Panic, Chaotic Frogs, Pools, and Lakes

Or, a long, navel-gazing essay on swimming by me.

Today’s writing time is about swimming. During my triathlon journey so far – and it’s a relatively short one; I did my first tri in 2010 – swimming has definitely been the most challenging and interesting part of the whole experience.

Which of these is not like the others?

When “they” say that swimming is pretty much totally dependent on technique, they’re right. Swimming is not like running and biking. In running and biking you can just put one foot in front of the other or turn the cranks using basic skills that most of us learned as children. On the other hand, swimming relatively fast for relatively long distances requires feats of coordination and conscious attention to details that we don’t think about in regular land-and-air living. Most of us as children learned to swim in that we learned how not to drown in the pool or the ocean or the lake or the quarry and that was enough to satisfy our parents safety consciousness and our own impatient desires to get out into whatever body of water we had at our disposal and go have fun. I truly envy the people who learned to swim properly as kids.

I just want to be happy! Or at least not a tension-filled disaster in the water!

But, it’s not exactly all technique. What we’re also deeply in need of is learning to be comfortable in a medium that we are not particularly fit to inhabit (i.e. I’d like to stop having panic attacks in open water, thanks). That’s what I’ve been concentrating on for the last two years. While I’d like to be fast, it’s not exactly necessary as long as I can be comfortable and calm and relaxed. Yes, fast is optimal, but really 5 minutes extra fun swimming during a  70.3 is ok by me if that means I get out of the pool ready for a good bike and run and not exhausted from fighting myself.

Yes, I really did learn to swim freestyle from a book!

I like to say that I learned to swim from a book. This book, to be specific.  A friend (the same one that got me into triathlon in the first place, thanks, Bill!) lent it to me and I followed what it said to do pretty religiously and tried to get as Fishlike as I could. So every morning for most of the summer of 2010, I spent about a half hour going back and forth in my apartment building’s small pool, not even actually swimming, just gliding along on my side blowing bubbles while an older lady did the breast stroke in a floppy hat and a pair of big sunglasses. Whatever, it worked. At the end of it when the directions in the book finally said to take strokes and actually swim, I could. It was kind of miraculous.

The Learn from a Book Method – not for Everyone:

But when I say that I learned to swim from a book three years ago (and I do like saying that, right before I casually mention that I’ve finished an Ironman swim, really I can work the fact that I did an Ironman into pretty much any conversation these days.) that is a bit disingenuous as I knew very well how not to drown and how to be comfortable in the water before that, I just didn’t know how to synchronize my chaotic imitation of a crawl with any sort of regular breathing. Or to swim more than one length of the pool without feeling like my head was going to explode from oxygen deprivation. I love being in the ocean and I’ve spent years body surfing and boogie boarding, wind surfing, even a few attempts and regular wave surfing, snorkeling, sailing, and generally being in and around water. Also, it’s what I do for a living (Ostensibly. I don’t get too much time on the water doing research these days.) So, water is one of my happy places and I just needed to learn some sort of efficient freestyle and how to breathe. If you’ve never been too keen on water-related activities and haven’t spent much time in the water not swimming, your mileage may vary if you try to learn from a book. I suspect that most normal people would have a much more fun time learning from an actual person and probably be less frustrated and more successful with the kind of feedback a good swim coach brings to the table. I’ve had a couple of bad experiences with swim coaches (more on that another time, but suffice to say, you don’t want to hear from your swim coach less than a week before your first oly tri that your swimming is so bad that you should consider pulling out of the race that you trained for months to do. Why didn’t she mention her misgivings earlier? I have no idea. Probably she just wanted my money.)

I’m Slow but I’m Happy – Now What?

(Feel free to hear either Cat Stevens or Alanis Morissette in your head here.) Despite having finally learned to swim for triathlon, it doesn’t really mean that I’m anything but slow or that I’ve stopped panicking at swim starts. But I am at last getting comfortable in the water. It was amazing to me this summer that I was regularly swimming 4000 m swims with the occasional longer swim thrown in for fun. I’ve done most of it on my own with a few odd lessons and videotaped seminar thrown in. I had some pretty specific swim workouts from my Ironman plan and these were written by people who acknowledged the ordinariness of most triathlon swimmers. These were workouts that usually had a few alternatives for slower/faster people and didn’t have workout times on them that are impossible for middle of the pack swimmers to even do. Most of the swim plans with the Ironman training plans I was looking at were completely demoralizing and impossible for me to do (4000 meters in an hour? While doing all manner of exercises? 400 m of butterfly? Are these people for real?) so it’s not surprising that I went with the plan that had swim workouts that I could actually, you know, finish. Also, I spent a lot of time at the local lake this summer. Nothing prepares you for open water swimming like open water swimming.

Pool training vs Open Water Swimming (or Goodbye Lines, Hello Panic):

Swimming exclusively in the pool and then somehow expecting those skills to magically transfer to open water is like doing all you running indoors on a treadmill and all your biking on a trainer and expecting to race well with that as preparation. Could work, but probably not the best way to get ready for the actual event. So why do we do it?

It is no secret that I’ve been struggling with the start with swim panic. From my very first tri to my last but one tri, it comes back over and over again, often when I’m not expecting it at all. The thing that has hands down helped me the most is a series of swim workouts put on by one of the local tri groups (which ironically is headed by a couple of swimmers). Every Thursday from May to August between 100 and 500 triathletes gather at the local lake and swim together around a marked 1500 meter course with boat and board support. We start together at the gun and get to practice just as if it were a race. The course they lay out is along the first loop of the Frankfurt Ironman course so before Ironman this year, I’d swum the first part of the course about seven times in a crowd of people. At the start of the summer I was panicking at every swim practice (ok, the first two), then I figured out how to practice reining the panic in and swimming after it. By the last 800 meters of most of those swims, I couldn’t even imagine what I’d been panicked about in the first place. Then I started getting bolder, starting right up at the front with the big boys, deliberately getting into the groups and drafting off feet that were too fast for me, swimming directly between slower swimmers who were converging on turns, and things like that. By the end of the summer, I couldn’t even remember what a panic feels like anymore. I was loving swimming and feeling strong and happy every time I got in the water.

Which brings me full circle, Panic at the Disco Frankfurt City Tri:

Of course that meant that last month at the local sprint tri in the same lake, I was deluding myself into thinking that I was a front of the pack swimmer. Rather than a nice, easy water start, this one is a beach start and this tri is “beginner friendly” which in Germany means that it is composed of lots of people doing very kick-intensive breast stroke (that is what all kids here learn instead of the doggy paddle). I got in the middle of it and couldn’t find a single bit of clear water, my way was blocked everywhere by arms and feet kicking at me in horribly unpredictable ways. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t swim, it was ridiculous. I ended up basically doing a combination of backstroke and Tarzan with my head completely out of the water for the entire 400 meters. I experienced less body contact at the Ironman swim with close to 2,800 people in the water together. There, I quickly found my group of mid-level swimmer all doing a non-chaotic and very predictable crawl and I just had to swim with the group. I felt a bit like a fish then. The Frankfurt City everyman sprint is like swimming in the midst of 500 blind frogs, all of whom are bigger than you. It was also the adrenaline spike of running as fast as I could into the water to try to get ahead of the chaotic frogs that caused the problem. I’m short, with proportional legs and I just didn’t move fast enough to get ahead of the chaotic-frog traffic jam, instead landing in the middle of it where I immediately got pummeled into panic and became a relatively useless bit of flotsam. I didn’t get my breathing under control and my stroke to straighten out until about 50 meters before the finish.

Get right back on that Horse in that Lake:

Just to end on a positive note, I had a great swim three weeks after that at the last tri of the season and swam 1500 meters in 31 minutes with no panic and generally a really good feeling overall. I still love to swim, but definitely still have work to do. I’ve only had a race panic twice in the last two years, both times at the Frankfurt City sprint, but I’d really like to turn the Frankfurt swim around. Next year, I plan on doing the Olympic distance at Frankfurt City, so that will probably go just fine because the better swimmers usually do the oly and therefore there is a lower chaotic frog density. Also, I’d kind of like to be faster than 2:00/100 meters. I’m signed up for an actual class in December with the goal of getting a bit faster. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Since I have no pictures of the cats swimming, have some of me trying to surf last summer in Portugal:

I'm up! I'm up! I'm surfing now!

I’m up! I’m up! I’m surfing now!

This is me, almost surfing. This shot was taken about 2 seconds before I fell off, but I did manage to ride this one for a bit, even if it is a little wave, with training wheels.

This is me, almost surfing. This shot was taken about 2 seconds before I fell off, but I did manage to ride this one for a bit, even if it is a little wave, with training wheels.

I love my rental surfboard and rental wetsuit!

I love my rental surfboard and rental wetsuit!

Oh wait! I do have a relevant cat picture after all!

Devil-kitty wants to know why there's no water in his bath!

Devil-kitty wants to know why there’s no water in his bath!

1 thought on “Panic, Chaotic Frogs, Pools, and Lakes

  1. The Wife

    As a former Chaotic Frog (there’s a team name in there somewhere), I can testify that learning to swim from a book, or indeed learning from someone who learned from a book, isn’t a bad idea at all. Thanks to you, I’ve made it from Chaotic Frog to Overly Shiny Sea Lion when splashing around the lake in my wetsuit 🙂


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