Open Water seems to be the new black. David Walliams’ incredible efforts in swimming the length of the Thames and his previous Channel crossing have been perhaps the most outward expression of its burgeoning popularity. At the Beijing Olympics the men’s 10km open water swim was one of the most compelling events in the whole Games; and everywhere you look new open water swim sessions are being advertised and charity swims are being launched. Yet, despite this, I found out the other day that fewer people have swum the English Channel than have climbed Mount Everest.
My experience at Bala on Sunday came as a forceful reminder that, even though I’ve done over 30 triathlons, I’m still well capable of getting myself into difficulty on the swim. In fact, ?I’d say that the swim element is the reason most wannabe triathletes cite for not having a go at triathlon.
I did my first triathlon in 2003. It was the sprint distance at Windsor and my time of 1:42 was good enough for 10th in my age group (my how the times have changed – note, in my defence, that the bike leg at Windsor is 30km, not the usual 20km). The abiding memory of that first race was jumping in to the Thames at 6:30 in the morning wondering what on earth I was doing. Within moments of the start the combination of inexperience, the cold and, if I’m honest, wide-eyed fear, had my heart rate skyrocketing, my breathing becoming shallow and rapid and a wave of negativity washing through me. I was hyperventilating. Since that first time, I’ve learned to enjoy the open water experience. But it took many races before I learned to relax sufficiently to shut those anxious little gremlins back in their box, and even now at many early season events I can hear them hammering to climb out. At Bala they jumped right out of the box screaming and shouting.
There are, I imagine, a lot of triathletes who perhaps came to the sport late (I did my first aged 40) without a background in swimming for whom the open water swim is the most daunting part of the whole event. In most big races someone will raise their arm for a canoe rescue, and if the conditions are at all difficult then it’s likely that a number of swimmers will be hauled out. It’s bad enough on a short triathlon, but imagine what it must feel like to have to be rescued on an Ironman after all that commitment and effort. Back in 2003 I had no idea that open water swimming was something you could practice beyond going for a swim in the sea. Luckily, nowadays open water sessions are cropping up all over the place and it’s quite possible to find one reasonably locally on most nights of the week from May to September.
One of the problems that most of these sessions have is that they are seen primarily as training sessions and therefore there is a focus on fitness or technique all the time. My view is somewhat different. I think that even a useless swimmer like me can become relaxed and reasonably confident in open water if you learn to enjoy it. In other words, make the experience fun. The way I do this is by focusing on the aesthetics of the situation in which I find myself. I look at the tree fringed lake I’m in and admire it’s beauty; I enjoy the play of the sunlight dappling the water’s surface; I watch the languid stroke of an accomplished swimmer in their element. In short, I learn to love being in open water. As a teacher I know that one of the biggest barriers to learning is fear, fear of failure and it’s my first responsibility to create an environment conducive to learning. So, putting an inexperienced triathlete into open water and immediately focusing on performance won’t necessarily help them become comfortable with that environment. Getting in, exploring, playing games even might help.
If you are thinking about doing a triathlon, don’t be put off by the swim; go and watch a triathlon and enjoy the chuggers at the back like me paddling around, watch the dolphins at the front effortlessly gliding through the water and then get down to some open water swim sessions and play.