What can go wrong…or right with a little preparation.
A common question as the open water season starts goes along the lines of “where at the start is safe? No where here it would seem! How do I know where to go? Will I get swum over?” It is not easy to answer all of these questions, as the start of a race is an unpredictable chaotic event with 00s or 000s all looking to swim in the same direction to the first buoy but rarely doing so. The more you race, the more will get an idea of how a race start unfolds and where best suits your ability. Even this can go wrong, as a certain race you entered might be a higher standard than previous, and a third of the way up the field this time might have you getting swum over whereas previously you did the swimming over. A race might be advertised as novice friendly attracting you to enter. If you have a situation where there are a lot of novice Triathletes who were former swimmers trying a Triathlon for the first time, then the swim start can be fast and furious leaving the general pecking order in a mess. If this does not upset you and you do successfully get onto the bike, no doubt you will make back lots of time over those lucky enough having swum lots as a youngster, as you pass them on the bike.
A common response is to wait at the back until all the swimmers have gone to ensure the least amount of stress and aggravation. If you are better than you imagined, this can cause issues since, if you as a front crawl swimmer then have to navigate through a wave of swimmers doing Breaststroke, this will be incredibly frustrating. Sometimes changes are made by the race course officials, that do not help. I watched a Standard distance race last year, male and female were going to start together for the 1500m swim. This made sense as faster swimmers (male and female) could assemble at the front. Slower swimmers, regardless of gender could assemble towards the rear of the pack. With 2mins to go, the men were called forwards to start the race, the women would start 2mins behind, the organisers assuming it would be safer to have two smaller groups. For the fast women this made the start very uncomfortable as they swam through the slow men, many who were doing Breaststroke and for the slow men, it could not have been much fun either getting swum over.
I think it is safe to say that no one wants to deliberately hurt anyone during a race but given the tight proximity to each other that shapes the start line, it is inevitable that swimmers will bump and nudge each other. At the start of a Marathon with 000s packed together, the gun goes and for most the first few minutes are spent walking until some space clears before attempting to run. Unfortunately in the water, most relax waiting for the start in a vertical position, treading water until the start of the race sounds and then everyone takes up 5x the room by switching to a horizontal position and boom, it’s chaos in neoprene. You can create room for yourself at the start by holding position horizontally during the countdown and so encourage some space. With limited swim skills and an ability to change pace comfortably, many people usually start too fast in a frantic, losing-control fashion that leads to blows to other swimmers and is misinterpreted as aggression. I hope.
Start line positioning – If you are reasonably confident in the water as a strong pool swimmer, then don’t be surprised if you spend the first 20mins of a Triathlon swim overtaking slower swimmers who have possibly mis-seeded themselves due to inexperience or just not being sure how fast they are. Many people report back frustrated that the middle of the pack was quite slow and it took ages to meander through before clearer water was available. It is hard to give full advice on this area as races and the quality of the depth of field changes, but experience will eventually help you choose an ideal location on the race line. Make your first few races smaller, low key affairs where you can experiment, make adjustments and not be too distressed if things don’t go well. I know of only one person who made an Ironman their very first race and enjoyed it and continues to race. This would seem to be quite the exception.
So much can hinder your swim on race day that it is surprising if it ever goes fully to plan. Arriving early and allocating time to relax, prepare fully, watch earlier ‘waves’ of competitors, if a multi wave event, will help you be at your best when the race commences. Specific swimming dry land warm up exercises are key to bring the body up to racing temperatures and to get the swimming muscles ready to perform. This will allow you to swim a little faster a lot more comfortably when the gun goes, rather than overload a cold body and feel very uncomfortable when you get to the first buoy. A short swim warm-up if it is not too cold and wetsuit flushing (allow the suit to flood once immersed, exit and squeeze water from it then pull it back up into position) will squeeze air and excess water, vacuum sealing your suit, making it the most invisible to you yet the most helpful in terms of flexibility in the shoulder and assisting body position.
It never fails to amaze me the difference in approach to the start of the masses at a Running Marathon event compared to the frenzy of the start of most large Open Water swims. When starting the Marathon, the masses mostly walk until eventually space develops and then a shuffle/jog can start. Compare to a swim start, and while similarly cramped when the gun goes, what happens? Arms and legs start moving frantically as the smallest gaps are fought over.
Confidence at the start of a race comes from controlling as many areas of the race as possible knowing many will be out of your control. Swimming your best will come from a combination of a well sized and well fitted wetsuit, arms and shoulders mobilised and warm ahead of time, knowing the course, the number of laps, the direction and look out for anyone you recognise from previous races that are fast you can follow or avoid!