Sunday, April 6, 2008

first experience with open water swim

My first triathlon, with its half-mile open water swim, is one week from today. I needed to get a practice in open water under my belt, so I entrusted Dan (three time finisher at the Iron Man distance) to help me with my first open water swim.

Dan picked the Aquatic Park in San Francisco as the site of the swim. Yep, chilly San Francisco Bay. Gulp.

Truth be told, I was nervous about the swim. This was to be my first time out in the open water swimming with purpose since I was a little kid (meaning: not just horsing around jumping off a boat offshore or snorkeling around). I knew the water was going to be frigid, and I don't like cold water much. I also didn't relish the thought of being such a newbie in front of Dan (there's that darn ego getting in the way).

I tried to sleep as best I could, but still was a bit fretful and restless in bed. Even so, I woke up at 6:30a to eat some oatmeal and gather my gear together: swim suit, swim cap, goggles, sweats, towels, body glide and an energy drink and Clif bar for post-workout. As I drove north to San Francisco, I felt a certain twinge of anxiety, but I knew I'd be in good hands.

Dan and I met up at 8am at the Sports Basement at Crissy Field so I could pick up my rental wet suit and also to buy some wax ear plugs, at Dan's suggestion. I'd discounted the effect that frigid water on the eardrums can have on one's sense of balance, so I appreciated the tip (the first of many to come) coming from Dan's many years of experience.

By 8:30am, we'd found parking spots at the Aquatic Park and were walking toward the big amphitheater of concrete seats above the small beach.

I don't think we could've picked a better day to swim. The sky was clear, the wind was calm and the temperatures weren't too bad. Air temperature was 47 degrees and the water temperature was 52 degrees. Thank goodness for wetsuits! There were already several folks from a Team in Training group in the water swimming along the buoy line, so we plunked our stuff down on the steps near their stuff (safety in numbers?) and proceeded to change into our wet suits for the swim.

As we were changing, Dan gave me the rundown of things to do to prep for the swim:
  • Apply Bodyglide to your calves (ease of suit removal) and your neck area (cut down on chafing) before putting the suit on. DON'T get Bodyglide on your goggles... it's a mess if you do.
  • When you put your wet suit on, make sure there's no gap below the crotch before slipping into the sleeves... you don't want a big gap for water to pool between your legs.
  • Always wear a brightly colored swim cap in open water so it's easy to be seen. I have a dark grey one and planned to buy a bright cap until Dan told me I'd get them at the races I enter and would soon have too many.
  • Put your ear plugs in before getting your ears wet so they stick in place better
After donning our wet suits, we ran down the beach a hundred yards or so to get the blood flowing and then waded into the water up to our knees. My feet went numb rather quickly, but my calves felt nice and warm thanks to the wet suit.

Then we walked in up to our chests, and I was doing ok until the cold water leaked into my suit via the zipper line up my back, and WOW was that a shocker. Not quite take-your-breath-away cold, but a stark reminder that I was going to be suffering with my face in this chilly stuff.

Dan suggested we just try and swim 20 yards or so to ease into things and pop back up to reassess our progress. He recommended we do some crawl, some breast stroke and even float on our backs as our faces got used to the water temperature.

Then the magic moment: I put my face down in the water and swam a bit. Shocking cold aside, I was kind of pleased that these first strokes in the Bay went pretty smoothly. Sure, I couldn't see more than two feet due to the cloudy water, and instead of chlorine, all I could taste was salt, but the experience wasn't as frightful as I imagined it could be.

By the end of the 20 yards, my face really hurt due to the cold water. We treaded water a bit and talked the how-tos of sighting in open water (big landmarks, sneak the peek at them into your stroke, adjust as necessary) and then swam a stretch again.

Over the next half hour, we swam back and forth along the shore line enough for me to realize this whole sighting thing can really mess with your stroke efficiency. I found I most enjoyed the swimming when I was able to track alongside Dan and not sight at all. Only once did I mis-time a breath and take in a mouthful of water, but I didn't gag like I thought I would, I simply spit it out and kept going.

By the time our swim was done, I was feeling pretty satisfied with how well the session had gone... even though I couldn't really feel my toes or fingers.

Dan gave me some last instructions on exiting the swim and starting the first transition in a race:
  • don't stand up too early too deep and judge this by touching the bottom three times with your hands during your swim stroke before popping onto your feet.
  • Begin to disrobe the wet suit ASAP because it's easier to take off when it's wet.
  • Get your feet as clean as possible before donning your socks/shoes for the next leg.
  • Wear synthetic socks on the bike leg so as to avoid blisters from wet feet in cotton socks.
And by 9:30am, my first open water swim experience was done, and we were drying off and putting on our warm layers. While we were dressing, Dan gave some tips for the race next weekend along the lines of getting into the water before other folks do to make sure my goggles are working, the wet suit feels right, pick a spot on the edge of the masses so that I can duck in and out of the crowd as I need to, etc.

As I listened to him, I marveled at how warm the sun felt in the 47 degree air in comparison to the water we were just in. That didn't stop me from hurrying to get my sweats on, and I cranked up the heated seats in my car on my way back to Sports Basement to drop off my wet suit.

I really appreciate Dan guiding me through my first open water swim. He was a good teacher, and I know I'll be able to use his tips next week at the race. Although the water won't be so cold at any of my triathlons I enter this summer, our swim from Alcatraz is just five months away, so I know I'll be back at the Aquatic Park many more times as I get ready to swim the distance this fall.


twinga said...

Wow... I'm impressed! Way to go! I've never done anything like it, and it sounds quite scary to be honest. But you probably learn a lot about yourself. Either way, I'm going to think about you next week. When exactly is it?

ThomasK said...

Thanks, Twinga. The race is Sunday, April 13, starting at 9am PDT. My wave starts at 9:14am, so wish me luck then as I start swimming! It should all be over within 100 minutes, and you can look for a Tweet on Twitter confirming it as soon as I can get to the keyboard.

twinga said...

awesome! I'll send you some good energy! :)

Brenna said...


I have stumbled upon your site, and have a question. I just signed up for a 1/2 ironman, (also created a blog with google) and don't know about wetsuits. I have an open water swim, and have no idea what to think about purchasing.

The internet is slightly overwhelming to me at this point. I stumbled upon your blog somehow, and thought I would ask you.

My blog title site is:

Any ideas or books would be great!


ThomasK said...

Brenna, welcome to the blog. It seems like you're an SF resident (from your blog), and if so, I'd recommend that you get over to the Sports Basement and talk with the fine folks there in the triathlon department. You can rent a wetsuit to try it out and then be better prepared to ask questions about what makes the other styles of suits better.

Which half-ironman are you signed up for?