Make Sure You Do Your Open Water Homework! (Vegas 70.3 World Champs)

How many times after an open water race or triathlon have you thought "I think I swam a little off course there - I wonder how much time I actually lost?". If you were following the blog way back in May 2010, you would have read our classic story of an athlete of ours called Dan who had a disappointing swim in a Half-Ironman (1.9km swim) event. Fortunately he was wearing a GPS tracker under his cap and we could see he swam 430m off course over the distance!

To back up the GPS data, our time accelerated footage shot at the same Busselton event shows how nearly all the swimmers are moving off course to a greater or lesser extent despite ideal conditions:

Tracking accurately around a swim course is extremely important if you want to perform to you best on race day. In today's blog we'll discuss how a little homework in the build up to your event can make all the difference in how you approach it tactically.

Paul Newsome takes up the story:

Last week Debra from our Perth squad approached me before setting sail to sunny Las Vegas for this weekend's World 70.3 Championships. Deb is a strong contender in the 55-59 age group and sees swimming as the weaker of her three disciplines.

Needless to say she wants to really minimise the distance she has to swim this Sunday, especially as it's a non wetsuit race in fresh water, which is notorious for producing slow swim splits. Deb showed me the official course map which you can see below (click to enlarge):

The course is striking in that it is banana shaped and so offers the potential for swimmers to deviate significantly off course if they haven't done their homework beforehand. I've not raced on the course myself but from what I saw on the map, went through a planning exercise with Deb to give her the benefit of my racing and coaching experience.

You might not be racing in Vegas yourself this weekend but see this as an example of how you might best 'do your homework' before your next race and develop a good strategy for success.

Here's the map we drew to discuss (again click to enlarge):

Outward Leg

Starting at the Swim Start (point 1) you are 800m (0.5 miles) away from the first right-hand turn buoy (point 3) in a slightly left-curving line. As in any world championship event, the standard will be very high meaning that this first stretch will be frantic with plenty of thrashing of arms. This intensity will make navigation challenging as will the rising sun which is likely to be in the swimmers' faces. A darker lens on your goggles will be a must.

The narrowness of the course also presents its own challenges in that it could be easy to sight on the southern most marker buoys on this outward leg, rather than those on the northern edge. It will be tempting to hug the buoys on your right but doing so follows the curve of the banana and will add some extra distance.

The most obvious landmark ahead of you will be the Westin Hotel to your left and it would be equally easy to get drawn off-course into the cross hatched area (X). Ideally for the first 550m (0.3 miles) you want to be navigating towards landmark (A) at the north-eastern end of the lake which should help shave off part of the curvature of the marked course, even if only slightly. As a gauge as to how well you're doing this, I suggest that you want to feel like you have an equal number of people to your left and right at this stage, given my prediction that many will either hug the buoys or swim too close to the shore.

This will ideally bring you to Point 2, whereupon you then adjust your sights slightly to your left (landmark B) and to that first 90° right turn buoy (point 3). It will still be frantic at this point, so hold your ground and don't get too flustered. It's then a short run to point 4, sighting ahead to landmark C for guidance.

Homeward Leg

The return leg is slightly longer than the outward leg but with the benefit of the rising sun over your left shoulder, it should make sighting easier. For minimum distance you want to be swimming close to the marker buoys all the way into the finish chute. As a gauge of how well you are doing this, you should feel like the majority of the field is on your left side on the return leg (assuming you haven't wandered off into the middle of the course!).

The map indicates that the marker buoys will be approximately 75 meters (80 yards) apart and given that the field will have thinned out a little by this point, getting on the right line should be easier to achieve. The danger on this stretch is cross hatches (Y) and (Z) which will be off to your left. You run the risk of being drawn towards these by sighting too aggressively to the left side of Montelago Village and then secondly on the Hilton Hotel.

A good aim from as far back as turn point 4 would be to sight between these two buildings (landmarks E and F) but with your primary focus being the marker buoys on your right. Once you draw parallel with Montelago Village head towards the bridge aiming for between the middle and left stanchions as you see it. From there the exit gantry should be very easy to sight.

Arriving At The Venue

Well, that's all very well in theory of course! My advice to Deb was to take this sketch and utilise it before the practice swim on Saturday morning. The curvature of the course could be much less pronounced than we can make out from the map. There may well be more obvious landmarks that line up with the turn buoys that Google Earth can't show us.

In any case, the next stage of the homework assignment is to arrive at the venue, get down to the course and either swim it or for low key races arrive a few hours before race start and take a walk around the course to pinpoint some of the key features in the topography of the land that might help you shave off 15-20 seconds here and there. Every little helps!

As I concluded with Deb, I've never raced this event nor is it likely that I have raced your local event, so take the specifics of what I say with a small pinch of salt but use it to encourage yourself to:

1) Study any pre-race maps ahead of time

2) Take a reconnaissance walk around the course (including getting down low to water level to see what the marker buoys look like from the surface of the water)

3) Speak to others who may have experience of a particular course or conditions (e.g. life savers and coast guards). They won't necessarily always be right but better to have some idea than none at all.

The more practice you have completing these homework assignments, the more likely you are to score an A+!

Let us know how you get on and please share this information with anyone you know who might be racing this weekend. Good luck to everyone from our Perth squads, and everyone following Swim Smooth around the world who are racing over there!




Stephen said...

I swam this course a few years ago and found it pretty tough. Drafting was difficult, for two reasons. (1) Because it was wave starts, it thinned out quickly so the odds of finding someone of comparable speed was lower. (2) The water was very silty, so visibility underneath was close to zero, so I just couldn't find people to draft off and/or follow. Consequently I had to sight a lot myself, and without a wetsuit this meant my legs were a bit more sinky than normal. So by the time I got out I was pretty tired.

jagswim43 said...

I live in Boulder City and swim in Lake Mead every day. The Lake is like 85-86 degrees right now. Lake Mead is great. However, Lake Las Vegas is a different kettle of fish, most recently dead ones due to their continuing problem with algae. I'd never swim in that water. The company that built up the area went bankrupt. There are continuing battles between the various holding companies and the city of Henderson for water. And I don't think the healthy natural balance it takes years to develop ever jelled for this artificial lake. So if you swim in it clean off thoroughly, take care of your eyes, and maybe take a bunch of extra Vitamin C etc.

Cyndy@swimsmooth said...

Thanks for the helpful info, I found drinking lots of coke after the Hampton Court swim in the Thames in London really helped too.

Carl said...

I've swam this course numerous times and your advice is pretty spot on. Stay left on the outbound and try to cut the distance rather than hitting all the buoys. And he is spot on about hugging the buoys on the way back. One thing Paul probably doesn't know about, the start is directly under a multistory bridge with huge arches underneath (the dotted line on the map.) The arches are the easiest thing to sight on the return rather than trying to sight off buildings, which sometimes are obscured by brushy trees along the shore. Prior to the race, figure out which arch and whether you want to be on the left or right side of the arch opening, and aim for that. You can easily see the arches the entire inbound leg. For sure stay clear of those little bays that are highlighted on Paul's map. Good luck!

Cyndy@swimsmooth said...

Thanks Carl,

Really useful advice! Good luck everyone competing!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the advice! Good luck everyone else competing,


Alistair said...

Great advice Paul (and others above) - thanks again.

One other thing that Paul possibly wasn't aware of is that the rules for the race specifically state that there is NO swimming in the lake at all before the race itself, with the exception of the practice on Saturday (in 24 hours' time). That does make it more difficult to try out the various sighting marks, although they are still very helpful.


Margie said...

I don't know how many races I've been at where I think I have my sightlines figured out the day (or days) before the race only to find the buoys we were training on were placed for other OWS events or shorter/longer distance races taking place at the same time and then they move the buoys around the morning of the race. Communicating beforehand with anyone who has done the race (like on this blog, if you can find one) is a great way to try to sort things out prior to race day!

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