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Open Water Swimming and Other Scary Things…

And other amazing feats of daring and wonder.

Such hyperbole, right? I know!

It was 2005 and I was just about to turn 33.  I had been running for about a year at this point and my ex-husband, ‘The Runner,’ suggested I consider adding some longer distances to my running repertoire.

I signed up, out of new runner excitement, to run the New York City Marathon, having spent the previous year racking up qualifying races and going out at all hours of the day and night to ‘get my run in’ regardless of weather or amount of sunlight available to us East Coasters.

November came and it was time to do my best work – over the Verrazano and through the streets I ran.  And, quite a number of hours later and I was a ‘Marathoner’ with a medal and aluminum heat sheet to prove that this turtle could go the distance.

I slept for two days after that race.  When I woke up I had two immediate thoughts:

Must. Find. Chocolate. Shake.

And ‘what’s next?’

And that is how this native San Diego, who had never learned to swim, found the sport of Triathlon.  I wanted to do something that would just be my thing because in our household running belonged to ‘The Runner’ and he always gently reminded me of that whenever I got too excited about my newfound sport.

I scanned the race listings for something that was both local and a short distance and found that Danksin had an all-women’s race in Sandy Hook, NJ.  My excitement took over as I printed out that first race entry form, filled in all the information requested, including naming a next of kin – such an odd thing to happily list, right? What the hell?

Then I wrote out a check, mailed off that envelope and strutted around the apartment. I was going to do a triathlon! Once that euphoria subsided, the mild panic kicked in. Um, Bubbles, there’s that little thing about knowing how to swim…

And forget about the fact that I hadn’t actually been on a bike in about twenty years. Yeah, a small bump in the road, right?

Once I regained my senses, I did what any normal person does: I begged someone to let me borrow their bike. In my case, it ended up being a Mountain Bike that is just a tad too big for me. His name is “Bike Mike” but I couldn’t tell you why.  I took him out to the North Country Trail and pleaded with him not to let me fall in front of all the little 3 year-olds on their trikes.  “Bike Mike” and I got along great – and up until race day nine months later, I had no idea how slow I was.  But for those nine training months, I was a speed demon – a real Top Gun level cyclist. Forget the fact that I knew nothing about that bike – just forget that part. It’s not important. What’s important is what happened right after my first ride…

I signed up for swimming classes at the local middle school.  Now, to paint a picture of this class you’d have to understand that it was filled with 30 – 50 year old people who had never even learned to float.  Ha! Suckers! I could float. I could float on my back and I could float on my stomach. I was already Bruce Jenner years ahead of those ‘babies.’  What I couldn’t do was put my face in the water, while moving my arms, legs and torso at the same time.  Right, I couldn’t swim. And that’s when the real panic hit. What the hell was I thinking? I wasn’t a swimmer let alone a triathlete. How was I going to take these non-skills and bring them to an actual ocean?

I thought about quitting for about a week – then something really strange happened: I just kept going back to class.  Once the class was over I started going to a local outdoor pool and became friends with the teenage lifeguards. They’d let me go to the pool early and practice my laps and by the time July came I could swim a mile without stopping. A whole mile! Imagine my horror when I finished my longest swim ever and came up out of the water to see three dead frogs floating in the water!  Yeah, I did what any seasoned swimmer does…swam as far away from them as I could.  Back to my mile.  Me! The girl who grew up practically on top of the ocean, but never learned to actually go into it, had learned to swim in Yonkers, New York, of all places.

September rolled around and I swam, biked and ran myself to a finisher’s medal and made my own history book entry – I’d gone from a woman who was afraid of swimming to a woman who had just swum a half mile in open water. And I lived to sign up for another race.

What helped me get through that first summer of training? My family, for one. They really did believe I could do it.  My swim coach who explained two me that I had two things that would help me float well – and no, he didn’t mean my arms…

My swimsuit. I went out and got the most awesome Tyre racing swim suit and used the hell out of that poor thing. It got me all the way through the swim and then a few more months of weekly swim workouts.

My wetsuit: For some reason, my first attempt at putting it on went much better than my most recent attempt.  I blame that on my love life.

Sunscreen: There is something to be said for carrying sunscreen with you wherever you go and I learned that during my virgin season of training.

Bricks. No, not the kind that you build houses with but the double work-outs you do to build a solid foundation for triathlon training.

Gu. Lots of freaking Gu. I went with chocolate. “The Runner” tried to get me to take along vanilla flavored ones but I think my projectile vomiting on the South County Trail taught us both to go with what works.

Books. Lots and lots of books. I read everything I could get my hands on, some of it specific to multisport and some of it reminder reading from my early lessons at running.

My favorite reads, even now:

The Courage to Start by John Bingham.  For anyone who has read this book, you get it. This guy motivates like few others. For those of you who haven’t read the book – go, run, get it. It will change your life.  I promise you.

Swim Training by Steve Tarpinian. Oh. My. Gawd. I couldn’t swim before I carried this book around with me everywhere. If this book came in a water-proof copy, I’d have taken it into the pool with me and practiced my drills while holding it.

Triathlons for Women by Sally Edwards.  I’ve met Sally twice and each time I was more motivated than the first time. The only athlete who motivates more right now is Diana Nyad. Love her.  Sally is the official ‘final finisher’ at Danskin races, or at least she was at the ones I’ve done.  Their slogan is ‘the woman who starts the race is not the same as the woman who finishes’ and Sally managed to instill that little reminder in me after my first time meeting her.  Hold on while I go get a tissue. I’m ferklempt.

The Slow Fat Triathlete by Jayne Williams. Okay, I love this book.  I was a slow fat triathlete for sure. Hell, I’m still slow and a little zaftig, but so what? This book, and actually finishing races, taught me that the only person who cares about your size when it comes to running or triathlon is the guy who has to order all those thousands of t-shirts because no one wants to be stuck with thousands of t-shirts after a race.

I still peek through all of these books now – years after first getting them – I’ve added books to the training arsenal over the year – including the Triathlete Training Bible by Joe Friel. My library is just as important to me as my swim fins and Honey Stingers when it comes to ‘must have’ training items.

What am I training for now? You’d never know it because I’ve let life get in the way, but I’ve got an Eagleman 70.3 and Pittsburgh Tri that I’ve just re-signed up for a National Harbor 70.3 and a Danskin to close up the season…Unless I get greedy and add a Poconos 70.3 in October.

Zoe, the wonder bike, and I are heading out tomorrow after a swim – we thought we’d get in a workout before Easter services.  Seems like a great time to start fresh.

I’ll have to come back and tell you about my open water swim hypnosis CDS.  They really have been the magical answer to my not panicking in the water.  Yeah, that’s a swim story for another day.

Wait! What’s so scary about the sport of Triathlon? Everything! And at the same time, maybe it’s not so much scary as it is a lot to learn and grow comfortable doing. So let’s all go out and do something scary and then come back here and tell me about it.

Until then, happy Swim, Bike, Run or whatever ‘scary’ thing you’re thinking of doing.


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Ok, after reading that I’m so tired that I may get a good night’s sleep tonight.
You go girl.


I missed your call! I was sitting right next to my phone before I left for work this morning and it never rang! Happy Easter!!!


You are one awesome lady. I agree about being exhausted just reading this story.


You know, being a mother prepares us to do a million things, right? I honestly believe that. And now that A is away and doesn’t need my constant attention, not like she ever did, it’s amazing how much time there is some days. And how little of it there is other days!

Bob B Hayes

I really didn’t find it tiring at all, I really enjoyed reading it. I think I reached this post at the right time, I have been pretty lazy off-late… I think I also need to start practicing again for short marathons!


Every day I say I’m going to go outside – today the sun was so bright I had no choice!

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