As it turns out, the only water in the inaugural Ironman 70.3 Waco will be found in the cups and bottles being chugged by the competitors.
Ironman race and City of Waco officials made the call on Saturday to eliminate the swimming portion of Sunday’s inaugural race, due to the increased river flow that resulted from a recent deluge of rainstorms. The altered triathlon will still begin at the same time, 7:25 a.m. Sunday morning, but will encompass only the 56-mile biking stage and the 13.1-mile running stage while eliminating the 1.2-mile swim. Competitors will roll out in stages, so the race will unfold as a “time trial” — rather than the first finisher automatically being the winner.
“Ironman has strict safety benchmarks in place that have been surpassed, including the rate of water flow,” race officials said in an email message sent to the 3,000 athletes registered to compete in the race. “The abundance of rain created additional flow with a rate higher than the limit deemed safe for swimming in the Brazos River.”
“As athlete safety is our paramount concern, we appreciate the understanding based on these extenuating circumstances,” the message continued.
Officials had been monitoring water levels all week leading up to the race, and they had topped 22 feet late in the week, according to the National Weather Service. But the bigger safety issue for the swimmers wasn’t the water’s depth, but rather its strong current.
Race organizers considered a variety of options, including altering the swim route to go with the current, but ultimately decided to cancel the swim altogether.
For the Ironman professionals in the field, it’s nothing they haven’t experienced before. Joe Gambles, 36, said it’s the third such Ironman race he’s participated in this year that had the swimming canceled for various reasons.
“I think it makes the race harder, to be honest,” said Gambles, who elaborated that it’s easier to judge one’s place in the race when everyone is launching at the same time.
Haley Chura, 33, a multi-time 70.3 winner from Montana, said that all races are packed with their own measure of adversity. Dealing with those potholes and stumbles is part of not only being a racer, but a human, she said.
“We do this as a job, but I realize that I won’t do this for my entire life,” Chura said. “And so you kind of take sport and use it as a lesson for life. Things don’t always go your way, and sometimes unexpected things happen. So you kind of take the challenge of tomorrow, because you train for the swim and you plan for the swim, and it’s not going to happen, but you can still have a really good day. So I think that you take tomorrow, learn what lessons you can, and probably down the line you’re going to be able to apply it to another area of life.”
Andrew Starykowicz, 36, owns a reputation as one of the top pros and especially cyclists in the triathlon world, and in 2013 he became the first American to break eight hours in a full-length Ironman. (The 70.3 event is known as a Half-Ironman, at half the distance.)
He joked that race officials should start getting more creative with their backup plans.
“Triathlon means three, tri. But it doesn’t say swim-bike-run, it says three activities,” Starykowicz said, while his fellow competitors began to chuckle, wondering where he was headed. “So we need to get better and more creative in creating a third activity, in lieu of if the swim or bike or run gets canceled, that we can properly complete a triathlon. I put out a suggestion this morning that we should all have to do 2,000 kilograms of deadlift before you start the bike. I think that would be great, that would really help out the runners.”
Starykowicz, coming off a disappointing 77th-place overall finish at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, did offer up a smiling — yet steely-eyed — prediction for Sunday’s race: “I’m going to cause some serious damage here,” he said.
Almost a third of the 3,000-athlete field — some 900 competitors — will be competing in an Ironman for the first time. Asked what advice they’d give to those rookies, the professionals were unanimous in suggesting that athletes shouldn’t change their strategy just because the swimming leg vanished.
“You’re going to start out the bike with more energy, but I wouldn’t get carried away,” Gambles said. “I would stick to the same bike pacing, the same nutrition, don’t change anything. That energy you save from not swimming, use it on the run to really power on those last few miles, where you can really make up some great time and some positions on the time you’re going for or your opposition. I wouldn’t change too much — stick to your own plan and hopefully there’s a little more in the tank.”
For the visiting pros, Waco is obviously a new racing venue, and for most of them, it was a new destination on their travel logs as well. Florida’s Alicia Kaye, 35, dubbed herself a “superfan” of Chip and Joanna Gaines and their TV series “Fixer Upper,” so she personally couldn’t wait for this race.
“So I was kind of pumped to come here to see what it looked like beyond the TV,” Kaye said. “I’d only seen Waco through what HGTV showed me. So I was excited to see it. … The run course is absolute gorgeous. … To me, it’s like a little slice of heaven. So I’m looking forward to suffering in paradise tomorrow.”