Musings two nights before my first triathlon

When I got into the pool for my first swimming lesson nine months ago, I was already thinking of race day. Why bother learning to swim, after all, if it wasn’t going to be to compete in a triathlon? I had no idea.

The coach instructed us to warm up, and then started pulling swimmers aside one by one to film us from both above and below the water swimming one length of the pool. I swam to one wall and touched it. Everyone else was still jetting back and forth. Two of the three people I was sharing a lane with flip-turned off the wall as I clung to it. So I pushed off again and swam back to the first wall. I stood again, looking around, expecting a high five, maybe. The other swimmers kept going, wind-up toys released into the world, jetting back and forth between each end of the pool like they were being pulled by dolphins on speed. I swam back again. 75 meters total. I thought I was going to die. My heart was racing and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My stomach wanted to jump out of my mouth, run through the dripping ceramic locker room, get behind the wheel of my car, and go home.

And I did. Almost. I got out of the pool, walked up to the coach, and told her, “I think I’m in over my head.”

“You mean you can’t stand on the bottom of the pool?” she asked. “It’s too deep.”

I shook my head and tried to breathe without crying. “I can’t keep up. I need an easier class. I’m not in bad shape,” (I was contractually obligated by pride to say this) “but I can’t swim this far.”

Luckily my coach was understanding, encouraging, kind, patient, all of those characteristics that sound so lame in print but mean so much when you’re having a panic attack by the side of a pool while students twice your age are swimming circles around you like indefatigable superheroes that were created for the sole purpose of swimming forever without ever stopping to cling to the wall.

Long story short, she talked me into staying, and the footage she then took of my first flailing, splashing 25 meter approximation of a freestyle will remain hidden somewhere in the stack of DVDs my husband and I keep under the television.

Twice weekly Masters Swim lessons for nine months gave me the feedback and technique I needed to be able to swim more than 75 meters at a time. And it wasn’t long before I was loving my early mornings in the pool. As grown-ups, we don’t all that often get the chance to learn something completely new, but I was such a novice at swimming that almost every class gave me a chance for improvement.

Despite the fact that I was running, kick-boxing, boot-camping, and playing softball, swimming challenged my stamina and my cardiovascular capabilities in a new way. The first time I swam 400 meters without stopping, I wanted to run out of the pool and tell the whole gym about the amazing accomplishment I had just achieved. And when I learned flip-turns for the first time, I came home scraped and bruised from running into the walls and bottom of our shallow pool, and described to my husband, in excruciating detail, how many times I tried, and how many times I failed, and how then I did one almost right. Once I got the mechanics of the turns, the added cardio fatigue of turning and pushing off at the end of every length reminded me anew of how hard those initial lessons were.

And the first time I tried a length of butterfly… Well.

It’s hard to explain why swimming has meant so much to me. It’s all complicated, tied up in weird fears and anxieties that my mind has manufactured after being the victim of a violent crime. Some of the fears that our minds fixate on after traumatic events can be so obvious (i.e., walking alone down a dark alley at night, sure that you’re about to hear the footsteps of a stranger with a weapon behind you) and others don’t seem to make any sense at all (in my case, being terrified that the smoke alarm will go off while I’m cooking because… I have no idea, being well aware that I could just turn it off, but fear knows no logic). Swimming, and specifically not being able to breathe while swimming, was a specific fear that my mind had latched onto, and learning how to do it has been incredibly difficult, but also a lot of fun.

And now the ostensible reason I wanted to learn is almost here. On Sunday, I’m going to do my best to swim, bike, and run the shortest possible distance one can while still calling the event a triathlon, and I’m nervous and excited, and cautiously optimistic that I’m going to do a great job (something else I’m pretty sure we’re never supposed to say aloud, but hey, let’s keep bucking convention here).

The questions I ask myself:

  • Am I allowed to call it a “tri” if I haven’t actually completed one yet? Or is that only for the in-crowd, the cool kids?
  • On the helpful list of “Common Rule Violations,” I’m told that my helmet “must be approved by CPS commission.” Uh… I bought it within the last year or two at a real bike store, so I’m good, yeah?
  • Why am I convinced I won’t remember to put my shoes on?
  • I should be there how early?
  • Is there any way to wash Body Glide off?
  • What if it turns out my tri suit is see-through when it gets wet?
  • To that end, I probably should have practiced swimming with the tri suit on more, right?
  • Is everyone going to laugh at me because my bike was built in 1995 for a 13 year old?
  • Puking… an option?
  • How much of a problem is the fact that I’m allergic to lakes going to be?
  • Can I bring my cat?
  • I’ve been thinking, and this is just a thought, that my feet might still be slightly damp when I put them in my socks. That’s not really a question, but… gross.

Most of those questions are jokes, but I’m not going to say which ones. That may or may not be because I can’t quite remember.

So there you have it. Tired, carbo-loaded ramblings two nights before the event I’ve been thinking about for way longer than I’ve needed to.

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