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ARTICLE: Triathlon By the Numbers

written by: Jeff Aronis
posted: 09/08/2005

As we all reflect on another triathlon season coming to a close, I think at some point most of us will look back on this year’s results and compare them to past performances and wonder what, if anything, we could have done better in our training and preparation to give us those few precious seconds to move us up in our age group rankings, get us to the first page of the result sheets, and possibly get us in the realm of taking home some hardware. For me, after a detailed analysis, I am have determined one thing: People are getting DARN FAST! But the process of working through this analysis has also been as enlightening as the results itself. And it has given me some perspective on what it will take to be competitive come 2006.
First, a little background about myself. I am a number cruncher. It is what I have been trained as (I am a Certified Public Accountant and tax attorney) and it is what I do for a living (I spend my day analyzing the effective state income tax rate for my company, among other things). And I also consider myself, as most of you do, a triathlete. I have been competing in tri’s for the better part of 15 years, and like many of you, have fallen in love with the sport and the lifestyle.
But, unlike many of you, I am a special kind of triathlete. I am a triathlete who is coming back from a serious injury. I have been sidelined from racing for the past 2 years. In that time I have learned more than I cared to know about articular cartilage damage, MRIs, bone bruises, cortisone shots, and micro-fracture procedures. But let’s not dwell in the past.
Over Labor Day Weekend 2005, I once again became a practicing triathlete by competing in the Boston Triathlon. As most of you know, it is not a very difficult course. It is a sprint distance, and the bike and run courses are virtually flat. And with 2005 having little wind one the bike course and no jelly fish in the harbor, two of the more difficult aspects of the race were absent this year. So, for most, this would be a quick race. But for me, speed was not the primary goal of the race. Instead, the race would be a test. Not so much of my fitness, but more of the progress my knee has made in the last 6 months since my surgery.
This race also gave me the opportunity to compare my overall race performance since the last time I competed. You see, the last triathlon I did was the 2003 edition of this very race. So, being the number cruncher I am, I planned to do an analysis comparing my three segment times and ranks for 2005 to my performance in 2003. Plus, being a number crunching triathlete (the worst kind I might add) who has had a two year break from being able to analyze my race results, my mouth was watering. Once I got my hands on the 2005 results, I jumped right into the comparison of the two years. And, although much of what I expected was confirmed, I have to say that I was surprised with what I discovered.
Overall my 2005 finishing time was slower by 3:46. And all of that time was the result of the run segment of the race. I knew that it would be slow given my limited amount of run training prior to the race due to my injury, and my desire to not push the run since this would be my first “brick” workout in a long time and I had no idea how my knee would react. Comparing the other segments, my swim time was 14 seconds faster (what do you do when you can’t bike or run?) and my bike time was only a second slower (I was very happy with that).
All of this is not that shocking given where I was physically. But the real surprise came from the comparison of my results to those of my peers. Across the board, my individual segment ranks dropped rather significantly. Since my overall time was slower, I expected my overall rank to drop. But even after improving my swim time by almost 2 percent, my rank dropped by over 3 percent. With barely a change in my bike time, my rank dropped by almost 13 percent. And with an 18.5 percent slower run, my rank dropped by almost 45 percent. Overall, a finishing time increase of 5.5 percent resulted in a ranking drop of over 16 percent.
So, what does all this mean? Well, for one, I got some work to do. But what it really shows is that everyone around me (and you) is getting faster. Now, it should be noted that there was a 60 percent increase in participants in 2005 (658) from 2003 (approximately 400), which naturally says that some faster people will be competing. But when you see the same or better times in your segment times from year to year (as I had in the bike and swim respectively), and your rank drops in those segments by significant percentages, it means that the competition as a whole is speeding up.
Now, how do I feel about this? Well, I am torn. I know that over the years I have competed in triathlons, the sport has grown by leaps and bounds. And this has given us more races in which to participate, more volunteers and more experienced race directors to make those races more enjoyable experiences, better technology for the gear we use, and better competition from the people we compete against. I think all of these are very positive additions to the sport.
But along with these benefits has come the growing pains that go hand and hand with this expansion. One of which is the fact that more participants are being allowed to enter and, consequently, are being squeezed into the same triathlon courses. Most of the time, with wave swim starts and closed roads, this doesn’t result in a problem. But as anyone who has tried to navigate the first loop of the Lake Placid IM swim start with 2,000 other competitors, or had ridden on the narrow passages laid out on the bike course through the North End at the Boston Triathlon this year will attest, conditions have in some cases become very dangerous for those same competitors. Not to mention that you have to be on line at 12 AM the night after some of these races finish in order to get your entry in for the following year’s event, and arrive at 4 AM in order to find a place to rack your bike.
But even those reasons aside, there is even a more personal reason to be sad that triathlon is growing at its current rate. There is the unfortunate reality that even if you keep up your current training regiment, maintain your equipment in good working order, and arrive at the races rested and ready to compete, you are likely to finish worse than you did the year before. Now, is this a totally selfish and egotistical view against the growth and expansion of triathlon? You bet it is. But who among us can honestly say that at the end of the day, as long as they did or felt better than they did at the particular race the year before, they would be satisfied with their performance? Come on now, be honest.
I for one am all for being competitive with ones’ self. I believe that a certain level of satisfaction can be gained from seeing how hard and long you can push yourself, without comparing yourself to those around you. But how many times have you gotten to the race with the additional goal of smoking the loud mouth in your lane at master’s swimming, or dropping the goofball who wears the complete Discovery Team uniform every time you go out for your group ride?
I love triathlon for what it has given me, namely an outlet for my competitive nature and a way to keep in shape and relieve stress. But, as I now realize coming back to the sport from a unintended two year hiatus, that if I want to shut up the loud mouth or drop the goofball, I am going to have to put in more work. Am I ok with that? Sure. But as life gets more complicated and as other priorities tug me in other directions, I am sure it will be a challenge to try to stay competitive. So, I will have to find more creative ways to keep that edge.
All that being said, I hope you all had a very successful 2005 season, and here is to a safe and enjoyable off season. Make sure you get plenty of rest and get away from this hectic triathlon lifestyle. Relax, get back to doing some of those other leisurely pastimes that you had to forgo to get in your training, like baking and macramé. Especially anyone racing in the Male 35-39 age group. You deserve a rest; a long one. As for me, I am heading to the pool so that loudmouth doesn’t gain any more ground on me.
See you next year.