One of the biggest fears I’ve had so far is making the switch from pool swimming to open water swimming – fittingly shortened to OWS which is similar to the sound I’m told most people make when they first jump off the pontoon. I’m an avid reader of triathlon and marathon “story books” so have heard first hand about the various nightmares people commonly experience on their first open water swim. Needless to say, it’s a mixed blessing knowing what sort of pain is ahead!
I’m booked in for a half day’s intro to OWS in a couple of weeks’ time, but have been getting more and more itchy that it’s only a month from then until race day, and if I am going to be one of those people that need to lie on their back trying to get air into their lungs for five minutes and the timidly breaststroke along the edge of the water frightened silly by the monster of the blue lagoon, I’m going to be in trouble.
I’m confident in the water and can cover the 1.2 miles needed in a pool doing front crawl, but am yet to manage to book the swimming lessons I could do with to speed things up, and so don’t have the comfort of knowing I’ve got swathes of time to spare between my finish time and cut off: I don’t.
I was in Manchester this weekend and pottering around Salford Quays with my friend Emma on Saturday when we saw some OWS happening (in the rain, yay the north!). On the tram back into town to find a craft beer spot to settle in for the afternoon, I asked Uncle Google whether OWS was something you could do any day in Salford Quays, or whether I’d – what a shame! – missed my chance this weekend. I was due to find a public pool to do a 2k swim on Sunday morning but figured my first OWS would be a much better gain as I can still do a long swim during the week.
Unpleasant surprise from the Google: there is a watersports centre and it has lots of chances through the week to dip more than your toe in the cooling waters of the Quay, including Sunday mornings. A quick call to the lovely people at the Helly Hansen Centre and an online registration later and I’ve no excuse not to be on the tram at 0800 the following morning ready to pay my wetsuit hire fee and get zipped into the weirdo cling foam skin of doom.
This is the third time in my life that I’ve put on a wetsuit. The first and second were on receiving packages from Wiggle, having sent back the first one in a state of shock that my Hertfordshire bedroom could go from balmy to totally tropical within 10 seconds of putting the thing on. That and the idea that medium is not big enough – but if you’re willing to throw yourself in massive muddy lakes, it’s not like you’re going to be somewhere that gets judgy about the size of your wetsuit! Anyway, having been approached in the changing rooms by a nice lady who wondered if I could zip her up, I felt okay asking the same thing of one of the members of staff standing by the dock.
Up to this point, I had the following in my evidence profit and loss accounts:
Positives: I know that you need to put your face in and try to breathe. Get over this and you’ll be able to breathe okay and do front crawl. Also to let a bit of water in your suit (not sure why but I remembered this was A Thing). I know some other coping strategies too: this lake has a 300m route as well as the main 500m route. I have given myself the sole goal of just getting in the water and swimming a bit, although nobody I have interacted with so far at the water knows this.
Negatives: I’ve been getting foot cramps lately (a new thing). My goggles have only even used a) indoors and b) in Greece when the water temperature was the same as an indoor pool, and I wear contact lenses with them. What if outdoor water has weird sh*t in that makes my contact lenses shrivel up? And they’ll be no use if my goggles are misty. Another big thing that’s had me worried is sighting, or, for mere mortals, looking where the bloody hell you’re going. This pairs with the dreaded zigzagging that happens when you can’t swim in a straight line without the comforting black line on the bottom of the swimming pool. Another pool-dweller’s comfort is the nice glidy push off you get every 25m. None of your cushty glide breaks Down The Quay. Pool wooses. Above all, the biggest fear is not knowing if I’m going to panic. Is the cold water going to be too much to bear? Will I even be able to pluck up the gumption to jump in in the first place, or will I have to ask a lifeguard to push me in? (Actually, could I do that? Are they insured for that sort of thing? Maybe I could do that.) Perhaps I am going to hate every single second before hyperventilating and end up being rescued by the lifeguard in his/her boat?
In the event: I channel all the other people who make this look a normal thing to do, and jump in. My hands and feet immediately shout at me but I shove my face in, do the neck flasher thing to let some water in, and try a bit of breaststroke. Breathing is tricky at first, but as long as I concentrate on actually doing it I’m okay. Not indoors great as breathing goes, but doable. My goggles immediately fog up, so I tread water for the first time since getting my silver lifesaver badge (incidentally when I also made a float out of a pair of pyjama bottoms, which I’ve since realised is in NO WAY useful for real world lifesaving). Goggles sorted, I go for a bit of head-in-water front crawl, pool style. WHOA that’s weird. Dark blue with my hands floating by like ghost hands. This is where some people freak out, but I actually quite like it. Less successful is my ability to swim in a straight line. Really not good at this at all, and my foggy goggs don’t help. When there’s a swimmer in front of me it’s better because I can spot their caps and triangulate the right direction even if one of them is a bit wonky. However, most of them are swimming away from me at some pace, so they don’t remain helpful for long.
I find that so long as I’m actually aware of where the buoys are, I’m quite good at changing direction. Lap one is eventually complete, and I hoist myself out to catch my breath, and also because I’m surprised to have finished my lap so assume it must be time to go home. A quick chat with the staffer on the quayside and I conclude to him that I’m chuffed but maybe I’ve earned my coffee and will not go back for another 500m. However, another minute sitting there and I’m feeling left out. There are twice as many swimmers now doing their laps of the quay than when I started, and some of them are doing breaststroke and chatting. I’m not feeling cold any more (air temperature finally having gotten the message that by the second half of May it’s good form to be warmer than the water), and so before I know it some version of me I don’t recognise has dived in for a second go. I’m equally as wonky donkey on lap two, pinballing my way around. I lose patience with my goggle situation by the halfway point, but eventually make it back to the platform and can still hoist myself up (another fear – not being strong enough to lift myself out of the water).
The other people in the changing rooms are chatty and we natter away, quite different from virtually all of my pool experiences through the winter and spring.
I had one other fear about open water swimming: for the stress it’d put on the now tiny number of free minutes in my week that I’d enjoy it and want to do it some more; and for my bank balance that it’d make my mind up about needing a GPS watch I could use in the water, betraying my trusty Garmin FR225 which I’ve been using for the bikes and runs so far. I think my fears might have been realised on both counts!
Endnote: big shout out to Oxygen Addict podcast for Rob and Helen’s Open Water Swimming tips. Just knowing that all but the most fruitcake-like of humans “will have mentally put their bike on eBay” by the time the water temp has become bearable enough to crack on and swim was a massive confidence boost. Cheers both!