Wednesday, June 8, 2016

OWS - Open Water Swimming: "What if I can't?"

Warning...wall of text, coming your way! Sorry...kinda hard to take pictures under water when you don't own anything waterproof to take them with!

**Oh...before I start. Almost a month ago (I can't believe it's been that long) I wrote this post and mentioned another blogger. I want to say that she reached out to me about things and apologized that her advice sounded unsupportive.

I appreciated the gesture, and I wanted to mention it here because it meant a lot to me not only that she apologized, but to know that she never meant for her advice to sound negative. So, triathlete to triathlete, things are good there.** open water swim (OWS) last Wednesday.

To refresh you with what I said in my training recap:

I'm going to show you the log so you can see a few how my Garmin stopped mid way through and I literally just noticed as I pulled the picture in to post this. Wtf...
Okay, whatever. But seriously, like the bike on Monday, nothing went right with this swim except that I finished. I ended up working way too hard, and I'll get into all of that in a later post.

And this is that later post!

I suppose one good thing is that my Garmin did stop at 558 yards, which meant I didn't feel like dying over 558 yards, but actually over what was likely a half mile (880 yard) distance. Whoopee. The course is the same one used for the sprint distance Lake in the Hills triathlon, which I considered signing up for, but decided not to.

I want to preface all of this by saying I've swum in open water before, but the last time was a fair four years ago on a tiny lake in northern Wisconsin. The distance was about the same - half a mile, and I managed it in something like 30 minutes:
I swam from the pier at the bottom of the picture to that little patch of sand directly across from it.

Though I don't think there's a need for me to say it, I'm going to: I am in way better shape now and before this swim I would have said I was way more prepared for something like this.

And I totally ate shit during it. Like, if you can do that during a swim. I debated whether or not to post about how badly this went for me, but it was bad, and the point of this here blog is to chronicle the good and the bad.

Prep Time

I'll start by saying I got there any every.single.person had a wetsuit. So I immediately felt like the odd girl out with just my tri suit. I wanted to test a run in the shorts after the swim, which is why I wore them.

I spent a few minutes talking to a woman wearing a Chicago Triathlon swim cap - she was really nice and said the Chicago Tri is pretty well organized and the crowd is good and said it will be a fun first tri. She was super chill about everything and really made me happy that I chose Chicago for my "first" tri. She also mentioned that I'm interested in getting a wetsuit there are tons of options out there and I could probably get one on discount. Talking to her put me at ease, and I wish I'd seen her at the end to thank her for all the great advice.

(One thing's for sure...after this swim, the last fear I have now is transitions...)

There was also a tri coach there who was gave a brief safety course about OWS and gave some great pointers - like how to sight bouys without losing momentum and how you won't drown if you're in a wetsuit. She talked about knowing what kind of gear you need for your race - like reflective/tinted goggles if you're swimming into the sun and that if you can wear a wet suit, you should. Honestly, until this OWS, getting a wetsuit wasn't even on my radar.


Getting Wet

After the talk I wandered down to the lake and got ready to head in. I could barely see the bouy that marked the turn about 200 yards out because they had put out tiny safety bouys, not the big ones used for races, which look like the giant orange triangle in this picture:

Plenty of other people were swimming towards it though, so I just followed the pack. I did pretty well for that first 200. Looking back at the data, I actually swam a fairly consistent 2:30-2:40/100yd for the entire thing, and clearly my Garmin was confused. The problem was that I barely swam any front crawl. More on that as we go.

My plan going into this was to conserve energy by pulling myself with my arms and not really kicking. It's a strategy that works great in a pool, but I learned quickly that there's a lot more going on in open water that will induce your body to sink. So that plan failed right away, and I was kicking along, just like I didn't want to.

Anyways, that first 150 yards were fine. I kept a consistent crawl, breathing every third stroke, but somewhere between 150 and 200 I started breathing every other stroke to my right - which is significant. You see, the sun was to the left and I did not have reflective goggles, so it was really difficult for me to see and I kept getting blinded when I tried to breathe facing left. So I was breathing to the right, when my left arm was down in the water - and my left side is far weaker and more awkward to breathe on that my right (thanks, labral tear).

So around 200 yards I began to panic a little. I was kicking too hard to make up for the stability I was losing when I breathed, and as a result I needed to breathe more often - which uses up energy.


Just before the first turn I switched to breast stroke to help catch my breath, but I was definitely panicking. My heart rate skyrocketed and it became even harder for me to breathe - which FYI, when you're in the water is like the scariest shit that can happen. I turned the bouy and was now looking directly into the sun. I was still breast stroking which was bad because it meant I was looking straight into the sun frequently, and I couldn't sight the next bouy at all.

So I did the only thing that was logical - I started to crawl again. And I instantly felt like I was sinking, and fast. Annnnd I panicked some more.

There was only one thing left to do: Get out of the water!

I'm kidding.

What I really did was flip onto my back and backstroke. And I'll note for anyone who doesn't swim that this is actually what you're supposed to do if you can't keep up a stroke face down. It is an actual safety measure you're suppose to take.

But after only 200 yards. I felt like I had majorly failed.

The thought seriously crossed my mind to get out of the water. It went a bit like this in my head:

20 yards to shore? Maybe I should just swim over to that person's back yard, get out, and then walk around the lake. Eff this swimming crap.

I'm tired.

I'm fatigued.

I can't breathe.

I don't want to do this.

What if I can't do this?

What if one of those life guards has to come rescue me because I'm an idiot and thought I was capable of this? Why did I sign up for this race? Why the...fuck...the distance for Chicago is twice as far as this course. What was I thinking? I can't do this. Why am I doing this? Why am I putting myself through this. I should have just stuck with running. A marathon will be easy compared to a summer of this swimming crap.

I will never complain about running or biking ever again. When you run and bike and it's hard and you feel like dying you can just stop. When weights are too heavy during lifting you can just drop them. But out here...fuck. I can't stop. I'll die.

What if I can't? Seriously.

What if I can't...?

Clearly I had a lot of time to think about how much I hated my life during the swim. It was the first time I truly questioned signing up for the triathlon.

But I kept swimming until the next turn (about where my Garmin cut out) at which point swimming 20 yards to shore and walking around the lake was no longer an option.

I had to swim back to my start point.

At this turn I was also able to switch from my back to my front. I breast stroked for a little while, and then attempted a sad crawl for a bit too. It was not pretty.

But I made it back to shore. I was tired, my heart was still racing, and I was hungry (dumb swimming always makes you hungrier than anything else).

I thought there was supposed to be a three mile run after the swim (Splash 'n' Dash) but there wasn't, so I just grabbed my stuff and headed for my car. I needed to process what I had just "failed" at.

When I got home I attempted to run with Nigel, but my legs weren't having it. They had worked way harder than I intended during the swim, and I only made it a mile before I gave in and decided to go shower the lake water off of my body.

The Next Day

I let myself feel bad about it for the night. I complained to my mom. I called Papa Bender and told him I didn't think I could do it. I called Cam and told him I'd been beat by that stupid lake. I texted a friend from work and told him I barely survived.

And then Thursday morning, at 4:30, I still got out of bed to go to the gym and lift. I was going to pick myself up with those weights.

Thursday night I knew I had to make a decision about myself.

I pulled out my journal (something I do only when things are bad or I need a boost to work through my thoughts) and I started writing. I had to decide. Would I be the person to give up because I was scared? Because I had those moments when I thought 'I can't, I can't, I can't'? Or did I actually mean 'I don't want to put in the work I now know I need to'?

Bingo to the latter. So I decided:

I will be the person who works hard to own this.

I thought swimming would be the easy part of this triathlon thing. I was so obviously wrong. Now, I get the Opportunity to work to correct that mistake.

On Friday morning I bought a wetsuit. I didn't care what I had to pay. I got online, found a 'beginner' suit with good reviews, and plugged in my AmEx number. I bought some reflective/tinted goggles while I was at it. No more killer glare for this girl.

Though I am in no hurry to wade into that lake again, next Wednesday at 6pm, I will put on that wetsuit and do it because that is what my training schedule says I am going to do. And it says it on a couple other days now too. On those days, I will swim in that open water until my arms fall out of my shoulder sockets if I have to.

And when I think I 'need' to stop during these open water swims, I am going to turn my brain into The Little Engine That Could and I am going to keep chugging along.

I have said from the beginning that the first step is believing I can do these things.

Well, damnit, I believe I can do this. I believe I can own this. I am going to show myself that I can be great.



  1. Great attitude! The swim gets better,I promise. And OMG YOU ARE GOING TO LOVE THE WETSUIT. Seriously, it is amazing. One of my friends from my swim class has been having panic attacks in open water so I am going to share your post with her. You aren't alone and you're doing awesome!

    1. I'm excited/nervous to try out the wetsuit at the next OWS this week. I've tried it on so I know it fits, I'm just hoping I don't have *another* panic attack from feeling constricted or least I know I won't drown...

      But seriously, thank you for the encouragement!! I know I just need to keep getting out there and it will get better :)

  2. The more you swim in the open water, the more comfortable you will feel. Just be sure to lube up around your neck and the arm openings if your wetsuit is sleeveless. Good luck!

    1. Thanks for the advice!! I have some body glide ready to go for my next OWS on Wednesday. I know it will get better the more I practice, I think maybe I needed this kick in the pants with the first one so that I take it more seriously from here on out!