Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The CapTex Tri Debacle & Race Report...Warning: It's a LONG one :)

Yesterday I raced the CapTex Triathlon in Austin, TX, the 2nd race in the Lifetime Fitness Series which offered $50k in prize money to pros, paying the top 10 men & women. If you follow triathlon, you may have already heard about the debacle that happened during the pro men's swim, which affected many pro's - like Hunter Kemper who may have lost $6,250 because of it. I'll explain what went down in a bit, but first share a bit about the events leading up to it.

Now, I must first say I am very thankful to race in the pro division. It's fun, fast, competitive, and I get to race head to head with the best in the world. I jumped off the dock yesterday next to 4 Olympians, a 70.3 World Champion, and a bunch of other big names. That, to me, is exciting - as I’ve dreamed of racing these guys for a long time though never thought it would happen. I hope to earn some decent money in the sport some day soon, but I currently don't make much like these guys. I got to thinking to myself, is it a right or a privilege to be a top pro triathlete making a lot of cash in the sport from prize money? Well, I think it’s a privilege, like most good jobs are. Having a job that pays (though our government aid programs may tell us what Americans think, or at least those in charge) is not a right, but a big blessing. However, should pro triathletes racing for income have the right to race fairly, under the same rules as one another, and deserve a professionally-run event? I think so, not necessary because it’s a right of theirs, but rather because they have a business partnership with race directors and race organizations. The pros are ambassadors for the sport, and for the races. The races do pay pros, however, the race’s success would likely not be the same without the pros. The pros often make the event what it is and hype it up, and hype up the sport in general. Would Ironman Kona be the same without the pros? No way. They attract participants and media, and put the race under a spotlight, which race directors love and profit from as it brings them more paying entrants as well as corporate sponsors.

How can pro triathletes show gratefulness for the opportunity to race for money when they don’t feel like the event they are racing in is well run and giving them all an equal shot at the money? How should they feel if the way a race is run hurts their chance to best succeed in their jobs? Is it ok to be frustrated? Or, is it not, since they were given an opportunity to race with the chance to put a lot of $$ in their pockets, and are not forced to come race by any means? These are all interesting questions.

The CapTexTri race itself is great. There are 3000 competitors, fans lining parts of the course, a great location, etc. However, many people were disappointed in the event. Amateurs pay around $150 to compete, and in turn I believe expect a well-run event. There will never be a flawless event, but you can get close with proper planning, prep, and organization. The pros showed up to the pro race meeting the day prior, greeted by the race director and the USAT referees. We were not given any printed race information or maps, instructions, or much else, which was ok, though it made everything seem a bit disorganized. We were also told we would be given things like VIP parking passes, which did not happen. Now, I do not think I deserve nor need a VIP parking pass, but when it is said to be given to us, I would assume it fair to trust that would happen. I mention this simply to point out details in organization that could have been improved. Our race packets had not been delivered to our meeting room, so we waited around until they were delivered. The pre-race announcements by the race director weren’t well organized at all, and it even seemed like a few race day decisions still were to be made. For example, the RD asked us whether we wanted an in-water start or a pontoon/dock dive start. He said we could vote on it. Obviously, the great swimmers and ITU athletes want a dive start, whereas the rest most likely did not. It’s not a huge deal either way, but this should be decided by the race, not a vote by athletes the day before. Andy Potts stood up and raised his voice on this at the meeting, and said something like, “this is ridiculous. There should not be a vote. That’s not how races go. You give us a course, and we race the course. That’s it. It shouldn’t be a vote.” I agree. We can’t vote on race rules, on wetsuit rules, how large the draft zone should be, and things like that. That is the job of the officials and race organizers. In the Tour de France there are no votes about what course to ride the day before. Obviously the climbers and sprinters would be at odds, which completely would favor one group over the other if an on the spot decision was made. The dive vs. in water start likely wouldn’t affect the results much, but it’s the concept and one more case of a lack of professionalism and organization that stood out with this race. I also was told by an age grouper on the plane this morning that did the race, that there were lines for over an hour into the late evening of athletes waiting to get their race packets.

Additionally in our pro meeting, the head USAT referee did not know the pro bike stagger rule, as she started telling us the age group drafting rules. After a few pros corrected her, she looked confused, and then must have realized that pros do actually have different rules on positioning on the bike. Two days after the race, there are still no accurate age group results up, and many people are saying their times are all off and they're even listed in the results as the wrong gender. Again, not a huge deal, but just one more issue that I heard people complaining about. I think from a business standpoint, making sure a race is run very professionally and the athletes are served well, could really come back to help the race organization succeed. Rev3, for example, has gotten an incredible reputation in just one year of putting on events, simply because they do business well, serve the athletes, and take the little race details very seriously. I think a lot of race directors could learn from Charlie Patten and Rev3. Now, having every little thing in place perfectly may not be a realistic expectation nor needed, but like in any business, if people pay a high price for your event, they expect good service and for it to be well run. And, when they receive great service, they proudly represent the race and speak very highly of it. I’ve seen many top pro’s promote the Rev3 race series on Facebook and Twitter simply because the race treats them well all around. Everyone appreciates each other helping one another out.

The Race:

I did not sleep the night before the race. With a similar bout of pre-race insomnia as I dealt with last year, I laid in bed with my mind spinning all night until I decided to eat breakfast at 3:45am. I took an Ambien around 10pm, though unfortunately felt nothing. I have taken 2 before, which has helped more, though I’ve been advised that 2 in considered an overdose and not safe. So, I opted for one pill, and unfortunately got zero minutes of sleep the night before the race. I felt pretty awful in the morning, but put that in the back of my head as I knew I could still race fine.

We lined up at the swim start on the dock, were called back off the dock and told to wait another 10 minutes. We were called back on the dock where we waited again for a bit. I’m not sure why exactly, likely again something to do with organization and planning. I lined up right behind Olympians Hunter Kemper, Matt Reed, and Andy Potts, knowing it best for me to take a 2nd row swim position and try to draft of the feet of the true fish in front. The course was the most clear, simple, and well-marked swim course I’ve probably raced in. I give the race credit for that, though it turned out not to matter. It consisted of 4 yellow turn buoys which formed a rectangle. There was no confusion amongst the pro men on the course whatsoever. It was led out by a few stand-up paddlers, a few jet skis, and I believe there was a lifeguard boat somewhere out there as well. We reached the first buoy about 300m out, turned right, swam another 100m to the 2nd turn buoy…and tried to turn right. I got to the buoy, slammed into a few people, and put my head up. It was chaos, as swimmers were yelling. I heard whistles, saw the paddlers and guys on jet skis pointing to the left and yelling at us to follow the lead boat. They had cut in front of the swimmers turning right, and instructed everyone to turn around and head the other direction, to ignore the buoy, and follow the lead paddle board. So, we followed the directions of the race marshals. Andy Potts and I believe one other athlete, Dan Tigert, ignored the commands of the race employees and swam right, following the correct course. They must have gone around the jet skis and paddle boards. The first few lead swimmers said a jet ski pulled right in front of them waving to turn, cutting them off. The 26 or so others of us who listened to the instructions from the race representatives in boats, not wanting to get disqualified, turned back the other direction and continued following the lead paddle board. We swam for about 60 seconds, and then slowly everyone realized we were headed down the river completely away from the race. Athletes started stopping and looking around. I heard a few people yell “what the F--- is going on?!” It was a bit chaotic. There is a lot of pressure in a race with $25k up for grabs for men, so every second can count.

So, the back of the pack swimmers, lagging 20-30 seconds back, stopped where they were and turned around at the same time, instantly putting them back in front (besides Potts & Tigert) and cutting out 50-70 meters or so of the course. I was about 5 seconds back from the leaders when we turned around, and we all had to catch up and re-pass the group and continue back onto the correct route. The swim continued and the lead women suddenly appeared with us. They started 4 minutes after us, so you can see how far off course we were made to go. By the time the women started, the race crew was well aware of their mistake, and the women all swam the correct course.

I honestly have no idea how on earth the course marshals could have made the mistake. It was the simplest, clearest swim course ever, and there was no need for lead paddlers. There were no other buoys in the river either, so I have no idea why anyone would think we were supposed to swim past our turn buoy.

Andy Potts led out of the water by several minutes, and eventually won the race by about 15 seconds over Hunter Kemper, who was (rightfully so) extremely upset about what had happened, and I believe trying to file a protest after the race. He would have won the race if Potts hadn’t gotten the several minute advantage, which cost Kemper over $6000. However, you can’t blame Potts, and he was swam the correct course, as I wish I would have. There’s really no right answer to the situation or anyone at fault other than the race directors and their staff. Some people proposed the two top finishers equally split the prize $ for the top 2 spots. However, what about the other athletes who’s money was affected? The rulebook says it’s the athlete’s responsibility to know the course, which everyone did, though it also says athletes must do as the race officials say. Maybe these people who led us astray were volunteers? Does that make us in the wrong for listening to them and not dodging their boats they drove in front of us?

One big lesson I’ve learned this year while losing valuable time in the swim in 2 out of my 3 races so far, is to simply ignore the race officials at times. You have to, or you might be put way back in the race. In general, follow what you know to be right, or follow the masses. At the start of the Miami 5150 race, about 20 athletes were treading water well in front of the start buoys and had started swimming well to the left of the start. The marshals on boats were yelling to get back to the line, saying they wouldn’t start the race until all the athletes were together behind the line. So, a few of us swam back to the line, just to hear the start horn blow. The race had began with the majority of the athletes about 10-15 seconds ahead of the start line, leaving me in the dust playing catch-up.

Hunter Kemper was the main person who got screwed financially yesterday. However, most people didn't think of the guys who finished in spots 6-10 for example. A second athlete who just snuck in the top 10 also swam the shorter course with Potts, thus taking a prize $ spot. If he swam the length we did, he'd have finished 1:30 behind me and out of the top 10. For Kemper, who financially is not struggling, it has been made a huge deal. However, I also think that for the guy who finished 8th or 9th and who is working 2 different jobs and sleeping on floors or even in his car before races, that matters just as much. He lost out on valuable prize money as well, even if it's one or two hundred dollars.

At the end of the day, I finished 13th out of about 28 pros. Overall I was pleased with my placing and efforts, as I finished ahead of a few athletes I’ve never beaten and who finished a few minutes ahead of me in Knoxville two weeks ago. However, I am still continuing to get my run fitness back from my injury, and know the best is still ahead. I pushed hard on the bike, as it was my goal for the day. I averaged 308 watts which is an improvement from the last race, but I still have much strength to gain on the bike to compete with the strong cyclists. I wanted to ride harder than usual, as that’s where I have historically lost ground, and to test my legs and see if they could handle running fatigued after a hard ride.

The 4 loop bike course was extremely windy, as winds gusted up to 30 mph all day the past 3 days in Austin. I was racing with a rear disc wheel and a front Zipp 808, which was really sketchy at times as I nearly got blown to the ground. I have to improve in my bike handling skills and learn to be comfortable in strong winds like this while in the aerobars.

On the run, the first few miles I thought I was in trouble. I had biked hard, and my legs felt it. It was in the mid 90s and I was feeling the heat. I took only 1 Powerbar gel during the race early into the bike to avoid stomach cramping on the run like last race, and taking the nutrition earlier helped. I didn’t get passed by anyone on the bike nor the run, and passed 2 or 3 men on the bike. The last mile of the run was extremely painful, as Pedro Gomes (Portuguese Ironman national record holder / 2nd place 2010 Ironman Florida) caught me and passed me with about 1200m to go. I stuck on his shoulder trying to draft a bit from the gusting wind. A few times I let him go about 5 feet ahead of me, playing mental games with myself wondering if I could hang onto him until the finish. I honestly didn’t think I could. I gave it a shot, and pulled back up on him. He slowed down and moved to the left to try to get me to take the lead. I was way too fatigued to lead, and enjoyed the slower pace for a few seconds. He moved back ahead and put in a strong surge with about 600m to go, and got about a 25 foot lead on me. I thought he was gone, but dug very very deep to reel him back in. With 200m to go I knew I had him, as I’ve vowed to never lose a sprint finish in a tri like this. It was a hard finish, extremely painful, but well worth the fight even though I was in the dirt on hands and knees in the finish chute after sprinting near all out the last 150m. I split 5:43 pace for the 10k. I had thought I finished 11th at the time, but later found out I was actually 13th. All in all a decent finish. If Potts & Tigert would have swum the same course, I would have been 12th, two spots from the money. I’ve still got plenty of work to do, but with it I can move up.

The big prize money races are very competitive for men. The top 10 spots for men had a spread of only about 6 minutes and 45 seconds, whereas the spread for the top 10 women was about 16 minutes. There are talented women for sure, but usually the fields are not as deeply stacked, and you usually have to finish in a closer % of the winner’s time in the men’s fields as in the women’s fields to come home with money.

I think the race mishaps simply show a bit of where our sport is today unfortunately, compared to other sports. It’s simply not as big of deal, nor does it have the big prize money nor following of sports like cycling, golf, NASCAR, etc. In the big races of those sports, there’s not much room for error, and it’s pretty rare to see a big mess up like that. I feel for the guys who lost money over it yesterday, but it was just an unfortunate event caused by the race crew, no fault by any of the athletes. Sometimes that’s just part of racing and you just have to roll with it.

Added: 5/31 Just got a call from the race director & Slowtwitch.com. They're still trying to find out exactly what happened during the swim, and who led us off course. No employees/volunteers have confessed to being the one involved. They want to have the facts straight before they make a public announcement. I can definitely tell they know their reputation as a race/director has been damaged and feel pretty bad about everything. It will be interesting to see what happens. Will they award Potts & Kemper both 1st place or equal prize $ and points? Do they keep the results as is? Or do something else? Time will tell.

1 comment:

JoeBruin88 said...

Sounds like a horrible race. What a downer.