This morning I met fellow Ironman Wisconsin training partner Jim, and another man with a plan, Stokes for a swim at the Downtown YMCA. Jim set a nice pace and we knocked out a relatively easy 1500 meters in around 34 minutes. I have finally found a decent stroke and wasn’t tired at the end, which made me wish I was swimming this well the first time I swam 1500 meters in competition. It was a wildly different story.
Below is a summary of my first Olympic Triathlon swim. Warning: It is not pretty.
I probably should have kept looking at my feet, but it was hard not to notice the imposing swim course. A bright green buoy waited 200 meters across the dark choppy current of the Cumberland River. I took an ill-fated peek at the second buoy and it was so far away I could barely see it. There was nowhere else to look but inside.
I crouched with 40 men, all vying for solid footing on the slime covered boat ramp. Nervous laughter filled the air as we slid into and fell on each other on a chilly September morning in Ashland City.
The Olympic triathlon swim is 1,500 meters, but in these conditions, the lurking rectangle endless. I’d swam the distance a couple times in a pool, but in open water, you can die.
I asked my friend Kevin (who had just finished an Ironman) for swim advice, and he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Try to relax.”
I knew it was all about staying in the moment because every time I looked at those buoys, I was beaten. I needed to find the pocket and keep in my stroke. But it was not to be.
The gun went off and 40 over-achieving men jumped on my back. I fought for my breath and my strategy went from relaxation to survival. Primal screams pierced my ears and I think they were all coming from me. I let the pack race away and unzipped my tri-top so my heart would have more room to beat.
By the time I got to the first buoy, I was a humbled and frightened man. I stopped in the water and gazed into the distance, then to the starting the dock, then the second buoy. I faced a major decision while I treading water in this dirty river. Cold rain fell on my swim cap like a Chinese water torture and each drop reaffirmed what an idiot I was for trying something so far above my capabilities.
I drifted toward the support boat in hopes they would make my decision easier. Maybe they’d offer hot coffee, a blanket and a bagel. It seemed so natural. A peaceful ending to something probably shouldn’t have started.
“Calm down, dude, fuck!” I said to myself as I looked overhead at the massive bridge above me. I was on a military mission and quick decisions save lives. I was very close to grabbing the side of the boat and floating to the shore, battered, beaten, but alive.
It was the easy way out, but I couldn’t face the disappointment. Kevin, Allison, Daniel, and Heidi had come out to watch me beat this challenge and there was nothing about quitting after 200 meters that would have a good ring to it.
I launched my “noodle float” back to the support team and said, “Wish me luck.” I was going for it.
I had always had a dark fantasy about trying to survive a flood and now I was getting my chance. But this isn’t quite what I imagined and breathing wasn’t getting easier.
I settled into a breast stroke, which was more comfortable and I knew from practice it wasn’t that much slower than my freestyle. I should have started in it, but didn’t want to be “that” guy leaving the dock with a weak swim.
Once you have the endurance, swimming is all about form and being relaxed. I plowed ahead with terrible form and breathing, simply doing all I could to go in the right direction. Normally triathletes “sight” their line while they swim, but I was literally stopping every 3 minutes and looking around like a fucking tourist.
Halfway to buoy two, I realized I was a good twenty yards to the left of the other swimmers. Not only was this swim difficult, I was making my life miserable by taking a horrible line. It’s one thing to be out of traffic, but it’s another to be on the course.
I was mentally shattered, but did my best to get back in line. After what seemed like a entire morning, I reached the second green buoy and remember thinking this may have been the most impressive physical accomplishment of my life.
I treaded water again, gathering my bearings as imaginary turtles snapped at my toes. A true story of survival if I’d ever written one. I was spent, depressed, and questioning my sanity; none of which seemed to matter to the dozens of swimmers thrashing around me. But the simple fact there were swimmers bumping into me was an odd inspiration. I wasn’t the last one on the course.
I stared across the river at the third of four buoys and took a deep breath. The good news was, I was halfway home, which was also the bad news.
“Fuck, I’m only halfway there.”
I took off toward buoy number 3 and “being done” was the only thing on my mind. But you can’t cheat your body or mother nature. Even if I swam my best it would still take 15 minutes. For most people that is an eternity in a pool, let alone a dank, log-filled river.
I sat myself in the corner of the classroom and went over the lesson plan one last time.
“Relax, embrace your stroke and find a groove.”
Just get to the next buoy, just get to the bridge, just get to that boat, just get to the swim exit. Breaking it up is the only way to progress when you’re in quandary like this. That’s what I did.
I felt like a man swimming across the river in wet 3-piece suit. Making matters worse was the fact that I wasn’t absolutely sure which way the current was flowing. I had asked 6 guys before the race and 3 said “this way” and 3 said “that way.” Luckily it didn’t seem to matter. If there was one grace of this swim, the current wasn’t overly strong in the wide section of the river. I wasn’t thrown off course on my cross swims, but none-the-less, I might want to clear up the current direction before my next race.
When I reached the 3rd buoy I made a point of rubbing it with my shoulder. A symbolic gesture as well as making sure I swam the absolute shortest path.
I was getting “close.” But close was still about 6 football fields worth of swimming.
It wasn’t a matter of making it now. I knew that I would get there, but how would I feel when I ran up that ramp to the bike? Would my legs be shot from all this breast stroking? I focused on using my arms. Dragging my ragged body through the murky flow.
When you’re a little kid on a boat, there’s something about driving under a bridge that creates a sense of awe. The concrete structure seems massive and intimidating, and that feeling came back as I swam below with the water drain-off escalating the impact of the rain. I stopped for a moment to soak it all in with about 100 meters to go, then plunged like a carp and buried my head toward the target.
The “exit buoy” was orange and despite the overcast day, it grew brighter with every stroke. The night before the race I had spread dishwashing soap on my goggles to keep them from fogging and the move paid off. I can’t imagine how intimidating that conquest would have been if I couldn’t see, but the night before I heard a story about a former veteran who was now in the Paralympics doing just that. Blind, and winning medals. It’s amazing how these little stories can pull you through and I listen to all of them.
The throngs of people lined the swim exit, well maybe 50, and in my desperate hope for glory listened for their screams between strokes and labored breathing. Nothing. So, I just focused and sure enough, that orange cone was right in my face. Finally, I stopped swimming and grabbed some strange woman’s hand as she told me to be careful walking up the slippery ramp.
Now I heard screams.
Allison, Heidi, Daniel and Kevin were giving me their juice and I gladly took it. The first words out of my mouth were a scream of joy (not really words) and “That really sucked.” You see, I had been calculating my swim exit strategy to take the focus off of my time, which I was quite certain was an hour, and that was a little deflating considering I thought I might do it in 30 minutes. (Actual time was 41:52).
I glided down the pavement in my bare feet. The rain was still falling and I was suddenly a tad cold. I couldn’t believe God would put me through this but I scurried into the bike transition in a bit of a daze. I ran up to my row and looked down to see in hopes of locating my distinct white towel, but it was gone. My bike was gone! What the fuck? I ran back and forth like a kid protecting his lunch money and completely lost my mind for the third time of the day. Part of my strategy was minimalist and fast transitions. Shoes . . . socks . . . helmet . . . gone. But the only thing gone, was my bike.