Overcoming the perils of the pond

How I became an open-water triathlete

Susan Flanagan susan@48degrees.ca
Published on June 13, 2011
A triathlete takes to the water in this stock image. Some people face the challenge of open water competition differently than others. — Photo by Thinkstock.com

The first triathlon of the season is in Paradise on June 26. At 8 a.m., a bunch of brave swimmers will dive into Octagon Pond. The water temperature will be 13 or 14 C, if they’re lucky.

Last year, when I competed, this was my first open water triathlon. I had done outdoor pool triathlons in British Columbia but I had never purposely put my face in a pond and looked down.

And certainly never in a Newfoundland lake in June.

I would say 90 per cent of any open water swim is mental. If you can swim like a demon at the Aquarena, that does not necessarily translate into swimming like a demon in your local pond.

I have an intense fear of deep, dark, cold water. So, 10 days before the Paradise triathlon, I called upon the services of my friend, Don, to accompany me on my very first dip in a pond. Although the race would be in Octagon Pond, Don suggested Healey’s Pond because it’s more sheltered and so a bit warmer.

“Make sure you wear two bathing caps,” said Don. “A cloth one under a rubber one.”

I didn’t ask why.

It wasn’t until I zipped myself into my new wetsuit, ordered online from Wet Suit Man, and submerged myself that I understood the reason for the two hats. I did as my swimming manual suggested and peed in the suit to warm up a bit. I then started flailing about to try to ward off the numbing sensation that was spreading through my body.

Although he sported considerably less body fat than me, Don seemed unfazed by the cold. I should mention here that Don is not a normal human. When he first learned to swim 10 years ago, he took the ferry to Bell Island and swam the four kilometres home. I thought about that as I tried to see the first buoy over the white caps on the pond.

I stuck in my face and told myself I had trained for this. Albeit in a heated indoor pool with no algae, reeds or lily pads. No biting fish, frogs, ducks or insects. No wind or waves.

I took a few strokes. Ha, I thought, I can do this. I’ll just think of other things. I thought about sticking to my side of the lane in the Aquarena, thus avoiding the pointy appendages of other swimmers. It all went great for a few split seconds until the bottom of the pond dropped out of sight and it was just me and the boogeyman waiting to haul me down into the frigid depths. Up popped my head. I wanted my painted line. I wanted fluorescent lights. I wanted the option of standing up at the end of each 50-metre length.

There was no way I was ever going to submerge my face in that creepiness again. So I kept my head above water like a beagle, except not nearly as efficiently. Don stayed to my left, creeping along beside me, never once shivering. We got to the first buoy — maybe 150 m out. I was more exhausted than if I had just dragged a minivan full of wrestlers across town.

“I wa-wa-want to go back,” I stuttered.

“But why?” Don asked. “There’s nothing to be afraid of in the pond. And you can’t possibly sink with a wetsuit on. If something ever happened I could tow you in to shore.”

Then he added the kicker. “Of course, I’d have to knock you out first.”

I was too cold to enunciate. The lops were two-by-fours hitting me upside the head. I dog-paddled in slow motion back to the beach.

Don encouraged me to swim a few more lengths parallel to the beach before getting out of the water. I tried to put on a brave face and went back and forth twice in water so shallow, my belly almost ran aground. I didn’t warm up until I got home and into a warm bath.

When I went to bed that night the bed was rocking like an O’Brien’s boat tour. I figured I’d better keep my eyes open. I took out a book called “Open Water Swimming” by Penny Lee Dean that a kind friend proffered to help me through the mental trauma.

“If you are close enough to see bubbles, then the first swimmer is dragging you or you are drafting off him,” it reads. “Beware, this swimmer might retaliate: watch for him to pull up his legs to kick you in the face …” (page 49)

My husband of 18 years had never seen me so agitated. The book hit the floor. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw water. Not friendly pool water, but terrifying pond water. How could I possibly survive in that scary place for 750 metres? Couldn’t they let me wear a life-jacket?

I imagined I saw a haunting highway sign saying it was 750 m to an off-ramp. I imagined myself swimming alongside the van in limb-numbing cold. That’s when the gastro-intestinal troubles started.

Two days later, I pinned a holy medal inside my swimsuit, said a heartfelt prayer and managed to get myself around the Octagon Pond course doing the side stroke. It took about 40 minutes. With fingers crippled with the cold, I high-fived my husband.

In the final days before the race I subjected myself to four more sessions. As I’d drive the 20 minutes out Topsail Road, my stomach churned up every bit of food I offered it. I had to make a pit stop before getting in the water.

The stomach cramps were exceptionally bad the morning of the triathlon when I stood in line to get my number Sharpied onto my arms and legs. I diligently checked the air in my bike tires and laid out my gear, pretending I wasn’t having a Porta Potty attack.

“There is no bogeyman,” I told myself as I plunged in. Compared to the five times I had been submerged the previous week, I found the 13 C temperature almost balmy. Plus, I noticed there were other competitors even more freaked out than me. Two, in particular, did not look as if they’d make it past the wharf, let alone around the course.

The gun went. I put my head down and swam. I got punched in the chops and someone actually swam right across my back. I put up my head to regroup. After about 100 strokes I could see one of the poor guys from the beach hyperventilating, a look of sheer terror in his goggled eyes.

“Put up your hand and a kayak will come get you,” I told him.

He was raising his arms as I put my head down and willed myself to do 10 more strokes. Next thing 10 strokes turned to 20. I found myself carried along by the pack and reached the first buoy in record time. I got kicked and jostled but it didn’t bother me. I was happy to be breathing normal in this sea of floating anatomy.

The pack spread out between the first and second buoys. I risked a glance over my shoulder and found there were lots of poor sods behind. I cleared the second buoy.

Next thing I knew the wharf was near enough to leave the water. Seventeen minutes. I was just kissing the ground when the guy who came out right after me tipped over sideways — like a felled tree. Did I mention what cold water does to the balance in the inner ear?

With help from a bystander I undid my upper wetsuit and ran the 450 m back to get my bike. I struggled out of my suit and got my shower curtain towel over my head. No way was I getting on my bike wearing a wet bathing suit. I stripped to the buff and redressed in cozy warm clothes.

Oh no, I had forgotten to unclasp my helmet and undo the Velcro on my gloves beforehand. My seized fingers could not clutch. Transition took more than five minutes. But hey, who cares? I had survived the swim.

Transport trucks sucked me in as I gleefully zipped out the Trans-Canada with the other triathletes. I even passed a few. I blew a jubilant kiss to my husband from one side of a divided four-lane highway as he was on his way back to transition. I got 24 kilometres out of the way in no time.

Off the bike. Start moving legs. You can do it. What’s five kilometres on land after 750 metres in the water? I passed more triathletes. Yee-haw!

Before I knew it, I had crossed the finish line. I was an open water triathlete. As I warmed my hands over a post-race hamburger patty, they announced the female age 40-45 winners. Lo and behold, I placed third in my age category.

Last season I competed in two other open-water tris.

In the Torbay one, the little prickly fish were so dense, they swam right into our mouths and nipped our fingers. Aspirating live fish bothers some people like fellow swimmer Paul who constantly thinks about death by fish aspiration. But not me.

By summer’s end my husband and I were swimming in the pond at least three times a week and looking forward to it. We were disappointed when we had to head back to the pool in the fall.

I never would have believed it this time last year, but right now I’m itching to get back in the pond.

Susan Flanagan is an avid triathlete and mother of five living in St. John’s. Her swim and transition times have improved considerably since that first competition last June. She and her husband will go to New Hampshire in August to compete in the Timberman triathlon.