I like to think that after three years of living as a triathlete in Southern California, having swam in the ocean dozens of times, that I'm an adept ocean swimmer.
Then again, sometimes in multisport training, we have experiences that humble us. Today was one of those days.
Today was scheduled to be my first two mile open water swim before Ironman Lake Placid. Now, granted, I've swam nearly two miles in a pool, but an open water swim is a bigger challenge without the walls of a pool to push off of.
I ran into my coach and started chatting with him as the group ambled down the beach to start swimming. He cut me off, "Not to be rude, but you need to catch up to those people, so start running." Or something like that. And I realized, the superstars who planned on swimming two miles were far ahead of me, jogging down the beach. I took off after them.
I arrived, catching my breath as the two mile group was suiting up. The group was mostly men, and those who I recognized were definitely what I would consider to be elite athletes. My friend Gail, who I would say is part fish, was getting ready to do the two miles. Knowing my relative speed was quite a bit slower than the rest, I asked her to tell me if anyone there might be around my pace, and she introduced me to someone named John, who I asked to keep an eye out for me, though I knew that Gail would look out for me at the end even though she is considerably faster. For ocean swims, we use the buddy system -- given the possible dangers of the ocean.
The group headed in. The waves were bigger than usual. Some of the elite types dove on in and headed out like it was nothing. Being from the Midwest (or at least that's what I use as my excuse), I tend to get into the ocean a bit slower. John dashed off. Gail was quick behind him. The rest were well ahead. And there I was -- me and the waves. Big waves. One after another.
One thing I've learned is that if you see a big wave coming, go with it. Put your arms straight out in front, tuck your head, and dive under it. Do not turn to the side. Do not cower. Those are surefire ways to get knocked over, lose goggles, get tossed under, etc.
The waves kept coming. One after the next. And they were big. I'd barely swim one stroke when another wave faced me and I prepared to dive under. There was absolutely no break. After five minutes of this, I turned to the shore and realized I'd barely moved forward. In the distance I saw that several members of the group had taken off.
I was alone, floundering in the ocean, trying to get out past the waves, and I just couldn't do it. I was tiring out. After about eight minutes of no progress, hyperventilating, and fatigue, I turned around and swam back to the beach. I was really upset. Like as in crying, tears, that kind of upset. The last time I cried was a year and a half ago when I was unable to finish the Surf City Marathon due to gastrointestinal upset that led to me dehydrating like a raisin.
As I got out of the water, the thoughts in my head were of course disappointment in my abilities to swim through the waves when everyone else in my group seemed to have no problem. I must have looked quite distressed because one of the lifeguards approached me. I don't recall exactly what I said, something to the extent of, "I've done this before, I'm not a newbie, I don't know what happened." He could tell I was pretty shaken up, suggested walking down the beach, catching my breath and getting in at a lifeguard stand closer in.
I walked back toward the start. I wistfully saw the others who managed to get past the waves, their tiny swim caps bobbing in the ocean as they swam toward the Manhattan Beach pier. As I came up to the one mile mark, I saw another woman standing in a wetsuit and swim cap, looking shaken up as well. As it turned out, she was another member of my club who similarly had issues of getting past the waves.
I stood and chatted with her for a few moments. I felt better. I suggested that she and I try again, and we could stick together and get a mile swim done. We saw a few others trying to get into the ocean, and we saw that with the size of the waves that it took them longer than usual. The waves, while choppy, looked calmer here than they did down at the Hermosa Beach pier, so I felt ready to give it another shot. My new friend said she would stand by while I tried to swim out.
I was ready. I swam a few strokes, dove under a few waves, and it felt like deja vu. But then there was a break in the waves, enough time for me to get out far enough from the shore to a point where the water was calm. I swam forward, prepared to travel the one mile to the Manhattan Beach Pier. I did take one break, where I rolled onto my back, looked up at the sky, and as I thought about that day started to hyperventilate again. From there, I decided I needed to finish, and I could do it. I would count a hundred strokes and see how much closer I was to the pier. And then another hundred. And gradually, I made progress. At the pier, conditions became choppy and I felt like I was swimming in a washing machine, but with a bit of extra effort I managed to get around, and while almost being hit by some idiot on a wakeboard I did finish the mile swim.
I did see Gail at the end, and she and John had waited for me after getting past the chop -- I just couldn't see them beyond the barrage of waves at Hermosa Pier.
I'm afraid to try the two mile swim from Hermosa Beach to Manhattan Beach again. But then again, I feel like I won't be complete until I do it. Next time, I will start early so I don't have to run down the beach. And, Gail has offered to accompany me next time, and I think I'll take her up on that.