In breaking, non-running related news, the Ironman just announced that they will be making several significant changes to the swim portion of the Ironman race. Statistically, the swim is the portion of the swim that most fatal incidents occur and it is typically the leg of the race that gives participants the most anxiety. I’d say at least half of the people who I tell that I was training for or have complete an Ironman tell me that they could never do it because of the swim. There are a variety of reasons that they proclaim they “can’t” do it – some physically don’t know how to swim, some just don’t like to swim, and some have a deep fear of the open water. These fears mixed with race day nerves can unfortunately lead even the most experienced athletes to avoid triathlon or the Ironman distance all together.
Last year when I raced CdA, there was a man who unfortunately did not make it out of the swim. This was the first swim death at IMCdA in over 10 years but it definitely startled the triathlon community. I found a study that analyzed USAT sanctioned events from 2003-2011 and found that out of the 43 athlete fatalities during a race, 30 occurred during the swim. The most plausible cause of the deaths were “sudden, fatal arrhythmia — a primary cardiac problem” and the cause of death is not related to factors such as length of swim, swimming ability of the participant, or type of swim start.
There are probably several reasons why these sudden fatalities tend to occur in the swim, but they are probably aggravated by the anxiety and nerves the participants feel leading up to the race start. Once an attack begins, if a participant is swimming it is much more difficult to signal for help or stop exercising completely to get help than if they are running or biking.
Luckily, Ironman is addressing some of the reasons that athletes may feel anxiety going into the race by adjusting it’s swim starts at several of its North America events.
First, the following changes will be made:
1) Some races will have modified swim starts rather than a mass swim start (IMCdA, IM Lake Placid, IM Mont Trenblant). This will help reduce pre-race anxiety and fear of being hit, punched, kicked or swam over during the race. Also, since there will be less roughness in the water, this will also prevent swimmers for panicking while being swum over or kicked (not to say it will prevent these things all together but it will reduce them).
2) Whenever possible, athletes will be allowed to get in the water for a pre-race warm-up (this helps soothe nerves and creates less shock when the athlete enters the water for the first time).
3) Swims with temperatures under 52 degrees and over 88 degrees will either be shortened or canceled. Swimming in water not within this range can be dangerous and should be avoided.
4) The swim course will be easier to navigate with numbered buoys. Even better, there will be swim rafts positioned on the course that athletes may rest on without penalty.There will also be additional personnel and rescue watercraft on the course to assist those that need it (there were already way more personnel at IM events than the requirement).
I really like these changes and I definitely think that Ironman is doing the right thing in adding them to the race. I personally had extreme anxiety going into IM CdA, mostly as a result of my fear of being pummeled during the mass swim start. As a woman, it was very intimidating to think about running down a beach into a lake with 2,000 people, most of which are big, strong men. IM CdA’s modified start will basically be a self-seeded wave start. As soon as an athlete crosses through a threshold, then can run down the beach and begin the swim. This will begin at 6:30 a.m. with the intent of all athletes being in the water by 7 a.m. to allow the full 17 hours to complete the course. Athletes will have 2 hours 20 minutes to complete the swim course after the final swimmer enters the water.
At the same time, I do feel like that experience of “Ironman” is slightly altered with the non-mass swim start. That is part of the excitement and also part of the pride you feel when you tell people you did an Ironman. Is that worth safety? Probably not, but I do see why many will be disappointed in these changes.
Although I’m not sure that these modifications can prevent sudden cardiac arrest in some individuals, I do think that it will reduce some anxiety and stress which could in turn help prevent some episodes. The new safety measures will also put many triathletes fears at ease and provide a much safer environment for racing.
For the complete article from Ironman, click here.
What do you think of these new standards? Does the Ironman swim start scare you?