For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
After a full review of the swim portion of its full-distance events, Ironman announced it would pilot a new SwimSmart initiative beginning May 2013. The two-phase program, aimed at “improving athlete satisfaction and reducing anxiety during the swim portion of the race,” replaced the mass swim start with self-seeded rolling starts or wave starts at several races, increased safety personnel and added strategically placed “resting rafts” for distressed athletes along the swim course.
Though experts applauded efforts to create a safer racing experience, Ironman faced considerable backlash from age-group triathletes, who voiced concerns the sport would lose its reputation as a challenging race.
“It was really embarrassing to read the uproar, via forums or social media, from experienced racers who poked fun at people who might use resting rafts,” recalls age-grouper Cathleen Knutson, a 10-time Ironman finisher and Kona qualifier, “SwimSmart was designed to improve safety, and I thought experienced racers and ambassadors of the sport might be more sensitive to that.”
“Initially I had mixed feelings,” said age-group athlete and two-time Ironman finisher Jared Smith, “I first thought that it was going to take away from the true Ironman mass swim start experience that has become well-known … but overall, it was a positive experience.”
“We believe that SwimSmart was an important step forward for Ironman and our athletes,” says Ironman CEO Andrew Messick, who worked with race directors, professional triathletes, age group athletes and physiology specialists to craft the elements of the initiative.
Messick says the most important aspect of the SwimSmart program was an extra emphasis on preparation. “We have learned that athlete education is critical—helping our athletes be prepared on race day for an open water swim is the single most important element of the program. Nothing that we do on race day can match the importance of athletes being comfortable with what they will experience in the open water.”
Multiple articles and videos were created, posted on the Ironman website, and distributed to athletes in pre-race emails. Experts provided tips on building fitness and endurance, preparing for open water, self-seeding and managing anxiety during the swim.
Though safety information was thorough and well received by athletes, details on the actual protocol of the swim start were scarce at first, especially for Coeur d’Alene and Lake Placid, the first two races to implement the self-seeded rolling start:
“At the athlete meeting [for Ironman Coeur d’Alene] on Friday night, I was shocked to hear the lineup times would be so broad: 1 hour and under, 1 hour to 1:15—this would be a huge group, I thought—and so on,” shares Knutson, “In the end, it was all pretty smooth, but I had a lot of anxiety about the swim start the night before the race.”
Designated Warm-Up Areas
Where possible, Ironman created a designated in-water warm-up area for each athlete to acclimate to the water, gradually raise heart rate and check equipment (such as goggles or wetsuit) before the race start. Though athletes were not mandated to warm up in the water, pre-race information distributed by Ironman encouraged athletes to do so.
Self-Seeded, Rolling Starts
Though race officials allowed for 30 minutes for rolling starts (where athletes entered the water in a continuous stream through a controlled access point) all races had the entirety of the field swimming in 15 minutes or less. The success of the rolling start at early-summer races prompted officials to change Ironman Lake Tahoe from a mass start to the new format.
Upon learning of the change from mass start to rolling, some athletes suggested slower swimmers might seed themselves at the front of the pack in order to gain the maximum amount of time; Ironman addressed this by stating all athletes received 2 hours and 20 minutes from the time they crossed a timing mat to enter the water, regardless of place in the starting lineup.
“I positioned myself accordingly among the field, and felt it was a smooth start,” reflects Smith. “I feel that the majority of people seeded themselves correctly, with the exception of a few who seemed to run out of gas in the first 300 meters. But that’s almost to be expected at any race. There will always be over-estimators.”
Increased Safety Personnel
In addition to increased swim personnel, rescue boats and personal watercrafts along each swim course, Ironman utilized numbered buoys to facilitate accurate and rapid communication while identifying and rescuing distressed swimmers.
“Our water safety resources were better able to respond to any troubled athletes,” says Messick of the changes.
“I think the focus on safety surrounding the changes is the main aspect of the initiative I like the most,” shares Smith. “Safety is a huge component of racing to help ensure everyone on the course, including those watching and volunteering, have a fun day and overall experience.”
Effects on Swim Finishers, Times
According to analysis by Raymond Britt of RunTri.com, SwimSmart changes did not have a negative effect on swim times. At Ironman Lake Placid, average swim times were consistent with past years.
In the case of Coeur d’Alene, the changes may have affected athlete swim times for the better. Ironman Coeur d’Alene racers in 2013 swam an average of 3 to 4 percent, or 2.5 minutes, faster than in 2012. Many credit this improvement to the new rolling start, which replaced a crowded, frenetic mass start on the shore.
Messick cites another measure of success: “We saw a higher proportion of athletes complete their swims in races where the operational aspects of SwimSmart were implemented.”
Criticisms from Kona Hopefuls
Though the changes to swim starts have been largely successful (“Overall athlete satisfaction improved for the swim portion of the race,” says Messick), some criticisms still remain. For those racing for age group placing and/or a World Championship spot, the staggered start can make a finish uncertain.
“[The rolling start] takes away from racing head to head with the entire age group field, which in my opinion, is the coolest part of the mass start,” says Knutson. “Regardless of what place you’re in, it’s fun to try and catch other competitors in the last mile or the last half mile and try to finish ahead of them.”
The Future of SwimSmart
Messick says Ironman plans to “continue to introduce and enhance SwimSmart initiatives at all of our North American races,” as well as add SwimSmart elements to races outside of North America. However, Ironman does not plan to take a one-size-fits-all approach to its series:
“Each race has its own character and venue elements that we are constantly evaluating to provide the safest and most enjoyable athlete experience…there will likely not be a single approach to how we implement the SwimSmart initiatives.”