Being a part of the Ironman Wisconsin Swim is probably the coolest sporting energy I’ve ever felt. Nearly 3,000 triathletes bobbing in the water before a canon blast unleashes mayhem.
When I raced IMWI in 2013 I was obsessed with the swim. It intrigued and scared the shit out of me. I watched every video I could find and tried to imagine myself in the middle of that madness.
Eventually, on a perfect Fall day in my home state, it happened . . . and this is how it felt.
I had an odd sense of calm that morning, probably something to do with facing the no-turning-back factor. But the reality was, I had only swam the full distance once before in my life and my history of freaking out in swims was well documented.
The best thing I did that morning was get into the water early. It’s a floating start, and, with the Fab 5 nestled around me, I breast stroked to my position 20 minutes before the gun. There is nothing like getting used to the feel of a wetsuit and water temperature to calm your nerves.
The scene is incredible. I swear I looked at the shoreline and shed a tear. There are literally thousands of spectators hanging from the rafters of the Helix. It’s a mind-blowing sight and amazing that so many people will come out that early to support friends and family. It’s a moment that will soften your heart.
I settled into the middle of the group near the ski ramp. My guess is that the expanse of people fills a rectangle around 100 yards wide and 50 yards deep. Starting position is a big deal in this race.
I felt like my swim was “pretty” good at this time and my logic was to start in the front row, but 50 yards away from the fastest swimmers near the buoy line. It meant my swim would be 15-20 yards longer to the first turn, but avoiding the chaos of aggressive swimmers seemed well worth it. The goal was to start slow and gradually settle into my race pace, which I hoped would be around 2:00 per 100 meters.
My strategy worked . . . for about 10 feet. That’s when an avalanche of swimmers from behind me started pummeling my body. They swam over me, collided with my ribs, and kicked in and around my face. It was a free for all and I had no choice but to flip a switch.
The main goal when swimming a mass start is to locate open water and the only choice I had was to swim faster to get there. I dug hard for about 200 yards, deflecting other swimmers most of the way. Finally I found some breathing room and settled down.
The swim course is a rectangular box with the buoys on your left. I breath to my right, so using the buoys for sighting my direction was not really in play. In hindsight I think sighting too much was probably my biggest mistake on this day.
I should have just trusted the flow of the crowd. The more I sighted, the less I seemed to see and the more I self corrected instead of moving forward. Correct left, correct right, etc . . . is a recipe for zig-zagging and it’s probably what I did most of the day.
The first turn is to the left and there’s a tradition of “mooing” as a tribute to the cows in Wisconsin and I had a weird angst about that as a home-grown boy. In a way seemed like screaming “Yee-ha” cornering a buoy in Tennessee.
Anyway, it was all I could do to breathe at that point, but I begrudgingly “moo’d” under the water as kind of a “fuck-you-but-I’ll-play-along-sort-of” and scrambled my head in the direction of the next buoy.
The problem with sighting buoys is that unless you can see the second one in line, it doesn’t do you much good because you need a long-range angle.
I wanna say it’s about 200 yards from the turn buoy to the second turn and that’s when I started noticing how choppy it was. I was bobbing up and down as I swam and my sighting paranoia made me stop to gather my surroundings 3 or 4 times. That short leg wasn’t too bad, but it was also really crowded, so I drifted away from the straight line again. As I hit the second turn buoy I knew I was in for a battle.
The backside of the rectangle is about 1700 yards long and there is not much to sight from, so I tried a trick. I went to the inside and kept the buoys on my right. It’s perfectly legal, but I felt like a loner.
The waves were really throwing me around and it was all I could do to locate buoys. “Just get the next one” I repeated over and over. But this is exactly why sighting one buoy at a time is a problem. Occasionally I realized I was taking a 45 degree angle to the buoy instead of going straight. At one point I literally t-boned another swimmer. One of us was really off course.
Once you make it to the third turn you have about 500 yards left and adrenaline alone will carry you. You’re swimming right at the huge crowd. You start to hear the music. The energy just feeds your body and sighting is easy because of the Helix in the background.
I have to say, my hand hitting the shore underwater might have been one of the best feelings of my life. A huge part of me wanted to bypass the rest of the race and run across the street to the hotel bed, but when you stand up and see the crowd, hear the screams, and feel the energy, it’s like a vortex sweeping you away. You run toward the swirly helix and it’s lined with people dancing, playing drums, and throwing you high fives. It’s impossible not to be pumped for the brutal ride that lay ahead.
Here’s a short video I made of the Wisconsin Swim Start in 2014 as a spectator. Follow Crushing Iron on Facebook.