For the Record: April 2016 – Should IRONMAN Events Feature Separate Start Times for Men and Women?

YES: Coach Claudia Smith

Yes, I think IRONMAN events should have separate starts for men and women. Why not? IRONMAN tested the separate starts this year at the World Championships with age group men starting at 6:50 a.m. (25 minutes after the pro women wave) and age group women starting at 7 a.m. I personally think the ideal start would be a rolling start for the men and then a rolling start for the women 10 to 15 minutes later. This will still put the strong female swimmers in the front and they will be able to legally draft off of other females. This also releases some of the congestion at the swim start which makes it easier for the lifeguards to be more available if any safety issues arise. 

Of course, many of the women who swim faster than the men will catch up and pass some of the male age groupers. However, by having the two separate starts, this should prevent a lot of the illegal drafting and congestion at the beginning of the bike course. This will spread out the field a little more on the entire bike course and hopefully make the race fairer for all participants.  

As quoted from IRONMAN CEO Andrew Messick in a Slowtwich.com article before Kona, “We believe this will give an opportunity to significantly improve the bike experience for everybody. And it has an opportunity to enhance the fairness of the women’s race for all age groups.”

For the record, I do not think that the female age groupers race should be on a different day.  Competitors, male and female, feed off of each other’s energy. Since the current percentage of IRONMAN racers is about 29% female, having the events on different days may be seen as an unfair advantage or disadvantage to male or female athletes. Also, this would make it incredibly challenging for the race directors to find volunteers to be fully staffed for the two days.

NO: Coach Vicki Vandergriend

I do not believe separate starts for men and women do justice to the challenge of an IRONMAN race. When I decided I wanted to compete in an IRONMAN distance race, I wanted to push myself farther than I believed I could go. I wanted to know if I had what it took to fully meet the physical and mental challenge of what an IRONMAN race encompassed. I did not want a diluted, watered down experience. It wasn’t simply swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running 26.2 miles. It was competing in an event with both men and women (knowing that it was largely male dominated), with athletes older and younger than me as well as athletes more experienced and less experienced than me.  

Each of these variables adds a new and unique challenge to this race. I feel the essence of competing and finishing is finding out what you are made of as you face and conquer each obstacle and each fear.  Changing the start of the race to separate the genders (even by only 10 minutes) impacts these challenges. I am a 106-pound, 5’2” woman. Many of the women are larger than me. Almost all of the men are.

I am proud of the fact that I can hold my own in a pack of 2,000 to 3,000 athletes who are bigger than me. I would never know that I do have the courage and I can face 4,000 to 6,000 elbows and feet while keeping my cool AND swimming 2.4 miles if I had started with a fraction of that number of athletes and women only  (around 500 women competed in my first IRONMAN race). I wouldn’t know those things about myself. That, to me, waters down my accomplishment.  

The argument that it helps make a better bike experience is weak. With all the numerous factors that come into play at a race of this magnitude (training, fitness, nutrition, gear, weather, terrain, completion field, race conditions…), the pack spreads out and natural limiters do their job of spacing out the racers. Start time becomes much less important than these factors by the time the bike has started. I firmly disagree with the proposal to separate the start times for the genders. I can proudly look anyone in the eye and say I am an IRONMAN in every aspect of that label, and I would not want to rob any future IRONMAN of the same.

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