It’s time to kick off my triathlon blog, and what better way to start than with one of my biggest accomplishments on the way to my first 70.3—saying goodbye to the swim jitters!
As soon as I signed up for Ironman Muncie, I turned around and signed up for Team Endurance Nation (EN) as well. I happily went along with the EN approach of focusing on the longest disciplines, the bike and run, with remarkably little swimming. (It turns out I misunderstood that a bit, but that’s for another day...) When the swimming finally hit in my training plan, it was a rude awakening.
Granted, I’m WAY faster than I used to be, and that’s with major kudos to Barb Figurski who got me from one sputtering lap at a time to comfortably swimming a mile or two at a stretch. That said, the thing that worried me about Ironman—really worried me—was the swim cutoff. I’ve got a decent bike background, and I’ve done enough half-marathons to know that neither the bike or run would be a concern. But the swim—oh, the swim...
My swim panic started at my first race. I fatefully asked why the caps where such awful neon colors and someone explained it's because we were swimming in a deep quarry… Um, great. Hadn’t considered drowning. So helpful, thanks. :-/ Then I spotted a woman wearing a USA suit with her name on it—wait, what?! I don’t belong in a race with people who compete for Team USA! By the time I got in the water, I couldn’t breathe, and I could barely swim. Somehow, I side-stroked and splashed my way through. Later races weren’t much better, though I did learn it’s legal (and helpful) to hang on a paddle board when panicked.
As my big race grew closer and my swim times weren’t changing, my nerves got worse. I posted in the Team EN forums about my fear of DNFing the swim (you get a “Did Not Finish” if you miss a cutoff during the race) and was surprised at the ferocity of the “get that stuff out of your head” responses. I was looking for something tactical. I knew it was too late in the season for major changes, but seriously—just work on my head?! That's no help!
I decided to do the Motor City Tri (sprint) for some practice. Even though my plan called for a longer race rehearsal that weekend, I knew I needed a “real” race rehearsal. I had developed the chops (or should I say arms? ;-) to swim across a lake, or in Lake Michigan without fear, but that became irrelevant each race day. Something about the race itself was messing me up, and I needed to figure that out before Ironman. I sure wouldn’t make the cutoff by hanging on paddle boards...
Alas, that swim wasn’t graceful either. Instead, it felt like one of the worst! I was mystified. I had made a point of doing the pre-race swim instruction, and the Detroit River was MORE choppy during the swim clinic than on race morning. During the race I was swimming (or trying to), troubleshooting, and simultaneously considering whether I should bail—it was that bad. Until something suddenly clicked. I started breathing on one side instead of using the bi-lateral breathing I’ve learned in the pool. Eureka! My rhythm and stroke returned, and I finished the swim feeling more confident, and with a concrete tactic to use in my next race.
I got home and immediately signed up a race the following weekend, determined to nail the swim. I needed to go into Ironman with a solid race swim in the bag. In the interim, the advice in my DNF thread continued to focus on mental stuff; so much so it finally started to sink in. After all, my swim had improved, EXCEPT on race day. What could that mean, except that they're right? Drat. Double drat. Drat! Not the answer I wanted, but one I was (finally) willing to accept.
Then something else also clicked—I’ve been measuring metrics for every other discipline—but not the swim. Since I’ve learned that measuring makes a difference whether in athletic training or business, I knew I better start measuring my swims. (My family remains baffled by my constant need for gadgets, but whatever. I clearly “needed” the swim watch. ;-) Whether in the pool or the lake, it turned out I was pretty consistently 53 minutes. That's under the swim cutoff (1:10) for a half ironman, but not by a huge margin, especially if you wind up hanging on paddle boards...
I did the swim clinic for my next race as well. This time I learned two things: to increase my stroke rate and how to warm up. I spent some time talking with the clinic coach about my fear of the in-water warm up. I'm afraid of warming up, then getting stuck standing on the beach turning into a popsicle. I know I SHOULD do it, but I chicken out at every race. So we talked through the timing of the warm up, and at this race you could get in any time, like right before your wave. We also discussed alternatives for races where in water start isn't allowed (or possible) like Alcatraz—and he said push ups are great in those situations. My takeaway was that getting wet is good, but getting heart rate up by any means (like push ups) was the key to a good warm up.
On race morning, I set out with a new mantra—"it’s just another swim”, using that idea that a normal lake swim is a non-issue. As I wandered down to the beach with this fresh perspective, it was truly transformative. I started realizing how much negative chatter there is at the swim start. I physically moved away from people joking about how terrible they were going to do or how nervous they were. I made my own little bubble, bounced to the music and encouraged the women around me. Oh, and the other thing I did differently was to downsize the coffee—I figured I’ve got enough adrenaline on race morning that less caffeine might help me be less of a wreck on the swim.(!)
I finished that swim with two observations: I was too warm in my wetsuit, and the swim went ok. Only after the race was over did I fully absorb what “ok” meant. It was my first race where I got in and just swam. No rescue strokes, no treading water, no paddle boards—just swimming! Yeah!