Open Water

12 11 2011

I’ll start with a clarification. I’m not sure if a lake qualifies as “open” water, but that’s what I’m calling it. The major point is that it isn’t a pool swim.

Yesterday, I joined a few of the local triathletes in an open water swim in preparation for the triathlon at the end of the month. Of the 6 who were there, I was the only one doing the sprint tri. It was the ultimate for the rest, although one was only doing the run leg as part of a team. Of the six who were there I was the only one swimming in open water for the first time. Of the six who were there, I was the only one who was thoroughly petrified.

Swimming in the lake wasn’t my only first yesterday. I also swam in my new wetsuit for the first time. The first of my concerns was getting the wetsuit on. Being that I’m still overweight and have a broad back, I had trouble finding one the right size, but eventually I came across the blueseventy axium, an entry level wetsuit. Despite my concerns, it went on relatively easily, and seemed to be a decent fit. Perhaps a little tight across the chest but otherwise ok.

First hurdle overcome – the wetsuit fits. But it was the swim that concerned me the most.

I’ve given some thought to this and come up with a short list of things that I’m afraid of about the swim – not touching the bottom, not being able to touch the side, not being able to see the bottom. In short, drowning.

I found it extremely disconcerting that I couldn’t touch or see the bottom and that I didn’t have the side of the pool (or lane ropes) as a safety net. I don’t use them in the pool, but just knowing that they are there is a comfort. When I started swimming properly, I needed them. I felt uneasy in the water, unnatural, even scared, but I always had the ground and/or the side there for comfort/security/piece of mind.

But not this time, and it was TERRIFYING. The others were swimming across and back, a two km swim. For me, I’d set myself a goal of the third buoy and back, which in the absence of a waterproof GPS I’m estimating at around 750m. (It’s 6 buoys across, evenly spaced. If you include the distance between the shore and the buoy at both ends, it’s be 8 buoys across, or 125m between buoys)

For the most part, the wetsuit did it’s job. I’d been told that if I got into trouble, or need a breather to roll onto my back and I’d float like a cork. Of course I tested this out, and it was right. Thankfully. The first couple of times I did it to test it out, the next few times it was more to give me time to calm myself. I was letting myself get a bit worked up and I had to work to overcome my own fear. And there was a lot. Remember, I was TERRIFIED!

Other than not being able to touch or see the bottom, I found the water temperature itself hard to adapt to. In the pool, it’s always the same. In the lake, one stroke my face would be in warm water, then cold, then warm. Very very weird. A few jetskis were out and about and the waves from those were also a first from me, especially when I turned to breathe and instead got a mouthful of jetski wake instead.

Not being able to see the line at the bottom of the pool meant I couldn’t sight properly. My goggles were a little fogged and the first half of the swim was directly into the sun. Sighting the buoy was nearly impossibe.

The wetsuit may have helped me float, but it was tight across the chest so I didn’t feel like I could get a good deep breath in when I needed to (which was always when I was trying to take a minute to calm myself down).

In short, I hated it. I well and truly gave free rein to my fears and had to fight them all the way home. Never have I been so happy to feel the ground under my feet as I was at the end of the swim.

Had it not been for my swim coach who stayed with me the whole way, I would have truly been in trouble. Steve was fantastic and he stayed close to me all the way, encouraging and calming me in equal measure. He knew I was scared, but he also knew I could do it. He patiently listened and let me voice my fears and then calmly took the lead and we’d get going again. Until the next pause, and then we’d start the process again. It wasn’t a fitness issue – it was pure and utter psychology. The water and conditions had got into my head and instead of focusing on swimming, I focused on fear.

In the last quarter, I changed tack. I swam in 60 stroke sets. I counted my strokes, breathing bilaterally every three. At 60, I’d stop, get my bearings, test the buoyancy of the suit, and then start again for another 60. In doing this, I stopped thinking about the conditions and started thinking about the stroke and I found it a lot easier. Now that I wasn’t facing the sun, I could see the shore and that helped as well.

But I make no bones about it. Steve got me through. It wasn’t even a scheduled session. He did it because he chose too. He could have easily done the full swim like he planned too when he arrived. I am and was grateful. When we were back on solid ground, I shook his hand and thanked him.

We’re going out again next week, and I’ll do better.




One response

13 11 2011

I can totally relate to this. The “open water” swimming is why my triathalon career was over before it started. My first was a rough day in the surf and I felt like I very nearly drowned. My second I got kicked in the stomach at the start and turned around and got out and just did the bike and run. The third I opted out of the swim all together and did the bike and run. I think the lake sounds better than the surf, but still be aware the starts of a tri can be very rough.

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