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The starting line of Ironman 70.3 California in Oceanside had a new look this year as athletes kicked off their race with a trickle, not a surge. After years of wave starts, where competitors began the race in groupings dictated by age and gender, 2017 marked the first year Oceanside utilized a rolling start. The protocol allows athletes to line up and stream into the water one at a time based on their predicted finish time.
Keats McGonigal, senior regional director of operations for Ironman North America, said the change in starting methods was spurred by participant demand from athletes. Because there is so much variation in speed and ability within the athlete field, faster swimmers from one age group could easily overtake slower or less confident swimmers from another. The rolling start, then, was designed for efficiency—like swimmers would be grouped together, reducing bottlenecks and providing a safer, more enjoyable experience for all.
“I loved swimming with people of my similar speed and ability,” said age-group athlete Lorie Tucker. “Usually I catch up to the slower men who take off in front of me, then the battle ensues of larger men trying to swim over on or around me. The self-seeding provided me with a comfortable start and people seemed more spread out, the opposite of the mass age-group starts.”
But simplifying the swim start comes at a cost of complicating other elements of the race—specifically, timing. Cut-off times become more complicated to follow for individual athletes. Rather than clear cut-off times of the past, like “all athletes must complete the bike by noon,” cut-off times are contingent upon swim starts. “The cut-off times are consistent for all athletes regardless of when they started the event,” explains McGonigal. “For the swim all athletes had 1 hour and 10 minutes to finish. They had until 5 hours and 30 minutes [from their individual starting time] to finish the bike, and 8 hours and 30 minutes to finish the race.”
According to some athletes who competed at Oceanside, confusion about cut-off times may have led some people to misrepresent their swim speed as a way to enter the water earlier for “extra” time to complete the race. Competitor Paul Morrison, for example, said “poor self-seeding turned [the swim] into a 1900-meter washing machine.” McGonigal stressed to us that all athletes have the same cut-off time, regardless of when they start—there is no advantage to entering the water with the first swimmers.
For age-group athlete Christine Gould, the change in swim starts also required a change in racing strategy. For her, eliminating the wave starts meant removing head-to-head competition for Ironman 70.3 World Championship spots.
“It completely changed the competitive focus for me,” says Gould. “Now I felt like it was more of a time trial, so I better go hard no matter what, because I had no way of knowing where I was in my age group. I actually missed the racing head-to-head. It felt like a solo effort and I did miss the feel of racing the other women in my age group.”
David Hicks said the rolling start added to his race-morning anxiety: “I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed having a specific start time until last Saturday. It was the definition of hurry up and wait. At least with a wave start it’s a more relaxed wait versus standing in the hoards not having a clue what was going on.”
For other athletes, the race-day experience was enhanced by the rolling start. Bruce Mayhew said his swim at Oceanside in 2017 was greatly improved over last year’s: “The flow from the corral into the water was smooth and easy. I did not find much congestion during the swim. The only times that stuck out for me was when making the turn at the buoys, but this congestion paled in comparison to last year’s event and other age group start events.”
McGonigal says Ironman is currently soliciting feedback from this year’s competitors at Oceanside, and will decide if the rolling start will return to Oceanside in 2018 as well as other 70.3 events.
“It is always our goal to provide the best experience possible for athletes,” says McGonigal. “With this goal in mind, we will evaluate each venue and the feedback we get from athletes to determine the best start format. If athletes continue to provide positive feedback on this format, it is something we will continue to consider and use at other events.”