Triathlon Confession #1: I’m not that strong a swimmer

A week ago, I did my first sprint triathlon: the 29th Annual Mountain Man Sprint Triathlon right here in Flagstaff. No big whoop. Not like I’m still recovering. Not like I’m still reveling.

Karen in triathlon gear

See? No reveling.

It was a stupid thing to do since I can’t swim. This is not false modesty. I am like Martin Short in that SNL skit about men’s synchronized swimming, which is, of course, where I got the title of this post.

Before May, the only time I had done laps in a pool was in eighth grade, when our health teacher made us. My boyfriend, Bob, an ex-lifeguard and swim instructor, patiently gave me instructions for about five weeks. After five weeks, I could still only go one length before stopping, and this, mind you, was in a chlorinated pool in which you can see the bottom and where there are carefully marked lanes and a shallow end.

As I found out, lap swimming in NAU’s aquatic center is not very good preparation for an open-water swim in Flagstaff’s Lake Mary.

When my rented wetsuit arrived, Bob and I went down to Lake Mary for a practice swim. It was an hour or so before dusk. The sun was dropping below the pine trees, families were fishing off the shore and trolling around in boats.

What I learned during this swim is that wetsuits make me claustrophobic, that Lake Mary is much colder than a pool and so muddy you can’t see more that a foot in front of your face, and that horror movies bother me more than I realize: against all reason, I found myself fearing giant anacondas, prehistoric crocodiles, great white sharks, and Jason Vorhees.

I tried to pretend I wasn’t scared and just plunged in after Bob. After about 50 meters of what I thought was convincing bravado, I told him that I had to turn back to shore because I was about to have a panic attack. He was not surprised. I asked, “How did you know?” He said, “You looked like you were drowning.”

When I left, Lake Mary looked like this:

Storm at Lake Mary

I came home ready to quit. And this was before I heard about the three-foot-long pike and seven-pound catfish regularly caught in Lake Mary and before I read this article about a great white shark being spotted in a lake in Australia (more evidence of Australia’s deadliness, which I’ve talked about elsewhere), and before I saw this video about sharks in Lake Ontario. I stuck with the triathlon because I read this hilarious blog post entitled “How to Survive Your First Open-Water Swim” by Susan Lacke, the No-Meat Athlete, in which she confesses to a fear of “lake zombies.” I figured that at least I wasn’t alone.

The swimming portion of a sprint triathlon is typically 750m, about 3/4 of a mile. It’s further to some people’s mailboxes. In the Mountain Man, this meant swimming out to a big yellow buoy in the middle of the lake, turning right, swimming to another big yellow buoy even further away, turning right again, and swimming back to shore. There were three waves of swimmers: the green caps (men 25-49) went first, followed eight minutes later by my wave, the yellow caps (women 25-54), and the blue caps (24 and younger, men 50 and older, women 55 and older) started eight minutes after us.

The swim took me 25 minutes. To put into perspective how slow this is, an average walker could cover the same distance in fifteen. During that 25 minutes, I backstroked, I sidestroked, I crawled, I doggy-paddled, I floated on my back. The good news was that I was so exhausted that I forgot about giant anacondas, prehistoric crocodiles, great white sharks, and Jason Vorhees.

At one point, I began wondering why they didn’t have floating aid stations. Better yet: a floating bar, and you get a free drink chip in your swag bag. Knowing a shot of whiskey was waiting for me at the second buoy would have certainly sped me along.

Every time I bumped into someone, I tried to apologize. I think beginners tend to assume that they are in everyone else’s way, but no one seemed to notice. In fact, no one acknowledged me at all. That didn’t help. I got lonely, then afraid, then more lonely because it seemed like I, alone, was afraid. I found myself looking plaintively at the volunteers in kayaks for encouragement. None of them made eye contact. I think they were trying to politely ignore my plight, like how when a stranger trips,¬† you look away and pretend you didn’t see. (Or, you know, maybe they were busy making sure no one was drowning.)

When I started getting passed by the blue caps, I almost started crying, but by then I knew I was going to make it. And I’ve gotta admit, even after all that, when I finally ran up the ramp bare foot, unzipping my wetsuit and heading toward my bike, I felt pretty badass, even though I was one of the last yellow caps out of the water. And, as I’ll confess shortly, I’m pretty sure my primary motivation for doing the triathlon in the first place was to feel badass.

Official swim lessons start tomorrow. (Bob has suffered enough.) The next triathlon is tentatively scheduled for October in Lake Powell.

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