As a Sherpa to a multiple Ironman and Half-Ironman wife, I’ve had tons of opportunity to study the Ironman dynamic from the inside out. And having done enough triathlons and duathlons to know the ins-and-outs of the sport in general, it is right now difficult to imagine how anyone can expect to race much this year.
That’s clearly a disappointing thought to thousands of athletes from pros prepping for big races to impatient amateurs around the world.
But the dilemmas of conducting triathlons in the era of social distancing are real. Because once you enter the Ironman arena at any race conducted in its original form, you are all in. There is no such thing as social distancing either for spectators or participants. The racked up bikes in transition are testimony to the shared space necessary to pull off a triathlon race. So are the tight crowds of people queued up in wetsuits waiting their turn to dive into the water.
The idea of standing six feet apart through all this is daunting. Of course it is possible if staggered starts are implemented. But imagine the logistics of communicating all that before the race and on race day morning. As if race directing were not difficult enough?
I’m not so sure that some triathletes are even capable of reducing risks for others. Not after watching a male triathlete paused at a water station at Ironman Wisconsin. He had his broken shoulder tied up with a black plastic garbage bag and was preparing to get back on his bike despite the blood trickling down his arm into his arm warmer. He was in shock, as far as I could tell, and after watching him lurch onto his bike with the help of a dumbstruck teen volunteer, I called ahead to the race managers to strongly suggest they get him off the course before the next set of daunting hills because he could have killed himself or someone else.
That’s the problem with tough athletes. They don’t always think of the safety and health of others. Some don’t even think of their own health.
As for this pandemic, most of the sport is likely hoping the Covid-19 deaths abate and that Coronavirus cases settle out by mid-summer. But experts have warned that a second wave could begin all over again if people let down their guard. We’d hate to hear that an Ironman race was responsible for starting up an epidemic all over again.
That’s not all that likely, but it would not look good for a sport sometimes accused of being self-indulgent to put personal preference before public safety. So what can we expect from Ironman and triathlon as a sport? What might the “new normal” look like?
Logistically, there are two main factors pertaining to the race structure itself. The first is the size of the transition area, which would have to be massive to abide social distancing. Allowing six feet of distancing between bikes and stations is a massive challenge And then there’s the swim timing. But requiring athletes to go off separately with chips is not that big a hassle because it’s already done in some circumstances.
ITU races that allow drafting on the bike are certainly a different kind of challenge. Not only is it beneficial to stay close to one’s fellow races during the bike and run, it is almost a requirement in order to stay competitive. Thus draft-legal racing may be impossible until it is determined that the Coronavirus risk is low enough to justify a return to normal race expectations and demands.
As for the crowds attending races, clearly new rules would need to be instituted in the short term. Cultures around the world have shown commitment to social distancing, so could it be possible to hold a race and expect people to stay far apart? Seems like a stretch and frankly, an odd risk. And for what? So that a few can enjoy their sport.
Ugh. That sounds selfish just writing it.
While this is no time to be forcefully negative, it also does not pay to be naively positive. People are dying by the thousands from this disease, which if nothing else is a lesson in the power and force of evolution on our planet.
This pandemic is also a lesson in theology. The idea that human beings are “specially created” creatures apart from the rest of nature has been blown asunder, and forever, by the fact that this virus and many thousands of others are threats to human existence because the infections we face on an annual basis are known to jump from the rest of the animal world to infect us. So much for the creationist contention that God spares human beings from such humble roots. Our gut bacteria alone proves that we’re biologically dependent and derived from the raw stuff of creation.
It is also the spirit of Ironman that is now faced with the cold logic of micro-organisms that can take over our systems like a wave of wetsuited maniacs flailing through the surface of a calm lake. Like generations of humans before us, those of us that love the sport will have to adapt, adjust, and accommodate, or the sport itself will die.
Which only provides more proof that we’re all in this together.