[086] Open water

Swim: 1,200 m/81,800 m

Bike: 11.5/586.9 miles

Run: 3.9/172 miles

One of the most dire warnings you hear from triathletes is the panic that strikes the first time you experience an open-water swim. Maybe I got my panic out of the way in the pool swim of my first triathlon a few weeks ago, but my first experience with open water was nothing less than exhilarating.

We spent the past weekend at my in-laws’ house on the river, and my plan had been to do some swimming in the shallower areas close to shore. I just wanted to get a feel for swimming in a completely new environment, and I wasn’t planning on a complete workout or even swimming for more than a couple minutes consecutively. I fully expected to be overcome with terror and spend a few minutes flailing about before dragging myself ashore and swearing off open-water swimming for the rest of my life.

In my first session, on Saturday, the waters were calm but very murky. I walked out into the shallow water, looked around for a few minutes, and then bent forward and just started swimming. It was as easy as that. There was no panic, but kind of a relief that it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. I picked out a dock piling a couple hundred yards away and swam to it, and then to another piling a few hundred yards away from that. I was so pleased with the results that I decided to wrap things up for the day, quitting while I was ahead.

The red line is the general path I followed across the creek, from south to north.

On Sunday afternoon I was back in the river, excited to get out again and maybe try to push a little farther. My in-laws live on the mouth of a creek that feeds into the Rappahannock River. Now, where I’m from, a creek is something you can jump across, but when you’re living on the Chesapeake Bay the waters are on such a scale that the word “creek” can denote a body of water – like this one – that’s a half-mile across.

Somehow I came up with the notion that I would attempt to swim across the creek, with my wife piloting a rowboat nearby to bail me out if things went south. The waters were rougher on Sunday, with swells of a foot or more (which doesn’t sound like much until you’re treading water in it). I set off from the south shore and quickly found myself getting fatigued. Fighting the waves and the current is something you just can’t prepare for in a pool. At one point I called out to my wife to ask how far I’d come, thinking I was maybe a third of the way. She responded with a discouraging look and her supposition that I had covered perhaps a quarter of the distance. This was going to be a long swim.

Looking back to where I started.

I stopped a few strokes later to figure out my path and realized I could no longer touch the bottom. Suddenly this was a very real situation. There was no wall, nothing to stand on, and what’s that nibbling my leg? Looking back, I believe that it was this moment that made me serious. I briefly thought about turning back to the safety of the shallows. After all, I’m a pretty new swimmer – what business do I have trying to cross a river? I questioned my ability to complete the task.

But I resumed swimming and focused on long, even strokes and measured breathing. I remembered my experience from my first race, where I lost control of my stroke and my rhythm, and made a conscious effort to avoid those mistakes. I made myself relax and suddenly I started covering some distance. My wife even noticed from the boat, telling me later that I looked strong and started to move faster after my initial hesitation.

As the swim progressed I also got better at finding my direction. It can be very disorienting to swim in such murky waters – I would focus on a point on the distant shore, swim several strokes, and then realize I had somehow turned perpendicular to my target. But I got a bit of a rhythm and was able to sight a little better as I became more relaxed with my stroke.

I finally found my groove about a third of the way in.

The middle distance passed relatively quickly. My mind kind of shut down and I was just reacting physically to the water. Stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe. My eyes were open but I wasn’t really seeing anything. The water was so brown that I couldn’t even see my hands as they passed below my body. I think I preferred the cloudy, impenetrable waters because I was less likely to think about the scale of my position – the depth of the water below or my distance from any solid object. My whole world was just me and the two feet of space in my field of vision. I didn’t think about the passing boats or seagulls or creatures from the deep – it was just forward motion and the feeling of my body rising with the swells, punctuated by the jarring splash and bright light every few seconds as I rotated to breathe.

Eventually the forms on the far shore became clearer and I could make out my destination. And, suddenly, my foot hit firm sediment. I stood in water up to my waist, filled with pride and relief to have made it across. I dropped into the water to swim through the shallows as far as I could before popping up and running – triathlon style – onto the sandy beach.

I couldn't stop smiling after I reached the far side, where I met my wife in the rowboat for the ride back.

In the scale of things, the distance of this swim wasn’t huge (I rode back across the river on the rowboat). A half-mile is about a third of one of my usual workouts in the pool. But here there was no rest – it was a constant fight against the waves and the current, trying to find my way in a foreign environment. It reminded me of a trail run – a common activity removed from the controlled atmosphere of a workout and thrust into nature. It was an adrenaline-filled adventure that left me with more of a sense of accomplishment than just about any other workout I’ve done. It makes me feel as if my months of swim training – which failed me as I panicked during my first race – have been validated by use in the real world, to accomplish a measurable goal.

Time will tell if panic rears its head again when I’m thrust into open waters during an actual race, but for now I feel pretty confident about my progress.

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2 Responses to [086] Open water

  1. David H. says:

    Great job Jeremy. I hope this swim is one you’ll always look back on and remember.

  2. Perfect way to test out your confidence in the open water. It’s really hard compared to the pool! I think that’s a good place to keep practicing as long as your bring your wife to keep an eye out for you.

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