I suppose it should be no surprise to see these Ironman Triathlon swim changes made by WTC. It’s something you could almost sense was going to happen eventually.
When you consider that most Ironman races are composed of 30%-40% first time starters with almost all races being filled to capacity, it almost seems a disaster waiting to happen.
Before going any further, here is a quote from the official Ironman website, just in case this is all news to you and have no idea this is in the works.
Swim Course Additions:
– Numbered course buoys to assist in positioning of water assets/personnel and provide more accurate communication for locating and rescuing distressed swimmers.
– Anchored resting rafts to be strategically placed along the swim course (please note that athletes will NOT be disqualified by resting on these floats).
– Increased professional swim course personnel to enhance the overall athlete experience.
– Additional rescue boat and personal watercrafts (PWC, kayaks, paddleboards, etc.).
Modified Swim Starts at Select Races:
Ironman will pilot several alternative race starts at select events to further enhance the athlete experience and reduce swim anxiety. Three events in 2013 will feature new swim start formats – Ironman Coeur d’Alene, Ironman Lake Placid and Ironman Mont-Tremblant – while two other 2013 events, Ironman Lake Tahoe and Ironman Florida, will feature modifications in how athletes start their races.
The other Ironman events in North America (Texas, Louisville, Wisconsin, Arizona) are scheduled to have the same swim start format as in 2012; Ironman Canada (with a new venue in 2013) will feature a two-loop swim with an in-water mass start.
SWIM START PILOTS
IRONMAN Coeur d’Alene and IRONMAN Lake Placid:
Both IRONMAN Coeur d’Alene and IRONMAN Lake Placid will feature rolling starts in 2013. Athletes will enter the water in a continuous stream through a controlled access point, similar to how running road races are started. An athlete’s times will start when they cross timing mats under the swim arch.
Athletes will be directed to self-seed on race morning based on their projected swim time. Volunteers and staff will be in the staging area with signs and will assist with this process. Self-seeding will not be mandatory, but will be encouraged. At both events, all athletes will have access to a dedicated warm-up area in the water located adjacent to the swim start.
Age-group athletes will begin entering the water at 6:35 a.m. for IRONMAN Coeur d’Alene and 6:30 a.m. for IRONMAN Lake Placid, and will have the two hours and twenty minutes from the time the last athlete enters the water to complete the swim. An athlete’s time does not begin until he or she crosses the timing mat located below the swim arch. All athletes are expected to start by 7:00 a.m. at both venues, thus keeping all other timelines and cutoffs the same. This will ensure that all participants have at least the full 17 hours (subject to intermediate cutoffs) to complete the event.
For 2013, the swim course at IRONMAN Coeur d’Alene will remain the same, while IRONMAN Lake Placid will reverse the swim direction with athletes swimming clockwise.
IRONMAN Mont-Tremblant will feature a wave start based on age group. There will be eight waves with each wave entering the water five minutes apart, starting at 6:25 a.m. All athletes will have at least 17 hours to complete the entire event (subject to intermediate cutoffs). The two hour and twenty minute cutoff for the swim will begin when the final wave has started the swim portion of the event.
IRONMAN Lake Tahoe and IRONMAN Florida:
IRONMAN Lake Tahoe and IRONMAN Florida will feature a mass start based on self-seeding. Athletes will self-seed into swim start corrals based upon their estimated swim finish time. All athletes will have the traditional 17 hours to complete the entire event (subject to intermediate cutoffs).
The other IRONMAN events in North America (IRONMAN Texas, IRONMAN Louisville, IRONMAN Wisconsin, IRONMAN Arizona) are scheduled to have the same swim start format as in 2012 which can be found on ironman.com; IRONMAN Canada (with a new venue in 2013) will feature a two-loop swim with an in-water mass start.
So that was the official announcement by the WTC.
First of all, one would hope that swimmers for the most part have always been self-seeding themselves, but now it will be easier with clearly marked time corrals.
The biggest change across the board is the institution of anchored resting rafts.
Although in the past swimmers have been allowed to hang on to the back of a canoe or kayak for a moment to get their bearings or adjust their goggles, a resting raft is completely different.
There is no set time-limit mentioned so I suppose a person can hang out there as long as they want.
All they have to really worry about is making the swim cut-off time to avoid disqualification.
However the biggest single change for this 2013 trial is Ironman Mont Tremblant having wave starts.
This fly’s in the face of tradition as the mass swim start has long been a hallmark of the Ironman and one of the truly most awesome spectacles in the world of sport.
When I was at the final Ironman Canada race in Penticton in August 2012 I had to get up at 3 a.m. in order to get a spot so I could get a decent picture of the swim start. Even then it was already getting crowded with dozens of professional photographers positioning themselves for the 7 a.m. swim start.
Then the spectators came in an endless stream and filled every possible viewing area.
Somehow I don’t think I would get up at 3 a.m. race morning to get a picture of waves of swimmers. There is no question the lack of an adrenaline-charged mass swim start would make sleeping in more likely for spectators and photographers alike.
There are sure to be people who love the new concept and those who are against it.
THE PROS AND CONS
On the pro side you have to give credit where credit is due and the WTC most certainly does have the safety of the athletes front and center. I am certain these swim changes were not made lightly as the WTC is well aware they are messing with Ironman tradition.
It does seem like it’s getting to be that almost every year there is a swimming tragedy in an Ironman somewhere in the world. Many are caused by pre-existing medical conditions but perhaps the emotional and physical stress some people face when dealing with the Ironman swim somehow bring these conditions to a head.
There is another reason why taking away a good part of the stress from the Ironman swim will benefit the WTC.
They are a corporation after all and nothing is done without one eye on the bottom line.
I’m sure the WTC is well aware of the same thing I have run into time and again over the last decade when I went to marathon expos for book signings and talked to runners who said they would love to do the Ironman, but are deterred by the challenge of the 2.4-mile open water swim.
Just the simple fact that there will be rafts positioned out on the swim course will be enough to encourage many more people new to open water swimming all the incentive it takes to sign up for an Ironman.
It will also encourage more triathletes to make the jump to the full Ironman from the 70.3. Those who thought they were pushing their swim ability envelope at the 1.2-mile swim of the Ironman might reconsider once they realize they can take two or three five minute breaks along the 2.4-mile course of an Ironman.
Overall, just the addition of resting rafts is a decision that is sure to increase the amount of people willing to give the Ironman a shot and pay big bucks for the entry fee for a race they may have once considered beyond their swimming capability.
It’s a prudent move by the WTC and will no doubt perpetuate the growth of the Ironman for years down the road.
THE TRADITIONALIST IRONMAN
On the other hand there are people who are sure to think that this changes the whole dynamic of the Ironman.
After all, isn’t it true that one of the greatest accomplishments for most people doing their first Ironman was conquering the 2.4-mile open water swim all on their own?
Well, that challenge is still there for anyone who wants it. Just swim by the raft and DON’T STOP.
I suppose some might say overcoming the emotional and mental stress of the mass start, non-stop Ironman swim was always part of the deal and having it taken out of the equation does indeed change the dynamic of the race. In a way it becomes far easier to deal with the swim even if you never touch a raft along the way.
Here’s an example of what I mean……
I’m sure many people don’t know this, but in the early years of Ironman Canada back in the 1980’s the last third of the swim course was configured so swimmers came back along the shoreline.
We could actually stand up as the water was only up to the waist of most people. If you wanted to, you could wade the last 500 meters to the finish line.
Yet, very few people did stand up. Most of us wanted to swim the entire course, but being new to the Ironman and open water swimming it was reassuring to know that the option to simply stop and stand up was always there. It cut the stress level in half just knowing the option was there in the late stages of the swim.
As a matter of fact there was one year early in Ironman Canada’s storied history when there was a storm in the days before the race and there was a water inversion. The cold water from the bottom of Lake Okanagan came to the surface and it was frigid.
They actually had some rafts placed in late stages of the course where they served hot chocolate to frozen swimmers. With the allowable minimum and maximum water temperatures of today before cancelling a swim, that swim in Penticton would never have taken place…it was that cold.
I can say from personal experience as a crappy swimmer who really struggled in those early Ironman Canada swims it became much, much more of a challenge when they reconfigured the course and stayed in the deep part of the lake for the entire swim. The physical and mental safety net of shallow water on the last leg of the swim to count on was gone.
It’s the same thing that would happen if the WTC implements rafts for three years and than decided to take them out. People who counted on at least having the option to stop and rest on a raft(whether they ever did or not) mid-race would have a whole new set of challenges to face.
It will be interesting to see how this new swim system works out and I’m sure it will be athlete feed-back that will determine what changes are temporary and what changes become permanent.
Feel free to make a comment below about what your take is on this. Would be especially interesting to hear from those entered in one of the five races that will be part of the test.