I touched on this topic at the end of my last race report for Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga, but I feel I needed to create a new post to put a more direct focus on the topic.
Formally seeding the swim, especially in events with a rolling start, should be given serious consideration. Every year it seems that Ironman and Ironman 70.3 events become more popular and continue to attract more bucket-listers. Bucket-listers are a big reason races with river swims sell out so fast because many of them are relying on the current just so they can make it under the swim cut-off time. As a life-long swimmer, I see this as a serious issue.
When I coached the Atlanta Rainbow Trout, a US Masters swim team, I would run into these bucket-listers and it would be a frightening experience. In over three years of coaching, I could say I had at least twenty to twenty-five people walk in the doors of the Georgia Tech Campus Recreation Center and tell me something along the lines of “I have a half-Ironman in five weeks, but I’m not really much of a swimmer…can you help me?” The fact that they weren’t great swimmers bothered me a lot less than the fact that none of them had any open-water swimming experience. They didn’t know what it feels like to lose those comfort factors like having a wall to grab or being able to stand up if they needed to. They also had no idea what it was like to swim and have close to zero visibility in the water. So as a coach I always did what I thought was right and told them you should consider trying to defer this event because you are in no way prepared to do an open-water swim in that kind of environment.
What exactly is that environment? Well, in my race report, I equated it to a Chinese fire drill. Without any formal seeding you will have mass chaos for the whole 1.2 or 2.4 miles. Take Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga for instance. The first 350 meters of the swim leg is upstream and is complete pandemonium. It’s just one huge cluster of bodies with arms flailing everywhere. Within that cluster is a mix of swimmers of all levels of experience. The problem is for the faster swimmers to get through that initial cluster, they end up mowing down slower and inexperienced swimmers. I know because I’ve done it before.
So put yourself in the shoes of a bucket-lister. You’re probably pretty nervous about everything that’s about to happen. Your heart rate has been increasing as 7 am draws nearer and you’re probably feeling a little anxiety right about now. Well with a rolling start it’s about to happen quick, so get ready, here comes the cold water (This may even be your first time in your brand new wetsuit)! You jump in and you’re off, but because you’re slower and inexperienced people have already started to mow you down from behind. That’s something completely new to you, this has never happened to you in practice before. I bet you didn’t even think of that possibility before the race unless someone told you to expect it. So what do you do now that you’re being mowed down and mauled in this mass chaos? Do you panic? Quick, grab a hold of something. What are the chances there’s a kayak around in that swarm of bodies? We all know the number of triathletes to kayaks and boats is extremely disproportionate. What about that noxious odor you smell when you pick your head up out of the water to get your bearings? Didn’t see that one coming? That’s okay, neither did I until my first 70.3. It’s the smell of gasoline coming from the boats nearby, but even when they’re not that close it’s still pretty pungent. What if you end up with terrible weather conditions? You’ve probably never swam in a scenario with waves that can make you feel like you’re being tossed around in a washing machine.
Now look at the scenario if we were to seed the race in the manner that the Atlanta Peachtree Road Race does by using qualifying times from certified races or past Peachtree races. This way, you’ve at least given some sense of order to the swim. Similar swim times have been grouped together so there is a nice traffic flow. You’ve now lessened the chance of people getting run over by faster swimmers. I realize even the best swimmers can have unforeseen things happen to them, but this would allow you to have an idea where more of the assistance would be possibly needed. It gives you the opportunity to concentrate the efforts of your mostly volunteer work force on the athletes that may need it most. You’ve went from a completely random mix of athletes to something that is much more predictable.
Okay, so what about all the people who don’t have qualifying times…like those bucket-listers? Well, they get to start at the back of the swim. I know it’s not fool-proof because some faster swimmers will get tossed into that group because they lack qualifying times, but you’ve given some sense of order to the most chaotic part of the race. You’ve managed to isolate the athletes that have no half or full distance experience. Is that a bad thing? Those that can manage will make their way forward, the rest will still be in the back.
Oh, did I forget seeding the swim also will have an impact on the bike? By getting all those slower people and bucket-listers out from the front of the race, you’ve now created a smoother, more enjoyable ride. Most of those people don’t understand the rules of riding in a race, or even the rules of the road. It makes riding around them dangerous, especially when you’re a faster rider trying to work your way to the front. Things like people riding 3-wide and someone having to pass them by going into on-coming traffic won’t occur nearly as much.
If the WTC is looking to continuously make improvements, this would be a perfect opportunity to build on the SwimSmart Initiative that Ironman piloted in 2013. In that initiative Ironman asks athletes to self-seed, but that only seemed to somewhat work when there were starting corrals like at 2013 Coeur d’Alene or Lake Placid. I took a good look around that Sunday morning at Chattanooga and saw that not many understood the concept (by the way, there were no starting corrals). By formally seeding the swim, you’ll create a more enjoyable race for everybody. By requiring qualifying times, you’re going to force more people to at least attempt an open-water swimming event before they do an Ironman or Ironman 70.3. Does it really matter if people don’t like it? I highly doubt that’ll be what turns people away. They’ll still pay the entry fee just to say they’ve done an Ironman or a half-Ironman.