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WTC CEO Andrew Messick On Ironman Swim Changes

Posted by: on May, 10 2013

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World Triathlon Corporation CEO Andrew Messick offers new insight into today’s announcement of select changes to the Ironman swim leg, addresses the concerns of athletes and explains why he isn’t afraid to break with tradition.

Since Andrew Messick accepted the position of the CEO at the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) nearly two years ago, he has been a part of several changes and headlines in the sport. Because of his decision that would have allowed Lance Armstrong to compete despite the doping allegations against him, and his general vision of making Ironman and triathlon in general a more global sport,named him the most influential person for 2012. Today, Messick and the WTC made an announcementabout a new “SwimSmart” initiative that will drastically change the way some Ironman athletes compete in the 2.4-mile swim section of the event, and before long the idea of a mass start could be extinct all together.

The conversation about the SwimSmart initiative came at the end of the 2012 season as the result of a desire to help athletes overcome the discomfort and fear that often goes along with the Ironman mass starts. Messick joined forces with his swim safety group that works as part of Ironman’s operational team to discuss how they could improve the athlete experience and help ease the top fear of most of the participants: the open-water swim.

“The primary barrier for triathletes participating is the swim,” Messick said in a phone call on the day of the announcement. “We also know that among triathletes the largest stressor is the swim. It is the area that provokes the most discomfort; it’s the area that athletes worry the most about. It’s also where training is the most dissimilar from racing. The run portion of an Ironman or a triathlon isn’t particularly different from going out for a run. The cycling portion isn’t that different from going out for a ride. Yet the swimming portion is all together different from going to the YMCA and swimming 3,000 meters.”

After looking at the various options for how to ease the discomfort of the thousands of triathletes who participate in Ironman events each year, a multi-step initiative was established. The biggest logistical change, and the one receiving the most attention from the triathlon community, is the decision to modify or get rid of the mass start all together at certain North American Ironman events. Ironman Coeur d’Alene and Ironman Lake Placid will switch to a “rolling” start, where athletes will cross a timing mat as a continuous stream, similar to how running races begin. Ironman Mont-Tremblant will switch to a wave start based on age groups, which is how many triathlons start. Finally, Ironman Lake Tahoe and Ironman Florida will still feature a mass start, but with athletes self-seeding themselves into corrals before the race. Other Ironman events such as Texas, Louisville and Arizona will stick to their traditional starts for now.

Messick says the fact that various venues are seeing different approaches is by design.

“We want to put ourselves in a position where we’re trying different things,” he explained. “We haven’t decided what we think the right answer is, or if there is a single right answer. We have some races that are unchanged, we have some races that are very slightly modified mass starts and we’ve got a number of other races where we’ve changed the start point and that really is intentionally designed so that at the end of the year we’ve got the ability to sit down and look at the feedback from our athletes and talk to our operational team and decide what we think is best.”

He also acknowledges that these changes in format will come with a learning curve, particularly at the events that will feature the rolling start on two-lap courses.

“Are the first age groupers going to have to swim through the back of the pack? That happens to an extent already,” he said. “That’s something we’re going to have to look at and understand. For example, in a two-lap start, we’re going to have a rolling start, it might take some athletes 20 minutes to get into the water. The first pro athletes will do the first lap of the swim in 23 or 24 minutes. This is all part of what we’re going to learn over the course of the summer.”

Another implication of the new starts is that most, if not all, athletes will begin their race well before the usual 7 a.m. kick-off time and will have until midnight to finish, meaning that, unlike in the past at these events, athletes could potentially have an Ironman finishing time of over 17 hours.

“It is a tradition, but it’s only a tradition,” Messick explained in response to a question about the break from the norm. “Frankfurt is a 15 and a half hour race. Ironman Switzerland ends at 11 o’clock. There’s tradition, but there is no absolute start or finish time for Ironman races. I think the final finisher in the first Ironman race back in ‘78 was like 25 hours. I think fundamentally from a culture of triathlon perspective, if someone does the miles and it takes them 17 hours and 20 minutes because they crossed the line at midnight and started at 6:40, it isn’t immediately obvious to me that that’s an issue. It just means they’re 20 minutes tougher.”

Age-group athletes have also expressed concern about not racing shoulder-to-shoulder with their competition anymore. As a consequence of the timing mats at the start, the athlete can be the first to cross the finish line in his/her age group, without actually being the winner. This also means looking at the age on the calf of a fellow competitor may not help one determine where they stand against others, specifically in the race for coveted Kona slots.

“I think that’s a canard,” Messick says when asked about the change. “I say that because with more and more people wearing compression, the age of the person in front of you is not as apparent as it used be. Our experience as a company is that there are very, very few sprint finishes down the chute that determine Kona slots. Like in any other race, like in the New York City Marathon, the person you’re running shoulder-to-shoulder with at mile 26 may or may not have the same chip time as you.”

In addition to the change in start formats, Ironman races will also now feature numbered course buoys, increased professional swim course personnel, additional rescue teams and finally, the one that has caught the most attention, anchored resting rafts to allow swimmers to take breaks if they need them.

“I think it is an important symbolic point that it’s perfectly OK for an athlete during the run to sit down on a curb and spend five minutes at an aid station drinking water,” he says. “It’s perfectly OK for athletes to get off the bike at special needs or at an aid station and rest and yet during the part of the race where there’s the most anxiety, culturally, there is a belief among age-group athletes that they can’t stop. That stopping, holding onto a kayak or holding onto a raft is grounds for a DQ. That is wrong, but it’s a widely held belief. Part of what we want to do is through education and strong symbolic showings is reinforce to our athletes that if you need to stop and rest, stop and rest. Get out of the flow of athletes so you don’t have athletes swimming over you. It’s perfectly acceptable on the bike and the run to do that, yet for reasons we don’t fully understand culturally it doesn’t seem to be on the swim and we don’t understand why that is. We don’t think it’s appropriate.”

Messick took a similar stance when asked about the reaction from some age-group athletes that the changes will “soften Ironman.”

“The swim is still 2.4 miles, the bike is still 112, the run is still 26.2, and so I don’t know how that softens it,” he remarked.

He recognizes that the willingness to change something that has been ingrained as part of the sport for so many years will not be easy for some.

“There are certainly a lot of traditionalists who speak loudly,” he says. “I remember running races before there were timing chips and that the innovation of timing chips and the thing called a chip time was a big change for running, there were traditionalists who felt it was absolutely wrong. That if someone crossed the line in front of you, they won. I think running is much better because people weren’t afraid to innovate and try to make things better. There’s a spectacle associated with mass starts, but it’s hard for lots of athletes. We’re sensitive to that.”

The SwimSmart initiative also features other components such as warm-ups before races, temperature limitations and pre-race education. To see the complete list of initiatives, visit Ironman.com.

Triathlete.com will continue to follow-up on this story as each Ironman event takes place.