Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | July 9, 2010

Back to the Tri-ing Game

Well, I have probably milked the France trip enough, although I still have some stories tucked away, especially the one about the cute young couple who met on the plane on the way home. He was in seat 35B, an American student traveling home to Minneapolis. She was in 35A, a lovely young French lady on her way to visit relatives in Michigan. She spoke some English, while he obviously had never earned more than a “C” in his high school French class. It began with him trying to ask her if she would switch seats with his friend across the aisle. The conversation immediately went nowhere, and they both laughed at their inability to speak the other’s language. Finally, they communicated by drawing pictures and looking up words in her French/English dictionary. (He, in the meantime, happily gave up trying to get her to switch seats; she was far more alluring than his friend across the aisle.) By the end of the flight, their tray tables were littered with scraps of paper decorated with words and drawings, and they both were smitten. It would make an excellent movie script. However, when our flight landed in Chicago, instead of making plans to meet at the top of the Sears [Willis] Tower for a romantic rendez-vous, they simply exchanged Facebook info. Guess that wouldn’t translate very well to the big screen. Love in the age of high-tech doesn’t seem quite as magical.

But I don’t have time to drone on about modern-day transatlantic romance. Now I must turn my thoughts back to triathlon training. On Sunday I am going to be swimming pretty darn close to a mile in open water. Wish me luck. It will be my first Olympic Distance triathlon. Unfortunately I feel more Olympia Dukakis than Olympic Distance. And it is the swim, of course, that is plaguing me.

I have the familiar feeling, the feeling I have had so many times before. It is the feeling I had the night before the S2S relay across Florida, the feeling I had before Chicago Marathon, the feeling I had before Galena Triathlon, the feeling I have before any race that requires I get up at some ridiculously early hour. It is a potent mixture of dread, remorse, and self-doubt, bound together with a little anxiety. One thought keeps going through my head: “Why do I do this to myself?” And that thought is followed quickly by “And I do this for fun? What exactly is fun about this? Why don’t I just go to the movies instead and live vicariously through fictional characters?”

My dread/remorse/anxiety before Galena triathlon was possibly the worst, because it was my first triathlon, and to top it off, the lake temperature for the swim had been hovering below 60 degrees. (For my non-US readers, that translates into “Flipping Freezing for Swimming” on the Celsius scale.) Yes, I had a wetsuit, but a wetsuit only helps so much. It doesn’t eliminate the I-Think-I-Am-Having-A-Heart-Attack feeling when you get in the water. I was afraid the shock, combined with race-day jitters, might actually kill me. Fortunately, my fantastic triathlon coach, Nina, had drilled into me the importance of a pre-race swim.

I have to confess, I almost skipped the pre-race swim. Bad enough I had to get into that water once, she wanted me to do it twice? Was she crazy? But, if there is one thing I am good at, it is following directions. So, I found myself on the morning of the triathlon, off to the side of the start zone, standing on the beach, looking at the water in front of me. I stuck in a toe and thought “Please, someone, shoot me now so I don’t have to get in that water. A non-lethal gunshot, please. I just need an excuse to go to the hospital instead of getting in this lake.”

Off to my right, the race had started, and people in earlier “waves” were running down the beach and into the surf.  None of them appeared to be suffering massive heart failure the moment they hit water, so perhaps it wasn’t that bad. I stuck my toe in again. No way I was getting in that unless absolutely required. But, I heard Nina in my head preaching about how important the pre-race swim was. So, I reluctantly ventured in. As soon as I was in the water, I truly thought I was going to die. Every little molecule of liquid that squeezed in through the zipper, around the neck, or at the wrists of my wetsuit inflicted pain upon my skin. And, as a friend who is an open water swimmer had warned, I could not breathe. The cold compressed me, my throat closed up. I gasped, I sputtered, I gulped in air. I muttered swear words. I wanted to cry. What’s more, when I put my face in the water, I couldn’t see more than an inch in front of my goggles. So not only did I feel like I was suffocating, but visually it was like being buried alive. I had discovered a new form of torture, and I was subjecting myself to it voluntarily.

Not being able to see in the water was very disconcerting. Fortunately, my wonderful swim coach, AJ, had me practice swimming with my eyes closed to prepare for this very situation. So, I took a painful breath, put my head in the water, and went. It sucked. Really, that is the best way to describe it. Actually, throwing an expletive in there would be a better way to describe it, but I try hard to keep this blog family-friendly. So there I was, with freezing cold water worming its way into my wetsuit, unable to breathe, unable to see. Nina wanted me to stay in the water for some ridiculous amount of time, like 10 minutes. I lasted about three and got the heck out of there as fast as I could. As far a torture tactics go, I would argue this combination of freezing/drowning/visually being buried alive is certain to be quite effective.

However, as I made my way over to the start line, I knew that the worst was over. The second time in was bound to be less horrible. I’d already faced the worst of the cold, and now I knew I wouldn’t be able to see or breathe. I knew getting in that water a second time would feel like death, but this time I was mentally prepared for it. When my wave started and I finally began the swim for real, it wasn’t nearly as bad as my first pre-race dunking. Don’t get me wrong; it still sucked. Sucked enormously. It was terrible; it was horrible. The water was murky and freezing. My feet cramped up so badly that I couldn’t kick. And somebody kept moving the buoys so that every time I looked up they were farther and farther away. (OK, maybe I am exaggerating a little bit there. But they certainly weren’t getting any closer.)

Anyway, I know I have already posted some of this in my previous Galena write-up, but my point (and I do have one) is that all the dread and anxiety that I had the night before the triathlon was all COMPLETELY JUSTIFIED. Yes, it turned out fine in the end, and the bike was great and the run was great, and I had a wonderful time overall, but the swim sucked JUST AS MUCH as I thought it would. My negative emotions the night before were all totally warranted. So, here I am, looking at another triathlon on the horizon right in front of me. And guess what? This swim is over twice as long! The likelihood of drowning is increased exponentially.  And now I know that feeling – the dread, remorse, anxiety combo – is completely appropriate.  It is, in fact, a biological self-preservation warning system. It is my brain’s way of telling me to abandon ship. And yet I still have not learned from my mistakes. Experience would suggest that I skip the triathlon and go see a movie instead. But here I am, packing my tri bag, apparently too stupid to learn from experience.

Unfortunately, I am too stubborn to quit. However, perhaps there is a more elegant solution. A friend of mine recently had to abandon a planned 200k bike ride (for my US readers, that is Ridiculously Long in miles) because he “forgot” his helmet. He claims it was an accidental oversight, but I am not so sure. I think it might have been a stroke of brilliance. In fact, I am thinking of trying that tactic myself. Still, it sounds kind of risky, because what if someone has a spare helmet?  Maybe I will “forget” my bike. Or “forget” my running shoes. Or better yet, “forget” to show up at the start line. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Maybe it is not too late for me to learn from experience after all. I wonder what movies are playing this weekend.


  1. If you forget your bike, helmet, wetsuit or running shoes, I am flying out there personally to bring it to you because you are so not getting out of this race. 🙂

    Sue, you are so ready. You have swam countless pool laps and already spent hours in that crazy cold lake you call a summer home. You have rode many miles on the open road, actually going somewhere, and many more in a gym on a bike that goes absolutely no where. And running…well, not only have you been running, you’ve been getting faster and doing that dreaded thing called speedwork. You KILLED your first triathlon, a longer-than-normal-sprint and hillier-than-it-should-be tri. You’ve even been practicing transitions with your daughter (my new assistant coach), your nutrition, what to wear, where to pee (ok, maybe that last one is for me)…why am I listing on about all the incredible things you have been doing this year? Because I just want you to remember that you are ready and you DESERVE a fantastic race on Sunday. Its another training session, really…just with a lot of new friends you’ve never met before.

    Take it all in, smile, cry, cheer…enjoy. One stroke at a time, one pedal at a time, one step at a time. And I promise you that the finish line will be one of the most incredible places you’ll ever go.

    Without fear, we would never know courage. Without goals, we would never know accomplishment.
    Without dreams, we would never know just how far we can fly.
    On Sunday, turn your fear into courage and you will accomplish your goals by flying farther than you ever dreamed possible.

    I’ll be ringing cowbells for you all morning!

    Oh…and I still think you should spend about 10min in the water as part of that all important pre-race warm-up. 🙂

    • Nina, I wish there was a way I could bottle your enthusiasm and chug it before I step up to the start line! Maybe I could even sell the bottled enthusiasm to other athletes, perhaps calling it Enthusade, and I could make a fortune. Of course, I will need the money for all the triathlon race fees that I will have coming up over the years….

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