Reflection: Surviving the Swim

I’ve wanted to complete a triathlon for a long time now.  I was actually training for one back when I lived in Boston, but we moved out to Berkeley about a month before the race date.  Training fell by the wayside with adjustments to a new job, apartment, and city.  Running is just easier than biking or swimming from a logistics perspective.  Put on your shoes, and run out your front door without any real worries about routes or flat tires or finding a pool or what time lap swim happens to be.


Completing a triathlon has been a goal of mine for a while because I’m afraid of open water.  I don’t like being afraid of things and completing a triathlon seemed like a fun way to vanquish my anxiety.  J and I got scuba certified in Monterey last January, and that was one step towards being less afraid of open water.  I only had one epic freakout during the open water part of the certification, and I suspect I might have come away without even that bit of terror if it hadn’t been such a gray and windy day.  Scuba diving is hard for me for different reasons than open water swimming, but ultimately the fear in both stems from a lack of comfort in the water.

When I take on something new, I read about it.  A lot.  I read blogs and books and magazines.  Apparently it’s common for new triathletes to focus on the sport they are good at (and is fun for them) and neglect their weaknesses.  Knowing that, I went in the exact opposite direction.  I swam 4-5 times a week while training, and ran just twice a week.  Swimming remains difficult for me, but learning a new sport, especially from the complete beginner stage has any number of fun benefits.  The learning curve on a new activity is so steep.  With each visit to the pool, I came away having done something I’d never done before.  I made a deal with myself that when I could swim 200 yards continuously (8 lengths of the pool), I’d sign up for the Mermaid Sprint Triathlon.  

When I first braved the Berkeley public pool, I was absolutely shocked.  It was outside!  For a New Englander, this is an entirely foreign concept.  At 6:00 in the morning an outdoor pool wasn’t entirely pleasant, as it was quite chilly in the morning before the sun came up.  Gradually I grew to love the outdoor pool, though.  The chlorine never stings your eyes, and when you swim in the afternoon, feeling the sunshine on your back is a wonderful thing.  That first trip to the pool, I could barely swim a single length of the pool.  When I got to the end, I clutched the side for dear life, chest heaving, while I tried to catch my breath.  I stuck with it, interrogating friends who were swimmers, watching YouTube videos, and reading about swim technique.  6 weeks or so before the June 9th Mermaid Triathlon, I swam 8 lengths of the pool without stopping.  When I got home from the pool that morning I promptly plunked down my credit card and signed up for the race.  

The majority of my energy in this training cycle was focused solely on swimming.  Three weeks before the triathlon I ran a PR half marathon, and I knew that I’d have no problem completing the 2.5 mile run to finish the triathlon.  I also bike commute to work every day, take a weekly spin class, and do a long(er) ride on the weekends, so I knew I’d have no trouble completing the 12 mile bike.  I did a few 12 mile time trials, and a few brick workouts, but for me the obstacle to completing a triathlon was solely related to the swim.

At this point, to give you a better sense of my background, I should reiterate that I am not a swimmer.  I did not swim in school, and prior to triathlon training, swimming for fitness was a laughable prospect.  I jokingly described my swimming as “coordinated not-drowning,” and assured my physical therapist that swimming for cross training would be far worse for my health than running on an injured knee.  Mostly, when I’m in water over my head, panic sets in very quickly.  The anxiety response brought on by my fear probably limited any actual swimming, since I expended all my energy trying (unsuccessfully) not to panic.  If this all sounds familiar to you, fear not!  Remember, I did complete the triathlon. 

Two weeks before the triathlon, I successfully swam 400yd (the distance of the triathlon swim) in my local pool twice in the same workout.  Better still, I didn’t want to die immediately upon reaching the wall at the end of the distance.  A friend braved the Bay with me, and we took our wetsuits out to practice some open water swimming, just a half mile away from where the triathlon would be taking place.  The water at the beach we swam at was so shallow.  We walked out and out and out, and were still barely up to our waists.  We swam along the shore, back and forth, for nearly 30 minutes.  I kept waiting to freak out, but I never did.  The Bay was cloudy, and I couldn’t see my hand in the water.  The waves were a lot to adjust to, but I had made myself learn to breathe on both sides when I was first starting to swim (I figured if you’re starting at the beginning, you might as well start with good habits), so I was able to adapt.  I think the ability to stand up at any point gave me a false sense of security, and I left the open water practice feeling confident.

The morning of the race came, and as we scouted out the swim course, I started to feel that old open water anxiety creeping up on me.  I had tools at hand to deal with it though, and took a few yoga breathes while reminding myself of the successful open water trial.  Plus, I reminded myself that my wetsuit gave me lots of extra buoyancy, and I had trained well.  I knew I could swim 400m; really, I knew I could swim 600m, which is the longest continuous swim I’d done in the pool before the race.  

We swam one by one out to the buoy for our floating start.  I started to feel the panic coming on as I headed out to the buoy, but upon arriving at the buoy, I quickly realized that I was dealing with a standing start.  The water came just up to my chest, and I stood and let out a huge sigh of relief.  I positioned myself towards the back, and then just like that, we were off.  By putting myself safely in the back, I didn’t have to worry about anyone swimming over me or kicking me.  Frankly our wave was so small (maybe 35 of us?) that I’m not sure this was even a problem in the front.  I swam and swam and swam.  About 200m into the swim, I felt like I had been swimming forever and wasn’t getting anywhere.  There were still some people around me, but it seemed that a sea of other purple caps was well ahead of me.  I could no longer touch the bottom, and I flipped over on my back trying to deal with a dual freakout.

A volunteer on a surf board stopped to check on me, and I anxiously told him that I felt like I wasn’t moving forward.  He assured me that I was, and pointed out the finish ramp.  For a very few seconds, I contemplated asking him to pull me to shore, but even in my mind quitting was never really an option.  A large part of me just wanted to be out of the water.  I was tired and I’d swallowed a concerning amount of ocean water.  Plus I just felt a little bit of anxiety.  It wasn’t an overall panic attack, but I was definitely not in my happy place.  Despite this, I was determined to finish the swim even if it wasn’t going to be the strong triumphant moment I’d hoped it would be.  I was very far outside my comfort zone, but I knew I wasn’t in any actual danger.  So I put my head down and continued on.  I finally made it to the exit ramp, and the volunteers pulled me out and cheered me on into transition.

It took me nearly 25 minutes to swim that 400m, which was surprising.  All of my time trials in the pool were around 11-12 minutes.  I literally hadn’t trained to swim continuously for 25 minutes, so on some level, that’s a success.  I might have been slow, but 25 minutes is the longest I’ve ever swum continuously.  Part of me wants to be disappointed with my swim time since it was so much slower than I expected, but I just can’t be disappointed.  I want to improve, don’t get me wrong, but for my first triathlon I just have to be proud.  Open water is still scary for me, but I’m slowly building up a history of successes that I can draw on in each new challenge.  I’m not sure I’ll ever feel perfectly comfortable swimming in the open water, but I’m proud that I managed to handle the anxiety and ward off the panic.


Reflection: Surviving the Swim — 3 Comments

  1. Hi Beth, I’m glad I came across your blog, esp with swimming the dreaded first ocean swim as I have my first ocean sprint tri coming up this Sat. I can swim 400+ meters pretty easily in the water in about 10:45 but who knows how long it will take once you factor in the other swimmers, tide, current, choppiness, etc. I’m just hoping to finish strong. Not worried about the bike or run but I’m praying all goes well. Take care and good luck with everything!!!

  2. Way to overcome your fears. I’ll be facing my own when we move to Berkeley in a few months and I’ll have to cross the bridges to get into San Francisco. I’m deathly scared of bridges!

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