Ironman: Safety over spectacle

Race may change from mass swim start to waves

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Approximately 2,800 triathletes begin to enter Lake Coeur d'Alene at the starting gun of the 2011 Ironman Coeur d'Alene. Race officials are making changes to the start of event in an effort to improve safety conditions for the thousands of athletes who compete each year.

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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