Wednesday, August 6, 2008

How I Became a Swimmer (Caution: Long!)

1960s-1970s - Took a few sessions of swim lessons as a kid. Got up to what was called the Intermediate level and could do breaststroke and sidestroke OK but was never any good at swimming freestyle (or front crawl as they used to call it back then). In junior high, I had to do a little swimming as part of PE classes but after that, I pretty much avoided pools except to take a dip here or there and never put my face in the water after I got contacts at ~age 16, mostly for fear of losing them (didn't know about swim goggles as no one used them when I was growing up).

Sept 2005 - Fast forward about 30 years, I've recently completed my 21 Run Salute (a 9-month 21 marathon charity campaign) and am ready for a new challenge. Why not try a tri? The sprint tri I signed up for involved a 400m swim and I admit I was completely clueless as to what I was getting into (or perhaps just cocky thinking that if I could run a marathon I should be able to swim 1/4 mile, pffht.). I found some old foam gasket goggles that had been hanging around my house, which I think may have been either my step-daughter's or just a pair I got thinking I should get into swimming sometime, but probably like 10 yrs old. I dug up my step-daughter's old swimsuit she'd worn once or twice when she was like 12 or 13 (she's now 22) and practiced doing 18 laps in a 25-yard pool any which way I could for maybe a week or so before the race. I thought that was good enough to prepare me to just get out there and give tris a try. Boy, was I wrong!! During the race I freaked whenever people touched me and had to stop and tread water. I didn't know to sight often and ended up far off course in some weeds (where gators like to lurk!), then panicked and had to keep rolling over onto my back to calm down. A kayaker came over to try to point me in the direction of the next course buoy but the old goggles leaked and fogged up so I couldn't see very far. He then told me to just swim alongside, which I did for much of the time on my back as I was very tired (and only about halfway through!), guiding me with his boat. Close to the end I could see where I was supposed to go and he let me regather some dignity and swim unescorted. I ended up finishing in 15:16, second to last in my wave with the other woman right behind me. I was humbled and humiliated. It was hardest and most scary thing I'd ever done to date (and by then I'd run 31 marathons, earned two black belts in karate, and even jumped out of a plane!). Swim lessons were a must if I wanted to stick with tris, which, strangely enough, I did. I was ahead in my 50 States marathon quest and had the time to train for an Ironman next year. For me, there was no better motivation to really learn to swim. Am I sick???

Nov 2005-Feb 2006 - So I signed up for 2006 Ironman Florida after having watched people of all sizes and shapes doing it in 2005. Two stuck in my mind, in particular, one guy who probably weighed close to 300# and a very average-looking older woman about my size who was wearing a sign on her back saying it was her 50th birthday. I could do this, I thought! I did some research on swimming for triathlons and came across Total Immersion (TI). Hmmm, swim like a fish, sounds good and seems geared for triathletes. I bought a TI book that came with a DVD but, luckily, there was also a TI swim instructor near by me because I made little progress on my own. The great thing was she started pretty much from scratch assuming I could only float but not do anything else, which was pretty close for me when it came to freestyling. I wasn't even allowed to use any arms for the first couple lessons, just worked on balance in the water. I'm very grateful to her for getting me started, and particularly for emphasizing bilateral breathing (breathing on both sides), but would later find that TI just wasn't working for me. After months, I was still getting headaches and nauseous often when I swam and was absolutely loathing it. I was also hardly any faster while swimming freestyle than I was swimming breaststroke. I tried not to be so greedy for speed but it bothered me. I was, however, significantly more comfortable in the water, which was good.

Mar-Oct 2006 - Continued to struggle on my own after the package of TI swim lessons were done, trying desperately to figure out why I'd still sometimes go backwards when I kicked and why I'd get so out of breath swimming freestyle, even just 100 yards although I could now do it, which is more than I could say for before. With the Ironman looming in November, I began resorting to doing the breaststroke regularly between sets of freestyle to bring my heart rate down and catch my breath, which also seemed to help me avoid getting sick as often. I figured if it was acceptable to take walk breaks when running, there should be nothing wrong with doing some breaststroke while swimming. All I wanted to do was survive the swim anyway. And the bright side about being one of the slowest swimmers was that it was very easy for me to find my bike in T1 and I would pass lots of people on the bike and run. That's not quite what happened at my second tri, 2006 Florida 70.3, though, because I hit the wall early during the run. At my third tri, 2006 Health First Olympic Tri, I practiced my Ironman pacing so I purposefully stayed slow the whole time.

Nov 4, 2006 - D-Day, as in DNF, disappointing, did not make the swim cut-off at the 2006 Ironman Florida. Of course, part of me was elated to have gotten as far as I did in my swimming to feel that I could toe the start line and survive swimming 2.4 miles in the very rough conditions we had (one person did not). And thanks to earplugs, ginger pills and motion sickness medicine, I didn't even get deathly seasick, which I'm very prone to. But, everyone, including me, thought I'd be able to finish the entire race. I'd swam 4400 yards numerous times in a pool before (though it'd usually take me ~2 hours), done several 80-100+ mile rides and run many marathons. I'd attended an IMFL training camp to become familiar with the course, learn more about IM nutrition and get more confidence. It just wasn't in the cards for me that day. I wrote up some IMFL lessons learned and took a month off to regroup.

Jan-May 2007 - After licking my wounds, I realized my main downfall was always thinking about just surviving the swim. If I want to become a triathlete, I need to work on my weakest sport, which is swimming, by far. I also needed more open water swim (OWS) experience. Because I had to resume my 50 states marathon quest (it is my priority until its completion in 2011), I decided it was best for me to stick to half iron tris versus trying to do another Ironman. In the meantime, I could continue to improve on my swimming and get more tri experience. I took more swim lessons, this time from a different swim instructor to work on swim speed (since Mike Ricci of D3Multisport, whose Winter Maintenance training program I'd bought, recommended I go with a non-TI instructor). The new swim instructor taught me how to use various equipment (pull buoy, paddles, fins, kickboard), swim intervals and do flip turns. Unfortunately, he did little to improve my stroke, but now I had more toys to play with in the pool, more variety in my workouts and could do an occasional flip turn, which made swimming a heck of a lot more interesting than before when I was just mindlessly swimming laps training for endurance only. I bought a Swim Workouts for Triathletes book but found that most of the easier workouts in it were still way too hard (too long or too fast) and that my 100-yard swim times were completely off the chart :-( So I decided to do just parts of the workouts and kept at it since that's what the instructor said I needed to do. Unfortunately, there were no masters swim groups except at YMCAs which were located quite far from me and I wasn't a member anyway so I was always just swimming by myself. At the next 2007 Florida 70.3, I was sure I was a better swimmer, even did some drafting, but somehow ended up with a slower swim time (1:06:08 vs. 57:12 for 1.2mi, and I'd breaststroked nearly the entire way last time!) -- ARGHH!!! I did, however, pass a slew of folks during the bike and run segments and move up in the overall rankings by nearly 1000 (almost half the field!).

Jun-Sep 2007 - A few weeks later while in Kona swimming in Kailua Bay (my favorite OWS spot!), I met a woman who turned out to be the mother of world-class swimmer and instructor Karlyn Pipes-Nielsen. She was about 70 years old and had passed me while I was swimming with fins and told me later that I needed swim lessons badly as I was over-rotating, pulling my arms in too close to my body and pulling way too far back. At first, I was sort of taken aback by her comments but knew I wasn't happy with my swimming so I looked up her daughter, bought her DVD, got a private lesson and then attended her 4-day post Labor Day swim camp, where I really learned her so-called wide-entry freestyle. Amazingly, I found that nearly all of the nauseousness I used to get while swimming disappeared when I took out all the rolling from side to side (which was a big part of TI) and worked on breathing easier. I also couldn't believe what I was actually doing versus what I thought I was doing until I saw myself on video (self-perception is really screwed when swimming!). I found out I didn't really need to kick much in order to swim well, why runners often kick poorly and may actually go backwards and why wearing fins occasionally is a good idea, got some good OWS tips and so much more from this awesome swim camp. And, get this: I actually was beginning to like swimming -- OMG!!

Oct 2007-Jun 2008 - Saw my previous 2:30-2:45 100-yard freestyle times in the pool drop to the 2:00-2:15 range and am feeling much better about my swimming. However, my OWS times didn't always reflect my pool time improvements. I actually swam slower(!) at my second 2007 Health First Olympic Tri (54:01 vs. 47:15 for 1.5km), but know that everyone did because the conditions were much rougher. At Miami Man and Gulf Coast half iron tris, I swam 1.2 miles in 48:17(major swim PR!!!) and 57:56, but one was an easy lake swim while the other was in rough ocean (can you guess which?). At my second sprint tri, I swim 400m in 12:51, slower than I'd hoped but better than 15:16 three years before and it's the first time I've ever swam the entire way in a race doing freestyle. Overall, I'm now usually finding myself towards the back of the pack, rather than one of the very last in swim rankings. Progress! I can now also do many of the swim workouts in the book although some of the workouts that are based on T-Pace (Threshold Pace) are still out of my reach as I cannot yet do the Threshold Test (3x300 yards with 30 seconds rest, each 300 within 15 seconds of each other) and get a time that falls on their T-Pace Chart.

End of Jul-Aug 2008 - A new tri club swim group starts up, conveniently only 2 miles from where I live so I can't pass it up. I join the YMCA where they meet and now get my @ss handed to me every week. After 3 brutal workouts and swimming with minimal kicking due to a recent hamstring injury, I notice I can now swim 100 yards in under 2 minutes fairly often so I retake the Threshold Test and find out I now have a T-pace that is on the chart (1:54). I feel like a real swimmer for the first time in my life -- $%!#&% GREAT!!!

(after 2.5 years of swimming, 4 1/2 iron tris,
2 olys, 2 sprints and 1 Ironman attempt)

  • If you don't have a swim background, take swim lessons. Learning from a book or DVD does not work well.

  • Do not be content to just survive swim segments of tris. Work on your weakness!

  • Keep looking for a stroke that suits you. There are different ways to swim freestyle and everyone, even good swimmers should always be looking for ways to improve.

  • Do not swim laps mindlessly. Unlike running, swimming is nearly all about technique and if you're not thinking about it and working on it, you're not going to improve by much.

  • Have someone videotape you when swimming, both above water and underwater too, if possible. You'll be amazed at what you can learn from seeing yourself.

  • Join a group swim program. You will never work so hard and see as much improvement on your own.

    Susan said...

    I have read this entire post. If there is one thing I have learned it is that swim lessons are worth every penny! I am thinking later this year (after the Worldwide Half) is when I will venture into the pool. I have a plan!

    Kelly said...

    Hi (found you through husband Izaacs (formul-ic) blog). Thanks for the great post. In Jan 07 I started swimming for the first time and it's been both a pleasure and a struggle. It's nice to read someone that I can relate to so well. I just did my 2nd 400m tri in about 15 1/2 min with a lot of panic and back floating. The pool is getting somewhat easier but still slow. I'm really going to have to think about lessons this winter. Thanks again!

    lizzie lee said...

    Great post. As Frederick the Great said: One does as one wishes with the body.

    With your perseverance and discipline your body just obeys your wishes.

    Amy said...

    Nice post very detailed. The post is encouraging, I like it.