In the Swim of Things

A strange urge came over me today. I didn’t give into it, because I didn’t quite trust it. It just didn’t make sense: Me, feeling like I wanted to swim? Where’d that come from?

Maybe seeing that picture at the top of the blog every day when I post has something to do with it. If you didn’t know, that shot—snapped by my buddy Dan Brekke—is of the start of the 2008 Ironman Coeur d’Alene. That was a hell of a moment, but it wasn’t quite as terrifying as I thought it might be even a week earlier. I had been dreading the swim all through my training and with the loud online yammering about icebergs in the lake (or something like that), I had begun to think failing to make it through the swim was a small but real possibility.

Most of that fear, however, melted away on the Friday before the race, when the swim course was open for practice. Weirdly, the buoys—set in a rectangular shape that we would go around twice—didn’t extend as far out in the water as I thought they would. Peering out on a sunny morning, I even asked someone if that was really the course. “Are there, like, more buoys that need to go out there?” The guy next to me chuckled and said, “Nope, that’s it. But you can go farther if you want.”

I did one loop—half the swim—that morning. The water was cold but not crazy cold. I recall Millerton Lake in the Sierra Foothills, where I did my first triathlon ever in April 2002, being worse—but then again, maybe I’ve just become fatter (and furrier) since then, giving me better insulation. I did the practice loop in about 45 minutes, felt pretty fresh afterward and suddenly realized that I could pretty easily turn in a swim around 90 minutes. Now, that doesn’t win you any awards. It’s actually quite slow. But for a race that would likely stretch well past 12 hours, I could live with being in the 30th percentile.

And that’s pretty much the way it turned out. I swam a 1:27, which put me 134th out of 205 in my race division (males 45-49), and I certainly didn’t kill myself to do it. I did wrench my neck somehow, and that would bother me on the bike, but my heart rate and my general attitude were A-OK heading into T1. I couldn’t have asked for more than that.

So for a long time after the race I looked at that swim as mostly successful. It didn’t blow my race, I thought, and for a crappy swimmer, that’s about all you can hope for, right?

Except, recently I’ve been reading other Coeur d’Alene race reports, many of them by people who finished in 13, 14 even 15 hours. In other words, worthy athletes, Ironman finishers all, but folks I’m quite a bit faster than. But almost all of them did the swim faster than me. Huh, thought I; wonder if I’ve been setting the swim bar a little low.

Last year I waited until March to begin swimming, because I don't like schlepping to the pool; I don't like the way the pool gives me a stuffy nose; I'm a lousy swimmer; and getting better at swimming is hard. Classic avoidance.

Now, maybe that urge to swim is my brain telling me that if I get it going in January, I might be able to shave, I don’t know, three or four minutes off my time. In a sense, that’s meaningless; it’s not going to get me a Kona slot. But, of course, nothing will. That’s not why I’m racing 2009 IMCDA. I’m racing because I enjoy the training and I want to figure out a way to finish in 11:59:59 or better. Three or four minutes? Might make all the difference.

So swimming starts in January this time around and even more importantly, I get some coaching. More on that as we continue through Six Months to Coeur d’Alene.

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