Ironman’s SwimSmart Initiative – “Integrity” and Knowing My Age Group Rank is Not Worth a Life

I had to take a break from writing the weekend report on this year’s Wildflower Festival to address the latest  Internet blowup over Ironman’s SwimSmart Initiative for Northern California.

The SwimStart Initiative will change the swim start format and certain elements of the swim course. You can click the link about for the details, but here are the main points –

  • Numbered buoys. Numbered buoys will help locate troubled swimmers more accurately.
  • Anchored resting rafts will be positioned along the swim course. You can already rest on paddle boards, buoys, and kayaks, so long as you are not using them to make forward motion. While Ironman does not address this latter factor, I suspect it is the same.
  • More pre-race swim safety education and safety personnel.
  • Changes to the mass start for certain North American races. Coeur d’Alene and Lake Placid will use a “rolling start” format, where, much like a running race, your time starts when you cross the timing mat under the swim arch. This isn’t really much different than many races, where the starting area is congested and it takes a substantial amount of time to get across the mat. Slower swimmers are also already expected to start towards the back. At least now, signage will help swimmers know just how far back they should be. Sure swimmers can choose to start farther up, but they already do anyway. Mont-Tremblant will use wave starts. Lake Tahoe and Florida will use mass starts with self-seeded athletes lining up in start corals based on projected swim times. Other North American Ironman races will remain the same. The swim will begin sooner, but athletes still must start by 7 am so that time cutoffs remain the same. This means swimmers who start sooner get more time to finish, but since they should be the faster swimmers it is not as if they need the extra time.
  • An opportunity for a swim warm-up will be allowed.

Changes in the mass start format are soliciting the biggest complaints. I hear three primary complaints. First, that these changes dilute the “integrity” of Ironman and water down the sport. Second, that it ruins competition, because not everyone is starting at the same time. Third, and somewhat similar to the second reason, the time in your finishing photo will not match your actual time.

I have been in at least two races where people died (Escape from the Rock in 2008 and Vineman 70.3 in 2012) during the swim portion of the race. Both were sudden cardiac events. To the best of my memory, both received prompt emergency treatment and neither could be revived. At Escape from the Rock, the athlete, although in his 50’s or 60’s, was a former collegiate swimmer who was going for the age group swim record. He was likely not a poor swimmer. I also know good swimmers who, in open water swims, suffered cramps and nausea and had to abandon. Finally, I have also been punched and elbowed in the face more times than I can count. I compete in this sport for fun and I don’t need a broken nose or a black eye.

Swim deaths are the biggest safety problem in the sport of triathlon right now. Accidents happen on the bike course (I can think of one death), but in my time in the sport swim deaths have occurred far more often. They are tragic every time they happen and cast a shadow over the event. Somebody has lost a father, a mother, a son, or a daughter. However, they have been especially tragic when they have occurred at events I was at. Purely from a legal perspective, Ironman and race directors must show they are responding. Event insurance is already expensive and every incident only makes it more so. One could argue that none of the start format changes will make a difference and it is correct that USAT’s October 2012 report on swim deaths in triathlon was inconclusive as to causes and even concluded that the type of start format had no correlation with swim deaths. I can only think that the alternative starting formats are intended to make for a more orderly start, for easier access to assistance, and for easier water safety responses. Clearly, Ironman is being extra-cautious.

Personally, I find this all pretty elitist. The vast majority of us do this sport for fun. Knowing your AG rank during a race, having the time in your finishing photo match your actual time, or insuring the “integrity” of the sport is not worth a life. If the SwimSmart Initiative leads to fewer swim deaths, even if only one, or results in less injury, then it is worth-it.


3 responses to “Ironman’s SwimSmart Initiative – “Integrity” and Knowing My Age Group Rank is Not Worth a Life

  1. I think that the main complaint is that in a 2 loop swim the “Non-Mass” start creates more danger. Let’s look at the deaths in NYC and Louisville with the “rolling start.” Did not solve the problem. 14 years of the most dramatic mass start in Lake Placid and no deaths. So not after no problems in 14 years, we change. In a mass start people ALWAYS seed themselves. Now with a rolling start in IMLP people who want more time because they are weak on the swim will go earlier and create a situation where they will be swum over in BOTH loops. Faster swimmers will be swimming over people the entire time. Is this safer? This move simply enables Ironman to have more people at races. They will flow over the starting line for 30 minutes. The issue that comes with too many people racing is now danger and drafting on the bike. Ironman should understand that the crowd they are catering to is the “one and done” crowd and they are isolating and enraging the “lifestyle Ironman” crowd. Mass start, 7am Gun. Midnight cut-off, 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, marathon run. Those things are what an Ironman is. The issue is overcrowding and possibly greed. All the other changes, I don’t care. Increasing volunteers, sure. Numbered buoys, OK. Resting rafts = c’mon. Ironman now means something else.

    The real way to increase safety.
    1. The Athlete is medically cleared to race.
    2. The Athlete has completed a Half Ironman Race prior to competing in Ironman.
    3. Cap Registrations so that no more than 2000 athletes tow the starting line on race day (so, figure in the no shows) This will also help with the drafting situation.
    4. Increase fee to accommodate the loss of entry fee (also take into consideration that the cost to run the race will be less) If this is a money thing.

    *Then in my dreams we bring back:
    1. Allow athletes to cross the line with a loved one.
    2. Finisher tape for all.


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