I would consider myself a pretty strong swimmer. I've been increasing my time/distance in the pool over the past few months as I consider participating in triathalons. Well, more than consider...I've signed up for a sprint tri next month! In my loose "training" I've worked up to a workout that is about 3,100 yards and takes me about 80 minutes to complete. I'm even the proud new owner of paddles and fins to make some of the drills more effective! (It also adds some spice to the back and forth!)
But, as you know, I've decided that 2013 will be the year I break into the sport of triathalon. Living in San Diego is a great opportunity for this sport. We have great weather and lots of water. The only catch is this....that water isn't a pool with tidy black lines on the bottom. It's either the Pacific Ocean, or a Bay that is right off the ocean.
That's right. OPEN WATER.
As the date for my first tri approaches, I have this nagging reality that I really need to get into the open water. I'm even too chicken to try a club triathalon without some practice first. (Especially if it was like the duathalon where I showed up and it was all young guys in their 20's! I'd be sure to be the slowest of the slowpokes!)
Fortunately, the Tri Club hosts several different swim, bike, and run workouts throughout the week. On Thursday evenings at Mission Bay, they have a beginners open water swim. The only requirement is that you have a desire to get out of the pool (check!) and can swim at least 50 meters without stopping (check!) It was a little bit of a challenge to arrange the family dinner and rides for the two older kids for their evening activities, but I managed to go to make it to my first session last night. I was a little nervous, since I knew I wouldn't know a single person there. But...this is what I have to do to get to where I want to be.
I figured with my strong skills in the pool, it would be a snap to transfer into the open water. But I'm such a newbie, that I'm not even sure how to put ON my wetsuit, much less swim in it!
As I found my way to Ventura Cove in Mission Bay, I saw all of the preparations for a big triathalon that is in San Diego this week, the Omega Wave World Triathalon. How exciting! As I pulled into a spot by the Cove with my TriClub sticker on my car, I felt like...yep! I belong here. I saw athletes in the water, swimming back and forth between buoys. That would be me soon! I was anxious, but excited too.
I had my wetsuit in a bag, and was wearing sweatpants and a 3 Day shirt over my bathing suit. I walked over to the group assembling on the grass and saw a lady with the same wetsuit as me. I introduced myself and we chatted a bit. I was relieved to see a wider range of ages, sizes and abilities at this session. This wasn't going to be too bad. After all, I can do 3,100 yards in the pool!
I struggled my way into my wetsuit, trying to look like I kind of knew what I was doing. As I looked around, it was funny that at least 80% of the swimmers also had XTerra suits. Yep...I fit right in all right! The group was fun, one guy in particular was a jokester. It helped for me at least to break my inner tension.
The coach came over and got into his XTerra suit and gave us all tips. A few of the participants were going to be racing this weekend, so a lot of his tips were about getting in and out of the water during a race. I learned a lot. One of his tips was to always warm up before the start. Get in the water to get over that initial chill and do a few dozen strokes at least. So he told us....Get in!
Gulp. Okay, its now or never. I ventured in and it was pretty chilly on my feet. My legs felt okay since the suit covered them. The others and I waded in up to our thighs and the coach yelled, "START SWIMMING!"
I launched forward onto my belly. Or, perhaps more aptly, into the abyss.
It was cold, but I knew it would be. What I didn't expect was that my breath would freeze up. I literally could not exhale. In the pool, I breathe bilaterally every 3 strokes. I had to breathe every stroke, and even then, felt like I was dog paddling. It induced a kind of panic in me. Even worse, the goggles just protect the eyes from salt water and that's it. Because it was murky and dark. Kind of freaky, actually. You take it for granted in the pool that you can see underwater. That comforting, familiar black line is there to guide you where you need to go. I found I was squinting my eyes, which made the seal on my goggles break and water seep in. I don't know if my extreme eye squint was because of the cold, anxiety, fear, or a mixture of all of it. I did several "strokes" and then turned around with the rest and went back to shore. I described this to Eric and he thought it sounded like claustrophobia. Perhaps.
The coach had us jog down the shore about 40 meters to where our imaginary start line was. Actually, it is where the start line is going to be for the official races this weekend. We practiced getting into the water in a supposed race situation. I was not looking forward to getting in the water again, but I knew that it had to be done.
It did get better this time. We all swam out about 100 yards and met out in the middle of the cove. They talked to us about "sighting" an object on the shore to keep going in a straight line. Sounds good in theory. At this point, I was just trying to survive! Another thing I learned was that triathalon is a "full contact sport." We were bumping into each other all over the place, but that is normal. The coach told us that is to be expected, so don't stop and say "I'm sorry." It will only slow you down and annoy people. We then swam a longer route to practice getting out of the water, sighting on one of the race tents that was set up. The key to exiting efficiently is to wait until you are in very shallow water to stand up. It should be below your knees. Even if you are pulling yourself along the bottom, you are faster horizontal than vertical. Then we practiced getting in again, swam a longer bit to the original shore where our gear was. All in all, we swam a little under a half mile. Actually, I was surprised it was that far-it did not seem very far when I looked at the area from shore.
The longer swims did get better. For awhile, I was able to calm down enough to bilaterally breathe. But swimming in a wetsuit was more difficult for me and I reverted back to breathing every stroke. While it was nice to be more buoyant, the effort to get my arm up and around took more energy. Perhaps I didn't have my suit pulled up all the way? Perhaps I should try some Glide next time.
We all got out and stripped out of our wetsuits. The group was really nice and I didn't feel out of place at all. I mentioned to a few people that I had just had my very first open water swim EVER. They were very supportive and said I did well-they had no idea how inexperienced I really was.
I made it back to my minivan and was able to get out of my bathing suit and put the dry clothes on. It was really neat to be down in the pre-race atmosphere with "USA Triathalon" emblazoned all over the place. Although it was not pretty, I did make it one step further to really fitting in.