Hey green team,
It’s April in New England, which must mean: it’s still snowing. That said, summer is coming, and with it: open water swimming! For all the newbies (or us old-bies) who see “open water swimming” and have mild heart palpitations, remember: it just takes practice. Take it from this month’s guest blogger Malia, who shares her powerful story below.
“I remember my first triathlon as if it were yesterday. When you feel you’ve survived a near death experience, those memories tend to stay with you. Okay, maybe it wasn’t “near death”, but I can at least say I felt like I might die.
I thought I had trained for my first triathlon. I swam in a 15 yard pool, I could ride a bike, and I have a running background. Doggy paddling was always my backup plan for the swim. A friend who had done one triathlon before gave a lesson on how to transition. I was ready!
The morning of the race I donned my rented wetsuit. I swore mine was way too small. The neck line was choking me, I was pretty sure it was going to compress my trachea. How were my lungs going to expand?!
I had registered for the ‘Beginner’ wave of the race and was given a hot pink cap. I headed down to the beach donning my new cap. We got instruction that it was a point to point race and we would stay on the right side of the buoys. There were kayakers available to help us if we needed them. If at any point we wanted to quit we just had swim to shore. We headed out onto the dock and one by one jumped into the water, ‘Oh my God that’s cold!!!!’ I felt my lungs and every muscle tense up. I slowed my breathing enough for the gun to go off.
Bang! I stuck my head in the water tried to swim, ‘I’m not moving!...Everyone is splashing me!...I can’t see where to go!...This tastes awful!....The waves are crashing into my face!’ After about 2 freestyle strokes I started doggy paddling to shore. ‘I’m not dying today! I’m getting the heck out of here!’ (Un)Fortunately, one of the kayakers told me I was going the wrong way, ‘No I’m not!’ I responded. Then this person wouldn’t let me go to shore! I therefore attempted to move my body with with a doggy paddle/breast/side stroke combination and somehow managed to get to another kayaker. They had one of those red lifeguard rescue buoys floating in the water. I latched on for dear life. I’m not sure how long I stayed. I didn’t want to let go, but I was encouraged by this lifeguard to continue on my journey. So I did.
I somehow managed to get the courage and doggy paddle-side stroke to the next lifeguard and repeated the process with the buoy. By this stage in the race, as you can imagine, there weren’t many people left in the water. This gracious lifeguard told me that she would follow behind me all the way to shore. I started out side stroking again, she cheered me on and told me I could do it. It was at that point that I felt that I could get my whole body horizontal, put my head in the water and start to freestyle. She followed me all the way to shore.
I don’t remember hitting the sand, but I remember I felt relieved. I remember I enjoyed bike ride and I somewhat remember the run. My swim time was the 2nd worst time posted for the day, but finished my first triathlon.
For some strange reason, despite that swim, I wanted to do it again. I knew I could do better. For years and races that followed I continued struggling my way through the swim. Through panic attacks and actual feelings that I might drown.
So how did I progress to the point of finishing more triathlons than I can count on two hands?
- I got my feet wet. I started swimming and swimming in a 25 yard pool.
- I talked to a lot of people about my fear, anxiety and inability to move myself through the water. These people helped me develop workouts and encouraged me to take lessons...
- I got lessons. This made a huge impact on my balance in the water. It also helped me become more comfortable in the water and address overuse shoulder injuries.
- I watched videos of swimmers, read articles and books.
- I started open water swimming with friends/teammates. It helped to get used to spotting and to not being able to see the bottom.
- I joined a Masters group. I think that this was the single most valuable thing I ever did as far as my swimming career is concerned. I had someone giving me daily workouts and I had to swim with other people surrounding me.
- I practiced swimming in a wetsuit. I’d swim in it as often as I could to get used to the compression at my neck.
- I use(d) visual imagery techniques. This is how it works: Imagine standing on the beach of your race in your wetsuit compressed on you. Imagine standing in a large clump of adults in black suits and all the nervous energy. Feel that you need to pee again even though you’ve already gone three times! Feel walking up to the water’s edge, crossing over the timing mat. Feel wading in the water. Hear the sound of the gun going off and the splashing of all the other swimmers around you. Think about what you are going to do to handle yourself in that situation. Will you swim with them or hold back a bit and let them get ahead of you? How will it feel to start sighting your buoys? Imagine every possible scenario (both the positive and negative) and play it over in your head before going to bed at night. When the time comes when you are living the experience, it won’t feel like the first time, because you’ve already visualized it happening so many times before it has.
Reflecting on my personal transition from anxious newbie to advice-giving triathlete is an interesting experience. It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago, but there was a process that took place over a few years. Here’s my best advice: prepare for it. Physically, mentally, emotionally. And at the end of the day: even if you’re second to last in the swim, you still cross that finish line.
PS: That first wetsuit I thought I was going to die in? I now own it and have done nine half Ironman and two full Ironman races wearing it! It will be retiring this season for a newer (hopefully) faster model.”
See you at Walden, friends!