The Swim

Me Gusta Nadar

Swimming is without question my favorite part of the triathlon, perhaps because I swam in high school and therefore I’m a stronger swimmer compared to the field of runners and cyclists.  But I also think it is simply familiar to me and I love the sensory debt of lap swimming.

I didn’t know what to expect in Arizona, except that it would be the longest competitive swim of my life (2.4 miles) and that the start would be an absolute melee, with 2000 people starting the swim at the same time.

The Prep

The two prep swims we did gave me a lot of confidence.  The first prep swim, organized by Chris, a T3 teammate, helped me figure out whether I would use a neoprene swim cap.  We drove out to Saguro Lake, which conveniently was out the bike route for Ironman Arizona, so we had another chance to see the course.

The neoprene cap I had purchased from ATC on the day before I left for Arizona worked great – it kept my head warm, which is a huge challenge for me.  I tend to become a mucus factory in cold water, which eventually closes my throat and begins a fun cycle of coughing underwater, sucking in lake/pool water, and then coughing again.  Good times.

The second prep swim was at the actual race site.  I swam for only about 10 minutes, just to get a feel for the water and course.  I picked up several things quickly:

  1. No visibility. Despite “new water” filling Tempe Town Lake, the silt content was sky high and I could not see my hands underwater.
  2. Cold. It wasn’t bone chilling, but it was not warm.  I think my ideal swim temperature is about 66-67 degrees farenheit (19 C) and this water was closer to 63 F (17 C). 3)
  3. Climbing out of the Swim Exit. In order to exit Tempe Town Lake, you needed to pull yourself up out of the water onto a set of stairs.  This was not going to be a picnic after 2.4 miles.

The Big Question

Swim strategy is very simple.  Where do I start, and how fast will I go?  I knew the feel of my pace that I could hold for 2.4 miles.  The main decision I had to make was where to line up, and then specifically how early to enter the water?  In shorter triathlon where you are divided up by age group, you can get in last and work your way to the front before the start.  In the Ironman if you want to be up front, you had better get in water early and tread water for 15-20 minutes before the gun goes off.

One South African chap had told me that if I was planning on going 1:10 I should not be at the front because I’d get run over.  Matt, my teammate who swims at the same pace I do, said he still planned to get up front because he’d rather jockey with experienced strong swimmers than have to fight with slower or less stable swimmers.  I took this advice, and jumped in the water around 6:40, about 5 minutes before the pros took off.

I had been up since 3:45 AM.  I had done all the logistical work of dropping off “special needs” bags for the run and bike. I had put on my wetsuit.  And the dominant thought in my mind, after almost 11 months of training, was “I really want to get this over with.”  I was not happy, I was not excited.  I bounced between my usual pre-race narcolepsy of wanting a nap and being agitated.  Sitting with Eric and Travis had calmed me down.  But I was still just ready to get this whole thing over with.  No joy in Mudville for this triathlete.

The Start / The Brawl

I swam to the front, to the middle of the channel.  There were actually Kayaks in the water, and those of us who had made the early plunge grabbed onto those kayaks to minimize our energy expenditure.

At 7:00 AM, the horn sounded, and the chaos began.  2000 people packed into a channel in cold water, in wetsuits, with a time goal in mind, is not a good thing.  The initial five minutes was not swimming.  This was not the sport I loved.  Efficiency was thrown out the window to survival and fighting off the people on all sides of you.  I was hit every 2-3 seconds for the entire five minutes.  I kept sighting, looking for space, but of course everyone else was doing the same.

2.4 miles

Eventually the variety of pace between the athletes created more space, and I could starting sighting every 10-12 strokes.  I swam alongside people so I didn’t have to site.  I kept  pushing my head down, to elevate my legs (a much more efficient position) but had zero visibility.  I swim more with my eyes than I probably should, to correct imbalances in my stroke that may take me left or right.  I knew I was not swimming the clean straight lines that I am capable of in open water, but the options were limited.

After the turnaround, I began to get cold.  My body temperature was dropping with every 500 yards.  I had never experienced my chest being cold in a wetsuit before – usually I heat up.  After thinking about it yesterday, I am pretty sure that my body temperature had dropped before entering the water, and while in the water waiting for the start. Luckily, I could still breathe easily, and kept moving.

Hard Right

Half way back, all of a sudden I could hear yelling, and I sighted once to see an armada of kayaks blocking our path, and forcing the entire pack of swimmers to the right, through a narrow channel of buoys.   This was no where on the swim map, and not something we expected at all on the course.  Once again it forced too many people into too small of a space, but at this point, the pace between all of us was relatively equal and MMA skills were not required.

My biggest physical fear in the swim had been my right shoulder, which had begun to tweak out on me in distance swims.  I put too much weight on my shoulder when I’m breathing, and my Lake LBJ swim had aggravated something.  But my shoulder felt fine the entire race.  Go figure.

Swim Exit

We made the final turn to the Swim Exit, and I started exhaling deeply, something Coach Chrissie had taught me.  I reached the giant metal bleacher /staircase that was the swim exit, and struggled to pull myself out, but eventually got out of the water.

The wetsuit strippers were awesome as usual.  But in just a swimsuit, I began to freeze.  I was “warmed” seeing Lisa, Vic, and Dan cheering for me as I ran past.   I sat down on a chair outside the tent to change.  I was frozen by this point, teeth chattering.  I toweled off as quickly as possible and put on everything except by bike shorts, then hopped in the tent and swapped my wet swimsuit for the bike shorts,  and went off to grab my bike.


Overall, it was an “okay” swim – probably 2.6 to 2.7 miles.  My time was 1 hour, 6 minutes.  I was 60th out of 399 in my age group.  My pace was 1:44 for each 100 yards, when I felt I should have gone closer to 1:40 in a wetsuit.  I know that I’m capable of a sub-hour 4000 m / 2.4 mile open water swim.  Next year I’m going to find a swimming-only race in Australia where I can prove it.

(Yesterday: Ironman Arizona 2010)

(Tomorrow: The Bike)

3 thoughts on “The Swim

  1. How about this for something a little bit different:

    31 October 2011: Registration for the 5th UK Cold Water Swimming Championship 2011 opens today. Competitors can register by visiting and clicking on the CWSC 11 tab. The championship is organised by South London Swimming Club (SLSC) and takes place on Saturday 22 January 2011 at Tooting Bec Lido in South London.
    The entry fee is £12 (£10 for SLSC members) plus £6 per competition entered. This year, organisers are advising people to register well before the 24 December deadline as there are only 350 places and strong demand on the back of recent ‘wild swimming’ coverage on TV and in the media.
    This biennial event has become a ‘must’ for cold-water swimmers and also attracts many new converts. Age and ability is no barrier and with water temperatures down to 3°C, jumping in for the 30 yard race is considered an achievement in itself.
    In 2009, the championship attracted around 1,000 visitors to the pool. A spectator’s ticket is just £2.00 and provides a fun-filled programme of racing from 9am through to 3pm covering traditional “head up” breaststroke, freestyle dash and relays, plus the endurance 500 yard challenge.
    It’s a colourful event with music, comperes, outlandish swimming costumes and hats ranging from butterfly wings through to Bearskins. And to keep everyone warm, there’s hot tub and showers, a Finnish sauna, and a marquee and stalls selling fresh coffee, cakes, hog roast, vegetarian and boutique real ales.
    • Website: and click on the CWSC 11 tab
    • TV footage of 2009:
    • Facebook
    • Blog:
    • Sponsorship pack:
    • Twitter: @slsclido hashtag: #coldwater2011
    • Photos:
    • General: and 07985 141 532.
    • Press: Jonathan Buckley on 07985 575 261 or Tom Butler on 07726360558 at .
    • Film/photography: No cost but must send a copy of public liability insurance to Maria Horn, Film Manager, Wandsworth Film Office, Battersea Park, London SW11 4NJ. 020 8871 7119.

  2. Pingback: The Bike « Journal of Bryan J. Rollins

  3. Pingback: Ironman Arizona 2010 « Journal of Bryan J. Rollins

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