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Triathlon rules: the good, the bad, and the crazy

So many of the questions athletes ask us are about racing rules, so we decided to go straight to the source. This month I sat down with Mark Turner, Head Official for USA Triathlon and Ironman Official, to get some clarification on all sorts of rules questions, from arm sleeves and helmets to draft zones and cell phones.

How do you determine the amount of time each segment should allow before you DNF?

Mark: USAT officials are not involved in determining cutoff times for any event, as this is a function of race management. The Race Director makes these determinations based on several factors, including athlete safety and contracts with the local jurisdictions the race is taking place in. Things like police, fire and EMS coverage and road closures help guide the Race Director on determining these cutoffs. The USAT/Ironman officials are not even involved in enforcing these rules.

Can you wear cooling SPF arm sleeves or calf compression sleeves on the swim without a wetsuit?

Mark: It depends. Currently USAT does not have a rule prohibiting the athlete from wearing arm or calf sleeves whether the race is wetsuit legal or not. Ironman and World Triathlon are different – if the race is wetsuit legal, then sleeves can be worn. If the race is not wetsuit legal, then you are not allowed to wear them and still be eligible for awards. If you want to wear them, you will be placed in the wetsuit wave and ineligible for awards or Ironman points for you or your team.

Why do you need to have your helmet on when you are walking the bike to and from transition?

Mark: This is a rule that we are looking at changing. The intention of the rule is to refer to in-competition enforcement, but it can be taken literally by some. At World Triathlon events you are required to have a helmet inspection for fit and then it makes sense to wear your helmet when bringing your bike to transition because the officials do the inspection then.

What is the strangest rule that most people probably do not know exists?

Mark: I would not say this is the strangest, but the most misunderstood rule is the drafting rule. Many athletes believe that if you unintentionally enter someone’s draft zone you can just slow down to get out of the zone. But this is not true. Once you enter the draft zone, the only way out of it is to pass the rider ahead. Just falling back will result in a penalty.

One strange story… At an Ironman 70.3 race, an athlete had a mechanical issue with 2 miles left on the bike course. The athlete left his bicycle on the side of the road and ran to transition. (Mark made me guess what the penalty was… Littering? Nope. Abandoned equipment? Nope.) The penalty assessed was making forward progress on the bike course while not in contact with your bike. The athlete is allowed to run, but must carry his/her bike to transition!

Craziest thing that you have had to penalize someone for?

Mark: I would not say there are many crazy things to penalize people for. The most interesting cases usually arise when someone is believed to have cut the course. Let your athletes know that if they are penalized (DQ) for this but have Garmin data to support their innocence, then the penalty can be waived off. Note: They will need your actual watch or bike computer and not just screenshots of the data. The timing people are wizards when it comes to scrubbing the data and determining if someone stayed on course.

Is it legal to draft on the run?

Mark: Yes, but pacing is not legal, from outside people or even athletes who have already completed the race.

What is the rule that is violated the most?

Mark: Drafting! And the most misunderstood part of passing is that once in the draft zone, athletes should remain in the zone until they are ready to make the pass. Many athletes immediately move to the left and risk then getting a blocking penalty. Stay in the zone as long as you can and enjoy the draft! This rule is different for pros, however, who are required to move left immediately.

What are the distances for drafting in USAT & Ironman?

Mark: Ironman North America (there are different rules in other parts of the world) – 12 meters or 6 bike lengths

USA Triathlon non-Championship events – 3 bike lengths

USAT National Championship events & World Triathlon – 5 bike lengths for Sprint & Olympic distances

In Ironman 70.3 Atlantic City a few years back, the rules were changed the day before the race to allow athletes to carry their phones on the bike and run because there was a bombing 30 miles north on the boardwalk in another town. Is this rule change authorized by the head official at the race or do they need to get permission higher up the chain?

Mark: Rules amendments are typically applied for in advance and approved by the Rules Chair, but in this instance the head official at the race is able to make an emergency amendment. Note that in 2019 USAT changed the rules and now allow phones on the course, as many individuals use them as power meters, but if you are seen using it as a phone or have headphone in/on you will be penalized!

When ascending a hill, is it legal to pass on the right if someone drifts left and gives you no option to pass on the left?

Mark: The official should err on the side of the athlete and determine if they were seeking a competitive advantage. Plus, if the person drifting to the left causes no safe way to pass on the left then the athlete is given no choice but to pass on the right.


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