“Why am I not getting any closer? I have been out here for way too long. Keep going. Keep going. It’s okay; you’re okay, just keep swimming.”
That is what I said to myself last Sunday when I was still farther out from the finish than I wanted to be, but closer than I had been all morning. I was racing in my first open water swim race, the Dwight Crum Pier to Pier race, a two mile swim starting just south of the Hermosa Beach pier and finishing just north of the Manhattan Beach pier. I signed up for the race because it is historic, and because I want to be a great triathlete.
I know that is a leap, stay with me.
The swim section of triathlon is the event that sets the tone for the entire race, and it is helpful to be a fast swimmer in order to set up a good position for the longest section of the day, the bike. I usually exit the swim near the middle of the pack, so my triathlon strategy closely resembles the video game Pac Man, because I spend most of the race picking off racers on the bike and run. That strategy has worked fairly well for me thus far. I am a good triathlete, but I want to be great, and great triathletes tend to be strong swimmers, so here we go.
I am not a strong swimmer, and I have enough self-awareness to know that I may never be a strong swimmer. My shoulders are narrow, not molded like large boulders, and even though I grew up playing Marco Polo in my family pool, and body surfing in the ocean, my swim lessons started and stopped in the ‘80’s. The fact is I am an adult onset swimmer. It is what it is. However, I am determined to improve.
The Pier to Pier race fit snuggly into my schedule, because it was three weeks after Alaskaman and three weeks before the Santa Barbara triathlon, but because I came down with a serious case of “post ironman brain drain,” I barely made it in. I went to register the morning of July 24th, but registration closed at midnight, July 23rd!! “Wha??” I quickly emailed the race director pleading my case that I would pay a late fee if need be, whatever it took to be a part of his race. Thankfully, he quickly responded and mentioned that he could let me in, but I never passed the “swim check” they set up so they can approve if swimmers can actually swim proficiently in the ocean. This is an idea I support whole-heartedly, so I wrote him back saying that I just swam 2.67 miles in sub-55 degrees water, and included a link to my Alaskaman race results for confirmation. He responded, “You’re in because you were crazy enough to swim in 55 degree water!” Sweet!! I registered for the race post haste, and exhaled a sigh of relief. I was in.:)
My top priority this year has been to become a slightly better than sufficient swimmer, and I have been willing to do anything and everything to make that happen. I have swum thousands of yards in the pool completing work outs designed by one of the best swimmers the sport of triathlon has ever known, (the first female out of the water at the Ironman World Championships 2008, Hillary Biscay). I have embraced open water by swimming in the ocean a few Saturdays every month, and have competed in a few ambitious races, Ironman St. George 70.3 and Alaskaman. I love swimming. I will gladly do it whenever and wherever I can. In fact, whenever I see large body of water these days my first thought is, “I’d like to swim across that.” My desire to swim is not the issue; the issue is that it takes me a longer time to swim from start to finish than my competitors.
Speaking of phenomenal competition, one of the highlights of my tri-athletic life was swimming in the same zip code as my super swimmer teammate, Mary Knott, during our Alaskaman practice swim. When the gun went off for real two days later, Mary was one of the top swimmers out of the water. Amazing.
I have never considered myself to be stubborn. I prefer, “determined.” I am determined to reach the goals I set for myself, and I will put in the time and work to reach them. The goal I am chasing now is to qualify for Kona in my current age group, 35 – 39. That is a big ask, because most of the top women in my age group are at the tipping point of going pro, so that’s fun. Still, I think I could be within striking distance if I could shave about four minutes off of my Ironman swim personal best.
That is why I swam with real swimmers on Sunday.
I did not fit in among that hardcore line-up; I was taller, slower, and weaker than most of them, yet I love challenging myself, and I don’t mind failure. I think failure is similar to getting lost; it is frustrating at the time, but the outcome is learning a new way to reach the destination. I got lost countless times on the streets of Los Angeles during my early years in production, but now I can describe nine different ways to get to Sony Studios. Honestly, try me.:)
I believe that growth is the outcome of failure and with growth comes strength, and I am always up for growing stronger.
I certainly grew stronger on Sunday. That is what swimming against rough ocean current for over eighty minutes will do for someone. I maintained a solid pace throughout my sojourn up the coast, hung on some faster feet when the opportunity arose, and even passed a few swimmers along the way, but it was a much tougher slog than I imagined. The relentless high chop of the sea made sighting difficult, but I could see clearly, (no Vaseline smudge), which was a welcomed improvement over the swim at Alaskaman. I wore a watch, but miraculously did not look at it at all during the race. The ocean would have gained more salt if I did.
There was a section about two thirds of the way in-between piers where it felt like I was swimming on a waterlogged treadmill. I was pumping my arms and kicking my long, heavy legs, but making only quarter inch-sized gains, and feeling like I was stuck and just swimming in the same place.
That was the low point.
That was the part of the day when I accepted that I would be finishing much later than I had hoped, and that there is still much, much more work to be done.
Not long after that realization, I made the final right turn past the Manhattan pier, and rode the waves toward the beach. Since I excel in land-based activities, I hurdled over the last few waves and sprinted up the beach to the finish passing about eight people before crossing the line. Little victories.:)
Overall, I am proud of myself that I swam in the race. I was definitely out of my league, it was tough, but there is no other body of water more challenging and unpredictable to swim in than the wide open ocean. Plus, being a native Angeleno, and triathlete, it was pretty cool to swim from Hermosa to Manhattan Beach.