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Frankfarce: Wetsuit Swims and Beating the Cold

Updated: Sep 3, 2021

Turning blue. 9 professional athletes suffered hypothermia at Ironman Frankfurt after a non-wetsuit swim. Photo: Triathlove

The past week of racing threw up some real weather questions which makes one think of not only how one must best prepare for adverse conditions, but also how the governing body rules can inflict​ safety issues beyond an athlete’s control.

Ironman Frankfurt over the past two years has highlighted the lack of governance in dealing with a range of issues – including both extreme heat and cold conditions.

While 2015 is long forgotten it should not. Last year’s race was held in unsafe health zones due to the oppressive heat! This year the opposite with the outside temperature of the race start at least 5 degrees below the water temperature. The interpretation of rules meant the pros weren’t allowed wetsuits even with the disparity of the temperature. The result?

Four of the top female contenders, including the reigning World Champion, pulling out of the race with hypothermia. Former Ironman winners Kristin Moeller and Diana Riesler, literally fished out of the water and taken to hospital before the end of the swim. A quick look at the casualty list:

Pro Females:

  • Diana Riesler – rescued from water

  • Kristin Möller – rescued from water

  • Daniela Ryf – hypothermia bike

  • Astrid Stienen – hypothermia run

Pro Males:

  • Remmert Wielinga – rescued from water

  • Rayco Marrero Avero – rescued from water

  • Clemente Alonso Mckernan – hypothermia bike

  • Victor del Corral – hypothermia bike

  • Pascal Ramali – 30° body temperature at finish, has been ill since

These are the just athletes who DNF’d. Every pro racing was affected adversely by the non-wetsuit decision. Even the race winner, the talented Mel Hauschildt, was incredulous.

Melissa Hauschildt being interviewed at race finish.

Everyone knows how much I believe wetsuits are a blight on the sport. They prop up the weak swimmers to the tremendous disadvantage of the strong swim / bikers. However, if races are going to be held in regions across the world I acknowledge they are necessary. If so, then let’s use them wisely for their only one positive use.


So for now let’s ignore the officiating around draft rules which led to former World Champion Sebastien Kienle threatening not to compete during the race briefing. Or the constant interference of the female pros on the bike by the age group pelotons and focus instead on the fact that a large percentage of the pro field suffered various degrees of hypothermia that should have been avoided.

The rules surrounding wetsuits for pros in races where the temperature disparity between water to outside temps must be changed immediately. This should not to be debated over. Nor should the feebleness of the Pro Tri Union be used as an excuse for inaction. Applying ITU short course rules to the 3.8km format is simply reckless. There should be a public acknowledgment that a mistake was made and we move on to bigger and better things.

Multiple Ironman winner, Diana Riesler, despite doing everything to keep warm before the race start ended up here.

Ironman to me is not just about a mindless scramble in swim, bike and run. We have the short WTS races for that. Instead, it requires a large element of thought, strategy and preparation. A lack of it and a ‘it should be fine’ attitude near guarantees it won’t. What I love about Ironman is it’s a thinking sport. It asks you questions the whole race.

We had plenty of cold bodies at Ironman 70.3 Norway as well, but here the race director made sure wetsuits were on and the swim was shortened from 1900m to 1500m. If you froze it was your decision, not the organisers.

To give our followers an insight to proper protection from the cold, let me take you through what Nicola Spirig, the Olympic champion had on at the race start. This will be hard for some of our ‘must look good’ age group athletes, but may help with your future racing in very cold situations.

Nicola was wearing rubber cleaning gloves on the bike. She swam in a wetsuit, but also with a wetsuit head cap to keep the head heat in as much as possible underneath a race swim cap. Under the wetsuit a Dri-Fit short sleeve arm shirt. And the most valuable piece of kit of all?

The plastic garbage bag to act as a double shield for the expectant wind chill factor on the bike. Once one is flying at 40km per hour the wind chill is horrific. Much worse than the actual temperature.

So in the water the body heats up with the wetsuit. The optional peeing in the wetsuit also helps with that should you decide to use it! In extreme cold athletes are advised to, but it’s a personal choice. The plastic bag keeps the heat in once on the bike.

Then on the bike the rubber dishwashing gloves are cut to size ahead of the race. ‘But I wear gloves already’ I hear many thinking. Yes, but I find most of most of you complaining in wet races that the gloves are soaked within an hour and so then become part of the problem. Rubber gloves don’t absorb any water. They stay the same dryness, but with the added bonus is one tends to sweat in them, warming a vital part of the body that tends to lose heat quickly.

The next piece of kit? A time trial helmet! Yes, we do wear them and Nicola was really happy with herself when she could wear hers. In the cold it keeps the head warmer than a normal helmet and duct tap can be used block up any air vent.

We did not use this as we thought there is so little ventilation it was not required. For the feet, warm socks and bootie toe covers. Full boots were not used but were in the bag should she have decided on them.

So we had all 5 things covered for the loss of heat. Head, hands, feet and also the wind chill factor. I should add she was carrying extra chocolate to account for the extra body burn of calories because of the cold. This kit was normal. We advise for a cold day to add to it and take on at least 10% more calories to compensate for the extra energy the body burns in trying to heat itself.

I’m pretty sure if you can follow Nicola’s lead, while the race may not be over comfortable you too can whack out a decent bike ride and back it up with a run to your full potential. No matter how cold the conditions.

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