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The toughest are Triathletes

08 August 2012, 19:39

The 2012 Olympic Triathlon event is the fourth time this event has been seen at Olympic level, with its debut in 2000 at the Sydney games.  The blue carpet used in the transition zone heralds from that Sydney race and is now used at all International Triathlon Union events as well as at the Olympic Games.  The women’s race held on Saturday 4th August, and the men’s race on the 7th both exceeded expectations in terms of quality of performance on the day.  I argue that the performances we witnessed constitute some of the greatest physiological achievements of the human body.

Standard, or “Olympic” distance triathlons involve a 1.5km swim, followed immediately by a 40km cycle on the open road and then a 10km run.  For the purposes of spectatorship the cycle and run constitute laps of a circuit – in London the cycle circuit was repeated seven times (7 x ~5.5km) and the run circuit four times (4 x 2.5km).  The course was flat and fast, but technical for the cycle as there were more than 100 corners to negotiate over the course of ~40km (it wasn’t quite perfectly 40km).  The swim was an open-water swim but undertaken in the Serpentine, so there would be no tidal or wave influences on the swim times.

To the swim first.  Lucy Hall of Great Britain left the water first in a time of 18min17s.  There isn’t a women’s 1500m pool event to compare this to, but Katie Ledecky (USA) swam to a gold medal in the 800m in 08:14:60. Given that double the distance does not mean twice the time it would be an estimate but perhaps she would swim 1500m in a pool in just over 16minutes.  Lucy Hall swam that first leg of the triathlon just about as quickly as the record holder for a longer distance event in the pool: without the benefit of tumble-turns and pushing off the wall, and having to ‘sight’ as she didn’t have a black line on the pool floor to guide her.  Richard Varga of Slovakia swam a 16:56 to exit into transition 1 – Sun Yang won the gold medal in the men’s 1500m pool race in 14:31:02 (with the aids of the tumble, push-off, and straight lane).  The race cannot be won on the swim – note that neither Varga nor Hall reached the top 10.  Eventual gold medallists Nicola Spirig and Alistair Brownlee swam in 19:24 and 17:04 respectively, Spirig more than a minute off the leader’s pace at this stage.

During transition when the swim is wetsuit-legal the athlete must quickly remove the wetsuit, don their cycling helmet and fasten it, and run through the carpeted area with their bicycle.  Groff of the USA managed all this in 37seconds (fastest woman through T1) while Richard Murray of SA did the same in 35seconds.  This speed does not come by chance: this is the “fourth” discipline of triathlon and athletes practice this repeatedly during training.

Kate McIlroy (Australia) completed the first of seven bike laps the fastest in 08:58.  Hiroshima Tayama did same for the men in 08:16.  Bradley Wiggins’ first lap during his gold medal winning individual time-trial over about ~5.5km was 05:05 (3min faster than Tayama) – and he had not swum 1.5km first.  Armstrong of the US who took the women’s gold for individual time trial rode 9.1km in 13:56 – both McIlroy and Armstrong were cycling at 1.4 minutes per kilometre.  At this stage Spirig, Norden and Densham, eventual medallists in the women’s race were cycling together – having managed to avoid the crashes that spoiled a number of competitors races – and the first bike lap took these three women 09:06 (1.5min.km-1).  The Brownlee brothers and Javier Gomez would stand on the podium later in the day and on the first lap on their bicycles were all pacing at 08:24 on average (1.4min.km-1).  What do these speeds mean to us “weekend warrior” athletes?  If you got on your bicycle and cycled at the speed these elite triathletes were keeping up – after having swum 1.5km - you would cover 100km in 2 ½ hours.  Those who have ridden the Argus cycle race, or any 100km road race can relate to what a feat that is.  If you were to cycle the 40km from Grahamstown to the Riebeeck East turn-off and back (a standard route for Grahamstown cyclists) you would complete the entire ride in 56minutes.

The final lap on the bike was the seventh such lap and slower speeds may be anticipated for some, whereas others may speed up – pacing strategies differ.  Kate Roberts (SA) cycled fastest in the women’s race as she headed home to transition 2 - ~6km in a time of 9:43 (1.6min.km-1).  Gavin Noble representing Ireland picked his pace up on the last lap to complete it in 8:30.  The three medallists in the women’s race cycle the seventh lap in 10:05, 10:03 and 10:04 respectively (gold, silver, bronze) while the men’s podium finishers took a mere 8:31 each for this last, decisive lap. Kate Roberts was a mere 73seconds off the men’s pace after cycling 34km around 100 tight corners.

After an hour of racing at these paces, there is the run to come.  There is a track athletics event for the 10km distance – the 10 000m which at the London 2012 games was won by Mo Farah for Great Britain and Tirunesh Dibaba (Ethiopia).  Farah took the gold in the men’s race in 27:30:42 – a speed of 2.7min.km-1.  For some perspective, you cannot match this speed on a commercial treadmill as he was running faster than the treadmill would allow (20kph top speed) for the entire time.  Dibaba didn’t waste her time either in 30:20:75 – an average speed of ~20kph so you might be lucky on the treadmill if you got the speed up to its maximum before you started timing your 10km.  Alistair Brownlee ran 10km in 29:07.  Spirig and Norden ran the same distance in 33:41.  To state the obvious – that is a blistering pace. 

In the pool the individual medley swimmers over the 100m and 200m distance are the “endurance” athletes of their sport.  Mastering all four strokes, the freestyle leg which comes last in the stroke order is usually 18-23% slower than when swum by freestyle specialists over the same distance without already having swum three other strokes.  (A fact that has been cited in relation to Ye Shiwen’s exceedingly fast freestyle leg in her race in London).  Alistair Brownlee’s 10km run was 6% slower than Farah’s track 10 000m.  Norden and Spirig were 9.6% slower than Dibaba.  The endurance and strength of the triathletes is simply astounding.  Triathletes require the speed and power of a short distance event in combination with the endurance to race for ~2 hours.  Physiologically speaking this is a tremendous requirement.  At the London 2012 Olympic Games, we saw what the body truly can endure.

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