I’m in deep

by julie on November 18, 2011

Confession: I’ve always been scared of deep water.

When I began training for my first triathlon, I’d swim in the lane that was four feet deep the entire way across. I avoided looking at the curve and slope of the pool bottom. At first I swam only breaststroke while I built up my endurance, so that I could pop my head out of the water frequently. Then I began alternating lengths of breaststroke and lengths of freestyle. By race day, I was swimming freestyle exclusively.

The following summer, I did my first open water triathlon. I never swam in open water as a kid (and by never, I mean NEVER). Only once before in my life had I submerged my head in a body of water that wasn’t a pool, and it was most definitely not on purpose, and it frightened me enough that I made sure it didn’t happen again.

I practiced swimming once in open water before race day. We took the kids to the Aurora reservoir and I sat on the beach nursing a hangover. “You’d better get in there,” Kyle told me. “You don’t want to freak out during the race.”

So I did. And I hated it. I couldn’t swim more than three strokes without popping my head up to see where I was. I swam gingerly, almost a doggy paddle, for fear that I’d put my hand out and grab a fish or some sort of lake detritus. The water was the same yellowish green murk that I remembered from accidentally going under that one time as a kid.

But come race day I was glad I’d swum in open water at least once before. When I got into the Boulder reservoir and began warming up, it wasn’t nearly so terrifying to put my head down and swim. But yes, I was still scared. I reached that first buoy fully aware that I couldn’t touch bottom and that my choices were swim or climb aboard a kayak.

I chose to swim, then and in every subsequent race. Sometimes it takes half the course before I fall into a rhythm of stroking, breathing, and sighting buoys, but I have never panicked.

This week’s Washington Post article about triathlon deaths points to panic attacks in the water as a primary cause, though drowning is the official conclusion. The same fears that plagued me (and still do, to some extent) reach a level of intensity in other triathletes that they don’t choose to swim, nor climb aboard a kayak.

I certainly don’t presume to know how their deaths might have been prevented, but for myself, I plan to do much more open water swimming practice this summer. My most persistent fear — submerging my head — is also a huge impediment to my speed. It’s basic physics: Lowering your head raises your feet and keeps your body horizontal, reducing the surface area of your body and corresponding drag as you move through the water. I need to overcome that fear if I want to get faster and conserve energy for the bike and run events.

Still at $450, but I’ve got nearly nine months to go.

Week of 11/6: Swam 2000 meters, biked 19 miles, ran 13.6 miles

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