We were quite saddened to hear about another triathlon death this past weekend this time at a Rochester triathlon. As is too often the case the death occurred during the swim (75% of deaths at a tri race are during the swim) and the harrowing story of swimmers and rescue personnel attempting to save the person furthers underscores the gravitas of what can happen in a moment.
If you're a triathlete hearing this sends shudders deep into you. Every single person who has donned a wetsuit and have paid their USAT fees understands the panic that can at times unreasonably appear or that logically appear in the excitement and mania of the swim.
And its not just the swim. Most triathletes are not accustomed to taking a turn at 20 mph with 10 to 15 other bikes in the crowd (this is the real world not the USAT rule-book.) And when we hit a hill at 35 mph who hasn't felt that front wheel buckle from either fatigued shoulders or a loss of confidence.
This is all the excitement we've bought into - we get to do. And for 99% of the time it is a blast because there are indeed the moments described above when we're skating the edge: the kick to the goggles, the skid around the turn that brings us to close to a road barrier. The adrenaline carries us through transition. Triathlon forces us to experience the edge over and over again during training and racing. And we learn to push that edge. In fact it is why many stay in the sport or return to it. Triathlon is badass.
The sport also forces us to prepare like few other sports do. The saying, "My sport is your sports punishment" is especially relevant here. A simple swim turns into a gear extravaganza complete with GPS and dual layered swim caps. It also means a lovely solitary swim becomes a two person swim with a spotter on the beach and five people knowing where you are.
As coach of Dt I've had athletes taken terrible falls in pelatons that simply should have never existed, collapsed during runs from heat exhaustion, and panicked in shallow water. The "badass" attitude brought them beyond the edge and away from preparation - they no longer owned their experience. They had submitted themselves to it. In at least of few of these instances the person's life was altered never mind their sports ability.
So here's a reminder of the obvious (but that isn't the point is it):
- Never swim alone. Ever. Consider wearing a safety buoy.
- Have a friend spot you both from the beach. Or at least let the park ranger or beach patrol know you're going out for a swim.
- Swim within your own means. It's a swim - your heart rate isn't going to get up there and if it does bring it back down by doing a few slow breast strokes. If you're going a mile its a mental game so make sure you have a strategy (multiple sightings, songs to play in your head, etc.) Remember the wetsuit is keeping your hips up so cut the drama of heavy kicking. And yes you're wearing a wetsuit - you're not a swimmer you're a triathlete and the bike and run await.
- If panic ensues turn over on your back and breath. Call to your swim mate. Keep an eye out for each other. It's the only reason the other person is there. You're wearing a wetsuit you'll float so straighten up and breath easily. Relax and determine if it was a momentary thing, a physical thing, or the gigantic 5 inch turtle that brushed against you. Swim to the closest shore with your friend next to you. And if you're the friend then guess what? Your swim is over. Is this a bad thing? Absolutely not. Every time you control a panic situation it will give you greater confidence over your ability to own the swim.
- Wear your wetsuit on every swim you do even if it is a 500 yard open water swim - get used to that tight feeling.
- Position yourself in a swim start where you should be. I saw a collegiate swimmer doing her first triathlon stand at the front in the middle. I kept trying to tell her the people around her aren't swimmers they're triathletes and if you look at them smile they have wetsuit stuck between their teeth. She was confident of her abilities and that she could stay ahead of these tri-nerds. She looked like a Mack truck had hit her when she got out.
- Make sure your wheels are pumped to their appropriate pressure - they will keep you safe.
- Your bike has to go through a spring check up at the mechanics. We had an athlete who had their seat come off of their $10,000 tri-bike...on a hill...coming down. Think about that for a second.
- Imagine your bike without brakes. Most riders are out there with 25% of their brake pads left.
- Give yourself three bike lengths. Take turns going to the front and keep the rest away from you especially in a long race/training ride. Discourage people from riding next to you. Roads are horrible and if you need to sway outside guess what.
- Take turns slow and alone. Slow and alone.
- And there's so much more but this isn't the point is it?
If you want to be healthy and strong take up Cross-fit or kick boxing or even pick-up games of basketball. All of those will make you super strong, good looking, and probably richer. If you're going to be this badass then you've got to go by the numbers and own every single stroke, pedal, and step of this thing. You do not experience triathlon. You own it. It is a matter of life.