11 months after deciding to take on the Ironman UK triathlon, when I could not swim because I had a fear of putting my face in the water, I finally managed to complete the course in 12 hours 56 minutes. I was aiming for under 12 hours but I had no idea how hard it would be…
The journey I went through to get there was long and hard. There were many times when I did not want to train, especially on the cold and wet days when I needed to go out on the bike. Fortunately I managed to keep disciplined for most of the time and put in the hours I needed to.
For the last month before the race on August 4th 2013, I was able to train full time because I finished my job. This gave me quite a large amount of time to organise myself and only go out when the weather was good on the bike. I was able to get 5 rides in which were over 150km so that was great preparation for the big day when I needed to ride 180km.
The biggest achievement for me was the swim because of where I had started from. Not only did I have to learn how to put my face in the water and swim front crawl in the pool, I had to learn how to swim in open water and that is a completely different skill. It took so much effort to get there, so many times when I hated going to swim but I got there in the end.
The skills I have learned in the water will always be there now but I still feel nervous when I go swimming. I want to keep swimming when I can and now when I’m away on holiday I can swim in the sea. Simple things that people take for granted, such as jumping into the water and snorkeling I was not able to do before. Now I can so these are actually life changing skills. It might even be a life saving skill if I ever find myself lost at sea…
I think I was all triathlon’d out after this because I only rode my bike once in the two months after my Ironman race! I sold it just a few weeks ago to someone who was planning on completing Ironman Wales in 2014 so hopefully it went to a good home. I want to take on some downhill mountain biking next.
I wrote quite a lot about the Ironman experience because I felt that I had a lot to share from my experiences going from an absolute beginner to Ironman within a year. I managed to write 5 articles totally over 8,000 words. It is getting published on the Beginner Triathlete website starting in November so I will post up the links to the articles on here as they become available.
On the 15th June 2012, my friend and I decided to enter a triathlon race. Why? Because my friend wanted to get fit before his 30th birthday and he knew that I always like a physical challenge, so I accepted. There was one small problem: I couldn’t swim!
I say I couldn’t swim but that’s not totally true. I could tread water and swim breast stroke as long as my face never went in the water. Whenever I put my face in the water I would panic and breathe in through my nose…That’s not a good idea, by the way.
I had been scared of the water ever since I could remember. My memories of swimming as a child at school were dominated by being in the “baby” pool wearing bright orange arm bands and doing doggy paddle. After that compulsory episode I had never needed to swim or go underwater, apart from in the shower, so it didn’t seem like a problem.
I knew that the journey to completing the swim of my first triathlon would be quite tough because I had tried to learn how to swim properly before. About 3 years earlier, I had decided that I should learn how to swim properly so I booked up a lesson to see a swim coach at a local pool. I arrived for my first lesson very nervous but looking forward to learning how to swim. I had, wrongly, assumed that I just needed to know how to swim to get over my water phobia.
To cut a long story short the message from the swim instructor was “You need to learn how to put your face in the water because I can’t teach you how to swim until you can. Go fill the sink with water and get used to putting your face under the water”, he said. Great, thanks for the support mate!
I was totally demoralized and resigned myself to the fact that maybe I was just not meant to swim. Perhaps I was too old to learn? Perhaps I was just not naturally good at this? Maybe I had some kind of issue where I could not control the water going up my nose? Every conceivable thought about why I couldn’t swim went through my mind. Needless to say I didn’t go back to see him.
So that’s why I knew that learning to swim for this triathlon was not going to be easy, but I was older and a lot more confident so I thought I must be able to teach myself how to do it. I went online, to You Tube, and searched for videos and “How To’s” for swimming. Most of what I found I now know was far too advanced for someone starting at my level. Most of the videos assume a comfort in the water that I just didn’t have.
I took the advice of the unhelpful swim instructor and used my sink at home to practice putting my face under the water. It worked, to some extent. At first I just couldn’t do it. I would uncontrollably breathe in through my nose when my face went under the water, but with time and effort I was able to put my face under the water without breathing in through my nose.
Over time I built up my skills and before I knew it I could breathe out under water (still in the sink) through my mouth, breathe in through when turning my head to the side and repeat that. I was happy and confident that I could take these new found skills to the pool and be swimming in no time at all! I was wrong…
Breathing out under the water in a swimming pool was totally different to doing it in the sink. For starters, I was completely in the water. It felt different, not like normal breathing. I would feel panicked and short of breath, like the feeling when someone throws a large bucket of freezing cold water over your head. I did not feel comfortable or relaxed at all.
Time was ticking by and I only had a couple of months until my triathlon so I decided to cut my losses and just do breast stroke with my head out of the water. I was beginning to really hate going to the pool because it made me feel nervous and helpless, neither of which are feelings to make you keep going back to do something. I know from other parts of my life that if something is hard to do, you don’t like it and it’s not easy to do it you will stop doing that thing and I didn’t want the same to happen with swimming.
I became very efficient at breast stroke with my head out of the water and could cover the required 750m in about 21 minutes. Not bad. Race day came and I got in the water and swam a 19:04 time for that 750m. I beat quite a few people who were doing front crawl actually….
The very next day I decided that I needed to learn how to swim properly as breast stroke with my head out of the water was so inefficient and not suitable for any distance over 750m. So I signed up to a lesson for that Tuesday. Tuesday 25th September to be precise, just 2 days after my first triathlon swim.
I had my lesson with a company called Swim for Tri and a lady called Keeley Bullock. It had taken me some time to select the right coach because I didn’t want the same experience as I had the time before that. I had been looking at a lot of websites to find out who was able to help someone with what can only be described as a water phobia. Keeley had ticked all the right boxes, having dealt with many aqua-phobics in the past.
The lesson went well. In truth it was less of a swimming lesson and more of a getting comfortable in the water kind of lesson. She was very understanding and made me feel completely at ease with no pressure about doing anything I really didn’t want to do. By the end of the first lesson I was able to put my face under the water and breathe out. Success! This was just the beginning…
After that first lesson I went 5 times a week to the pool for the next 4 months. I taught myself how to swim and was making good progress, but it didn’t happen overnight. I built up gradually over those 4 months. I started by just putting my head in the water and practicing breathing out, then I walked along the bottom of the pool while holding a float, breathing in to the side and out in the water. The next step up was to kick while doing this, then kick still with the float but take a single arm stroke when I needed to breathe to the side.
It was slow, often painful progress. I can’t remember how many times I felt like I wanted to quit. Sometimes I would feel like I was making progress, others I would have a bad day and feel like I couldn’t do it anymore. It was so up and down in terms of how I was doing. But, I just had to look back a few weeks and see that I was actually making very good progress.
Eventually, I was able to swim. Or so I thought. I was so inefficient, tense and not comfortable in the water but they were ongoing issues I needed to deal with.
I should point out at this stage that just 4 weeks after my first proper swimming lesson with Swim for Tri I signed up for an altogether larger race. Ironman UK! For those not familiar with Ironman it is a triathlon, but a long one. 3.8km swim, 180km bike ride and a 42km (marathon) run. So, I had good motivation for learning how to swim properly. Not only that but I had to pay £400 to enter…Money is a good motivator!
On the 18th February 2013 I swam 2km in the indoor swimming pool in 58 minutes. I was amazed. Less than 5 months ago I hadn’t been able to put my face in the water. Now I could swim 2km with only 2 minutes rest in that whole time. Now that’s progress! I did it on this day because it was my 30th birthday and I wanted to have something to remember it by, instead of the usual going out and getting drunk. In addition to the swim, I did a 90km bike ride and a half marathon. In total it was a half ironman distance, just to see if I could do it and I could, but not without pain…
So, I was getting better at swimming but still had a long way to go until I could be confident in completing a 3.8km swim in August of 2013. I know from previous experience that the best way to achieve something is to have a target or a goal. So I signed up to a half Ironman distance triathlon in Mallorca. This involved a 1.9km sea swim. I had better get training, I thought…
I trained, and actually got some proper lessons this time around. I went to an endless swimming pool which is basically like a treadmill for swimmers. It’s a tank about 4 metres long and 2 metres wide. It has multiple cameras in it and a mirror so you can see yourself swimming – this is amazingly useful, too. The lessons I had were at Swim Canary Wharf with a guy called Ray Gibbs. He is an excellent instructor, with a waiting list of people to see him!
After months of training and a couple of lessons it was time to take on the swim in Mallorca. We went out a few days before the race to get some open water practice. I had never swum in open water doing front crawl before, let alone in the sea. I’m very glad that we did because dealing with salt water took a bit of getting used to. A successful swim in Mallorca saw me complete the 1.9km swim in 40 minutes. Progress, again.
After the relative success of the swim in Mallorca I felt ultra confident. Like I could take on any open water swimming event…So, I signed up to a 3km open water swim event near to London in a place called Windsor. It was to be a River Thames swim, but this meant very little to me at the time…
Upon arrival at the event, I saw that there could be a few problems. First, the water was very cold which means that it’s hard to get your breathing going properly. Second, the water was really murky and I had no experience in this kind of water which I found out made me panic…Thirdly, the current was so strong that if you needed to catch your breath and do breast stoke for a couple of minutes it would take you back downstream!
After 10 minutes and less than 200 metres swum, I got out along with two other people. One of which had been in there from the wave ahead of me and hadn’t swum more than 200 metres in 30 minutes…I didn’t feel so bad after all!
This really did knock my confidence massively. I was so worried that I couldn’t swim properly in murky, cold water and this is precisely the kind of water that I would be swimming in for my Ironman race. I needed to do something about this and quickly. So, the next day I signed up for 3 lessons in open water in Hyde Park in the Serpentine Lido to get more exposure to open water as I knew that was what I needed. I also went on my own after the first lesson. The lessons I had were again with Swim for Tri.
3 weeks later, I had another triathlon race planned and guess where the swim was? In the River Thames! Great…This would be a great test for me to see if the 4 open water sessions had paid off. And, they had. I felt so much more comfortable in the open water and with people all around me.
Floyd Mayweather’s mantra says it all: “Hard work. Dedication.” If you apply yourself, work hard and dedicate yourself to achieving a goal you will achieve it. Will it be easy? Definitely not. You will face many obstacles along the way, you will question yourself and your reasons for doing it many times during the process and perhaps be on the edge of quitting quite often. That’s OK, it’s all part of the process. Deal with it and move on. Accept that there will be ups and down.
If you are feeling particularly down about your progress or something that has happened when you are working towards a goal the best thing to do is look back for motivation. Every so often you need to think about where you have come from. What have you achieved. For example, when I was having problems being able to swim further, and I was getting frustrated all I had to do is look back a few months and realise that I had made massive progress. I couldn’t even put my face in the water 3 months ago, I could tell myself. Look at me now, I can swim!
So, why am I telling you all of this? Because it’s an example of responding to failures. I couldn’t swim, so I went out and tried to learn. I hit a few hurdles along the way, it was uncomfortable, difficult, mentally very tough. I had to persist and try to stay motivated to overcome this problem in my life. But I made progress. And then when I thought I had made amazing progress (after Ironman 70.3 Mallorca and before my River Thames swim), I had another setback. But I didn’t give up. I responded to that failure and overcame it, proving that it’s all about how you respond to failures and obstacles in your life that matters.
When I write this you can tell what mind set I have because I’m describing these problems as failures…To me I see them that way. When I can’t do something I see it as a failing on my part, which doesn’t always make me feel great, but I know that I can overcome any failure if I want it bad enough.
I hope that by sharing this it will encourage people to take on any challenge knowing that they can complete it. You can definitely do anything you want to if you work hard enough and put time and effort into it. To steal the mantra of Ironman….“Anything is Possible”