Nixing “I don’t know how”

To the average person, duathlon is a mystery. They recognize triathlons, largely due to the rise in popularity of the Olympic and IronMan events. Or they mistakenly picture the Olympic sport of biathlon, which is that fascinating blend of cross-country skiing and target shooting. Same athletic physiques, but a radically different sport.

So often, if it comes up that my main hobby (or second job, albeit unpaid) is duathlon — the training and of course the racing — I have to explain what the sport is: a cousin of triathlon, without the swim, but an extra run in its place. Run-bike-run, I say, instead of swim-bike-run.

And in response to the inevitable next question of why a person wouldn’t just do triathlon, I would say, equally inevitably, “because I don’t know how to swim.”

Late last summer, I decided that I didn’t like that answer. I don’t like “because I don’t know how” in any facet of my life, really, but in this particular case, it smacks of the kind of self-limiting, self-defeating attitude that I find quite exasperating.

I grew up, for the bulk of my adolescence, on a country property with waterfront on a quite bay of a large lake. If I wasn’t in the water there, I likely was in the water at the much less weedy beach which was down the road, around the corner and down another road — a perfect bike ride away for a youngster with wheels. So my inability to swim wasn’t related to any fear of the water, just a lack of instruction. I could keep myself afloat with a doggy paddle or a rendition of treading water, and I became an expert cannon-baller. I just never learned how to actually swim. Nary a swimming lesson in my youth. Instead, I took to sports on frozen water and on land, from ice hockey to soccer with a whole lot in between. I could skate on or bike around the lake, but I couldn’t swim across it.

Late last summer, we spent a day at our friends’ cottage. It’s on the man-made lake/reservoir Lake Conestogo, which is a long, narrow body of water. As we’ve done before, we headed out on their pontoon boat and anchored in a deep spot at one end of the lake to jump off and swim. It was a breezy day, and the water was wavy enough that the boat was dragging its anchor, pulling away from those of us in the water. After a bit of treading water in the waves, I was feeling out of my comfort zone and wanted to head back to the boat. But this was difficult, and for the first time in as long as I can remember, I was a bit panicked about making it to safety. It was an incredibly unsettling experience for someone who’s generally quite fit and confident in his body. The one pool noodle from the boat was already in use by another friend, so they threw me a life jacket to use as a floatie. It was, without anyone meaning it to be, rather humiliating.

So add this to the life of needing a pool noodle to enjoy cottage dips in deep water, and more, to being tired of the “I never learned how to swim” script, and I came quickly to the conclusion that it was time for me to learn how to swim.

Yes, at 42 years of age, I wanted to learn how to properly swim.

Not only that, but I set myself the goal of taking on at least one “try-a-tri” in the 2017 season. Because… why not? Surely being able to do triathlons in addition to duathlons would be a benefit. Less running, easier on the legs. More race options. And yes, less explaining my sport. I would keep training and competing in duathlons, but throw at least one tri into the mix as a goal.

I started looking at my options for instruction that would fit into a busy life and accommodate my absolute lack of swim experience.

Enter the City of Guelph Recreational Aquatics program. Adult swim classes on offer at levels I (unfamiliar with and uncomfortable in the water), II (learning common swim strokes and more advanced self-preservation), and III (advanced use of swim stroke and perfecting technique).

In early October, nursing my poor hamstring, I stood shivering and intimidated on the deck of a pool in Guelph’s west end, embarking on 11 weeks of instruction in Adult Level II. Along with two others in Level II, and one in Level I, I would spend these three months at the mercy of a teen-aged swim instructor (who reminded me so much of my niece that I almost called the wrong name on a weekly basis).

It was, from the first moment in the very first class, to the final moments of the final class, a humbling experience. For a person who played sports of all kinds, the pool was a foreign environment, with a whole new set of rules and etiquette. My wife grew up in swimming lessons and on a swim team for a while, and didn’t understand my questions until I reminded her that if she suddenly took up hockey, she’d have the same type of anxiety. Equipment, change-room and shower requirements, deck etiquette, it was all brand new.

While I navigated that all rather diligently, I also had to make peace with the fact that there was not only a pool full of children staring at me, but worse, a crowd of parents watching their offspring get their own lessons, parents who suddenly had a much more entertaining group to watch from above — likely while patting themselves on the back for getting their kids swim instruction (as well they should. If your kids aren’t in swimming lessons, heed my words — start them now!).

Not to mention said offspring, who were quite entranced by us grown ups in the next lane, learning very slowly what they had mastered some time before. It’s one thing to willingly humiliate yourself. It’s entirely another to do so for an audience.

I am a person who, despite my fitness, and despite my work in the weight room over the past decades, is rather shy about appearing in public in spandex (getting better, thanks to all those race days) and more so, without a shirt. Suddenly, doing this for a 45 minute class with such an audience, I had to get over an awful lot of body shame and just focus instead on learning to swim. As a 42 year old man, under the instruction of a 16 year old.

And speaking of fitness, all my cardiovascular fitness was suddenly — completely — for naught. Breathing on land, whether you’re running, skating, or cycling, it seems, does not prepare one for the breathing required in swimming. The guy who routinely self-propelled for 50+ kilometers at top speed was suddenly reduced to a gasping mess, unable to swim even 25 meters. That’s right. One length of the pool. Impossible.

Humbling, indeed.

And a wonderfully, painfully frustrating challenge.

So it began. Saturday mornings, swim class. One other day per week, into the pool at my gym, where I’d try to practice what we had learned, even if it was just for 15 or 20 minutes before hitting the treadmill or heading off again to hockey. All of it, I’m sure, a spectacle for anyone watching. Splash splash gasp. Repeat.

Each week, learning more about how a body works in the water vs on land. Learning about pool environments and lane swims and how nasty chlorine is on your body. Learning to look for the best hotel pools when you’re travelling for work (The Auberge Hotel in Vancouver has a 25m 4 lane pool, with ozonated water, that is quite underused by other guests. What a gem!)

At the end of this class in December, I was declared ready for Level III, where, I was told, I’d get the finer points of stroke technique and an opportunity to learn swim drills and build endurance. This was what I was waiting for!

Level III was, from day one, a frustrating challenge for all the wrong reasons. Other participants in the class had already done it, and just wanted the lane time. They could do multiple lengths and were, in a word, rather unfriendly. The instructor, plunked into the class at the last minute, was chronically unprepared and unresponsive. I was doing more self-instruction than anything and found myself dreading every class more than the last. I can take humbling. I don’t need humiliating.

So after four weeks, I bailed, shocking myself by quitting the class outright. I redoubled my efforts at the tiny but serviceable gym pool, and wrote a respectful, but strongly worded email to the City of Guelph explaining my disappointment in the Level III class. I wasn’t looking for anything in return, just expressed that I had been hoping to use the winter to get ready to try-a-tri or two this summer, and that their instructor had clearly just missed the mark in terms of what the class was supposed to offer. I had tried very hard to make it work, and was disappointed that it proved to be so terrible.

Fortunately, and to my surprise, that email generated a tremendous response. Big kudos to the City of Guelph Aquatics folks, who not only owned up to that class’ shortcomings, but made good on the situation. As a result, I’m now in 1:1 swim instruction, hitting the 25m pool each Tuesday morning before work with their top lifeguard, someone who’s done triathlons and is determined to get me into my first.

With the pool essentially to ourselves for that half hour, Patty has already done more for me in 3 classes than I would have thought possible. She’s the coach I needed to push me, encourage me, and tap into the elements of my strength and fitness that do apply to swimming, while building my swimming fitness and confidence. The added bonus is other aquatics staff who are around at that hour piping in and cheering me on. I’ve been promised a “chase” swim or two near the end of our time together with all of them in the water, so I can get a sense of what it will be like to swim with other triathletes knocking me around and running me over.

Gosh, doesn’t that sound… challenging. Deliciously, excruciatingly challenging.

There are moments, still, as there were all winter long, where I question my choice to take this on. Surely I could spend as much time improving my run and cycle, more comfortable zones for me. Ones in which I get to wear more clothing, inhabit more familiar environments, and use more familiar muscles and body movements. I could just stop now, happy at being better able to swim, and keep it at that — a better swimmer for those cottage and vacation beaches, who can even sort of dive now.

But where would be the challenge in that?

I’m nowhere near able to swim the 400m of a try-a-tri quite yet, but I’ve got my sights set on the Subaru series’ Niagara race in late July. The swim, parallel to the shore but in Lake Ontario, will be very long for me compared to the nominal bike and run legs. I can only imagine the nervousness I’ll feel as I wait for the start on that day. If I thought I was nervous before my first duathlon a few years ago, I didn’t know what nervous could be!

But I won’t be alone.

What I’ve discovered, since signing up for my first lessons, is that people are incredibly supportive of my goal. From the swim instructors and Aquatics Program manager to random triathletes (one of whom gifted me a free wetsuit after I shared my story in a small contest he was running — tell me, who owns a tri wetsuit when they can’t even swim 100m in a pool? This guy, that’s who!), to my boss, who didn’t even blink when I said I’d be coming in late Tuesday mornings for 10 weeks and my coworkers, through to the various friends and relatives who check in on my progress, it seems that people can get behind someone taking themselves way out of their comfort zone (again) and tackling a whole new challenge.

Who could ever give up with that kind of support behind them?

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