Everybody in the Ironman intelligentsia is in an uproar about Kendra Lee, an age grouper who won the women's race outright at Ironman Canada last weekend. Lee beat the nearest woman pro by 90" or so. This is rare but not unheard of. Recently, Dave Scott's son raced as an amateur and won a half-Ironman outright by seconds over the second place finisher (a pro male). (Dave Scott is the father of Ironman -- the original great and still, to my lights, the best ever.)
A few underappreciated facts about Ironman racing:
1. Ironman races are two races run at the same time. The pros start at 6:45, the amateurs at 7:00.
2. Amateurs are not eligible for prize money.
3. The amateur race is huge (2000+) and usually has a mass start. The pro race is small (~50) and, of course, has a mass start.
4. The pros get special bike racking and special nutritional support.
5. The difference between the normal pro and the normal amateur is huge. Think Kobe Bryant versus your law school basketball league.
How much credit does Lee get for beating the top female pro? There's the simple answer, which says fastest over the course wins, and the other things are variables that are easily washed out by the infinite variables over a nearly 10-hour race. The fuller answer has to account for the possible advantages of taking the pro start versus the amateur start.
Some contend the pros can't be asked to compete against top-level amateurs who aren't starting next to them. I argue that it does not matter that the second place (pro) woman believed she was winning when in fact she was losing to an amateur she couldn't see. First, Lee suffered the same infirmity -- she had no better idea where the second place athlete was relative to her. (You can't see the runners 15 minutes -- 2 miles, at their pace -- ahead.) Realistically, amateurs don't have people providing intelligence on their competitors, and I assume Lee did not. Second, 90" is a major differential at that speed. If you figure the strategic race does not begin until the second half of the run leg, the pro would need to run 7-8" per mile faster than she did at the end of a grueling day. I say not likely.
I also argue that pros have a huge advantage over amateurs. The special treatment is real: dealing with a crowded bike rack, rolling a bike in and out of a crowded transition (which Lee dealt with -- as a top woman, she's still behind hundreds of men), and fighting for scraps at overwhelmed aid stations slows you down. The starting crush in the swim, which doesn't spread out for at least 1000 meters, and re-occurs at every turn, is not just stressful enough to kill a couple of fit athletes every year but it definitely slows you down. A possible countervailing benefit is drafting in the water. Done right that is very effective. It's hard -- impossible? -- to do it right in an amateur pack. By contrast, the pros -- with their small start waves -- are able to latch on to a faster swimmer and gain a huge advantage in the water. It's no accident that the pro field is tightly compacted emerging from the swim.
Amateurs have similar crowd problems on the bike. Until the field spreads out 30 or more miles in, passing one competitor can mean passing a line of 15 competitors, because drafting rules make it impossible to fold into a line if two cyclists are separated by less than 25 feet or so (as I learned in Louisville in 2010). The pros are far ahead of that madding crowd. One might respond that nearly all Ironman bike courses are loop courses (tough to find 112 miles of good road without taking over an Interstate), so pros have to deal with lapping the amateurs. While that is so, the age groupers getting lapped are easy for the pros to pass -- and they've spread out by then as well.
I join the "fastest wins" crowd in my view of Lee's success. She's not eligible for prize money, but it's pretty cool that you can come from nowhere with plenty of hard work and get your name in lights.