“I understand that I will get the full 2 hours and 20 minutes to complete the 2.4 mile swim regardless of what time I enter the water…”
“I understand that if I finish before the midnight cut-off but have a finishing time or more than 17 hours, I will be considered a DNF…”
Upon further investigation, I learned that as of 2016, Ironman Canada, in Whistler, BC, was going to have a “self-seeding rolling swim start.” Athletes will line up on shore then enter the water in a continuous stream, passing over a timing mat to signal their individual start time.
This change was part of Ironman’s “SwimSmart initiative,” with the goal of “improving athlete satisfaction and reducing anxiety during the swim portion of the race.” As part of this initiative, floats are also available so swimmers can stop and take a breather if needed.
Before I continue this rant, I should mention my previous Ironman experience. Prior to IMC 2016, I’ve finished three Ironman triathlons, all with mass, in-water swim starts. Ironman Canada 2010 was my first and was relatively stress-free. After the cannon went off, the large crowd was witness to the spectacle of close to 3000 pairs of arms suddenly thrashing in the water. I started at the back of the pack, floated in the shallows for thirty seconds and waiting for the crowd to thin out a bit. I knew I was losing time, but that was my choice.
The swim start at Ironman Cozumel in 2012 was, by comparison, a fiasco. The race organizers miscalculated the start time for the pros, and there wasn’t enough time for all us age-groupers to get from the beach onto the pier then into the water to the start line before the cannon went off. Most of us were still on the pier at 0700, and we jumped off like lemmings, trying not to land on each other, then swimming over/under each other to get clear, just to reach the start line. The ocean currents were so strong that day that some of the buoys marking the course got dragged. At the turn onto the final five-hundred-metre leg, the current was so strong we bunched up just trying to make headway, forcing us to dig deep and pull harder. The DNF rate was higher than average that year, and those of us lucky enough to make the swim cut-off had significantly longer swim times.
In 2013 at Ironman Canada, I was feeling strong that morning and decided to start the swim just behind the top age groupers, and positioning myself in the lake accordingly. What a slugfest that was. Two minutes in, I got clocked in the head so hard by a fellow competitor’s arm or leg that I couldn’t hear out of my right ear for several hours into the bike ride.
Back to Whistler 2016…
The time allotted for the swim warm-up was short, and because it was an on-shore rolling swim start, we had to get out of the lake before the pros started. There we all stood, lined up on the grass for about ten minutes, cooling off, our wetsuits quickly draining. When the cannon went off, the spectators and participants were not witness to the spectacle of several thousand pairs of arms suddenly thrashing in the water, just an orderly procession of wetsuit-clad people calmly walking into the lake. It was… boring.
I know that in triathlons, the swim is the event that raises the anxiety level in most participants and even prevents some would-be participants from entering. I get that. My anecdotes are probably typical examples of why Ironman feels justified in introducing the SwimSmart initiative. But I think the SwimStart is a terrible idea and is more about money than anything else — the less stressful the swim start is advertised to be, the more people will want to pay their money and enter.
Here’s another problem with the SwimStart initiative: not only is the spectacle of a mass swim start gone, but nearly every participant will also have a different start time. The thrill of the midnight countdown is diminished — can that guy struggling to cross the finish line one minute before midnight call himself an Ironman, or is he a DNF because he entered the water at 0658? Those two top age-groupers sprinting to the finish line and fighting for a Kona slot might not even have the same start time, so their battle may already have been decided. With the SwimSmart initiative in place, a participant having a really long day can now cross the finish line just before midnight, get her finisher’s medal and shirt/hat and still be a DNF once the timing results are recorded.
The mystique and challenge of the Ironman race is, in my opinion, being diminished — watered down — by these and other changes. In Cozumel 2012, the swim times were much higher and the DNF rate slightly higher than average. In 2013, due to high winds, they changed the swim course the day before the race from the previously-used 3.8-kilometre box pattern to a 3.1-kilometre swim with the current. Seriously? What’s next?
And here’s another thing that grinds my gears: the line between a full Ironman and a 70.3 has been blurred. Some 70.3 finishers feel justified in celebrating their accomplishment with an M-dot tattoo. That’s not really surprising since, in some 70.3 events, finishers are greeted with “Jane Smith – YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” Um, no, you’re not. You’re a Half Ironman. And a full Ironman is way more than twice as hard as a 70.3. You don’t get to call yourself a Marathoner if you’ve only run a half marathon, do you? The Facebook page “You know you’re an Ironman when…” has over 16,000 followers; many of its regular posters have only done 70.3 events. Maybe there should be a separate page called “You know you’re a half Ironman when…”?
I’m just an average age-grouper (around 14 hours), and I don’t do Ironman because it is easy. I do it because it is hard. A real challenge. A test. I enter each race knowing there’s a chance I won’t even finish, not only due to insufficient physical and mental conditioning on my part, but to circumstances beyond my control such as weather, injury or a mechanical problem.
I’m glad I was able to get three Ironman races done before the SwimStart initiative was brought in and the race watered down. I doubt I’ll ever do another Ironman unless it has a mass in-water swim start.
I wonder if, years from now, I’ll be one of those old guys with a faded M-dot tat on my calf, grousing, “Yah, but I did Ironman back in the olden days, when there were mass swim starts, 20% DNFs, it was uphill both ways...”
End of rant.
Bruce Butler is a four-time Ironman finisher, Professional Engineer and budding author. He has published the e-book “Letters to a Driving Nation: Exploring the Conflict between Drivers and Cyclists” and is now working on two more novels: a non-fiction account of a Cold War project he worked on in the 1980s, and a really cool science fiction book.