Monday, May 13, 2013

Ironman triathlon SwimSmart initiative - opinion

So, if you have been reading this ole blog for any length of time, you might have caught on that I'm racing Ironman Lake Tahoe this fall...

It's going to be my first full Ironman race and I'm very much looking forward to the challenge.

I've raced triathlons since 2004, and I've had my fair share of "I don't want to get kicked and beat up at the swim start" moments.  As time has gone on and I have gained more confidence, I find myself lining up aggressively to grab the wake of a similar speed swimmer to draft and get in the top third of the swim group.

For the most part, I hold my own.  I get swam over, and I swim over people.  By swim over, I mean I hit someone I didn't notice, move over and keep swimming.  I've had the priviledge of someone just swimming over the top of me without regard and not bothering to make room and play nice.

For a lot of newer triathletes, and some experienced, the swim start is the tip of the anxiety iceberg.  Most are wanting to survive and are happy that it's over when they hit T1.  Combine that with the daunting task of 140.6 miles of fun, and you are looking at a nail biter.

That's probably a main reason Ironman announced the SwimSmart initiative.

I'm all for safety.  I'm all for everyone that races a triathlon finishing and going home, but I'm not so sure about the whole SwimSmart idea.

I'll call out some sections and bring some attention to my thoughts and considerations as I enbarq on my 140.6 mile quest.

From Ironman.com and my comments in bold blue;

IRONMAN pilots alternative swim starts and other enhancements to swim courses at select North America events.

In an effort to improve athlete satisfaction and reduce athlete anxiety during the swim portion of the race, IRONMAN will test different swim race starts and other course enhancements in 2013.

I can also surmise that with the recent swimming deaths in triathlon that have been very publicized lately, Ironman wants to make sure that athletes in their races aren't dieing in their races from lack of race support.

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Changes/enhancements for 2013 will include:

Modified Swim Starts at Select Races
IRONMAN will pilot several alternative race starts at select events to further enhance 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.

So I'll be experiencing the pilot program at Ironman Lake Tahoe this September.

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Pre-Race Swim Warm-Up
North American IRONMAN events will include a pre-race, in-water warm-up whenever possible.

Notice "whenever possible".  At Ironman 70.3 Kansas, the marina they start from is not conducive to having an area for warm up.  The water near the boat ramp is only accessible through walking over large rocks.  There is another boat ramp about a quarter of a mile away, so maybe they'll open this up.

Warm up in the water is very important for my racing.  It allows me to get the pre-race jitters out and waste some of the anxiety energy that ultimately causes me to go out too hard in the swim if I cannot burn it off with a warm up swim.

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Swim Temperature
Water temperature below 52 degrees Fahrenheit or above 88 degrees Fahrenheit will result in cancellation or shortening of the swim portion of the race.  This seems like a no-brainer.  Hypothermia is not cool and no one wants to overheat on the swim.  That's a pretty solid official addition to the race rules.

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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. That's pretty solid.  It'll be nice for swimmers as well to know how many more buoys they have to go through.  That seems like a logical and beneficial addition.

Anchored resting rafts to be strategically placed along the swim course (please note that athletes will NOT be disqualified by resting on these floats). Here's where I have some issues.  Resting rafts?  So now swimmers can plan on breaks during the swim?  Isn't the definition of an endurance event being under constant motion?  There's been rumblings about long distance endurance events and anyone being able to finish given enough time and breaks.  I do believe it diminishes the accomplishment for those that train and respect the course and I have disregard for the people racing Ironman events while juggling tennis balls and dribbling basketballs.  Maybe, just maybe Ironman is making their events a little too accessible for anyone with a less than honorable objectives and those improperly prepared to race their events.  I'm more in favor of the last point with more rescue craft to pull swimmers out that cannot complete the course.  Yes, if they finish, they have raced the 140.6 miles like everyone else, but doesn't take something away from the awe of the Ironman race if everyone can do it and WTC is making it easier for people to do it?  Plus, this could be incentive enough for someone that is not ready for an event of this magnitude or give someone the excuse not to train as hard for the swim since they will have rafts to take breaks at.  It's a slippery slope that can be easily manipulated to support a lack of preparedness.

Increased professional swim course personnel to enhance the overall athlete experience.  Yes please.  More WTC people to answer questions, know the course and know what's going on.  With 2000 athletes running around, seeing a WTC or race official person is assuring if you are a little uneasy about the whole deal.

Additional rescue boat and personal watercrafts (PWC, kayaks, paddleboards, etc.). This is a little sticky.  While I'm all for increased safety, I do have issues with more watercraft running around with thousands of swimmers in the water.  I can't tell you how many times I've been in the swim to turn for a breathe and got a mouth full of gas fumes or exhaust fumes.  That and the wake created from the absent minded jet ski drivers that come too close to swimmers is distracting as well.  There needs to be an enforced buffer distance from the swimmers and watercraft.  Obviously, that's off in the case of an emergency, but there's issues that need to be addressed before more boats and kayaks are in the water.

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The second phase of the initiative will feature a comprehensive effort to educate athletes about reducing anxiety associated with the swim portion of IRONMAN events, focusing on pre-race screening for potential health issues, pre-race training and race-week preparation. Such efforts will use all IRONMAN media platforms and will include a checklist and on-line videos. Swim-specific educational communications will begin at the end of May. That sounds all good and dandy.  But, it's important that anyone considering training and racing any triathlon get checked out by their doctor.  Don't let Ironman and WTC do it for you, hit up your doc for regular checkups.

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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. Self seeding is a bad idea.  The problem arises when you have newer swimmers wanting to have as much time to get through the swim as possible.  Ever been to that 5k or marathon where the have pace groups line up and you're suppose to line up with the right group?  Have you ever caught walkers and slow joggers that lined up with the 6:30 pace group?  Ya, I see this as a major bust.  I think you will see a lot of slower swimmers fibbing about their pace and time to get more time to complete the swim.  My hunch is you will see faster swimmers contending with those that wanted more time.  While I like the rolling start, I think there needs to be a qualification such as proof from a previous triathlon about your swim pace.  It can be from a sprint or HIM, but something official that records what someone can realistically swim.

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.

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IRONMAN Mont-Tremblant:
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. All of the Half Ironman races I have been in and pretty much every triathlon was based on age group waves.  I'm ok with this more so because I'm just used to it.  You do have the issue of slower swimmers lining up at the front and impeding progress, but for the most part they play nice and line up according to their expected pace.  You do have the thrashing and bumping with the "mass" start, but by going with age groups, it decreases the people per wave instead of thousands of swimmers going at once.

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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). Like I said with self seeding, I think it's going to be an issue.  This will create the opportunity for some to extend the clock for the course to 17 hours and 20 minutes, and some triathletes will need that additional time for whatever reason.  So what's to stop them from seeding themselves in the first wave to get a leg up on the clock?  It's going to be interesting if it becomes a widespread issue where people improperly seed themselves or if the majority of triathletes can play by the rules.  I'm no Ryan Lochte, but I'm efficient enough to get out in the top third of swimmers.  Even my slow rear can catch the slow swimmers.

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.

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In all, I see some good additions and some modifications that leave me scratching my head. Hopefully no one is offended by my comments, but there are certain situations that people are not properly prepared for and giving those people added incentive to be lax in swim preparation is a dangerous proposition.

I hope it all goes smooth.  Like I mentioned, every event I have been in was by age group.  The wave sizes are reduced compared to a mass start, and we had people lining up at the front that got swam over in the first 25 yards, but it's not been a big deal.

I'll keep this nugget in my head come time for IM Lake Tahoe.  It'll be interesting to see if the "walkers" and "joggers" seed themselves early to add time to the clock.  Maybe I should, too?  :)
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