Jim is an accomplished triathlete and endurance cyclist, and has raced in more than 35 USAT-certified races. He is also an avid trail runner and endurance gravel bike rider. Jim is a founder of Complete Tri and frequent writer on triathlon and cycling.
The team at the Triathlon Wetsuit Store not only competes in triathlons, but we are loyal race volunteers as well. One of the important jobs that we have done many times is to setup and monitor a triathlon swim race course. As with any race course, being in charge of a swim involves making sure the route is accurate, fun, and safe. For race directors, we wanted to compile a few of the tips for you to consider or that should be passed along to your swim marshals. These points are all gathered from personal experience, and this article is written purely in the spirit of trying to make future races just a little safer for all triathletes.
Carefully Evaluate the Course Before the Race. You would never send cyclists on a bike course that you had not driven several times leading up to the race, so why would you set a swim course that had not been marked and evaluated. A few days prior to the race, get in a boat with a GPS unit and depthfinder. Run the boat over the likely course a few times, noting several important factors. First, can you safely get the distance that you are looking for without going in big water with high traffic, or near dangerous lake structure? Are you able to keep swimmers safely out of weeds, which are often more pronounced in shallow water? Is the swim-out and swim-in safe from rocks or underwater structure? Once you have the course that you are comfortable with, mark it with a GPS unit or at a minimum with some landmarks that can be easily lined up on race morning.
Don’t Skimp on Course Buoys. For a typical sprint triathlon, you are going to want anywhere from five to ten buoys, the larger the better, and ideally all being of one consistent and bright color. These buoys are going to be the main guide for your swimmers, many of whom will be nervous in the water and perhaps inexperienced with open water swimming. In addition to the number of buoys, go for the best quality you can find, and don’t forget about having high-quality anchors and rope. On a windy day, a large buoy may need to be anchored by a good 30 lb + anchor, in addition to lots of good, nautical rope. For a buoy placed in 25 feet of water, it is not uncommon to use 40-50 feet of rope. Keep in mind that the windier the day, the more rope (and potentially heavier anchors) that will be needed.
On Race Morning, Have Experienced Boaters Lay Out the Course with GPS. Ideally, your crew who are out on race morning setting the course should also be people who were on the run-through a few days before. If you marked the course with GPS, they can simply follow that map as they drop the buoys in with the anchors. Otherwise, you will need to eyeball the buoy locations and then validate the distance with a GPS watch. Experience is important, as there will be a lot of activity on the boat and it will go smoothest if everyone is highly capable – from the boat operator to the person safely throwing the anchors in with the adequate amount of rope. Once the course is set, it is best for the crew to watch the buoys for several minutes to be sure that none are moving. A moving buoy means the anchor did not hold, and you want your crew to discover this rather than to have a race fiasco later. This means that the crew should be out well in advance of the race start, giving them enough time to monitor the course for at least 30 minutes and make any necessary adjustments.
Weather Matters. Lightning on race morning should not only keep the race from starting, but it should also keep your crew from being on the water. If there is thunder and lightning when the crew is trying to put the buoys out, call them in immediately. Likewise, a windy morning can make for a harrowing swim course, not only for the swimmers but also for the course crew and lifeguards. If high wind is a factor, be sure to have more than enough lifeguards and safety boats, and consider shortening the course a bit or keeping it closer to the shore (as long as you don’t then pull triathletes into the weeds). If your race is a local, non-sanctioned race, most swimmers won’t mind.
Position Plenty of Safety Boats and Lifeguards Strategically. Do not skimp on lifegaurds and safety boats – have more than you think you will need. Once you have the right numbers, think about where they should go. Most swimmers who cannot finish the race will give up early in the swim. Therefore, make sure the first half of the course has plenty of safety boats and lifeguards surrounding it. Lifeguards should be in kayaks, on paddleboards, or in the water with noodles, as well as on boats. For an out-and-back course, boats can be aligned inside the course while swimmers swim on either side. For a point-to-point swim, position most boats on the inside of the course. In both cases, be sure that there are some kayaks and boats on the outside of the course as well, as they can help call out to swimmers who are not staying on course, as well as keep pleasure or fishing boats who are also using the lake away from swimmers.
During the Race, Be Sure All Boats are Off and Anchored. Boats should not be running during the race, but should instead be anchored a few feet just off the marked course. A boat that has its prop turning could seriously hurt a swimmer in the water, and we can tell you from experience that swimmers tend to swim all around the course as some are better than others at sighting. Your safety boats should be anchored, period. This also reduces the likelihood of boat exhaust being in the water, a common complaint in triathlons. The only exceptions should be a police or rescue boat that may insist on running during the race in case of emergency, and a wetbike or jetski that does not have a prop and can therefore move around with less (but still some) risk to swimmers. Kayaks and paddleboards should be the only vessels that are able to go into the course and help swimmers.
Have the Lifeguards Watch Weak Swimmers. Not every swimmer who is going to give up will do the classic “pull off the cap and wave it in the air.” Many will not realize they are struggling, or will not have the presence of mind to wave their cap. Make sure your lifeguards and kayakers watch people who appear to be struggling, and even begin making contact with them with simple questions such as “are you feeling OK?” and “do you want help?” Many times, someone with high fatigue, a mouthful of water, or wetsuit issues will take them up on it and hang on to a kayak while they regain their composure. For the swimmers who are slowest finishing the race, be sure your kayakers follow them in and give them the support they need until they have two feet on land.