Monday, July 18, 2011

Lake Chestermere triathlon race report - Part 1

Originally posted May 27, 2010:

I went over to the slide, climbed the ladder and slid down.
And went under the water. I struggled desperately to get my head back above the water, gasping for air. Then went under again. I remember going up and down, struggling to get above the water, trying to breath. That desperate fight for air, which in that moment was a fight for life. I'm sure somebody pulled me out before long. ... I also remember the question they asked me. "Why did you go down the slide if you can't swim?"

Yesterday I did something which seemed impossible a short 14 months ago. I completed a triathlon with a 750 metre open water swim. I'd like to say it was easy and effortless. I'd trained for the distance, so I just went out there and did it. The reality is a little different, but the important part is, I did it. I finished it.


I arrived bright and early. I barely slept the night before, so didn't even have to let my 4:45 alarm go off. I had been lying in bed already debating how early would be too early to get up. I had packed the car the night before and obsessively made a list of things I needed to remember to either do or bring.

I ate my breakfast, made my coffee, and did or grabbed everything else on the list. I gave my husband a quick kiss goodbye (he was coming later with the kids) and headed out the door.

The drive was an easy one. There's not a lot of traffic at 5:30 Saturday mornings. I didn't even have to through the city. I simply got onto the ring road, and went around it. I was in Chestermere by about 6:15.

My early arrival plan worked. I claimed a piece of real estate on the bike rack closest to the bike exit. There were 7 bikes per rack, and it gave plenty of space to everyone. At one point, a guy arrived and racked his bike only a few inches away from mine. I wasn't going to say anything since I still had room for my stuff. I looked again though and realized that it was close enough that my pedal was likely to catch on part of his bike, so I asked him to move it over. There was plenty of space, so he did.

I chatted with a Leigh, as well as some of the people around me. I got body marked, and picked up my chip. Holy cow! It was HUGE. The ones at Vulcan were just little and I didn't have to wear a wetsuit there. These ones were the size of a kleenex box, and the wetsuit had to come off over it! (Okay, maybe not quite that big; more like the size of 2 decks of cards put together.)

I watched the try-a-tri start, made a final porta-potty stop and started getting my wetsuit on. The olympic distance was next to start and then the sprint start began 30 minutes later. At the transition clinic, somebody had asked about the timing and we had been assured that the Oly distance people would still be in the water when we began. I had thought the statement odd, as I know very well there are plenty of people that can swim 1500 metres in 30 minutes...

Shortly after the Olympic distance, I got in the water. It was a great temperature. Slightly chilly on my feet, but there were people without wetsuits. We couldn't swim the course itself, but we were able to swim off to one side a bit, so I swam back and forth a couple times to get warmed up and used to the water. Then I tried to find a good place to stand to wait for the race start.

We were starting on and in front of the boat launch. There were two sides to it and people were spread fairly evenly across it. I had looked at last year's finishing times and figured, with my estimated 18 minute swim, I'd pretty much be in the middle of the pack. I tried to position myself so I was near the middle, on the outside edge. Seemed like a good plan, until...

The Olympic people started to finish. Not surprising at all. Overall, this race was really well organized, but I don't think the amount of time between the start times worked that well. It would have made more sense to start the sprinters 10 minutes earlier while all the oly people were still swimming, or start the sprinters first, and the oly's after.

Since the oly people were coming in, all of us sprinters were asked to move to one side. In the people shuffle, I somehow got moved much closer to the front then I had planned. I was probably in the front quarter of the group, and in the middle. There wasn't much time to wait anymore. The organizer came over, did a count down, and blew the horn...

The Swim

Once the swim started, I was off. Surrounded by people, I started to swim, and swim fast. With everyone around me, I thought maybe I should find someone to draft, but anytime I saw a pair of feet in front of me, it seemed like I got shoved to the side, or somebody swam diagonally in front of me. It was a melee of arms and feet and people. And I was going too fast.

I started feeling like I wasn't getting enough air, so I switched from breathing every third stroke to breathing every second. It wasn't enough though. I felt like my chest was tightening up and I still felt SURROUNDED, and bumped and prodded. I looked up, and I was going off course. I tried to correct my direction, but that caused me to go into somebody sideways. I realized that I was kicking really hard and frantically. I tried to slow my legs down to get my heart rate down, but it just wasn't working.

So, I flipped over onto my back. For what felt like minutes (but was probably only seconds), I didn't really do anything. The pack quickly thinned out around me, and there was no longer a press of people. It was like I was in a little island of calm. But, I was stuck. I knew I wasn't in any danger. I wasn't going to drown. I could stay there like that indefinitely. I could breath, and eventually somebody in a paddleboard or a canoe would come get me.

I could stay there like that...

Or I could move.

At first, I just moved my arms a little bit. I started skulling. It's ironic, because it was one thing I didn't enjoy much in the swim course I took. I had asked why we were doing it because at the time it seemed pointless. Now, for the record, Angie probably hadn't intended as use as a swim stroke during a tri, but in that moment that's what I could do.

As I lay there, barely moving, I thought about the last person to come in from the try-a-tri group. He came in with a very slow back stroke, but he did come in. I started to move my arms. That I could do. Backstroke was the very first stroke I learned, and there was a certain amount of comfort in it.

Before long though, it started annoying me. My technique on backstroke probably leaves a lot to be desired (I haven't trained on backstroke at all; I only use it to cool down on occasion). I kept splashing myself in the face. I couldn't see where I was going. So, I flipped back over to front crawl.

I still had to keep going to reach the first buoy. Every time I put my face in the water though, I started feeling panicked. Like I couldn't see or breath. So, I started swimming front crawl with my head out of the water.

Let me tell you, there is a reason you normally swim with your head down. Even with a wetsuit (which helps keep you in the optimal body position), having your head out is seriously awkward. I felt like I had to throw my body back and forth with each stroke just to keep my head up.

After rounding the first buoy, I looked forward and the next one still seemed incredibly far away. I tried getting my face back in the water, but kept getting disoriented. So, I'd do three strokes with my face in the water, and then a few head up. Slowly moving forward, occasionally going crooked, but gradually getting there.

It was when I was about halfway to the second buoy that I realized I was going to finish this swim (the race as a whole was irrelevant now; at this point, it was only the swim that mattered). It might not be pretty. It quite likely would be the slowest I would ever swim an equivalent distance, but I was going to do it. My head was in the water more often now.

I turned around the final buoy.

I looked ahead of me and the boat launch seemed an incredible distance away, yet I had a type of calm come over me. I actually focused on my stroke and technique. 1, 2, 3 breath, 1, 2, 3 breath, 1, 2, 3 breath and look... Over and over again. At first, it seemed like I was going quite crooked by the time I spotted, but after the first couple cycles, I found I was going mostly straight.

I just kept swimming and gradually the shore got closer and closer. I noticed the weeds below me. They had actually had machines out to cut the weeds, so it was just my hands that were hitting them, rather then my whole arm. Oddly enough, I didn't mind them. I almost found it comforting that I could see something below me in the water, rather then pure darkness.

1, 2, 3 breath...

I was passing people now. I felt smooth and strong. It felt effortless and easy. I realized that finishing the swim had very little to do with my physical ability. The physical ability is there. It's been trained and ingrained. It was mental. Entirely mental. It was now up to me to make my body do what it was capable of.

And I did it.

Once I got into a rhythm, I was in this beautiful zen state. I was either going much faster, or time had just resumed it's normal speed. (Perhaps a bit of both.) Before I knew it, I was halfway back. Then I was almost at the green buoys just outside the boat dock. Then I was there. I had swam as far as I could and it was time to stand up.

I did it!

You couldn't wipe the smile off my face. The swim had been terrifying - but exhilarating. And the feeling coming out of the water. Wow! I felt great. There were a couple volunteers helping people out of the water since it was kind of slippery. I stood up and almost fell over. It was weird being upright again. Then I was on my way to transition!

(This was long, so the report will conclude tomorrow.)


  1. What a great recap so far. I feel like I was right there with you. Swimming in open water surrounded by people terrifies me.

  2. YAY Deb!!! Congrats on your first Open water swim!! It's too bad they screwed up your start, otherwise I think it would have been completely different! BUT you survived and it's a great experience! I can't wait for the rest

  3. Awesome race report so far Deb! I felt like my swim was the exactly the same as yours...panic included :)

  4. So So proud of you!!!! You did such a fantastic job of calming yourself down and getting back to the business at hand! Each time you do an open water swim it will get easier, which is not to say that you won't have other swims that go "wrong" but now you know you have the skills to get through it! Congrats and looking forward to the rest of your race report!

  5. Nice work! The swim sometimes panics the sh*t out of me. I've totally been there. Except that weeds always gross me out LOL!! CONGRATS!