Respecting the Swim in Your First Triathlon

author : outlawj
comments : 12

I made it around the first buoy but I was struggling for my breath. My pride lost out and I grabbed onto the buoy to gain my breath again.

This June I completed my first sprint triathlon.  Last June I weighed 232 pounds and hadn't worked out in over a year.  Being a former college football player who had always worked out, I friend told me about triathlons as a way to fuel your competitive spirit and stay in shape.  Wanting to get back in shape and be competitive I quickly registered for a duathlon and became addicted to the lifestyle.  I dropped to 205 pounds by September and competed in a duathlon (2.2 mile run, 24.9 mile bike, 5.5 mile run).  I used my friends mountain bike on an extremely hilly course and thought my legs were going to burn off!  However, I finished the duathlon and set my goal to do 5 triathlons in 2009 and a half Ironman in 2010.

To start 2009, I had trained steadily for almost a year, weighed 190 pounds, and did a duathlon in May to get ready.  I set my progression of races to do a Sprint in June, another Sprint in July, and two Olympic distances in August and September.

Heading into my first Sprint in June, I was overconfident about the swim.  I had been swimming 2000 yards with relative ease in the pool and thought that the 500 yards required for the race would be very easy.  I continued to log my yardage in the pool and focused on my run and bike times during training.  As race day approached, I thought I was ready.

On race day, I showed up and dropped all my stuff off in the transition area at 7:00am.  The race was a wave start beginning at 8am.  The transition zone closed at 7:45am and I was alone.  Because I was alone, I had to leave everything in the transition zone and stand in the 62 degree cold wind for an hour wearing nothing but my tri-shorts before my wave started for swim at 8:55am.  I was cold and stiff when I got into the water.  I had not really warmed up and the cold water nearly took my breath away.  Like a true first timer with no clue, I started right in the front/middle.  As the horn sounded, I started to swim.  In my first 30 yards I was clobbered by the mob.  One swimmer passed me, and his kick cracked my goggles.  Water flowed into my eyes.  I lost my sight and began to hyperventilate.  Only 30 yards into the race, panic set in.  I started to tread water and attempted to regain my breath and composure as swimmers knocked me around.  I was truly scared at that moment.  I treaded water for about a minute and started to swim again.  Because my goggles were cracked, I had to swim with my head above water the rest of the way, expending way more energy than I had planned to.  I made it around the first buoy but I was struggling for my breath.  My pride lost out and I grabbed onto the buoy to gain my breath again.  I eventually finished the 500 yard swim in about 15 minutes but it seemed like three hours.  It took me about 5k on the bike before I recovered physically and psychologically from the experience.  My goals quickly changed from breaking 1:20 to just finishing.  I eventually finished the race at 1:32.

What I learned from this experience was invaluable 

As I prepare for an 800 yard swim in this weekend's triathlon my approach has been very different.  I do and will always respect the swim from here on out.  I purchased a wetsuit to deal with cold water conditions and I will start in the back and let the experienced swimmers take the lead, and I have trained (and will continue to train) in open water.  Swimming in a calm pool (where you can always put your feet down at any time) with no other swimmer traffic can help with endurance, but it is not adequate preparation for open water swimming with a mob.

The take-home message is:

  • Get a wetsuit for cold water conditions
  • Start in the back of the back and to the outer side
  • Try to get several open-water swim practices in (with a friend to watch you) before race day

One thing I know is that an experience like I had in my first race can make you give up or motivate you even further.  I am choosing the latter.  I feel much more confident going into my next race due to the training I have been doing in open water, but I am approaching it with humility and respect.  I learned that the swim portion of a triathlon is perhaps the most difficult to emulate in training, but I have done my best to study, learn, and train to prepare.

I am looking forward to a better swim this weekend and in future races.  One thing I do know, I will always respect the swim, regardless of the distance from here on out.

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date: November 9, 2009

outlawj