The Future of Triathlon

A four-part series in which SlowTwitch attempts to predict what the sport will look like in a decade. We look at four different aspects of the sport:


The Future of Racing

September 17, 1999

It seems a lifetime ago that I made my first trip to Kona to compete in the Nautilus Ironman Triathlon in 1981. Yet the Mark & Dave duel in 1989-- closer in chronology to my first Kona trip than to my last (1998)-- seems like it took place only yesterday. Part of that feeling is certainly due to tremendous changes in my own life since the day 326 of us jumped into the water for the 4th Annual Ironman. At the same time I'm struck by how much the sport hasn't changed in its last decade compared to its first.

1989 was a pivotal year. Mark finally overcame Dave, the lava fields and his own doubts. The World Triathlon Corporation bought the Ironman from the incomparable Valerie Silk. The ITU conducted its first official World Championships in Avignon, France. I guess 1989 was the year triathlon grew up. It was the year the sport became mature. It was also the year, it seems to me, that triathlon lost its innocence.

I'm now approaching my 43rd birthday. I notice I'm buying recordings of all the music I listened to as a teen-ager. Training has taken on a whole new meaning. It's not simply for health, for fun, and to prepare for a race. It is the magic pill (so I hope) that reverses the aging process. I find myself keeping an eye out for the same vintage truck I had in high school. If a popular movement can mature, like I did, can it also have a mid-life crisis, like I'm having? Did triathlon grow up, achieve maturity, and stability, and maybe also lose a little of its vibrancy and recklessness (in the best sense of the word) like I did? And if so, does triathlon want a little of it back, like I do?

We were crazy in the old days. In 1984 I climbed a mountain, alone, sixty miles round trip, top elevation 17,900', in one day, using my bike, my running shoes and, at the icy top, a pair of crampons and a piolet. I knew plenty of folks back then who did crazier things than that. My personal set of favorite anecdotes mostly revolve around one man, Scott Molina, certainly the most fearless ever of triathlon competitors.

Skid raced not to win, and not scientifically--he raced because his bones demanded it of him. He raced World's Toughest Triathlon (which was not a marketing boast)--longer than the Ironman, top elevation 8300' on the bike, 9130' on the run, and too much total vertical to count. Molina won it, as he almost always won, at any distance. The following day he rode 160 miles to Bass Lake where, 12 days later, he beat triathlon's best at the USTS Nat'ls.

On another occasion Skid won the Ultraman, three days around the Big Island, the last day featuring a run from Hawi (the turnaround point on the Ironman bike course) to the Kona pier. This was one week after he sloshed through the mud in a rain-soaked San Joaquin Trails Fifty, which is that many miles of off-road running. For an encore, and in his third consecutive week of racing, he won again, beating Dave Scott and Mark Allen at the "Kauai Loves You" Triathlon.

Then there was the year Skid won Saturday's Bakersfield Triathlon, followed by a Hunter Thompsonesque dash across the night desert with Kenny Souza to get to Phoenix for the USTS race there the next day. Something about a bike flying off the roof rack of their borrowed car at a hundred miles an hour, the bent fork straightened by a breaker bar in the hotel room a few hours before, and a second place finish behind Dave Scott. No pros today would subject their bodies, their "money machines," to that kind of rigor. They don't know what they're missing.

People tired of today's manicured triathlons are waiting for the Next Thing. I was equipment wrangler for one of those possible Next Things--it was a made-for-TV event with climbing, running, MTB, kayaking, blah blah. They had what they called "false starts", in which the athletes started-- and stopped-- after twenty meters, just to start again so the camera could get a different angle. So much for serendipity. But there was something authentic at this event--the helicopter cameraman. Mike Hoover met his wife while he was on the way down El Capitan and she was on her way up, making the first solo ascent by a woman. Mike was a 1:50 half-miler in high school, and the stunt double for Clint Eastwood in the Eiger Sanctionin the climbing scenes. Mike, his wife, and Disney President Frank Wells were all in a helicopter, skiing in the Ruby Mountains above Elko, Nevada, when they crashed in a whiteout. Mike was the only survivor, and the force of the crash collapsed his lungs and broke both his legs at ski boot height. Mike Hoover films things. He made an IMAX movie in the Amazon, filming jaguars swimming underwater or some such thing (we made the crew's wetsuits). We loaned him a set of race wheels so he, fused ankles and all, could do a one-day ride across Death Valley capped by a solo climb of the road to Mt. Whitney. And he still films out of the helicopter, hanging by his little toe and his pinky finger. I weep as I write this. Not for sadness, but out of honor for a life lived, still being lived, and for a man who won't give up his version of what the outdoor sporting life is all about.

What does it all have to do with triathlon and where it is going, as we enter the next millennium? I can't describe to you what triathlon will be in ten years. But I sense that a lot of those who participate in it are longing, as I am, for a little of the reckless magic that has been lost through the formulaic framing of Triathlon into neat little distances and qualifier systems and committees for the advancement of hygienic, televisible swim/bike/run.

I don't know what it's going to look like ten years from now. But I think it'll be a little more authentic than it is now. A little more unruly. It'll have more attitude, and it'll be harder for men in blue blazers to get their arms around. It'll be more fun, more of an adventure. Event directors will conceive of, and stage, fantastically creative events where eight, not eight hundred, competitors will be necessary to "break even" the first year.

The newest incarnation of triathlon is probably--like a new strain of strep (so it will seem to those who're currently containing and managing the sport)--alive and kicking right now in some event you've never heard of and, like the 1979 Ironman, has 16 entrants in its second year.

I don't know what Authentic Triathlon is going to resemble in the years to come. But I'll know it when I see it.


The Future of Triathlon Technology

September 24, 1999

I must face the cold, hard truth that all the speed has been wrung out of traditional bike design. Maybe there's a new drivetrain, new bushings or bearings, finally an efficient planetary gear system. Even then, as fast as inventors can think this stuff up and manufacturers ship it out, there's a governing body ready to splash cold Gatorade on it and, for good measure, outlaw a slew of previously legal stuff as a punitive exclamation point.

In fact, the UCI's final technical rule essentially says: Even if you're riding a bike that falls safely inside the rules stated herein, we still have the right to consider it illegal if we so deem. This is a governing body's slovenly, boorish way of getting at what we-- they and us both-- want, which is to be faced with the stark realization that it is only us out there, not us plus our secret weapons.

Assuming that one is not relying on the dark side of pharmacology for help, how does one go faster on race day--since we're all already riding the maximum amount of miles our bodies can handle (right?). Somewhere out there is the new secret weapon, the silver bullet, the killer app. What will be the obvious technological difference between what we're riding now and what we'll all be riding in five years? I think I know what it is.

I must preface by saying that the rider of tomorrow, to take advantage of what I've got in mind, will squeeze out more speed the longer the race is. You can't use this in a true sprint (something that lasts only a few minutes). This is something you'd want in an Ironman. And in that case, this could save you ten, 20, 30 minutes or more. It will decide the winners of ultradistance races in the future.

My secret weapon? Information. More of it than you've ever had before, more than is currently being tracked, and probably quadruple the amount you are now using. In fact, I can think of a dozen informational parameters, or derivatives thereof, that I would like to track before or during the Ironman bike ride.

Distance vs Time: better known as velocity, or speed.

Pulse vs Velocity: This is the biggie, probably the co-most important datum during the ride. You ought to know by the time you get to the race what your threshhold is, and riding even 5bpm over can presage a later bummer.

Cadence vs Pulse or Velocity: This is the other most important data point. The biggest single technique problem I see in triathletes today is an over-slow cadence (not simply in cycling, by the way, but in running as well). The first thing to go when a cyclist tires is cadence, and the resulting cadence drop-off, and accompanying drop-off in pedal stroke efficiency, snowballs into a bike split gone bad. Keeping cadence constant and in the proper range (85bpm to 95bpm for most people) is critical, hence the need to monitor it.

The above three constitute the information we already track when we race. You'll see, and probably use, most or all of the nine features below in the future.

Power vs Pulse or Velocity: I don't know an Ironman athlete yet who uses a power tracking system during the race. But such a system is now being used by some time-trial and distance cyclist specialists. Preferred by most is the PowerTap, a hub out of which any wheel can be built with strain gauges inside, the information derived being fed into algorithms that approximate quite closely the watts output. The readout unit is mounted on the handlebars, just like a bike computer. Tune, the company which makes the PowerTap, has a model which includes a heartrate monitor, with watts and pulse both showing on a handlebar-mounted readout.

The people I've talked to who've extensively used the PowerTap, or the SRM (a competing system which generates wattage by a system measuring deflection in the crank instead of the hub), are absolutely hooked on watts as a more reliable and responsive datum than pulse. Their reasoning: One can use watts as one uses pulse, and the power readout is more real-time.

The revolution to come in this and similar products will be the development of a race-ready product. The PowerTap is certainly light enough that I'd race on it, but it can and will be made much lighter in the future. I haven't seen anyone build up, say, a Hed Deep out of a PowerTap, but even without the coming weight improvements I'd not hesitate to build up and race such a wheel if I were racing the Ironman this year.

Distance Remaining: It would be a simple matter for a bike computer company to include a function in which the athlete simply programs in the length of the ride and the computer outputs the distance remaining, obviously an always decreasing number. I'd want to shut this parameter off when training (I can't think of a more demoralizing stat staring at me from my handlebars on a long ride), but the farther you are into a long race, the less your brain wants to work, and having the computer do the simple subtraction for me might be nice.

Time Remaining: This is a derivative of the above in which the computer takes your average velocity, projects it over the distance remaining to ride and tells you how much more time you've got left to ride.

Projected Finish Time: This is yet another derivative of the race distance. The computer would update itself every, say, 30 seconds, with your projected bike split. This can be a dangerous piece of information if one is so wedded to a certain projected bike split that one ignores wattage or pulse to keep to the now-unrealistic projection. But it's generally a good thing to be in as much command of the information as possible, and this is something I'd want to know (since I'm going to be constantly figuring my projected bike split in my head anyway, with the continual math problem simply serving to attack the concentration best given to other chores, like eating or cadence-watching).

Caloric Intake vs Time: I'd definitely add an egg-timer-like function to my computer if I manufactured these things. One of the biggest tactical mistakes an athlete can make, as we all know, is failing to fuel up during the event. I would say, as a rule of thumb, that if I was relying on, say, GU, that in an Ironman bike ride I'd set that computer to beep every 20 minutes.

Caloric Intake Backlog: When I'd eaten my GU, I'd have a function on my computer that would force me to push a button to get rid of the "EAT 1" message. Should I not push the button, 20 minutes later my computer would beep again, and now the message would say "EAT 2".

I've been to a lot of Ironman races. I've seen my share of bonking, barfing, shuffling, staggering, crawling. And it's the pros I'm talking about. Here is the immutable fact: Unless you can both consume, and digest, the appropriate amount of calories, electrolytes and liquid, you will not make it to the finish line in good style. This brings me to this point: If my computer ever said, "EAT 3," I'd stop and get off my bike at the next aid station and not get back on until I'd gotten back on track with my eating and drinking. There are plenty of reasons why I say this, and I might tackle them some other time. The point is, having this vital piece of information staring you in the face is probably the most important data feature currently not tracked by any commercial product I'm aware of.

Formulae for anticipating one's bike split: Fortunately, you don't need to spend any money on this one, but Jim Martin, one of the shadowy genius-type personalities skulking around the back alleys of our industry, has developed a remarkably accurate formula for extrapolating one's bike split for a 40k time trial based on wattage output and other factors. Look for this phenomenon to blossom in the years that follow. Why is this important? In a race like the Ironman, expectations are the biggest stumbling block and patience is the most valuable tool. Having a realistic, accurate idea of that which you are truly capable is invaluable to success on the day.

Integrated Handlebar Readout: There's a lot of data above, and it makes me wonder whether handlebars won't start looking like jet instrument panels. Imagine, if you will, an aerobar with a flat base bar and winglike projections in either direction toward one's "climbing position" grips (where you'd find the brakes). Of course people have been making bars like that since the mid '80s (the first were Aerosports and Aerolite, by the way). Now, imagine all the data described above displayed in readouts along either side of the wing shaped base bar (obviously to either side of the armrests, so to be in one's view), inlaid so that readouts are at bar surface height. Alternatively, one could make an aerobar that has the readouts up the center between the forward extensions, integrated so that the LCD's don't stick out but are inside the bar extension.

Helmet Readout: Steve Hed told me about a recent trip to MIT's wind tunnel, where engineers pulled out a dime-sized readout mounted up under the front of a helmet that contained all the real-time information a subject in the wind tunnel would need to find the best drag number for a given rider position (by altering back profile, hand position, head position, etc.). It is not much of a leap to transfer such technology to the information described above.

It's difficult to imagine how one could possibly process all the information described above into a meaningful, useful set of tools that could allow one to ride a faster race. Especially when considering the derivative of new ratios, numbers which would currently have no meaning, but might in the future. A pulse vs power ratio to determine optimal racing efficiency; power vs distance / body weight / air temp / humidity to determine needed caloric intake; air temp / humidity / distance / + a predetermined sub-max power test to determine approximate target wattage during a certain race.

So to those who, like myself, are attached to our toys and feel continually stymied by agencies that wish to make us all ride the same technology and, in so doing (perish the thought) seek to make it a race of talent and fitness only, I have adopted the following refrain, may it long be remembered: They May Control Our Bicycles, But They Cannot Control Our Minds!


The Future of the Ironman

Published by Slowtwitch 12/10/99, originally written November 4, 1999 for Inside Triathlon, and published in their January 2000 issue).

Imagining is easy for me. It's what I do. My schoolteachers never recognized day-dreaming as a legitimate skill, but I've been perfecting it my whole life just the same. So when I was asked to imagine what the Ironman will be like in 2099 I immediately sat back, put my feet up, and started dreaming.

In my mind's eye the race won't be in Kona anymore. You'll still need an island, that's for sure, but why not stage the race on company-owned real estate? I figure by the middle of the next century you'll be able to grow your own island. Some sort of hyper-generating coral reef or, better yet, enter the waste removal business and create a sellable by-product: Today's county dump is tomorrow's fantasy island.

Ironland will be in the Caribbean, proximate to some fancy banana republic like Aruba. One could custom build his island. Or it might be spec job, in the way they make today's office buildings with a "Your Name Here" sign on it. But it's got to be part of Aruba, legally speaking. If you're going to go to the trouble of growing your own island, you want more than a balmy climate, you want a tax haven.

But the numbers won't crunch if the island is only used for an annual event. It's got to be generating cash every single day of the year. Ironland will be a full-fledged theme park. Guys walking around in Scott Molina and Dave Scott suits; roller-coaters, like Disneyland's Matterhorn, but with a volcano motif, lava spewing over imaginary cyclists, kids and fat people watching agape while eating electrolyte replacement cotton-candy. Stuff like that.

Ironman in 2099 may not be in Kona, but Ironland's course will still have the familiar place names: Dig Me Beach, Natural Energy Lab, The Pit. I only wish I was there to see the race, i.e., by then you'll actually be able to spectate. Now you: Watch the swim start; mill around; watch them ride up Palani road; have breakfast; have lunch; watch them ride past; have a snack; watch them run the other way; have dinner; watch them finish. In 2099 you'll watch the whole thing live underwater, back to the women, up to the men. You'll be able to eat all your meals on-board, and they'll be screens everywhere showing the action you can't see live, like a Las Vegas sportsbook casino. In fact, your tram will be a sportsbook casino.

But the race, you've got to protect the integrity of the race, that's the focus of Ironland. It's going to be hard breaking seven hours. Nobody under forty will be able to do it. You don't hit your peak endurance until 45. That's what you'd expect of a population that routinely lives to be 120 years old. Your eyes will start to go, but the rest of your body will just be warming up.

This life span is due in large part to nutrition (more on that later), but also to nanorobots, infitessimally small contraptions that run around inside your bloodstream, cleaning your veins and looking for little cancer cells and other bad things. This technology will not only greatly minimize heart disease, it will provide history's first ever foolproof method for getting rid of performance enhancing substances. To be a pro triathlete in 2099, you must agree to be implanted with a nanorobot programmed to detect banned drugs, or sudden changes in hematocrit. Such misdeeds automatically set off an alarm somewhere at USAT. Drug testing, twenty-four, seven.

That won't mean the end of ethical dilemmas, however. Some groups of athletes will have an unfair advantage. Artificial limbs will be much better a hundred years hence, and will have their own power systems. Will it be fair for a limb attached to the body to aid forward propulsion via power from its own intrinsic source?

Simple surgeries will enhance performance. Maybe a rerouting of digestion systems, arthroscopic heart surgery to enhance stroke volume, manipulation of the body's lever systems--bones and muscles--to achieve perfect symmetry and efficiency. Of course most of that stuff will not be necessary, as simple gene manipulation will yield the desired results. But we're still eons away from understanding the brain and no parent, even a century from now, will be able to know what their child will eventually want to be and do. So, you can genetically create a tennis player, but what if your son or daughter decides to do triathlons? Just like today's piano lessons, all that DNA fiddling for nothing.

And what about those who don't use "bionic" limbs? We won't have to wait 100 years for a challenged athlete to win the Ironman, maybe only twenty. It is only a matter of time before a paraplegic can swim 50 minutes, and with advancements in hand-crank bicycles--which even today can be made much more aerodynamic than standard bikes--he or she could ride close the the speed of an able-bodied cyclist. And the run? You'll have to come off the bike a half-hour in front of a wheelchair athlete, or else you'll be run down.

Will all the gene therapy, performance surgery, and external power sources be legal? It depends on moral attitudes at the time. For every step forward each of us takes individually, we hinder our personal progress in favor of societal progress. Instead of "might makes right," we value fairness, equality, decency, respect for others. Until recently we've only felt this way about other people: of different colors, religions, ages, sexes. But lately we've been suspecting that animals may have rights too. So we don't wear fur. We don't kill dolphins when we catch tuna. Pretty soon we won't kill the tuna, I'm guessing. One thing is for sure, raising mammals for food, that's gone 100 years from now. Me, I won't live to see this, which is a good thing, because when I go to Kona I've got to have a burger at Drysdale's. But in 2099 there will be no meat in Ironland, only soy burgers (soy will never have rights).

Shifting mores will certainly play a part on how the whole race is run. Drugs, cheating in general, may be so morally unpalatable in a century that policing for such things may be a thing of the past. But even if you do find the occasional, say, drafter, you probably won't need draft marshals on the course, since each bike will be affixed with a miniature version of what we now know as radar. But it won't work via radar waves, bike positions on the course will be determined by global positioning satellites. This will be known as "B BAD": Big Brother Anti-Drafting system. Mailers going out to race directors: "B BAD, and they won't be bad." The "draft marshalls" of 2099 will watch their computer screens from race central, and if anybody is drafting, satellites will catch it. Bummer, three minutes in the penalty box.

Women are going to get closer to men (at least on the race course). How much closer? I don't know. There are some things my subconscious may not be allowing me to imagine. But we just had a women break three hours in the marathon in Hawaii, it wasn't so many years ago that any man who broke that barrier would be in the hunt for the overall win (it took seven Hawaiian Ironman races for the first man to do it there).

Sponsors, well, this is a tough one. Whenever we look at commercials patronizing hogwash. Now we are patronized by much more sophisticated hogwash. Any ad man in 2099 is going to have to think on his feet to put one over on the buying public. I mean, consider the situation now. What does the Ironman have to do with accurate time-telling? Yet look at all those Timex Ironman's out there. Even the president has one. And we're damn sophisticated, right? We certainly know that the Ironman has nothing to do with accurate watch-making! But these sneaky ad guys have gotten us to buy these watches anyway. Will any ad guy be sneaky enough to get value out of a tie-in with the Ironman in 2099? Probably so. Selling atomic powered, pulse taking, electrolyte monitoring, blood chemistry analyzing, projected finish time estimating Timex Ironman's, no doubt.

You may think me whimsical. But I'm not kidding about any of this. If I was the Ironman I'd be looking for a Caribbean island right now. Raymond Burr bought one, so did Marlon Brando. And they couldn't even hold seven-minute pace.

I have one final prediction. That for all the gene therapy; and angioplasties for the sole purpose of increasing stroke volume in endurance athletes; and wattage increasing hamstring reattachments: Nobody will be able to replicate God's ability to create a superb athlete. The great irony, even one-hundred years hence, will be the inability of a drug-taking, surgery-buying, genetically-engineered competitor to beat such an individual. I can embroider a defensible estimate of what the race might look like in 2099. But anyone can see a reasonable facsimile of that race's winner. We just need to slip in any tape of Mark Allen or Paula Newby-Fraser.