Oh Niall, you’re panicking again, aren’t you?
That thought is bouncing around my head as I turn to breathe. Warm chlorine-rich water sweeps into my mouth and I start spluttering. I’ve made the attempt without having my arm outstretched, causing my body to sink low enough so my mouth doesn’t clear the water line. I turn my face back down, abandoning the attempt. I can last a good few strokes before I need to breathe again. I know this, but in that moment my brain is screaming for oxygen. I make another attempt immediately, this time to my left. My limbs flail about, trying to get one good gulp of air. I can’t seem to fathom that I’m swimming in a swimming pool, one that I can easily stand up in… but panic has a nasty way of drowning everything else out. I claw at the water, turn my head and…
Lovely, lovely air fills my lungs, but the panic still remains. I barely suppress it long enough to finish the length. I’m breathing heavily as Mark, the swim instructor, looks down at me and then at the clock.
“What time did you start at?”
“Red top.” I say in between breaths.
“Okay… That’s… way too fast. I said 100 meters in two minutes forty; you’ve just done it in… nearly one minute fifty. You’re supposed to start slowly and build up.”
Whatever is left of my panic is firmly squashed by a feeling of stupidity. Of the eight lengths we were supposed to do, I had only finished two and I felt (and looked) like I had done twenty. When I start swimming again I go a lot slower, but my panic simmers through the next six lengths. Afterwards Mark reminds us to swim slowly on race day in order to avoid the classic mistake of “gassing” halfway through.
For me, panicking in the water isn’t a new sensation. I’ve felt it in varying degrees ever since I joined Piranha. Back then I was swimming most lengths with my head sticking out of the water, all because I couldn’t seem to relax in the water.
But I kept showing up and kept swimming. I went to the New to Tri coffee meetings Piranha held and got invaluable advice. I signed up for races and even got a coach. Gradually I learnt how to stop the panic from rising up before it became a problem. Everything was going well, so well that I thought I could push a little harder. Maybe come race day I could finish the swim a little faster, you know, just to get it out of the way… But when I tried to do that, the Monday before Carlow, I panicked more than I had in the last three months. When Mark was talking about not gassing early in a race, I felt like he was talking directly to me.
As I’m gathering up my gear, something occurs to me:
Say Niall, if you barely got through swimming four hundred meters in a well-lit swimming pool… What’s going to happen when you try to swim seven hundred and fifty meters in a river? In a river with nearly zero visibility? In a river that’s not conveniently heated? In a river with no place to stand up and breathe lovely, lovely gulps of air?
I leave the pool thoroughly dreading Carlow.
Considering how well Monday went, my game plan for the race on Sunday was to break things up so I wouldn’t, couldn’t, get overwhelmed. Step 1? Breakfast. This one was easy, I’ve had breakfast lots of times. Step 2 was to strap the bike rack to the car. This one was a little fiddly but again, I pass. Even more impressively I get down to Carlow (step 4) all without my bike falling off the rack and getting pulverized by a truck (step 5). Step 6 sees me pick up my race number and the success of step 7 depends on me finding the transition area. It’s during step 7 that my finely tuned step-plan fizzles out. It happens as I’m walking across the footbridge and I get my first real look at where I’ll be swimming. The course on the River Barrow starts further upstream, where we would swim against the current for 250 metres before turning back for the remaining 500. Travelling with the current, competitors would then swim under the foot bridge and get out on the other side via a slipway. I gulped. It looked like a long way to go.
I check into transition and start setting up my bike. Luckily Marlon, one of the New to Tri members, and a couple of other Piranhas are setting up close by. Naturally, I immediately begin bombarding them with questions.
“I didn’t think we’d have to strap a race number to us.” I say holding up a large piece of paper with my number on it.
“Yeah, you attach it to your race belt.”
“You don’t have one?”
I check the inside of the brown envelope I was handed at registration.
“John Lyons’ll have a spare.” Marlon says confidently.
John is my coach and I wonder how well he’ll react to me not knowing about such an important piece of gear. I leave the number to one side and continue my prep work. Various Piranhas end up helping me get ready. Lucy gives me some talcum powder to put in my cycling and running shoes to help dry my feet. Wayne tells me to put vaseline on my ankles and wrists to make it easier to take off my wetsuit. Marlon repositions my cycling shoes in front of my bike so they’re ready to be put on the moment I reach it. John appears and after hearing my plight, hands me a spare race belt with minimal eye rolling. He then gets me to run from the entry of transition to my bike and then to the exit. I feel slightly silly doing this but it helps me pinpoint where my bike is and what path to take. I repeat this a few times before it starts to stick. I go back to John and he hands me a bright top.
“Something that’ll make your bike stand out so you won’t miss it. Know what this is?” He asks me, pointing to a bottle of blue liquid sticking out of his bag.
“It’s mouth wash. Helps kills any bugs you might pick up from the water. Come find me after the race, I’ll give you some.”
Won’t need it. I am not swallowing any river water, no bloody way.
Still I agree, thinking that the mouth wash would be a good fail safe in the very small, minute chance that I do swallow any.
I spend the hour before the start double and triple checking things. I bump into other Piranhas who’re more than happy to offer advice. I’m even given a Piranha cap, which I’m chuffed with. Plenty of members who aren’t racing show up to offer encouragement. A big Piranha flag is planted at the centre of the race zone, marking a place where people can meet or leave their bags. Eventually I find myself in my wetsuit standing beside this flag, feeling a little more prepared to take on my first triathlon. An announcement is made that it’s almost time to start the race and together we walk back out over the footbridge and then left, to the starting line…
John tells me to keep moving when I get into the river. It’s good advice: the announcer had just declared that the temperature of the river that day was thirteen point three degrees. Far too cold to be aimlessly floating around in. We get to the starting area and separate into our assigned waves. I watch the first wave go, churning the water as they swim upstream. I’m in the fifth wave and I can’t make my mind up whether I want for it to be our turn or not. I jump up and down to try to psyche myself up. The nervousness I had felt when I saw the river had been slowly increasing and I chattered to anyone who’d listen in order to take my mind off it. Soon our wave is called and I trudge towards it as if I’m heading to the gallows. I enter the river and take a few strokes, keeping my head out of the water. Other white capped swimmers in my wave are bobbing up and down around me. A string of buoys divides the river in two, one side for us to swim up and the far side for us to swim down. A strange thought occurs to me:
Hey, it’s not that cold.
Increasing in confidence, I dip my face in the water. It’s as if I’ve stuck my face into a bowl of cold pea soup. I can’t see a thing. I lift my head out and suck in a few breaths, treading water. Sure, the visibility was poor, but that wasn’t a surprise. I feel the shock of last Monday fade a little.
Maybe I can do this! Maybe I won’t panic!
Convinced I was ready, I follow the advice I had been given by the club and grab the collar of my wetsuit and lift it out, letting some of the river flow in. This was to help my bodyheat warm the water trapped inside, making it more comfortable to swim in. But when I open the collar the water is still very much 13.3 degrees. I gasp.
Christ that’s cold.
Immediately I can feel panic stirring, so I decide to do a few more practice strokes, this time with my face in the water. Somewhere I hear that we’re about a minute away from starting. When I dip my head in again I can just make out what looks like a tractor tire sticking out of the riverbed, it’s rubber rivets streaked by red spray paint. I turn to breathe, this time making sure my arm is stretched out. My mouth clears the water line. I let some excess air out. I am ready to breathe.
My chest feels tight. I’m trying to inhale but no air is going in. My panic levels go through the roof in the space of 5 seconds. I try again.
Nothing. I falter and swallow a mouthful of river water for good measure, ending my grand plan of not needing any mouthwash. I abandon swimming entirely. Somewhere someone’s saying there’s 40 seconds left. I start to notice, really notice, how cold the water is. My breaths are shallow, too shallow for the effort I’m putting in. 30 seconds. There wasn’t a moment during my pre-race jitters did I think I’d be panicking before the race started. 25 seconds.
Why the hell did I think I could do this?
Then I hear a voice shouting over the crowd.
‘Just relax Niall! Keep moving!’
I turn and see Marlon calling from the bank. I’m not sure what I looked like up until that point, but I’m glad he took notice. Marlon is the reason my panic dampens long enough for me to start to treading water again and for that I’m very grateful. I let my feet rise up behind me so I’m ready to start swimming. 10 seconds. I take a few more breaths and feel my chest loosen. Three… Two… One… And…
To my great relief I realise that I can breathe again and I start the race swimming alongside the bank, taking a breath every second stroke. I continue this way, looking to the bank to make sure I’m not moving diagonally. A bare foot whips out of the gloom in front of me, reminding me to sight. I do and see someone swimming directly in front of me. I move to their right and pass them. Before long, I see two kayakers ahead, marking the turning point. I cut away from the bank and make the turn, jostling with a few others in the process. Downstream I find myself swimming closer to the centre of the river, where the current is strongest. I’m approaching the footbridge when I feel my shoulder stiffen. I have only ever swam wearing a full body wetsuit once before and this was by far the longest time I have spent swimming with it on. I plunge back into the pea soup and after a few strokes look back up. The bridge hasn’t gotten any closer. It’s as if I haven’t moved at all. The stiffness is starting to press a little more and I feel my stroke start to slip. My good friend panic was about a minute away from becoming a problem, I could feel it. Luckily something else happened. Something akin to the ‘use the force’ moment from Star Wars. Except instead of Obi-Wan’s voice saying ‘use the force, Luke’ it’s John’s saying ‘go back to baby-basics’. Admittedly it’s not as awe inspiring as ‘use the force’, but it doesn’t need to be. ‘Baby-basics’ is something John had told me when I started swimming with the club.
“If you’re getting tired and you find yourself slipping, break down the basics of your stroke and think: what am I missing?”
For Luke, ‘use the force’ resulted in the Death Star being blown up. For me, ‘baby-basics’ made me realize that I was neglecting the catch on each stroke. I correct this and feel the resistance of the water each time I pull my arm back. The next time I look up, I’m almost under the bridge and I can hear cheering. My arms move faster as I get closer to the end. All of a sudden I can stand, and I feel the cold water running off me. A steward offers a hand to steady me and I take it. Piranha supporters are right at the top of the slip and I hear my name being called. I smile and start to run, pulling off the wetsuit as I go.
Transition is a blur, but I take my practiced route to the bike and get going. I pause in front of my cycling shoes, eyeing the socks that I’ve carefully placed there. In an effort to save time I stick the shoes on barefoot. At the mount line instead of a flashy flying mount, I make sure no one is behind me and I get on my normal way: very slowly. I take my time at the start, and abandon the thought of sprinting off in a high gear. I’m still buzzing from the swim and a few people pass me on the way out as I “ride that high”. The road starts to rise and I adjust my gears accordingly. My legs start to wake up and my pace increases. The countryside is beautiful, some sun is running over the hills to my left as I roll out of town. I take some time to soak in the atmosphere and shout encouragement to other Piranhas as they pass.
This is great, I think, I didn’t drown!
Then Wayne blasts past me, reminding me that I am still in a race and I start to work a little harder. The course is exactly 10k out and 10k back, with the second half almost completely downhill. I make the turn and begin the descent back into town. I grip my handle bars as I race over a chewed up stretch of road, passing by one or two people. To my surprise I realise that I’m feeling stronger which each passing minute. We travel through a roundabout and back into the town. I detach my cycling shoes from the cleats well before the mount line, not trusting my legs to do the job in a hurry. I dismount and run alongside my bike, hand firmly gripping the saddle. I enter the transition area for the final time and again, don’t bother putting on the socks. Every second counts, after all.
When I start the run, my heart rate is high and so is my pace. It takes me the guts of a kilometre to temper both so that I don’t burn myself out. We move up the Barrow again, passing start and the turning points of the swim. I continue up the trail, occasionally nodding at fellow Piranhas who pass, now too winded to shout any more encouragement. After the swim and the cycle, that 5k seemed long, but by the time I round the turning point, I find it a little easier knowing that I’ll be running back in the same direction. Soon I find myself running up and over the same footbridge that I had crossed that morning. People are cheering on either side of the home stretch and I put on an extra burst of speed. I see a blue carpet marking the end, take a few more strides and…
I hit the stop button on my watch and it gives a cheery chirruping noise. I’m handed water and a banana, which are finished without me really noticing. The rest of the afternoon blurs. I soon find myself horsing into Swiss roll and cheering others as they cross the finish line. I’m eagerly thinking about my next race in Westport when I realise something.
I didn’t panic.
Even when I was in the river, my mind was on so many other things that I didn’t really have a chance to. With my swimming being so poor back in January I didn’t think finishing a triathlon was really possible until that moment. I think about the support Piranha gave me in order to help me reach this point… I think about Marlon calling from the bank, pulling me back from panicking… Then I think about that mouthful of river water had I swallowed at the start. And what sort of monstrous unseen bug I might have been infected with. I decide my grand plans for the rest of the season would have to wait and I set out to find John and that bottle of mouthwash.