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Swimming in uncharted waters

March 6, 2013 - Morgan Ryan
I remember being terrified of the swim before my first triathlon. It was by far my least familiar sport of the three, and by far the one I had spent the least amount of time in training. The few swim workouts that I did do were in a crowded pool at the city rec center. Not great preparation for a swim in the Atlantic Ocean (another thing I had never done before).

I got some extra time to think (and overthink) about it the morning of the race as the swim starts were delayed while race organizers decided whether it was safe enough to let the hundreds of competitors into the rough, choppy ocean. Earlier in the morning, there was talk of cutting it back to just a bike and run because of a storm that had come through the night before. I had no idea how I was going to get through the break of the six-foot waves to the calmer (but still rough) water beyond.

When the horn sounded for our wave to begin, I charged into the ocean like I knew what I was doing. I was getting thrown all over the place by the turbulent water and bumping into the hands, feet and other body parts of other competitors. My wetsuit and goggles filled with saltwater almost instantly. My heart was racing, and I’m not sure I took more than three or fourth breaths for the first couple minutes. I was in survival mode, just trying to get to the calmer water beyond the break.

Other racers were bailing left and right — some taking breaks on their backs, others getting scooped up by the safety boats. It seemed like forever before I got into my swim stroke and calmed my heart rate down to a manageable level. As we rounded the first buoy, I was starting to feel better and more calm. There was one moment when I looked out into the vast ocean and thought how cool it was to be swimming in such a huge body of water.

The return trip to shore was another new experience for me. It was much faster than I had ever moved in the water and I had no idea how to manage the waves crashing over me. After one last slam into the sand that knocked off my swim cap, I stumbled out of the water and onto the beach toward the transition area.

It came as no surprise to me when I read about the guy who died during the swim of the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon on Sunday. Turns out he may have had a pre-existing condition, but still those swims in rough waters can be pretty scary (and deadly).

This 2011 Scientific American story — Why Is Swimming the Most Deadly Leg of a Triathlon? — outlines some of the reasons why most triathlon deaths happen in the water, according to cardiologist Kevin Harris:

- the adrenaline surge and pure number of athletes entering the water at the same time

- the fact that I suspect many athletes come from a background in running or other sports and may be less adept at swimming

- swimming in a triathlon is totally different sport than doing some laps in the pool due to variability of extremes of waves [as well as] people swimming around you and on top of you

- the inability to rest properly if needed (or call for help) as you could do in the marathon and bike [segments]

- the difficulties in being noticed if the swimmer is in trouble due to the number of athletes in a body of water, which is not transparent

Writer David Brown speculated in this Washington Post article that some of the deaths could be attributed to competitors having panic attacks:

“My hypothesis is these athletes suffer panic attacks, a state characterized by a racing heart, sensation of breathlessness or choking, and a feeling of lost control.

In the swim event, a combination of stresses can lead to a panic attack (or something like it): the excitement of the moment, the chaos of swimming into and over other people, the chest constriction of the wet suit, the darkness and coldness of the water, competitiveness and the desire not to quit when friends and family are watching. On rare occasions this leads to drowning.”


Here is the latest Associated Press story about the death at the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon Sunday in San Francisco:


Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — For the first time in its 33-year history, a participant in the world renowned “Escape from Alcatraz” died during the event.

The death of Ross Ehlinger, 46, on Sunday during the swim portion of the event — held in the frigid San Francisco Bay amid 6-foot swells and a powerful outgoing tide — raised questions about what effect the tough conditions had. This year’s event was held Sunday rather than in June to accommodate the America’s Cup sailing race.

The answer appears to be that the father of three from Austin, Texas, may have had an underlying health problem exposed in an especially grueling triathlon.

The San Francisco medical examiner is still investigating the cause of death.

But race organizers and a heart surgeon that participated in the race speculated that the attorney succumbed to an underlying health problem rather than being a victim exclusively of the rough conditions or drowning. Ehlinger was wearing a wetsuit.

“I bet the man had a health problem,” said Dr. Lawrence Creswell, a University of Mississippi researcher who has participated in several “Escape” triathlons. “I would bet that there’s a heart problem and not a drowning problem.”

Creswell said he doesn’t know whether the conditions played any role in the death.

Creswell chaired a committee appointed by triathlon’s governing body to research why 43 participants died in events between 2003 and 2011. That study found that 30 of the 45 triathlon deaths that occurred during that period happened during the swimming portion. All 30 were thought to be the result of “sudden cardiac death.”

Still, Creswell said conditions were rough Sunday, and the water was cold. Last year, the water was 60 degrees. But in 2011, the water temperature was 52 degrees. The San Francisco Bay is notoriously finicky, and conditions change often and quickly regardless of the time of year.

“It was a very challenging swim,” Creswell said.

Nonetheless, Creswell said the temperature of the water probably didn’t have an effect in a body of water that is nearly always hovering in the 50s.

“No one has died in the race in 33 years,” he said.

Race organizer Bill Burke said officials plucked about 150 swimmers who were off course or struggling from the water and “repositioned” all but about 10 participants back in the water to complete the race.

“We pick them up and relocate them on the course,” he said. He said organizers had 130 “assets” on the water, including several kayakers and dozens of people on personal watercraft watching over the swimmers.

Burke said that it’s common to “reposition” 60 or 70 swimmers each year and that usually only about four or five quit the race completely. He attributed the higher numbers of those quitting to the cold and windy 53 degree temperatures on shore.

“It was miserable,” he said of the end of the 1.5-mile swim when the roughly 1,700 participants were emerging from the water.

Burke said that growing popularity of triathlons generally, and a few iconic races in particular, are attracting an increasing number of athletes who may have an underlying medical condition or who are simply not in shape.

“Escape from Alcatraz is the most iconic triathlon there is,” said Burke, whose company also manages New York’s Ironman U.S. Championship and other popular events.

“I have always wanted to come to San Francisco to race in this infamous triathlon,” said Javier Gomez, the triathlon’s winner. “The course was tough with cold water, strong currents and a great field of competitors.”


Maybe this instructional video with Leslie Thomas of will be helpful:


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