Tri Challenge: A view from the kayak
June 30th, 2011
11:07 AM ET

Tri Challenge: A view from the kayak

By now, with less than six weeks of training left before the Nautica New York City Triathlon   most of us  “six’ers” - the six iReporters chosen to compete alongside Dr. Sanjay Gupta -   have completed at least one multi-sport event as part of our training. I was seeking one as well, and was happy to learn of an Olympic-distance triathlon scheduled for early June that was right here in my hometown of Rome, Georgia.

It was the second annual “Tri for the Shelter,” proceeds of which benefit our local homeless shelter and the setting was a lovely nearby mountain-lake recreation area. My plan was to gain some open-water experience by doing the swim, and then do the bike course as well.

I have a long-standing commitment to the Davies Shelter. It was founded several years ago by members of my church, and once a month my best friend and I prepare and deliver an evening meal for the women there. Proceeds from the triathlon are a significant portion of  the organization’s annual budget, so I hoped for many participants from throughout the region.

Before I could sign up, however, I received three emails in the one day from event organizers, each making a plea for volunteers to assist at the event. One need was for kayakers to staff the swim course, ensuring the safety for swimmers and assisting with any issues that might arise in the water. That position had my name written all over it!  I am an avid kayaker and president of our regional Waterkeeper  Alliance organization, but this summer I have missed several paddle trips as my tri-training ramped up and demanded more of my weekend time.

The Tri organizers assigned me to a kayak, and I arrived bright and early on that cool Saturday morning, received my high-visibility volunteer t-shirt, was handed a large red “lifeguard” flotation device to keep in the boat, and I happily paddled out onto the misty mountain lake.

Ducks flew up, dragonflies buzzed, and blue herons passed overhead as I took my place near the start of the swim course. I was immediately overwhelmed at the length of this course! While I had looked at a map to get my bearings, from the water’s surface the buoys seemed to be even farther apart.  I knew the course was one mile but it looked much longer. I will admit right now that had I been swimming that day, I would have had more than a little anxiety.

The swimmers entered the water 10 seconds apart, so this was not the “contact sport” that some swim starts can be. They swam clockwise, keeping the buoys on their right, and there was a kayaker at each end of the course to ensure that they made the turns correctly. Because my first concern was for safety, I observed the swimmers carefully for signs of fatigue. Many of them were indeed tired, but none asked to hold to the kayak; instead, they utilized an interesting assortment of resting techniques as needed. It was fascinating and very helpful to watch them and I learned some valuable lessons that will help me in the NYC Tri swim.

Some of the swimmers would simply stop for occasional moments, treading water and sighting down the course to get the next few buoys imprinted in their minds. I could see their heads bobbing while they caught their breath and bearings, and after less than 30 seconds they would resume their freestyle strokes.

Others, instead of pausing, would just change up their strokes. I saw freestyle alternating with breaststroke, sidestroke, and yes, a good many went by just happily flipped over on their backs, looking up at the sky and getting some rest while still making forward progress (albeit at a temporarily slower pace.)

I learned even more from observing body mechanics and stroke efficiency. From my own lessons and training, I know to keep my head and chest down, my feet up just below the surface, and to “roll” with each stroke so as to present the least amount of surface area to the water. When I do this correctly, I can definitely feel myself moving more easily through the water; it makes swimming almost effortless (almost!).

Watching from the kayak, I could easily spot the swimmers who had perfected their technique, and it was a pleasure to see them go by. The best ones glided along effortlessly, rolling their bodies so smoothly that they looked almost like dolphins. I tried very hard to imprint the images in my mind, and know that this visualization will help during my own swims.

Only two swimmers really struggled, but even they completed the course, and I learned from them as well. I had been concerned about one of them and watched him very closely from the halfway point on. He was very tired and said that he had some cramping, but he refused the opportunity to rest at the kayak. This guy was REALLY toughing it out, and from where I sat it was obvious why he was having to fight so hard:  He never once put his face down in the water; he never leveled his body and used a true freestyle stroke. Instead, he was dragging himself along with his arms, his body hanging in the water at a 45 degree angle and offering much resistance to his forward progress. I have to hand it to him for finishing that swim!

The guy behind him was simply not a strong swimmer, nor did he appear to be in very good shape. His coach (or brother or friend) waded out into the lake up to his waist; I thought at first he was coming out to baptize somebody! Then he proceeded to holler at the poor guy for the last quarter of the swim. He first yelled to me “hey kayak-lady, how deep is it where you are?” I stuck my paddle down and determined it was about 5 feet deep and motioned that to him, whereupon he kept saying “George (not his real name), it’s only 5 feet deep-you can stand up if you want to! Come on George, you can do it! Hold on to the kayak if you have to but you can do it!!” I think he meant to be encouraging, but to be honest it would have gotten on my last nerve for someone to be yelling at me like that!

Everyone around gave a cheer when he finally stumbled out of the water, and I loaded my boat and moved up to volunteer at transition. Imagine my surprise when here came the dry-faced-struggling-swimmer rolling in from the bike ride well ahead of mid-pack! Lesson learned: He was a strong biker and had easily compensated for his slow swim time.

A mantra I have heard many times while training is, “Run Your Own Race.” This is calming to me, because it reminds me that I will succeed in this race by playing to my strengths and compensating for my weaknesses. To my fellow six’ers, and to all of us who have anxiety about the swim, I offer this new corollary: “Swim Your Own Swim.” There are all kinds of ways to make it through (and out of) that water.

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soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. TriHardStasia

    Great advice, Nina and very well written.... Can't wait to see you in a month!

    June 30, 2011 at 12:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. TriNatural

    Thanks for this post. I'm 6 weeks away from my first tri and quite nervous about the swim [400m]. This article gave me a few ideas for approaching it.

    June 30, 2011 at 20:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Ryan

    Just a heads up- as an open water swimmer- keep the water level with your eyebrows. If you keep your head down, you will have it rolling over your neck.

    July 1, 2011 at 09:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. jaja63

    I'm 2 months away from my first triathlon and I'm finding the articles from the Tri Challenge to be good learning experiences (albeit vicarious – I'm going to have to watch my rolling!) and very motivational. Keep up the good work and good luck for the upcoming events.

    July 1, 2011 at 09:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Bill

    One of the most important functions of swimming is exhaling all the way, long exhales under water. This will help your anxiety.

    July 1, 2011 at 09:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. George

    Thanks for volunteering. As an age-group triathlete, also a Triathlon Race Director, I appreciate those that participate and especially those that take turns volunteering. Good luck in your future races!

    July 1, 2011 at 10:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Rachel

    Hi Nina – what great perspective and advice for the fellow 6 packers. Joaquin (my husband) is definitely going to benefit from your thoughtful and descriptive blog post. I love that the Tri you volunteered for is benefiting the community. I am looking forward to meeting you. You are an inspiration to us all!

    July 1, 2011 at 20:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Drew Nicholson

    Nina! I'm so proud of everything you have accomplished! You are an inspiration to everyone around you! I love you!

    July 5, 2011 at 12:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Sandra Chavez

    Hi Nina, I am so excited for your accomplishment! I am 58 years old and in June completed my first She Rox sprint triathlon with several friends. It has been a life inspiring and life changing experience and I am hooked! I decided last October to get healthy after a high cholesterol score and since then w training and wise food choices I have dropped 41 pounds and lowered my cholesterol by 47 points. I think tri's are positively contagious! My husband and other friends are now looking forward to their first tri. Best wishes for a great race in August!

    July 10, 2011 at 09:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Susan Kohlman

    Nina, You've come a long way since we graduated in 1970. You represent the East Rome High Gladiators well. Wish I could be there at the finish line to cheer you over. In high school you were a leader and here you are again, leading us all into being healthier. You go girl.

    July 31, 2011 at 18:10 | Report abuse | Reply
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    Kayaks are classified by their use. There are eight primary classifications: polo, slalom, whitewater, surf, touring/expedition, light touring/day tripping, sprint/racing and general recreation. From these primary classifications stem many sub-classes. For example, a fishing kayak is simply a general-recreation kayak outfitted with accessories that make it easier from which to fish. A creek kayak is a certain type of whitewater kayak, designed to handle narrow gully type rivers and falls. Also within these classifications are many levels of performance which further separate the individual models. In other words, not all touring kayaks handle the same.^*"*

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