It is a tad embarassing (let alone dangerous) to live on a boat…and not know how to swim. But that is my reality. And the remedy? Go sign up for a Triathlon!

February, 2008: Who’s idea was this? My stepdaughter, Emma calls me while I am in Charleston SC. “Wouldn’t it be cool to do the Iron Girl triathlon as mother-daughter? Let’s get Jill to do it with us too — as a family!” “NO.” I replied. “I don’t know how to swim.” End of story.
A few days later, Emma persisted.

I had a weak moment that day. The word “Yes” came out of my mouth. Then, I proceeded to talk more family, Jill into signing up too. What was I thinking?? I never swam as a kid (too busy chasing tennis balls!)….and have always avoided any “triathlon” that included a swim leg. Now, I was committed.

May / June 2008: TRI training season starts in earnest…Pat was keeping my upper bod fit with endless boat painting projects, and Emma and Jill got me into running races and “bricks”. Emma taught us new lingo. A “brick” is a back 2 back workout of 2 different activities….such as a bike ride, immediately followed by a run. We did lots of bricks. Bricks became the norm.. Luv the land sports. We even signed up for the “Run for the Roses” 5K run. (Mainly because the t-shirt bonus was pretty cool.) All is good. Let’s see how long I can procrastinate adding the swim component. Endless boat Painting – upper bod workout A zillion runner types at the starting line… Rosy runners at the finish! styling our new T-Shirts ??

July, 2008: Learning to Swim for a Triathlon: What NOT to do! Still scratching my head on this. Why did I sign up to do a triathlon if I don’t know how to swim? What’s a girl to do? I tapped everyone’s knowledge. Even strangers. “Hey – do you know how to do the backstroke? Freestyle? Can you give me some tips”. It was sad. Jill signed us both up for swim lessons at a local pool. The lessons were a disaster. I discovered that Jill swims like a fish (she doesn’t need swim lessons!)….and I was freaked out just putting my head under water. The instructors were not very patient with me. It was pitiful. The Iron Girl was now less than two months away. Open water swim. And I still hadn’t put my head under water. Oh boy. I needed a plan. So, I signed up for a month-2-month membership at my local gym – which included a salt-water swim pool. I could kindof swim the sidestroke….as long as no one else in the pool created a wake. Otherwise, I would end up sucking in the water.

At my local gym…I took advantage of the saltwater pool. Didn’t even know what other workout opportunities were available – I made a beeline everyday for the pool. They offered a “Century Club” program — where you win little jock trinkets if you show up 100 times at the gym in 1 year. Little did they know! Within a mere 3 weeks…I was 20% of the way to becoming the fastest Century Club winner they’d ever had!

So, I swam lap after lap of the sidestroke…at NON-PEAK times at the pool. If someone wanted to share a lane with me…I was in trouble (choking on water from their wake or splash)…so I swam LARGE…and PATHETIC (which was easy to do) making my swim lane unattractive to other swimmers. Geeezzz.

Aug 1, 2008: Open Water Swim at the Iron Girl Dress Rehearsal

It was “rehearsal day’ for the Iron Girl Triathlon, and at 6AM, I felt calm mentally, and prepared physically. We’ll call this a “swim state of denial”. The dress rehearsal was open to any Iron Girl entrant who wanted to practice swimming in open water — followed by the run. 600 of us took up the opportunity. Wasn’t sure what to expect in the open water but was hopeful that there would be MANY MANY kayaks of support crews, lifeguards, expert swimmers, emergency boats — YOU NAME IT — just in case I needed someone or something to hang onto.

Groups of women would be called “on deck” in waves based on their age groups — paced 3 minutes from the next group of swimmers. We would walk into the water, start swimming around an island, and then look for 3 buoys — the third being the last buoy to swim around. Outgoing, we would pass the buoy on our port side…and returning back, the buoys would be to starboard. Yes, I would rather be passing buoys in my boat.

Where are all of the buoys? From land, I couldn’t see any buoys. Jill assured me that they were very close together once we were out in the water. The distance JUST to the island (which blocked the view of the first buoy) seemed pretty long to me. A LOT bigger than my local lap pool. We met a lovely lady (Betsy) – who had done the Iron Girl last year. She explained how the open water swim would work. She suggested that I start at the END of my wave, to avoid swimming into anyone. Betsy mentioned there were lake grasses that wrap around you before you reached the island.

I guess this was good information. Didn’t like the sound of it tho. Tears welled up in my eyes….I was suddenly terrified of swimming in open water. What am I doing here with all these ladies who KNOW how to swim???

Our wave was called to the waterfront. We were the VERY LAST group of swimmers to be called to the water. This was good — no swimmers behind us to catch up and swim into or splash around me. Jill and Emma walked into the water with me, like true “sistas”…. I think they were thinking I wouldn’t get into the water if they didn’t stay close. They were probably right!

A “swim” gone bad…real bad! I took a few steps into the water, and attempted to swim. I needed to just relax. This proved harder said than done. Within 5 strokes, I was breathing heavy, tense about the grasses grabbing at my legs and arms, and panic was setting in. I couldn’t stand up. The water was deep. I was fighting with the water, choking, inhaling the most awful smelling water, and had already raised my hand for kayak assistance. I had barely left shore.

With kayak assistance, a kayak comes near you, and you reach over the bow to hold on — to regain your composure. I tried to slow my breathing, but was not having success. I needed to let go of the kayak and keep going…Jill and Emma were treading water and waiting for me. So I pushed off from the kayak, and attempted side stroking again. It was incredibly laborious…whatever I was doing was completely a struggle….and I continued to flail about.

The buoys seemed to be MILES apart….and somehow, using a combination of floating on my back to slow my breathing, sidestoking and holding onto a kayak a countless number of times….I managed to keep going. I had plugs in my ears (to keep out the water) — so I didn’t hear what was going on around me, but I was doing a lot of zig zag swimming…never a straight line. Jill and Emma were still with me….treading water….smiling, laughing….and trying to encourage me to keep going.

They were having a happy-time swim party, while I continued to choke and suck down water. I was NOT having fun. I had reached the halfway point in what seemed to be eternity, and a woman on a kayak allowed me to grab on. There was another lady who had grabbed on the other end of her kayak…At least I wasn’t the ONLY person out there struggling.

I continued to sidestroke and backstroke, but at this point the fatigue factor was setting in. Panic makes you very tired. I did more backstroke heading toward shore, and the lady on the kayak was yelling something at me — but I couldn’t hear with my earplugs in place. We rounded the island, and the pond grasses reappeared. It was pretty awful and stressful. More panic set in. I was very close to shore now, and called out for the kayak one last time. Emma and Jill were out of the water now and encouraging me to finish. I was gasping so heavily for air, there was very little left in my fuel tank. I think the kayak lady was growing weary of me… so I let go of her kayak and muscled my way thru the last 20 feet of thick grasses and duck pond water. Ugh. I stood up, and there I was, heart racing. I looked like a Green Monster covered with long slimy pond grass…gasping for air. I am so grateful for Emma and Jill staying next to me during that open water swim – but the trauma left me shaking and my legs wobbly.

We transitioned to the run. I took 10 steps, and gasped for air again. My heart rate was racing out of control. The best I could do, was to walk…slowly. I was not feeling right. It would take me the whole day, for my body to find equilibrium.

Reality sets in:
1. Time’s up. I need to learn to swim…and somehow swim so that my heart rate does not go thru the roof …I’ve got 3 weeks to figure this out

2. I need to deal with some deep-rooted fears. Deep water? Drowning? Holy crap!

3. When you flail, panic, and thrash about in the water for nearly an hour – you burn A LOT of calories. Brings new meaning to the phrase “running on empty”.

Having a bad day?….EAT! After this wonderful start to my day (aka swim traumatized!) Emma and I needed food – and the Double TT diner had the fastest service in town. While waiting to be served, Emma opened the little jelly packets and devoured them. It appears that treading water burns a lot of calories too! Devoured a huge omelet, potatoes and two slices of bread. Could have eaten more. I have never eaten so many calories at one sitting.

Retail therapy: Emma and I spent the rest of the day together. My ego was smashed at this point….so Emma suggested “retail therapy” to prop-up my mood. Since my Trek bike had been stolen a week ago at the marina….maybe this was a good time to buy a bike?

We trudged over to the local bicycle shop “Race Pace Bikes” — so I could check out the road bicycles. I was fitted for a Trek 1.2 WSD road bike, and went out on a test drive. The bike felt great — this model would do!

Somewhat hesitant on spending money on a bike — as it was entirely “possible” that I may not be able to complete the Iron Girl open water swim. Hmmm…what’s a girl to do? Bought the bike anyway (hello retail therapy!)…and would return back to the bike shop later that day to pick it up.

Ya never know who you’re gonna run into. Upon returning to the bicycle shop, we met a salesperson named Patty …and the conversation turned to Iron Girl. Emma thought that Patty looked familiar….Yep — turns out, Patty — was the kayak lady – who saved my pitiful swim ass on countless occasions during the IG dress rehearsal earlier today. Patty laid it on me pretty hard. She told me I needed to learn to swim. She told me I would be yanked outta the water on race day, if I attempted to float on my back, or cling to a kayak like I did today. She said I had no forward propulsion… Yikes – I’m already in a Debbie-Downer sort of mood, and I had to meet Ms. Meany Pants (aka Patty) in the bike store. Thanks Patty…lets smash my ego more. I’m in tears now. I walked away from the mean lady. Patty wasn’t done. She chased me down and proceeded to hug me. Then Emma started tearing up…then Emma hugged me. It was the most bizarre experience in the Race Pace Bicycle Shop. There we were, three women doing a lot of eye drainage and hugging. Very odd approach to bike sales. Turns out that Patty is a swim coach and triathlon coach for Leukemia Team-n-Training. She told me I needed to find a Total Immersion swim instructor….and work my butt off for the next 3 weeks if I hoped to be an Iron Girl.

I had nothing to lose at this point…so I google searched “Total Immersion” – as recommended by the my new friend Patty in the bike shop. It’s an approach to swimming based on balance and core technique – enabling effortless swim. The emphasis is not on kicking so hard that you tire out…or how your rotate your hands and all sorts of subtle details…but more on being fishlike and aerodynamic….You gain all of your power from your “core”…and not your extremities. Maybe there is hope? I ordered every book and DVD (total of 5)…at expedited delivery. I have less than 3 weeks to digest, learn, and apply…and ultimately swim. I can’t repeat the trauma of swimming in open water.

Blowing bubbles. Three “Total Immersion” DVD’s and two books arrived the following Monday, and I was prepared to do whatever it took to learn how to swim. I watched the first DVD “How to breathe” about a dozen times. Step one – is to get comfortable with the water. The instructions were, to fill a really large bowl with water….then, stick your head in it ….blowing bubbles out your nose….and turn your head to breathe thru your mouth. Wow. This was all new to me. Having never learned to swim as a kid…I had no idea how you were supposto breathe in the water. I practiced breathing in a bowl for nearly an hour. Here I am….48 years old…and I had mastered breathing in a bowl full of water. Woo hoo!

The next step, is to practice the bowl breathing concepts…in a pool. I held onto the side of the pool, and plunked my head underwater for another hour. Lots of adults and their kids looked on as blew bubbles out my nose….and turned my head to inhale thru my mouth. It was quite the spectacle. Motionless and bubbly in the pool. I had less than 3 weeks to learn to swim, and armed with my DVD’s and books – we were making progress.

Getting buoyant. The next day, I learned to be buoyant – and float on my back. Keeping my hips up high, helped me stay higher on the water. Wow…this is exciting…each day I was learning something new. Maybe I could do this??? Didn’t take much to pick my roadkill battered ego off the ground.

Learning to swim obsession. I was going to the pool twice a day now…intent on learning something new that would help me swim each day. I learned how to kick…without making myself completely winded. The Total Immersion Swim instruction DVD’s were perfect. They gave me drills to work on to become more aerodynamic, buoyant and more efficient in the water. I was now trying desperately to learn how to swim the freestyle. I could get the core “roll”….but still struggled with breathing rhythm. I spent so much time at my local pool, that one day, the lifeguard asked me “…will I see you a 3rd time today?”.

Everything else in my life went on “hold”. This went on for two weeks….and I got FAR more comfortable in the water than I thought I would ever be….but I still hadn’t mastered the freestyle. My naysayer inner voice had returned. Maybe I just won’t be able to do the Iron Girl? Who is this negative person with the big voice in my head? I would never forgive myself if I quit now…so I had to keep going – and let the final day make the decision.

Nine days before the Iron Girl, a new reality sunk in. I did not have enough time to learn the freestyle. Time to work with what I’ve got – which isn’t much – but it’s my old standby – the sidestroke. I would remake it into a custom stroke. I could tweak my old stroke to keep my hips higher in the water for buoyancy, rotate halfway to sweetspot for breathing IN….and roll to an aerodynamic position for stroking and breathing OUT. By golly Miss Molly….this seemed to be working. I did 20 laps in the pool….effortless….not winded…and had lopped off 10 minutes from my previous 20 lap best time. I’m feeling much more confident now….at least in the pool where I could see bottom.

Open water swim attempt #2 – Gunpowder Lake. The weekend before the Iron Girl — Jill, Emma and I trudged up to Gunpowder Falls State Park….to test drive our swim skills in open water. Now, trust me — Emma and Jill did not need to test their skills — they are both superb swimmers. This was a test for me. This is the picture from the website for Gunpower Falls State Park. Looks like nice clear water right? NOT!

First let me explain a bit about Gunpowder Falls State Park. It is touted as one of the best places for swimming in Maryland. If this is TRUE – then I can assure you that you never want to swim in any open water in the state of Maryland. The water was nasty, brown, silty – you couldn’t see 1 inch below the surface. Lake grasses growing strong enjoying the likely fertilizer runoff that torments the Chesapeake Bay region. I digress.

Clearly – I did NOT want to get into the brown murky open water. Deep seated fears took over. I stayed in the shallow areas, and just practiced my new “methods” for swimming the sidestroke. The swimming techniques worked great – I did not inhale the nasty water like I did on the IG dress rehearsal. But, I like to know I can stand up in the water – and this won’t be an option during the triathlon. I was not ready for open water swimming.

All consuming anxiety. By swimming 2-3 times per day, I had greatly improved my aerobic capacity, and physically I was feeling GREAT. The mental side, was taking a toll. I wasn’t sleeping well, huge bags were growing under my eyes….and found myself reduced to tears when I thought about doing the DEEP and DARK open water swim.

Then one day, my dad said to me…”Jane – if you can swim in 3 feet of water…you can swim in 6 feet of water”. He was right – I needed to stop thinking about the “depth”. After all, I never stand up while doing laps at the pool….so what was my problem?

It was now Friday, two days before the Iron Girl event. My confidence was a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10 – and I my eyes welled up whenever I thought about doing the open water swim. I needed to take a sharpie and tattoo on my brain — I CAN DO THIS.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

It’s the DAY BEFORE…the big event. Our pink Iron Girl wrist bracelet (that was affixed during “packet pickup”) gave us access to the bike/transition area. We would bring our bicycles to the transition area….find our race number…and RACK the bikes. The bikes stay racked thru the nite in an area secured by the event organizers. Only those individuals with a PINK ID bracelet – were allowed into the bicycle transition area. It is becoming very “real” now. No turning back. This email just in from the Iron Girl Event Director….it says it all.

Sunday, August 24, 2008 — Iron Girl Race Day

Up at 5AM on Sunday, Iron Girl Event day, I drank my protein shake while sharing breakfast with Emma and Jill. Pat entertained us with his Joe Pesci impersonations. I needed humor to break the tension! We packed our transition bike shoes, running shoes, towels, water, food etc in the car, and headed over to Centennial Park. .

We quickly setup our transition area, and proceeded to get “body marked”. Body marking is for the swim leg — where your arms and hands display your race number….I guess this is to identify you, while in the water – or stuck in the pond grasses!

Our swim wave was scheduled for 8:25AM. We would be the very LAST wave to go into the water that morning. Perfect! I wanted to be the last wave — no swimmers coming up from behind me. I had worked out a swim strategy with Jill and Emma. They would remain on my left side (I can only sidestroke looking to my left)….and I would use their position as a visual to guide me along the swim route. Sortof a water version of a seeing eye dog.

By now, I was both nervous, and methodical. I scoped out the swim course….looking at all of the bouys and their distances. It appeared to be 2-3 “pool laps” between buoys. OK…this is do-able. I can do 2-3 pool lengths at a time. I was breaking down the swim into manageable portions – in my mind. I looked at all of the kayaks and support boats. There were many. Good.

We watched the other 12 swim waves enter the water in 8 minute intervals. Those who went in first, would be treading water for up to 8 minutes. Those who lingered behind in the wave, could stand in the waist deep water…. I would be lingering.

It is 8:17 now. Wave #13….our wave, was called up. It was show time – and strangely, I was very calm. Patty, the lady whom I had clung to her kayak 3 weeks ago — was supervising the entry of each swim wave. She spotted me – and gave me a hug. She told me I would do great. I looked her in the eye and said “I CAN DO THIS”. I proceeded toward the water. I had only ONE thing to think about — and that was to regulate my breathing. Nothing else. No other details were allowed into my head. As our wave started swimming….I looked at Jill and Emma. We were still standing. We waited 10 seconds to let the group depart. It was time….I nodded to them….and as planned…we began swimming, and they remained to my left. I thought SOLELY about breathing. Breathe IN when I’m in sweetspot….breath OUT close to the water. I had a rhythm. Yessirree…I was the QUEEN of the sidestroke, baby!

Occasionally, I would come close to other swimmers – but Emma and Jill looked out for me – and coaxed me toward them if I was about to collide. They called out each buoy for me…and gave encouraging words. We rounded the first ORANGE buoy….and made our first turn. Soon….we rounded the next ORANGE buoy….and now we were heading in the direction of the island. We passed 2 yellow buoys and we were closing in on the finish. I started to get tired and suddenly my breathing rhythm was “off”. Yup…that’s me – sidestroking like there is no tomorrow…with Jill and Emma to my left.

Oh no. I was breathing hard….so I turned to float on my back to relax. I knew we were within 200 yards of the finish. I tried to regain my breathing momentum….but I had lost my concentration. I would have to muscle it in thru the final stretch. It wasn’t far. Was fully expecting to have a rough stretch of the “pond grasses” – but I think someone took an underwater mower to this area — as the grasses that clung to me during the dress rehearsal — were gone.

I sidestroked….and sidestroked….and sidestroked….push push push….until FINALLY….I could stand up OH JOY!! Emma, Jill and I hugged. I had done it….I somehow beat my open water demons ….and I was so grateful to Jill and Emma for seeing me thru this as my personal lifeguards. They were my swim angels…they never let me out of their sight. It was very emotional… NO kayak support, no gasping for air, no “near drowning experience” -I had done it…I swam 1100 meters in open water.

We half-walked / half-jogged up to the transition area — while I caught my breath. I looked at my watch – 8:58. Wow…we had done the swim in 33 minutes. Considering that I had swum ¾ of the distance 3 weeks ago in over an hour….this was huge. I was so happy to be getting onto my bike in the transition area! I would be an Iron Girl today.

O Happy Day — on my bike!! Jill set the bike pace, I was in the middle, and Emma brought up the rear. We pedaled out route 108 – and watched a zillion IG cyclists coming at us in the opposite direction. We were the last wave of swimmers to go out, so naturally – we were at the back of the pack. We turned into the hilly sections, and enjoyed the wind flying by on the downhills. My large detailer decided to have ‘issues’. I could downshift…but upshifting felt like the chain was gonna fall off. I decided to stay in 3rd gear – avoiding any possible bike malfunction. For 17.5 miles, 3rd gear was my friend.

Jill and I had gotten a bit ahead of Emma (Emma was on a 50lb mountain bike, and Jill and I were on fast, lightweight roadbikes) -so we waited for her at one of the intersections to catch up. Got to the “turnaround” point at the school parking lot…and now we had only 7 miles to go. We stayed together – true sista-hoods, enjoying the bike ride, the hills, the great vibe out on the roadways — including spectators, police, and fellow IG’s cheering you on. We were on autopilot now. The bike ride was “cake”. We just needed to make sure that we avoided any potential snaffu’s – such as hitting a pothole, blowing out a tire, avoiding traffic and in my case – shifting gears.

We rounded the bends into Centennial Park….and were greeted by an escort of race officials guiding us to the transition area. Walking our bikes to the designated bike rack location – we proceeded to de-bike and prep for the run. The IG was 2/3 complete now….The run was the only remaining segment.

After a quick change into running shoes, the three of us started into a slow jog along the run course. My breathing was a bit heavier than I would like….that last 200 yards of the swim had gotten my heart rate up.

We passed many IG’s on the run…many had been reduced to walking. As we reached mile 2…Emma announced that we would be done in 10 minutes. Wow, 10 minutes and this insanity would be over! Nearing the mile 3 marker….my right calf suddenly cramped up. Lovely. I had to slow down the pace…. We had less than ½ mile to go….it was time to ignore that muscle pull…we were gonna run it in. Jill and I were pretty focused on breathing and keeping up a running rhythm….while Emma was chatting the whole time about “how fun this is!” and her thoughts had already turned to her “next” longer distance triathlon. Geeez….

The end was now in sight…and the cheers from the crowd gave us added incentive to finish strong. Within 20 yards of the race finish…we grabbed each others hand….and held them high. We completed our journey. We had done it. Together. As family. We were Iron Girls….