Ironman: Safety over spectacle - Coeur d'Alene Press: Local News

Ironman: Safety over spectacle

Race may change from mass swim start to waves

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Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2013 12:00 am

COEUR d'ALENE - The visual is a staple, captured in pictures hanging on the walls of local shops and hangouts like Michael D's Eatery on East Coeur d'Alene Lake Drive.

But the mass swim start at the beginning of Ironman Coeur d'Alene - the moment where thousands of swimmers splash into the lake at the same time - could be on its way out the door.

Instead, this year athletes will likely enter the water in waves as a safety precaution that would ease congestion and prevent swimmers from swimming atop one another.

"It's not going to be the mass start," Mac Cavasar, Ironman Coeur d'Alene race director said this week. "We asked ourselves, from the safety standpoint, 'What's the best thing we can do?'

The race is leaning toward a time trial start, where racers would enter the water in smaller groups, over the course of an hour. Like all time trial races, a racer's clock wouldn't start until he or she hit the water.

But the possible safety change isn't reserved just for the Lake City event, Cavasar said. It could be the direction Ironman races are heading across the country.

It's being explored at a time when more athletes are signing up for the popular race that starts with a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.

"I think it's the consensus of the company," Cavasar said.

Jeff Edwards, vice president of operations for race organizer World Triathlon Corp., in Tampa, Fla., issued a written response to questions for this story.

"We listen to the feedback of our athletes very carefully and are committed to providing an unparalleled race experience," Edwards said. "As part of our ongoing innovation and after substantial athlete feedback, we are investigating a number of different swim start scenarios around the world. We are not prepared to make further comment at this point."

Cavasar said the change was being considered for the local race even before a competitor died during the swim portion of last year's event.

Sean Murphy, 44, of Seattle, lost consciousness in the water during the swim portion of the June 24 race and later died. He didn't drown or suffer a heart attack, and he wasn't injured by another swimmer, according to a corner's report, but died after his heart slipped into an abnormal rhythm, losing the necessary coordination to pump blood. It was the first death in 10 years since the race came to Coeur d'Alene.

"It has been on our minds," Cavasar said of Murphy's passing. "But we have to look at other races across the country - Coeur d'Alene is not the only race that lost an individual last year.

"One of the criticisms (from swimmers) has been the confusion, kicking and pushing and turns of a mass start," he added.

The number of athlete deaths during Ironman races in 2012 wasn't available late last week, but was one of the questions emailed to Ironman headquarters.

A swimmer died in the Ironman U.S. Championship in New York in August, the first year the race was held there, according to a New York Times report.

How exactly racers will launch into the water at Coeur d'Alene's race this year hasn't been nailed down.

Cavasar said they're looking at different possibilities.

One possibility could be wave starts where professionals start at 6 a.m. - an hour before the standard format. Age groups would start in waves at 6:35 a.m., and everyone would be in the water by 7 a.m. Under that format, an athlete could still finish the triathlon before midnight, but still not qualify as a finisher because the 17-hour cutoff would still apply.

Cavasar said he could have details on how the race will start in the next month.

Ironman Louisville in Kentucky is a race that uses time trial starts, but race directors there couldn't be reached for comment late this week.

Suzanne Endsley, a veteran of three Ironman Coeur d'Alene races, said she's glad to see the change in the swim start as a safety precaution. She said Coeur d'Alene racers have a limited area to begin with entering the water at City Beach, near Independence Point.

"This makes some of the athletes more comfortable," she said. "It's going to ease that pressure."

She described the current swim conditions under the mass start as "crazy," especially as more athletes enter each year.

The mass start is perhaps the most recognizable image of the annual triathlon, with pictures of thousands of swimmers in black wet suits splashing into Lake Coeur d'Alene's blue water hanging in gyms, restaurants and galleries across town. Though idyllic, the picture can be the snapshot of rough play, too.

"It's like a full-contact sport, we're talking about football here," Endsley said. "I actually thought I had a black eye a couple times."

This year's race has 3,150 racers registered, though 20 percent of registered racers likely won't show up race day on June 23, Cavasar said. By comparison, 10 years ago 1,800 people signed up for the inaugural Lake City triathlon.

Whether Ironman has considered capping race entries to smaller fields as a safety measure was one of the questions emailed to Ironman.

Cavasar said local swim course aides, emergency response staff and lifeguards have pledged their support for a staggered swim start.

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  • Cda4life posted at 2:15 pm on Mon, Mar 4, 2013.

    Cda4life Posts: 1

    It sure is annoying how stupid they think we are. This is all about making more money, NOT safety. And the death last year had nothing to do with race congestion, so again they must really think that readers are quite naive. From a 3 time Ironman and 6 time swim start spectator, it is the best part of the race from both perspectives. With this new corporation running Ironman, I'd rather do a Rev 3 event where they are still athlete and spectator focused, rather than dollar focused.

  • TriMoot posted at 1:32 pm on Tue, Feb 26, 2013.

    TriMoot Posts: 1

    I did the race in 2010 and yes was nervous about the start, but as you said Chris, it's just part of the race and you learn from other races as well as asking your buddies who have done it before how to handle it.

    That said, I've always wondered if they could make the start like time estimates. If you think you can do a sub hour then you're in the green group. 1:15 in the yellow group, etc, etc.


  • boohoo2U posted at 5:05 pm on Mon, Feb 25, 2013.

    boohoo2U Posts: 406

    BS - these guys take over and landlords rake in big bucks for a weeks use of a home.
    being professional bike riders, don't they know what a stop sign is for?

  • Chris Rotelli posted at 2:06 pm on Sun, Feb 24, 2013.

    Chris Rotelli Posts: 1

    1) totally agree. you want safety? CAP the entry limit!! Please don't sell us on the safety thing. It's like Hockey saying they want to get rid of fighting. It's insulting to think we don't realize IronMan wants to make money by increasing participation and decreasing insurance costs. Driving your car is way more dangerous and I don't have to sign 9 waivers to do that every day. And NOBODY in the history of this race has died as a RESULT of the mass swim start. I love how misleading this article is. The NY race was a time trial/wave start where the person died. again from a heart attack, not contact. The whole point, the WHOLE POINT of an iron distance triathlon is that it should be hard. A mass swim start is part of that. It is a vital and integral part of the experience. Our lives are controlled enough as it is which is why people do these races. Having your HR spike for the first 5 minutes and learning how to control that is part of the race. I also agree with the one post below that mentions the double loop. I have done Lake Placid which is a double loop. The mass swim start was so clean and safe compared to the second loop it was scary. The second loop I got pounded. But I got pounded because I made a rookie mistake and tried to cut in with the big guns. guess what? I don't do that anymore. But at least I had the opportunity to make the mistake. Please please don't ruin this race by making it easier and making people more comfortable. That is NOT the point.

  • IMprender posted at 11:55 am on Sun, Feb 24, 2013.

    IMprender Posts: 1

    It's hard enough to get into an Ironman now and will be worse if they have to limit the field. If someone doesn't want to swim in the mass, fine--move to the outside and stay there. Or start at the back--it will thin out by the time the second loop comes around. I agree, a time trial start will not ease the congestion if a weak or novice swimmer wants to swim a straight line to the buoys. This seems pretty simple--stay outside of where the masses are swimming if you don't want to swim with the masses. It's called an Ironman for a reason.

  • Ziggy posted at 11:26 am on Sun, Feb 24, 2013.

    Ziggy Posts: 1103

    Good post, Eydie. Along with the crowding is the temperature. NW native that I am, I braced myself to go into the surf in S Florida. Imagine my surprise when it was like a warm bath, not the Oregon frigid temps that I grew up with.
    I think Eydie is correct--experience in crowded, cold lakes is key. Also a friend of mine competes and is a good athlete and he says it is very scary. One kick to the temple and someone could easily be knocked unconscious with no life jacket. Not that I think athletes should wear life jackets, but it is decided dangerous.
    However, Vox is right: it's a business first and a competition second.
    Let's hold out and see what happens. Hopefully safety will remain a top concern.

  • Eydie posted at 9:53 am on Sun, Feb 24, 2013.

    Eydie Posts: 5

    Too many athletes in too little space. That is the safety issue. It's a double loop, so a time-trial start won't ease the congestion on the second lap. I competed in CdA IM in 2004, and if was my first instead of my sixth, I would have been that person freaking out. Not only are there too many people, but too many inexperienced people and that definitely adds to the chaos. If IM wanted to make it safer, they wouldn't accept anyone who hasn't completed several Olympic Distance triathlons and maybe a half before taking on IM. IM Australia requires a resume, so nobody can enter on the race unprepared. In 1999, I remember the officials at IM Canada were contemplating 2000 entrants the year 2000. They made the decision that that was unsafe and ridiculous and didn't go there, kept it to 1500. Why in the heck are the officials at CDA allowing nearly twice the number, in a more confined space, with a double loop course?? It's all about money. Someone should sue the corporation and the race director. Maybe then they'll listen.

  • my own opinion posted at 9:02 am on Sun, Feb 24, 2013.

    my own opinion Posts: 397

    I can care less about this race as long as you keep it in the city it belongs hence the name Coeur d' Alene (Iron Man). Along with all the spectator garbage that another city had to foot the bill for to clean up after. Thank you for moving it!

  • voxpop posted at 5:53 am on Sun, Feb 24, 2013.

    voxpop Posts: 738

    "Whether Ironman has considered capping race entries to smaller fields as a safety measure was one of the questions emailed to Ironman."

    Ironman is a business first. Don't pretend it's something different. Capping entries ain't gonna happen. That's the real reason for time trial starts, not safety. With that there can be nearly an unlimited number of participants.

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