Getting My Feet Wet
by Sarah F.
I had the brilliant opportunity to get my feet wet, both figuratively and literally, sooner than I expected by experiencing the 2009 Naperville Women’s Tri as part of a relay team. My relay partner, Agniezska, roped me into the challenge a mere week before the triathlon, under the guise that she would bike, I would run, and we would somehow find a swimmer. (Or else she would swim…swimming was not/is not my forte!) Things didn’t quite work out that way, and I instead found myself prepping for my first (outdoor) triathlon as both swimmer and runner. To put it in Agniezska’s exact words, “You swim and run. I do fun part.”
The unfortunate complication to this was that I had never swum in open water before. I’d had plenty of pool swimming under my belt to at least feel confident that I knew HOW to swim…I just didn’t have any idea what to expect in open water! And my one opportunity to partake of ET’s Open Water swim clinic prior to the triathlon was thwarted by a babysitting snafu. So I instead took to Centennial Beach on my own a few times in the week prior to the race. And the first time I hopped in the water, I wanted to zoom right back out…it was FREEZING! So enter in another complication—that of finding, renting/buying, and practicing in a wetsuit. Yikes! This challenge was suddenly becoming more challenging!
I’ll fast-forward a few days just to cut to the point. I got myself a wetsuit rental, practiced swimming at Centennial Beach in it (in the lanes…still no open water swimming yet!!), found that I LOVED swimming in it (warmth + buoyancy = happy swimmer!), and started getting giddy about the triathlon. Agniezska was equally excited, and we pumped each other up even more at the Expo the day before the race. We were ready!
Race morning came early, and I focused on nutrition first. Following a simple meal plan started my morning off. This is a huge weak spot for me, so I tried to take special care here. (1/2 banana—couldn’t eat a whole one! …water…1/2 piece of white toast—again couldn’t eat a whole piece due to nerves! …sipping Gatorade throughout the morning…etc.) Then I spent time visualizing the different things Coach Suzy had told me about with the start of the swim, wetsuit logistics, and running prep when doing a relay, etc. And then I started worrying about logistics, like… What the heck is going to happen once I get there? Where do I go? What will the transition area look like exactly? Will I get a chance to use the bathroom? What if I forget to give Agniezska the timing chip at the swim-bike transition… etc., etc., etc. So, I tried to push all these questions out of my head, hoping I’d just figure it out as I went along. That was part of the point of doing this, right? To just get the experience in!
Getting to the race was easy enough, and I happily spotted Coach Joe and Drew on my way in (got a “hurrah” from the cheering squad)! I was bummed I didn’t get to see Coach Suzy, but I was still trying to wrap my head around relay logistics and trying to find my relay partner! Once Agniezska and I hooked up in transition, time started flying fast. We watched the elite triathletes (phenomenal!!!) and survivor triathletes (amazing!!) take off in their first waves. The nerves started bouncing through my stomach, and I started wondering when I was going to get my wetsuit on, exactly. After all, I’d left it in the transition area, and I hadn’t gotten a clear sense from race officials as to whether or not relayers could go back in there to get their wetsuits on! (Yes, I should have thought that one out, but since our wave didn’t start for almost 2 hours after the race began, it seemed weird to be expected to wear our wetsuits for that long.) Finally, I worked back over to the transition area, and pleaded ignorance to one of the race volunteers, and he nicely let me into the back corner entrance of the transition area. (Phew!) Agniezska headed off to grab her bike trainer, and I now grabbed everything I figured I would need to get myself in the water (goggles, swim cap, wetsuit, Suit Juice, etc., etc.).
At last! It was 8:20 and I was suited up and ready to go! And then…I had to pee—dang it! Port-a-potties and wetsuits just don’t jive that well together. Oh well, so it goes… Okay, finally! It was now 8:30, and I was officially ready to get the show on the road. I was suited back up, and I headed out to the beach to line up. I found some friendly faces in the middle of the wave pack to chat with, and the time passed quickly (well, sort of). Then I somehow got talked into pushing ahead to the front of the wave by my very confident relay partner. (Sure—SHE wasn’t the one swimming! Easy for her to be confident about it!) And there I was, standing in the front of the line, waiting for that horn blast to go off. And my thoughts? Well, I kept reminding myself that I KNOW how to swim…and I’ve swam in this water before…and I’ve swam in this wetsuit before…so how bad could it be?
My, oh my.
Within 15 seconds, or maybe it was a minute…heck, it felt like an eternity…I found myself choking and gagging on water, almost unable to breathe due to the frigid water temps, and starting to hyperventilate. I clearly remember looking to the left, where a lifeguard sat up high in his chair, and I thought, “Why doesn’t he see that I am gagging & choking and not swimming? Why isn’t he blowing a whistle and coming to get me?” And then I remember thinking how very disappointed Agniezska was going to be that her relay partner completely flopped in the first minute of the swim. And then I don’t remember much for a period of seconds, other then feeling like I had completely forgotten HOW to swim all of a sudden (free-style swim at that point? No way!). And I remember trying to put my feet down to stand so I could catch my breath, and thinking, “Dammit! I can’t reach the bottom! What do I do now??” And THEN, a sweet-blessed thought entered my head… “I know how to side-stroke!” In fact, I rather like the side-stroke, and am fairly strong at it. So, thanking my lucky stars for that divine revelation at that very point in time, I started side-stroking! Relief washed over me. I could DO this! And…AND….if I could just make it make to the shallow part of the water, I could walk for a bit, and catch my breath. And MAYBE I could try that free-style swim thing again, you know, the one that we all practice for the majority of our swim workouts. It would be spotty, and a little scary, but heck, I would give it a try. I mean, I KNEW I could swim freestyle, after all, so I just had to quickly reprogram my brain to think positive swimming thoughts!
I got to the shallow end, ran around the buoy…and tentatively put myself back in the water in my normal freestyle stance. And, what do you know…it worked this time. I truly felt like I was swimming like a turtle (my internal sense of time had completely left my body by this point), but hey, at least I was DOING it! “Slow and steady, slow and steady” was the mantra I kept repeating to myself. I tried SO hard not to look at other swimmers around me at this point, because I felt like it would only make me feel like I was swimming even slower than I thought I was. (I know, I shouldn’t have been comparing myself to the swimmers around me…but seriously, how can we NOT wonder where other people are sometimes, just to gauge ourselves??!) And I realized that I was not swimming so slowly after all! In fact, I was keeping up with other swimmers, and even passed one or 2. So I guess my “slow and steady” mantra was doing the trick!
And then I got to the DEEP part of the water…you know, the part where you can’t see squat? The part I’ve never swum free-style in before, since I had side-stroked it around the first buoy? Oh my—I was NOT prepared for not being able to see anything! My brain went to mush again, and my breathing started feeling labored. Would this swim EVER end???! Well, somehow I got through it (inserting a few more side-strokes, and breaststrokes, and swim-running every chance I had in the shallow end), and the end was FINALLY in sight. Oh thank heavens!
I ran out, fast as I could, excited for that nice break I would get while Agniezska zoomed through the bike course.
The rest of the race went really fabulously…I followed Coach Suzy’s advice on warming up for the run (since my legs would be cold), and jogged around a fairly empty lane in the transition area for 10 minutes. I kept getting yelled at by one of the race volunteers (“Runners exit THIS way!”), and by my 3rd lap around the empty transition lane, I wanted to ask him why he didn’t recognize me by now, and stop telling me this every time I passed him?
Agniezska was the first cyclist back from the relay group (she seriously smoked the bike course!!!!), and I headed out with a big ol’ grin on my face—THIS was the fun part! I’ve run in races before, so this wasn’t nearly as scary as the swim! I felt well-hydrated (probably because I drank half the quarry when I was gagging in the water earlier) and ready to go!
My memories of the run consist mostly of listening to my breathing (I am an avid iPod runner, and had never run without music before…no joke!), and also of staring at the numbers on other athletes calves as I passed them. I had the big bonus of have well-rested legs, as I didn’t just come off of a bicycle, so my legs were definitely ready to move. It was really, really cool hearing the cheers of all the various spectators who had come out to watch the race, and it was also really neat hearing some of the comments and snippets of conversations of athletes that I passed. “That’s it! Good form! Keep those knees high!” is what one encouraging spectator yelled as I ran past. Everyone was simply encouraging each other on, helping push each other to the common goal of reaching the finish line. The excitement was positively contagious as the 5K drew to an end, and suddenly Agniezska popped literally out of nowhere and started running alongside me at the last few-tenths of a mile, pushing me to run as fast as I could. It worked, because I started gearing up for my sprint-finish pace, and she ducked out as I neared the end of the course. I knew I had it in me yet to put forth an extra burst of speed at the end, and I flew across the finish line with such an amazing sense of power, agility and accomplishment, that I never wanted that feeling to end! Oh my, oh my—what an absolutely fabulous experience!
And the after-race grin turned into a perma-grin later that day when I found out Agniezska and I took 2nd place in the relay group! That swim ended up not going so bad after all! And I am now one of the biggest proponents of the ET Open Water Swim Clinics that you will ever find—they are amazing, invaluable, and huge confidence-boosters, and my only regret from that day, is that I didn’t have a chance to experience a few before the race. BUT, it was a day filled with all kinds of “ah-ha” moments and lessons learned. And it was truly a day to celebrate the human body, and what it is capable of doing—especially when we BELIEVE we can do it!
It’s great when we have someone by our side who helps us remember to believe that we can do it. Thank YOU, Coach Suzy, for being there for me along the way in all of my training, and through all of my endless questions and occasional down moments while training. Thank you for the encouragement and constant belief you have in me—it is such a confidence booster, and your coaching and support are forever appreciated by me!