What USA Triathlon Officials Really Want You to Know
by Kelly O'Mara
Mark Turner would really like you to remember to buckle your helmet before you start running out of transition with your bike.
Fortunately, since a shift in policy, he’s now allowed to remind you, if he sees it unbuckled—instead of immediately penalizing you.
“We’re on the side of the athletes, of the race director,” said Turner, USA Triathlon’s Commissioner of Officials. That means he works to align all the rules across USA Triathlon, educate officials around the country, and make sure everything is enforced consistently.
Part of that is shifting the USAT officiating style, since he started, toward being “partners, not enemies,” he said. He wants officials to be able to warn athletes about the helmet, and about wearing headphones, so that athletes can fix the mistake if possible (and if it didn’t give an advantage). And he wants to be able to educate athletes before they make those mistakes.
The other big change: Since earlier in the summer of 2023, USAT rules now look more like what you probably see at IRONMAN brand races. “Our rules are not a carbon copy,” Turner said, but they’re closely aligned now with World Triathlon. That makes it easier for athletes to follow and it makes it easier for officials to communicate.
For example, USAT rules used to dictate that officials couldn’t warn athletes and couldn’t notify them of their penalty while on course. That meant you’d only find out after the finish if you had received a time penalty and how much. Now, officials can inform athletes of their penalty on course and they’ll serve their time in the penalty area or box before continuing on with their race. Additionally, instead of penalties being the same for all distances and simply stacking, they’ll be shorter for shorter distances.
A yellow card — for things like blocking or an illegal pass: 10 seconds in a sprint distance, 15 seconds in Olympic, and 30-60 seconds in longer races.
A blue card for drafting: 1 minute for sprint distance and short, 2 minutes for Olympic, and 5 minutes for mid-distance and longer.
The other thing Turner wants people to know: It’s not your individual right to go as fast or slow as you want. That’s cycling. In triathlon, your position is either dictated by the situation you put yourself in or by the position someone else puts you in.
What he means is that a lot of athletes get out there and think they should just be able to ride how they want, instead of taking into consideration all the other factors in triathlon. When it comes to drafting and positioning fouls, Turner said, a lot of athletes extrapolate from the pros, but the age-group race is actually different. Age-group athletes should stay all the way to the right until they’re ready to make a pass — and move back to the right after they pass. Many age-groupers simply move to the left far too early, he said, which can contribute to causing larger draft packs to form.
Once athletes enter the draft zone, they must make the pass. (You cannot come into someone’s draft zone and then go out the back.) “There’s only one exit and that’s out the front,” he said.
What is the draft zone? Ten meters (or about five bike lengths) in Olympic- and sprint-distance races, and 12 meters in anything longer than that. For the shorter zone, you have 20 seconds to make the pass, and for the longer zone, it’s 25 seconds.
Once you’re passed, you must immediately make rearward progress. And don’t be a jerk!
These rules are the same at all USAT races (though some race companies, for instance, IRONMAN, apply for specific exemptions for slight differences), and you’ll certainly see these rules enforced at USA Triathlon National Championships. But you don’t always see officials at every small local USAT-sanctioned event. Why not?
That’s because local race directors have to request officials, said Turner, and then the regional coordinator will assign a USA Triathlon Certified Official to them — but race directors might not always have the budget for it or they might officiate their own race. It’s most common for race directors to request officials if they’ve had issues before and want to keep things running smoothly. After all, like Turner said, the officials are trying to work toward educating athletes and creating a safe environment.
Most of the officials at your races are volunteers or receive small stipends as “a thank you,” said Turner. “You don’t go into it as a retirement plan.”
And whether you see an official at your race or not, the rules still apply. So, if you have any questions, you should visit usatriathlon.org/multisport/rules or email email@example.com. Turner would rather you ask him than ask random other triathletes.
“The worst official is Official Facebook,” he joked.
No headphones! While you can carry a phone (mounted on your bike or in an armband while running, for example), you cannot use it as a communication device.
Your helmet must be buckled at all times when you are touching your bike.
No outside assistance. That also means you can’t hand off equipment or have pacers.
No glass containers. Save the beer and champagnes for off the race course (and outside of transition).
You cannot transfer your number to another athlete — even if you’re not doing the race —without race director permission.
You must wear your number at all times during the run and it must be visible.
And, of course, you have to cover the entire course; don’t miss a turn or take an accidental shortcut.
USA Triathlon Commissioner of Officials | Texas
What he does: As Commissioner of Officials, Mark oversees the USA Triathlon National Championship races and aligns the officials and rules across all the regions.
Why he became an official: After playing golf for years, he became a golf rules official. So, when he took up triathlon, he had no intention of becoming an official in another sport — but he was initially surprised to find he couldn’t wear the headphones that he was used to in running races. “One thing led to another.”
What he wishes athletes knew: The refs are on your side.
Sales rep for the packaging industry | Indiana
Been a USAT Official for: 3 years
What he does: Helps coordinate officials for the south region, officiates at national-level events, and helps with instruction at some officiating clinics.
Why he became an official: Tim got involved with baseball officiating when his son started playing 23 years ago and eventually worked his way up to high school and DI college baseball, but has retired from that sport. When he came back to triathlon in 2020, after a 10-year hiatus, he still had the bug — but “I knew I couldn’t race every weekend.” Getting involved with helping keep races fair and safe was a way to stay involved and give back.
Retired manager of a clinical lab for the Army | Texas
Been a USAT official: Since 2002
What he does: Helps with education coordination and recruiting of new officials, and assigns officials for the mountain west region
Why he became an official: After racing for years, “I wanted to look at it from a different perspective.” The best part is talking to people and helping implement a fair and safe race.
Craziest thing he’s seen at a race: One event he was working had all three parties involved in an affair racing. A fistfight broke out on the run. “People ask, ‘Did you penalize him?’ No, I called the police!”