Last year I wrote a blog about failing my first attempt at doing a triathlon. It broke my heart. So many people had said they had faith in me and that I’d do great…. but after having a panic attack during the open water swim, my day was over less than 10 minutes in.
I was crushed. I felt humiliated. Embarrassed. Like I had let everyone down, including myself. There were tears in my eyes as I headed home that day… I couldn’t believe all of the training I had put into completing this event had been for naught.
But I didn’t give up on my goal. I didn’t internalize “I failed” into “I’m a failure”. I didn’t assume that the current limits of what I could do would always be my limits.
The day after that triathlon, I start looking at where I could become a more confident swimmer. I found that the Ottawa Triathlon Club (OTC) had what I needed: swimming lessons both in the pool and open water swims at the beach.
Starting in the pool that first day, I could tell I had a LOT to learn. But the swim instructor Geordie (also the founder and head of the OTC) had confidence in all of us. He was able to spot my weaknesses (that I am still working on) like getting my head down far enough in the water and getting my left arm to work as well as the right. But the technique wasn’t nearly as important as getting to be calm and collected in the water. My panic attack wasn’t because my technique was wrong; I was just damn sure I was going to drown out there. He worked on getting us to calm ourselves, to relax in the water, to find a mantra to keep us going. By the end of the classes my technique was slightly better, but the confidence was much better. But I still wasn’t sure about the open water swimming. That was the big challenge.
The day before class began I ran out and bought a wet suit. That wet suit was going to be my body armour. With that thing on, there is no way that I can possibly drown, even if someone tied bricks to me feet, mob style. As long as I believed that, I was totally confident. The very first swim around the buoys and I still felt the same panic I did the previous year. Too many people, too much splashing, too many people hitting me… but I remembered what we were taught at the pool. Just let it go. Move on. Get back in a rhythm. Okay. I did one lap. Then two. And then three. By the third lap there was none of the same fears. We did a drill called the gauntlet where the class formed two parallel lines and one person would swim between the two lines while everyone hit them or splashed them. It seemed more like fun that panic-inducing. OTC members started organizing early morning swims during the week so I was able to practice swimming in the open water. After only three open water swim classes, I was ready to give a try to swimming the distance I needed for the Olympic triathlon. I swam from the beach to the yacht club. It was hard. It took forever. But I never touched bottom. I hear so many people say that they cried after running their first mile, or their first 5k…. I now know what that feeling is like.
I decided to sign up for the National Capital Triathlon; the exact same race, exact same distance as what I failed to achieve one year earlier. Leading up the race there were three events that cemented my confidence. May-Jun, another OTC member who was also trying to do her first triathlon, also at the Olympic distance, organized an open water practice. It was at Mooney’s Bay, the site of the triathlon – the place I associated only with getting 200m out and falling apart. But her and a couple others from the OTC (Brian and Peter) swam 500m with me. I felt really good. After the 500m I asked myself if I could do that 3 times over and I was confident that I could. Second, a couple nights before the event, Geordie had an open water swim class at the beach with some high winds causing some pretty big waves. I had never swam in water that choppy before. But somehow I survived. Even had to breathe to my weak side and was able to find a rhythm breathing to my left. I figured if I can swim in THIS, there is no way – none at all – that I can’t do 1500m on the calm waters of Mooney’s Bay. And finally, I woke up the morning of the event to an e-mail from my girlfriend. She sent me the info for an upcoming 4k swim! That she even thought me capable of a 4k swim showed she had even more confidence in me than I had. That just set the whole tone for the day. If my girlfriend thinks I can swim 4k, surely I can get through a measly little 1500m!! J So I’m up and out the door really early… racked the bike and headed over to the OTC tent. Geordie got a picture of us very nervous early-birds:
After the picture, Geordie pulled me aside and said “Don, when down on the beach I’ll ask people if it is their first time doing a triathlon. Look around. See all the hands in the air. And know that you are much better prepared for this than any of them. You can do this.”
I set up all my gear in the transition area, and got my number markings done. I ran into May-Jun who racked her bike near mine and we checked out the start of the bike course to get an understanding of the mount and dismount area. We picked up our timing belts and headed to the beach. I put on my wetsuit while listening to Geordie give his orientation. At this point, just hearing his reassuring voice was more important than the content of what he was saying. I went in for my warm up to calm down.. and good thing I did!! I don’t usually swim with a swim cap, but we need to for the race. But with the goggles over the cap, things just didn’t fit right and I was getting water in the goggles. “No, this isn’t happening. I can’t swim 1500m with water in my goggles!” I tightened them, pushed them on tighter, adjusted them 100 ways… still water was getting in. Then I had an idea – put the goggles on and put the cap over the goggle straps. Woo… success. That had gotten the heart pounding a little. Once I got a few 100m lengths in with no troubles, I headed back in to shore. Just as we were to start May-Jun and I wished each other luck and then we were off. The first little bit was tough as there were just bodies all over the place. I was getting hit and someone was across my legs and someone kept slapping my feet. But I just kept going. I followed what I was taught in class. Once I got to the first buoy, I just had my mantra in my head. It was all very business like from there. Just keep going. I still have a LOT of trouble sighting, so wherever I could I’d find someone to swim beside and let them do my sighting for me. But when that didn’t work I had to do it on my own. And as usual, I ended up drifting off course several times. At one point one of the kayakers pulled up beside me to correct my direction, I was that far off course. So I’m pretty sure I did a half-ironman swim of 2000m instead of an Olympic 1500. J Once I got to the second last buoy I knew I was going to be okay. I knew I was going to finish… not just the swim, but the whole thing. There was a huge feeling of relief that I was going to be able to do this thing. I felt good coming out of the water… Geordie was right there to cheer the finish of my swim leg. I almost turned to him and said “Can I go home now? I already accomplished so much more than I did last year!!” But there was no time for that… I had to get to the transition! Wetsuit co-operated and came off quite nicely. I got the sneakers and, of course, the Fitbit on… and I was off to the bike.
Bike leg was FUN. Except for realizing I REALLY, REALLY needed to go to the washroom halfway through. J I was able to pass quite a few people. Once I realized I wasn’t totally at the back of the pack I relaxed a bit and just had fun. How can you not have fun on a bike? The most difficult part of the bike was that usually I listen to music or podcasts or TV shows while out on the bike and this time I was alone with my thoughts. I had been told before to just think happy thoughts. So I did. I thought about crossing the finish line. And the celebratory pizza dinner with my girlfriend after the race. J Back into the transition zone, I put some tunes on, had a quick two bites of an energy bar, gulped down some water and off I was on the run. I felt good energy-wise. Really good. My big concern now was if I could hold needing to go to the washroom for another hour. But by now it was HOT. And there was very little shade on the run course so just 3k in and I was toast. The hot sun had totally zapped my energy. At each pass of the aid station, I took two glasses of water. One for me and one for dumping over my head to cool down. I then realized drinking the water to stay hydrated was not helping my cause to finish the race before using the washroom. So I ended up taking a 10 minute pit stop into the Mooney’s Bay washroom. Why 10 minutes? Stuck zipper on tri suit. J Had to Houdini out of it. J But the 10 minute break and some cold water from the change room rejuvenated me. As we continued to pass each other on the laps, May-Jun called out words of support: “Keep it up Don. You’re doing great.” By this point there were many people on the run route from the various events, and the OTC people from the sprint event all waved and we exchanged encouragements. And then, finally, I could see the end in sight…. I booted it up the hill, knowing this was going to be it…. I was going to finish strong.
And then it was done. Geordie came out to give me a high five and a pat on the back as I was getting my medal. But what I was really looking for was the big hug from my girlfriend and she did not disappoint. She was right there waiting for me to finish. At that moment, I was so happy I almost cried. But my celebration with M. was short lived as the OTC people gathered together for a group picture. Competitors, supporters and volunteers from the OTC huddled together on the bench for the photo and some words from Geordie. He was kind enough to give special congratulations to May-Jun and I for not just finishing our first triathlon, but doing it at the Olympic distance.
All that was left from there was to clean up the gear at the transition zone and then off to celebrate. As I was packing up my stuff around the T-zone, I asked someone to take a picture of the OTC’s newest Olympic distance triathletes with our medals. Also I would be amiss not to mention our friend Josee from the OTC who not only completed her first triathlon as well, but won her age category and finished second for the women in the super sprint event!
I had such a feeling of accomplishment. So much more than any of the running or cycling or any other racing events I have ever done. Another OTC member stated “You feel so much prouder of a goal you had to work hard for.” Truth.
One challenge down and onto the next. I want to do a half-ironman. I also want to improve my swim time so I’m not at the back of the pack. But I no longer think anything is impossible. The future is wide open and full of new adventures to come.