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The steep open water learning curve

I admit I felt a little too good about my swimming abilities after I seemingly mastered an open water swim session on Saturday.

So Wednesday, I jumped in Lake Erie ready to knock out about 600 meters of free and easy swimming when I ran into a problem.


While the temperature was fine, both in the air and the water, and the sun was out, the wind had picked up causing, you guessed it, waves in the lake.

I warmed up a bit, doing breaststroke mostly, then putting my head down for a few freestyle strokes.

Then I tried to swim.

And I was stopped every time.

I couldn't get much more than 10 strokes in without getting a whole lot of water in my mouth and up my nose. I didn't so much panic as I felt this surging weight of disappointment. Didn't I just swim this four days ago? Didn't I nail it down already? What's wrong with me?

Buffalo Triathlon Club member Sergio, who was with me on Saturday, reminded me that I didn't have to deal with choppy water and waves in my last swim. This was different. My friend Jenny made the bike analogy -- it's like cycling into a headwind. You're not going to go as fast and it's going to be more difficult.

Which of course then meant that coming back, I would have a tailwind.

The goal on the way back as I swam with Sergio and Joe was to make it back to the trees. I found my smooth stroke and kept going all the way back to the ladder -- 200 meters.

"What was THAT?" Joe asked.

"That," I said with some sense of relief, "was what I did on Saturday."

We continued on for another 100 meters (though I needed to catch my breath at one point). Then came the turnaround -- back into the waves for at least another 100 meters back to the ladder.

The key, it seemed, was to just put my head down -- way down actually. My instinct was to lift my head up in the choppy water to get air, but in reality that just gives the waves something to crash into. Keeping my head low, I would get less water in my mouth and if I looked back, the waves would crash over me instead of into me.

Sergio told me to be angry at the waves and think about hitting them to power through. This, quite frankly, is a lot of work, but I did better. I swam against the waves 25 meters at a time, stopping because I needed a rest.

In the end, the workout was great. I swam just fine with the current and improved in my battle against the waves.

Afterward, in the post-swim analysis, Jenny asked me what I was thinking about when I was having trouble swimming against the waves.

Nothing really. There wasn't much in my mind at all. And maybe that was the problem. As I get used to swimming in open water, mantras are great for keeping my mind focused, keeping it from wandering and, most importantly, from overthinking. But I didn't use my mantras -- confident, strong -- against the waves the first time. Come to think of it, I didn't use mantras in my backstroke-swim at Keuka, either. It showed both times.

On the bright side, the waves probably won't be too bad in self-contained Green Lake in Orchard Park on Sunday for the Quakerman Triathlon. Ah, but even if it is a bit choppy, I know I can handle it, if I punch the waves and remind myself how strong I am.

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