I opened my eyes as I had already done many times throughout the night, waiting for the sound of the alarm to signal that it was finally the right time to be awake. It had been one of those nights. You know the kind I’m talking about, when your mind won’t get quiet and sleep evades you. It felt as if I had been semi-conscious for the last several hours. Nervous apprehension had replaced every last bit of excitement I felt the previous evening, as I had prepared for this morning. It was to be a big day for me! Another milestone was to be reached. Another step crossed off the list of steps I needed to take on this road to become a half Ironman finisher. My first 70.3 triathlon at the (young) age of 58 was a big deal, one I really was unsure that this body with all of its aches and pains could actually endure. Today was the day to put on that new wetsuit I had packed and go to the lake for my first open water swim. You should be hearing the theme from the movie, “Jaws”, playing in your mind right now.
Maybe it seems silly to you that swimming in a lake would be a big deal. I had splashed around in the lake as a kid. I even thought my little doggie paddle for a few yards every so often as I played, was actually considered swimming. As a matter of fact, I really thought I could swim, that is until I took my first real swim lesson two years ago. My coach at the time informed me that my doggie paddle was not “real” swimming. I learned that I actually had to put my face in the water! I found myself embarrassed as I was made to practice bobbing up and down in the water at a public pool, to blow bubbles out of my mouth and nose. I had to do it in front of “real” swimmers even! That was six weeks before my first sprint triathlon. Six weeks was not enough time for me to get this swimming thing. That first race was so hard! I was out of breath after the first 50 yards. I had to stop and rest each time I reached the end of a lane. I won’t say how long it took me to finish that little 400 yard swim, but let me tell you, I was slow!
A hamstring injury the week following that first race, kept me out of the pool for several months. That was followed by several months of swimming using the pull buoy, as I wasn’t able to kick. In spite of the injury and lack of proper training, I felt I needed to do a 2nd sprint the following year in order to keep my standing as a triathlete. I signed up for the same event I had done before. That swim was even worse than my first had been!
I really wanted to do this triathlon thing, so here’s where my current triathlon coach enters the picture. Swimming is her strong area. She’s been working with me just over a year now. Believe me when I tell you, this swimming stuff hasn’t come easily for me. I’ve worked hard and I’ve come a long way, but even recently at a master swim session, my coach was laughing over some weird movement I was doing in the pool. Somehow, she always manages to find something to correct, as a good coach should, I might add.
I remember many of my early swim sessions with her. Every time I had to do a workout, I fought anxiety and apprehension. I remember times when I dreaded getting to the end of the lane and I knew she was going to have me do another lap, and then another and another. I was so out of breath at times, I felt lightheaded and even in a state of panic. There were a few times I even wanted to cry. Ok, maybe I did cry, but I sure couldn’t let her see that. I imagine I’ve made her wonder if I would ever make it as a swimmer. Even if that’s not true for her, it definitely is for me.
Confidence about my swimming had evaded me as much as sleep had the night before this big day. I had volunteered to drive out to the lake that morning. A couple of my team mates were riding along. One was a seasoned open water swimmer. I didn’t know at the time, but our coach had given him strict orders to stay with us and keep us safe. Poor guy! Who would want that responsibility! The other team mate was a near neighbor, a.k.a., my “tri in the hood friend”. We had begun to do some of our training together. She was new to this open water swimming experience, as well. Even though she had been a swimmer longer, she was as nervous as I was. It’s funny to think back to one of our early swim sessions with our coach. I remember her commenting on how she would never be doing any open water swimming. Never say never, right!
It had been years since I had been to this particular lake. While the desert landscape was beautiful, the road is narrow as it winds up and down the sides of the mountains. The anxiety was building in my chest and my shoulders grew tighter with each hairpin turn. Of course, our conversation over how nervous we each felt only amplified the tension. I rounded a bend and had my first view of the water. The lake looked huge and the boats so small from our elevated vantage point. It’s good that I had passengers in the car that day, for had I not, I’m sure I would have turned around and high tailed it home!
When we arrived at the lake, several other tri club members were already putting on wetsuits. Trying to get a wetsuit over aged, loose skin that just moves up with the compression of the suit, well, that’s just an ugly story. Having to do that in front of others is down right, humiliating. I’m glad it took what seemed like forever to get the suits on. Anything to delay us from having to get in that water was okay by me. But alas, the moment arrived and it was time.
My “tri in the hood friend” and I had only planned on splashing around a bit to get used to the wetsuit, maybe swim along the shore a little, but certainly not go in over our heads. We were told we wouldn’t drown in a wetsuit, as it makes you more buoyant, but still, the idea of going deep was frightening.
I’ll never forget the first time I put my face in the water. It was so cold, it took my breath away. It took several times of bobbing up and down before I could blow bubbles under the water and take a breath when I came up. We swam along the shore a little and stopped to stand up every 25 yards or so. There was security in knowing we could still touch the bottom. I think I was ready to call it a day after about fifteen minutes, but our seasoned team mate seemed determined to be sure we actually got in a little more of a workout. He was able to get my friend to swim out to a buoy. It wasn’t too far off shore, but it was definitely beyond my comfort zone. She was very pleased with herself over having done it and apparently she wasn’t satisfied with me not having the same experience, so now there was double the pressure for me to swim out to the buoy. Not wanting to jeopardize my “tough, old lady athlete,” status, I resigned myself to oblige their request. It was horrible! I forgot to breathe. I choked. I swam crooked and ran into my friend. Each of those things caused my heightened anxiety level to become a complete state of panic. My chest felt like it was being crushed and I couldn’t breathe. I stopped and begged for someone to unzip my wetsuit. Our seasoned team mate told me to keep it zipped. I had to get used to feeling that, as it happens to even experienced swimmers on occasion. I tread water for a minute and tried to calm myself until I could breathe. So much for the tough, old lady athlete! I did make it to the buoy once that day and as you can see, I lived to tell about it.
We had many lake visits over the summer, but there were very few that I
didn’t experience the whole gamut of emotions associated with my fear of the swim. It was particularly unnerving when I found myself panicking in the water just two weeks prior to my half Ironman event. That was an ordinary workout day, which didn’t include the hectic frenzy of bodies thrashing about, which is what takes place in a race scenario. I couldn’t imagine how incredibly terrifying it would be to experience that during the race.
One thing I have learned about fear, not that I would deny that I felt it, but the more you talk about it, the more you give it a voice, the more it grows, the more powerful it becomes. I couldn’t afford to talk about it, so I didn’t. That would only feed it.
Another thing that I had learned about fear, I had heard from a speaker one time. They shared an acronym for fear. FEAR is False Evidence Appearing Real. My fear was ungrounded. Sure, there was evidence. I had panicked in the water, MANY times! And it was terrifying! But it wasn’t real. The facts were, I could swim. I had listened to my coach. I had done my training. I had put in the hours, the distance, the time. And I hadn’t drown, not even “almost”, not even once!
The week before the 70.3 Ironman event, I was amazed that I felt excited, rather than anxious, as I usually felt before a race. I mean I was really excited! Training for this had involved a lot of sweat and tears. I had gone from seriously doubting my ability to even do this, to knowing I would finish. My emotions were running high all week, so it didn’t take much to cause whatever I felt at any given moment to spill out. My coach said that was normal. In spite of my carefully laid out plan for the morning of the event, it seemed as if everything was going wrong. I hadn’t been able to sleep the night before. I left the house later than was planned. It was raining. Two freeway ramps that I had planned to take to get to the venue were closed, forcing me to exit in an area I was unfamiliar with. I lost my wrist bracelet which I had to have to get into the transition area. Four different people working the race venue, had me running all over the park area to get help with the bracelet issue. When I finally got to the transition area and saw my coach standing there, I felt as if I would explode. She knew just what I needed. After she hugged me, she got in my face and with a gentle firmness, instructed me on what to do next. She was perfect! That minute or two made all the difference in the world to me. I had just enough time to get my transition area set up, stand in the bathroom line, get my wetsuit on and get in line for the swim start. My coach and team mates were there, along with my husband and one of my sons. My son read me an incredibly, awesome text which he had sent me that morning as encouragement, but I didn’t have my phone, so I hadn’t seen it. That made me teary eyed! Ok, everything made me teary eyed at that point, but his text was really special! I could feel slight undercurrents of frayed nerves, but I chose to block out any negativity and stay focused. My strategy was simple. I had borrowed it from the movie, “Finding Nemo”. And yes, I’m admitting that I even watched the movie that week before the race for inspiration. I was going to take Dory’s advice and “just keep swimming.”
It was time and our group was called to enter the water. We swam out to the start line and waited for the horn to sound, and we were off! The hectic frenzy of thrashing arms, legs and bodies was just as crazy as it had appeared in the triathlon videos. All of the things I had feared, happened. I choked. I couldn’t breathe. I got kicked, swam into and slapped in the face – HARD. Someone grabbed my leg at one point and it felt like they were trying to pull me under, but I just kept swimming. I stayed calm. I was amazed at how calm I felt. I kept focused on the next buoy, then the next and the next. By the time I rounded that last buoy, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, I wasn’t swimming by my own strength that day. Yes, I had trained for it, but I knew I had supernatural help. As it turned out, I wasn’t even the slowest one in our group, which amazed me even more, because I’m always the slowest one. My son and my husband said they were shocked when they saw me run past them, as they didn’t expect to see me for, at least, another ten minutes.
That’s the biggest part of my race story. The rest was just fun. Because of ongoing knee issues, I had to ride easy on the bike, just fast enough to make the cut off time. On the run, I kept stopping to try to get what felt like rocks out of my shoe, but there were no rocks. It turned out to be a bigger issue with my foot. I had a killer headache, I think from lack of salt. I had dropped all of my salt, right up front on the bike course. I ended up walking a lot of the run portion, as a result of all of it, but I knew I would make the cut off time so I wasn’t concerned. It was hard and it was hot, but I had a blast! Crossing that finish line was a high that I’ll never forget! It stuck with me for a long time after the race, too!
I can’t tell you my story without sharing the most important thing that I’ve learned about fear. That is the fact that I don’t have to have it. I can choose to not fear. Real life experience has a way of teaching us things that become rooted deep into the fiber of our beings. That truth for me is that I have a big, powerful and completely, faithful God who always comes through for me. Even when life throws unfavorable things my way, as it has often, God has always, one way or another, worked things out for my good. Helping me with a little swim was easy! When fear runs deep, my faith is deeper still.
What’s next? I’m not sure. I’m grounded from biking and running right now until my knees and foot recover. Yes, there is the thought that it would be really cool to do a full Ironman one day, but right now, it’s hard to imagine it being a possibility with this body. Of course, I’ll never say never, because we all know what happens when we do that, right!