... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Chlorinated Adventures: My First Pool Workout!

I'm scared of the pool.

It sounds stupid, and it's funny to talk about my first swim in a pool after a year and a half of training since most people learn to swim in a pool, then take nervous baby steps into the ocean. Twice now I've encountered people who swim regularly at the gym but have been too scared to join me in the ocean, yet somehow, I ended up completely backwards in this situation: comfortable in the ocean, swimming three times per week, yet completely terrified of the pool.

I met Steve Borowski at least four months ago. He mentioned that he is a swim coach, that he runs a masters training group in the mornings, and that I should come. Once I looked him up, I knew he was right. Recently inducted into the Hawaii Waterman Hall of Fame, he has held multiple world records, coached Olympians and pro triathletes, and somehow still teaches normal people like me four days a week. Since my swim technique has been built solely on reading articles and watching YouTube videos, I know there is vast, vast room for improvement and what better opportunity is there than to get advice from someone with such an amazing resume?

The idea simmered in my mind for a few months, but I was overwhelmed with school, work, and commuting and couldn't fathom trying to fit another activity into my schedule. I also couldn't imagine getting myself out of bed at 4:45am and out of the house by 5am, which is what it takes to get to Kona by 6:15 when the group starts. As I have re-progressed in training and my morning workouts have gotten longer and longer, however, my wake-up time has progressed with it, and I'm currently getting up at 4:50 four days per week anyway. So when I got a little over-zealous on my bike on Sunday and irritated a muscle in my calf (still not sure how I managed to do that on the bike rather than the run, but whatever) I figured this would be a perfect week to focus on swimming and make it happen.

Once I had the idea in my head, I realized that while it sounded great in theory, I was about to expose all of my inexperience and lack of preparation to a pool full of serious swimmers. Out all alone in the ocean at 6am no one has to know that I still don't own a real training suit and still swim in a bikini, that I don't know how to turn at a wall, or that when I read about swim workouts I had no idea what the ____by_____ format ("4 by 100," "6 by 200," etc.) meant. Yes, there are currents and waves and sharks and jellyfish but it is quiet and beautiful and the motion rocks me into relaxation like a baby. I love the ocean.

Makeshift workout suit
Knowing that I couldn't show up in my faithful string bikini but unwilling to buy a $100 workout suit without shopping around a little, I did the next best thing: I went to Target and picked out the cheapest, most non-frilly-looking bathing suit bottom I could find and hoped that it could masquerade as an athletic swim bottom. (It couldn't). Next step was to have Sean, who was on swim team in high school, explain the whole mysterious ___x____ workout thing to me. And finally, I got everything ready and together so that when I awoke in the morning I wouldn't have to do anything but grab and go. I slept fitfully, waking often to tense, anxious thoughts about lanes and intimidating swimmers making fun of me, and weird pool water, sans ocean salt, that I would sink hopelessly in. Yeah, I was seriously that nervous.

I almost talked myself out of it several times. It has been quite a while since something in triathlon scared me as much as this and made me so uncomfortable. In fact, because triathlon has made me so much more willing to take on uncertainty in all parts of life with a certain amount of pleasure, it has been quite a while since anything has made me so uncomfortable. Once I realized this, however, I knew I had to go, because if I've learned anything in the past year and a half it is that facing down the things that scare you is one of the sport's greatest gifts.

When my alarm went off at 4:45, I was resigned to my fate. The sunrise drive was beautiful, and by the time I reached Kona I was prepared for whatever. I knew I'd be out of my league, but I was ready to just have fun and learn. I certainly have no illusions at this point about taking myself too seriously.

Beautiful morning for a first pool swim!
My first surprise was that the pool is outdoors. I don't know why I was thinking a pool in Hawaii would be indoors, but I felt much more at ease in the open air. There were a lot of people, approximately 35-40, which also put me at ease because I knew I wouldn't be on display. I did, however, quickly notice that I was the only woman wearing a two-piece suit. Guess I'll have to work on that. Everyone started getting into lanes, which at first I thought were randomly assigned. Thank goodness I didn't just pick a lane and go for it, because I would have gotten run over by some of the fastest swimmers in the world. By a stroke of luck and good judgment, I found Coach Steve and he showed me which one was the "fun" lane and deposited me there. At the end he walked me along the lanes, pointing out Bree Wee (pro triathlete), the girl who just won Honu, the fastest man over age 65, and various other athletes whose names I know. Plenty of inspiration there, and perfectly spaced several lanes away so that they remain inspiring rather than intimidating.

Workouts were assigned by lane. To be honest, I don't even remember what ours was because I knew I'd never be able to keep track of how many laps I was swimming because I'd be too busy focusing on not being a total spaz in the pool. Everyone was really, really nice and gave me the run down of which corner to go to to rest, what to do if someone needed to pass me, etc. And then, we swam.

It was a really interesting experience. The taste of non-salt water in my mouth was bizarre, and the 25-yards, turn, 25-yards, turn format was very different than the long haul alone in the ocean feel that I'm so used to. Having other swimmers around me didn't feel as foreign as I thought it would because it fit with the pool atmosphere, and within a couple of minutes the whole environment felt pretty natural. It was definitely not the terrifying nightmare I had imagined. I tried to focus on swimming in the same manner as I do at Hapuna: slow and steady with a little faster burst now and then. Speed-wise, I fit in fine.

I didn't expect much by way of instruction because there were so many people, so I was really pleasantly surprised by how effective the coach was at giving personal notes to every single person in the pool, me included. He came to talk to me three times, and from what I could see this was consistent with everyone. Very impressive. Because he knew I was nervous, he abstained from any corrections, but did mention that he has several notes in mind for me for next time that should help to make my swimming more efficient. Being me, I am really looking forward to getting some feedback and corrections so that I can improve. I think ballerinas are prone to perfectionism, and since we are so used to getting physical corrections, this type of critique is something we come to desire. And, since the swim is the only part of the triathlon that I am naturally decent at, I would love to get a little faster and start myself off with a little more of a head start on the run-prodigies who will inevitably mow me down.

Overall, it was a great experience. Although I'm not really a group workout kind of person, it was fun to be around so many people excited about the same thing and full of energy. In addition, it was oddly beautiful to stop for a moment and look down the lanes, seeing and hearing so many people swimming in perfect lines. The laps really break up the swim, making time go by more quickly. I swam 48 minutes versus the 30 I usually do in the ocean and didn't really feel much of a difference fatigue-wise, although I notice it did make me ravenously hungry. I see now why people work out in pools, because it definitely lengthens the distances and amounts of time you can swim without current and waves to tire you out and mess with your technique. I think it will be a valuable thing to integrate into my swim workout regimen (although I'll still be going to Hapuna two time a week to swim as well. I just love the ocean.)

And, once again, I am grateful to triathlon for teaching me to find pleasure in facing my fears rather than trying to avoid them. It has been so long since I felt so inadequate--probably since I very first tried to swim at Waikiki and couldn't even make it 25 meters. It was a familiar and welcome feeling to feel that twinge of nervousness in my gut, to know that I was vastly unprepared, yet know that by taking the first step I was moving toward a day when I will inevitably feel comfortable in yet another new situation. It is so empowering.

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