Yesterday I competed in my first open swim race ever, the Open Water Swim Challenge in Little Elm, Texas. I signed up for the race to practice swimming in open water (and at the 1500 meter distance) before my upcoming Labor Day Olympic triathlon.
I hear from a lot of triathletes that swimming is the scariest/hardest part, because (overall) that seems to be the weakness for most triathletes. Also, as they say, if you get tired on the bike, you can pedal slowly; if you get tired on the run, you can walk. If you get tired on the swim, well…there’s not a lot of room for quitting out in the open water. So I understand why swimming is the bane of many triathletes’ races, but I think there’s also a (mistaken) perception that for former competitive swimmers, the swim portion is no big deal.
Ask the majority of swimmers how they feel about the prospect of racing in open water, and you will quickly learn that it’s not necessarily easier on us. We like our lanes. Our chlorine. Our clear water where you can see the bottom.
This is all to say that while I was not worried about the physicality of being able to swim 1500 meters (although I knew pacing would still be challenging, given my history as a sprinter), I was very nervous about open water. Plus, with only a month of regular swimming under my belt (and by regular, I mean twice a week for roughly a mile each time), I was still not feeling ready for a 1500 meter race.
Ready or not, though, this was my practice race.
marked up and ready to head to the beach. Unenthusiastically.
I am able to see my kids for one weekend during their Dad’s summer visitation, and this weekend was it. It wasn’t my top choice, exactly, but between Father’s Day weekend and his vacation plans, it worked out this way. I left it up to them whether they wanted to get up at the crack of dawn and come to the race, and all three voluntarily decided to come cheer me on. It was pretty awesome, considering I almost always schedule my races while they’re at their Dad’s, so they rarely see me in action (and never swimming).
My youngest giving me a hug for good luck right before I got in the water
I had no idea how the race would start – that’s how clueless I was about all of this. Would we line up on the beach and run in, a la Baywatch style? Would we jump off a dock two by two? As it turns out, we walked single file down across a pad (purely for count, not for time – the ankle chips were started with the gun), and then hung out in the water between two buoys.
waiting to enter the water
My husband got a great video of the start.
Don’t I look solid in that video? Stretching out, breathing every 4, sighting and everything (you can learn how to do anything by googling). I look like all the other swimmers out there, in our sea of pink caps slowly making our way towards the giant yellow buoys in the distance.
What that video does not convey (fortunately, because that would be embarrassing) is how utterly overwhelmed and panicked I felt for the first 200 meters or so. I don’t know what happened – I prepared myself mentally for the crowd, for the splashing and kicking and murky brown water. I knew what to expect. And it wasn’t even like I felt consciously bothered by the jostling and waves – I just could not catch my breath. I thought with the adrenaline of the start, I would feel fast and would have to reel myself in, telling myself to slow down (that’s what happens at the start of every running race), but instead, I felt like I was choking and having an anxiety attack. I vividly remember thinking, “If I feel this way now, how am I going to swim a mile? This is going to be terrible.”
Fortunately, that feeling only lasted a few hundred meters, tops. By the time I neared the first turn buoy, I relaxed and found my rhythm. To my delighted surprise, I naturally swam in a fairly straight line. I started by sighting every breath (which for me is a 4 count), because that’s what the online articles said to do, but realized I could get away with every other breath (8 count) and still stay on track.
I also realized I could close my eyes while underwater and therefore, not see anything that may or may not be swimming beneath me. Fear of fish: solved.
While waiting in the water for the gun, one of the ladies near me, when I told her it was my first open water swim, told me that she likes to actually touch the buoys as she rounds them. She said “if I can touch them, that means I’m doing a great job not swimming more than I have to”. I took her advice to heart, and found myself doing my old lifeguard swim (head up) around each buoy, with my shoulder actually brushing the buoys.
After two loops, it was time to head away from the yellow buoys, and swim for the “large tomato buoy, then in through the two small red buoys for the finish” (per race director). There was a kayaker at that transition point, yelling to us “if you’re 1500 meter, do ANOTHER loop. You have ANOTHER loop!”. I treaded water for a minute and yelled to him, “But I did 2 loops!” He looked at me, startled, and said “well then head on home!”.
While I had no idea where everyone was on the course (there were actually 5 different race waves going on – a short and long aquathlon, and 3 different open water swim distances), I realized at that point I must be doing pretty well. I also felt strong enough to push harder towards the finish, and pick up the pace.
Even though I read online that a common mistake exiting OWS is to stand up too early, and was saying to myself “swim until your fingers hit sand. Swim until your fingers hit sand” – I stood up too early, in about waist deep water. Rookie mistake. Thus, the awkward hop-run exit, caught below by my daughter.
my cheerleaders – taken RIGHT after I exited the water. Forgot to take my cap off.
My kids and husband excitedly told me they thought I did well…really well. At that point, we really weren’t sure, though, because women doing all the open water swim distances (750m, 1500m and 4k) all wore pink caps, and we all started in the same wave. They said they saw some pink caps come out of the water, but they thought most of those were the 750m.
Because of the aquathlon, the awards ceremony wasn’t going to be for another hour after I finished my swim, and my oldest had to be at work. I reluctantly left the race, wondering if I was giving up my (probably once in a lifetime) chance to stand on a podium in an awards ceremony as an adult athlete.
Then obsessively refreshed the results page all morning.
Turns out I did win my AG for the 1500m swim…by a good margin.
I actually placed 4th overall (out of all women in the race), and 6th out of BOTH genders (only 2 men beat me!).
My first open water swim race was most definitely a success. While I am feeling less nervous about the open water swim portion of my Labor Day Olympic triathlon, I have to say, I’m still pretty darn nervous about the race itself. I am trying to wrap my brain around biking 25 miles and running 6.2 miles after what I did yesterday morning. Trying to just trust the training program, and focus on getting as fit as possible to finish.