do so, you may very well miss crucial feeding and begin accumulating a potentially unrecoverable energy debt before starting the run.

 Training – Holding Race Pace Under Fatigue

Everybody is a hero coming out of T1. Some even act like it’s a BMX race start Don’t believe me? Go to Kona and observe the sprinting and jostling of some age groupers not even 50m up the hill from the King K hotel – utter lunacy!  What matters is how you can sustain your race effort on the back half, to one-third of the course. This is where the real (smart) heroes shine.

In practical training terms this means first ingraining the necessary restraint at the outset of your long rides that will target race pace. No sense in beaming about your watts for the first 50k only to fizzle and falter by 80 km. Second, include progressively, longer continuous segments at target race pace effort at the back end of long rides when you are fatigued. These could start at 30 minutes and progress to 2 hours at the tail end of a 3 – 4.5hour ride. Don’t be afraid to try. Remember this is ironman race pace, not 40km time-trial pace.

Daniela has perfected the art of race pacing

The second component to these race-pace segments is cerebral – applying a race mindset, making tactical decisions as you would on race day. This will further amplify the value of such race-pace segments especially when facing undulating terrain with a tailwind. It will likely be difficult to hold a target power number. But you can still put out a “race effort” by doing the right things – i.e. holding tight aero and speed on descents, pushing a touch harder up a grade or into a momentary head/cross wind, deciding when to fuel based on terrain ahead and time etc. That is still relevant race-pace specific training.

Intervals are great for developing your race-pace. Long continuous segments will really train your physical and mental stamina and confidence to perform when tired, including making the right tactical decisions. The more you practice this in different conditions, the better positioned you will be come the run.

Race Preparation – Building Race Specific Stamina

Every ironman course is 180km (+/-), yet each one has its challenges – a climbing course is daunting for many, while holding aero position for hours on a flat course is unbearable for some. Barring an opportunity to ride the course in vivo, see it on a map and study the profile provided by the race or using Google Earth, Map My Ride or such. Appreciate, understand and then train to task…for the benefit of the subsequent run as well.

To highlight, consider Ironman Whistler. The course features approximately 2000m of cumulative climbing. There are about 20km’s of leg sapping, undulating terrain before the first major climb ~12km with 8-10% pitches thrown in. The last ~35km back to T2 is pretty much a sustained climb. In between there are lots of high-speed descents.

Obviously, climbing strength and descending skills should be incorporated into one’s bike training regime. With respect to race specific preparation within the last ~12 weeks, it would be beneficial to choreograph rides that accumulate a similar total elevation gain (or more) and periodically include a long sustained climbing effort on the back end, and then doing so before a transition run. This will achieve at least two things.

  1. You will need to diligently work your effort and fuel management to best position yourself energetically for the run. This may not be as straightforward as when riding a flat course.
  2. It will accustom your body to run with substantial climbing fatigue in it, which for some may be quite difficult as compared to a flatter course.

Likewise, if a course happens to have a lot of corners, you would want to plan rides that regularly disrupt your rhythm with frequent direction changes. Cumulatively this will have another unique effect on your disposition before the run.

Whatever the course you chose, study it, know it, train for it.

Incorporate these three tips into your ironman bike preparation to ensure you keep the “fuel flow” going, to remain on task as fatigue sets in and to bolster your confidence in handling the challenges of your chosen course. Doing so will increase the chances of a successful run.


Ed Rechnitzer has over 28 years experience in triathlon and has completed multiple Ironman events, including Kona. He is a Trisutto Coach based in Calgary.

Join Ed at one of his three Mont Tremblant Camps in July.