Thursday, December 23, 2010

IMWA: The Start, the Swim

Competitors approach the starting line

The weather that morning was perfect. With our start scheduled for 5:45, the sun had only just risen in a nearly cloudless sky. The water was calm, the flies were still sleeping, and the wind was barely whispering. It was a beautiful day for a triathlon.

The walk down to the water, through the throngs of other competitors, was inspiring in a lot of ways. Here were 1,400 people just like me, who had bled and sweat and sacrificed the same as me for months leading up to this morning, ready to bleed and sweat and sacrifice just a little bit more. The air was electric. Everyone was ready. Everyone was itching to start.

I confess to having been nervous during the bike check and while pulling on my wetsuit, but once the zipper on my back had been zipped, all anxiety vanished. If there's one place in this world where I am completely comfortable, it's in the water - and that's exactly where I was headed. Before an Ironman, there's no psyche-up, no power song, no revving of engines - that's all energy you need to save for ten hours down the line. Nope, the goal at the start of an Ironman is to come as close to serenity as is humanly possible.

Just like the night before, I had no jitters, no nervousness. I knew I had done what it takes to finish the race - I knew only a matter of hours stood between me and that finish line. I knew that it was going to hurt, but I have felt pain before and knew that I could handle whatever the course would dish out. All I could do was stake out my spot on the start line and turn around to enjoy the atmosphere surrounding me.

Having fun.

The announcers banter over the loudspeaker. The lapping of waves against the jetty, against hundreds of wetsuit-clad bodies. The light-hearted chatter of the competitors around me and the strange, bleating caw of Australian seagulls. Scattered applause from the gathered crowd. Another round, this time stronger... and then, a gun is fired.

And they're off!

The starting gun actually caught me off guard, but my position along the starting line gave me some open water to stretch out and start to find my stroke. The plan was to try to latch on to a group of faster swimmers, but ultimately cruise and swim my own race. A handful of guys shot out front quickly - separately, too, not as a pack - and I knew I would pay in the end if I tried to keep up. I settled in and waited for the first group to overtake me and settled in behind them. Drafting on the bike in a triathlon's not legal, but drafting on the swim? It's all good.

The group I wound up swimming with was actually going a little bit slower than I would've liked. The person up front obviously had no idea how to sight an open water swim - the pack kept zig-zagging across the water every time the leader course-corrected. But swimming on someone's feet, and swimming a little slower than you hope to go, is a good way to save a lot of energy. Could I have gone around them, gone out solo? Sure. But less than an hour into a long day, I didn't want to make any stupid mistakes. In my head, I kept repeating the same thing over and over again: "Cruise, Andrew. Just cruise."

The water was calm save for a few small swells out toward the end of the jetty, clear and comfortable at just under 70 degrees. It was such an easy course - keep the jetty on your left shoulder until it ends, swim left around the tip to the other side, and then keep it on your left shoulder again until you get to shore. 3.8 kilometers.

Three-quarters of the way through the swim (3 kilometers or so), the group started to break apart. People were attacking out, or trying to. At this point, I was fed up with whoever was leading the pack anyway - a thousand yards is something I can definitely manage on my own. With a bit of effort, I came up alongside the leader and then came around him with 200 meters to go. I wasn't sure how well-placed I was - I couldn't see anyone in the water in front of me - but I sure as hell wasn't going to come out of the water one someone else's feet if I could help it. I popped out and lurched into a run just ahead of several of the other guys in the pack.

Time to run!

I started fumbling with my wetsuit zipper as I ran, ripping the sleeves down just as I crossed under the marquee with a time of 49:30 - the first American, second in my age group and twelfth out of the water overall.

Trying to rip my wetsuit apart

For reference, this is what the water looked like ten minutes later. Glad I swam as fast as I did - I wouldn't have enjoyed being in the midst of this red-cap soup!