Runnin’ With Rani: Local Ironman athletes weigh in on new swim start protocol

  • Male age groupers start the 2.4 mile swim in the 2015 IRONMAN World Championship. (Rick Winters/West Hawaii Today)

Ironman announced in a press release in June a new swim start protocol that will be implemented for the 2019 edition of the world championship race in Kona.

It will be the first time the race — consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, followed by a 26.2-mile run — will utilize a swim wave start that separates the field into 11 groups to reduce athlete density on the bike course.

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The men’s professional field will start at 6:25 a.m., followed by the women’s professional field at 6:30 a.m.. The PC/Open Exhibition and Handcycle divisions will then begin their day at 6:35 a.m.. The first age group wave will start at 6:55 a.m. and continue every 5 minutes until all age-group athletes, separated by eight wave starts, are in the water.

“The swim start change is a reflection of, and reaction to, the extraordinary ability of our Ironman World Championship athletes,” said Andrew Messick, President &CEO of The Ironman Group in the release. “While we appreciate the simplicity and iconic visual of the mass start, our primary responsibility is to create a fair race for all athletes. A single start each for age-group men and age-group women creates too much density on the bike course.”

The press release further states, “The decision to move to an extended wave start was made following a comprehensive analysis of athlete data with the goal of reducing peak athlete density flowing onto the bike course. The new start times will not change the existing cut off standards for the Ironman World Championship – 2:20 for the swim and 10:30 for the bike. Athletes will also still have to reach the finish line within 17 hours to be official finishers of the race.”

While Ironman is an individual event where drafting is illegal during the bike segment, with 2,500 athletes competing in the world championships, having the required bike space between athletes is virtually impossible, a frustrating situation for both athletes and race marshals.

Ideally, all athletes during the bike segment should be positioned in a straight-line spaced six bike lengths apart from one another. Athletes should also ride on the right side of the lane such that other athletes are able to safely pass on the left if desired. Any passes must be completed within 25 seconds with the other rider dropping back six bike lengths after being passed, and before attempting a re-pass. Failure to do any of these could result in a drafting, illegal position, overtaken or blocking penalty.

Three local Ironman veterans racing on Saturday and a race marshal shared their thoughts on how they feel the new swim start protocol will affect the mass of cyclists — often seen grouped together in packs of 25-30 — during the 112-mile bike segment of the world championships.

“I am very happy that they are trying and I think it will help but it’s not a complete solution,” said Kailua-Kona’s Keish Doi, who will be competing in his 14th Kona race for a total of 68 Ironman finishes in his lifetime. “It won’t eliminate it, but I think it will help it a little bit.

“There’s just a lot of drafting happening out there. But the problem is there’s so many good athletes that race about the same time so you can’t get them all on the course at the same time without drafting.”

Steffen Brocks, another Kailua-Kona resident, is racing in his 14th world championships agreed with Doi.

“As far as the drafting, I think WTC is doing a good job and a step in the right direction to do the wave starts because like Keish had mentioned, it will help to spread the field out a little bit because we are starting over the course of roughly 30 or 40 minutes or so.

“So I think that would alleviate some of the drafting but I also do think that there are just too many people out on the course, and with 2500 athletes and everyone being good, you will get a lot of people getting on the bike at the same time. They are good people but they are being forced into a bad situation and because of that, you end up with the issue that they are not riding 12-meters apart.”

Waikoloa’s Michael Vrbanac said at last year’s world championships he received a 5 minute bike penalty for drafting.

“I was trying to ride legal and there were packs of riders passing me and a few other riders riding as a group,” Vrbanac said. “And so I was waiting for this group to pass and sat up to take in some water. The marshal happened to come up to me at that moment to tell me that I was drafting. So I told them that I was waiting for the group to pass, and told them what was going on, and he mentioned that he was going to get everyone who was drafting. I told him I didn’t think so.”

Veteran race marshal and Kailua-Kona resident Doug Dollinger, who has been a race marshal for both Honu (Ironman 70.3 Hawaii) and the Ironman World Championships for the last nine years, said the packs of riders has been an issue on the bike course.

“You have these huge packs of riders and it gets very congested and so it becomes very frustrating not only for the marshals, but also for the athletes as well.

People come here to race, and in a perfect race, everyone would be riding 12-meters apart and in a straight line. But that doesn’t happen.”

Dollinger said there are typically 15-plus marshals on race day, each being chauffeured on the back of a motorcycle. All race marshals have experience and meet with Ironman’s global head referee, Jimmy Riccitello, prior to race day to go over in depth the rules, protocols for giving out a penalty, and to answer any questions.

Most of the marshals are staged from Makala Boulevard on Queen Kaahumanu Highway, and are assigned sections of the 112-mile bike course to monitor.

“The main thing we discuss and look for is drafting,” Dollinger said. “Last year there were groups of 20, to 30, to 40-riders at a time. “For the marshals, the frustration is trying to get everyone in line. The athletes are frustrated too because everyone is looking to pass someone and they can’t. It’s tough because everyone is racing and at race pace.

“When someone gets passed, the other needs to drop back, but that doesn’t always happen. With 30 or 40-riders in a pack, a rider just can’t slow down as that would cause safety issues and other hazards because there are so many people behind. Then there are other riders who just sit there and put there hands up in frustration because there is nowhere for them to go. So hopefully [the new swim format] will alleviate some of the packs and congestion.

“Our job as a race marshal is to try our best to create a fair playing field for everyone. There were times when I was cursed at, and times when a rider knew they were drafting and accepted their punishment with a smile and went right into the penalty tent.”

Other than Ironman’s attempt of having more wave starts to alleviate some of the density during the bike segment, Doi, Brocks and Vrbanac offered up solutions of their own.

“I think the only real solution is to have fewer people in the race,” Doi said. “I think in a true world championship, you don’t need to have 2500 people in the race.”

Brocks added, “Like Keish said, maybe less people but there will always be a few bad apples in the bunch in terms of drafting. No matter what, whether you are doing an Ironman or a business deal, there will always be those 5% of the folks that will try and take advantage of the situation and will not play by the rules. But I think that most of the athletes out there are trying to do the right thing, but because of the sheer amount of people, it will still be hard for WTC to police everyone.”

While Vrbanac came up with a clever idea of his own.

“I think the only real solution is to have every bike with its own GPS (global positioning system) on it. So if every bike had its own GPS mounted on it and you had a tracking system where you could follow every single bike at a central computer location, then it would be a way you could see if someone is drafting or not, whether they are blocking or not, and whether they are dropping back when they should be if they just got passed.

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“Having a system like this would make it really easy. And you could actually have a warning system on the GPS that would tell a rider that they are drafting and that this is a warning. Let’s say you get 2 or 3 warnings, then now you will start to get those 5-minute penalties.”

With technology always changing, Vrbanac may not be that far off from seeing his ideas come to fruition. But for now, Ironman athletes on Saturday will embrace a new swim protocol with 11-wave starts.

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