This year marks my 20th season in the triathlon world. Out of perhaps 125-150 races ranging from sprint to Ironman, this past weekend I did something I never did before – I raced without getting body marked, and it was intentional. Call me crazy. I don’t think anybody noticed.
I started racing in the New England Triathlon Series and Bud Light Triathlon Series in 1992, and raced the Coors Light Duathlon races prior to that as well as cycling and running races. I remember my first Bud Light Tri in Vermont in 1992 where they went crazy with body marking – arms, legs, calves, and even the back of the hands. Yes, the back of both hands. That was the only time I was painted up so much, but body marking is still present today, some races more than others. But it’s pointless.
Back then, (no I’m not going to say I walked 10 miles to school in 3 feet of snow – it wasn’t that long ago), there were no timing chips and you didn’t have to wear a jersey on the bike (some races you still don’t). I can’t remember anyone wearing a full sleeve wetsuit and definitely no guys were wearing body suits like most do today. We only wore our Speedo (we called them pud-suits). I’ve got plenty of photos where I’m swimming only wearing a scanty Speedo throughout the race, aside from my swim goggles, swim cap, cycling shoes, helmet, and then running shoes. That was naked compared to today. Then you could actually see an athlete’s number on their arm, leg, or calf. Body marking was never covered up in those days and it was used by the timers to get your swim split as you ran out of the water – they looked for your number on your arm or leg.
Today though, if it’s a wetsuit legal race, the majority of athletes wear full-sleeve suits, and very few wear suits that don’t extend down to the ankles. So chances are you’ll never see the body marking in the swim. Timing chips provide the swim split. If wetsuits aren’t allowed then most triathletes are wearing suits that at least cover their thighs where body marking usually goes; some shorts are longer than others. Even if the number is snuck in-between the bottom of the swim suit and the top of the knee, it’s often smudged off by the end of the race, if not coming out of the water. Body marking on the arms works here, but who pays any attention to it anymore? And the hands (as in the photo) – really? Is that to get into the post-race party?
On the bike the temporary tattoos are practically useless. As a side note, some really are like tattoos. Of the six years I raced in IM Hawaii (which is held in October) I could still see my number outline on my arms through January and sometimes into February. As many of you know, sunscreen is discouraged until you get out of the swim so you don’t smudge the number, and waiting in line to be greased up isn’t appealing to me. So I’d have my number burned into my skin for many months post race – actually a lighter outline of my number on my darker colored skin. Anyway, back to the bike – with numbers on the helmets in most races and always a number on the bike itself, there is no need for an athlete to wear the number on the body. Some races even require that you have a number on the back of your jersey during the bike segment. So that’s three numbers, plus a timing chip. Enough.
Race numbers are mandatory in every race during the run segment and by then many athletes have sweat off their number or a portion of it, depending on the skill of the body-marker, their own sweat rate, and how much they sponged down through the aid stations. Nobody wears the pud suits anymore, and women are trending more towards full shorts like the guys, so thigh numbers again have no place in the run. A number on the arm is unnecessary when I’ve got a number on my body (belt or shirt) and a chip on my ankle.
How about the age on the calf so you know who your competitors are? Well, those worked up until the past couple years when everybody started wearing compression socks. Now that’s pretty much useless too.
Hey, that’s my rant. The tradition is old. Maybe I am. But body marking is just plain stupid. It’s a triathlete thing, and yeah, I’m one of you guys, but I don’t think it’s cool anymore. You look like a dork walking around town or in a store post-race. My kids think it’s cool though. So I say we still body mark them in their kids triathlons because in that arena it is cool and then their friends get interested and want to be in a race where you get to draw on your skin. They leave their number on as long as they can. I hope you don’t.