Survival guide for the Kona swim

Tips to master the Ironman World Championship swim (many of which will work at other full-distance races, too!) from Sam Hume.

| October 10, 2017 | TRAINING

Photo >Frank Wechsel / spomedis

by Dr. Sam Hume

The swim start in Kona is an amazing experience. You are starting the final stage of a challenging journey that began many months, or even years, earlier and you’re amongst the best athletes in the sport, on the biggest day on the Ironman calendar. Here’s how to get the best start to your day:

So much expectation is about to be realized that there is an amazing aura of nervous energy amongst the athletes, race organizers and crowd. There are not many times in your life that you get to start a swim race alongside over 1,000 other like minded athletes (the men's age group wave will include about 1,400 competitors) – even the Lorne Pier to Pub, the world’s biggest open water swim with over 4,000 competitors, only starts swimmers in waves of 200. Thinking about the start and knowing what to expect can help to minimize the chance that you expend too much nervous energy or make a bad tactical decision on race day. I’ve raced three Ironman World Championship races – my best swim finish was fiftth fastest overall in 2006 at my first outing, but it was definitely not my best start to the race.

There is a ridiculous amount of eye candy for the guys, girls, tri-geeks and star-spotters alike. I think it is important to swim the course, see where you get in, get out, and work out your sighting, however, making this a morning ritual for the whole pre-race week will distract you from having your best day. It is really hard not to get caught up star-spotting, grabbing freebies and ogling at the newest gadget. Pretty soon it’s easy to get a bit intimidated by all of the exceptionally fit looking people with their amazing gear and set-up, not to mention the extra nerves the whole experience adds. Take it from me, swim the course once 3 days out, see the hype and then leave it. Better to focus on the important stuff (like resting) in those last few days.

Get organized, get ready and get away

On race morning, make a point of slipping in and out of transition, setting your self up quickly and then escaping to someplace (relatively) quiet. As was told to me many times, all you really have to do is pump up your tyres. There’s not much more to it than that! Do it and get out of there. Then I try and find some lawn away from the start to have a gentle stretch, link up with family and other athletes, and get my suit/HRM/sunscreen on. I don’t need to see someone sing the national anthem, watch Navy SEALs jump out of airplanes or see the pro-start. Then I’m ready to get to the start line.

Know the pre-race hype and how to minimise it

Where you choose to start the swim depends on your swimming ability and goals for the day. There will usually be fast swimmers sitting as close to the pier as possible, with a lesser number further away from that point, but still on the front of the line. There is time between the pro-start until the age-group start. During that time, old surfer-dudes on longboards paddle up and down the start line, pushing people back, telling people to get behind the line and just generally trying to hold everyone back.

Things become a real crush with five minutes to go as everyone is trying to tread water, and I can recall getting a series of firm kicks, which is not what you want when you are relying on your legs later in the day. If you are keen for a fast start, you have to suffer this and my suggestion is to get your space on the line early, make yourself as wide as possible and protect your space ruthlessly. Do not let anyone get in front of you or push your legs down just before the start. When the gun goes, the surfer-dudes simply sit up and spin their boards so their backs are to masses. One year this happened right in front of me and in near-panic I just scrambled over the front of the board before the guy could spin it. No point waiting! If your goals are less ambitious for the start, move further away from the pier and line up well behind the start line. Let’s face it, you’re going to be out there for nine to 17 hours – if a few seconds don’t really matter, save yourself the trouble.

Swimmers in the front line usually take off at an incredible pace and although I try not to swim too hard, I also don’t want to get swum over by those behind. It takes about 400 to 500 m for everything to settle down and there is usually a stand up paddler to follow if you are in the lead group. The boat that marks the turnaround is difficult to see initially so follow the line of buoys/crowd.

Work out your sighting points

Once you make the turnaround, the easiest point to sight on is two tall buildings directly behind the pier. Make sure you line these up during your practice swim and know where you are headed, especially as you approach the pier.

Wind it back

The first 15 minutes of the ride is basically uphill and it therefore pays to get your heart rate down and take it easy exiting the water and moving through transition. Thousands of people are lining the swim exit and first few km of the ride, all cheering madly – it’s easy to get carried away with the excitement and overdo the effort. There is a three to four  minute descent after your climb which is a good opportunity to get some food and drink down, tighten your shoes and settle in for the big day. Remember the draft busters are hyper-vigilant during the first 50 km, so keep your distance!

I hope these suggestions get you off to a great start. While I have discussed them in terms of the Ironman World Championship, the concepts are clearly applicable to all big races – good luck!