In order to explain the vast cultural and physiological differences among people living in different parts of the globe, anthropologists often point to environmental and geographical factors. Middle Eastern peoples, for example, developed swarthy complexions from prolonged exposure to the desert sun; Nordic cultures developed seafaring skills and the tolerance for harsh weather conditions; and North American societies developed spreading waistlines and splotchy complexions from prolonged exposure to fast food restaurants. These scientific explanations are attractive because they attribute differences among cultures to external as opposed to innate factors.
These anthropologists really need to start turning their attention to triathlon, because many of the same scientific theories seem to apply. To take only the most obvious example, scientists often point out that the Eskimos have over 100 words for snow, in order to describe all of the subtle variations in snow types that are relevant only to their culture. Likewise, triathletes have developed over 100 words for throwing up. (My own personal favorite, of course, being “yak.” Curiously, the yak is also one of the principal food sources of, cue the Twilight Zone music, the Eskimos. Coincidence? I don’t think so.)
The trianthropology theory is also very psychologically appealing, because it allows us to attribute our shortcomings as triathletes to geographical as opposed to innate factors. Take, for example, the fact that no matter how hard I train, I seem to be unable to crack the top 10% in my age group. It turns out that this isn’t due to any innate physical limitations on my part. Instead, it’s because I grew up in Washington, DC, where the miserable smog irreparably stunted the development of my aerobic capacity. (Nevermind that I often complete in races where pretty much all the athletes also grew up in DC; like most theories, this one still has some kinks to work out.)
The merits of this theory really dawned on me recently when I started doing a great deal of traveling for work. After visiting places like San Francisco and Sydney, I began to realize that the geographical playing field is far from level as far as training opportunities are concerned. People living in these places get to train year-round, and they have the kind of ideal training terrain right outside their doors that the rest of us can only hope to simulate on our computrainers. San Francisco, in particular, really irritated me. These people get to wake up, run across the Golden Gate Bridge and down into Sausalito, and then have their herbal tea on the ferry ride back across the Bay. Meanwhile, people in DC are running loops around Reagan National Airport in 120% humidity.
This theory also helps explain why it can be so difficult to be competitive when you travel to a race in a new geographical region. In addition to the fact that you’re not used to the local weather or terrain, you also have to deal with the triathlon version of Not In My Back Yard. No one wants to lose their hometown race to a bunch of outsiders, so the locals always try to devise a race course that accentuates their natural advantages. It might be a bike a course with especially sharp and tricky turns, or a swim course with weird secret river currents. Unfortunately for me, it's tough to find too many advantages in a place like Connecticut, which doesn’t have particularly unique geographical features. This requires local race directors to get particularly creative -- such as, to use as an example the one race that I participated in directing, inserting some "local color" into the bike course directions (like “left turn at old Mr. Johnson’s place").
The point of all this is that given the geographical training inequities, the only fair solution is to give every athlete a built-in handicap, just like in golf, except it would be measured in time as opposed to strokes. For example, athletes who lived and trained in the town where the race was held would get an automatic 2:00 "homer" penalty. Every city in the world would have handicap attached to it to compensate for the training conditions. So, for example, triathletes who live in training paradises like Sydney and San Fran might carry a five-minute handicap; triathletes from Alaska might get a two-minute credit; and triathletes from New York might earn a 10:00 credit just for making it to the race without have their bikes stripped right off their roof racks. And, of course, triathletes from DC currently living in Connecticut would be guaranteed a top 10% finish.