#31: You get a race and you get a race and you get a race
But not you.
issue #31: April 19, 2023
Welcome, all-sporters! This is your regular Wednesday morning newsletter full of everything you want to know about our sports. We’ll also have a new podcast episode later today (though we’ll be changing the podcast up soon).
And special welcome to all you paying subscribers, who help me keep this running. Paying subscribers also get a fun and/or interesting Sunday evening email. This past weekend, it was a short history of college triathlon in the U.S. Because I am very American.
Where did all the races go
Last weekend I drove up to where the Vineman race used to be for a trail run thing. (Do you all remember Vineman? It was pretty big, attracted top pros, a circled event on the calendar. Then the race organization got bought out by Ironman, became Santa Rosa 70.3 & Ironman Santa Rosa, and then it went away for good.)
It’s about 50 minutes from my house and, yet, I hadn’t been up there since pre-COVID. I used to always be in the area, for so many different regional and local and bigger races, people were always hosting training camps for the big events, I’d meet friends to ride or I’d ride up/meet someone/take the train back, I did multiple brick workouts from that high school where Vineman used to end. And now? None of those things exist anymore.
Let’s use Northern California as an example of what’s going to be Tri’s Great Big Problem for the next few years. Here are the triathlons we used to have around here:
Vineman + the 2-3 other smaller races they put on.
TriCalifornia: Which put on Wildflower + were the race directors for Escape from Alcatraz + 2 other big-ish regional races. They were good to the pros, paid out money, always had big very competitive amateur fields (even at Treasure Island).
Escape from Alcatraz.
Now: Went the VIP route, doubled the entry fee. (I love this race, it’s my absolute favorite and I know costs have gone up, but it’s also changed organizers)
Big Kahuna: A moderately sized regional half-Ironman + they had a smaller local race.
Now: Bought out by Ironman, became Santa Cruz 70.3, and their other event went away. (The original Santa Cruz Olympic-distance race that was my first triathlon has now also returned as one of two much smaller Santa Cruz races; fingers crossed.)
Regionally, we always had a few medium-sized race organizers, too: TBF, J&A, USA Productions; we had a HITS race for a bit and one of the Challenge events when they were making a U.S. push. These were the kind of regional races that are the backbone of our sport: about 1,000 people, sometimes a small prize purse or giveaways for the winners, sometimes attract big names (back when Chris McCormack still came to the U.S., he battled it out with Chris Lieto at the local sprint), always a good age-group crowd.
Now: TBF has 2 smaller tris left + a bunch of gravel events & USA Productions is doing just 1 race this year.
NorCal is not unique. This is happening or has happened in every market. Back in late-2021 we were putting together a Triathlete list of editors’ picks of our favorite races, and I can promise you we kept naming our favorite local, smaller, independent events and realizing they were gone. It was clear, at the time, that we weren’t going to really know how this would shake out for a few years.
Some of this was happening pre-COVID. Drought and cash flow took out Wildflower. (In spring 2020 they told me they were going to come back, but hard to say now.) Some of it’s consolidation and forced selling to bigger race orgs. Some of it’s because what events are left feel they need to go the VIP route, mark prices up.
The end result, though, is that the many medium races that make up a calendar, the ones where you could just show up and always know people, that clubs would all train for together, the ones that fill in the rest of your year in between the super big events, the races you can drive to the morning of, those are mostly gone. Yes, we have two or three new Ironman races across California. But you need the rest of the stuff in between to sustain a sport.
You know what everyone here is filling out their calendar with now? Trail races. Gravel rides and Grasshoppers. Maybe a triathlon.
From a participation standpoint, this is going to be Tri’s Great Big Problem. Either new races and organizer come in to fill the gaps *or* people do a mix of trail races and gravel and triathlons and whatever else their friends are doing and it all fits together in a truly multisport lifestyle that isn’t just about triathlon (which is probably what I’m for) *or* they just do the other things and eventually leave triathlon because there aren’t enough triathlons to do, so you might as well sell your bike.
We’ll see how it shakes out.
Now, to break things up: The Mystery Pro—whom Sid will neither confirm nor deny is her, according to wild rumors on the internet.
Where to from here?
From a spectator standpoint, well, there are other things we need to see shake out. (Yes, this is about the PTO’s *big new announcements* that aren’t really new.)
I have this distinct memory of sitting in my then-office and talking to Ben Hoffman in January 2020 for a story about the launch of the Pro Triathletes Organization. He kept saying ‘I know you’re skeptical, Kelly.’ And all I could think was: I don’t know if I am or not, and I don’t know if it even really matters what I think, we just have to see what actually happens.
I was thinking about that again this week when the PTO sent a letter out to all the pro athletes about the pivots in their planned direction. A lot of the details were reported here.
The PTO will not produce races longer than 100K for now
The PTO will focus on the top athletes—both in terms of limiting fields at their events (in order to make a more focused marketable product) and paying out more to the top 100 instead of spreading it over the top 200
The PTO hopes this will make them more money and then that money will trickle down to everyone (?)
I read the letter and what’s been reported is fairly accurate, though I’d add: None of it is actually new. It’s just being communicated directly to the athletes now (which is good) and is supposed to be setting up a base for next year and the years to come.
The main problem or criticism is simply that if the PTO believes the sport needs a season-long narrative, compelling characters that can be marketed and followed, and a championship with stakes that fans care about—all things listed as important in the letter—then is creating a new series at a new distance really going to do that? Or is it simply another race series with another set of broadcasts and another round of money and marketing? What makes this one the best one, the one that’s going to change everything?
So, I’ll say what I said last time and what I said to Ben and what I think we’re all thinking at this point: It might work, it might not. But it’s time to stop talking and just do it. Show us. We’ll only see how it shakes out once it shakes out.
Party in Eye-bee-tha!
Speaking of: The rest of the PTO European Open start lists and wild cards were fully announced last week. In addition to every single one of the top ten ranked women (which we mentioned last week and which is absolutely the nuttiest race of the year so far), you now have Jan Frodeno, Kristian Blummenfelt, and Ali Brownlee.
I’d like to see Gustav there too and Lionel is always fun (though I respect his points on his Youtube), but we’ll take the Jan v. Kristian match-up finally. FINALLY!
And the women’s race is, objectively, the absolute hardest, most competitive race we’ve had, oof, in years? Ashleigh, Lucy, Paula, Daniela, Anne, Chelsea, Laura, Holly, Kat, Emma. That’s a lot. May 6. If they can’t make this race exciting to watch, then I guess that’s one way this shakes out.
(Yes, there is also the N. American 70.3 Champs in St. George that weekend. And the World Triathlon Long-Distance Champs. Which is a whole other additional problem. But still. I almost booked a ticket to go find out what European spring break is all about….)
Other results & upcoming races
Collegiate Nationals! The USAT Collegiate Club National Championships were this past weekend. (You can see my brief history of how we got here.) Queens University took the overall title against bigger schools, which has a bit to do with it being one of the few schools funding a varsity men’s team in line with varsity women’s teams, but most importantly (to me) UC Berkeley took their 5th women’s title in a row and the mixed relay.
America’s Cup - St. Louis: When does a Continental Cup in Missouri attract two Olympic medalists? When Katie Zaferes and Gwen Jorgensen both need points to get to the start lines of Olympic qualification races later this summer. In the battle of the moms (a name about which I have mixed feelings), Katie solo’d to the win about 50 seconds ahead of Gwen in the sprint race.
Xterra Taiwan: I just learned that Xterra has a full World Cup calendar again this season with full broadcast. And it started this past weekend in Taiwan.
All results in detail here.
Mark your calendar
Ironman Texas: The first big Ironman of N. America’s year is this Saturday. It’s the Americas regional championship, $175K prize purse total, and five World Champs spots for men & five for women. My money’s on Kat Matthews, but of course you still have to actually race the thing—and I’m sure Jocelyn McCauley, Maja Stage-Nielsen, and Lauren Brandon aren’t going to just roll over. On the men’s side, it’ll be Joe Skipper v. Matt Hanson v. Rudy von Berg (and, I dunno, but Matt races well here). Plus, Cody Beals is back and I always love to see what Cody has up his sleeve.
How to watch: Ironman’s new live broadcast platform is back in action for the first time since Kona, and the race will air on Ironman’s Facebook, Youtube, and Ironman.com/live at 7 a.m. ET
Challenge Gran Canaria: Patrick Lange v. Sam Laidlow, and Anne Haug + Ruth Astle. (In case you were wondering, Gran Canaria is another N. African island.)
How to watch: Apparently, there will be a live stream (!) on the Challenge Family site
Other races this weekend, because it’s that time of year: Challenge Taiwan Half, Peru 70.3, and Peniscola Infinitri somehow attracted Ashleigh Gentle.
Everything else from around our sports that I think you might want to know about, or that I just think is interesting.
Of course, the biggest race in our world this past weekend was the Boston Marathon.has the best highlight reel & recap and you can see all the shoes the winners wore here, because of course. I’ve started Boston twice and DNF’d (I have a terrible track record with DNFing marathons) and I’ve never super felt whatever special thing people feel there, but this year it did feel like more and I did start to think ‘maybe I should actually run it again.’ Then, of course, I also remembered some of the things I dislike about Boston. (Citius/Runner’s World/Outside/WCVB)
There is another Major this upcoming weekend: the London Marathon. Chrissie Wellington will be pushing wheelchair athlete Sam Perkins, who is raising money for ALS (which they call MND in the UK). (FloTrack/BBC)
This past weekend, Outside Watch also started broadcasting the UTMB World Series. (Reminder: That’s trail races that are part of qualifying for UTMB.) This is fascinating on multiple levels—only one of which is that UTMB is also partnered with/owned by Ironman, Ironman and Outside have a broadcast deal for the 70.3s but not for the fulls, so they apparently have now managed to sell Outside the trail races too. Second way it’s fascinating is: How the hell are they gonna live broadcast some of these more remote trail races? (Outside Watch)
Another thing that kicked off this past weekend: the National Cycling League. Mixed yet on whether it’s going to achieve its mission of turning U.S. cycling into a spectator pro sport—as everyone’s trying to do. (Cycling Weekly)
Heather Jackson won the Belgian Waffle Ride. (Instagram)
Taylor Knibb launched a Youtube. And, in the genre of triathlon Youtubes, I found it quite funny. Taylor is always entertaining and actually shared a lot of detail about her injury and surgery. (Youtube)
Lucy Charles-Barclay is raffling off a bike frame for charity. (GiveStar)
World Triathlon announced it would agree, in principle, with the IOC and lift the ban against Russian and Belarus athletes, and support “a pathway” for them to compete as neutral athletes. (World Triathlon)
World Triathlon also announced Pontevedra will host the 2025 Multisport World Champs—the ones that are in Eye-bee-tha this year and in Australia next year. And they confirmed two World Cups for Asia in August and one in Tangier in October. (The Morocco 70.3 also moved from Marrakesh to Tangier, which makes me wonder what is going on in Tangier?) (World Triathlon)
SGRAIL announced a new gravel tri in Big Bear, California for late-September. Which I will definitely be at, probably. (Instagram)
Ironman announced that they’ll be bringing out lots of new announcers to races this year. To which I say: Good! (Ironman)
This is about ball sports, but stay with me: The way regional sports are broadcast and watched is changing. The reason I’ve been thinking about this is because I’ve also been thinking about how we broadcast our sports, about streaming content, about the writer’s strike in Hollywood. And, in each of these cases, so many of the problems come down to the fact that existing models were broken by things that came in without a way to sustainably replace them. The new models could fund themselves enough to take out legacy competitors, but then couldn’t survive forever once they did that. Yet, we still expect the quality standards that were supported by those old models. In general, our content quality expectations now exceed the resources necessary to meet those expectations. And I don’t see anything solving this underlying challenge soon. Yes, I’m talking about triathlon. (New York Times)
The WNBA is going to close off locker room access and a lot of reporters have feelings about this, but as an athlete I’ve actually always found locker room reporting weird. (The Next)
One firm is making millions off national park reservations. (Wall Street Journal)
All that poop out in nature is finally catching up to us. (Outside)
And just because I feel like some people could stand to hear this again: There are not too many pros in the world, if people qualify to race pro then they should get to race, are you really suggesting they keep sandbagging against my mom? (Triathlonish)
Yeah, as a norcal based, mid-to-rear-pack short distance triathlete, what races am I supposed to do now? Last year, after years of had-a-baby-then-had-a-pandemic, I decided to do my first tri in a long time, and my only real option was Santa Cruz — a race I love in a place I love, but with an ocean swim that is not the MOST accessible for a newbie and such a far cry from when my biggest problem was deciding which of the MANY USAProductions sprint or oly races I wanted to bop to on any given weekend between May and September. It's hard to see myself actually making an effort to do races when there's such a limited inventory of options. And obviously I only know the situation where I live, but I'd be shocked if it's just a norcal problem.
Spot on with your commentary on "Tri's Great Big Problem."