Lucky thirteen

For thirteen years running, I’ve done the Hamburg Triathlon. It was the Holsten City Man, then the Hamburg City Man, and now the Hamburg Triathlon. A huge event taking place in the centre of the city, the weekend includes professional sprint races and a frenetic professional team sprint. Not to mention the 10,000 plus amateurs who race in either the sprint on Saturday or the Olympic on Sunday. The race is a feat of organisation and the the city and race organisers shall be commended.

Thirteen straight years, doing the Olympic distance. During that time, I’ve seen the race (and the sport of triathlon) evolve from a gathering of committed weirdos to an all-encompassing sport for everyone. Now, the Hamburg Triathlon has competitors of all shapes and sizes.

Is this a good thing? In the case of a race as big as the Hamburg Triathlon (waves of 200 or so starters every ten minutes), you could argue that it makes the race rather dangerous. Namely, due to the inexperienced amateur athletes who haven’t quite mastered the finer points of triathlon (or even read the excellent and comprehensive athlete’s handbook prepared by the Hamburg Triathlon organisers). This includes sprinting the first 20m in the swim and then breast-stroking, riding all over the road or in the middle, not drafting, not looking over your shoulder when changing course, running in the middle, screaming at slower athletes to get out of the way, and taking up a lot of unnecessary space in the transition area.

These are much more observations than complaints, and I also observed that it’s not only inexperienced atheltes causing problems. In such a situation, safety becomes an issue. On the bike, I had a couple of near misses, and saw a couple too, because competitors were more concerned with their own race and positioning than with the safety of others. Sure, they want to do well and have a good race, but this shouldn’t be at the expense of endangering others, especially on such a crowded course. With so many athletes on the course, the organisers need to have more supervisors and referees on motorbikes keeping control (and perhaps forget the time penalties in preference of putting safety first!).

But these are problems that triathlon as a sport must deal with, and they’re not being caused just by athletes new to the sport. Experienced competitors are also at fault. (As an example: the incredible amount of drafting and hair-pin-corner-cutting-in I witnessed at last year’s world champs in London.) And this brings me to my other concern about the Hamburg Triathlon, and the sport in general. Athletes want to do well. Despite the rhetoric, it’s not just about finishing any more. People want to be faster than last year, they want to improve. They invest in better equipment, join clubs and train harder. And maybe, just maybe, this desire for improvement leads them to make a pact with the D devil.

2624 men finished the Olmypic distance course. The overall winner was in age group MSen1, which means he’s aged 40-44. In 8th place, was a man in MSen2, for ages 45-49. This is just extraordinary. Are they former pros? Such a result, at such an age, must put these two guys into the top 0.000001% of athletes in the world. I don’t know whether to bow in utter respect or to launch a protest. (Which is interesting in itself: is it possible to protest the result? Is it worth doing? Would it make any difference?)

After a great weekend of triathlon, I’m left with a slightly sour taste in my mouth (though that could be the water quality of the Alster). I don’t want to fear the worst. I’d like to be impressed with guys who have full time jobs and are middle-aged but somehow manage to be almost as fast of professional athletes. I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t seem to add up.

Nevertheless, the Hamburg Triathlon is a wonderful event. And I’ll be back for it next year, to make it fourteen years straight.


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