Social distance racing: triathletes must act responsibly

As racing (hopefully) starts to return, Tim Heming argues triathletes must accept that the ultimate responsibility for safety lies with them

social distance racing

Few will argue that an Ironman takes its toll on your body, but even a 2.4mile swim, 112mile cycle and 26.2mile run cannot compete with the attritional demands of ploughing through pages of constantly evolving literature as to how we’ll get this multisport show back on the road.


For most of this past month, race organisers and administrators have been devoting their sole focus to how mass participation events can safely return to the UK. It will likely continue for some time. After all, when you’re pegging your proposed processes on our government’s missives, there tends to be a certain amount of fluidity. Take info on schools reopening. It was updated 41 times. In one week.

Who’d be a race organiser? Already hauled over the coals for an unsteady refund policy and botched communication, you now have to figure out how to put on what – on paper a least – looks to be a watered down, uncompetitive, elongated experience for either uncertain customers or ungrateful ones.

It must feel as if you’re setting yourself up to fail, whether it’s tumbleweed blowing around the finish chute, or a lawsuit from an entrant convinced Covid-19 has come from swallowing too much lake water. Is the price point right? The timetable workable? Should every race be held at Barnard Castle?

As triathletes you rightly want to know what’s going on, and 220 is covering the future of racing in depth over the next two issues. It’s an opportunity to dig into the minutiae of rolling starts, picnic blankets in transition and why you might need an extra bottle cage on the bike.

But overwhelmingly the message is that race directors won’t have all the answers. They will need your help to develop best practice. Safety measures will be stringent, but any policy of zero tolerance is nothing but a nice soundbite. There is, always has been, and always will be, risk in tri.

Social distancing is the buzz phrase, but consider how fatigued triathletes will act at the end of a long-distance event when judgement is impaired. An element of self-policing with compassion will have to prevail, whether it works for enough of us will be decreed by whether you continue to part with your entry fee.

I sense that triathlon can cope and may even prosper. It has cultural advantages over running events in both format and attitude, having long embraced wave, staggered and even rolling starts where entrants understand that first across the line isn’t necessarily the winner. More things also can and do go awry in multisport. Competitors adapt, usually with a smile, albeit it a wry one at times.


The two-time Ironman world champion Chris McCormack’s favourite phrase was “embrace the suck”,  a mantra to thrive on the discomfort you feel when racing. If embracing the suck means collecting our own bananas from the aid stations and making sure we arrive at our designated hour slot for bike racking, then it’s a suck we’ll be able to put up with for a while