I’ve been chief referee at a number of Ironman events in Asia for the last few years. As a triathlon draft marshal my job is to ensure that the race is clean and fair. The majority of the time that focuses on making the race draft free. Drafting is when one athlete cycles just behind the other to achieve an aerodynamic benefit.
When you draft you can save up to 30% of the energy that you would normally have to use to cycle at that speed. Thats a lot of energy that you can use for the run. As triathlon is a lone ranger kind of sport having someone help you like that is just not on.
This article is not really about drafting though. It’s about how to make a race as fair as possible for triathletes whilst ensuring that the triathletes have a great day.
My focus is to provide some advice for Ironman race marshalls – or indeed other triathlon referees to improve the quality of their races.
Triathlon in Asia – My Background
Triathlon in Asia is not a place with strong federations. They certainly provide no advice or guidance for technical officials. USAT and British Triathlon do but the majority of that is through face to face courses or within a framework that is entirely inaccessible to those of us on the far side of the world.
So what follows is based on observation, common sense and trial and error. I hope it will help other triathlon draft marshals make their races fairer and improve the race experience.
Let’s lay out a few constraints first. Things are rarely as organised as I’d like them to be. Triathlon refereeing in Asia is not like living in a perfect world. In many races I will have marshals who:
- Don’t speak English
- Don’t know what a triathlon is
- Haven’t been on bicycles before
- Haven’t read the rules
80% of the marshals I have worked with over the last few years have not given a single penalty. In part I suspect that it is some aspect of social status – triathletes in Asia tend to be wealthy and from a very different background to the marshals. Whatever the reason the result is a weak instrument
Mass Penalties to Stop Drafting
In one race which was notorious for drafting, the race director, a very blunt oil and gas engineer wanted me to take 30 or more triathletes off the road at once. Penalise the whole pack. We worked really hard to do this but the reality was that the marshals were not competent to bring it off. We could not figure out a way of doing it smoothly and well so we didn’t do it.
What this meant was that if I couldn’t rely on any individual marshal I had to think differently and develop better ways of controlling the race. By and large over the last three years the outcome are far fairer races than when I started.
Problems with the Pros
The biggest problem on the course is the pro triathletes. They are there for prize money. It’s their livelihood. So there is a strong and clear financial incentive for them to do what they need to do.
Sportsmanlike behaviour of behaving well even when unwatched is more the exception that the rule.
A good example of this was a 70.3 where the course was a long out and back. I had two groups of male pros separated by about 4 minutes. The priority is normally on the lead pack to ensure that the leaders do not get an unsustainable advantage.
For whatever reason there wasn’t a marshal on the chase pack and so they closed up to about 6m and overhauled the lead pack. It soon broke apart but there was a clear pattern that when I stayed close the packs broke apart with 20-30 metre spacing slowly migrating into 100+ metres. When I wasn’t around everyone drifted back into a tight paceline. Overly tight.
What I learned from that race is that a single marshal cannot hold down 8-9 male pros and keep it fair. Rules get bent and broken when your eyes are elsewhere.
In later races I’ve put up to 2/3rds of my marshals on the male pros. I marshal per three riders. Then they just stay there. We pay for it elsewhere in the race but it does mean that the pro race stays relatively clean.
Keeping the Female Pros Honest
A harder problem is the female pro race. The male pro race is clear and distinct. THe male pack is at the front. The female pack is tied up with the end of the male pro pack and the start of the male age groupers.
Unlike the males it is very rare for the female pros to form their own packs. There is far more variability in the swim and in cycling strength and this makes it difficult for them to stay together.
However the presence of age groupers makes it a lot easier for them to get a pull on the sly. With few markings to help them stand out – body shape isn’t great because of bike positions and almost identical tri suits and bikes – they get lost. Most of the complaints that I have had have been from one or other female pro who saw a competitor benefiting unfairly.
The best outcome here would be more marshals but I don’t have them and it’s hard for them to figure out who the target are anyways. So I don’t target them specifically.
And When Pros Get DQ’d for Cheating….
The final issue with the pros is the huge amount of hassle when you disqualify them. At one race I gave a blocking penalty at about the 15km mark to a pro who acknowledged it. When I got back to the penalty tent I was shocked to discover that they hadn’t served their penalty and had headed out on the run.
They were also in a position to win the race. Oh shit. What made it easy was that along the way they had asked random race officials whether they had a penalty. They didn’t stop, came second and were promptly disqualified.
They appealed – despite there being no appeal process – because $10k was at stake and a place at the world championships and lots of sponsorship money. The result was 8 painful conversations with different people in the triathlon organisation. Nothing changed.
Moral Hazards with Professional Triathletes
The consequence of this – and as I gave the penalty I felt I was on firm ground – is that marshals who turn up for the day are significantly less likley to give penalties to the pros. There are more questions, there is more at stake, there is more stress, they don’t bother.
As a result the race becomes less fair because marshals do not call out what needs to be called out. It’s one of the reasons why the rules are written the way they are – my decision is final. It is a judgement call. I may have got it wrong. But I am still right even if I got it wrong because the cost to fairness is far worse otherwise.
One thing worth mentioning about the pro race. Stay seperate and distant from them. It’s always harder to book someone you know and like. Its even harder when you’ve been joking with them about accepting bribes to give a penalty and then you have to give the penalty that you were joking about. Caesars wife must be above suspicion as they say.
Moving onto the age group race.
Age Groupers and Staggered Swim Starts
The biggest impact on drafting is staggered swim starts with the fastest swimmers going off first with 1-2 minute delays. That’s in the race director’s gift. When he gives it drafting is reduced by 30-50%.
Surprisingly on multi loop courses drafting is not bad. Congestion is. A slow rider riding too far out acts as a block and a pack build up around him or her. Once the faster riders come past on their second loop the congestion increases.
Early Anti Blocking Tactics
The best way it seems to deal with this is to aggressively force riders to the side of the road as early as possible. By that I mean making sure that no one – pro or AG is riding out in the middle of the road.
This sets a tone to the event. The more people ride in the correct position the more other people copy them. When we do it on the initial 10 – 20km out into the first loop you do get a lot of feedback from the top AG. “There’s no one here! How can I be blocking?” One irate German triathlete yelled at me.
Tootling along at 40km/h and having a conversation about draft strategy isn’t good for him so I closed the conversation down and told him to stay on the side of the road.
What it does do is make the formation of a fast and a slow pace line a lot simpler and easier. This is then of huge benefit to the faster AG as they overtake the slow AG smoothly and easily with far fewer groups and blockers.
Shock and Awe: Scaring Triathletes at the Start
This combines well with shock and awe. This is a tactic taken from the 1st Gulf War. Simply put the marshals are instructed to make a lot of noise in the first 15km of the race. Whistles, shouting, motorbike horns. Even if the infraction is marginal. Actually at this stage of the race it’s not important whether the athletes are committing any ruyle breach.
What is important is to show them that we are there, that we are aggressive and that we will intervene. Again this sets a tone for the triathlon and brings drafting into the forefront of the triathletes mind.
After all they have had the wonderful adrenalin of the swim start, the focused swim, the chaos and detailed process of T1. Now they are the bike, feeding and hydrating and settling in to their bike plan. The minutiae of Ironman rules is not something that they care about it.
Shock and Awe brings this back to the forefront of their minds and it triggers. “Mustn’t draft. Marshals are here watching” and then they slip into a god behaviour set.
Getting shock and awe right is hard. Thats because with 1500 triathletes and 10 marshals you have a 1:150 ratio. When you take half of your marshals and put them on the male pro pack it goes up to a 1:300 ratio which can make it more “Smile and murmur” than “Shock and awe”.
One way to get round this is to have you back marshals do 5k loops at the beginning of the race. They go up 3-5km doing shock and awe, then go back fast to T1 and go back up through the crowd 2-3 times. This is relatively easy to do because the return lane is triathlete free as we are still way ahead of the leaders.
The Sausage Maker: Making a Paceline out of Mincemeat
An alternative approach is the Sausage Maker.
The sausage maker approach to triathlon race refereeing is based on the idea that once triathletes get into a pace line they tend to stay in a pace line.
This is based on relative speed. You will overtake 80% of the riders that you will overtake in the first 20% of the race. Typically in the second part of any race the only people you overtake are those who have had mechanicals, GI or some other mishap.
In the Sausage Maker you concentrate as many marshals as you can as the bulk of the AG come out of T1. The 6 – 7 marshals work as a team. In front of them there should only be a nice pace line. The sausage resplendent and plumply perfect in its shiny casing.
Behind them, and back towards T1, is a mess of sausage meat waiting to go through the grinder and be stuffed into a pace line.
This can be remarkably successful. When triathletes have the focus of multiple race marshals on them they tend to drop bullshit excuses on lack of space and form a great pace line. They prefer that to getting a blue card for drafting or a yellow one for blocking. This works even on courses where I have had a theoretical max spacing of 15m per rider.
The key is to ensure that the marshals know what a pace line is and ensure that everyone going through the grinder knows what is expected. It works as well because most triathletes are good eggs and when they know that the law is being laid down vigorously they help to enforce it as well
Death Zones and How to Use Them
Despite all this you do get races where there is a lot of drafting. When it is systemic the best approach is death zones.
Here you find a nice flat 5km stretch – not in a loop – where it is easy to turnround. You drive up through the pack at speed 50 – 60km an hour and identify potential drafters from behind. You take name and number before speaking to them, give them the blue card and move on. You can easily be giving a penalty a minute.
At this point triathletes have been warned about drafting via the rules, vuia the race briefing, through marshal interaction at the start of the race and often several times during the race. For whatever reason it hasn’t worked and they have chosen to draft and cycle at less than 12m.
Triathlete Sudden Death 101
It is sudden death. By working through the pack swiftly and brutally you can card the majority of cheaters without them becoming bike shy. You also leave those who weren’t carded with the “Oh Fuck. I am so lucky. I need to be real careful from now on.” It has a chilling effect on cheats and typically the year after I run a death zone with a high card count there is significantly less cheating.
In one race, it was the first edition 15% of participants got a blue or yellow card for drafting. That was an interesting discussion with the race organiser and the man from Ironman after the race. The next year we only gave 5 penalties because the triathletes knew what was going to happen if they drafted.
Once you have run through the death zone you turn round and go back the other way at 100km/h plus and mentally pick out the targets for the next pass. Triathletes with distinctive bikes or kit tend to stand out more when drafting and so its easier to pick them off as you move through.
As a Triathlon Draft Marshal Who Do You Book?
It’s not about personalities. Half the time I have no idea who I am booking. Are they Male? Female? First timer or what. If the spacing isn’t there and it’s not moving and it looks as if it is pretty static then they get booked.
I’ve probably made close to 100 thousand drafting – not drafting assessments. Most of the time it’s pretty clear.
The things that go into the assessment include
- Position in the race – less mercy at the front. More education at the tail
- Bike – If you spent $5,000 on a tri bike you should know the rules.
- Calf size – again symptomatic of experience
- Aero Position – as calves
- lateral position – out to one side usually means overtaking at speed – or blocking
- relative speed to the bikes around – fast movers are too fast relative to who they are overtaking to be credibly drafting
- Tri suit style – if two triathletes in the same club are riding together they get booked with no warning
The biggest bug bear is the pointless disqualifications that I have to do.
The Kamikaze Japanese and Red Card Denis
I’ve only come close to giving a red card once on course. On a long descent the triathlete had thrown away a gel wrapper. As he was pushing 80 i aero at the time we sat behind him and waited till he was down on the flat and pedalling.
He was Japanese and had totally intense concentration. I pulled up “Number 123 you have a yellow card for littering”. No response. I tried again. Then again. I have a very loud voice and can deliver the parade yard bellow of a serjeant major. The bike – a harley – revved and horned. Still no fucking response. I got out my red card and we slowly pulled in front of the bike and slowed down forcing him to respond.
I the end I didn’t give him a red card. Mainly because I was so pissed with him for ignoring me (which is a red card offence in itself) that I didn’t want to make a judgement out of anger. So he got the yellow card. Then, as it happens he got DQ’d because he didn’t go to the penalty tent. Sigh.
Penalty Tent Passion
When you are given a penalty according to Ironman race rules you serve it in the penalty tent. In my experience 30-50% of triathletes who are given any kind of penalty on the bike course do not come to the penalty tent. As a result they get disqualified.
Some ways of resolving this. First before people come out of the swim head over to the relay tent and talk to the runners and cyclists. Tell them that if the cyclist gets a penalty and no one comes to the penalty tent they all get disqualified. Since I started doing that it is very rare that any relay teams get DQ’d
I tried moving the penalty tent 500m in front of T2 with the thought that people got distracted with the preparation for transition and forgot their penalty. That had now impact on the stop rate.
The best approach seems to be to shout and where possible to call out the numbers of athletes who have got a penalty. That’s not always easy as often we don’t have them. Thus some riders get help to remember and others don’t. It also goes against the ethos. Triathlon is an individual sport and getting it all right is your responsibility
Kona Killer Cheater
It can be absolutely gutting. I gave one guy in his 50’s a card for drafting. It was a 2 minute penalty. He didn’t stop at the penalty tent and went on to finish first in the 50-55 AG. That would have got him a Kona slot and something he had worked for for 15 years. Everything had come together for him in the race. Perfect training and key competitors not being there. he was 8-10 minutes ahead of the second place in his age group.
He was very calm but his Italian wife was angry and his daughter crying. I felt so much sympathy for him. How much of that 8 minute lead was down to drafting? With 15 years of Ironman triathlon experience behind him his ignorance of the rules was stunning. Above all triathlon is not a team game.
Triathlon is Not a Team Game
Triathlon is attractive precisely because it is you versus the world. You have to master swim, bike and run. You have to train consistently and well. You have to have the mental discipline to hold it together when you are tired and suffering. Most of all you have to make hard decisions at different points during the race to do the right thing.
Getting all that right brings the awesome feeling of having done well. The journey to get there is even better. When you take short cuts, intraining or racing you get bitten. Play the game as it’s meant to be played and have fun