Op-Ed: Missing the (Kona) Point
With Vanhoenacker portrayed as a tragic hero, many in the triathlon media and on triathlon forums are doing a great job of painting Ironman as the villain. What certain media, athletes and fans need to do is to take a closer look at the KPR rules.August 5, 2013
Objectivity: the state or quality of being true, even outside individual feelings, imaginings or interpretations.
Objectivity is, in short, backing assertions with something tangible—usually facts. As such, it makes me cringe as a trained journalist when I see the following statement being put out by media entities within our sport on their websites and podcasts. Summarily, it sounds like this:
“Oh, poor Marino Vanhoenacker. One of the big favorites to possibly win the Hawaii Ironman this October may not even make it, because of this damned points chase system which forced him to race too much and caused him a hip stress fracture. We’re not seeing the best athletes racing at their best come October, we’ll never see the epic Allen vs. Scott battles because the athletes are too wrung out by the time they reach Kona.”
Wasn’t that easy to say? And gosh, because you heard it on the Internet, by a journalist (or by someone who has a website, blog or podcast), it must be true, right? And because Ironman is the big bad wolf, hell, it’s easy to unload on them.
I decided to take the opposite tack; I made a drive to see my neighbor Paula Newby-Fraser, one of the principles with rules execution for the World Triathlon Corporation. As an Ironman world champion several times over, she certainly has a vested interest in seeing the best players in the game earn their place in a fair manner. She was gracious enough to share all the readily available facts about the KPR (Kona Points Ranking) program.
I get it: our sport is small, and we’re dealing with a few media outlets without trained journalists. But the vast majority of triathlon outlets have journalists who are highly trained. That’s a good thing. But trained or not, all of them need to do their due diligence if they’re going to espouse something without getting the facts, which is a basic tenet of investigative journalism. My message? Don’t believe everything you hear on the forums or podcasts; they’re reeling you in for shock value, facts be damned.
Would you like some actual facts? Here’s one: Since Kona, Vanhoenacker has done exactly two races. Two. Ironman Melbourne and Ironman Frankfurt. Not even a 70.3. Not, to my knowledge, a Challenge event. Not a Rev3. TriStar? Abu Dhabi? Wildflower? Nada. That’s not over-racing; it’s under-racing.
Was that enlightening? How about this fact: instead of walking the marathon to collect a paltry 200 points by finishing, Vanhoenacker could have done one P500 70.3 race, finished as low as sixth-place, with minimal impact on his body, and earned enough points on the most recent round of early cuts. There were a total of 24 Ironman 70.3 events between Ironman Melbourne on March 24, and Ironman Frankfurt on July 7.
Here’s another fact: Ironman upped its count of pro women on the start in Kona, from 30 to 35. (Men have 50 spots provided). Consider that the male-to-female percentage of athletes competing in Ironman and 70.3 events globally is at 67 percent to 33 percent, with slot allocation at 59 percent to 41 percent. Objectively (there’s that word), the pound-for-pound opportunity sways slightly in favor of the pro women to make it onto the Kona starting line.
Listen, I understand; Ironman had a rough history of making knee-jerk decisions. In this particular case, the company is weighing its decisions very carefully. The points process is designed to be fair: get enough points and you’ll get to Kona. The thing that needed adjustment is just how those points have been allocated, both among Ironman and 70.3 events, as well as down through the field.
As a result, some athletes hit the events. Petr Vabrousek doesn’t seem to have any problems with getting injured; since Sept 2 of last year, the Czech veteran triathlete has five Ironman races under his belt—Melbourne, Western Australia, Brazil, Austria and Switzerland. He sits in 13th place, his Kona ticket punched. Not great, but not bad results, floating around sixth or seventh position generally. Enough to scoop points.
Others go after quality, and you have to look no further than Mary Beth Ellis to see her example: third in Kona last year, followed by a win at Ironman Cozumel, and a win this year at Ironman France (plus top finishes at 70.3 Pays d’Aix and 70.3 Florida.) That’s enough to put her fourth in KPR at the moment.
It’s like playing darts; pick up points on the perimeter, or try for that bulls eye. Vanhoenacker opted for the latter by defending his Frankfurt title—and his dart landed just outside the board. Now, he faces the unenviable position of making two choices: risking his injury in an attempt to get within the final remaining 10 spots to make up the 40 pro starters in Kona in October, or tapping out, focusing on rehabbing his hip and resetting to make a run at Kona for 2014.
I believe that Vanhoenacker’s story should have been written about, but not how it has been thus far. Vanhoenacker’s injury may force him to miss Kona, but it’s wholly of his own volition. And it certainly wasn’t Ironman’s decision which route he took. It’s an unfortunate reality, but in triathlon—specifically triathlon training—puts undue stress on the body. That’s not Ironman’s fault. Nor is it Challenge’s fault or any other long-distance racing company. For a pro athlete, being injured is part of the game. It is what it is, and it’s nobody’s fault when an injury occurs. It’s that moment when an athlete adjusts and reacts to an injury that it becomes their responsibility.
Who among the media bothered to ask Ironman about the Kona points process? For example, the updated points scorecard can be found at ironman.com, not at ironmanpromembership.com. How many know the KPR data now features individual athlete breakouts, allowing you to analyze at which events an athlete garners his or her points? (Paula Newby Fraser tells me that the pro membership page will be phased out soon, with all pro membership info living at ironman.com.)
The onus here is on the pro athletes as well. Instead of going to social media to air their grievances, often with as little or less understanding of the qualification process than athlete chat rooms—I suggest that the pros sit down in front of their computers and look at the qualification process. Study it. Examine it. See how it works. Build a smart season around it.
This is not to say that some of the pro triathletes don’t. Indeed, some have studied it. There are some athletes who have tried to target the high-points races in hopes of getting some of the windfall trickle-down points. So, kudos to guys like Petr Vabrousek; the warrior of Ironman has for years done high-volume, and his process of picking up fifth-place and sixth-place results around the world has him headed yet again to Kona. And those are only his top-five finishes, as he’s done a few more beyond just those events. Same goes for American Thomas Gerlach. Not necessarily a regular podium finisher, but half decent results at Ironman Los Cabos, Ironman Coeur d’Alene, and some somewhat average efforts at Ironman Arizona, Ironman Wisconsin and Ironman Florida have him Kona-bound
Then you have the guys who will be at the front of the race in Kona—Leanda Cave, Craig Alexander, Pete Jacobs etc., who have tons of points based both on Kona finishes as well as strong performances at other events after Kona. They can kick back and have the perfect, stress-free lead-up to October.
All told, every one of the athletes that qualified on the first round of cuts claimed their spot to Kona. No rolldowns.
And of course, you have the pros who don’t have any idea about how it works. These are usually journeymen as well, with more focus on prize purses than points scales.
To be a professional, these athletes have to handle it as that: a profession. Fortunately, Ironman has solicited feedback from several pros who have a very keen interest in the execution of the rankings system—Meredith Kessler, Jordan Rapp and Craig Alexander. The three sat with the folks at Ironman at Ironman 70.3 St. George this year to go over the KPR system, to consider what works, and what doesn’t. Ironman reminds us that the rankings system is an evolutionary process, and to that end, it’s going to get better.
The system will off heavier points skewing toward the top one to three places, or one to five places for P-4000 events, with points dropping off precipitously. Ironman 70.3 events will remain key to 70.3 Worlds qualification, but will offer less impact for Kona qualification.
To test the protocol, Ironman re-ran the points from the 2012 season, and Newby-Fraser showed me the side-by-side comparative; how it was in ‘12, and how it would have been under the new points allocation.
And the results really illustrated a reward for performance; athletes who won races moved significantly up the charts. Guys like Andy Potts, who barely qualified for Kona last year, shot up the rankings. Fellow American Matt Russell was 27th last year; he moved up to sixth. An athlete like Germany’s Kristen Möller moved from 24th to 11th. Jessie Donovan goes from 41st to 16th. Conversely, the athletes who stacked points by volume—names like Vabrousek—plummeted, since results like eighth place aren’t rewarded as handsomely as they are currently. Now, getting to Kona will be less about doing okay, and more about doing great.
Automatic Kona qualifiers at Ironman 70.3 Worlds and Hy-Vee remain, but they still have to validate their spot to Kona as well. Again, it could be argued that they haven’t earned their place, but then all you need to do is look at the person holding the number one spot on the Ironman KPR list—Germany’s Sebastian Kienle. Tell him he doesn’t deserve to go to Kona, I dare you.
Suddenly, winning an Ironman is worth something. And getting to Kona should be the best of the best. It should be difficult. If you’re trying to make the world championships or Olympics in track and field, great athletes make the standard. Those who are just a cut below end up flying around the world trying to meet the qualifying time.
It’s a process, but Ironman is getting to a good place with it.
The new points program will go into effect in a couple weeks starting with Timberman 70.3, and at Ironman Japan on Aug. 31.
“We feel very confident that this change for 2014 addresses the key issues that were brought to the table by the pro athletes,” Newby Fraser told me. “It’s reflected in rewarding people who win an Ironman race. And in the words of Craig Alexander, excellence should be rewarded. This is sport. They all toe the line wanting to win—isn’t that what we’re shooting for?”
Sure, a bad race is possible for anyone, but again, this is where the athletes need to be professional and learn to alter their schedule around injuries. Smart planning and scheduling will still get the deserving athletes to Kona.
And of poor Marino? Well, of course I feel badly for him. And selfishly, I would love to see him take on Kona this year; He adds an exciting dynamic, and I feel like he can win the title—provided he’s 100 percent. But a 99 percent effort won’t do it. Nor will a broken-bodied, 60-percent effort. Marino doesn’t go to Kona to fulfill sponsor obligations. He doesn’t go to hope for a top 10 or a top 5. He races to win. We saw him push the envelope last year, and I think he is capable of taking what he learned with him to a victory. But if he’s not healthy, it’s never worth the effort.
A little planning may have averted him having to consider one of two options: jeopardize his ailing hip by going after yet another Ironman in order to get to Kona, or tapping out, focusing on his hip rehab, and resetting for next year. I certainly hope he’s recovering and this will all amount to a tempest in a teacup. If not, I just hope we can consider that when an athlete is broken, it’s not necessarily the fault of the race. I believe it remains up to the media, the fans and the athletes to do a bit of homework before jumping to such assumptions.