Pulling into the transition area at 4:55am, the air is still crisp and the sun is just coming up over the mountains. Frantically, I rack my bike, pump up my tires, and lay out my towel, socks, and shoes. My area is perfectly arranged, down to the last safety pin. I spray myself from head to toe in TriSlide and anxiously struggle to squeeze into my wetsuit. I grab my cap and goggles and, as race time approaches, I stroll down to the water. My toes hit the water and with overwhelming anxiety and the sudden urge to pee, I crack a small smile. It is time to swim!
For most people the swim is the most daunting part of a triathlon. If the bike is all about the equipment and the run is all about endurance and proper planning, then the swim depends primarily on technique. It is a discipline that most of us did not master as children, and requires a certain amount of skill to survive. Proper body alignment, stroke count, and pull are just the tip of the iceberg in “the swim.”
Once you think you have mastered keeping your head down and your ass up in the pool, it’s race day, and you enter the open water—which is an entirely new ballgame. Suddenly, you are in the middle of an open body of water with hundreds of other people all with one goal in mind: survival. Now you have one mission—to finish with only minor injuries and less water in your lungs than in the pond/lake/ocean you are swimming in. Avoiding kicks to the face and abdomen, and people that will literally swim over you, you must somehow manage to swim in a straight line in between the buoys with no lane lines to keep you in check. At this point it is more about self-defense than swimming. All the techniques you have been practicing during the off-season go out the window as you now use your arms to protect yourself like a kung fu master from sustaining solid organ injury from the feet of the guy fiercely kicking just in front of you.
So how do you achieve both good technique and survival? As we learned as children, practice makes perfect. Of course the first open water swim I did was during my first race, and the first time I decided to use a wetsuit was during a race—probably not the smartest idea in retrospect. Over the past few years however, I’ve learned what to expect, and have begun to prepare like most other normal (none of us are really “normal”) triathletes. In the pool I count strokes (which is still entirely too many per 25 yards), and I train with fins, a pull buoy, and a pair of agility paddles. I had my triathlon coach pick apart every piece of my swim stroke. As soon as the water temperature creeps above 50º I will have my wetsuit on and be in the ocean practicing dodging the waves and swimming against the current.
When it comes to the swim, it’s not just about proper technique, it’s also about good defense and practice. As the sun comes up on race day morning and you hop into the water to begin your warm up, you know it is going to be the start of a beautiful day…as long as you can manage to swim in a straight line and properly execute your knife-hand block to avoid major injuries!