The Case of the Triathlon Mass Start

When you were just starting, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of the IRONMAN? The robot? Nope, we’re not talking about that one. The 180k bike? Probably. The 42k run? Perhaps. Or the daunting image that is the infamous washing machine swim start of an IRONMAN? Most likely.

The little old school in me will always have a soft spot for mass starts. When I was new, doing sprints and olympic distance races, watching DVD’s of the IRONMAN World Championships, I could never get my mind off the dreaded washing machine. Whenever I watch with a group, it’s the part of the coverage that always makes us go, “Whoaa….”.

We conducted a little survey as to whether or not athletes prefer the chaos of a mass start or the calm soothing feeling of the rolling start.

Interestingly enough, we found out that most people still prefer the former. The results speak for themselves, with the Yays (Mass Start) outnumbering the Nays (Rolling Start) by a mile.

Not familiar with what we’re talking about? Watch this. 🙂


It was sometime in 2013 when Ironman announced that it was implementing a change in the swim start of IRONMAN races. If I remember correctly, it was probably at IRONMAN Lake Placid or IRONMAN Couer d’Alene where they did the initial run of the rolling start. Back then, it was just meant to be as a dry run. But with IRONMAN swim death totals rising, IRONMAN had to do something. Six months after, it was at IRONMAN Lake Tahoe where the it was officially first implemented as a rule.


The rolling start is part of the IRONMAN Global Swim Smart initiative which aims to increase safety in the water and reduce the anxiety of the participants as they go in the water. The rolling start allows each athlete to seed themselves depending on their projected swim finish times. So either you start in the first wave (under 60 minutes) or go to the succeeding batches separate by at least 10 minutes each.


Aside from the increased safety, one immediate benefit of the rolling start format is the reduced amount of contact among the athletes. There were some who also mentioned that it led to faster swim times but the biggest beneficiary of this is the bike segment as the staggered start defuses the drafting problem as athletes are no longer bunched up when they exit the swim and head out of transition.


As a student of the sport, I’ve always viewed IRONMAN as the toughest race on the planet. Sure, one may argue that there are other longer distances like the Deca Ironman. Like every newbie runner who’s ultimate goal is to finish a marathon, for triathletes, it has always been the IRONMAN.

Here’s a throwback video of the 2012 Cobra Ironman 70.3 Philippines. Fun times. :).

An IRONMAN is supposed to be hard. Racing for 140.6 shouldn’t be easy. That’s why people train for at least 20 weeks to finish a 17 hour race. Is the rolling start faster? Definitely. But for me, it kills one of the most sought after portions of the IRONMAN. Whenever I look back at all my IRONMAN races, I don’t remember majority of the bike and the run, but I do remember two things; Crossing the finish line and the swim (mass) start.

When people sign up, they understand the risks. That CRAZY part where people bump each other is part of the fun. Honestly, people STILL do get bumped in rolling starts, so that just makes that argument moot.

Also, part of the magic is when people start on the same course, at the same time. You know exactly who you’re racing. Now, there’s no way for you to know unless you : 1. Ask the person, 2. Know him/her personally, or 3. Wait until you finish.

There are a lot of other IRONMAN things which got lost in the water (pun) because of this switch. First, the cut 2:20 cut off time. Since the swim course doesn’t close until 2:20 of the time of the last age group athlete, the marshall’s will never know whether an athlete who started in the first or second wave exceeded the cut off time. Though the athlete will later be disqualified, he/she will still be allowed to race. I’ve seen a lot of athletes (and personally know a few) who got cut off and was not allowed to continue. I saw how it destroyed them. But you know what? It always made them a better athlete afterwards.

The biggest thing for me is the infamous 12 midnight cutoff (17 hours) of an IRONMAN. For years, once the clock strikes 12, everything shuts down. The lights go out and the emcee finally rests his voice. With this, depending on what time the athletes start, athletes can still cross the finish line well beyond 12 midnight. Although, with the latest innovations in timing technology, officials can see in real time if that athlete finished the race in less than 17 hours. They can disqualify him/her right there and then, but still, for me, that final 100 meters straight to the finish should be reserved for those who truly worked hard for it.

Lastly, what will we do with those epic finish line photos? Without a doubt, for most age groupers and first timers, the best part of finishing an IRONMAN is the finish line photo with your time in it. Unless that picture has another section where it shows your actual finish time, good luck explaining to everyone that your time there is not really your actual finish time because you started a couple of minutes earlier (or later).

We have our own races (The Tri Series Aquaman Aquathlon and the Triman Triathlon) where we still implement the mass start (in a pool, mind you) and we must admit, we’ve gotten a couple of comments here and there about switching to a staggered start. It will make things less stressful, yes. But you know what? We’re fine with our format and we can say that the mass start is here to stay. At least in our races.

– CDG –

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A triathlete making a comeback and a true blue Scorpio. That sums it up quite nicely :)

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