race recap #4: two-point-four miles of epic open water speediness (aka, killin’ the swim)

This year’s Ironman CdA had a new swim start – called their Swim Smart initiative. You’ve probably seen photos of Ironman’s mass swim starts where there is a mssive wave of people running into the water simultaneously where they then proceed to duke it out, arms, legs, elbows, feet, and fists for a rowdy, aggressive and potentially dangerous 2.4 miles. Some people think this start is most epic. From a spectator’s point of view, I would definitely agree.

But let me tell you, I could not have been more relieved to learn about the revised start. And I say this as one 2318 athletes who started the race and as someone who is NOT afraid of long swims in open, chilly water (most days). And I say this as a strong swimmer who has mixed it up with the boys in numerous race day swim starts and swim drills and mass start practices. But I also say this as one of just 636 females who signed up to compete in IMCDA this year. Just look at these pictures and look at how many pinks caps you see…

green, green, green, green, green, green, pink!

green, green, green, green, green, green, pink!

before the start...

the beach beginning to fill up before the start…

swim start  5

And what do we know about boys? (Besides that they are bigger than me?) Boys are mean and aggressive. To each other, yes, certainly. No guy I know likes to be beat.

Now, put a pink cap on and go swim with the boys. They’re fine with it, really. They’ll play nice – they want to pat you on the head and console you that the swim is not going to be that scary and the water isn’t that dark and you’ll be just fine. Cute little girl. That is until you start swimming past them.

What do guys hate more than being beat? Being beat by a girl.

My swim time of 1 hour 10 minutes is not good enough to beat the pros, not even close. But it does put me in front of 75% of all the competitors.

And that means I beat A LOT of guys, some of whom got downright nasty when they realized it was a girl passing them. Grabbing, pulling and generally trying to swim over me. Some of it was probably an accident – absolutely, it comes with the territory of open water swims. But I have a hunch there were more than a few non-accidents. A handful of times, I did have to be more aggressive and take wider strokes to literally push people off of me.

The worst of it was in the first half of the first loop.

Anyway, I should back up. The new swim start went smoothly – no one knew quite what to expect, only that athletes were to “self-seed” like in a marathon. So each person would have 17 hours from the time they crossed into the water to finish the race. Volunteers held signs – 60 minutes, 1:00-1:15, 1:15-1:30, 1:31-1:45, etc.

self seeding

self seeding

Hubby and I had agreed to start the swim together and thought we’d seed ourselves at the front of the 1:15-1:30 mark. We had both swam the Coeur d’Alene Crossing last August, a 2.4 mile swim across the lake so we had a good idea of what our times might be. We figured I might be just a smidge faster than 1:15 and he might be around 1:20 so this seemed like a good plan.

Not knowing what to expect from the swim conditions and crowds, I had honestly told myself that as long as I was on the bike by 9 a.m. I would be “fine” (i.e. I would still probably make the cut offs throughout the rest of the day). For those of you who don’t know, the swim cut off for the 2.4 miles is 2 hours and 20 minutes. We were both confident that, excluding any extenuating circumstances (like getting hard-core kicked in the face and needing stitches or drowning), we’d be comfortably under that mark.

Mike Reilly

Mike Reilly gives some last minute instructions and words of encouragement. (Or possibly he’s just telling this guy next to him how to get to the restrooms…)

I found hubby on the beach near the warm up area and he had some pretty bad news (already). Someone had stepped on his watch and he hadn’t realized it until he got to the beach. The screen was cracked and neither of us thought it would make it through the swim, let alone the rest of the day. He didn’t feel like he had enough time to swim upstream to drop it off at his bike (at this point transition was closed anyways), so he was just going to have to keep his fingers crossed it would survive the swim and keep functioning throughout the day. (This was on top of the fact that he was competing with a broken wrist – an injury he had picked up just 16 days before race day when he took a tumble off his bike during a taper ride.) The watch issue would prove to be a really major complication and hurdle for him throughout the day (but more on that later).

We each took our turns “warming up”. The worst part of open water swims for me is often that initial shock of getting into the cold water and I find myself spending the first 500-600 yards slowing down my breathing and adjusting to the cold, especially as it hits the back of my neck. So my warm ups, including for IMCDA really only consist of putting my face and neck in the water and floating face down in the water for a minute, focusing on keeping my breath outwards slow and steady and calm. After I got out, we had a few minutes to hold hands and stand, in silence, surrounded by hundreds of others dressed in black neoprene wetsuits, inching up towards the start line as the people in front of us crossed the starting line and entered the water.

I was surprised at how calm I was – again, I think it had a lot to do with the revised start. I mean, just look how peaceful it looks.

the calm before the storm

the calm (wayyy) before the storm

crowds at swim start 2

When we got close, we kissed each other and wished each other good luck. And for some reason, my eyes welled up with tears. I’m really not even sure why. It was just one of many somewhat overwhelming moments where I realized how much we’d been through and sacrificed and put ourselves through to get to that point and perhaps realized that **it was about to get real and maybe also had a feeling about how much we both might endure throughout the next 13 or 14 or 15 or 16 or (hopefully not) 17 hours. I looked at hubby and he seemed a little overwhelmed too. I wiped the stray tears from my eyes (so as not to fog my goggles!), gave him another kiss and we were off!

swim start - under the arch and over the timing mat

swim start – under the arch and over the timing mat

I fought the crowds for the first half of the first loop and had some close encounters with fists, elbows and people trying to swim over me or pull me down. Right before we started, I heard Mike Reilly, the announcer, say that the left and right sides seemed crowded but the middle looked pretty open, so I decided to stay somewhere in the middle. I tried to stay wide on the turns as those get sloppy in any race.

ows2

After the 2nd turn, heading back into the beach, I noticed the sun was out and traffic seemed to clear up a bit so it was cruising time. I’ve already spilled the beans about my time – I was out of the water and running across the halfway timing mat on the beach just under 35 minutes with a dozen or so people. I heard my name as I passed over the mat and dove back into the fray for round 2.

The first part of the second lap was clear, but then all of a sudden we hit of all of the 1:45ers and 2:00+ers who had gotten in the water behind us. A few times, there was just a wall of people and no clear path through. I took more than one little detour  just to get around the slower crowds of people.

swimmers as far as the eye can see...

swimmers stretched out as far as the eye can see…

At the start of my 2nd lap, I also realized that my neck was burning, chafing on my right side. I cursed the stupid pocket sized bodyglide and tried to breathe mostly on the left (I’m an ambi-breather, haha, is that a term?!) to try to keep it from getting worse, but I had a good sized wetsuit burn-owwee by the time I was done with the swim.

Other than that, my second loop was just a tiny bit slower, just over 36 minutes for a total of just shy of 1 hour 11 minutes.I ran up onto the beach, through the arch and over the timing chip.

tick tock tick tock...

tick tock tick tock…

Wetsuit strippers are awesome. You take your top half off and lay down and they do the rest and pull you up and hand you your wetsuit and send you on your way in a matter of seconds.

The rest of the transition was pretty smooth, thanks in part to the dry run we had done when we dropped off bags and in part thanks to the volunteers.  I found the change tent and ventured in. It was still fairly quiet, not too crowded yet and people seemed in good spirits. No crazy negative war stories. So I found a chair easily and a volunteer came right over to help me with whatever I needed. I was pretty low maintenance though. I opted to leave my jacket and sleeves behind, so all I needed was some chamois cream, my socks and bike shoes, my race bib, and my helmet and sunglasses and I was on my way in what felt like a jiffy (but was really more like 9 minutes…)!

As I ran towards my bike, I could hear the people along the transition fence cheering but it is so hard to distinguish whether it’s people you know or not until a familiar voice yells your name!

With that, I jumped on  (ok, gingerly and cautiously mounted) my bike (I have been known to be a little too over-eager with this part only to get tangled up and nearly eat it right in front of all of those fans – trust me, it’s way more embarrassing to do that than to take an extra 30 seconds to gracefully avoid any unnecessary close calls with the pavement) and had only a mild sense of trepidation for the next 112 miles…

IMG_6081

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warm enough for open water…!

SUNSHINE!!! Sunshine means good things for the lake and good things for race day. I know I’ve been complaining a lot about wind and cold lately. Heck, last week I was bringing in my flowers overnight because it was dipping below freezing and we were still wearing long sleeves to run and beanies under our bike helmets in the morning. Well, the weather gods finally decided to take pity on me and give me an entire week of sunshine and warmth for my sanity. Thank goodness.

Sunshine!

Honestly, jumping from 50 degree days to 80 degree days literally overnight made running outside a little hard since we had no time to acclimate (there is just no pleasing me, I know!).

But a week of sunshine and 80s means really good things for the lake so I’ll stop complaining. We’ll take it!

USGS Lake CdA water temp 05.11.2013

Which means it’s time for open water swims! Last Friday, May 10 was our first open water swim. And thanks to the 80s, we got to swim in 55 or 56 degrees instead of 50 or 52. And believe me. Five degrees makes ALL the difference in the world. I’ll be honest – I was really kind of dreading it but it was infinitely more tolerable than I thought it would be. And had I forgotten anything I needed for the swim – and I mean ANYTHING – I would’ve been ok with scratching the whole thing and waiting till later to jump in. But it wasn’t to be. We were in for about 30 minutes and I could still feel my feet when we got out. If that was the temperature on race day, that would be just fine.

Looks like its just about time to quit the pool swims and spend the last 6 weeks getting reacquainted with chilly waters, waves, other people, sighting into the sun, murky waters with bug-eyed fish staring up at you and swimming with others. Have you done your first open water swim of the year?

open water swims…

A few years back, I signed my mother up for her first triathlon. She had been saying for years and years that she always thought about doing one, that she thought it’d be fun. And she never signed up. So one year, for her birthday, that was her present. Happy birthday, Mom! Now before you deem me to be an evil child, you should know 1) that I flew home and did the race also, and 2) my mom was perfectly capable of finishing a sprint tri, probably without even training for it (she just needed a little push. You know, in exchange for all of that love and support she gave me when I was growing up. Oh, how the tables had turned, haha).

Having said that, my hubby put together a training program for her to follow. Which she did, to a T. Except for the part where you have to get into the open water. Despite my strong encouragement to go find a lake, ALL of her swims were in a pool. Which is fine, except that race day open water swims are not pool swims. Dark, murky water. Cold, sometimes chest-freezingly, brain-numbingly cold water makes you gasp for air. Makes your lungs freeze up. Makes you want to get back out (the same way you came in – the short way!). Add the hundreds of other people splashing and kicking around (and the stress of potential fist or foot to the face hazards) and the open water swim can be enough to sink anyone. Now my poor mom learned this the hard way. She made it through and she completed the race, but not without some emotional scarring. She has since completed a half marathon and last year, a full marathon. But I’m not sure that I will ever get her in the open water again…

English: Open water swimmer

Open water swimmer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Determined not to face the same traumatic experience as my mom did, my hubby’s taken a different approach and yesterday faced the freezing cold lake for the first time. Mano a mano. Fifty-five frigid degrees seemed not to deter him though I’m not sure why. Perhaps one part of why he has already hit the cold water is because he knows that he might well be facing the same conditions on race day. When I went through this two years ago, with the exception of 1 Olympic distance race, every single one of my race day lake swims was in water temps between 55-58 degrees – not exactly tropical soaking temps. Regardless, I’m proud of him for facing the open water swim. And not only that, but for spending a full 25 minutes in it! He goes into this weekend’s 1st tri, and the tri season, wiser and more experienced than those who haven’t yet braved the cold, dark open.

It’s funny, the things that wear you out when you’re swimming in the open water. It’s tough to fight your natural instincts to gasp for air as your chest and lungs submerge. You can’t see the black line on the bottom of the pool because the water is dark and gloomy and murky. Mentally, it is exhausting to try and NOT lose your cool when you see something dark and shadowy below you. Especially if it’s big. Or moving. Toward you. Even perfectly logical and rational people like myself can easily imagine the fictitious black octopus of death swimming menacingly towards you with its eight poisonous legs ready to grab you and drag you to the depths so he can eat you for dinner. You’re such easy, unsuspecting prey. Oh wait, that’s just a tree branch. Safe…? For now…The point of all of this is to say, I highly recommend you don’t make race day your first open water experience. First of all, if you live in this neck of the woods, you can wait for the water to warm up, but really – there’s a chance the water really might not be any warmer on race day and you’re certainly going to have to deal with it then, aren’t you?

And perhaps most important (at least as far as I’m concerned), you’ll want to learn what your personal reactions to things may be – both physiologically and mentally. For example, I know I need to get in to the water and submerge myself just before the swim starts. So that initial panicky cold has faded enough for me to control my breathing. If I don’t, I spend the first leg of the swim trying not to hyperventilate. Also, you will probably want to check out your wetsuit before race day. I have a friend who didn’t and found out at the start of the swim that the neck of her wetsuit were like tiny little angry toddler hands strangling her as she swam. Joy. At least it was just a sprint distance. It was not her most favorite triathlon experience.

And I know that I’m comfortable in the (pool) water, but open water makes me J-U-M-P-Y! But the more I’m in the open water, the more I’ve “survived” the open water – maybe it IS safe after all? And I’ve found that orangey-amber colored goggles literally brighten my view. Rose colored glasses. Think about it- nothing bad or scary ever comes from somewhere bright and sunshiny. Yes, it’s a total head game. Mock all you want, it works.

Sure, you may get a little cold venturing out into the cold, dark. But all of these little things could really save your tush on race day. Doesn’t that make it worth it?