Ironman 70.3 Part 2 – The Dreaded Swim!

Written June 26th, 2012 by
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A Nervous Swim Start

It was 7:45am and over 1,000 of us gathered on a sandy beach, wriggling and squeezing our way into black neoprene wetsuits and brightly coloured swim caps.  With goggles pulled down over our eyes our human identity was removed and anonymity reigned. I went for a quick warm up swim, had a stretch, did some mobilization exercises and checked the clock -7:59am. It was time.  A minute later, as I reached the starting pen, the gun went and the Pro men and women sprinted off from the start line to begin their race.  It was a perfect day, the temperature was already 20 degrees, the wind was still and there was not a cloud in the sky.  The sea glistened as the sunlight bounced off the water and I watched as the first of the swimmers reach the first yellow buoy.  With only heads, elbows and arms visible, they looked like a tight flock of birds skimming across the surface of the water.

I stood with all the other female competitors waiting for the start of our wave.  My heart began beating faster and harder.  My breathing became faster and harder.  The mass of bodies around me clad in black was pressing in on me.  Some of the girls were chatting and laughing, others were doing a few last minute shoulder stretches.   I squatted down low to the ground trying to let the dizziness pass over me.  After the buzz and excitement of the morning nervousness had finally taken hold of me.  But the dizziness subsided and I stood up again regaining my full six foot height and a viewing point almost a whole head and shoulders above most others.  Inconspicuous I was not!  This was not the time to be mired in negative thoughts about the daunting 1.8km swim that lay ahead of me.  Although I’d never swum the full race distance continuously or experienced a mass swim start, I was fully aware of the pitfalls of the inexperienced triathlete swimmer and was trying my best not to fall into them. I’m sure there are a good number of Ultra-FIT readers who have tackled triathlons and Ironman events and you’ll remember all these thoughts and sensations as you prepared for that first plunge.

I fought to get a grip of myself, summoned the positive thoughts I was more accustomed to having on race day and from it a confidence and calmness grew within me.  I was ready.  Or so I thought.  The gun went and I jogged steadily down to the water’s edge.  I’d positioned myself to the left side furthest away from the line of buoys on the right and away from the front of the pack. I was trying to stay away from the faster swimmers and give myself a wide berth from those fighting for the quickest line.  I entered the water and kept my mind calm as I began a relaxed, steady stroke.  I was unfazed by the bodies around me, I absorbed the kicks and ankle grabs and I navigated around slower swimmers in front of me (the very fact there were slower swimmers gave me a boost!)  A few minutes in and with the first buoy coming into view, I dared to think I might actually make it through the swim fairly easily.

But this was no time for complacency and any relaxed thoughts about my new found swimming prowess were quickly submerged under the awful realization that I was hyperventilating.  I thought I’d been breathing constant, steady, deep inhalations and exhalations, but I hadn’t.  Despite the relatively low stress and strain on the body in these early stages, there was an artificially high ventilation demand which I couldn’t get on top of.  It was only then that I remembered this happened to me in big rowing or cycling races too.  The surge of adrenaline and nervousness causes this physiological response to happen. I would normally be able to actively control and settle into a rhythm without major disruption.  But with the distractions of a new environment, the bright light of the sun flashing in my eyes disorientating me, a dictated and sometimes obstructed breathing pattern of swimming, the vibrations from the hundreds of arms and legs pounding in the water, I was not breathing effectively.

I was forced to swim breast-stroke.  Not normal breast-stroke, I couldn’t even manage that.  It was breast-stroke that you see grannies doing in the pool when they don’t want to get a single strand of hair wet!  My thoughts went to the shore line and the spectators that would be pointing at the one ridiculous swimmer pottering in the water like a blithely unaware pensioner. Competitors ploughed past me and I heard their thoughts.  “What a fool”, “Get out of my way”, they screamed.  There was nothing I could do, the panic set in and I had to stop and tread water.  For a second I thought it was all over.  My first triathlon and I couldn’t even make it to the first buoy.  What a total disaster.   I flipped onto my back and ignored the giant arrow that was coming down from the sky pointing directly at me, highlighting my incompetence.  I proceeded to do back stroke for the next minute until my breathing had restored itself. I flipped onto my front and used the buoyancy of the wetsuit to take the weight of my legs and body and took all effort out of my stroke.  Executing a deliberately slow and long arm stroke with minimal power, I gradually found my stride and everything started to come together.

Now in the flow I began to pass swimmers and make some distance.  That was, until I came across two particularly annoying swimmers who were becoming increasingly difficult to navigate past.  Swimming constantly side by side they were in a continuous pattern of moving further apart and then moving closer together.  Like a set of doors opening for you then closing as you try and pass through. Not quite the Argonauts and the Clashing Rocks, but nevertheless it was increasingly annoying!  There were two other options. The sensible one was to go around the swimmer on the right.  This would take me closer to the racing line and towards the turn buoy that was coming up.  However, the swimmer on the right had a huge torpedo leg kick that was producing a fountain of water, drowning me every time I got close.  Going to the right also meant planting myself right into a tight pack of swimmers.  I wasn’t ready to engage in that.  The other option was to go left around the cleaner swimmer and through cleaner water, so I went for it.

I had the speed, it wasn’t a problem to go around, but I quickly realised it was a big mistake.  I’d messed up my line towards the turn buoy but had left it late to divert towards it.  As I changed my line, I became aware that my position was now further away from the buoy than the majority of the pack I’d just passed. Much of the pack then overtook me just as we bottlenecked around the turn.  What a waste of time and effort that had been.  Relieved that I had made it that far and had managed to gain control of my swim, I swam in the mix for a few hundred meters across to the far side buoy where we were to turn again and follow another buoy line back to the shore.

But in that few hundred meters I found myself trapped on the outside in a familiar position behind the same annoying pair of swimmers.  The torpedo leg kick was pounding against my chest.  It created a wash preventing me from breathing and a fountain of water preventing me from sighting.  I wanted desperately to get away from them but could find no way out.  I shouted out loud in frustration; another big mistake.  You can’t afford to do that whilst swimming.  My relaxed breathing had been disrupted and stress and hyperventilation returned.  Rendered helpless I was back to the granny-stroke again and helpless as I watched slower but less stupid swimmers pass me into and through the next turn.  Granny-stroke took me around the second turn, past the safety boat which was capturing the whole embarrassing incident on camera, and onto the home run section.  But I’d got that far and I wasn’t going to let it end there.

First Transition

Psychologically it was easier to know that every stroke was going to take me closer to the finish rather that further away from it.  I positioned myself on the outside of the pack which was now well in front of me.  Again I was away from the racing line but I focused on getting my head in the water and my body straight.  I stayed in my rhythm and at my own pace and passed swimmers one by one.  As I caught site of the finish I started to feel brave.  I reminded myself that I was doing this half Ironman to gain experience, so I maneuvered myself into the middle of a group of swimmers I’d just caught up. I had to get that experience and the confidence to be able to do it properly for next time.  During the last few hundred meters I sensed for the first time what it was like to feel competent and to blend in with everyone else.

I was so grateful to feel my feet finally hit the sandy ground, to breathe a constant supply of oxygen and to know that I’d survived it.  But at the same time I was a little disappointed.  I had no idea what time I’d taken, but believed I must have been at least 50mins out there.  Disheartened, I went into transition taking my time to hydrate and re-fuel and get all my bike gear on.  Once out of transition on the bike and feeling the sun shining down on my skin and the gentle cooling breeze, my spirits rose.  I’d achieved my first aim, I’d survived the swim! Now I was in my territory – the bike section!

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