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My First Open-Water Triathlon

Saturday, August 12, 2017

I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to write this blog - the triathlon was four weeks ago! But it’s been a busy time; work has been exceptionally challenging with increased workload and internal politics creating stress. My 82 year old mom had back surgery and I went to visit her in Canada and help out for almost a week. She’s having a great recovery and I’m so glad I was able to be there for her. She appreciated it. And then the usual struggles of trying to fit everything into these short twenty-four hour days. But enough of that!

The triathlon was in Hampton, Virginia on July 15th. It was an amazing experience, and probably the most difficult athletic challenge I’ve ever faced. As it turned out, the challenge was as much mental as it was physical. I felt pretty well trained, considering that I had only added running and swimming to my training in April, and that i had never done a true open water swim until the month before. I selected that particular triathlon because the swim went out from a beach on the Chesapeake Bay, rather than from a harbor or river where you might be jump off a dock into questionable water or face stiff currents… but as I learned, every situation has its own advantages and disadvantages.

My husband and I arrived in Hampton the day before the race. He has been amazingly supportive of all of this, he calls himself my cheerleader and equipment manager and he is just great. That evening, we scoped out the location, went to the packet pick up and pre-race meeting. I did a little practice swim and although there were small waves, the water felt alright. I was pretty excited and feeling good! We went out to dinner, and I chose my usual pre-race pasta, but had maybe a bit too much. Over-carbo-loading, as it were. Live and learn. Back to the Hampton Inn where there was a huge AAU basketball contingent in the house, so sweaty athletes were not out of place. I got all my gear packed and stickers on my bike and helmet and actually slept pretty well.

In the morning, we got to the race venue early and I got a good spot for my bike on my assigned rack in the transition area. I laid out all my gear in an organized way, as planned. I had my bucket that I had carried my gear in positioned to sit on in to put on and change shoes. I did a little warm up jog and chatted with my husband and the other athletes. As start time drew near, we all moved towards the water for the 800 yard swim portion of the race.

I was still feeling pretty good, but at the last minute, the race director moved the starting point about 25 yards to the right, and I started to get nervous. It made the distance seem further (although in reality it wasn’t a huge difference). And when my age group went to get into the water to wait for our wave - each group starting in water that was about 3 feet deep - I felt even more nervous. The waves seemed bigger than the previous day, and even though I positioned myself on the outside rear of the pack, it still felt like a lot of people around me. When the horn blew for my wave, I started to swim freestyle, but I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. I tried fighting it but it wasn’t working. The waves were slapping me in the face and I finally gave up and started breast stroking instead. (In triathlons, any stroke is legal, but freestyle is the fastest and most efficient for most people). Even that was hard, and my plan to take do breast stroke for a bit and catch my breath didn’t seem to be working. I couldn't convince myself to put my face back in the water. My movement was slow and torturous, as I rounded the yellow conical buoy, I was determined not to give up. It would have been easy, there were race staff on paddleboards and in kayaks all around, and I won’t say I didn’t think about it. But I kept on with my slow breaststroke and finally, as I rounded the second yellow buoy and headed to shore, I felt relieved. I was NOT going to give up, I was going to finish the swim and then finish the race. As I hit the shallows and clambered to the beach, I felt exhausted but victorious. No matter how long it took, I had done it. I had won out over my fear (and yes, panic) and triumphed. I completed the swim.

As I forced myself to run up the beach, all of these thoughts were going through my head. And when I say my husband there cheering me on, it gave me a boost. When I got to the transition area, I counted the racks to where my bike was parked, just as I had planned, and I was glad my gear was all laid out in order because thinking was a challenge.

The rest of the race went pretty smoothly, both bike and run. I had been a little nervous about the bike because of my accident with another bike a couple years ago, but it was fine. No bike packs, courteous riders, and it felt good. Two 5 mile laps and then off to the run, with my husband waiting for me at each transition to cheer me on. I was not fast on the run, but felt pretty good about my 12 minute mile pace. And as I crossed the finish line and went under the arch, I felt like a winner.

I didn’t expect the race to be as hard as it was. And while I had hoped for a better finish. I was only 8 minutes over my goal which is not surprising given my slow swim. I finished last in my age group overall and in the swim and run segments. But I was consoled by the fact that I beat women in other age groups, including younger age groups - apparently my group (55-59) is pretty fast! I also placed middle of the pack on the bike for my own age group. But whatever the outcome, I was proud of what I accomplished that day.

I competed in a contest that I had never done before. A win for adventure and challenge, matching myself against the unknown.

I took what I had learned during my months of training and put it to use. My transitions were smooth and I did my best on all segments of the event.

I overcame a major obstacle: the panic attack during the swim. It was pretty clearly a panic attack, and I am proud of myself that I didn’t give in and give up. Apparently panic attacks aren’t uncommon during open water swim competitions, and there are strategies to overcome that panic. For me, I think It has to do with both the open water and the competitive aspect. I was able to swim in open water during practice swims with no problem. And I think I had a bit of the panic during my first triathlon during the pool swim, but in that case, I was able to get it under control and start swimming. Adding the open water - especially the waves in the bay - was too much for me that day.

For my next race, my goal for the swim portion will be to successfully deal with any panic that arises. I am working on strategies to deal with the panic, like rolling over on my back and using deep yoga breathing until I find my “sweet spot” before starting again, and then take slow measured strokes. Trying to ignore it just doesn’t work. I also decided that a quiet lake with no waves or current would likely be less stressful for my next race. Progressive desensitization, as it were. I found a triathlon in New Jersey in September - Pine Barrens Tri - that coincidentally is near my husband’s hometown, and he used to swim in the lake when he was younger.

I haven't signed up for that race yet, I’ve had a bit of a neck problem that I am seeing a doctor about next week, and I want to get that resolved before plunking my money down for the race. But I am training for it, and whether I do the Pine Barrens tri in September or wait until next year to do another, I am hooked on the challenge.

Thanks to all my Sparkfriends for your encouragement and support!

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