Ironman Texas will be here before you know it. For most, the big training is about to wrap up. Now it’s time to focus on the race itself. Starting with the swim, I’ll give you the play by play of each event to help those get a better understanding for the day ahead.
I’ll give a swim rundown both for athletes and spectators. Let’s start with the athlete.
Staging: The staging area for the swim is Northshore Park, with is about a mile walk from transition. If you don’t have shoes to walk around in before the event, I strongly suggest that you at least bring a cheap pair of flip flops with you. The park has plenty of port-a-potties, and also an abundance of heavily tree’d areas for those who can’t wait. They will have a chute like set up for all athletes to cross over the timing mat and enter the water. If the water is above 76 degrees, there will a separate starting wave for those who choose to wear a wetsuit. The chute is a bit narrow, as is the boat ramp you walk down, which causes a bit of a bottleneck for those trying to get into the water. So don’t wait until 10 minutes from the start to try and get in the water. You’ll still be on land when the cannon goes off. The water itself is typical of the region. Silty. It’s clean but cloudy. Seeing underwater isn’t going to happen, and it’s probably not the best idea to use it as a source of hydration.
Start: From the first impressions the start seems to be extremely narrow. The reality is that it is about the same size as both Arizona and Kona. Add to the fact that you’ll most likely have a few hundred people in wetsuits waiting 10 minutes before they start and you have a pretty typical start. Many folks will get in the water and then wait on the west shore until the start. The benefit to doing this is that you can stand on the shore/shallows or hang on the boat docks until the start and don’t have to tread water for 20 minutes. The downside is that you will be a bit more crowded once the gun goes off.
The start itself is straight forward. Literally. Unlike many other Ironmans, the first turn comes nearly 1 mile into the swim, but the path to get there is not perfectly straight. Best place to see this is during your walk over to the swim start. Take a moment when you’re crossing over Lake Woodlands Drive bridge and get a look a the buoys. There’s a slight bend to them, because at .4 mile into the swim, a peninsula juts out just enough that they need to bring the buoys in a little. Remember that when you’re sighting. A straight line will bring you very close to shore halfway to the first turn. Cut the tangents and you shorten your swim.
As the turn approaches you will notice that the lake widens a bit. While that makes spacing out easier, it can be a little more difficult to sight with a lot of people around. This is when you’ll need to turn to landmarks to sight when it’s hard to see the buoy. There are two easy landmarks to keep your bearings. This first one is the two story pavillion that sits on teacup island at the southernmost end of the lake. There are no other buildings near it, so it’s easy to spot. The second is the cell phone tower that stands about 1.4 miles due south of the dam. It’s the only thing that stretches that far into the sky, so a quick scan of the horizon should help you steer back on course. If you’ve never sighted using landmarks, then you need to read this. The sun won’t be much of a factor, as you are heading South by Southwest, and the sun will be rising in the Southeastern sky.
The turn is pretty easy to navigate and the two turn buoys are pretty close together, so it won’t take long before you are heading North again. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you are halfway through just because you turned for home. You are just now approaching mile 1. The trip north is pretty easy as it is more of a straight shot to the waterway. There is one spot to be aware of though. Shortly after rounding the turn buoy you will see a large peninsula to your right with some rather nice houses on it. Don’t get fooled into thinking that you can follow that shoreline. The land bends back in and the view from your goggles will look like it’s opening up to the waterway. This is not the start of the canal, its actually the separation between the land and the upcoming island that you need to swim around. I saw a number of people swim up into that inlet only to realize that they need to swim back out and around the island (see the map). This is the time to follow the buoys and use the Lake Woodlands Bridge (or tall buildings behind the bridge) as your landmarks. Once you swim past this inlet, you can hug the shoreline if you choose, as it bends around right into the waterway. If they have a turn buoy out, be sure to swim around the buoy though and don’t cut the course.
The final section of the swim is the easiest to navigate but toughest to manage. The waterway is a concrete bulkheaded canal that ranges in width from 90 feet at the mouth to 42 feet at its narrowest (under the bridge), with most of the canal in the 45-60 foot range. Navigation is a piece of cake. You have a wall on each side of you will lots of people cheering. Don’t hit a wall and you’ll be fine. The tough part is twofold. First, the distance you swim in the waterway is over a half mile (.57 by my measurement). So your head is telling you that you are almost done when you hit the waterway, but still have quite a ways to go. The other problem you’ll face is the crowding with all the people. The reality is that 45-60 feet is more than enough room. Give a person a 4 ft area to swim (half a lane in a pool) and you can fit 11-15 side by side. The problem is that everyone tries to swim right down the middle and most can’t swim in a straight line. The problem mostly lies in a 15 minute window (swimmers finishing between 1:10 and 1:25) when the bulk of the athletes are finishing. So if you find yourself in this group, make your way towards the walls. North side if you have a choice, but either will do. There will be some shallower areas to swim, but a slightly modified stroke and no interruptions certainly beats the alternative.
The finish ends with you swimming around a buoy placed in the middle of the canal, a 90 degree left turn and about 40 feet to the stairs they construct for you to get out of the water. Your swim split will be determined by the timing mat approximately 30 feet up the hill, so if you are looking for a good swim split, stopping at the top of the stairs is not advised.
Now that the athletes have a better feel for the swim, the spectators need to know the better places to watch from. If you look on the satellite photo, you can see blue lines and yellow lines. The blue line is the swim course. The yellow lines are spectator spots.
The start: If you want to see the cannon fire and watch 2800 athletes churn up the water, there are a few spots to really dial into. The first and most obvious is the bridge. Great vantage point for both the staging and the start. But get there early. People practically camp out on the bridge to get a good spot against the rail. The bridge will be 100% occupied by the time the athletes make the walk to the swim. If you’re not one of the early birds, don’t fret, just pack some bug repellent. Directly across from Northshore Park is an undeveloped section that has a nice dirt trail right along the water. Great viewing of the start. If you are a little adventurous, there’s a few trees along the bank that are easy to climb and will give you even a better view. The other two spots are the south side of the waterway at it’s western most tip and inside Northshore Park itself.
The Swim: If you chose the south side of the waterway to watch the start, I have good news. You are a short walk south through East Shore to seeing the meat and potatoes of the swim. If you’re local and you have a bike, then better yet. Head south through East Shore onto East Shore Dr. and you will have a front row seat for much of the swim, including the turn. As your athlete makes the turn simply head back to where you started and you can follow them along the final stretch through the waterway.
The finish: Most will line the banks of the waterway and take it until the crowds are too dense. The other option, if you want to see the finish up close, it to head over to Riva Row Boat House on the south side of the finish and make your way along the grass bank. That will get you to about 60 feet from the final buoy and the finish. Plop down on the grass and enjoy.
Up Next: Ironman Texas Bike Course Guide