Less than half an hour later, the swimmers had their wish. With winds on the lake gusting up to 40 mph, organizers canceled the 2.4-mile swim and downgraded Utah's first Ironman-length triathlon to a bike-run duathlon. Those races were shortened to about half of the scheduled distances.
Pre-race favorite Tony DeBoom of Boulder, Colo., prevailed by finishing the 65-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run in 4 hours, 5 minutes and 41 seconds.
"This means a lot because, mentally, it could have been all over [after the swimming cancellation]," said DeBoom. "I could have given up. I just toughened up and did it anyway."
Jenny Tobin of Boise edged Susan Williams of Littleton, Colo., by nine seconds to take the women's title in 4:40:14.
"I knew it was going to be close," said Tobin.
It was the first time in the seven-year history of Ironman North America that a swim had been canceled.
The race also marked the first swimming fatality in the dozens of Ironman North America triathlons staged over the past seven years. John H. Boland, 53, of Redondo Beach, Calif., was pulled unconscious from Utah Lake. The cause of death has not been determined.
The hundreds of nervous swimmers set off about five minutes before the scheduled 7 a.m. start. Knowing it was hopeless to call the field back, organizers elected to fire the cannon to send them officially on their way, although many competitors couldn't hear it.
"At first, I tried to stop everybody, but I realized there was no stopping it, so I just went with the flow," said DeBoom. "You can't stop 2,000 people. Funny thing is, when I got out there, I couldn't find any of them."
With course-marking buoys blown away by the wind, the field quickly fanned out as athletes battled swells of at least 3 feet while trying to figure out which direction to head. Others didn't start or turned back immediately.
"It was just unbelievable," said DeBoom. "I've never experienced anything like that."
"It was scary," echoed Tim Luchinske of Lafayette, Colo., who finished 54 seconds behind DeBoom. "The water was so stirred up that it would wash over you and it'd go dark. I looked around once and I couldn't see another swimmer."
"It was like swimming in white water," said Sergio Correa of San Diego, who finished 32nd. "You went airborne. It was really scary."
Ironman North America president Graham Fraser pulled the plug shortly after the race started when the wind picked up, although some swimmers didn't get the word and continued battling the choppy waters.
"If it had been 10 minutes sooner [when the winds picked up], there's no way we would have put them in the water," said Fraser, who has staged more than 250 races and dozens of Ironman races.
"At 6:15, the water was fine," he added. "At 6:45, the water was fine. By 6:55, most of the athletes were in the water. We didn't even start them, so we couldn't even make a decision [about calling off the start]. They were 250 meters out by 6:55. To us, it was swimmable at the time. The athletes wouldn't have got in if [the wind] was like it was at 7:05."
After organizers accounted for all 1,536 swimmers, the 1,435 who chose to continue were sent off at three-second intervals to disperse the field for the bike race. The 41 professionals competing for $50,000 in prize money left the start line at 15-second intervals.
DeBoom led the race from start to finish, posting a bike time of 2:45:39. He ran the half-marathon in 1:18.38 to claim the first prize of $10,000.
"I was red-lining all out," said DeBoom. "That run is hillier than I thought, so I hurt out there. I'm hurting right now. I kept saying, '$10,000, $10,000 and bragging rights.'"
Max Burdick, 79, of Salt Lake City, finished in 8:33:05. New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson placed 153rd overall.
Men's top 10
1. Tony DeBoom, Boulder, Colo., 4:05:41
2. Tim Luchinske, Lafayette, Colo., 4:06:35
3. Benjamin Hastings, Lewis Center, Ohio, 4:14:02
4. C.J. Castle, Montecito, Calif., 4:18:22
5. Konrad Von Allmen, Switzerland, 4:18:35
6. Donald King, Canada, 4:20:49
7. Nicholas Cady, Boulder, Colo., 4:24:20
8. Brendan Brazier, Canada, 4:24:26
9. Petr Vabrousek, Czech Republic, 4:25:14
10. Arthur Mathisen, Fort Lewis, Wash., 4:27:23
Women's top 10
1. Jenny Tobin, Boise, Idaho, 4:40:04
2. Susan Williams, Littleton, Colo., 4:40:13
3. Beth Zinkand, Davis, Calif., 4:42:14
4. Teri Duthie, Boulder, Colo., 4:43:20
5. Joanna Lawn, New Zealand, 4:47:40
6. Anissa Seguin, Valencia, Calif., 4:50:05
7. Jeanne Anne Krizman, Tucson, Ariz., 4:51:42
8. Judith McSweeney, Ponte Verde Beach, Fla., 5:00:35
9. Deanna Frank, Birmingham, Ala., 5:03:05
10. Annette Mack, Germany, 5:09:37.