In the absence of new, memorable rides to blog about, I thought I’d write about my experience of open-water swimming. I’m also inspired by my co-worker Chris, who recently completed a sprint triathlon along with friends of his who did the same tri as a relay (his friend Jordana blogged about her swim leg here).
A couple of years ago, my two brothers and I decided to enter X-Terra off-road triathlon relay. Actually, it was Jeff who decided – he just needed to convince me and Greg to join him. The three of us have been mountain biking for a couple of decades but Jeff is clearly the fastest among us, so it made sense for him to do the cycling leg of the relay. Greg had recently taken up running so it made sense for him to do the trail run. I was a decent swimmer waaaaaaaaaaaaay back in high school so I thought I could do the swim leg without drowning.
I asked around in my circle of cycling friends and was able to borrow a wetsuit for this event and a few months before the event (which was in early July 2014), I started training at the pool in Elmira. I had the best of intentions to swim 2-3 times a week, but after my first “training” session, where I swam 800 m, my shoulders and back were so sore, I needed a week to recover (and lift my arms over my head). Eventually, I was able to swim over 1000 m, although my speed and technique left something to be desired. As the event got closer, I trained a few times in the wetsuit but with all my training in the pool, I was still unprepared for the open water.
On the day of the event, I was more nervous than I’d been for any cycling event. The buoys in the distance seemed so far away. The water wasn’t too cold or too warm, but it wasn’t very clear. I started off to one side, which made the distance to the first buoy a little longer, but I felt that I might have a bit more room around me.
When the gun went off, I jogged into the water until it was waist deep and began my front crawl. I wasn’t prepared for two things (1) the thrashing of arms and legs all around me and (2) my inability to swim in a straight line in open water. Within the first 200 m, I had a momentary panic attack. I was tired, I couldn’t see anything and the water was deep. I stopped my stroke and treaded water for few seconds. I then spotted the first buoy (which was still sooooo far away) and did a few strokes of breast stroke until the water around me was clear of other swimmers. I continued with front crawl, but every 20 strokes or so, I stopped to check my line. It turned out that I was zig-zagging a lot.
By the time I reach the first buoy, I had plenty of room around me to settle into a rhythm. At that point, I knew I could complete the swim and I knew Jeff would be waiting for me.
I finished swimming around all four buoys and once the water was shallow enough, I made my way on foot to the transition area, where I handed the chip to Jeff and he was off. Exhausted and happy to be done, I dried off to watch the rest of the race. Jeff caught all the relay teams on the mountain bike leg and Greg ran a solid trail run leg and we won the relay category (out of 4 teams).
Now… fast forward to a year later (2015). Jeff convinced us to enter again. I started training again, this time, with support and technique training from Carolyn S. who is a former varsity swimmer and a solo triathlete. She gave me stroke tips and advice on how to spot in the open water. I was convinced I’d be a lot faster this second time around.
In 2015, the organizers started the men a few minutes ahead of the women (Carolyn still passed me by the half-way mark of the swim). And once again, I had that momentary panic attack.
I should note that before the race, they announced that during the swim, if you’re unable to continue, you must remove your bathing cap and hold it in the air. A volunteer will come and rescue you, and your race is over. At one point, I considered doing that, but convinced myself to continue, for fear of letting my teammates down.
I finished my swim leg with almost the exact same time (just under 23 minutes) for the 1 km swim. Again, Jeff passed a bunch of our competitors in the relay category and Greg had a solid run, but this time we finished second (out of 10 relay teams).
After that event, I announced that this would be my last tri relay event. It was new, challenging and scary, but the training took away from my first love – cycling. I’m not saying I’ll never do it again, but for now, I’m sticking to the bike.