The freak out began as soon as we arrived at the beach. Mirror Lake was already hopping before 8 a.m. on Saturday with Ironman athletes getting in a last swim to keep fresh while others not racing the following the day were getting in some quality training.
Quality training. That’s what I was hoping for. Only my definition of quality training was yet undecided.
With my first Iron Distance race scheduled for September in Montreal, I figured I needed to do at least one 2.4-mile swim. I needed to know what swimming that long felt like. I needed to know that I could do it.
But I wasn’t sure if I wanted to time it. Because along with finishing the distance, I have to cover the 2.4 miles in two hours or less. (This, for the record, is a shorter cutoff time than the branded-Ironman races which have a 2:20 cutoff. Why the difference? Race directors prerogative I guess.) What would happen to my confidence if I didn’t finish my practice swim close to 2 hours? I would be crushed. I know that much about myself. So the decision to not wear a watch was easy, though the curiosity factor was high.
And so I begged my friends Nick and Greg to swim with me. I just want to do the distance I told them. This started to seem unlikely when, swimming to the starting line, there was a failure to complete two successive swim strokes. Nick and Greg urged me to take my time and just start swimming.
OK, my self-talk started, nice and easy. This is not a referendum on Montreal. This is a training day.
I started swimming as I often do in open water — five strokes then look up to sight. After about four times of this pattern Greg and Nick stopped me.
“Swim on the line,” they told me.
“But I don’t want to get anyone’s way,” I said, realizing, as I said it, that I somehow thought my workout, my swim practice, had less value than the others in the water. I concluded that was problematic thinking.
“They’ll swim around you,” they said.
And so I moved to swim along the line — a yellow cable which holds the buoys in place and marks the course. Swimming by looking at the cable means you don’t have to sight.
With long and easy strokes I moved down the course — a long rectangle. About halfway down, doubts started to creep up. What if I can’t swim two full loops of this course? What if I can’t finish the 2.4 miles? What if I just don’t have it in me?
I took a break and looked up to see Nick bobbing in the water nearby. He told me Greg swam back to shore, but Nick was committed to finishing the entire 2.4-miles with me. And so we carried on.
At the turnaround, I hung out. I floated on my back. I pondered swimming over to the shore where some paddle boats appeared to be for rent. Perhaps that would be easier. But no. Off we went to complete the first loop.
Halfway back to shore a whistle sounded. Officials from Ironman were placing the large orange buoys along the course and I was in their way. I moved over. I chatted with Nick. Then he told me to start swimming again.
Back at shore, 1.2-miles were completed. I needed a break. I pulled over in the water and, um, used the natural facilities. Then, in my mind, I decided I needed a sip of water. So I hustled on the beach to my bag of dry clothes, took a sip of water and off we went back into the lake.
“You’re not going to stop until you reach the turnaround,” Nick said.
Then I put my head down and started swimming. Nick offered me a tip when I told him I was getting dizzy at times in the water. Years of club swimming taught him that sometimes you can get dizzy because you’re not exhaling enough under water. That’s what causes you to hyperventilate. Hmm. Made sense to me. So I concentrated on my exhale, on my head placement and on high elbows.
About a quarter of the way down, I realized I was going to do this — I was going to swim 2.4 miles.
Then my shoulders started to ache. My arms were getting sore and tired. But my breathing was steady. My heart rate was good. This was the hard part. This was where I learned that I could get through the pain and discomfort. On the return I picked up the pace just slightly, pushing through to the end. In fact, I kept swimming along the line until my hand went right into the back of the leg of a guy who was standing at the water’s edge.
Nick was already back and out of his wetsuit. He had been swimming two or three buoys, then doubling back to make sure I was OK. In all, the poor guy probably swam 3 miles, but on the final leg, he saw I was still strong, still in rhythm, and went on ahead. But all the while, he had his watch running. He stopped it only once — when I took my bathroom break after the first loop. Otherwise, he kept it running, even when I hung out at the turnaround to talk and float and gather my thoughts.
The final verdict?
I swam in under two hours.
I was so happy I would have done a cartwheel if I could have lifted my arms over my head. Instead, I settled for a Nutella and banana crepe as my reward and my refuel both for my body and for my soul. More than just completing the swim, and completing it in adequate time, my Mirror Lake swim provided a moment I can return to anytime that I need to summon courage and confidence in the face of the unknown.