A wide-eyed newbie triathlete in the open water

Tonight’s lake swim was an eye-opener. But first, let me catch you up.

I signed up for an Olympic distance triathlon

I started open-water swimming two weeks ago with wet suit on loan from my triathlon club until the one I ordered arrives.

How I arrived at the decision to start seriously training for an Olympic-distance triathlon stems from a Beginner Tri (pool swim) I did several weeks ago, which was such a great experience I’ve stepped up my training. I am generally humbled and tired these days!

I realized 2 things soon after I committed to the Subaru Victoria Triathlon June 16:

  • I needed to get into the open water – as soon and as often as possible.
  • I needed to do way more brick workouts (a bike ride followed by a run).

I started swimming in open water

Open water swimming is a whole different ball of wax than doing laps in the pool. Yeah sure, being able to swim 2,000 metres in under an hour helps — I would say it’s more like a prerequisite for getting into a wet suit and hitting open water.

Tori trying on her wetsuit at Connie's houseThe first time I took my loaner suit and got into the lake I was ready to swim 750 or 1,000 meters – a short, easy 20-25 minutes in the pool normally. Garth, a fellow Russ Hay’s Saturday rider, TriStars team member and Ironman finisher, graciously offered to accompany me to Thetis Lake on a nice spring Victoria evening. We squiggled ourselves into our neoprene casings (there’s really no other way to describe how to put on a wetsuit) and waded into the water.

Garth said the fact that I grew up as a frequent (if not regular) lake-goer would probably help. I’m not that squeamish about aquatic flora and fauna, and I expect the water to be cooler than a pool (I get too warm in pools actually). My grandparents had a cabin at Cochin when I was a little girl. My parents took us to Lake Deifenbaker a few times, and I went to church camps and guiding camps at various places in Saskatchewan over the years. Once, on a memorable trip to the Okanagan to visit family, I tried waterskiing on the lake.

However – actually swimming for some distance in a lake was something I had never done.

That first swim I couldn’t catch my breath. I was disoriented with no lane markers, the unexpected buoyancy (thank goodness for that, I’ve never bee a floater!), murky water and chilly temperatures.

I would take two or three swim strokes and have to stop, gasping and spitting water. I couldn’t understand why I was so freaked out. We managed to get halfway to “the cliffs” – a couple of hundred metres – before I wanted to come back. Garth patiently offered tips and suggestions, and guided me back to shore. I was frustrated with my lack of performance.

Mostly – I felt so small in all that water. I was literally out of my depth! Thetis isn’t even a very big lake, it’s just a little recreational park with this nice swimming hole where there are no motorboats or jetskis.

Swimming is a little like climbing, but different

It reminded me of my second every multipitch climb on Yamnuska mountain, the one and only time I freaked out and got scared because that big ole mountain didn’t really care that I was clinging to it for warmth it could not provide.

Rock climbing is solving immediate external problems: how do I reach that hold, will my foot slip off this, will I need a bigger nut to hold me if I fall, make sure to tie that knot correctly or you’re dead. It’s easy to put aside your fear and concentrate on the task at hand.

Besides that, with climbing, the views are fantastic. Generally you can see where you are and admire the vistas at every point – and the act of climbing gets you out of your head and focused on the task at hand.

Swimming is different though. The sky above, the unknown depths below, the moving shoreline, the volumes of water that you cannot breathe in, the constant course correction because I seem to veer horribly to the left all the time. With swimming, like running, you’re only inside your head as you take each repetitive stroke (or stride). It’s an entirely different mental ballgame. The problem solving is all internal – reaching deep inside yourself for the will to keep moving, to keep up the rhythm, to relax and breathe easy.

My second open water swim – a breakthrough

A few days later, on a Sunday, Garth and I once again set out for a swim, this time at Shawnigan Lake. We arrived just as a regatta was finishing up (good timing as all the boats were out of the lake by then) and once again squiggled into our suits and waded in.

Once again, same freak-out on my part, compounded by the fact there were motorboats and they seemed to be going right through the buoyed-off area you would think was off-limits to boats.

After a few minutes of flailing around out to the buoys and back, I needed to get to shore, so we came back in. I sat, dejected, on shore and said “Maybe I won’t be ready for an Olympic triathlon in 5 weeks after all.”

“You will be, don’t worry,” said Garth. “Do you want to go get something to eat?”

I looked at the water, the buoys, the weeds, the clouds, the boats. I felt the neoprene around my legs and torso, my goggles in my hands, the cap still on my head. I imagined the excitement at the start of the triathlon – the ordered chaos of the transition area, the music, the announcer saying my name as I crossed the finish line.

“No, I think I want to go in again,” I said.

“Ok, out to that buoy, then across to that one, then back in to shore, no stopping this time,” said Garth. “You ready?”

Something just clicked inside me. Yes, I was ready. I got into the water and started swimming as soon as it was up to my knees. With Garth behind me, I went wide around the first buoy and started out for the second, then picked up speed as soon as I rounded that one. On Garth’s advice, I didn’t stop until my hand touched bottom. I rose out of the water, jumping up and down on shore yelling “I did it! I did it!”

It was only about 500 metres all told that day. A few days later at Thetis we swam to “the cliffs” and back – about 900 – without stopping. I’m getting this, I thought. I got this.

Tonight’s swim – a sober reminder

Then tonight – 1,500 metres at Thetis – a whole bunch of Tristars athletes swimming around the island in the middle, sticking fairly close to the outside shoreline.

Open water swim race at Thetis Lake

Swimming at Thetis (no there weren’t that many of us in the water tonight!)

All was fine at first – the sun hitting the water giving yellow and green stripes underwater. It was beautiful. After “the cliff” I kept going into the channel between the shore and the island – into shadows where suddenly I couldn’t see in the water at all and it got a little colder. I had never been this way before and I was well behind the experienced swimmers out front and several dozen metres ahead of Isabelle and Jay behind me (Jay was also swimming 1,500 outdoors for the first time). I noticed a branch sticking out of the water and stayed right – realizing again I’m always pulling to the left if I’m not extremely careful. I was a bit tired.

I waited for Isabelle (an experienced triathlete) and looked to her for guidance. “You just go around the Island through this ‘channel’ here and then it’s straight back to shore,” she said. “There are lots of weeds and some fish here, and you can’t see bottom. Some people get a little freaked but it doesn’t last long.”

So, I took a few deep breaths and tried to swim easy. It was indeed freaky with the abundance of tall weeds reaching almost up to the surface – my tired brain imagined them reaching for me like in a Harry Potter movie. I just swam right through it though, and left Isabelle and Jay behind as I rounded the island and could see the building that houses the changerooms in the distance. I was almost there.

Stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke. Spot. Oh god am I not any closer? And why do I keep going to the left? Change course. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Spot. Gah! Stay right dammit – and why isn’t that shore getting any closer? Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Spot. Ok, it looks like that building’s getting bigger. Stay right will ya? Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. God I’m getting tired. and hungry. Stroke. Stroke. Spot. SHIT! to the left again! What the hell? Stay right. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Spot. OK I’m definitely getting there. Even a few other swimmers still hanging around waiting for us. But WHY AM I STILL BEARING LEFT? YEESH!

When I finally got to shore, I was too dizzy and nauseous to be triumphant. I couldn’t wait to get my wetsuit off and peeled it away from me while still in the water, rinsed it out, grabbed my stuff and went to the changerooms so I could puke up lake water in private. I didn’t end up puking, so I guzzled fresh water and ate a protein bar while changing into dry clothes. I was too tired to socialize and said goodbye to my team mates as soon as I got changed. On the way home the food started kicking in and I was feeling better.

Now I’m realizing – I have to do that same 1,500 metres (it took me 39 minutes) – then get on a bike and ride 45 kms (2 hours) then run for 10 kms (an hour) to complete my triathlon.

Oh cripes.

I can do this.


Photo by MS Society South Vancouver Island used under CC license. 


3 thoughts on “A wide-eyed newbie triathlete in the open water

  1. Pingback: Six lessons learned from my first open water triathlon | tori klassen

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