The Scribbler

15 June 2012

Further adventures in open water swimming

Filed under: swim,training,triathlon — The Scribbler @ 10:40
Tags: , ,

I’m almost scared to write this in case I jinx it, but it feels like I’ve made real progress with my open water swimming.

Immediately after my first open water swim triathlon, when asked about the swim, I replied that it had been ‘okay’. Not fantastic, not amazing, just okay. But buoyed by the adrenaline of completing my first race at this distance and enjoying a fabulous day with my friends, that got lost in the general high.

I know I struggled to calm myself during the first part of the swim and was frustrated by my breathlessness. I know I had doubts in my head even as I swam and wondered how I would ever be able to get over them and swim further. But I did it, which was all that mattered. And knowing that I had done it would give me confidence that I could do it again and do it better.

And then a strange thing happened. I was happy to take a couple of days off to recover from the tri, but when I got back into training, I had a real desire to swim again. And not just in the pool. I wanted to go back to the lake and swim in the open water. Like the itch of a run after a good while static, I felt the pull of the water and wanted to be swimming again.

Last Thursday

The open water swim sessions are on Thursday evenings. I usually train with my PT early, before work on a Thursday morning, so it’s quite a demanding ask for me to make both sessions. But I really wanted to go. Even with the prospect of a race on the Saturday evening, that I knew I’d be wise to rest for, I wanted to swim.

Ian was kind and we did a light training session, still enough to wake up my muscles in my legs and upper body. And all day I watched the weather, wondering how it was going to turn out and whether he would, as he hinted he might, make it along to the swim session too.

Once out of work, I was quickly at the lake, changed into my wetsuit and ready to go. Chatting to a few tri club mates and comparing race stories before I spotted Ian and Lee and we all got in the water together.

Me swimming in the lake at the QE2 triathlon

In the swim at the lake

With different groups doing fast sets around the buoys or longer swims further up the lake, I was just happy to pootle round the buoys at my own speed as I have done in previous sessions. Although it felt great to be in the water, and it was clearer and even felt a bit warmer than during the tri, I soon found myself flooded by the familiar feeling of being out of control, nervous and breathing patchily.

I was having to coax myself to put my head in, fighting the panic response and wearing myself out too quickly. Once round the buoys with a mix of breast stroke, doggy paddle and crawl and I was once again thinking, “Why am I doing this?”

A bit of time out in the shallows and a quick chat with Ian who was having problems with his goggles and I set off again for another lap. A little better this time, but still struggling to get my head in, breath out and smooth my stroke. Still feeling anxious, frustrated and worn out by a relatively short swim.

‘Oh well, something to work on,’ I thought as I headed back round for another rest. One more lap for tonight and then I’d call it quits. That third lap was somewhat delayed as the fast group came round and I let them get out of the way. Meanwhile, I’d also found Ian again, still suffering leaky goggles, and another girl who was quite happy chatting to us.

Eventually we set off again. And whether it was knowing that Ian, who I trust, was swimming nearby, or that I’d given myself time to get used to the water and finally relaxed, thinking it was to be my last lap, but suddenly it worked. And I was swimming. Nice slow, easy strokes, giving myself time to breathe to both sides. Striking out towards the buoys, head in the water and making progress.

I swam to the first buoy and then swam alongside another girl, drafting her to the second. The cool green water flowed over and around me. I watched the bubbles emerge beneath the surface and came up for air, glimpsing at the trees and the lake. Round the second buoy and back towards the shore, I boosted my kick and felt myself glide through the water.

By the end of the 250m lap I was grinning like a loon, and Ian spotted me, saying I looked strong. “I’ve just got it,” I replied. “That’s so much better than swimming in a pool.”

Filled with confidence and enjoying the water, we did another lap, not really swimming together, just being conscious that there was someone near by. And I had another lovely smooth swim, all the way round front crawl, just lifting my head to sight and enjoying the swim.

I don’t seem to have suffered any bad effects from a double session Thursday before the Blaydon Race on Saturday. In fact, given the weather, you could say the swim was good practice for the run!

And on Sunday, when my legs were aching after racing, where did I end up? Yes, back in the water at the pool this time for a nice leisurely shake it out swim. And I was cool, calm and felt like I could have swum all night. It was a great recovery set.

This Thursday

Another Thursday and another sunny start to my day, down on the beach, training with Ian. A complete body workout to strengthen muscles, improve balance and work my core. We talked a lot about training in general and the benefits of a complete programme with weights and resistance as well as the cardio work. I like the way it makes me feel and the hour passes quickly.

After work, I got to the lake early, looking forward to the swim. With the sun out, the lake was warm – 17C, we were told. But there was quite a breeze and the surface was a little choppier than I’ve been used to.

I took my time getting in the water, floating on my back and trying to relax before I set out to swim around the buoys. Consciously, I felt calm, but as before, I couldn’t convince myself to put my head in the water until part way round the first lap. And when I did, I was holding my breath and then struggling to control my heart rate.

A bit of breast stroke and treading water to settle myself and I kept trying. Swimming with my head out of the water inevitably resulted in a gasp of water as a stray wavelet hit my face. I did have moments of it coming together and feeling quite pleasant, but they never seemed to last long enough to allow me to swim one complete side of the triangle consistently.

But I managed 3 laps, around 750m in total and it’s all good practice. Maybe I had set unreasonable expectations, hoping to get in and instantly feel at ease. I should be happy with feeling more under control and less panicky.

Thinking about it on my drive home, I realised, although I enjoy the open water swims, they are probably the most stressful thing I do. Although stressful maybe isn’t the right word. They are the thing most likely to make me feel anxious, not in anticipation, but while I’m doing it. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop.

Because how fortunate does that make me? That my biggest worry is something I can and am controlling, little by little. That it’s something I choose to do and actually something that I can glimpse I will enjoy. I wish all my friends could exchange their troubles for such easy anxieties.

There was a moment when I thought once again, why do I want to do this? What’s the sense of putting myself through another open water tri? But if I want the adrenaline high, the confidence and self belief that my last one brought me, that’s the price. It’s like riding the roller coaster or travelling on the ghost train, you have to have the scare to get the thrill.

And this is far from an unbeatable challenge. It’s a manageable one. Even if I was twice as scared, my sheer stubbornness would get me through. But actually, I do quite like the challenge. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be a test. And I know, because I’ve felt it, that open water swimming can be joyous and liberating. Even coming home smelling of rubber and duck poo, I was gratefully not to be snotty and sneezing from the chlorine.

I’ve no doubt, I will go through the ups and downs of swimming again as I seek to improve on both speed and distance. I have one more open water, and a couple of other tris that I’m looking forward to this year, and big plans for 2013 already. So, as Dory says in Finding Nemo, ‘Just keep swimming’.


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