Tri-umphing the fear of open waters

A participant finishing his swim at the Goa triathlon 2016 (courtesy: Enduro Sports)

I was, for long, afraid of open-water swimming. First, the swimming itself: even though I’d run and biked merrily in all conditions, ranging from high-altitude, pebble-infested trails in the Himalayas to the coffee countryside in South India, immersing myself in water and pushing through it lap-after-lap wouldn’t inspire much joy in me. And then, the open waters: always appearing intimidating, rough and ruthless to me. I met several people of my type in the running and biking fraternity — at ease on hard ground, seldom venturing into the sea — and in their company, I found a comfort zone where I remained for years.

This started changing for me in the last couple of years. My wife, a water lover herself, inspired me to take more beach vacations and to be adventurous in the ocean and on her insistence, I experimented with activities like boarding, snorkelling and diving. The diving experiment was a confidence-booster: I went in feeling shaky and nervous but with the help from able instructors, I learnt well and came out feeling a sense of comfort with being in deeper-than-neck-deep sea water.

Still, a fear for swimming in open waters remained (diving never really requires you to swim far from an anchored boat!) and in early 2016, I decided to experiment with that fear. I registered for the Goa (Olympic-distance) triathlon just two weeks before the event, knowing fully well that I badly needed swimming practice and how difficult that was in the land-locked, pool-deficient city called Bangalore I live in. I practised in one of the few public pools of the city, working through its regimental rules (at most 35 minutes of swimming per person per session!) and built the confidence of doing at least a kilometre of continuous swimming in the pool. Arrived a day in advance in Goa and tested the waters with a swim of a couple of hundred meters along the coast. None of this was enough to get me through 1.5 KM in the ocean but it was something to hinge my hopes on.

Race day. High energy and enthusiasm at the Bambolim beach resort, as a swarm of colourfully-capped, semi-naked creatures collected on the waterfront waiting excitedly for the whistle to sound. The start seemed effortless to me in those surroundings. But the journey, frankly, wasn’t as smooth: a serious bout of demotivation around the 300m mark (“I’m falling behind!”) and then, a sudden sinking feeling (“… running out of breath already. Will I drown? Where are the lifeguard boats?”). My glasses fogged, I went off-course on two occasions and had to be literally pulled back on track by a volunteer boat on one of them, as I was headed for the rocks.

But I persevered, re-instating calm, awareness and resolve whenever I tended to lose any of these. And in the last 400m or so, I finally was able to collect all my gusto, find a consistent rhythm and give it the push that I normally give to all my runs and rides. No more wavering. No popping the head out every 3 strokes. Heading straight for the finish line. I completed the swim and the race and, in fact, I completed it all well — less than 3 hours gun time and rank 14 overall. I felt happy at the finish line, fully inspired to return and do the race again in Goa the next year.

Taking part in a triathlon has struck at my fears of swimming and has shown me that it’s possible to swim in open water in a manner that is fun, safe and energising, all at the same time. I’ve always believed swimming to be a great sport but the joy and the sense of accomplishment that open-water swimming brings has sunk in only now. Swimming in open waters is swimming in nature and swimming in nature is what I believe gives true liberation and peace.

Along the way, I discovered the richness of the sport of triathlon itself. Mixing the swimming with biking and running is fulfilling in many different ways: it activates different muscle-sets of your body, it builds a different kind of grit and resilience (compared to a marathon), it brings in a sense of conquer, an aliveness which none of the three sports individually do. It is truly a full-body-and-mind sport, and if you’re stopping at running, biking or even duathlon-ing, you’re denying yourself a rewarding experience that is well within your reach. You have to give the tri a try!

To end, a few tips for first-time triathletes and tri-aspirants, particularly those who hesitate to do it out of swimming fears:

  • It never really happens till you register for it. Register and you’ll find a way to make it happen. I know people who’ve done it even though they couldn’t swim when they registered.
  • Practice helps but not much is needed for the first attempt, assuming you know swimming. (If you don’t, get a good coach first!) Being able to swim a kilometer in the pool proved sufficient in my case.
  • Start small. If you’re not experienced with long-distance biking/running, there are the sprint and super-sprint distances, too.
  • Pace yourself. It’s easy to burn out on the swim and ruin the other legs. I was extremely slow in three quarters of the swim (mostly out of caution) but I think it helped me retain fuel for later.
  • Don’t funk around at the last minute. I experimented with contact lens just 2 days ahead of race day and faced a serious contact crisis minutes before the event. Power-glasses work better than contacts in open water.
  • Choose a well-organized event (Goa is great!): Seeing all those volunteer boats in the sea provided a strong sense of security. The organizers, Enduro Sports, took care to choose a time and location with minimal currents.
  • Lastly, make friends with the water. If it takes time, let it take but until you get to a point where you are joyful in water, you will not enjoy the triathlon. And even after that point, being joyful in open water may take more time. The journey need not be smooth, but the end surely inspires.