Thursday was a good day to be an Ironman wannabe.
It started with registration, and that nervous feeling when you know you’ve got to commit to something, but there’s still time to pull out. Val described like this: it’s like going to the dentist, only to be told they have no record of your appointment, and they send you home with a new appointment date. You get out of it, but you can go home with your head held high because it’s not your fault.
But there’s no pulling out. I’m in, I’m registered, and I’m raring to go.
Ironman Expo was a buzzy experience. I tracked down some anti fog spray for my swimming goggles, ignoring the advice from one of the Ironman Expo stalls to cut a potato in half and rub it on the lenses instead. I avoided paying £100 to a man selling what looked like an iPod that electrocuted your muscles (a good thing, apparently, I might yet go back for it!). And I bought a pair of triathlon shorts that were actually two sizes too small for me.
From there, it was time for my one only chance before the race to practice swimming in the sea. And boy am I glad I did.
Thursday was another windy day, with big waves and rolling surf providing an intimidating welcome to a newbie sea swimmer like me. Freshly into my wetsuit for the first time in more than six months, I’d left it stupidly late to be practising for my Ironman sea swim, and – like my cycling experience earlier in the week – I regretted it.
The water temperature was fine, but the waves were big. Too big for me. My first attempt to swim through them left me flailing, with my goggles skewed and one lens full of water. Panicked and panting (sorry Tanya) I scurried back to where I could stand. And I really did scurry!
The second time, it happened again, and I found myself having to come to terms with the fact that I simply wouldn’t be able to do the swim at all in conditions like this. That meant I wouldn’t be able to do Ironman.
I started to feel really stupid. All that effort I’d put into improving my running and cycling. The London Marathon. All those miles in the swimming pool. That horrible ride I did just three days earlier to get a feel for the bike course. All wasted if I couldn’t get through the waves and complete the first 200 metres of the swim course.
My salvation came in the form of a young local guy called Luther, who swims in the bay every day, and who showed me how to use the current to my advantage and encouraged me to just swim out with him without thinking.
It worked! The sensation was completely unlike any form of swimming I’d done before, and I was so pleased I’d persevered. There is no way I could have overcome this during the actual event itself.
I can cover the Ironman swim distance in an indoor pool in 1hr 32min, and I’d bet around the same time in a lake. I’ve practised both, consistently. But sea swimming adds three new dimensions that make it unlike any form of swimming I’ve ever experienced.
First, there’s the motion sickness you endure from the relentless rise and fall of the swell, even beyond the initial waves breaking on the beach. It takes a lot of getting used to, as does finding yourself bringing your arm out of the water only to plunge it into fresh air as the water disappears beneath you. After a big wave it’s more like air swimming than sea swimming.
Second, there’s the salt water. You might take in a few mouthfuls of chlorinated pool water, or a few gulps of lake water, but anything more than a few mouthfuls of sea water quickly make you feel queasy. Not so good over a 2.4 mile course.
And third, there’s the current. Swimming straight in a pool is easy. In a lake, you can’t get too lost. But in the sea like it was today, the current can really mess you around – taking more effort to move forward, and knocking you off course at the same time. I’d bet it’s going to add 20% to the total swim distance on Sunday.
The fact that I made it as far as I did on Thursday was all down to a guy I’d never met before called Luther. And the fact that I’d asked for help. Just about everyone I’ve met in the swimming / cycling / running community has been fantastically supportive and encouraging, which is why I would always encourage anyone to just get stuck in. There’s no ‘them and us’ – it’s just ‘us’.
Out at sea, when I turned round to see how far we’d swum, I told Luther I loved him. He told me he had a girlfriend. I told him I had a wife.
I don’t think he knew how much he’d done for me. I know the swim’s going to be hard on Sunday, but if the wind drops then swimming conditions should improve, so it shouldn’t be harder than this.
And as they did on Thursday, my swim training mantras came through. Think float, not sink. It’s just a swim. It’s a beautiful day in the bay 🙂
All in all, a good day. A thorough examination. A bit painful. But I met my appointment with the sea, and it’s given me a bit more confidence for my next visit.