Another memory of water: that time I did a triathlon. Not an Ironman, but the Olympic distance — .93 mile swim, 24.8 mile bike, 6.2 run. This took place in Chicago in late August. Such a great event on (and in) the shores Lake Michigan. And typing out all those distances for the swim, bike, and run reminded me how manageable it all was — Nothing like the Ironman, which is a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and a full marathon at the end.
The Olympic distance triathlons are quite popular, and I think they’d be even more popular if it wasn’t for the swim. That’s the part of the race that most people don’t like — not because they can’t swim, but because they aren’t comfortable swimming that long distance in open water.
I learned how to swim at an early age, and grew up doing summer swim team at the local public pool. Swim team means practice, and practice means laps. Lots and lots of laps. In those leaner, longer summer days of my youth, dare I say I could swim for hours on end and feel just fine. Mostly, even with goggles on, it would be my eyes that would give out on me — red and itchy from the chlorine.
So a mile-long swim in Lake Michigan — no problem whatsoever. It was the bike ride that weighed most heavily on me. I’ve just never taken to long-distance bike riding like I have to running and swimming. And I’m not good with bike mechanics either, and always worry that I’ll have some issue that renders the bike unrideable. I stressed about a flat tire derailing my triathlon experience.
In the end, the bike ride went fine — no flat tires, the legs held up, all good. And with regard to the run — no issues at all — a smooth dash to the finish line. I don’t really remember that much about either the bike or the run, just that it was cool to be riding a bike on a tollway usually packed with speeding cars. It’s the swim that left me stone cold and out of breath — literally and figuratively.
The first hand-to-head moment happened before I even got in the water. As I made my way to the staging area early the morning of the race, it was impossible to miss that everyone was wearing a wetsuit. What. The. Fuck. Wetsuits? In August? In Chicago? This did not compute. I did not have a wetsuit — just a speedo. Well, it was unseasonably cold, and so that meant the waters of Lake Michigan were bitter cold.
There’s a great picture of me with all the dudes in my stage — I’m the only one without a wetsuit. I wish I could say it made me look like a badass. Nope. Just a dupe who got the memo but didn’t bother to read it who was going to be very, very cold for his mile-long swim.
But what really threw me was the beginning of the race. It’s all very organized and clear — you start-off in groups, around 50 people per group. You move along in line, and then in “pens” (a squared-off area) in the water, with your group. Eventually you get up the final pen, which is the start line, essentially. The gun goes off and you start swimming.
Easy enough. Except it’s very chaotic in the water once the gun goes off. While everyone is waiting and treading water upright, you feel like you have plenty of room to maneuver. But as soon the race starts, everyone goes horizontal, drastically decreasing the amount of personal space. There’s also the matter of kicking of legs and the thrashing about of arms — this is a race after all. The cordial members of your group immediately transform into a bunch of individuals trying to kick ass and take names.
Before I had time to even process this, I found myself underwater, with bodies rolling over me, and the aforementioned arms and legs crashing about my head.
What did I do? Initially, I tried to maneuver in a polite way. That did me no good. Just more slugs to the head, pushing me further underwater. There was only one solution, and I didn’t so much figure this out as I simply reacted—I stroked my way to the surface and did unto others like they were doing onto me, flapping my arms and kicking my legs and I didn’t give a shit who I might be slamming into and rolling over.
This all lasts less about 10 seconds.
After that, things open up and you’ve got plenty of room to do your swim. But those were a long 10 seconds. I went from verge of panic, to panic, to getting myself back to not fully giving in to the panic, to using that panic-charge to swim my way up, over, and out of the arm-flapping, feet-kicking morass.
I think about the experience from time to time, usually just as I take that first all-the-way under dip into open water. I recall that I was freezing, stressed, and out of sorts as I set out to do what had come so naturally to me from my earliest years.
I come up for air and see where I am — the boundless sky above becoming one with the water, which extends its swell to the horizon and beyond.
Then I dive back under, thrust my arm forwards, give a good, hard dolphin kick, and swirl around in the wide open expanse of the sea.
Blue on blue motion
silent but for crash of waves