“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.” – John Wayne
A few months back, when I signed up for my spring Olympic-distance triathlon, I figured I’d let “Future Jennifer” deal with figuring out all the swimming and biking details (i.e. the parts that confuse, intimidate and occasionally terrify me as a runner). Of course, this included the fact that I not only lacked the endurance and technique to complete the swim distance, but also the ability to do so in open water without having a full-on panic attack…so I knew I’d have my work cut out for me.
Fast forward a few months, and “Present Jennifer” now has the endurance portion covered and the technique in-progress, thanks to some time at the local pool and the patience of Hubby and our swimmer friends. But the open water part has been something I’ve been avoiding. Like the plague.
I eased into the process with the purchase of my first wetsuit, which I wore around the apartment one evening before promptly packing it back up and stashing it in the corner of my closet. Then I read a book on women in triathlon, researched training plans and even extended my swim sessions, but every time Hubby brought up the idea of a dip in the Bay, I’d conveniently come up with
any an excuse.
That is, until our local pool closed for repairs, the weather spiked to 70 degrees, and I seemingly ran out of reasons not to go. So before I knew it, we were packed up and headed out for a swim this past Saturday in Aquatic Park.
Now, I’ve done a few short swims (i.e. two sprint tris) in the quarry near where we used to live in the East Bay, but there were a few things that were especially concerning to me during this new foray into the unknown, including:
- Water temp, which was an ice-cream-headache-inducing 52 degrees
- Wet suit, as in I’ve never used one before
- Wildlife, meaning I love sea lions, but only from behind the glass at a zoo
- Visibility, or complete lack thereof
- Water quality…I’ve heard rumors of rashes, conjunctivitis, earaches and more
Nevertheless, I knew I had to saddle up sooner or later. So amid stares and comments from tourists (“I can’t believe there are people swimming in that water; it’s freezing!”), we readied ourselves on the beach, and Hubby gave me one last piece of advice before we set foot into the water: “You know it’s going to be cold, so whatever you do, don’t stop. Just walk in as fast as you can, and dive under.”
As he started toward the water, I found myself fighting the “flight” urge to turn and run off up the beach. But A) I can’t make a very quick getaway in a wet suit, B) I already went through the struggle of tugging it on, and C) I’d never forgive myself for letting fear get the best of me (not to mention, Hubby would never let me live it down). So into the water we went.
My feet, hands and face were cold during the initial plunge, but it wasn’t unbearable. The temperature actually became less of a factor than some of the other items on my list — namely the lack of visibility and (the possibility — aka imminent threat — of) wildlife. After tracking the black line on the bottom of the pool for the past few months, losing all sense of sight in the murky green water really threw me.
But aside from a flock of birds floating on the surface of the water, there were no other signs of wildlife, thank goodness. Although that certainly didn’t stop my imagination from getting the best of me; I half expected to see a sea lion face emerge from the cloudy depths. As a result, my breathing was erratic, shallow and out of control, and I flailed around clumsily after mistaking a large stick for a snake, which Hubby found particularly amusing.
But I did eventually complete the down-and-back loop (1/3 mile) that I set out to do, despite an overwhelming and near-paralyzing level of anxiety. All technique was abandoned as I entered pure survival mode, alternating 10 swim-for-your-life crawl strokes with five breaststrokes in an effort to try to catch my breath (which I never succeeded in doing).
The only small victory of the day was discovering that wet suit swimming, as it turns out, is awesome! I loved the added buoyancy, warmth and compression.
And now that I know I can handle a few of those factors (temperature, wet suit; the jury’s still out on water quality…), I’m hoping my anxiety levels will be a little lower the next time around. The trick will just be figuring out how to calm myself down enough to actually focus on proper breathing and form, which I’m guessing will come with time, repetition and familiarity.
And if all else fails, I may just have to perfect my dog-crawl technique…
Have you battled open-water anxiety? How did you cope?