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.
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.
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.
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.
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.