Swimming with the fishes in the deep blue sea

The ocean air breezed gently across my skin and I soaked in the radiance of the warm sun as Tracy and I walked along the rock wall of Alli’i Drive. On this morning, as I glanced out along the horizon, the ocean appeared incredibly vast and exceptionally grand. It was like a serene, turquoise mass of rippling water gently swaying in tune to the calm morning winds. I closed by eyes tightly as I embraced the salty air and the feeling of freedom and revitalization. I am a water baby, born to love the water, and a west coast girl, born to love the ocean. The crashing sound of waves, the rush of the tides moving over tiny pebbles, the bright colours of starfish, jellyfish and shells, the smells of changing tides, and the feeling of wet, soft sand between your toes, reminds me of a childhood of memories frolicking along shorelines.

As we passed the end of the rock wall we reached the top of the stairs to the small sandy beach, where we began to remove our shoes and put on our goggles and caps. Despite the warmth in the air, my teeth began to incessantly chatter, a sign of my body’s first reaction to nervousness. Although I feel like my soul is innately connected to the ocean, I prefer to feel that connection from a distance. For as deeply as I love it, I am also deeply afraid of it, particularly what lies beneath it – fish, octopi, crevasses, caves, sharks, stingrays, jellyfish, turtles, especially whales and anything that moves, sits still, barely lives or even floats.  In fact, when I first started triathlons I swore I would never do an open ocean water swim, unless I qualified for Kona.  Well I lied to myself, because here I was about to swim 1.2 miles into the open ocean where I would be an insignificant dot amongst all the things that moved and floated, including sharks, stingrays, turtles and whatever else lurked in the bay that morning.
As I hobbled down the rocky steps to the wet, sandy beach, I found a spot to sit where I could pull on my “legs.” Before I left, my coach gave me the bottom half of of his wetsuit, cut into two single legs. It would help keep my injured knee stable and afloat so I wouldn’t need to kick. They would also provide some slight flotation, which was reassuring at the time. Given there were no lane ropes or deck to grab onto, it was nice to know my legs were a little bit more floaty than usual. Although, it did briefly enter my mind that from the view below, I now slightly resembled a seal, which was prime bait for large, carnivorous sea creatures. Looking back on it now though, I should have been more concerned about walking around with the the not-so-fashionable look of cut off wet suit legs over my tri shorts, which as I recalled was how my coach told me not to wear them.

Looking out over the horizon of the Kailua-Kona bay I took one deep breath and plunged myself into a hesitant head-first dive forward and just started swimming.

For the first 150 metres, the water was amazingly clear, and we were surrounded by vibrant colours of darting tropical fish and a bursting array of coral. Every few metres I would I lose  sight of where I was going as I was more enthralled with the happenings beneath me. Here in the bay, I felt safe and relaxed. The water was deep enough for swimming, but shallow enough to prevent any large unwanted sea creatures from disrupting the peace. The waves gently rocked me back and forth as the tide pulled in, then out, but it didn’t bother me; I just kind of rolled with it.
As we moved past the 150 metre swim marker, the coral slowly disappeared into white sand and the depths grew deeper and deeper, and suddenly I felt much more vulnerable and my mind started to run wild. I kept telling myself to calm down, relax, be one with the water, but I couldn’t keep the word “shark” out of my head and my eyes darted at every shadow. With every fourth stroke I would pop my head up slightly to navigate my way through the waters and every time I would realize just how exposed we were out in the middle of the open ocean. The horizon was dotted with various boats, buoys, a titanic sized cruise ship and occasionally other swimmers. I couldn’t decide in that moment whether it was a breathtaking sight or simply terrifying. So, I shut out the dark fears of large looking sea creatures and tried to focus on the small, harmless fish. With just metres to go before hitting the marker, a large haunting looking shape swept over the ocean floor. It was a Manta Ray, calmly floating along. This creature wasn’t terrifying, in fact, it was quite peaceful.
As I continued on and bobbed my head up to sight I saw Tracy pull up; we had hit the 1.2 mile marker. The two of us floated there in the middle of the open ocean, just two insignificant dots, surrounded by a mysterious underwater world, and exchanging high-fives as we celebrated our triumph. We turned to head back, and a local swimmer popped up beside us. “Beautiful morning for swim,” she exclaimed in a calm almost namaste-like greeting. Tracy and I smiled at each other. For the first time, I was completely  relaxed and the dark thoughts of terror in the great, deep sea were gone. The journey back was much more comfortable, and my eyes no longer darted in all directions. I was calm, yet straddling the edge between fight or flight. I was guarded, yet open.
Once back on shore, we stumbled along the soft sand like drunken sailors touching land for the first time and laughed in spite of ourselves. I looked back over the horizon to see the marker off in the distance and smiled. I will forever be grateful for my first open ocean water swim, yet I don’t know if it’s something I am intent on repeating anytime too soon. I will always respect the ocean and what lies beneath it, and I don’t think I’ll truly ever lose that fear, but for now I am just happy to have survived and happy to have experienced the beauties of the great blue Pacific.

*A couple days later there was a shark attack on one of the nearby beaches and a Grey Whale sighting just off the marker in the bay. I counted my lucky stars for the peaceful adventure we experienced, and didn’t swim much further that the buoy line for the rest of the week.

Plans derail, but determination prevails – Part one

It was a cold January afternoon when I made the commitment to a destination training week in Kona, Hawaii. I would eat, live, and breathe triathlon on a ruthless training schedule that would entail multiple six plus hour rides along the grueling lava fields while enduring fierce winds, open ocean water swims, pool speed sessions, and heat-searing-off the pavement runs. As an age-group triathlete, this kind of training schedule away from the demands of everyday life and work is an amazing opportunity, especially in a place like Kona – home of the Ironman World Championships. Unfortunately, one week before my trip, I wrecked my knee and all my plans came to a grinding halt. That’s the reality of life though, sometimes things don’t go as planned. At least I could swim, and maybe even perhaps I could attempt some light cycling. All was not lost. So, with Chrissie Wellington’s book, “A Life Without Limits” tucked under my arm, and suitcase in tow, I boarded the plane. The next morning, I awoke in Hawaii to the sounds of chirping birds, the damp warmth of tropical air, and the intoxicating scent of the ocean – this was exactly where I needed to be.
That morning I walked down to the official location of the Ironman swim start and run finish along Alli’i Drive. To walk the streets where legends of my sport were made, is a moment I’ll never forget. From Julie Moss’s gutsy finish line crawl, to the battle between Mark Allen and Dave Scott, Paula Newby-Fraser’s eight titles, to the unknown Chrissie Wellington’s first world champion win, and Mirinda Carfrae’s world record marathon finish, this place was where the impossible happened.
For the next couple hours, I simply walked up and down the strip soaking in the warm sun and the thinking of the dreams that had been realized right there on that pavement. I thought of my friend, Melissa, who had qualified to race here twice before. I thought of her and all the other thousands of athletes, who, through hard work, relentlessness determination, and sacrifice, did what so many of us can only dream of accomplishing; earning their spot to race in the Ironman world championships.
As I leaned out over the rock seawall, I stared off into the horizon of the Kailua-Kona bay, and with a deep sigh turned to walk back home. Tomorrow, I would do the one thing my knee still allowed me to, and swim in that bay of dreams.

Kona, reflection and more non-training days

It’s Kona week. In just two days the cannon will blast a plume of smoke over the thousands of eagerly awaiting swimmers in the pristine waters along the Kona coast. It will signal the start of the grandest, most sought after long distance triathlon event on the planet. For many of those triathletes it will be a moment they will never forget and an experience to cherish forever. Almost every dedicated long distance triathlete dreams of one day gracing the world championship stage in Kona, but only the elite, the best or the lucky will have that opportunity.  Kona is one of the reasons why I am in this sport. As a kid I remember watching the broadcast on TV, thinking the athletes were superheroes, and that one day, maybe, I could live the dream of competing in Hawaii.  Even as a teenager, on a trip to Kona, I remember seeing the “OFFICIAL SWIM START AND RUN FINISH IRONMAN TRIATHLON WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP” sign at the Kailua Pier, and having a moment to reflect on all the great athletes who had realized their dreams in that very spot. At the time, I really knew nothing about the sport, other than its grueling nature. I still remember images of some of the final athletes literally stumbling and crawling across that coveted finish line on Ali’i Drive – it was inspirational. With a course that winds through mountainous climbs, lava fields, scorching temperatures, and howling winds, it is one of the most gruelling races out there. On this particular week, thinking about all the triathletes descending onto the course has inspired me to reflect on my own triathlon journey this year. The season was filled with triumph, defeat, failure, heart break, sore muscles, tears, laughter, joy, happiness, and success. I don’t even think there is an adjective or emotion that wouldn’t be fitting to describe the roller coaster that I called, training. Almost a year ago I walked onto the pool deck for my first workout with my new coach and two of my soon-to-be training partners. At the time I had a few sprint triathlons under my belt, but the training regime I was walking into was going to be a drastic change. These were Ironman competitors, and I was about to be put in my place. Only a few months previous, I was cycling along Westsyde Road, a rolling hills, yet mostly flat jaunt out in the country, which at the time qualified as my “hills” ride. Now here I was about to embark on one of the most gruelling training plans I have ever endured. My first hint was on this morning at the pool when my coach told me to swim laps with my legs tied together. At first I thought he was trying to drown me. There are still moments, even a year later, where I think his workouts are for the intended purpose of murder. Anyway, that swim was nothing short of a flailing attempt at bobbing from one end of the pool to the other. I was heaving along like an exasperated floundering sea creature, all the while struggling to mimic the graceful and quick movements of the other two swimming along with me. I felt out of place, but determined. And from that day on, that just kind of became my style – struggle to keep up yet push with every ounce I had to follow in the footsteps of those ahead of me, and they were always ahead of me. Some days I thought it would be nice to have someone who moved at my pace, but then I realized the faster my partners moved, the harder I pushed. With each workout I would tell myself to never lose sight of the fastest one, yet I would fail every time. And failure became my driver to continue screaming and cursing and flailing, all the while pushing the limits. Some would think it’s lonely at the back, always being last, but I grew to accept it and to thrive from it. Always chasing someone means you are always, always pushing. I became grateful for the expertise they shared, and even more so that, even through their own pain of the workout, they would encourage me along as they lapped me, time and time again. Reflecting on this past year, I would say my development as a triathlete started with the 5-peat hill climbs, gruelling 10X400 metre swims, and the endless mind, body and soul testing track workouts, but it was the group of incredible people I got to train with that really molded me into the triathlete I wanted to be – determined, driven and committed. The season may have ended on a sour note, and I might be struggling to find a rhythm in my recovery, yet looking back on the year, it was an incredible journey; a journey I can’t wait to repeat, only this time with a different end result. This sport has changed my life for the better and I can’t wait for the back-to-back workouts, tears, sweat, pain, yadda, yadda, yadda. It will be great. In the meantime, I will put on my pom poms, enjoy the quiet of recovery and cheer on the Kona competitors, but I will be cheering loudest for the one and only Melissa Lowenberg., a true friend and competitor. Mel, go get ’em.
Here’s to finally putting the 2014 season behind me and looking forward to the new challenges of next year.