This blog title may come as a surprise to you since you may not know me as someone who partakes in low-intensity, steady-state activities. I also did not mention this to many people leading up to the race, and even some of my closer friends were surprised to learn that I’ve signed up for an Ironman competition, albeit only half Ironman, and also a relay.
If you have always wanted to do one but have never, or if you are interested in improving your swimming skills, or you’re just plain curious about my journey, then you may find some value from my sharing in this blog.
The main reason why I chose to participate in the half Ironman was because lululemon was entering into the competition in support of their global CEO, Calvin McDonald who is a regular triathlete and was coming to Shanghai to do the half Ironman. So they wanted as many ambassadors and staff to join in – even to just do the relay version. My friend, Kelvin, who recently retired from racing in Ironman competitions only recently, told me I should do the swim portion because he knows I can’t swim and that challenge would be something that would interest me to the point of training – and he was right! That challenge did interest me as it was literally SINK OR SWIM!
This is a long blog so if you want to skip the initial background story, you can skip to here where I talk about the race itself!
His proposal actually got me really excited to finally step outside my comfort zone once again and to tackle a task which has haunted me my whole life – freestyle swimming.
Not only that, I thought it would be a great experiment to see how I would respond to the training and to the sport of distance swimming – well, 1.9km distance for the half Ironman that is.
I had 2 months to train and didn’t know if it would be enough time to learn how to do the freestyle stroke for 1.9km but I was going to try.
Training began not too long after signing up and I immediately felt uneasy in unfamiliar grounds – a public swimming pool. Getting used to the whole routine of changing naked with other strangers as you put on your swimming shorts and taking showers before getting into the pool and out was a ritual that quickly became the norm for me but was enough to throw me off in the beginning. Add to the fact that I really didn’t know what I was doing in the pool to learn to swim.
I wanted to hire a swim instructor to learn properly but the instructors I had contacts for were busy and interruptions in my training schedule (ie. vacations) made YouTube my default go-to swim instructor for the duration of my training.
The first 2 weeks of training were slow and cumbersome as my freestyle was as bad as I remembered it to be. But one day, when Rick from lululemon, led a team swim for his store, I had a light-bulb moment where I felt at ease and could turn my head to breathe.
I was overjoyed that I could at last swim a pool length without stopping. Perhaps I would have a chance to get the freestyle technique that I so longed for.
Weeks went by, and my technique improved but only marginally so. I was a little discouraged that I still cannot swim a lap without being completely gassed out. I figured out that it were my legs that was draining my energy level as I had to kick pretty rigorously to keep them up. If I kicked less, they would sink quite fast and all the YouTube videos on the internet that addressed ‘sinking legs’ did not seem to help. I had 3 weeks left before the race and I still cannot swim 100m without stopping. So I made the decision to do the race using the breaststroke technique which I can do with poor form but still do with extended lengths.
I spent the last 2 weeks brushing up on my breaststroke form and even completed 2km in a pool the week before the race. I felt confident I could complete it in 50 minutes.
The days leading up to the race, I had borrowed Kelvin’s wetsuit and Peter’s triathlon suit (Peter, an old friend of mine is the amateur champion in China) to see which would feel better. Putting on the wetsuit felt like a workout in itself. It was so tight, that it took me what felt like 5 minutes to just zip up the backside. It made me so buoyant in the pool that I literally was kicking in the air! I ripped it off me after 2 laps and put on Peter’s tri-suit which felt just like my normal bare-chested swimming. I had decided then that I would only wear the tri-suit.
The day before the race, I wanted to test out the water by swimming in the lake but didn’t get into the race site until after the scheduled swim practice session was already over. I splashed some water with my hand to feel it and it felt warm. I did realize it was during the warmest time of the day and right by the shallowest part of the lake so not representative of what the middle of the lake would feel like. Nevertheless, the water felt warm and gave me the false-sense of security I needed to do the race with just the tri-suit.
We woke up at 5am the next day to head to the race site and I felt good and relaxed. I’ve been eating fairly well the days leading up to the race and even lifted some weights a couple days before the race to maintain my routine.
The marshaling of the swimmers to begin the race was something that wasn’t too alien to me. There was some bumping around as people were moving towards the swim start line but I was at ease as I had my plan of jumping into the water and just start breaststroking my way down expecting the cold water to be a bit of a shock at first but the body temperature would naturally come up to a comfortable enough level to swim as I normally do in the pool.
The race officials said it was 20ºC that morning and everybody was wearing a wetsuit. For some reason, it didn’t bother me that I was the only one without one. I moved up to the front of the line as the rolling start finally had reached me and I did exactly as I planned.
I jumped in, and started breaststroking at a normal pace – not too bad.
10 strokes into the race, I had to stop as I was gasping for air.
My heart rate and breathing rate was abnormally high compared to my practice. I tried to slow down my breathing and take deeper breaths but I couldn’t. Every time I put my head into the water, I would gasp for air and gulped down some water as I was fronted with the choppy water. It wasn’t even considered choppy but I had gotten too used to the clearance level needed from an indoor swimming pool that this compounded my problems. To add to the fear of putting my head into the water, I also couldn’t see anything past my nose – just pure brown darkness.
I would try again and again but would stop every few strokes not being able to breathe and choking on Mingzhu Lake water. The idea of getting an infection from the waters was also beginning to fester in my mind.
I sighted the paddle board volunteers who were dotted along the right side of the swimming route and desperately swam towards them. The rules states that you can hang on to them for a rest but they can’t drag you down the course. As I hung on and tried to calm down my breathing I realized that it just wasn’t happening. I would push off and tried swimming again, but the same problem re-occurred. I swam to the nearest paddle board and had to hold on again as I was not able to get into any kind of swimming rhythm as I have done time and time again in the swimming pool.
This was nothing like my training and my confidence had almost all but vanished.
The thought of raising my fist up in the air indicating that I’m done and I want to get out of the water began seeding in my mind and grew bigger and bigger with each attempt to swim again.
Did I start panicking?
Surprisingly no. Perhaps it was because I knew I could always just float on my back drift toward the rescue boat. But I did start to feel immense pressure as the possibility of forfeiting was ever increasing.
Every time the thought of giving up came up, all I could think about was how all the training and sacrifice my team put in in preparation for this race would be dashed because of my swim. That social pressure intense. Weeks, months of training for me and my team would have gone down the drain! If that was going to be on me, then at least I was going to die trying.
I remember vividly that I needed my mental toughness training now more than ever.
All the presentations and lectures that I have given over the years were flashing before me.
If I had any chance of continuing, I knew I had to get my breathing in order. I wasn’t hyperventilating then but it wasn’t to the rhythm of my breaststroke. The coldness of the water was too big of a factor and my body couldn’t adapt to the cold from all the previous attempts.
I tried chunking it down. I stopped thinking about the 1.9km and tried to only swim up to the next paddle board to take a break. They were spaced out by 50m so that seemed doable.
It was not.
I struggled to do even that as the cold was crippling.
Okay. Do ONLY 10 strokes at a time.
5 STROKES at a time.
3 strokes at a time.
JESUS… IT’S JUST TOO DAMN COLD!
I tried staying positive, and tried talking to those paddle board volunteers – even smile at them. They turned out to be immensely supportive and kept cheering me on.
As I kept going a couple strokes at a time followed by some treading water and some sidestrokes to keep my head above the water, another thought came to mind. The rules stated that the swim cut-off time was an hour and 10 minutes. Any swimmer that goes beyond that time will be disqualified and the relay team with it.
I was now juggling these thoughts of giving up, and being disqualified for going too slow.
Didn’t anticipate this being a problem before since my practice run I finished in 50 minutes.
At this point, I actually rationalized it in my head that this new thought doesn’t really change anything. Just do my best and not give up.
So I kept going with the same strategy… try to do a couple of proper breaststrokes with my head down and hopefully my breathing comes around, and go for the next paddle board volunteer.
I saw one of the volunteers up ahead signal me to swim towards the left where the race buoys were since I was probably the only swimmer farthest outside. I didn’t care and kept targeting each one. I didn’t care that I was swimming extra distance by going out so wide; my survival instinct was overriding my rational thinking.
Then the next volunteer signaled to me vigorously to turn left and I thought to just ignore him again but this time I thought I heard him say “you’re almost half way!”. I thought he was just being supportive because at my rate, there’s no way I was close to half way.
I looked to my left where the course was and realized that I was in fact at the turn!
I was half way through the race! I was in disbelief that I had made it that far.
I took the turn with renewed energy, and the number of strokes I could string together started to increase to 7 and 8 without stopping.
Eight strokes became 15 strokes and then before I knew it, I was swimming continuously!
At last, I was able to swim as I practiced. I felt so much at ease but knew that I had some time to make up from the first half if I was going to make it before the cut-off time. I pushed the last half of the swim as much as I could. The cold was still really bad, but I was able to keep it together just enough to not have to stop for a break. I could feel my hands and feet go numb as the swim movement did not keep me warm.
Then another annoying thing happened – my right thigh began to cramp up to cause further insult to injury. I experienced this many times during training so I had to slow down my kicking. But I couldn’t take it easy heading back in because I had the time pressure still in mind. I had to balance on a very fine line of pushing it just hard enough without my thigh seizing up into an all-out leg cramp.
It felt good heading into the finish. It felt like how I imagined the race should’ve been had it not been for the cold. But I was elated to know that I had finally made it to the end, and with my ego intact.
I climbed up out of the water on to the pontoon but my legs were not functioning. I was very wobbly and unstable and my right thigh was seizing up fast. I had about a 100m run to transition the transition point so my teammate, Carla can take off on her bike.
I ran over as fast as I could without completely losing balance and face-planting.
I tagged Carla, and she was off.
I looked at the time… 59 minutes. I did not disqualify the team. Hell yeah.
As I took the next 15 minutes to warm up, I was shivering uncontrollably. It was probably one of the coldest experiences of my life, not because I haven’t been in colder waters before (I once jumped into near 0ºC glacier lake but that was only for 1 minute), but because I was submerged in cold waters for an hour long. Normal body temperature is 37ºC and hypothermia sets in when body temperature goes below 35ºC. I was in 20ºC waters with no insulation for an hour which probably dropped my core temperature quite significantly.
The rest of the day was beautiful as the weather could not have been better and all our lululemon teams and athletes performed amazingly. We had such great team spirit and even a bus of lululemon staff drove in (they had to wake up at 5am!) from downtown Shanghai to support us!
In retrospect, it was a great experience for me and I’m actually glad I encountered this added challenge to my first Ironman (half & relay) race. It would’ve been nice to go all out with my training as I wanted to push my best time with this distance to under 50 mins but the satisfaction and the challenge would’ve paled in comparison to what I just went through. As I said in the beginning of this super long blog, I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and push myself into unchartered waters (sorry for the pun…).
And this was exactly that.
As I have mentioned many times in previous blogs and talks that I give, it’s not about the destination but the journey. Finishing the race was nice, but overcoming adversity, learning a new life skill, opening myself to a new way of transversing in this world are the real gems in this experience.
I don’t think I would’ve wanted it to unfold any other way.
Well, maybe I would hire a proper swim instructor and learned to do the freestyle from the start is a good alternative. And wear a bloody wetsuit like everyone else!