Fear the Triathlon Swim
When I was 16 my family went skiing in the Alps. At Mont Blanc in Chamonix we took a gondola over a chasm that must have been over 300 feet below. I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach. I was a little scared, uncomfortable. My mother, on the other hand, was horrified. She was hyperventilating, crying, unable to control her emotions. There really was very little to fear. The situation was very controlled, but those thoughts were the furthest from her mind. Fear had taken over. My brother and I laughed at her and she laughed a little too, then she took a few deep breaths and she was able to convince herself that all would be OK.
A few years ago a friend of mine was participating in local triathlons with his father and brother. He repeatedly asked me to get involved. “You would love them. They’re so much fun. You’d be great at triathlons.” At the time I was just running. I could barely swim and I didn’t own a bike. It all sounded like a lot of fun, but i was horrified of the idea of swimming more than the length of a pool. The thought made me uncomfortable and I’d just block it from my mind. I wasn’t doing a triathlon – not possible. As I neared 40 years old, my body had broken down some. Injuries had taken their toll. Competitive soccer became too risky and I’d lost a couple of steps from my not-so-fleet feet. Running marathons, particularly training, was a brutal endeavor, wearing on my joints; the same ones repeatedly. I needed a new challenge.
Another friend of mine tried to coax me into triathlons 2 years ago, but once again that fear of the water reared it’s ugly head. I attempted to register for the 2009 NYC Tri, but didn’t exactly give it my all. I took my time with the forms and ended up getting shut out. It took another year for me to get motivated, but in 2010 I made sure I got my paperwork in and I was entered in the 2010 NYC Tri. I had no idea how I was going to do it, but I knew I would.
I was confident in my cycling and running, but I knew swimming would be my bugaboo. Now fear is a powerful force, perhaps stronger than any other of our emotions. It makes us do irrational things, things we would never consider otherwise. I had this idea that I was going to just wing it and complete the swim without any training. Instead of facing my fear head-on, I was shying away from it, perhaps hoping it would go away. My brother in-law questioned me on my thinking and suggested that I would regret ruining my entire event if I wasn’t prepared for the swim and he actually had no idea how pitiful my swimming was.
He was right, though, and when I first got in the pool, I could barely do 50 meters. My swimming, and my survival techniques gradually improved in the last 2 months leading up to NYC. I could manage about 1000 meters in the pool with a combination of freestyle, breaststroke, and backstroke. That barely prepared me for the big dance. On July 18, 2010 I got into the Hudson River at 100th Street with about 100 men in my age group and I steadily fell behind the pack. I looked up, completely breathless after 100 meters. I was alone in the river. No swimmers around me, a 25 foot wall to my left, and about a mile of river between me and New Jersey to the right. All of my fears were now my reality. I was frozen in place with no escape. I couldn’t scale the retaining wall, I couldn’t go back – the next pack of swimmers was already descending on me, and I couldn’t see the end of the swim. It could have been 25 miles away. New Jersey might have been closer. I did the only sensible thing – I panicked.
Just like we had laughed at my mother, I laughed at myself. That calmed me a bit and then I took a few deep breaths and talked myself off the ledge. When I looked around again, I realized I was floating down the river without any effort. There was a significant current pulling me downstream. I did a little breaststroke with my head out of the water and struggled like that down to the pier at 80th Street. I never resumed a normal freestyle stroke and never actually got comfortable in the water that day. I did survive, despite having 1 of the slowest times in the field.
I emerged from the Hudson coated in a layer of black silt and completely exhausted. It took me 10 minutes to catch my breath, but I recovered fairly well and performed respectably in the bike and run segments. Overall, I consider my first triathlon a success. I overcame 1 of my biggest fears, I completed 1 of the toughest athletic events my home town has to offer, and I set the stage for my triathlon career. Despite my anxiety, I had a lot of fun that day and I will be back in 2011.