Monday, August 19, 2013

Metric, Imperial and ???

Ever notice that all 10k running races are 10k long?

All half marathons are 21.1k or 13.1 miles?

All marathons are 42.2k or 26.2 miles?

As an athlete who started her athletic adventures in the running world, I grew to assume that all races with a set name are a set distance. (Despite those non-running people who ask us running people questions like: did you run the 5k marathon last weekend? or how far is a marathon? Like 10k or something?) 

Then I discovered triathlons and, with them, I discovered a whole world of randomness.

If I had started at the Ironman distance (ha!), I would have learned that all Ironmans (Ironmen?) are swim 3.8k (2.4 miles), bike 180k (112 miles) and run 42.2k (26.2 miles).

The half Ironman is still pretty logical in that all distances are half that of the Ironman (swim 1.9k (1.2miles), bike 90k (56 miles) and run 21.1k (13.1 miles)).

The Olympic is also a set distance although it does, in my opinion, seem bizarre in how they figured out the distances. Bizarre because the amount of time doing each sport relative to the amount of time doing the event is much different in the Olympic than it is in the Ironman or half Ironman events.

The Olympic swim is 1.5k (0.93 miles), the bike is 40k (24.8 miles) and the run is 10k (6.2 miles).

The swim is only 400m shorter than the half Ironman. The bike is less than half the distance and the run is also less than half the distance. Odd, but whatever.

The thing is that I debuted at the sprint, or what is sometimes called the sprint, triathlon distance. (Well, technically I debuted with a super sprint (or a try a tri) but let's take that one out of the mix for simplicity's sake.) 

Here are the distances of the non-Olympic triathlons I have done so far:

Grimsby:  swim 750m, bike 25k and run 7.0k.
Guelph:    swim 750m, bike 30k and run 7.0k.
Welland:  swim 750m, bike 30k and run 7.5k.
Belwood: swim 750m, bike 30k, and run 7.5k
Toronto Island (next weekend) is swim 750m, bike 20k and run 5k.

They are all called triathlons. Yet, unlike half marathons, I can't compare my results from race to race because they're all different distances.

According to my friends in the know, a sprint triathlon is exactly half the distance of the Olympic triathlon (750m swim, 20k bike, 5k run). Which means that I will actually be doing my first sprint this weekend. A triathlon is anything between the sprint and the Olympic distance.

Got it?

The other thing I find a little odd is the stickers people put on their cars to celebrate the triathlon distances they've done.

Ironmen (rightly) brag of their accomplishment with the number 140.6. Half Ironmen use the number 70.3 to represent their races. Olympic distance finishers use 51.5 for their race.

Notice anything odd?

The 140.6 and the 70.3 are in miles.

The 51.5 is in kilometres. If we switched it to miles it would read: 34.48. But I've never seen a 34.48 sticker on someone's bumper. Only the 51.5.

I like 51.5. It sounds like a lot. Yet it does feel a little unfair because it looks pretty close to the 70.3 half Ironman distance but I know full well that it's not.

It's been two seasons of triathlons now and I'm getting the hang of things. Some things, like the numbers, I'm still trying to wrap my head around.


  1. Fascinating! I had never considered a lot of this, including the "51.5" business. I had always wondered why the 51.50 triathlon series picked that name for its Olympic races. Now I know. Thanks!

    Here are my thoughts on the subject of standardization. I think it's silly. :^) Olympic races are Olympic-distance, and if it's a little under or over in order to make a good race experience for the organizers, athletes, spectators, and local communities, then that's okay. I've done a few sprints and they're all different lengths, with swims from 1/4 mile (400m) to 1/2 mile (800m) and similarly varying bike and run lengths. In my book, anything significantly shorter than an Olympic is a sprint. (And that's how I treat them, too. Let's go do each section as fast as possible! Yee haw!!)

    As far as not being able to compare your results: Girl! you just aren't comparing the right things. :^) A truly obsessive triathlete--such as I suspect you and I both are--tracks pace times for the swim/bike/run sections, position within your age group and overall for each leg, the fastest times for each part, transition times, lengths of events, how difficult the course was, etc. Then you can say, "That looks slow, but I was significantly faster than..."

    As for the Olympic distances, they are what the ITU thought would make for good spectator interaction (both on TV and in person). In their push for an Olympic berth, they wanted to make the swim short enough that it could be over for the elites in about 20 minutes and long enough that there would be some separation between the fastest and everyone else. Then 40K on the bike and 10K running are, as you noticed, about half of the half-Ironman distances, and the whole thing could be over in a bout two hours. The spectator appeal is also why ITU racing is draft LEGAL on the bike. They wanted to make it more exciting by encouraging a criterium bike race feeling, and they wanted to make sure that no Olympic medal was ever won or lost because of a drafting penalty. Makes sense, non?

  2. Interesting...I didn't know about the sprint and triathlon designations. It's crazy because down here in Virginia, most of the "sprint" triathlons I have seen are only 400M swimming so not close to the 750M of an actual "sprint. Although, having completed my first "sprint" this past weekend, I don't think I could have handled a 750M swim so I'm glad it was only 400M :)