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Pre-Race Jitters: The Swim

July 8, 2012

After months of races being far away, abstract things, my first triathlon of the season is suddenly crashing down upon me. The Racine Half Ironman, July 15. Just a week away. 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, and 13.1 mile run. I’m treating it as a training race. I’ll go all out on race-day, but I’m not planning to fully taper leading into the race, so my body will not be fully rested. This should be a good course for a first race. The water in Lake Michigan can be unpredictable, but at least is guaranteed cold enough to be wetsuit legal. The bike and run are on fairly flat courses. But right now it looks like it could be 90 degrees on race day, so it will be a hot run.

My biggest fear all season has been the swim. As I blogged previously, when I started in January, I had to catch my breath after every 25 yard length of the pool. And I heard from several people that if I really wanted to improve my swim speed and endurance, I should be in the pool at least an hour a day for 4 days a week. But I was in the pool 2-3 times on a good week, only once on some weeks. I did some long slow swims for distance, but like all of my training, most of my swim training was intervals.

I knew workouts like 6 x 100 yards might work well for improving speed for a proficient swimmer. But were they really what I needed to be doing, as someone who was just learning basic technique? I trusted my coach and stuck with it. I added in extra long swims where I could, but I continued to focus on the intervals she gave us in our training plan. But I realized the intervals were really helping. I had to focus on my breathing efficiency to get through 100 yard sprints in a way I might not have to focus to get through 500 yards easy.

The biggest hurdle to my swim training came when I was traveling last month to California and Hawaii. I think I managed to swim two or three times during the whole four week trip (and in pools that were way too warm and crowded, far less than optimal conditions). The hotels in Hawaii had great pools for lounging, but not for swimming. And I wasn’t ready for open water in the Pacific ocean!

When I got back from my trip, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got back in the pool. But maybe the time away was good. I was suddenly a lot more comfortable swimming distance non-stop in the pool. Before the trip, the longest I had swam non-stop was 200 yards in the pool. In the days after I got back, I pushed that to 250 yards, then 500 yards, then 1000 yards with only two 15 second stops. I think the real key was my first time back in the pool I focused on just going slow and relaxing, getting used to the water again. And by doing that I lengthened my stroke and made everything a bit more streamlined. Which translated into more consistency.

Then the next step. Into Lake Michigan. Open Water Swimming. I’ve now been in the lake three times, and those swims have been a huge reassurance that I can do this. I was able to get into a slow but consistent breathing rhythm. My friend Paul said I looked like I had decent streamline form. My legs were not exhausted after the swim, so I was doing okay minimizing my kick. My first time out, in very calm water, I finished a mile in 53 minutes. My second time out, in rougher water with a bit of chop and current, I finished a mile in 45 minutes. Partially I was doing better sighting the second time out, so I didn’t drift as far off course, but I also was doing better with a consistent breathing rhythm. That pace will put me in the slowest 1/3rd of the swimmers, but critically it will put me comfortably finishing both the half and full ironman swims within the time limits! I’m not swimming for time, I’m swimming to get on to the next leg of the race.

Today’s swim was another story. The plan was another mile. A final long practice before my race. I was on my bike just before 7 AM, headed down to the beach to swim before it got too busy. I almost turned around when I first got to the beach, a couple miles north of where I would be swimming. There were waves a couple feet high, strong winds, heavy chop in the water. Extremely rough swimming conditions. But I forced myself on. Maybe it will be better at the stretch where I’m swimming I told myself. It was a little better, but not much. I saw 3 or 4 people already out swimming, and a half dozen more in varying stages of getting ready to get in the water. A lot lower turnout than most weekends, but still, some people were also going to be swimming. I took a deep breath, locked up my bike, and got ready to swim. As I was pulling on my wetsuit, I chatted with a guy who just finished his swim. He said he cut his distance in half this morning. He was getting dizzy from being thrown around in the water. He said it was rough swimming, but possible to swim. I told myself that at least for most of the 1/2 mile stretch I swim, the water is only 3-5 feet deep and I can easily stand up.

I decided I wasn’t going to worry about how far I swam. I just was going to get in a bit of practice. If nothing else, it was good mental practice and good open water practice. I don’t expect conditions anywhere near that for my races, but Racine is in Lake Michigan, so you never know. If that was race day, I’d be swimming. Sometimes I got my sighting and breathing in rhythm with the waves, lifting my head from the water as I was at the top of a wave. It wasn’t too bad when I did that. Other times I was off and lifted my head into an oncoming wave. I first swam about 100 yards, then saw a couple other guys turn around, and turned around myself. But then after I swam half way back to shore, I turned myself back around. I was here to swim. It was a slow swim. I probably stopped and stood up every 50-100 yards to look around. Sighting was a huge challenge and I didn’t want to swim into someone else! By the time I got to the 1/4 mile marker, I was feeling slightly dizzy myself. I cut my workout there and headed back to the beach.

Despite really rough conditions, I swam just over half a mile in 36 minutes this morning. Not too bad. I struggled, I drank a lot of lake water, but I was able to breathe, I was able to sight, I was able to make forward progress. And if I could swim in this, I know I can handle race conditions. Especially in the calm water of Tempe Town Lake!! I’ll admit, I’m still really nervous about the swim in the race. But I know I can do it. And Racine is a one-way swim, headed south, so with me breathing on my right I’ll always be looking at shore. That will make my sighting easier. The one thing I still have to decide is whether I’m going to try to bring a gu with me during the swim in the race this coming weekend. I put one in my wetsuit sleeve during my swim this morning, and consumed it while standing up near the 1/4 mile marker before heading back to the beach. In calmer water, I might be able to consume it while floating on my back. Even for a slow swimmer like me, the swim is over fast enough in the half Ironman that I don’t really need nutrition during the swim. Even the full Ironman I can probably finish the swim without nutrition. But I know my full Ironman swim will be long enough that I might want the gu if I think I can pull it off — more so that I have energy for the later portions of the race. And if I’m going to try it in the full Ironman, it might make sense to practice it in a half IM race beforehand.

133 days to Ironman Arizona!

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