Trouble in the open water

The New York Times reported today on the eight deaths so far this year our sport has absorbed in competitions in the United States. This may seem like a relatively large number, especially in view of the calendar (there are still several months remaining in the 2008 season). And it is a large number, in a sport where one death is too many.

While the Times article is sensational, triathlon's mortality rate is still relatively low. Even if this is an exceptionally high year for deaths in triathlon, the mortality rate in our sport is not out of proportion to other activities.

Let's do the math and see if we can come up with a mortality rate. There are 110,000 annual members of USA Triathlon and these triathletes race an average of about 2.4 times per year. That's 264,000 triathlon "occurrences" in the U.S. per year. USAT sells about 180,000 one-day licenses, and if we assume that some of these license buyers buy more than a single one-day license—let us say each one-day buyer buys on average 1.1 licenses—then we have a total of about 273,000 individual people competing a total of 444,000 times. If we further assume that about 10 percent of all athletes choose non-sanctioned events, and they race 1.2 times per year, then we end up with right at 300,000 triathletes competing about 475,000 times per year in the United States.

If we were to accelerate the current mortality, extrapolating for a full year, we might end with as many as 12 deaths by the time 2008 is over. That would extrapolate to 4 deaths per 100,000 participants per year, or perhaps 2.5 deaths per 100,000 triathlon occurrences. Last year there were far fewer deaths, with 1 athlete death per 100,000 triathlon occurrences. In all or virtually all cases, the deaths in recent years occurred in the water, yet in no cases were the deaths caused by drowning.

On the one hand the extrapolated 2008 mortality rate seems high. On the other hand, if you've been a professional wrestler over the past decade, you're 40 times more likely to die in your make-believe sport than in our real sport. Skydivers face a risk of mortality 60 times higher than ours. If your sport is equestrian, specifically 3-day eventing, your risk is higher still.

But that is no solace to those who've lost friends and loved ones only because these people chose to race in a triathlon.

As noted, all this season's deaths have occurred in the water, mostly of heart attacks. On the one hand, this speaks to the run of great fortune we've had monitoring our bike courses, and hydrating our athletes, and in equipping our athletes for competition prior to the race. On the other, it reminds us that when bad things happen in the water, the margin for error is much, much smaller than when they happen on land. It also reminds us that there might be something specific to swimming that raises the risk of a heart attack, and it causes us to wonder what those aggravators might be.

As for my own racing, none of this gives me pause, because I feel quite confident and safe in the open water. I was a "Junior Lifeguard," which is a Socal Beach Community's version of Pop Warner Football for swimmers, every Summer from the age of 9 to 15. My open water education continued from then on to and through adulthood. But, let's say my brother, my mother, my nephew, my wife, decided to compete in a triathlon. That's a more sobering thought.

I don't know what I'd say to them, but I know what I'd say to you. First is to learn to flip turn. What has that to do with open water swimming, and trouble in the water? Well, nothing at first blush. But here's the thing about a flip turn: it's forced hypoxia. Doing a flip turn is the functional equivalent of breathing every fourth stroke instead of every second, and if you are a very good swimmer and dolphin out of your turn, it's like breathing every sixth. The faster you swim, and the shorter your pool, and the stronger your arm strength, and the more time you spend underwater after the turn, the more hypoxic flip turns become.

Why does this matter to an open water swimmer? Because your head is going to get pushed underwater. You're going to turn for a breath and instead of a gulp of air a wave is going to serve you a gulp of water. Someone's going to swim right over your back. A wave is going to pitch you as you swim toward shore during an ocean swim, and you'll spend the next little while tumbling end-over-end waiting for things to settle down; only then will your head pop up to the surface. I promise you, you will lose a breath from time to time in an open water swim, and you have to become comfortable with the idea of going without air for a split second, or maybe a few seconds. Flip turns will help. (Plus, once you're a good flip turner you won't look like a dork in the pool).

The better swimmer you become in the pool, the better you'll be in lakes and oceans. But, what about the open water? What might keep you out of trouble? True, the great majority of these deaths during the swim come from heart attacks. But, are any of us safe in the assumption that there was not some other proximate cause—some event in the water that might hasten a heart attack? I don't know the answer to that and so, as for me, I like keeping out of trouble. How does one do that?

I always line up on the side of the start, not in the middle. In each race I've competed in this year, I've been first or second out of the water in my AG, so I'm not really interested in starting the race behind everyone. Notwithstanding my speed relative to those in my competitive set, if I start in the center of the front row there's always some yahoo behind me that is just sure that the speed I exhibit during the first 10 yards of the swim is lacking. Sure as day, here he comes over my ankles, my back, my head.

But if I start on the far side of the front row, instead of in the center, then I'm pretty much out of harm's way.

Since I'm primarily a left side breather, I start on the right hand side of the field, unless there's an obviously shorter route to be taken on the left hand side. I start on the right because I want to see the race. I want to see who's in front, who's coming up behind me, who's swimming by, because I'll try to draft off a faster swimmer as much as I'm able. If I line up on the other side, I'm looking at nothing every time I breathe—the race is occurring on the other side of my body.

Of course, I run the risk of having someone kick water in my mouth by breathing on the side the race is taking place. But, since I'm on the far side of the field, I can keep my distance from others until I spot a swimmer that's worth sucking in behind.

About drafting, there are a couple of things to consider. It's a bit of a trick to stay close to the swimmer in front without hitting his feet or ankles with your hands on every stroke. If I were you, I'd approach a swimmer's feet from the rear like I'd approach a donkey's feet from the rear: too close, and you're liable to get a swift kick. Folks don't mind you drafting, if you stay off their feet.

There is one other good reason to maintain a close, but safe, distance. I was in a race two weeks ago, getting a great tow, when the swimmer in front of me just stopped dead in the water. He couldn't see the buoy, stopped, looked up for a brief second, then put his head down and with a swift frog kick commenced swimming. That kick would've hit me square in the face had I not reacted just in time and stopped just as he stopped.

Considering the paragraph just above you might consider drafting a high-risk tactic. Not so. One of the most comforting elements of swimming in the draft, if you're a fast enough swimmer, is bequeathing the duty of fighting through the slower competitors to your lead swimmer. Me, I'm much more likely to get a kick in the face from a guy who started the race 3 or 5 minutes in front of me, and whose wave I've caught later in the swim, than from someone who started in my own wave. Riding the feet of a leading swimmer means he, not you, is receiving that kick to the face as he wades, ice-breaker style, through successively slower waves of contestants.

Earlier when discussing heart attacks in triathlons I alluded to aggravators specific to the swim leg. To that end, let's talk for a minute about your warm-up. I have no data that suggests causality between the lack of a warm-up and a heart attack. That said, here's a little known fact: the highest heart rate you'll see all day is during the swim leg. Would you take off in a footrace, or a bike race, hell bent for leather right from the gun, without first warming up? I'm always one of the first guys to rack my bike in a triathlon, because I budget my time so to hit the water 20 to 30 minutes before my wave goes off. I'm in the water for about 15 minutes doing a slow, easy warm-up prior to commencing the race. By the time my warm-up is about finished, I'll swim some several fairly hard sprints of 50 to 100 yards each.

Finally, and I'll be frank with you, there are just some races I will not do. Whether it's because of questionable water quality, or currents, or conditions, or temperature, or the number of competitors in a wave; or whether it's potential hazards on the bike course that I'm uncomfortable with, I'll just pass that race by. There are high profile races in my region that "everybody" does that I just don't ever do. Notwithstanding the Times' article of today, our sport's statistics are favorable. That established, I don't want to be one of those statistics, and for that reason I'm choosy about my race schedule.