I did an event this past weekend that combined a 500 M open water swim (lake) and 12 mile bike ride. With my knee not 100% healed for running just yet, I opted for the very elegant sounding aquabike event.
This recent swimming episode started six months ago as ‘I am a supremely pissed-off, injured runner who HAS to be in the damn pool because I can’t run.‘ It’s morphed into ‘I really like swimming, a whole lot.’
I’m as surprised as anyone.
I am afraid of the water and have been my whole life. My friend Kerri reminded me that once upon a time I told her I would never visit Hawaii because it meant flying over water.
While a pool is a contained environment, the idea of an open water swim (OWS) in a lake or ocean takes fear to a new level. I have never been a swimmer and yet knew I wanted to do a triathlon at some point. I have been reminded a bunch of times that swimming is a skill that can be learned. And I have also been reminded that I don’t usually let fear stop me… So I began over the past few years, with coaches, trying to learn how to swim and manage anxiety around water. I was not gaining endurance or building skill or learning forward momentum in the water; I was simply learning that I have a wicked strong dog paddle and can ‘safety stroke’ through a panic attack while staying in the water.
Plus there’s the whole body image thing that just hangs around like an annoying little sibling shadowing my every move… Right on my butt at all times…. Being seen in a bathing suit is something that once upon a time (for about 20+ years) kept me out of the pool. I’d been made fun of in a bathing suit in high school and the taunt/words/mortification are still easily remembered. I have gotten a WHOLE lot better about being in a bathing suit in public through practice and being around supportive people of all shapes and sizes who are comfy in their own skin. My body works hard and I love her. Yet I would be lying if I denied that those first few moments on the pool deck, in a bathing suit, always increase my heart rate just a touch.
So, all of that background is to say; there has been a whole LOT of focused practice in the water these past six months. Learning endurance, getting over the bathing suit hurdle and learning to like and respect water.
I signed up for the event at the last minute, after thinking about it for 3 months. The tipping point was realizing that once I did the event — I’d have my own opinion and experience to base things off of, instead of a creative cache of ‘worst case scenarios’ playing out like Netflix in my brain.
Got tired of being afraid of a bunch of unproven, unknowns…
When I was wading into the water to start my assigned wave, I acknowledged that the chances of panicking and fleeing for the shore at any moment were fairly decent. I wasn’t being defeatist or negative about it at all. I didn’t start this whole thing with the idea that I would bail. Quite the contrary. I designed a race plan to give myself a little breathing room and grace in a new and scary situation. My fear of water was big. So I made a big, safe plan to help my brain accept and manage the fear.
I mean one of my friends, trying to explain the OWS to me said ‘It is kind of like swimming in a washing machine with maybe one or two pissed off cats thrown into the mix to keep it from being boring’. That kind of requires a plan. 🙂
Here’s what I was going to do…
- I would give it my all. ANY stroke that worked to move me forward was fine!
- At any point and time, ONCE things started, if I panicked or felt unsafe I would flip on my back for a count of ten and breathe.
- If that didn’t work THEN I could simply swim for shore or swim to a lifeguard and ask to be done.
My only self-imposed rule was that I had to START this thing. No quitting before the gun went off.
Having that safety plan actually made me feel a whole lot braver.
I think I swam some variation/interpretation of every possible legal type of stroke and about 15 made-up strokes. It was a chaotic, messy, funny, rolling shitshow of a swim! NOTHING perfect about it from a technique standpoint. Not a single thing. I simply swam to keep moving forward no matter what it looked like. All those hours of practicing in the pool and watching videos and being coached on the perfect stroke suddenly seemed HILARIOUS! This felt like a freaking street fight of a swim where anything was legal and allowed. ‘I’ll see you one free style stroke, with a subtle left hook to get your foot out of my face’ HA! AGAIN – nothing intentional or mean. Just a bunch of forward moving bodies, in close proximity, trying to get back to shore. I was laughing in my head the entire swim.
It was awesome.
I thrived in that chaotic environment in the water. I knew I could roll on my back to breathe – so I never panicked. Not for one moment. It was this glorious, bubbly, mess and we were all trying to get to the buoys and get to the shore.
I came out of the water, almost dead last, smiling and happy and wondering how I would ever go back to the boredom of the pool again.
Back to the pool is exactly where I’m headed. Today. I have so much work I can do to get stronger and build endurance in the water.
I will also acknowledge that the very next time I hit the open water I could in fact panic and wind up swimming for shore or a course lifeguard. I’m keeping my safety plan intact. It worked perfectly.
Every experience in the water is to be respected and I understand that every event experience will be different.
I feel so, so lucky to hit the shore after my first OWS and have loved the experience of being in a competitive, lake environment exceeded ALL my expectations!
Kudos to Best In the West Events (Blair and Staci) for putting on a safe, well-run race that welcomes ALL levels and abilities into the sport.