Thursday, March 5, 2015

Everything that's wrong with the LAVA Magazine story on Armstrong


There's a lot. I've seen some really poor material out of the triathlon press, but LAVA's new cover story has to be the worst I've seen since I began reading Triathlete in 2005.

The cover itself is a sad narrative on the editorial direction the publication has gone. This is a monthly triathlon news publication. In the last month, there was a new triathlon team announced in Egypt; one of the most dynamic countries in one of the most dynamic regions in the world right now. There was a new women's advisory board selected to discuss the "50 Women to Kona" movement with WTC executives. There were preparations for one of the most lucrative races in the professional ranks. Even if you wanted to reach and write about something happening in professional cycling relevant to triathlon, there are currently a dozen athletes going after the hour record after more than a decade of zero interest in it. Instead, LAVA features an op-ed on a story that was dead, buried, and covered by Oprah nearly two years ago.

So Brad Culp runs a monthly triathlon news magazine, and his cover story has nothing to do with news or anything that happened in the last month. On top of that, his timing couldn't be worse. The issue hit the stands about three weeks after it comes out that the guy he wants exonerated tried to get his girlfriend to take the heat for a DUI incident.

As for T.J. Murphy's story, I can't determine if the title "An Unreasoned Decision" is supposed to be a pithy reference to the USADA reasoned decision on banning Armstrong or a characterization of his own essay. Murphy has been a longtime fan of Lance (full disclosure: I've been a longtime skeptic and critic), and he'd already written in support of an Armstrong return on LAVA's website. The article reads like he's bolted together his previous ruminations on the idea and relied on some flashes of prose to bear the weight. It falls apart because he never decides where to plant the support columns of his argument. He opens with the claim that the USADA report is flawed and unsupported by facts. But instead of digging into the actual evidence he shifts to reverse-engineering quotes from UCI leadership (he actually says "reverse engineer that quote"!) in order to lay the blame on fans for Armstrong's crimes. Between the two is a paragraph making the obligatory observation that US Postal wasn't the only one that doped.

Then, just as Murphy is really getting warmed up on the third page, he's interrupted by an expository piece on Armstrong's beginnings in endurance sports. He eventually meanders back to defending Armstrong on the next page, but instead of the flaws in the USADA report he starts talking about all the books written about Armstrong. It's like he forgot what he was saying and just started talking about something else.

His discourse on the literature is bizarre. He confesses he didn't read any of it until just last year even though he's known Armstrong since the 1980's. The guy is a journalist with a deep interest in Armstrong, and yet he's read nothing on the subject. It becomes understandable once Murphy explains that reading the books gives him a headache. He says "reading through them felt like what I imagine being a first-year law student feels like." It seems completely lost on him that the USADA Reasoned Decision is actually structured like a legal document. He brings his own reading comprehension into question. He gives the impression that he's read the document, but does he really understand anything that's in it?

Then there's more history, with Armstrong's comeback to triathlon. Then Murphy makes the first unique pitch late in the sixth page. He speaks in terms of moral equivocation. "Cycling was a dope-fest," he writes. The best reason for pardoning Armstrong isn't that he's innocent or that the punishment is excessive. It's that no one else was punished. Murphy reaches all the way back into the earliest days of Le Tour to display a host of riders who should be punished similarly.

Then there's the whole cancer charity thing. We've heard how that's a get out of jail free card before. He's done good work in the past and he could do more in the future. Let the man ride his bike.

I think the one and only valid argument Murphy makes is for allowing Armstrong to participate in non-competitive rides, like centuries for charity. I would agree with that. Napoleon was exiled to Elba, but they still let him leave the house and walk the beach.

So the piece is poorly constructed. In the end, it's no different than most Armstrong apologist pieces that have bubbled to the surface over the years-- just a shotgun blast of "yeah but's" that sound like something a 14-year-old kid would tell his parents while trying to get out of being grounded. Still, there are some extraordinary non sequiturs in the body that show just how lazily this thing was cobbled together.

For instance, Murphy claims that the USADA decision is "based on the assumption that [Armstrong] and his team were the only ones with a doping program, or that he and his team had a superior doping program and forced the rest of the sport to dope." That's completely false. The USADA report is meant to demonstrate that Armstrong personally organized, led and resourced a deliberate, long-running criminal effort. Murphy totally misses the point here, as demonstrated by his insistence on addressing the issue in terms like this: "Armstrong obviously lied his ass off for more than a decade, and he broke the doping rules, and he could be mean to people..." This is an assumption that can't be supported. Murphy never approaches the other things the report implicitly accuses Armstrong of. The list includes:

International trafficking
Bribery
Extortion
Blackmail
Conspiracy
Corruption
Perjury
Larceny
Fraud

I'm not even a lawyer and I can see those clear as day in the report. So when Murphy runs out to left field again and comes back with a comparison between Armstrong and Michael Vick, asking why Armstrong is so punished by the sport when Michael Vick went to jail, I just really lose all comprehension of what he's trying to do. Michael Vick went to jail and still got to play football. Lance Armstrong didn't go to jail, but he can't ride his bike. Somehow Armstrong got the harsher punishment? Okay, I'll play. Let's send Armstrong to prison for eight years and then let him come back and compete. Sounds great.

But Murphy's greatest disservice to the sport comes at the end of his article when he claims that allowing Armstrong to get back into competitive Ironman would be the greatest thing for the sport since Julie Moss crawled across the line. That's obscene. What he's essentially saying is that the entire field of current professional athletes has no value to promoting triathlon, and so we ought to simply use them as background actors in a made-for-reality-television series featuring a washed-up cheat who hasn't given nearly as much to triathlon as the darling protagonist. That's insulting and degrading to our current pros. More people should call him out on that.

In sum, it's a terrible waste of paper. There definitely wasn't enough content of information or thought to warrant a cover. Murphy wrote a half-assed op-ed that lurched around aimlessly, and Culp jumped on it as a chance to put Armstrong on the cover. At this point I wonder what LAVA does for an encore. Who goes on the cover next, Jerry Sandusky or Kim Kardashian?







Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Race Within: A conversation with Kate Bevilaqua on Ultra515 Canada



Image via katebevilaqua.com

I was surprised last month to check up on the start list at the rebranded Canadian event and see another professional Ironman athlete taking the challenge. I reached Kate at her home in Australia and we talked about why she signed up.

On her reasons for trying the Ultraman distance 

I've talked about doing it for three, four, five years now. The first time I heard about it was five years ago during a trip to Hawaii. It was always an issue of timing. This sort of thing is a major commitment, especially in terms of recovery and finance. But at the end of last year I started planning my calendar and thought 'why not?' I love the challenge. I like events that push me over the edge. It excites me. 

On whether she has plans to compete in Ultraman at some point 

The goal is definitely to win the Ultraman World Championships. Hawaii is special. I like to be there. But if the World Champs were somewhere else, I would definitely want to race there because it's the world champs. It's a special thing to be world champion. 

On whether she'd compete at the world Rubik's cube championships if she had the ability to win it 

No. 

On whether she'd compete in the Ultraman World Championships if she won the Ironman World Championship 

Yes. 

On if she'd compete in the Ultraman World Championships if there was an Ultra515 World Championship and she won it 

No. 

On what the heck it means to be a world champion in the context of her answers to the previous two questions 

It's the sport and the people. You can't take the smile off my face when I toe the line for an Ironman. I'm always nervous the night before a race. I have trouble sleeping. I'm always scared and excited. The Rubik's cube thing isn't the challenge I'm looking for. There's a physical and mental aspect. 

On if she knew that Canada had changed brands 

No, I wasn't aware that Canada was no longer an Ultraman event until I saw your earlier blog on it. I looked at the Ultraman website before registering and didn't see that it had changed, and I never heard back from anyone at Ultraman after I emailed them. 

[Note: I reached Sheryl Cobb after this interview. She told me that they never received an email from Kate and that the rules were changed to reflect the new relationship with Canada immediately after Steve Brown's press release. Here is the language under section 34, "Qualification for Entry," of the Ultraman rules and guidelines on the website: At a minimum it is expected that the applicant will be a former finisher of an Ultraman event (Canada—prior to 2015, United Kingdom—prior to 2014, Florida or World Championships) and have completed an event with at least a 2.4 miles swim, 112 miles bike, and 26.2 miles run or equivalent in the previous 18 months to the Ultraman Event for which they are applying. Other ultra distance events are also considered as qualifiers assuming they have distances equal to or greater than iron distances. (Emphasis added)

My read on this is that Ultra515 still qualifies finishers for the Ultraman World Championships. Remarkably, there is no mention of Ultraman Australia in the rule.]

On if and when she'll be able to walk away from triathlon after a world championship or the end of her pro career 

No. My partner and I will go back as age-groupers. I'm never walking away. It's who we are. We have a coaching company and I'm passionate about supporting my athletes when they qualify for Kona.

Where to from here? 

The Ironman World Championship isn't enough. I'd love to compete in Roth. I want to branch out to ultra later in my career. I want to run in Western States and other events. I think Ultraman is the right distance between Ironman and the really crazy triple Iron distances. I think a lot of professional athletes think about doing the ultra distance, but there are of course financial pressures during your career. I think in fact you'll see more pros going to ultra after they retire.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Ultraman Florida: A few thoughts

Billy Edwards finishing the run (image via Michelle Buczkowski)

I wasn't there, but thanks to friends I was more or less able to keep up with the play-by-play. I know Billy Edwards from interviews with him in his capacity as a coach for the U.S. Naval Academy's triathlon team and the Race Across America. He's fast in the Iron distance and obviously knows how to ride a bike. I wasn't sure how he'd swim or handle a 52.4-mile run, though. Usually cyclists fall off the pace a little in the third stage. He obviously trained hard. Congrats to him.

I had pegged Christian Isakson for the win, especially with his experience in Canada and Hawaii in the bag. Word was that he developed stomach issues as in Hawaii again, though, and it slowed him down on the second and third days. He's due a good race, so if you're going to Hawaii this year and you see his name on the start list, you've got to start thinking that his number is coming up.

Regarding good races, I wonder how the cold snap and winds influenced the racing this past weekend. Billy was the fastest this year, but his time would have only put him in third place at the end of last year's event. Nobody touched Chuck Kemeny's 21:38:32. I thought they'd get closer. People have mentioned there are a few stoplights involved in the second day's ride, but all things being equal that doesn't amount to more than 5 minutes' difference. Comparing Edwards and Kemeny, Chuck is a lot faster on the swim and the run. Billy is about as fast on the bike. He finished Day 1 a little quicker and Day 2 nine minutes behind Chuck's 2014 performance. I might not be giving the traffic lights enough credit.

Billy has already said that he wants to go to Hawaii, but I'm not sure if it will be this year. I think Kemeny is planning to be there, as is Dave Matheson from Canada. It's hard to compare Florida and Canada much beyond the swim (they're both in lakes), and I wouldn't want to diss anyone, but that Day 2 course in Canada is no joke, and Dave posted a much faster time than either Kemeny or Edwards in Florida, and he ran as well as Kemeny on Day 3. I'd say you've got a battle between the record holders brewing, with a potential side drama of an Edwards/Isakson rematch.

There are a couple of x-factors left to consider. Miro Kregar doesn't always race the Ultraman World Championships, but when he does he he turns in a 6:30 double marathon like it's no big deal. Again, course comparisons are a bit apples-and-oranges, but I give the winning difficulty factor to the Hawaiian heat over the Floridian hills. And as fast as Miro swims, he could start Day 3 with a time gap over Dave and Chuck. That's a really great place to be for a guy who's used to crushing the run. I can't say how the bike legs will go, however, because the courses are radically different. Hawaii takes you up the volcano on Day 1 and down it on Day 2, which really skews the perception of effort and speed.

And then there's still any number of surprises that could pop up on the start list.

I don't have anything to say about the women's race yet. I've heard nothing about who has what plans for Hawaii. I am hoping it will be an exciting contest, though. There's plenty of talent in the women's field to race against. Someone just needs to pick up the glove.

Update: As of this morning, both Chuck and Dave have confirmed to me that they've cancelled plans to compete in Hawaii this year. I guess we'll just have to wait until the official start list is published.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ultraman Florida is this weekend



It's the second year for the event, and it's a full dance card of 40 athletes: 35 men and 5 women. I've heard a few names dropped as strong contenders for the men's race. I'll be impressed to see if they can keep up with Christian Isakson. If they can, it will be even more exciting to see if they can break Chuck Kemeny's finish time of 21:38:32 from last year-- the fastest ever finish on any Ultraman course. Chuck is a Florida native but is skipping a title defense this year. According to the grapevine, he'll be racing the World Championships in Hawaii this November. That ought to make for an interesting competition, because I hear someone else who raced against Christian in Canada is also planning a run at the title. I'll have a lot more to say about that when I know for sure.


Monday, February 16, 2015

The Race Within: Will Ultra515 be worth it? I don't know.



 By the time I went to Hawaii to cover the 2013 Ultraman World Championships, things between Steve Brown and the rest of the board had become very tense. I had two at-length conversations with Steve during my time there. One occurred during the Keauhou Canoe Club's Thanksgiving potluck dinner. The other was during the awards banquet after Ultraman. Both took place in the presence of alcohol and in neither case did I explicitly say we were on the record, so I didn't print anything he said. However, in both cases he avoided answering certain questions I asked, so it was pretty obvious he was still aware that I was a journalist and he was a subject of interest. With that said, I was surprised at the tone of the sentiments he did express, and just how much they foreshadowed what came afterward.

The dialogue had shifted radically by November. From Steve's point of view, the emphasis was no longer on progress, expansion or even Australia. It was about how the board operated. He was very dissatisfied with the fact that Sheryl and Dave were essentially a voting bloc, and that they would almost always side with Jane. But he was further frustrated with the fact that Jane has 100-percent control of Ohana Loa, which renders the point of a board moot in the first place. These are valid points, and I empathized with Steve. At the same time, majority rule is also a valid point, and Steve didn't have a really good answer when I asked him if it told him something that he was on the losing side of the argument so often.

I think that was the real hitch. UMUK was definitely the catalyst that pushed Steve over the edge, but if it hadn't been UMUK maybe it would have been something else. At any rate, he was done arguing over the issues by that point. He was arguing over how they were arguing. His ideas mostly revolved around restructuring the board to give him more control. I still like to believe that he wanted that control to do the right thing. But he was trying to do the right thing in the wrong way. Why he pushed to get Ultraman Europe going in 2015 when he knew that wasn't what Jane wanted, I have no idea. He never responded when I asked him. But it was a pretty clear bright line, and he crossed it.

I struggled with the final pages I wrote in the book for a long time. They were not easy to type. I struggled with them again when the book came out and I had to face certain people very close to Steve who had placed a lot of trust in me. I frequently tell people that I felt like writing this book was like watching "Field of Dreams" from the middle of the diamond out in that corn field. Steve took on the role of Shoeless Joe from my perspective. Maybe Pete Rose is the better analogy. I wanted better for him, but I wanted better from him, too.

Steve Brown forgot what Ultraman was supposed to be. Or maybe he knew and just ignored it. But the real mystery to me is, in leaving Ultraman's principles behind, what was he moving toward? What is it he wants to do with Ultra515? Where does it go from here, and how will it be different from Ultraman? He obviously wanted things to be different from Ultraman. I wonder just how different Ultra515 will be, and whether those differences will be significant enough to say they're worth everything that was sacrificed to achieve them.