Ironman Swim Starts

I’m a bit of a stickler for rules. I think it’s the mathematician in me. It means if I think of a set of rules I can’t help but find myself checking the boundary conditions, mentally checking what would happen in the extremes. Two years ago at the first Ironman Wales on seeing the (original) swim course with it’s diagonal course to the first turn buoy I remember asking Jo what would stop people running down the beach as there was nothing in the rules that I could see that prevented it. On the day with all the pros and faster age groupers lined up facing down the beach behind a tape held by marshals perpendicular to the sea that’s precisely what happened.

So today when I returned from my ride I was very pleased to hear that Ironman are trialling out some variations on their traditional mass start over the coming North American races. My pre Ironman nerves are almost all due to worrying about the swim start so some of these changes appeal to me. It is certainly good to see them trying to address how stressful the Ironman start can be. There are three solutions they are considering:

1. Self Seeding In to Corrals

This one is by far the least radical and is just formalising the current method of self seeding. It’s also limited to beach starts. How the sections are placed will be important. I’ve been told that Ironman Nice has seeded pens on the beach aiming for a nice spearhead start but the swim start there is a nightmare.

2. Wave Starts

This clearly works since it’s used at other events (for example Challenge races). There’s still a rough start but it’s shouldn’t be as bad. Provided you start as a whole age group it doesn’t affect the race apart from those gunning for top age grouper. It would however remove something that is a massive spectacle being the Ironman mass start

3. Rolling Start

This is the interesting one. Like the waves it would unfortunately remove the spectacle of the mass start.

We won’t know precisely how this will work until they’ve done the first race but it says that people will self seed with your time starting when you cross the timing mat. They liken it to a running race start. Having done Lanzarote I would say that that starts like a running race other than everyone’s time starts when the gun goes but that is very stressful. As such I don’t see it being like that but more spread out. In fact they say the first swimmer starts at 6:30 or 6:35am and everyone started by 7am latest with the cut starting from the last swimmer.

It’s self-seeded which I took to mean fastest first but in practise I would imagine most would actually chose to seed the other way.

Say I was advising an athlete who was touch and go to finish in the cut off time. I would tell them that they should be aiming to set off at the earliest time possible since it would give them an extra 25 or 30 minutes.

Anyone faster would surely seed themselves right at the back for several reasons:

  1. They potentially get a fast swim as there’ll be a huge draft from swimming through the 1000+ swimmers head. This would have to be balanced with the possibility of not swimming a straight line
  2. On the bike they would get great advantage from sling-shotting round so many athletes. I’ve heard it said that a contributing factor to often the fastest bike splits coming from slower swimmers is due to this. Last year at IM 70.3 when they had two waves, I was in the second and spent the first lap passing people almost continually. I feel sure that helped contribute to my faster bike split.
  3. If you’re aiming for a podium or a slot it seems far better to be starting last as it means you know that if you’re ahead of someone on the road you are beating them. It also means in the latter stages of the run you know that purely pacing with someone in your age group means you’ll probably finish ahead them

It make’s me wonder whether this rolling start may actually have the opposite effect of resulting in all the faster swimmers swimming round (over?) the slower ones. A potential tweak would be to have a mass start for “Elite age groupers”. This is a term I’ve heard a lot without definition. In this it could work by saying only those starting in the mass start are eligible for podiums / slots and beyond that there’s no other selection criteria. Effectively individuals just decide if they want to start in the elite wave.

Overall I think it’s great that Ironman are looking to make the swim start a little less stressful but I hope it’s not at the expense of allowing a proper race for age groupers and that it doesn’t lessen too much the amazing spectacle of the swim start.

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