|from the Tiki Swim website|
I trained hard for this race. Last year I finished in around 1:49 and change. This year I wanted to beat that time. My friend (and coach!) Steve designed a 7 week Tiki Swim training plan for me, with 3 swims per week, plus an optional open-water swim. I hit almost every workout. I think I only missed three and a half. Two because the kids were still on summer break and I just couldn't fit it in without too much guilt; one because I had a migraine and was in bed; and a half because I did go to the pool but it was during a 100 degree heat wave and the pool was literally too hot to swim in (the water must have been 86 degrees when I got in; after doing 700 yards I was too hot to continue). I did long sets, speed work, drills, and even a 4200 yard swim (2.4 miles).
The best part of training was seeing real improvements in time. I am not a fast swimmer, but have markedly improved just in the past few weeks. Steve had me doing a periodic time trial of 1000 yards (20 laps) where I had to swim as fast as I could and record the time. On August 8th, my first TT, my time was 23:08. On August 27th, it was 22:30. And on September 10th, it was 21:36. That's a 1:28 improvement from my first one in just a month, which is huge gains in the water. I've been feeling extra strong and confident, and was having dreams of a 1:40 swim, or even 1:35.
Of course, the pool is very different than the ocean. The pool has no variables, save for maybe a temperature change or if someone is sharing a lane. Likewise, swimming in the bay, like my friends and I often do, has very little variable. No waves, very little current, and only temperature to worry about. The ocean, on the other hand, is an entirely different beast. You never know, not just hour to hour, but minute to minute, how the ocean is going to be behave. Between waves, swells, currents, and undertow, not counting temperature, seaweed, etc, you never know what you're going to encounter.
Enough foreshadowing. Onto the recap!
Last year I had gone to the packet pickup on Saturday, and it was a cluster f**k. You can read my recap to see why I didn't want to deal with it again this year. They said this year it was mandatory, and there was only a 3 hour window on Saturday to do it. Luckily, I contacted the race director, who said there WOULD be pickup Sunday morning. I opted to do that, and save myself 90 minutes round trip of driving and a headache getting through the crowds. As I wanted to be there at 6 when they opened, I set my alarm for 5:15. I had a surprisingly good night's sleep, and woke up well rested. I got ready quickly and was out the door by 5:35, eating a Luna Bar as I drove. Plenty of time to get to Oceanside, right? Well, I was glad I had left extra early when traffic was stopped due to an accident! I never expect traffic at 6:00 a.m. on a Sunday, but that's why I always leave extra time. I finally got to the Oceanside Pier, parked nearby in the paid parking (had to admit I got a bit choked up; the last time I was on this street it was to park for my last half Ironman, which was exactly 6 months ago!) got my packet, my race number marked on my hand, found my gym friend Bill, found my friends Steve, Leah and Leo, and suited up.
|with Steve, Leah and Leo pre-race|
Now, when I first got there, the waves were tiny. Maybe 2 feet tall. But after suiting up, we went down to the water to warm up,and the waves were suddenly taller. Stronger. It reminded me very much of Super Frog, my first half Ironman which, ironically, was exactly two years ago. Then, the water started off glassy, but when it was time to race the waves were 6 feet tall. I was nervous yesterday. I don't like big waves. I have a fear of getting pounded. I know how to go through them, and have practiced enough. But they still scare me. During Super Frog, one hit me so hard that I was underwater, tumbling, and didn't know which end was up. I hated that scary feeling, and ever since then am fearful. Only a month or so ago, Steve and I did an open water swim in the ocean and I had to get through similar waves. I was actually crying as I fought through them. So during our "warm up" I was getting very nervous. The water felt good, though, likely in the high 60's. We got out, lined up with the rest of the 2.4 miler crazies, walked through an arch where we were counted by hand, and waited for the siren to go off before we ran into the water.
So the siren went off, I ran into the water, and immediately stopped. How the hell was I going to get through the waves? They were strong, they were fierce, and they were tall. Not as tall as the 6 footers at Super Frog, but I'd estimate 4-5 feet. It's an awesome and eerie sight to see swimmers IN the big waves---right before they broke I could see dozens of black-clad bodies with orange caps, in the middle of the wave, like a pack of sardines. It's a hard image to describe. I found a similar image from a recent Ironman Florida swim start to show you:
|From Ironman Florida. See the swimmers IN the waves? source|
I started swimming, but only felt comfortable swimming Tarzan style (head out of the water) as I needed to see where the next waves were. I was suddenly thankful for all the Tarzan drills Steve had me do in the pool! It was slow going, as the waves just kept on coming! I was tired already, and couldn't have gone more than 200 yards. Other swimmers were around me, struggling as well. I saw one man turn back and swim back to shore. I asked him if he was heading back, and he replied that he couldn't see because his goggles kept filling with water. I thought about him often during the race, knowing that no matter where I placed in the race, I beat THAT guy! (As a side note, if that had happened to me, which it could have because goggles do leak, I would have at least swam with one eye open out to the first buoy before making a final decision about dropping out. Anyway...) After I got past the breakers, and was able to put my face in the water to really swim, MORE waves came. Really? What was going on?
The first buoy was still so far away and I was exhausted. I had thoughts of giving up and calling for a lifeguard, but knew I wouldn't. I was swallowing so much water. I have never swallowed so much water swimming in my life! I started to feel despair. I developed a new mantra, based on a picture a friend had recently posted on Facebook:
"I am strong. I can do hard things. I am strong. I can do hard things. I am strong, I can do hard things."
Finally, I got out to the first buoy and paused to reorient myself and catch my breath. I felt nauseous from all the waves and the swells in the water and the gallons of salt water I had ingested. I have done many an ocean swim, and have never felt seasick until yesterday. I must have looked a mess because a lifeguard there asked if I needed to hold onto her boat to rest! I declined, of course, and headed on my way. I started swimming north. I was hoping for calm water to swim in, but I never found it. It was swells all the way. I had originally planned on not taking any breaks (last year I briefly stopped at each buoy) but I had to yesterday---not only did I need a few seconds respite from swimming, but I needed to find the next buoy to sight off! They were hard to see with the swells, the water covering them from my line of sight.
"I am strong. I can do hard things. I am strong. I can do hard things. I am strong, I can do hard things."
My mind went to some dark places during some of the tougher portions. I have been entertaining the thought of doing my first full Ironman in a few years, and this swim really messed with my head. Negative thoughts kept going through my head. How can I do a full Ironman? Clearly I'm too weak. Everyone else is way up ahead of me. I'll never make it. Luckily, my mantra really helped to stop those thoughts, and I was able to clear my mind for a good chunk of the swim. I told myself I will never do this damn swim again, to just get through it.
At the triangle buoy, which is supposed to signify where the 1.2 milers join in and where the floating aid station is (again, for the second year in a row, I didn't see it. Not that I needed it, but still....) I asked a lifeguard what time it was. He answered 8:33. Since the race had started at 7:30, I had been swimming for 1:03. I thought that was the halfway mark, and got really down. All my goals for beating my time went out the window. I figured I would be over 2 hours. And really, that was ok....the conditions were awful! I spent more time that I probably should have resting at a few buoys. At one point, in between buoys, I stopped and just floated there for a bit, orienting myself. A waste of time, yes, but I needed a break with the exhaustion and the nausea, and at that point my time goal was out the window. My new goal was literally just to finish.
It was also around this time that I noticed lots of other swimmers around me, and behind me. What? I wasn't last? Not by a long shot. I even saw a 1.2 miler clinging to a paddle board, resting; last year, I never saw one 1.2 miler (the 2.4 and 1.2 people have different colored swim caps so it's easy to tell). I felt a bit rejuvenated. I could do this thing!
Finally it was time to turn into the harbor. This was confusing to me, as the buoys suddenly switched from big orange balls to small green balls. My goggles are orange tinted, which meant that the green balls looked pale yellow, and since they were so small I could barely see them. Now I was in familiar territory. I've swam this harbor twice before, in both Tiki and in the half-Ironman. Like last year, the smell of funnel cake overwhelmed me from above. The water was much warmer there, and I was getting hot in my wetsuit. All I wanted to do was be done.
"I am strong. I can do hard things. I am strong. I can do hard things. I am strong, I can do hard things.".
At long last I was making the turn into the boat ramp. Lots of people lined the dock above me, shouting encouragement. As I was swimming, and had my ears in the water, I couldn't hear what they were saying but I heard the cheers. I swam until my feet could touch the ramp, and then stood up. This year it was a bit confusing, as they added a new feature of two different finish chutes, one for wetsuits and one for non-wetsuits. I didn't know what to do, but a kind volunteer helped me to my feet, pointed me in the right direction, and I ran up over the timing mat...almost five minutes quicker than last year! I have NO idea how I managed to be faster in tougher conditions, but I'm going to assume that my swimming itself was stronger, and that got me through.
Oh, sweet land, how glad I was to see you!
Steve was at the finish line waiting, as he, as well as Leo and Leah, had finished with kick-ass times way ahead of me. I got my swag (my earned truckers's cap, a medal and a handmade lei). After getting my free breakfast (which I couldn't eat, since it was a burrito with meat in it) I found the rest of my friends and debriefed. ALL of us struggled. It was a tough race. That ocean was angry yesterday, and it didn't spare anyone some struggles. The lifeguards were amazing---there were tons of them out on the course, and I'm sure many swimmers needed them, at least to rest.
Of course, after finishing, I felt proud. Not only had I PR'd the course, but in much, much tougher conditions that last year. And, I had energy! Would I have been able to immediately get on a bike? Yes, I believe that if I'd had a few minutes to settle down in transition, I could have gotten on a bike. Maybe not for 112 miles, but I could have ridden. I felt good. My shoulder was sore, but not in pain. And, unlike last year when I didn't apply Body Glide and my neck badly chafed, this year I learned my lesson and applied it liberally---and had no chafing. Yay for that! I would love to do a similar swim but in body of open water with no big waves or swells to contend with. If I hadn't stopped so much to rest and reorient myself (ie find the buoys over the swells), I think could have swum a 1:40, or even quicker. This is just a theory, but one I'd like to test out some day.
And although I promised myself I don't have to do this race again, I likely will if my schedule allows it. Because I am strong, and I can do hard things. Even a tough 2.4 mile ocean swim with huge swells. And I am confident that, with training, I can do an Ironman if I choose to.