A Question of Swim Speed or Safety

Waves and chop at the 2012 Ironman St George were reported to be between 4-5 feet.

Over the past week there has been a considerable amount of web traffic posted about the swim conditions at this year’s Ironman St. George and how it appears that a considerable number of athletes were pulled from the water.  One of the more interesting dialogues that has been occurring related to the question of whether athletes who cannot swim a pace faster than 2:00 per 100 yards should even attempt an iron distance race swim of 2.4 miles, with the main premise being that they shouldn’t.

At first, the conversation (which is on Slowtwitch) was focused on the concept and theory that swim speed was correlated to swim stroke mechanics and ability (which it is) and the thought that poor swimmers shouldn’t swim an iron distance race.  Then, as more and more athletes chimed in, the conversation switched to the concept that slow swimmers just aren’t safe and ultimately present a hazard to both themselves and to race directors.

I’ve written before that I’m not the fastest swimmer – I have been recently training in the 1:45-1:50 range per 100 yards.  While I may be slow compared to some swimmers, I’m not the slowest and I hardly consider myself a hazard.  In fact, I’d wager that I’m a middle of the pack swimmer in terms of most triathlon swimmers.

To prove this point, I did a little analysis by taking a look at several different m-Dot races to see just how fast swimmers are, what might be the norm, and how big the variation between athletes was:

source: Craig Harris (www.slowtwitch.com/enhancedresults)

Here’s what I find really interesting….the average 100 yard pace in each of these races (except Kona – which you’d expect) was SLOWER than 2:00 per 100.  Even more interesting is that a higher percentage of athletes finishing these races (again, excluding Kona) swam slower than 2:00 per 100 yards.  This data above only includes athletes that finished the race, too….and while some are clearly slower than others, the majority of folks fall within close proximity to that magic 2:00 per 100 yards barrier that some have called “too slow to be safe”.  Even more interesting is when you look at the range of swimmers falling within one standard deviation of the average.  Statistically, about 68% of a population fall within one standard deviation of an average.  In most cases – exclude Kona – the fastest time within one standard deviation of the average was in the mid-1:40’s per 100.  That’s certainly faster than a 2:00 pace…but it’s not Phelpsian, either.

So….are slower swimmers less safe than faster swimmers?  I’d argue not necessarily.  Take this year’s Ironman St. George for example.  Reports are that there were winds in the 40mph range and that the lake where the swim was held had chop and waves approaching four to five feet.  Close to 200 athletes DNF’d the race…170 finished the swim but did not make the bike cut off.  Their average pace?  2:52 per 100.  From things I’ve read online, among those that DNF’d were some pretty strong swimmers, some of whom had previously swam an iron-distance race successfully (and in a few cases, quite fast).  No…I’d say that what makes a swimmer – any swimmer – unsafe is their level of preparedness, or lack thereof, coupled with race-day conditions.  I suspect that many of the 200 athletes that didn’t finish IMSG were adequately prepared, but had never before experienced lake conditions like they were faced with that day.  On the other hand, I feel pretty positive that there were some who were unprepared for a race of 2.4 miles – even in pristine conditions.  Those are the folks that are real hazards in a race. 

In terms of the thought that just because an athlete swims an average pace of 2:00 per 100 that he or she is too slow to race an iron distance race, I call bullshit on that.  It’s clear from the math that loads of athletes who have finished iron distance races do, in fact, swim right around that magic pace.  Now, for the folks that are faster than that – great for you.  I’d love to be fast, too.  But don’t look down your nose at someone just because they are slower than you.  The reality is that the “average” iron distance athlete really is that slow.  Besides, if you’re faster than that, you’ll be way ahead of the slower swimmers anyway…so what does it matter to you?

And….for what it’s worth, when I completed IMFL in 2009, my swim pace was 1:59 per 100.  Slightly better than the average that year – but right on top of that 2:00 per 100 pace “magic line” separating (in some minds) those that should be allowed to do an iron distance race and those that shouldn’t.

6 thoughts on “A Question of Swim Speed or Safety

  1. I was at Ironman St. George this weekend and while I am a better than average pace swimmer (average 1:39 per 100 at Vineman 70.3 last summer) I only manged s 1:33 swim (2:26 per 100 pace) in those conditions. I was so worried for the weaker and less comfortable swimmers because that was the hardest OWS I have ever done. The only thing that could have made it worse was if it had been cold. I think a 2:00 per 100 is a silly threshold as well. Great post!

  2. Love this post and the stats that you found! I agree, there is no magic number that determines whether a person should or should not do an Ironman. It is definitely your level of preparedness on race day.

  3. Good post Joel!

    I read the first page of the thread and had to stop b/c it was pretty stupid.

    IMSG was a complete surprise (not too mention statistical outlier in terms of weather conditions) to many people as the conditions became violent after the swim began. If people would have known what they were getting into many of those who may have been under-prepared probably would have opted to DNS. AND that is assuming that WTC did not cancel the swim – which, by all accounts, probably would have been the case. Heck, I am a more than adequate swimmer and after seeing some of the pics and video probably would not have got in that water.

    Gotta love ST though as the posters always keep us entertained. Next post will probably be that people that cannot run under 8min/mi are dangerous on the run course by clogging up the lanes for faster runners (-:

  4. “unsafe is their level of preparedness, or lack thereof, coupled with race-day conditions”

    I totally agree. I think that taking a good beating from the ocean, not even necessarily as a “swim” but just hanging out and getting comfortable is almost necessary to build a confident swimmer.

  5. I think people need to take into consideration who is used to an open water swim and who is used to swimming in the pool. I agree with Elaine – it’s all about how comfortable and confident you are as we a swimmer. If there are waves/swell some people freak out – and that is what causes people to DNF based on the swim. But if you just take it as it is, and not have a panic attack, any swim can be completed 🙂 Excellent post!

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