#5: Let's talk about rankings
You get a ranking and you get a ranking and you get a ranking.
issue 5: Oct. 19, 2022
Welcome, this is your Wednesday morning Triathlonish newsletter. Next week, we’ll have an in-depth preview of 70.3 Worlds, which is going to be absolute fire (the race, not the newsletter). Unfortunately, though, I will not actually be at 70.3 Worlds on Oct. 28-29, because I need to be at a local collegiate race here on the Sunday and then fly to New York for the New York Marathon—and since I am not Norwegian, trying to also cram in a three-day trip to Utah sounded crazy.
I will, however, be at Ironman California this weekend. Since I was already going to cheer on some friends, I got talked into volunteering at a run aid station. So, if you tell me your number, I promise to try and yell at you—as long as it’s before 4 p.m.
Now for today’s topics: rankings and upgrades.
Who’s the best triathlete in the world?
You’d think this would be a fairly straight-forward question to answer. We race, you win, you’re the best. That’s sorta the whole point of races.
Of course, obviously, it’s more complicated than that. And so rankings come into play—allowing us to compare athletes across space and time, but mostly compare them across distances and events. Because I was re-reminded recently (the irony) that triathletes have short memories, it is important to note that the current Pro Triathlete Organization ranking system is not the first tri ranking system ever, nor is it the only one. It is simply right now the most well-funded, and so it is the one currently under the most scrutiny as people move up and down in the rankings and complain about moving up and down. It turns out if there’s a lot of money at stake in something, a lot of people will care about that thing.
The PTO ranking system works fairly simply but also fairly complicatedly. An athlete’s rank is determined by:
Your best three races in the previous 52 weeks; all mid-distance or longer races count (Olympic-distance races or shorter do not)
Your score for a race is based on the percentage you are off the established Adjusted Ideal Time (AIT) for that race: 100 points = the AIT
The AIT is determined after a race is over, based on the crunching of the numbers of past years’ results, this year, comparatively how athletes did, etc.
Caveat: Your best Ironman-distance score gets a 10% bump, to accommodate for the fact that long-course athletes can’t race as frequently as mid-distance athletes. PTO events get a 5% bump. Yes, the Collins Cup counts, which is highly controversial.
I’ve spoken to Thorsten before, who developed the AIT algorithm and crunches the numbers after each race for the PTO, and I do think he truly is attempting to create a neutral algorithm fed by an aggregate of athlete data. The goal, particularly during COVID-limited racing seasons, was to develop some way to compare performances around the world and to adjust for the fact that one performance might be better than another. However, while the general overall rankings seem about right (ie. Kristian Blummenfelt is just barely holding on to #1 above Gustav Iden), it is this opaque AIT calculation step that bothers (ie. angers) a lot of the athletes.
Word is the rankings algorithm will be adjusted for next year, once approved by the PTO various boards, to more clearly lay out a formula to factor in the tier of the race and the depth of the field—depth of field being determined by the rankings of the athletes on the start line. (Circular, yes. Somewhat logical, also yes.)
Now why do we even need rankings anyway?
I mean do we.
Kidding, sorry. The rankings are tied to overall PTO bonus money at the end of the year. #1 gets $100K, #2 is $90K, down to $10K at #20, and then #20-50 earn $5K and #50-100 earn $2,000. By funding this kind of year-end massive money pool the PTO is hoping to encourage intense racing among the best athletes all year.
It’s also good storytelling and media, goes the theory. Rankings are something that non-triathletes can understand: Who will be #1? Even if a regular person is never going to compare this year’s Kona to May’s St. George, they can understand Chrissie Wellington’s 2010 Roth is the highest score on record.
The complaints about the system might be somewhat obvious, too: It’s semi-hard to follow, athletes don’t totally understand how points are determined and there’s a lot of skepticism about those point determinations. IMO, there may also be an issue with ever-growing grade inflation if we just have to keep upping and upping points.
Hopefully, these things are addressed with the changes and tweaks. And, hopefully, the long-term perspective is taken to create something that will continue to grow a fan base and won’t just run out of cash in a couple of years.
P.S. One of the best things the PTO has done, from a media perspective, is their rankings and stats website. Results for a given athlete used to be impossible to find. You’d be combing Wikipedia and looking at the athlete’s personal website, which was never updated, and trying to remember from your brain which races they had won. Now: So easy, a godsend, from a coverage standpoint (even if Ironman commentators very notably never ever mention the PTO or PTO rankings in broadcasts).
So pro, go pro
This brings us to our next topic: what is a pro athlete anyway.
In the wake of Kona we always see a rash of elite/pro upgrades from the top age-groupers, most of whom have been waiting (sometimes for years, in this case!) until after their non-refundable finish line. Back in the pre-COVID era, these moves used to come overwhelmingly from the dudes. The top 20 overall amateur men at Kona generally upgraded at much higher rates than the top 20 women. Maybe it’ll be different now. Fingers crossed.
However, having seen this week quite a lot of judging of age-groupers for upgrading, I feel like we all need to have a chat. Because let’s be real: If winning the overall amateur race at Kona was a requirement to even take a pro license, then there’d only be one new pro annually in the whole world—and that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Photo: Donald Miralle/IRONMAN
Before we judge anyone’s decision to upgrade or not, let’s start by accepting a few underlying principles in the pro v. not pro debate:
We’re asking people for individual solutions to a systemic issue. We all know there’s a huge overlap between the top age-groupers and the middle/back of the elite field. Some of those age-groupers have better sponsorship deals and set-ups than some of the pros; they train like pros; they’re semi-pro. Obviously, this de facto category encompasses a blurred grey area and athletes are left to choose a side for themselves. It would be better if there was an actual third elite AG/semi-pro category; it would allow for development and progress (much like the Continental Cups, World Cups, and WTCS races) and wouldn’t force people to operate within the flawed system. It’d also allow for “real” age-groupers to have a chance in hell. (It’d really be best if there were three categories, and mandatory upgrades and downgrades like in cycling.)
Point sub 1a: Of course, that’s not going to happen anytime soon, largely because of the behemoth of age-group world championships. And let’s just acknowledge that that’s weird. Having amateur world champs for people in their 20s and 30s is weird. I’m all for Masters and Seniors and Super Seniors and Juniors and PC world championships, but it’s weird to name a champion of the athletes who are basically good enough to race elite/pro but don’t. And then it brings in all these bizarre questions about what constitutes truly amateur, how many kids plus work is the relatable amount. I’m not saying I haven’t done it and that it’s not ingrained in our sport. I’m just saying we should admit it’s weird.
It is also true that the standards for upgrading to an elite license vary wildly from country to country. The Brits are notoriously picky, famously telling Lucy Charles-Barclay she wasn’t good enough. In the U.S. it’s a more straight-forward ‘achieve xx result’ kind of system. Of course, it’d be ideal if there was one global standard and we all chilled out, but right now athletes have to make their decisions within whatever their system is.
This does matter. Even if it directly effects only a small percentage of total triathletes, it matters because it dictates the culture of our sport and the growth pathways. Do we really want to send the message that the pinnacle of our overall amateur titles require semi-pro time and money? Do we want to create a chilling effect for every new age-grouper who realizes there’s nowhere for them to progress into, and so they might as well try gravel instead?
If this is the base-level system as it exists in tri, then every very fast age-grouper who has qualified over and over for their elite license is left with a tough choice: 1. Keep going to Kona and keep going after overall age-group titles, or 2. Move up to the real race—and maybe get back to Kona (or equivalent world class level pro racing) but maybe not.
It’s no secret my opinion is that at some point you’ve got to move up. If the whole reason, generally speaking, for doing triathlon is to challenge yourself, then going to Kona as an age-grouper for the 10th time in your late-20s/early-30s probably isn’t a new challenge anymore. (Just talking about overall amateur titles, not Masters wins; you do you.)
Sure, everyone has their own reasons, their own lives, their own choices, but **generally speaking** if all of the very top overall age-groupers upgraded to the pro/elite fields it’d probably better on the whole. Some of them would become world-class pros, some would try it for a bit and move back down, some would simply find their place in that in-between category and there’d be more of them and it’d create more depth. Lots of people used to say it didn’t matter if we had 50 pro women at Kona because those extra women wouldn’t affect the race since they weren’t podium contenders; that turned out to completely not be the case.
A corollary to this is that you can’t be mad if someone races in the pro field and then later doesn’t. Nothing changed about them except that they stepped up and did their best. You can’t be mad if you eventually lose to Michellie Jones or Julie Moss racing back in the age-group fields as Masters athletes. (That’s actually just kind of cool and it’s their only option.) Yes, I say this as someone who, in pre-COVID disaster times, was a very mid-pack pro and now 100% does not have or qualify for a pro license. I tried, and that’s all I’m asking for from anyone.
So, if you upgraded, I applaud you. Good luck, don’t listen to haters on the internet. And if you had to stop racing at the level you’re used to over the last three years, I’m here for you too, I get it, who knows what’ll happen in the future.
Gear rules rule
When people started talking in Kona about Gustav Iden’s super high running shoes and aero-insert (under his top) on the bike, I was like ‘whatever, man, it’s triathlon, do what you want.’ In fact, when it turned out Gustav’s “illegal” shoes were not actually illegal, I sent a note to Tim (who wrote the story and who is probably sick of my random email notes) that said: “I didn’t know that people didn’t know there were no rules on shoes in triathlon.”
This was based on the fact that when we ran a couple of stories right after running placed rules on supershoes back in 2020 (they have to be under 40mm thick), my recollection was that all of the tri governing bodies pointed fingers at each other and took the official position of ‘uhhhh???’
However, Tim rightly pointed out to me that actually the official position did say World Tri would eventually adopt running’s rules, and so it was only logical to assume they had done so.
But, turns out (as was broken in that story), they have not. Turns out, in fact, that there are no rules in triathlon, but everyone thought there were rules. Which means, kudos to the Norwegians for asking the question. And also: Here’s a whole bunch of other gear pros tried at Kona that might not be legal in other sports.
Wait, there are triathlons after Kona?
This past weekend actually saw a weird number of post-Kona races. Fenella Langridge pulled together what had to be an excruciating post-Hawaii/post-travel race to take third at Challenge Peguera and lock down the Challenge Family bonus for the year—which earns her a nice $25K. (Challenge awards a bonus to the top five men and women in the Challenge omnium at the end of the year. There are a couple more Challenge races left—CLASH Daytona counts for Challenge points, too—but Fenella is far enough ahead in the women’s standings she can’t get caught.) Imogen Simmonds won the race and I was happy to see her back, and on the men’s side Jonathan Wayaffe took it, who I had not heard of before but have now. Results here.
Then there were TWO 70.3s, in Portugal and Waco. And the names that stood out to me were Ai Ueda, the Japanese Olympic star, moving into long-course with the win at Waco. And, the men’s winner, Trevor Foley, a former collegiate runner, putting together a run and race that made me think we should keep an eye on him.
There was also also also a World Cup in South Korea, which I primarily care about because Matt McElroy won! After podiums in the last two World Cups, he was back on top and I was also quite happy for him. We don’t play favorites here, we’re just fans of most Americans and also most of the women and definitely most of the American women.
The endless World Tri season wraps up with a move back up from World Cup racing to the better World Championship Series (confusing, yes) with Bermuda at the beginning of November and then Abu Dhabi at the end.
This past weekend was also the collegiate regional qualifiers to the “NCAA” women’s national championship. One of the things I’ve been working on with USA Triathlon is a series on different parts of the new women’s varsity tri programs. Catch up on a day-in-the-life of an assistant coach, what it takes to get a program up and running, and a student-athlete at one of the HBCUs. We’ll also devote a future newsletter post-NCAA nationals to explaining the whole college thing to all of you. (USA Triathlon)
In the meantime, the New York Times says more college kids are doing Ironman—with one interesting tidbit, see if you can spot it. (New York Times)
This week/weekend was also the infamous Big’s Backyard Ultra, in which people run one circle every hour on the top of the hour until they can’t anymore. Last one standing wins. Since Twitter coverage is both the only coverage and also nearly incomprehensible, I think I can say I think it’s still going as I type this into its 85th hour…. (TrailRunner/Twitter)
And it was also cycling track worlds, which are a thing. (VeloNews)
This upcoming weekend: the most important triathlon of the season, Jan Frodeno’s SGRAIL. Prepare to pace your IG jealousy appropriately. (Instagram)
The final races of Super League are also coming up, in the “futuristic” city of NEOM in Saudi Arabia the same weekend as 70.3 Worlds—and, yes, it has been pointed out that Saudi people have been jailed and sentenced to death for protesting against the development. Which isn’t a great look for triathlon. (Super League/The Guardian/Middle East Eye)
Also upcoming and with less baggage: A head-to-head FKT across the Arizona Trail. (TrailRunner)
I know a lot of people are allegedly all worried about the homeless camps in the park that Ironman California runs through. But, as someone who used to live on the other side of the park and probably ran and biked in it more than anyone at one point, I’m not sure you should be any more scared of running in the dark on that path than you are of a bear attacking you in the dark during Ironman Whistler. Maybe re-channel that energy in the compassionate and practical direction. (KCRA)
The new U.S. 70.3s just keep rolling out, this week in western Massachussetts. (MassLive)
Diana Kipyokei was busted for doping this week (with a drug that was apparently hot in cycling at one point) and will have her Boston Marathon title stripped from her, but it’s also re-opened the discussion around the Kenyan athlete-agent system and potential exploitation. (New York Times/The Times/SPIKES)
I heard about this in Kona, but didn’t see it. Now there’s video: A woman collapsed in the final feet before the finish line and, apparently, was passed by a number of competitors until one athlete went back and helped her across the line so medical staff could attend to her. I know it’s heartwarming, but I’m also slightly disturbed and not sure we should stop medical from running out to help someone who clearly can’t even crawl. At some point, we wouldn’t let that continue, right? Right?? (Instagram)
It’s not just the women who can bring me to tears. The boys will make you cry too. (Instagram)
Here’s an interesting analysis of Sam Laidlow’s course-setting ride, as well. (Fast Talk Labs)
And a portion of Chelsea Sodaro’s speech. (Instagram)
If I was still running a magazine, this would 100% be our cover. (Instagram)
In the wake of all the people (shockingly) getting COVID in Kona, let me remind you: you should rest if you have COVID. (TIME)
This woman is biking the length of Africa—and also I like her cartoons. (Tegan Phillips)
This guy ran across Australia. (Herald Sun)
The implausible fame of Fat Bear Week. (Backpacker)
And in case you all were wondering last week, the answer to the question ‘what two U.S. states were not represented in Kona?’ is…..Maine and North Dakota.
One last thing
Jesse Thomas has been one-upped.
Love this article, it’s so smart and so funny too. Learned a lot !