The newspaper journalist said it best in his next day coverage of the 2012 Ironman Coeur D’Alene, “The swim start is like being trapped in the basement of a high rise skyscraper with 3000 people. There is one hallway leading out that is only 10 feet wide and the building is quickly flooding with freezing water. There is mass panic as everyone is trying to get out, and to make matters worse and increase anxiety, imagine that the building is also on fire.”
I can say from experience that the swim at Ironman CDA (at least before they changed it) was enough to make me never want to do that race again. I thought I had placed myself in a pretty good position on the beach ahead of time commensurate with my swim abilities, but when the gun went off – I quickly found myself in a position I never wish to be in again. If diving into 54 degree water and feeling like your nose and cheek bones are cracking open is not enough, the chaotic mosh pit beatdown that ensued from other equally aggressive swimmers was sure to generate panic. It was so cold you couldn’t breath, and you were constantly getting kicked/punched/pulled/mauled. My wife told me she wanted to quit, and raised up to find a lifeguard on a kayak – but there was no way to get through to them so that you had to just continue on. Just when I finally felt seemed to break out into the open, lap 2 started, and you are taunted with a quick beach run before re-entering the cold water and only to re-navigate through the sea of flailing bodies. Now, I describe my experience as a 170 pound relatively muscular guy that can hold his own in these fields, so the effects must only be magnified if you’re female or a smaller male.
In reality, I do consider myself a fairly proficient swimmer. I have a little experience from high school (lifeguard x 5 years and 2 years of swimming competitively), I currently swim 3 days per week, and have covered the 4K ironman distance before in 57 minutes. I have similarly competed in many triathlons both with mass and time trial swim starts, and no matter how much experience I have generated, I still get spooked regularly in mass starts. And sometimes even injured – In St. Anthony’s this year I was kicked in the jaw by a breast-stroker and literally could not fully open my mouth for about 30 minutes. Unless you are the first person leading the swim, there’s always going to be the sensation of getting attacked in the water.
I have tried or at least thought of several different approaches to this – 1) be the first out of the water – I don’t have the swimming prowess to make this happen, and more importantly, thanks to the scheduling by the WTC in 70.3 events, my swim wave always seems to be last and therefore swimming into the crowds is inevitable! 2) the swim coach at UK is named Lars Jorgenson. For those who don’t know, he is a stud, and still holds the Ironman swim course record in Kona from the 90s. He gave me some swim tips for last year’s world championships – line up on the right (the most crowded), get in the front, and blast the first 200m. Its going to hurt, but if you can get out front then just ride it straight along the buoys until the turnaround, then coast on the way back by jumping on someones feet (and drafting). I tried this very strategy and guess what – so did everyone else! I sprinted 200m – everyone was still with me – I sprinted another 200m – everyone was still with me, then I just got stuck and had to roll amongst the washing machine of swimmers. The worst part about this was that it seemed every time I tried to breath, I either got a mouth full of water from someone’s kick or a hand/foot to the face.
The only approach that seems to have worked for me is 3) improving on my experiences with mass swim starts. There are many ways to do this other than doing more races. I swim with the masters team at the University of Kentucky, and the coach there removes all the lane lines in the evenings and forces everyone to swim open water. I am typically asked to act as an aggressor and swim into and on top of the other swimmers to prepare them. I wonder how much some of the swimmers think I am helping versus being a jerk. One of the other masters members recently referred to me as a shark stalking scuba divers during these swim sessions… Another strategy I have heard is that Dave Scott will run clinics where he takes swimmers and creates a sort of gauntlet using kick-boards, and then each person has to swim through the channel against heavy waves and contact. The bottom line is that the conditions in a lap pool are relatively calm, and there is always a wall to stop and take a break if needed. This is a different story in open water, so we have to prepare ourselves the best way we can.
The unfortunate aspect of these stressful swim starts is that it seems every year someone dies during the early portions of the swim. In 2011, my wife Shannon and I were waiting to start the Louisville Ironman when they pulled someone out of the water. He was wheeled past us as the paramedics were performing CPR. He did not survive. It was later revealed that this was to be his first triathlon. Now, I am not passing judgement because at some point everyone does their first triathlon and experiences their first mass swim start, but I do think some of these instances could be reduced with experience. As I mentioned, I still get spooked in mass starts, but I now know what to expect so my reaction is more along the lines of “this sucks, and I can’t wait to get out of the water,” rather than shear panic.
World Triathlon Corporation has also started their swim smart initiative in an effort to reduce the anxiety and tensions built around the mass swim starts. Certain races are now being divided into waves to reduce the number of swimmers starting at once, and Ironman CDA is one of these such venues. Ironman Louisville has always utilized the time trial fashion start which I truly support as this removes a lot of the anxiety and lets you focus more on settling in right from the get go, rather than fighting for a position from the sound of the gun. It also allows athletes the ability to “self seed” themselves and choose where they want to start, which is particularly useful for me by enabling my fundraising strategy.
I also try to navigate through the swim courses a little different from the average swimmer. When you look at the race from afar, at least for Louisville, the masses tend to hug the buoys straight upstream and then swim back relatively close to the shoreline (which is not necessarily straight). I strategically plan to stay away from the groups, and I’m even willing to swim a little bit longer of a distance to maintain some clear waters. If you consider how a river flows (the fastest water flow is in the middle, with the more turbulent waters along the shoreline), the most time efficient way to swim is to swim close to the shore in the portions upstream, and in the middle on the downstream segments. So, come Ironman Louisville next month, if you are wondering who the crazy guy is swimming way wide away from the packs riding with the river, that’ll be me, staying out of the flooded skyscraper going down in flames to my left.