With my first triathlon of the season fast approaching (come back tomorrow for a preview!), I can say that I've been given tons of advice to keep a level head. Such as don't stop....just go into a breaststroke keeping head above the water until you can calm down. Or flip onto the back for a little bit...which I have done and know it works. In either case, the important thing is to keep moving forward until one can again motor via freestyle. And be sure to work open water practive swims into your regimen using the wet suit.
The start of a triathlon for me has always been the hardest starts. For it consists of a moment that embodies a lifetime of sheer fear and unholy terror. In all the starts, in all the various races, I have never been more scared or close to death as I feel during the first five minutes of any triathlon.
And the real kick in the ass is that I’m not afraid of the swim. In fact, it is probably the best part of my race. I don’t come from a swimming background, but I seem to take to it naturally, and so I spend lots of time in the pool swimming laps.
But all this is completely irrelevant when I start the swim, because within about the first two minutes I know that on this day I will drown. There’s something terrible that happens to me that I simple can’t control, and I believe this something it is the ancient fight or flight response.
I start the swim full of confidence and bravado. I don’t hang back and I’m not all that bothered by somebody swimming around, under or over me. I don’t even worry about getting kicked in the face or other more sensitive parts of my body. This part of the start is all good.
The part that is all bad is when about two minutes into the race, I begin to hyperventilate. At first I notice only my heart as it beats as if it is trying to explode in my chest. Next I start to breathe hard and harder and harder. Now I start to get dizzy and for the first time I realize that I’m actually think about drowning. This always comes as a complete surprise since I never think about drowning in the pool.
At first I think to myself that this is silly, and keep swimming, except that I can’t seem to get enough air. I start gasping and gulping for air like a dying bass flopping around on the floor of a bass boat. I have no choice but to stop. So I do and somebody immediately starts to swim over me, and somebody else kicks me a more sensitive part.
I feel the tightness of my wet suit as it clings to my chest, squeezing the air out of me like a huge black python from the deepest and darkest part of the Amazon. And still people keep swimming over me.
The first time this happened I swam most of the 1500 yards on my back. The reason for this is that once this basic primal fear sets in, it is all but impossible for me to stick my face under water.
The mere act of turning on my belly and submerging my face fills me with the dread and illogical terror.
Over the years, and with much practice I have trained myself to swim through this terror. For once I find my swimming groove, and my heart rate and breathing settles down, I can build to a descent swim. I have done this by starting out slowly, and not kicking, to keep my heart rate low.
We'll see how I manage Saturday.