One summer afternoon, my swim coach approached the distance group with something new, an open water swim. How far? A 10K. Hmmm…sure why not.
Seven of us were signed up for the USA Swimming National Open Water Championships on June 3, 2003 off of Fort Meyers beach in the Atlantic Ocean. We had now clue what we had gotten ourselves into…
Our “open water” training consisted of a few workouts where we couldn’t touch the wall when turning and picking our head up to “spot” the other side of the pool every 10 strokes. Yup, ready to go.
On race day, I was so nervous and it didn’t help a storm was brewing. Silently, I prayed the swim would get cancelled. It didn’t.
One of my friends, Lisa, had given me some open water advice that made me question the sanity of this swim.
1. Chew gum and bring an extra stick or two in your suit. Where am I expected to put this gum and why do I need to chew it? Apparently, minty salty gum is better than straight up salt.
2. Where lots of sunscreen. You will get a sunburn.
3. Go to the bathroom before you swim. Makes sense…don’t want to worry about this during my 3+ hour swim in the ocean. In fact, this has served as key advice for every triathlon and run I’ve ever done.
4. Use petroleum jelly, it prevents chaffing. Yet again I am asking, where do I put this exactly? Basically, any place that rubs – under your arms, between your neck and shoulders, between your legs. I haven’t found this necessary for shorter swims.
The clouds cleared by race start; I was sunscreened and jellied up and ready to swim. My heart sped up as we waded to the start line in the water. My mind raced with anxious thoughts. I started to stretch to calm my nerves. “This was really happening. Those waves were huge. The buoys are 800 meters apart! What if I can’t see the buoys and swim off course?!”
The start gun went off and I just started swimming. There was no race plan other than to finish.
The course was simple. We swam 500 meters off the coast and then 4,500 meters parallel to the beach only to turn around point and come straight back. There was a bright orange buoy every 800 meters.
I found a cadence with my strokes and started to focus on spotting the first buoy. Megan, a fellow distance swimmer, came up beside me and we paced each other. The waves would pull us 50 yards apart and then push us right next to each other. I learned the best time to spot (pick my head up to look for the buoy) was at the top of a wave. Any other time, all I could see was water.
Thank goodness Megan was right beside me because 30 minutes into the swim I was getting stir crazy. All-American Rejects “My Paper Heart” was on repeat in my head, “Please just don’t play with me, my paper heart will bleed.”
Swimming and running have a lot in common except for one HUGE difference. You can’t talk while you are swimming. The miles fly by when I’m running with a partner talking about life, running, and everything in between. While we weren’t talking to pass the time, we still pushed each other onward.
At the turn around point, we had bottles of water tossed to us and 5000 meters left. So refreshing to taste fresh water! Megan ended up swimming ahead and I faced the rest of the swim solo. Conditions actually got more difficult heading back. Waves were now smacking me in the face and I was heading against the current. My will to continue this swim was rapidly shrinking.
Finally, I saw a kayak passing out water and was able to ask how much further….1000 meters. That sounded really far at this point and I wanted so badly to just give up. I was mentally and physically exhausted. My muscles were burning and joints aching. My tongue felt like a brick of salt. Fresh water only temporarily quenched my thirst. And I couldn’t get All-American Rejects out of my head! I wanted to cry.
So I made a promise, “Courtney, you are not allowed to cry until you finish this race.” Somehow, that gave me the desire to push til the end. I cried when I crossed the finish line because that was the most difficult thing I’d ever done.
To this day, that 10K stands out in my mind as a huge accomplishment. Internally, I struggled between giving up or pushing forward. Whenever I face that battle now, I remember how good it felt to push forward.
Since then, I’ve raced in around 30 triathlons (1 Half Ironman), 2 half marathons, 2 marathons, and a handful of 5K swims. Next week is my second Half Ironman. One day, I want to finish an Ironman and tackle the 12.5 Swim Around Key West.