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There are many different routes to success in triathlon, Steve Trew debates the options.

With the much-publicised coverage of Chris McCormack’s efforts to return from Ironman racing to attempt to represent Australia in this year’s Olympics having come to naught, what are the chances of success at more than one race format in present day triathlon?

Now the Great Britain Olympic selection is public knowledge, there will be much soul-searching as to what speciality those unfortunate enough not to have made the team will elect for. For those young enough to aim for another Olympic Games, the selection may well be obvious, but for those who think Rio 2016 is too far off they may have to reconsider their sporting career.


At the top level now there is a plethora of events. There is Olympic distance with permitted drafting on the bike section, there’s 70.3 (half Ironman) and Ironman – both non-drafting – and last but no means least, there’s the relatively new (at elite level) 5150 series – a return to the old days of non-drafting Olympic distance.

Four possibilities then for the elites to diversify. Covering two – possibly three – of the formats is achievable, but all four? Back in the late 1980s the top triathletes could achieve podiums at more than one distance. In 1989 Mark Allen (USA) won the new ITU World Championships in Avignon and then went on to triumph again at Nice (somewhere between half and full Ironman). He then went the ultimate distance, Ironman Hawaii to achieve his first of six victories there. The only woman to win the ITU World Championships and Hawaii in the same year was Karen Smyers (USA) in 1995. A rare achievement I’m sure you’ll agree.

Up or down?

So although it is possible to go up a distance and succeed, it’s not the easiest way to win championships. If we look at our contributing disciplines, it’s almost a cliché in track and field to keep moving up a distance until you succeed. Sally Gunnell went from 100m Hurdles up to a 400m hurdles to win Olympic gold in 1992 and similarly Alan Pascoe achieved Commonwealth success by upping his distance, also from 100m to 400m hurdles in 1974. Man-of-the-moment in Le Tour de France, Mr Wiggins, took more than enough Olympic track gold medals before moving that success from a four-minute to an 80-hour plus epic. Bucking the trend, however, is Seb Coe who went down from 3,000m to secure those amazing 800m and 1500m titles with double Olympic gold in 1980 and again 1984.

With the odd memorable exception, it appears that moving up a distance is more feasible than moving down – speed it would seem is the key element that’s so hard to rediscover.

Drafting – times three

And then there is that other contentious subject, drafting; apart from the ITU format for elite athletes, it’s illegal.

Or is it? We always focus on the bike element, and rightly so, as that is the discipline where the most advantage is gained. However it should be remembered the advantages that can be gained by managing to get on the feet or hips of a superior swimmer. The time difference over 100 metres in the pool that can be gained by jumping on the feet of the swimmer in front (push off two seconds later rather than five) is huge; between five and 10 seconds. Multiply that by 15 and we’re maybe looking at one and a half to two minutes. I have memories of sitting by World Champion Nicky Farrugia’s hips on more than one occasion and finishing the 1500m swim a couple of minutes faster than I would otherwise have done.

Even when running, staying behind or in a pack of runners will break the effects of a strong wind hitting you, and perhaps more importantly, running behind someone of a similar standard who is confident of running at a particular pace can help you by stopping you from going out too slowly or too quickly. It would seem that it is (non-)drafting as well as distance that
may be crucial.

In our short triathlon history, having an option to specialise even a few years ago would have seemed laughable. It is a measure of our improvement and our increasing maturity as a sport that these options are available is the online home of Triathlon Plus. Save time and money by having every issue delivered to your door or digital device by subscribing to the print edition or buying digitally through Zinio or Apple Newsstand.

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