I headed out on the Ironman Wales run feeling great for the first time in ages. My average pace was right where I wanted it somewhere between 3:15 and 3:20 pace. I was still feeling good as I approached then end of lap 2 of 4 when I saw a split of 1:30. It was pretty clear the course was seriously short but at the time I was thankful. By the end I’d clocked up a 3:26 marathon but I felt a bit of a fraud as I received allsorts of congratulations and assertions that my running was getting back to where it used to be. I knew that my average speed for the distance was 3:40 pace and I knew that if I’d had to do those extra 3kms I would have been at least 3:45. It’s only with reflection that I feel slightly short-changed.
When it comes to the swim there are clearly difficulties in getting a course bang on distance since buoys may move. Combine with this with poor navigation, currents and lack of decent GPS to measure it means that there will always be a huge question mark over swim distances. Few people complain about a short swim and I feel there may be a tendency to err on the short side. Athletes generally judge the distance by how it felt verses how fast they went. I feel I’ve done fast times on legitimate courses and have definitely swum short courses. At IM Germany in 2008 the pros were actually told the course was 175m short!
For the bike there is less excuse though there are still reasons why the distances won’t be bang on since they’re trying to get a course on open roads and dead turns aren’t particularly friendly on the bike course. That said, in IM Austria there was an out and back apparently to make up the distance and yet the bike course was still several KMs short per my computer.
As for run courses… here dead turns aren’t a big issue and those courses that have them there is little excuse for distances not to be accurate. Someone can ride round the course and measure it easily. I’ve even done this for the South Island Half Ironman in New Zealand and it wasn’t difficult. At Wales there were three dead turns per lap so getting it accurate shouldn’t be a huge ask. [And no you shouldn’t shorten the run for T1 run distance. Ironman is a marathon plus transitions not a marathon less the distance of transitions.]
For a long time I took the attitude of “what goes on tour stays on tour” – I’d take my time and defend the course distance. Now though I’m getting sick of the fact that you run well in Austria and get “oh that’s short” or you bike well in Roth and it’s “oh they went back to the short course”. It’s got to the point where a course is assumed to be short if you go fast and in some cases it’s so clear that it’s embarrassing. I don’t remember much fanfare for the 2:41 marathon by the female winner at IM UK in 2011, there’s probably a sigh of relief that a Crowie or Rinnie hadn’t rocked up and run sub 2:30.
The great sports have a rich history of records and statistics but such huge differences in distance lessons the value of Ironman history. What’s the fastest a lady has run the marathon in an Ironman? This answer would have allsorts of asterisks attached.
It would be great if organisers could get the courses more accurate but at a minimum they could state the measured distances of their courses. I’m sure that, in general, they have reasons when courses are short. They could tell us these reasons and then we’d understand. I’m sure if Ironman Wales bike was a mile short because it allowed for a natural loop on in incredibly hilly terrain no one would complain. Bike course records are unlikely to be set on that course. Though hilly course doesn’t automatically mean short: my first Ironman was UK in 2005, it was very hilly and I measured it just over 2 miles long! [Wales is, probably, the toughest course already. Imagine if it was long as well]
If distances were known then people could head to the short courses to get fast times knowing it’s short and that their PB wouldn’t be completely legitimate. I’ll be honest I’d be heading to the shortest fastest course and trying for a PB. I’d be happier everyone knowing precisely how short and being able to adjust my time than forever defending or explaining my time.
In this day of mass GPS I’m wondering about setting up a website where people that raced a race can submit their GPS files. The site would then be able to give average measured distance and variations. With enough support I think we’d get a pretty accurate picture of the distances of most races. Any web developers out there?