Last February when Rebecca and I decided to tackle our first season of triathlons, my most immediate concern revolved firmly around the fact that I am strongly opposed to drowning. Not only that, but the last time I had done any swimming outside of treading water in a lake or jumping around in the ocean like a total idiot was probably around 10 years ago. So, knowing we had only a matter of months to get from a “dead man’s float” and advanced dog paddle skill level to a manageably decent crawl stroke, we both set off for the local pool.
I’m pretty sure our first swim was only 1200 meters, but somehow we managed to drag the ordeal out for almost an hour. In hindsight, I appreciate the fact that the lifeguards were able to keep their laughter to themselves. We both swam with our heads almost entirely out of the water, feet dragging under the surface, gasping for air with every single stroke. It was an exhausting ordeal, and quickly became apparent that we should probably seek out some guidance and try to hone our technique prior to our first race.
Over the next twelve weeks we participated in a triathlon swim training class at the Seattle Athletic Club that helped provide us with some basic technique, and took us from being humiliatingly awful swimmers to just being competently poor. During that time we practiced sighting, breath control, and even some simulated group starts. So, as we continued to practice my confidence slowly grew.
Here’s where it’s important to note the two distinctly different approaches Rebecca and I take with regard to our training. Where she tends to be extremely hard on herself and constantly question whether or not she is going to be able to accomplish something, I typically inflate myself into believing that if someone else can do it then so can I. As a result, in the weeks leading up to the race she had wisely decided to get in a couple of open water swims with our training group while I had come up with some excuses and quickly rationalized that “swimming is swimming.”
Fast forward to the day of my first race, the Issaquah Sprint Triathlon. We arrive at the race with plenty of time to setup our transition area. Rebecca and I were both fairly nervous because it was our first race, and I was suddenly becoming concerned about the fact that despite all of the in-pool training, I hadn’t done a single open water swim. However, after surveying the 400 meter course I was able to calm myself by talking through how ludicrously close each of the buoys looked to the shore. “400 meters is nothing,” I told myself. “I can do this in my sleep, open water or not.”
I confidently made my way into the water and prepared for my age group’s start. The gun goes off and I am swimming like I’m in the anchor leg of a 50 meter relay. It’s an all out effort the likes of which I’ve never put forth and I’m in the middle of a strong pack. Unfortunately, amidst my race day excitement and foolish bravado I’ve forgotten that I am NOT a very strong swimmer, and as my lungs begin to give out a sense of panic starts to set in. “What the hell was I thinking?” Now not only am I getting run over by everyone smart enough to go out at a sustainable pace, but I am also one-hundred-percent convinced I’m going to die before I round the first buoy. Somehow I manage to talk myself out of waving frantically for the nearest kayak and calling my first outing a “valiant effort,” and instead awkwardly paddle forward in a modified head above water crawl stroke so terrible looking that a kayaker still stops to ask me “are you okay?”
As I round the first buoy, probably not more than 50 meters in, I’m relieved to find that miraculously there are still a few people behind me. I now settle in for the long stretch parallel to the shore and decide that in order to regain my breath I am going to do the backstroke for a minute or two. So, for the next couple of minutes I transform into one of those zig-zagging d-bags that are almost universally despised (and that I would grow to hate in later races). I settle into a comfortable pace and am congratulating myself on not only regaining my composure but on almost being done with the swim when I hear some guy shouting “Hey!” Not wanting to ruin my flow by looking around I continue undeterred. But, upon hearing a second and much louder shout just a few seconds later I decide to see what is going on. I stop for a second to give an irritated look at the kayaker that has been trying to disrupt my mojo and notice he’s pointing in a totally different direction. Somehow in my swimmin’ groove I’d failed to sight the buoy and was now about 50 meters off course. Ugh.
So, I decide to bag the whole backstroke idea and go back to a more sensibly paced crawl for the remainder of the swim. The rest of the swim is pretty much a blur, as my internal voice kept wavering between a frustrated “I am such an idiot” and the more inquisitive “how could I be so stupid?” After what seemed like hours, but was actually a little under 12 minutes (still pathetic, I know), I emerged from the water looking like a defeated man and angrily trotted toward my easy-to-find bicycle looking incredibly lonely on its rack.
However, from my embarrassing amount of mistakes I was able to glean a couple of valuable lessons. 1) There is no substitute for practice, and 2) Stay focused on racing your own race. Following this disaster, I tried to get in as many open water swims prior to the next race, and quickly became more comfortable with the mass starts, pacing myself, and staying (relatively) on course. Although the end results have only been marginally better, they have been overwhelmingly less stressful.
I do still hate swimming, but take some comfort in knowing at least I was able to weather the initial storm and can forever brag about how I didn’t drown without even rounding the first buoy.