Races and Stories

Not a Pretty Picture

Metroplex Sprint Triathlon, Grand Prairie, Texas, September '97

Here's my race report: I started swimming in the first wave. End of race report.

Now for the gory details.

I spent time Friday evening, having driven straight from the airport to the race hotel to pick up my packet. I was just back from Philly, the closest real airport to Trenton, where I had spent the previous week unsuccessfully looking for a pool (I know--too late). Before it got all the way dark, I decided to scope things out. I drove over to Lynn Creek park at Joe Pool Lake (in Grand Prairie between Dallas and Fort Worth). The transition area was set up in parking lot at the top of a boat ramp, and the race director (Jack Weiss) was swimming along side a boat setting the buoys for the swim. 800 meters didn't sound like too much, but those damn buoys sure looked a long way apart.

I drove the bike and run courses. I'd ridden the bike course several times as part of other rides, and it was basically flat with two good hills at about the halfway point. Those of you who raced at the Metroplex Du-2-Du will remember the course, it was nearly the same, but for a couple of extra loops to stretch out the duathlon distance. Everything was very well marked, and I knew I wouldn't get lost.

Race morning, I arrived early. I had eaten exactly what I wanted to eat, and, with the exception of having no swimming since June (more on that later), felt well trained, given my current progress within the sport. I had carefully worked out my race strategy and objectives. Got marked, and set up my transition area, which was actually pretty well located for once.

Stripped down to my swim suit, and went down to the boat ramp. I swam out to the first buoy and back for a total of about ten minutes to get warmed up. That's when I started getting scared. My first open-water swim in a race, and the 15 mph breeze was kicking up more roughness than I'm used to. I figured I'd get through the swim somehow, and expected the three following waves to pass me before I finished.

The first wave consisted of many of the fastest racers (men, 30-39), and I positioned myself at the back of the wave to avoid getting in anyone's way. The horn sounded, and off we went.

Even though I poked my head up and sighted the first buoy frequently, my sense of direction was hopeless. First I'd be too far to the right, then I'd be too far to the left. So, I zig-zagged back and forth, trying to swim as slowly as possible to keep from going anaerobic. But, damn it, I just haven't gotten to the point where I can swim aerobically and comfortably, and I started to get in trouble.

I rounded the first buoy, after only 300 meters, faced into the wind. Actually, seafarers would call it quartering seas, and I continued to have problems with my sense of direction. I passed another buoy, and stopped and held onto it for a few seconds, trying to catch my breath, when the second wave passed me. It was very intimidating to look behind me and see 50 swimmers bearing down on me, knowing that they would swim right over me. So I swam over to the left to get out of their way, which was interpreted by one of the lifeguards on the aft deck of a sailboat moored nearby as lost wits, and in she came to rescue me. I refused her help, but I did follow her over to the sailboat, with one hand on her float, to hang on the ladder for a couple of minutes while I reassessed my life and my desires to be a triathlete.

Another racer joined me. He was having problems with his goggles, or so he said, but he was breathing as hard as I. After a little recovery, he adopted the strategy of swimming from boat to boat, and he set off again. I didn't know whether I would be DQ'd for receiving help, and I really didn't care at that point as long as I could finish the race, so I decided to follow the same strategy. I hadn't gone 50 meters when I realized that I was veering sharply to the left (into the wind!?) after only a few strokes. Finally, I looked up and saw nothing but lake, having turned away from the course by about 30 degrees. I climbed into the small Boston Whaler that appeared in front of me and abandoned the race.

I know, I know. I need the lessons, and I haven't joined the masters swim program. None of that fits very well with my travel requirements. I keep thinking that it is a waste of money (and it ain't anything like cheap to swim regularly in North Dallas--we are talking $100 a month for a club membership, or nearly that for masters swimming at a high-school pool with access only during the group workout) to join a program and only participate a third of the time. But I have no choice--there just are not any more options.

After getting into the boat, I helped cheer on an older lady who was the last swimmer out of the water. She was in trouble the whole time. She'd swim three strokes crawl, the same number elementary backstroke, and then breastroke (no better than a dog paddle, actually) to get her bearings. It took her 25 minutes to complete the 800 meters, but finish she did. Needless to say, I felt like a complete fool, reasonably fit, and ten times as fit as that lady, but I was in the boat.

Ten people that I knew, including the RD, came up to me while I was dejectedly standing in the transition area next to my unused state-of-the-art bike and asked what happened. What could I say? I'm a reasonable biker, and mediocre runner, but without a rail every 25 meters I should not be allowed in the water. One person asked why I didn't just muddle along real slowly. But I can't swim that slow. If I'm going slow enough to not blow up, I'm sinking, period. I know, it's bad technique, but there it is. I envy you guys in cold water areas, and who swim in the ocean. The combination of salt water and wetsuits must make the swim a lot less intimidating for newbies to the open water. I've never been afraid of the water, and I'm not now, but I'm glad I abandoned the swim before I had to be pulled out, perhaps in real danger. I don't think I would have drowned in any case, because the swim course was along the shore and never more than about 30 or 40 meters from chest-deep shallows. But I was still thankful for the large number of boats provided by Jack.

In need of positive reinforcement today, and having not gotten any working at all yesterday, I went for a long run. It was hot, it was humid, and the heat index was around 105. Even so, I lengthened my previous long run by two miles to 13 miles. And I had to forcefully restrain myself from adding a 35-mile bike ride to that this afternoon. Humiliation is a powerful motivator.

So, after all those inspiring race reports from Canada, where people overcame the odds and succeeded, I'm sorry to have to foist a bummer race report on you all. But even though I don't know how I'm going to solve my swimming problem, the dejected feeling is getting crowded out by cold fury, magnified by the passing miles on my run. THIS SHALL NOT STAND!