15 minutes of hell: My first sprint triathlon

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In grade 7, I registered for a diving event – with one catch, I did not know how to swim! My only objective was to add participation points on the scoreboard for my team. We were not doing well in the event – low registration numbers was one of the factors. It was a decision, not under any compulsion or peer pressure, but self driven. Guess I am a good team player.

I had seen the diving pool and also witnessed some of our seniors practice. Was very confident of reaching the edge of the pool and being able to grab the inner railing and make my way out. On our first day of diving practice, I made my way up to level 1 of the diving board. No hesitation, no fear, I took position and jumped – my first dive ever. Here I would like to note, that I had been in swimming pools before – where the water level was low enough that I could stand and have fun with my friends. So in my defense I was not alien to water bodies. 

Popped out soon to catch a breath and then tried to swim to the inner railing. It was close and in just a few strokes my out stretched hands would get there. Then I remember not being able to make it. Memory fades a bit, I recall hearing the coach use his whistle and some seniors jumped in and pulled me out. The commotion had not rattled me. Then my coach asked me “Do you know how to swim?”.  Something he must now do before all newcomers line up for their first dive. When he understood my reason to participate and the fact that team ranking was my only goal, he laughed. The next few days I dived with a rope around my hip and he would pull me to the railing. Soon we did away with the rope and I was able to make it to the inner railing. Now that was my initiation to becoming a swimmer!

Fast forward 21 years, when my son was born, i knew he would learn how to swim early in life. He started his swim lessons at age 4 and today enjoys his time in the pool, in the deep end too! Watching him during his swim lessons rekindled the thought of learning to swim. I started in the lap pool and over a brief period was able to make it to the other end – 25 meters. However this pool was 6 feet at the deep end and I could stand to safety. I struggled getting better in the water and my progress stalled at 4 laps. Have to emphasize here, I had completed 2 full marathons and multiple half marathons. So, stamina or endurance was not my issue. 

Chitra, my wife, suggested registering for a local sprint triathlon event. She was convinced that setting a goal and investing the registration dollars would give me enough drive to do better and be more disciplined in my training. So at the age of 42, I registered for my first sprint triathlon and began focusing more on my swim training. Slowly I progressed to completing 8 laps but was unable to do more. My event was 8 months away, when I spoke to my friend and workout buddy Chandu, an anesthesiologist. He volunteered to give me some basic coaching. Either he was a true friend or Chitra and he were planning to get me out of their way. His presence with me in the pool and motivation was a turning point. We began doing around 14 laps but my poor form ensured I was getting winded. In the event I had to cover 375 meters swim which was around 16 laps, cycle 13.1 miles and run 3.2 miles. 

Enter coach Georgia with whom I signed up for some personal swim lessons. She knew my goal and helped me with my technique and I was able to see huge improvements. I invested in a good road bike and my training was now in full swing. With 2 months to my event, confidence levels were reasonably good, a very supportive wife on the home front and friends motivating me, I had a good shot at completing the event. 

On race day, pressure was high and watching better swimmers, who had earlier starts, complete their swim in 4 to 7 minutes did not help my nerves. My time had come and I started strong, however after about 50 meters in the deep waters I experienced my first ever panic attack. With hundreds of people in the open water I felt like a rock! My mind was unable to control to my arms and legs. I was sinking!!40f8f542-04f7-4aad-9591-7b0695d91ab4

Barely managed to grab on to the buoy at the 75 meter round-about and hold onto for dear life. There were many others who were in a similar state. Two life guards were in the water trying to pull some folks to safety. Many thoughts crossed my mind and more importantly I was able to take a few deep breaths. This break would have been around 30 to 45 seconds, but it felt like a lifetime. I began to swim again, however very soon I had the same sinking feeling. Now other swimmers were bumping against my hands & feet. If the first 75 meters were bad, it was only getting worse. In training, coach Georgia had taught me to roll over to backstroke, which I attempted to do. It was the right decision, enabling me to breathe deep and fast. It made a big difference, as I began to better my form and soon switched back to front strokes. This ordeal lasted 15:33 minutes and being able to stand back up on my feet never felt better. 

Transition 1 from swim to cycle took me 6:38 minutes and when I got onto my bike I was still not completely out of the shock. Slowly, my focus switched from saving my life to gaining lost time with my cycling speed. Both my cycling (49:07 minutes) and running (30:27 minutes) phases went as planned and my overall time was clocked at 1:45:21. IMG_5159

Looking back I could not have done this without the support of Chitra, the constant motivation from Chandu and life saving skills offered by my swim coach Georgia. So what’s next? I plan to participate in the same event again next year and my only goal is to walk out of the swim phase not having a panic attack.

Related data points:

  • School I attended: Barnes School, Devlali, Nashik, Maharastra, India
  • Event participated: Naperville Sprint Triathlon 2018
  • Others whose swimming skills inspired me: Nikhil P., Sara F. & James W.

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