Mermaid Open Water Swim Clinic

I often get laughed at because I grew up in Hawai'i yet had to take adult swim lessons. I went to the beach a lot as a kid, but never learned the proper strokes or how to properly breathe. Three summers ago I took 6 weeks of adult swim lessons through the local Parks and Rec, and ever since then I have been a fairly avid pool-only swimmer. That is, until today. With the Sprint Tri rapidly approaching, I decided I better get serious about preparing for it. Since I've never formally swum in open water before, I signed up to go to the Open Water Clinic hosted by the event organizers.

Winter finally arrived in the Bay Area this week, and it rained non-stop since Tuesday. I kept waiting for an email notification canceling the clinic but instead I got an email that said:


Being that I did spent a lot of time at the beach as a kid, I didn't really have much fear of being in the water, however, I did have a lot of anxiety about being in the water in stormy conditions! I agonized about this all week. Every time I thought about it, I wanted to puke. I constantly checked the weather. It kept showing rain and I honestly considered just bailing on it.

But one of the things I have been pondering (a lot!) lately is Fear. Coincidentally, I also received the monthly Mermaids newsletter with this article on fear by Coach Heidi who led today's clinic. These words resonated with me:

"I didn’t want to let fear guide my decisions in life."

"I realized I wanted to make some changes and that I wanted to stop letting my fears guide me. I knew there was beauty and change waiting for me I just had to brave enough to go for it."

"I have learned that fear can be something so exciting and life changing."

"Fear is exhilarating and challenging, it’s not easy and safe but there isn’t much in this world worth working for when it’s safe and easy."

"We don’t have to be perfect, we just have to try."

I knew if I bailed, I would regret it so I decided to just for it.

I woke up very early this morning to the sound of rain and wind. So of course, the first thing I did was check the forecast. It showed that the rain would clear up by the time the clinic started, but it would be very windy. Lovely.

I procrastinated getting ready until the last possible minutes before I had to leave. Perhaps if I hadn't procrastinated, I would have been better prepared...

The clinic was held at Crown Memorial Beach Park in Alameda. It's the same place that See Jane Run holds their annual race. I had to drive across the San Mateo Bridge to get there and it was scary windy crossing the span. I had to hold on to the steering wheel with both hands to keep the car steady.

I arrived just as the clinic was starting. There was about 15-20 of us (it's an all-women's event) of various skill levels. I was thrilled to see my friend Doris; this will be her first triathlon too! We sat on beach chairs in a circle learning about safety, sighting and having any questions we had answered. While we sat there, the sun came out but the wind picked up and gusts were 20+ mph. I was freezing.

I had worn my Speedo swimsuit, my famous SF Giants hoodie, a thin pair of Lulu Dance Pants, and slippers (or as most call them, flip-flops). I noticed that everyone else (especially the experienced Mermaids) was bundled up in fleeces, mittens and Uggs. Uggs - they would have been perfect to wear to the clinic! Perhaps if I hadn't procrastinated, I would have been better prepared...

The lecture was so helpful. I learned things I didn't even think of like:

• You need to learn how to breathe on both sides because if a swimmer is on one side, or the current is pulling on your strong side, you will only end up swallowing water, so if you know how to breath on both sides this won't be a problem. Noted.

• This race has a "Floating Start" meaning everyone treads water at the Start Line vs. a "Beach Start" where everyone is standing on the beach, then races into the water. Apparently a "Floating Start" is much calmer = less anxiety. Whew.

• Like running you also need Body Glide because a wet suit can chafe you. Who knew?!

Speaking of wet suits, the Mermaid Team partners with Smoker Wetsuits. I had arranged beforehand to rent one from them. They had one waiting for me when I arrived. It was my first experience wearing a wetsuit and it took 2 people to get it on me.

The original plan was for us to swim against the current, but the wind was so strong that they had us swim with the current instead. In addition to Coach Heidi there were lots of other swim volunteers who swam in the water with us and were on surfboards to guide us through the swim.

As we walked down to the other end of the beach where we would be starting at, I leaned over to Doris and said, "Okay, now I'm getting nervous..." The wetsuit definitely warmed me up, but my bare feet were already frozen just from walking on the sand. As we gathered around for some last minute instructions, I put on the bright orange swim cap we were given so they could keep track of us.

We all entered the water together and surprisingly; it wasn't as cold as I thought it would be. Don't get me wrong, it was cold, just not as debilitating as I expected. On the count of 3 we all submerged ourselves in the water together, then practiced starting a few times. Once we were comfortable with that, we started swimming back to "our area" - a mere 400 meters down the beach (the distance of the swim on race day).

The current was very strong and it was really tiring to fight against it. One of the swim volunteers stayed with me the whole time, guiding me along. She kept telling me try and get farther away from shore, past the breaker, but the current kept pushing me back in.

Also, I missed the black line at the bottom of the pool. I could not see a thing in the water - all I saw was green. The water was extremely salty and pretty gross. I tried not to think about it. I was struggling to fight the current so my swim volunteer (I really wish I remembered her name), would tell me, "Okay, swim 15 strokes, then take a rest." Then, "This time do 20 strokes, then come up for a breather." This really, really helped me. I also flipped over and swam a few backstrokes to regroup myself and take a few deep breaths.

Before I knew it I was almost to the Finish Line. I made it and didn't drown! The distance felt short, but yet so challenging. When I came out of the water I was so lightheaded and stumbled around like a drunken woman. I had to pause for a minute to get my bearings.

The first thing that I noticed was that I felt sick. The taste from the water was gross. I don't even want to think about what was in it. All I had with me was a bottle of Grape Propel. I failed to bring any snacks...perhaps if I hadn't procrastinated, I would have been better prepared. Doris was so kind to give me a banana, and we also were given Tootsie Roll Lollipops and Luna Bars. I hadn't had a Tootsie Roll Lollipop in YEARS but it SAVED me and helped to get rid of the awful saltwater taste in my mouth.

Some of the swim volunteers said that it was the coldest water they'd ever swam in and it was the harshest weather conditions they've had during any clinic or race, so if I was able to survive today, then things should be much better on race day.

And now I know the things that I need to work on:

• Endurance: I have decent endurance in the pool, but not enough for open water swimming. It requires so much more energy.

• Sighting: Never done this before, wasn't even sure what it was; but now I know what it is and how to practice it - even in the pool.

• Double-Sided Breathing: Gonna have to put some effort into learning how to do this.

One thing that I was pretty happy about was swimming in a wet suit. I have primarily swum after long runs, using a pull buoy to rest my legs. I was very concerned about how this would translate in the open water. I was thrilled to see that the wetsuit provides the same buoyancy. In fact, I was so happy with the wetsuit that I ended up coming home with one of my own...I guess this means that I'll have to do at least more than one of these triathlon thingies (or at the very least, the swim portion of them).

I am so, so happy that I forced myself to go to this clinic. Not only did it take away the unknown of open water swimming, but it also took away some natural anxiety because I was able to prove to myself that I could do it. And in challenging weather conditions no less.

Twelve weeks till the big day (which means three weeks after my next marathon)...