You might have noticed a rash of highly publicized incidents lately involving athletes getting lost on race courses during triathlons. It’s hard to understand exactly how this happens. Even though we like to talk about all the thought and strategy that goes on during the race, there really isn’t a whole lot to think about most of the time. Basically, all you’ve got to concentrate on is (1) what body part hurts the most right now, and (2) what direction you’re supposed to go next. I don’t want to antagonize those of you who have had an “off-course experience” (the politically correct phrase for getting lost), but this doesn’t seem like an overly taxing mental challenge.
This is compounded by the fact that most triathletes are so terrified of getting lost during a race, that they become maniacally obsessed with making sure they’re going in the right direction at all times. I’ve served as a course marshal and can attest to this from personal experience. You could have a giant, twenty-foot-tall flashing neon arrow at an intersection pointing in the right direction, and hysterical athletes will still scream “WHICH WAY??!!” at the marshals as they approach the corner.
All of which makes the increased frequency of lost triathletes extremely mysterious. Are race courses getting more complex? Are race marshals getting more lackadaisical? Or are we triathletes just getting plain stupider? The answers are unclear . . . . But what is clear is that the dynamics of getting lost during a race can be downright amusing – provided, of course, that they’re not happening to you.
It usually starts with a general feeling of uneasiness that you can’t quite put your finger on. You’re racing along, minding your own business, when slowly it dawns on you that there’s no one else around. This is strange. Could the pack really be that spread out? You start looking over your shoulder, hoping to catch a glimpse of a bike or a runner. Your brain is desperate to avoid the conclusion that you’ve gone off course, because the consequences, physical and psychological, are just too brutal. It’s like those nightmares you had as a kid, the ones where stayed up all night studying for the wrong exam. So you convince yourself that the next arrow is just around the bend.
But with each passing second, grim reality starts to set in, and that knot starts growing bigger in the pit of your stomach. At some point, you’ve got to accept the fact that you’re lost, and start retracing your steps. But when? How do you know when it’s time to give up, curse as loudly and obscenely as you can, and turn back in the other direction? It’s even worse when a pack of triathletes gets lost as a group. Because then everyone assumes that everyone else knows where they’re going, and the whole pack just keeps cruising off course like an electron spun off in a chain reaction.
There is an old adage in triathlon that there is nothing more dangerous than a lost triathlete back on the course. Once you finally find your way back, you start racing like a crazy person. You can channel all your frustration and rage directly into speed. You’re likely to have some of the best splits of your career. Psychologically, you’ve got nothing to lose in this kind of situation, because if you crash and burn before the finish you can just blame it on the extra distance and still come out looking like a hero. This is why off-course experiences are like the “fish stories” of triathlon – no one can prove exactly how far off course you actually went, so the distance usually grows longer and longer in the retelling.
Once the race is over, two things usually happen. First, you get to have some fun crunching the numbers, convincing yourself that if not for the miscue, you not only would not only have set a PR, but also shaved 10 minutes off the course record. It is amazing how many triathletes have career races on days when they happened to get lost. Second, you immediately start looking for someone to blame. The course marshals are an obvious target. And I will admit that sometimes course marshals can be a little casual when it comes to giving directions -- as if, just by standing motionless at an intersection, athletes speeding by at 30 miles per hour will be able to tell from their body language or facial expression which direction to go.
But the truth is, given the very small percentage of athletes who manage to get lost during an event, statistically the responsibility probably has to fall on the athletes themselves. It is well documented that triathletes can suffer from major lapses in concentration. Often, these occur during the pre-race instructions. Does anyone actually listen to the instructions anymore? The race director will spend twenty minutes yelling into a bullhorn about the five waves at the swim start, and inevitably a competitor who had been preoccupied trying to fasten the Velcro on the back of his wetsuit will raise his hand and ask, “Are there going to be waves, or is it mass start?” With that kind of focus, it’s not hard to imagine missing an arrow or two out on the course.