Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Episode one: In which I nearly drown

The swim is the part of triathlon that always seems to freak people out. Those people are on to something, the swim is horrible. You are encased in a wetsuit that when you are starting out feels like a coffin but then after a few races, starts to feel like your savior. People are peeing in the water all around you in an attempt to warm up their bodies. When the horn goes you know you are going to get jostled, maybe kicked, you will be groped. It’s really a very stupid idea.

I’ve never seen an Ironman swim live; I’ve just been in one. I know that it’s a fantastic scene as the water itself seems to take on a life of its own as it moves forward. I would love to have seen the Arizona start from the bridge above the lake but I have to say it was pretty cool down on the water too.

To get to the swim start all 2500 competitors had to first be channeled through the swim start entrance and then mass on the sidewalk that runs along the lake. Gradually everyone gets pushed to the water’s edge were we were all admonished to not hesitate and just get in. Alex and I hadn’t participated in either of the swims that were held as we thought that would actually give us concrete proof of how cold the water was and therefore leave us with something to really worry about.

In a word – cold, too cold for 4000 metres.

The swim start was about 200 metres away and I flipped onto my back to do the backstroke to the start. My plan was to start in the centre towards the back and I thought that that I could hover by one of the bridge piers to wait out the 15 minutes or so until it all began. I was feeling great. My mind had been so calm the past couple days and I was pretty sure that the day was going to be everything I had wanted it to be. First Ironman, what did I know.

I ended up hanging off a kayak with a few others talking to one of the lifeguards as we waited. The atmosphere was so positive, so festive, I’ll admit, I teared up in my goggles. The choice of ACDC’s “For those about to rock, we salute you” blaring out of the sound system struck me as perfect. The American national anthem started and I was surprised that everyone around didn’t start singing it. Americans are so gloriously patriotic I was certain this would be a big moment for them. I know that if I ever do Ironman Canada I will be sobbing through the anthem. As it was I was pretty choked up for someone else’s. Then, for the last part suddenly everyone around me started singing and the energy surged, the horn/cannon/gong, something went and we were off.

I started out doing back stroke cursing the cold water, singing 99 bottles of beer. The plan was to get through all 99 bottles and then alternate backstroke with crawl every 10 bottles. That was the first plan that crashed and burned in the reality of Ironman. I could not keep my head in the water, it was just too cold. Backstroke also gave me a wonderful view of the race. The race site is directly under the flight path of the airport and a plane went over every minute or so. There was a helicopter hovering, I could easily turn my head and see all the spectators on the sidewalk around the lake. A group walked as we swam, keeping pace, holding signs. It was incredible. The plan to freestyle went out the window.

I sighted off the bridge and buoys behind me pausing occasionally to stare into the rising sun trying to get sight of the red, turnaround buoy. In driving beside the lake the buoy appeared to be just past the second bridge. From water’s level, NOT SO MUCH. I was starting to get rather angry at the buoy – my love for the colour red was waning, I started to worry about finishing the race. My emotions kept flipping from absolute desperation to unbelievable joy. Generally the odd number bottles of beer were happy, even bottles mocked my efforts. 20 bottles of beer, oh my god, what was I thinking I can’t do this, 19 bottles of beer and I was finishing in 15 hours easily. It was that fast. I’m pretty sure that people have been committed to mental health facilities with more stable emotions than I was experiencing during that swim.

The great part about my number three rule for the day (don’t stop), is that eventually you get there. The red buoy appeared I turned directly left, swam to the next red buoy, turned left again back to the bridge where it all started.

That was my 2000 metres, the longest open water swim I had yet done. My body was great for 2000, the next half started to become a struggle.

Did I mention that it was cold? My feet were numb, odd number bottles weren’t giving me any love and I stopped several times to find shoreline landmarks to concentrate on. Swim to that set of stairs into the lake, good, now to the light pole, guy in blue volunteer shirt, next guy and so on. I started to feel the water slip over my head (remember I’m on my back), took in some too many times, spoke to a few kayak lifeguards as I got my bearings and just kept swimming.

I started to understand how people drowned. It did cross my mind a few times for the first time ever. My panic attacks in the past never actually focused on anything that concrete – it was always just an overwhelming need to get out of the wetsuit, out of the water, out of the race. This was a very rationale, intellectual mental journey. The cold was sapping my strength and it became difficult to keep my mouth and nose up out of the water. I was very close to kayaks the whole time and I don’t think anyone has drowned at an Ironman without a heart attack preceding it but, wow, that was a dark place to go.

Happily, just keeping swimming got me back to the start, back to the future, back to the rest of the race.

I expected some disorientation when I came out of the water, I had swum the race distance a couple times already in a pool and it does take a moment to get your land legs back. That, however, was in a warmer pool with a much shorter duration of swim. I was dizzy, to volunteers took me by the arms and walked me to two more young women who peeled my wetsuit off. Another volunteer walked me over to my ride bag pickup and I managed to grab my bag and head inside to Gwen, dresser extraordinaire. Gwen had my socks rolled down for me, my arm warmers also preprepared, shorts out, jersey ready, sunglasses in helmet and I still couldn’t have told you my name. I don’t know how I put it all one but I did and ran off to find Doris Day – all pretty and shiny in the Arizona sun.


  1. Wow, you so totally described my Ironman swim! :) I was SO pissed at how far that damn turn buoy was!!!!!! Talk about emotional highs and lows...

  2. It was a pleasure to cheer for you from the safety of my computer, Susan. Way to go to all you Ironmen Women!