I was actually really excited about the open water swim yesterday. The drive out to Del Valle Lake in Livermore was incredibly beautiful and I wasn’t feeling too nervous. We had had a good pool swim on Tuesday where I’d done about 2000 yards and felt relaxed – slow, but relaxed.
First we had a little clinic about open water swimming- how to “sight” (ie see where you’re going) without the comfort of lane lines in a pool. Then they passed out our wetsuits – very exciting! Wooo!
We got a demonstration on how to put on BodyGlide and how to turn it inside out and put it on “like pantyhose.” Then we were shown how to do the “wetsuit wedgie” – when someone else picks you up to jam the wetsuit completely into your crotch. Pretty funny.
Then it was our turn! Here’s Matt giving me my wedgie. Wheeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!
We felt pretty stoked with our new wetsuits.
Finally, we went down to the lake. The mud at the edge was SUPER DISGUSTING feeling but soon we waded in up to our waists and dived in and opened up our neck holes to get water into the suits (this is to form an insulating layer to keep us warm). I didn’t think that the water was too cold, actually.
Our first drill was to swim out about 25 yards (a pool length) to coach Stephanie in her kayak, then swim back to shore. I took off and the first several strokes felt just fine. I noticed right away that there was NOTHING TO SEE underwater – ie, it was just a bunch of murk. Just bubbles from exhaling. Okay. I think maybe I was about halfway to the kayak when I realized I was panting. Oh man, I have to rest already? I rolled onto my back and tried to breathe some. I made it around the kayak and got back, but I was SUPER out of breath and it didn’t feel good. I thought, “Man, what was that? Am I getting asthma or something?” The feeling in my chest was just tight.
Second trip around the kayak went much better. I felt relaxed, but the memory of the first trip had kind of spooked me. They had asked us at first, “Who wants a buddy swimmer” and silly me didn’t raise my hand. But when we got set to do our first long swim (1/4 mile back and forth to a buoy) I was like… um, yes please! So my mentor Annika said she’d swim with me.
Things were going pretty well for about the first half. Then I heard Annika say, “Susan, turn to your left a little.” I popped my head up and saw that I was bearing really hard to the right, and I had drifted way away from everyone else (who was also way ahead of me, not to mention way to the left). I think that was it. My chest just seized up instantly. I couldn’t breathe. I turned on my back and tried to breathe but I was hyperventilating. Coach Haakon came over and he and Annika literally held me up, horizontally, like a little baby, while I struggled to regain my composure. It felt like forever. Finally they asked if I could manage to do sidestroke. I tried. I did sidestroke for a little while and then I felt like my lungs attacked me again. I sort of flipped out. “I…. can’t…. BREATHE!” I flailed around for a bit and then coach Stephanie showed up with the kayak and I pretty much lunged for it. I held on for dear life and panted and panted. I felt like there was a giant steel vice around my chest and it wasn’t letting me breathe. Stephanie asked if I wanted her to pull me in. I felt very, very defeated but I said, “Yes please.” I felt like there wasn’t any choice. I think we were very near the buoy at that point, but I’m not sure.
We got about halfway back and all of a sudden I realized I was breathing normally. I wanted to swim again. I said, “I think I can try again.” I got back to doing freestyle and it felt pretty good. I thought, at least I can redeem myself by swimming back half the way. It felt decent. Then I was almost, almost, almost there – I mean SO CLOSE and Bam! it hit me again. I was so close. I think what happened is I thought I could touch bottom and then when I tried and couldn’t, the Thing happened again. Shit! Another coach AJ asked, “Are you okay?” and I said, “No! NO!” and he grabbed my arm and dragged me like five feet to where I could stand. Annika asked if I needed to sit down but really I just needed to stand there and breathe. I was devastated. My breath sounded like a death rattle. My lungs were, I don’t know how to describe it. They felt like they were made of wood. It felt like an asthma attack. Was I having an asthma attack? I just couldn’t breathe. The coaches asked if I had an inhaler or I’d taken my medication. I haven’t actually HAD asthma in probably ten years so I don’t have an inhaler, no.
We got out of the water and out of our wetsuits and changed into running gear. That’s when I heard we were running 4-6 miles. I was like, oh BOY. Most of our post-bike or post-swim runs have been really short, like 20 minutes or 2 miles. This was a definite change.
We headed up to the trail for the run. Coach Joan told us it “wasn’t flat.” Um, true story. I decided I would do a 5/1 run/walk ratio. It was going okay at first. My feet were pretty achey but I know from experience that that goes away after the first mile or so; I was just going to have to run through it. I knew that I had about 3-4 people behind me and something about that made me feel like I had some company at my pace. The deal was we were supposed to run to the 2 mile marker, run back, then run to the 1 mile marker and back for a total of 6.
There was a killer hill in there right before the 2 mile mark that I just had to trudge up. Again I was feeling that panting feeling, like I couldn’t catch my breath. I didn’t like that very much. But I got to the 2 mile turnaround and realized the people behind me weren’t there anymore. They must have turned around earlier so that meant I was truly the last one out there. Coach Mark showed up to see if I was still alive (ha!) and jogged around with me a little bit. He nudged me up a couple of hills. Then my breathing started acting up again. I wanted to cry. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get my lungs to fully open up. I kept wanting him to go ahead of me and leave me in my misery so I could walk and cry.
Finally at the one mile marker he seemed satisfied I could make my way back so he took off. That’s when I pretty much hit my psychological wall. I was walking. I was walking really slow and the most incredible onslaught of thoughts just ran through my head. I knew there was no way I was going to go back out for the 6 miles. Four was going to have to be it. I thought about the swim and how terrifying and upsetting it had been. I thought about the really sucky bike ride I’d had on Friday and how I still couldn’t manage to deal with this little bridge on the trail near my house, and how I almost fell down twice. Almost.
By the time I made it back to the rest of the group, I was emotionally wrung out. It was HOT and I went over to sit under a tree a little ways away. I sat on a curb and cried for about twenty minutes. I knew that if anybody came and talked to me I was going to get truly hysterical so I kept my distance. Then I went and got my car. I have never felt so discouraged. I really felt like it was over.
Lily was a total rockstar yesterday. She did two entire loops around the buoy (1/2 mile!) and the whole 6 miles. I am so proud of her. We talked on the way home and she was her wonderful supportive self.
I’m not ready to give up. I’m going to give it another go, hopefully soon. But man, that was scary. I have to have some success and soon or else this little dream of mine is going to deflate fast. My friend Mary challenged me to a pretty daunting bike ride this afternoon but I know that’s not in the cards. I need to feel some success, some ease, some sense of possibility.
September 18, 2011 at 2:47 pm
oh my sweet, sweet Susan…
you have had many, MANY successes in this journey…
September 18, 2011 at 9:05 pm
I second Kris’s wise wise and true true statement!
September 18, 2011 at 9:06 pm
I second Kris’s wise wise and true true statement! And to add: I want to say that most people FREAK out in their first open water swim. Don’t beat yourself up over this.
September 18, 2011 at 3:00 pm
* Before you start to read this response I want you to do go and do something for me: I want you to go to the mirror and say out loud “Doing an Olympic triathlon is scary. Very few people in their lifetime will attempt to do what I’m about to do. What I experienced in my open water swim is normal…”
* Now I need you to believe that what you experienced in your open water swim is normal. The first time I got in the water I panicked. As soon as I got in all I could think about was getting out and calling it quits. It was cold, I didn’t have a wet suit to wear and everyone else around me looked like this was going to be a walk in the park for them. The only comfort I could find was that there were enough people around me that if I did indeed feel like I couldn’t keep swimming they would help me find my way back to the beach.
* Take the experience and learn from it. This is not how it’s going to be on race day. Trust me. We spend hours upon hours thinking there is no way we’re going to finish this and if it was that bad today how can it not be that bad on the day of the event. You got out there and you felt yourself panic. Do not be defeated. You talked your way through it and kept trying. Give yourself credit. Is this your first open water swim? Did you have any previous experience to base it off of? Once you get some knowledge of what it’s like the panic subsides and you get out there and do what you were meant to do!
* Remember you have plenty of time before the event. Putting it all together is the hard part. That’s what the training is for. Some days the trainings are going to rock your world. You’re going to feel like if they wanted to do the event right then and there you’d get out there and do it like a rockstar. Other days the trainings are going to suck ass and you feel like there’s no way in hell this is going to happen.
* It will happen.
* You will rock it.
* I love you!
September 18, 2011 at 5:33 pm
I’m gonna be honest. This comment made me bawl like a baby. I love you too, Tara. Thank you.
September 18, 2011 at 3:19 pm
Ay, Susan. I’m routing for a successful, uplifting day for you today!
September 18, 2011 at 5:33 pm
Thanks so much! I’m feeling hopeful.
September 18, 2011 at 5:02 pm
I panicked during my one & only open water swim DURING my 1st (& only so far) sprint triathlon. I am a very new swimmer & had no idea it was so different than a pool. The water def beat me that day. (I did finish the tri, but I was the very last person out of the water, which is seriously defeating).
Don’t give up! That’s awesome that you are getting OWS practices in!
September 18, 2011 at 5:32 pm
Thanks Beki. Seriously, I wouldn’t mind being the last one out if I do it on my own steam and actually finish the damn thing. What I DON’T want is to freak out and be pulled in by kayak.
September 18, 2011 at 5:22 pm
You’ve done so well on so many days. Don’t forget that. Let yourself have a bad day. You are my idol these days. I’m only running and walking – 4-7 miles a day – and I often think of your messages in your blog as an example of what I could do one day.
You are great!
September 18, 2011 at 5:32 pm
CHC- Don’t say “only.” That is AWESOME! You are great, too.
September 18, 2011 at 6:32 pm
Totally normal. I lived in lakes and oceans over the summer as a kid. I figured it would be no big thing, and waited until less than TWO weeks before my first tri, but my first OWS I felt the shortness of breath too (and I’ve NEVER had asthma) and my heart was racing. I was swimming in a cold cold spring, no wetsuit, by myself (that is, no one I knew with me, the reason I picked it was it was a popular closed off section with lifeguards) and as soon as I started, it was hard to draw breath. I just made myself continue that day until I could breathe normally. It took me over an hour to feel confident. I went back the next week and was a little less freaked out and did another hour. Both times, I was EXHAUSTED after because of the nerves.
Good on ya for getting your freakouts dealt with early. Honestly, I never feel 100% at ease in open water, but at a race, I know there are PLENTY of people to help me out if something happens. You’ll work through it, just keep going. Scary things are only scary until you practice them enough for them to be routine.
September 19, 2011 at 12:04 pm
You are a rock star! I believe you will push through this and live your dream. You are inspiring in so many ways. Thank you for sharing your journey with such honesty.
September 23, 2011 at 6:11 pm
Another fantastic recap of your training. Thanks for sharing.