The goal this past weekend was to do my first legitimate Sprint Triathlon in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin. We drove up on Saturday to participate in an open water swim session so that I could practice the day before the race. The weather was hot as heck and the water was 79 degrees. Too hot for wetsuit legal conditions.
So the gal conducting the pre-swim clinic encouraged us all to do the swim sans wetsuit. But the murmurings from within the bunch, most of whom were there for the same reason, to gain confidence in the water, were not enthusiastic about giving up the wetsuit.
“You should not use your wetsuit as a flotation device,” the clinic instructor warned us. And one could hear the air going out of lungs throughout the group.
Becoming a swimmer
This was a key moment for me and probably the rest of the bunch too. Becoming a swimmer and learning to relax in open water swimming is a rite of passage for all triathletes. We all tend to start in a 25-meter pool, doing laps. Then comes an outdoor pool and maybe a bigger outdoor pool without lane ropes and buoys. Then comes a regular old lake and possibly a bigger lake.
In our area, the transition in types of water ultimately leads to Lake Michigan. I’ve watched enough triathlons and realize that the lake can throw a lot of interesting conditions at you. There is always water temp to consider, which in Lake Michigan in summer can still hover in the low 60s through June and July. Then there’s wind and chop, which can mess with your breathing options. There are also swells and actual waves, which can mess you up.
Two years ago my girlfriend Sue came home from an event called Big Shoulders that scared the bejeezus out of every participant. Lake Michigan was pissed off or something, and the waves and swirling backwash from the concrete shore made swimming in open water a nightmare.
So I know to respect the water. But there’s a fine line between respect and fear. Respect is good. Fear is not.
The previous weekend in Cleveland I’d gotten a chance to swim into the open water of Lake Erie at Lorain, Ohio. The chop coming in from the lake through the inlet was mild. Yet the experience of swimming back and forth between the buoys 200 meters apart was a really good intro to this summer’s open water swimming.
But it still did not involve my swimming 750 meters continuously. That was the goal of the Sprint Triathlon in Pleasant Prairie. To be honest, I vacillated between the duathlon and Sprint Triathlon this weekend. I was not actually scared, just respectful that I’d not really done enough swimming to be totally confident.
Within ten strokes in the water however, my confidence surged. It felt good to swim. Yes indeed. It did. I wasn’t getting left in the wakes of the other swimmers either. So I swam along with an occasional sight check to make sure of my direction. The giant smokestack for the power plant along Lake Michigan was a good reference point as well, because the lake at Pleasant Prairie is some sort of cooling pond for the facility.
Laughing at fear
At the first buoy, I felt like laughing out loud. This open water swimming was fun. Seriously, I was actually having fun. This was an unexpected emotion. I liked open water swimming better than the pool. I didn’t have to stop, for one thing. And yes, the wetsuit helped that area of confidence.
Understand that open water swimming is a bit of a cathartic experience for me. My life over the last 10-15 years has had a lot of changes in it. I lost my mother to cancer in 2005, my wife to cancer in 2013 and my father to natural causes this past October. Through all that, I’ve been the primary caregiver to all of them in some way. There have been many times when I’ve felt like I was doing nothing more than treading water. Trying to stay afloat in the emotional depths of circumstance. From the depths of caregiving and anxieties to the shallows of financial challenges, it took willpower and some frantic swimming to get through it all.
Waves of grief and love
I’ve tried to be a good parent to my grown children in the wake of my wife’s passing. Both of them have faced emotional challenges. Losing your mother is such a singular event, yet it has manifold effects. Waves of grief can come from many directions. Past. Present. Future. The open water of the big world cares not what you’re going through.
When I began a relationship with the woman to whom I’m now engaged after three years of dating, there was some confusion in our family over my needs or intentions. Yet through conversation and time we have all come to understand ourselves and our family in new ways. My son and daughter are amazingly sensitive, intelligent people. Perhaps I hurt them in some ways through all this transition. I’ve tried not to do that. I’ve asked their forgiveness if I have.
It remains. We’ve all been in open water, you might say. Siting our way through life’s events. What we have discovered is that the love within our family runs incredibly deep.
To this point, I will say that my fiance Sue is an incredible person. It can be a delicate operation being in a relationship with a man that has lost his wife to cancer. But we talk openly as possible about our feelings, and our respective families. She’s had to navigate the ripple effects of her divorce as well. We support each other like coaches do, you might say. Only coaches who love each other.
And while she’s an actual swim coach, and soon to be a certified triathlon coach, I have gotten coaching in other places when it has come to swimming. She’s good with that because she also gets coaching in running and riding and triathlon from Joe LoPresto at Experience Triathlon. So you see, we all resource and find our way from buoy to buoy in life. What I do ask from her when it comes to swimming is perspective on my technique and progress…how to do workouts and how to incorporate them in my own meager swim routine.
Travels and trials
Sue and I have done many training trips together and races too. She knew that it would be good for me to get into the water the day before the race in Pleasant Prairie. She didn’t make a big deal out of it but served as a guide just the same.
Last year during my first attempt at a Sprint Tri in Naperville, the water was too warm for wetsuit legal swimming. She’s purchased me the sleeveless wetsuit for my birthday last July, so I’d practiced in it. But knowing the day was not wetsuit legal, she sat by the shore and watched me sweat in my increasingly hot wetsuit while trying to make a decision whether to wear it anyway and give up a chance at an age group spot.
I watched wave after wave of swimmers embarking on the 400-meter swim in Centennial pool. None of them looked any better at it than me. So I walked over to Sue, peeled off the wetsuit and said, “I can do this.”
She said, “I know you can.” And I love her for that.
Since then I’ve not gotten much (any) additional experience in a bigger lake. So Saturday was the day. I came out of the water beaming and happy. The backs of my arms hurt and were cramping a bit, but I was really happy and proud about my effort. I gave her a big, wet hug and said thanks for encouraging me to do all this. Together we’ve both been open water swimming these past few years. She’s been guiding her kids through late teen and early 20s challenges and I try to be there for all of them too.
But what should happen the next morning? Thunderstorms came roaring through the area and the swim portions of the triathlons were canceled. The entire event turned into a duathlon. To Sue’s credit, she rocked her running segments, both the 2.3 intro section replacing the swim and the 6.2 closing run as well. Plus she kicked ass on the bike. She was 8th in her age group and in the top quarter of all International distance finishers. Nice job honey! In the Sprint I was 2nd in my age group and 21st overall.
But I was disappointed not to get my first full Sprint Tri under my belt this past weekend. Coming up there’s another opportunity in Lake Zurich. Then I might do the Olympic distance as well. That’s my plan for the summer.
At some point, you simply learn to love the feel of the water around you as you move along. The depths are not the concern any longer. Your simple goals are keeping your ass up at surface level while making sure you keep your arms moving at the right angle. And rotate like a smart little fish. And breathe. And exhale. And you swim. Because you can. And you must. And you always will.
TRAIN HARD. COMPETE WELL. LOVE LIFE.