With four open water swims under my belt, I figured I would show up for a Japan International Open Water Swimming Association race with a relaxed attitude and a calm spirit. I'm still trying to figure out why that didn't happen. I was more frightened and anxious then any other swim I had ever done.
Was it because my husband wasn't there with me? Was it because I knew I was the slowest of all of the Americans competing? Was it because I knew my swim coach was there? Was it because with all of those races under my belt I knew what was to come both mentally and physically: breathing hard, staying on course, convincing myself that "Jaws" was just a movie? Or was it because I just didn't train for this swim as I had done in the past?
I didn't dedicate a written schedule to swim this 1,600M because I am now training for a half-Ironman race in October, and am now spreading my workouts between swimming, biking and running. For reasons unknown to myself I didn't feel 100% confident that I would swim well. I knew I could cover the distance but I hadn't taken the time to practice in the open water or work on my sighting techniques or, frankly, dedicated much of my swim time in the pool to longer distances. I was relying on the title of "open water swimmer" that I awarded myself after swimming in Singapore's 70.3 to work its magic and bestow the electrifying experience that I thought I was going to have!
When the start horn sounded, I walked back to my son, gave him a kiss, and told him I appreciated his support. With everyone already on the way I calmly entered the water and started to swim. Before I knew it was trapped between two people and someone was holding onto my shoulder. I didn't know if the Japanese woman was in trouble or she was panicking but when we locked eyes she said, "Sorry" and let go. I swam faster to get away from her and was swimming in my own space. The water was choppy and I was starting to take in water. I wasn't comfortable and the first buoy seemed like it was getting farther and farther away! Halfway to the first buoy, I remember trying my hardest to convince my head and my heart to just swim the first of two 800m laps and get out. I have never quit anything in my life. The mental battle had truly begun.
Rounding the first buoy was a delight. It was steady swimming without the waves hitting me from the front and sides. Rounding the second buoy was a bit of a chore as the current was coming from an angle that forced me to swim slightly against it and sight often to make sure I stayed on course. I was committed at this point and started my second lap. I put my head down and just started swimming. I reverted back to the breathing rhythm my swim coach taught me, as well as the mental word he employed me to use should I hit the swimming wall. "FLOW" is my word and I did have to hold up the mental stop sign in my head and repeat the word and phrase "Flow - just let it flow". I knew the only rough part of the swim was out to the first buoy, so I repeated my breathing rhythm and I just let it flow into my second lap!
Out to the first buoy on the second lap seemed worse than the first time around. The water seemed choppier and the lifeguard on the surfboard was now swimming next to me. Did I look that bad or was I in last place and he was following me in? I didn't know why he was so close to me but after I lifted my head and gave him a smile and the thumbs up he backed off. Rounding the first buoy proved to be just as enjoyable as the first time around. Easy, relaxed swimming without the current or waves to contend with. I sighted well and picked up the pace on the last leg of the swim. "I'm glad that's over with" was the first thought I had after I exited the water. Negative thoughts from start to finish - well at least I was consistent!
The agony and epic mental battle that unfolded in the water was monumental for me. The self-doubt I harbored before the race compounded those thoughts and I realized for the first time that swimming open water is just as much a mental workout as it is physical. When I swim in the pool there are times were I lose count of my laps or don't realize that someone is begging to enter my lane because I am focused and determined and am "in the zone". I don't think, see, or worry about anything in the pool but staying nice and long, reaching and rolling, long extension of the arm, breathing bilaterally, and a nice catch and pull. I have personal space and no one is allowed to enter into it. My goal now is to translate that same mind set toward open water swimming because staying mentally strong is half, if not all, of the battle.
I have another open water swim next month that I will do well in - I'm making that bold proclamation right now. I have a time goal for the swim and I will dedicate my time to more open water swimming. I will arrive to the race confident, strong, determined with no self-doubt, fitter and faster and ready to whip it on! Do I sound convincing? I'm off to a good mental start at least!