Swimming at Your Own Risk

I went for a long lunch time walk this afternoon at the Carpinteria Bluffs and came across this sign:


What amazed me most about this was simply the somewhat melodramatic let down of the words “swim at your own risk.”

Don’t our government officials realize that we are swimming at our own risk everyday, not just shark days?

Oceans contain sharks and I know that I have a chance of meeting one every time I get in the water. As a triathlete, sharks are small potatoes compared to the toe nibbling sea lions, the risk of rip current and even the risk of sudden heart attack.

What would be a better caption for this sign, something that piqué the interest of a triathlete?

Tips for Ocean Swimming

Swimming in the ocean is a really difficult thing for a lot of people.  As a triathlete, it is my least favorite sport to do and something I’ve struggled with for many years. Fear of death, discomfort in cold water, and nausea from rolling waves, it all adds up to a nightmare.

This weekend’s Carpinteria Triathlon represents a milestone in my journey of ocean swimming. This weekend’s event was the first event where I swam freestyle for 99% of the course. In celebration of my milestone, I thought I would share a few tips for ocean swimming that I’ve picked up over my journey:

  • Relax!  Sure there are sea monsters that might eat you and you might actually get caught in seaweed and drowned, but you are far more likely to get run over by a truck crossing the street.  Take a deep breathe and visualize calming thoughts and focus.
  • Time you entry with the waves!  If you can, time your entry just after a large wave.  Waves come in cycles with a few smaller ones and one big one.  If you wait until just after the big one to enter, you can clear the wave break before the next big one hits.
  • Focus on your stroke! Feel the water move around your body, watch your arms move in front and below you.  Make sure to rotate fully on each side.
  • Reach wide for stability! I learned this from a swim clinic I took a while back, in rough water, instead of reaching your hand to the center of the body line, let the hand reach out from the shoulder. The wider stroke will help stabilize.
  • Sight frequently! Especially if you are new to this.  I tend to swim in circles, so I need to make sure I am heading in the right direction. Sighting frequently (every dozen strokes or so) allows me to correct.
  • Roll to your back! If you need a break for a moment to refocus or catch your breathe, its okay, do it!  Rolling to your back and taking a moment to regroup is much better than panicking and dropping out of the race.
  • It’s okay to hit someone (accidentally)!  Swimming in a triathlon, particularly in a group can mean full contact.  You will be punched and you will punch someone by mistake.  Don’t panic, just refocus and keep going.
  • Bi-lateral breathing is best!  Breathing strictly to one side can be problematic if waves are crashing into your face, so learn to breathe on both sides so you can adjust.  Bi-lateral breathing will also help you fully rotate and help you swim straighter.
  • Swim as long as you can before standing up! Many people tend to stand up in water that is waist high or so when exiting the water.  It is far more efficient to swim onto your belly, so get as close to shore as you can before standing up.

With these tips you will be swimming better than ever in the ocean and you might actually look forward to it.  Relaxing, focusing, and breathing will help you get through your next oceanic adventure!

< for more swimming tips, checkout my other swimming posts >

Triathlon Training Update – January 2011

It has been a while since I gave an update on my triathlon training.  Seems like after last year’s Carpinteria Triathlon, I went into hibernation.  For one reason or another, it was simply time to slow down, deal with life and do some regrouping.  So, the winter months were not exactly the most productive in terms of triathlon training.

But, it wasn’t like I spent the winter in bed.  In contrast to last winter where I spent quite a bit of time improving my physical side, this winter I focused more on the mental side.  I spent time reflecting on 2009 and 2010 triathlon seasons, studying “the mental edge” and positive visualization.  I learned a lot about what it meant to perform mentally whether during training or during a race.

Studying the Mental Edge

Two books helped me focus and provided some surprise inspiration.  Two of the books, “Zero Regrets” and “Spirit of the Dancing Warrior” are summarized in my post, Some Inspiration: Apolo and a Warrior.  The third book, Dan Millman’s Way of the Peaceful Warrior, is an interesting tale that parallels the other two.  Simply by being focused, in control, and breathing calmly, one can become a warrior at everything they do.

All three books have made me reconsider my approach to everything, but I am learning that becoming a warrior requires discipline, practice and even more discipline.  However, when I achieve the warrior state whether swimming, biking or running, the results are fantastic.  It is like I am transported to a land where gravity works with me, not against me and every step or stroke is pure bliss.  The hard part is getting to that state, which requires one’s mind to let go of all thoughts, step above any muscle pain and focus on breathing.  It takes practice.

C is for Consistency

Speaking of practice, my physical workouts have been sporadic.  Like I said before, life can be quite busy at times, especially during the holidays and end of year.

Daily workout score with moving average.

As you can see in the chart above, my triathlon training is rather inconsistent.  Each marker represents a workout with the value being a function of time and intensity.  Not only has the frequency of workouts dropped off, but also the intensity, starting in mid-January.  In fact, February has been dismal with more zero intensity days since I was an office potato.

The primary workout each week has been a cross training workout that combines strength with cardio training. The workout starts with intervals on the treadmill, then two circuits of strength and usually ending with more intervals on the bike or elliptical.

Weekends would include a long bike, run, swim or combination of the three.  I also started attending a group swim workout at the local pool, which proved to be highly beneficial.  Not only is it a longer pool, at 50m, but very motivational as swimming with other more competent athletes really makes me push harder.  My swim workouts have gone from 500-600 meters to well over 1 kilometer.

Going Forward

So, what’s next? Keep moving forward.  My first triathlon is the Ventura Triathlon at the end of June.  This gives me plenty of time to build my competitive spirit and get back into shape.  With the goal of completing the olympic course at the Carpinteria Triathlon in September, it is clearly time to come of hibernation and get going.  Bears can spend an entire year in their caves!

A Very Long Swim Workout

Another first.  My first group swim workout.  It kicked my ass, but in an absolutely wonderful way.

The Surprise

Arriving at the pool with the group, I was shocked, the pool was huge!   Up until this point, my swim workouts have been in a 25m pool, so the 50m pool looked pretty scary.  “I am going to swim all the way across that?”  Then it got worse!  Our instructor stated that we would start with 350m warm-up, swimming one length, moving to the next lane, and so on, zigzaging to the opposite end of the pool.  “Woh.. that’s like one swim workout in itself, this is going to be interesting.”

But it wasn’t that bad. I was last into the pool and found the water to be pleasant, but heavily chlorinated. I followed the group as I got into my rhythm, reaching the end of the first 50m quickly and easily.  It was at this point I realized that I was pushing too hard as I really wanted to keep up, but it was unrealistic.  As I started the second 50m, I could see the person in front of my was now nearly a full lap ahead and the first swimmer was starting their last lap.  “Oh well, this will be fun, just do your best and focus on moving,” I thought. I ended up swimming about 2/3 the distance before I cut across to join the group at the end.

Drill What?

Then came the diving drills.  Dive down, touch the bottom, come up, over the lane marker and back down, repeating across the lanes of the pool.  Hmmm…  getting to the bottom of a 10’6″ pool is hard, especially when you are not relaxed and short on breathe.  I never made it to the bottom, but did get across the pool.

Then we started the other drills and much of the instruction were like another to me.  This group was intense, many of them have done long course triathlons such as the Santa Barbara Triathlon.  I felt out of place, but I too want to go long, so I felt like I needed to push hard to stick with this group.  I knew that over time, I too would rise to their level and I would look back on this workout and laugh.

Even though the drills didn’t make much sense, I kept moving as much as possible.  In the end my arms, shoulders, and abs were worn out. Still, I felt awesome.  I came into this not knowing what to expect, was blown away at the level of intensity (given my abilities), but stared the challenge in the face and did my best.

That’s Odd

One thing about the pool was it variable depth. It started at 3’6″ but ended at 10’6″ at the far end of the 50m length.  As you are swimming along the lane, you literally see the tiles below falling away. I couldn’t get used to this sensation, it toyed with my mind as swam back and forth in the lanes.  In fact, this sensation helped me bump up my visualization and mental edge skills to fight the odd sensation.

“Long Distance” Swimming Tips

Since this was my longest swim ever, I learned a few things that can really help out over the long distance.

  1. Relax.  Don’t push hard, don’t panic, don’t forget to breathe. Simply relax and be in the moment.  You will use less oxygen, therefore swim farther.
  2. Swim from the hip.  Many people think that power from the stroke comes from the arms and shoulders, but it does not.  The power should come from the hip and the arm should extend forward from the hip.  The arms are mainly for stabilization.
  3. Be in the moment.  Don’t panic about getting to the finish line or how fast or slow you are swimming.  Know your comfort zone and stay there.  Triathlons are rarely won in the water.  In fact, the more you are in the moment, the less energy you will require.  Use positive visualization skills.
  4. Smile.  When the swimming gets rough, just smile.  The power of the smile will brighten your mood and help you refocus.
  5. Perseverance. Keep going and find a pace you can comfortably maintain.  The brain is trained to make you stop before you physically have to stop.  As much as the muscles hurt, push just a little more.

While this workout kicked my ass, I am looking forward to getting my ass kicked at the next workout.  The more my ass is kicked, the more I grow and the more I become a better swimmer.  Just like my journey from office potato to triathlete was slow, I know it will take time to rise to the level of the long distance triathlete.

The next time you get in the pool, keep the five tips above in mind. Before you know it, you will be swimming longer and faster than ever before.

Running up Jesusita & Swimming in Lightning

Trail running is a heck a lot of fun.  Swimming in the pool, gracefully gliding through the water, is very sublime.  As a triathlete, one of the best parts of my training is the variety of workouts I endure.  In fact, I have such a variety during some weeks that I feel like an athlete with ADD.

Running Up Jesusita

With the Malibu Canyon Trail Run just a week away, it was time to hit the local trails to get some workout time in.   After I hit the first incline however, I suddenly realized that I should have started getting trail running time in more than just a week in advance.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  The Jesusita Trail that runs through the San Roque Canyon of the Santa Barbara foothills, is described as a strenuous hike with moderate slope over the seven mile round trip (out and back).  <Jesusita Trail mapping by Trimble> The 2,000 feet gain in climbing altitude, makes this the perfect warm-up for the less strenuous Malibu Canyon Trail Run.

Having never run or hiked Jesusita before, it took me a few drive-by’s to find the trail head.  Located just off San Roque Rd, but hidden by bushes and down an incline, the trail head is not directly visible from the road. I have a feeling this is intentional.

After changing shirts, grabbing my running pack and bottle, I headed down the trail, somewhat leisurely.  But this was trail run practice, so I better get the move on, which was easy to do going downhill.  However, my hesitation wasn’t from lack of enthusiasm, but from unfamiliarity.  With forks in the trail and new scenery, I really didn’t feel comfortable cranking out speed… I really had no idea where I was going or what to expect.

This turned out to be the theme of the run, discovery.  I discovered that the Jesusita is literally an upward slope all the way to the top (duh, it is a hill!) and that my legs quickly reach exhaustion even on the slightest of inclines.  Taking it slow gave me a great opportunity to enjoy the scenery under the low clouds and canopy.

Those low clouds were vital in helping me determine how high I was actually climbing.  It seemed like I run up through a narrow canyon and started up some switchbacks, about a 1.75 miles only to realize that the conditions were much colder and much wetter than I remembered a few moments ago.   Continuing on up the backside of the hill, the tree canopy gave way to a wide vista of cliff and grey fog on the right with a wet, slipper slope on the left.  I had reached the ridgeline at 2.30 miles.  I was on the fence about going back or continuing on due to the conditions (cold/wet, my lack of familiarity with the trail, my fear of heights, and being on the trail alone).

I decided to push on to 2.5 miles, but didn’t make it.  I turned around at 2.45 miles after encountering a very narrow trail, even lower visibility, and an area of rock slides (that made the trail seem even narrower).  Instead of finding the top, I started back, fast.

Going downhill is obviously a lot easier than going up.  You have gravity in your favor and I just come up the same trail so I knew what kind of footing to expect on the way down.  While it took 45 minutes to come up, it took about 22 minutes to go the same distance down.

I was exhausted, yet gratified that I had done it.  I was even more satisfied with the trail run after I got home and uploaded my GPS data and saw that I had climbed 1,400 feet.  Wow…  it sure felt like it, but wow, I was proud!   Can’t wait to do it again… in the sun!

Swimming in Lightning

With all the nasty, Seattle-like weather we’ve been having in Santa Barbara lately really makes it hard to get a good workout in.  Granted trail running is one of those sports where you do it no matter the conditions.    On the opposite end of the spectrum is swimming.  In general, you don’t swim in foul weather.

So, the other evening, with a thunderstorm rolling in from the east and a swim workout highlighted on my training calendar, I headed over to the gym to sneak in a workout.

Arriving at the gym, changing and heading down to the pool, everything seemed great.  The weather was fine, a little chilly perhaps, the aqua aerobics class had just concluded and I had the pool to myself, and the thunderstorm was still a ways off in the distance.

Things started going downhill when I hit the water.  I am used to ocean swimming, so with cold water, I’ve learned to just suck it up and go.  On this evening however, there was something extra in the air that made getting used to the cold water more difficult.  I couldn’t put my finger on it, but that instinct said something was up.

Then the chilling, cold breeze that floated over the pool on my third lap sent shivers down my arm and through my spine.  The edge of the storm had arrived.  The peaceful world of the pool was a profoundly calm place to be compared to the chaos that began above the water.  The dark, gnarly, vicious clouds soared overhead like a monster in a scifi movie.

Sucking it up and going back to my peaceful sanctuary of water, I started another set of 100’s.   With the dark clouds masking the low sun, the pool had suddenly become quite dark.  With the pool lights off and my tinted goggles blurring the tiles below, I became infatuated with this new world…  a dark, spooky world of water below a thunderstorm.

Then it got interesting with the first bolt of bright lightning.  Scary at first, the sudden light illuminates the water around you, placing a rather interesting shadow of your body on the bottom of the pool, while I gasp for air in shock of the sudden new but brief swimming conditions.

With one more lap to conclude this 100, I decided to go all out back to the starting end of the pool.  Along the way, the lightning created a disco effect of shadows, blinding light, and darkness.  The randomness was sublime.

Then reality sets in and you remember that your mother always told you to never swim when there was lightning.  With the growing breeze, horrendously evil clouds, and bang of thunder, this evening was not a time to argue with mom.

After 11-minutes and 350m, I had the pleasure of experiencing a world that few others even begin to consider.  Swimming with lightning is not recommended, but boy, oh boy, is it an experience that one will never forget.

Expect the Unexpected: 2010 Santa Barbara Triathlon Sprint

Let me start this post by saying that I awoke in the wee hours of Saturday, August 28th with a severe case of food poisoning.  I was so sick, I wasn’t able to join friends at East Beach for the Santa Barbara Triathlon Long Course that day.  In fact, I didn’t even think I would compete in Sunday’s Sprint.

Luckily, I recovered enough that I felt comfortable competing.   Late Saturday night, I put the final checklist and plans into place and set my alarm clock for 4:30am the next morning.

Waking suddenly to the bitter sound of “beep, beep, beep,” I immediately hit the snooze.  “OMG! It’s already time to get up…  I need at least another hour,” I said to myself.   But, triathletes don’t need another hour, so I got up, got dressed, packed the rest of my stuff into my GYST transition bag, loaded the car and headed toward East Beach.

Parking was easy and I met some other triathletes, which helped brighten my mood. As we walked along the waterfront above the transition area, I can hear the waves off in distance. We talked about how cold the ocean water was projected to be and agreed that today’s swim was not going to be a walk in the park despite the calm conditions.  This was real!

Being at the transition area so early, I was able to choose the best transition spot, the outside end of the 1140-1180 bib range.  Five rows down from swim in and very convenient.

Of course, setting up transition was super simple with my GYST transition bag. Set it down, unfold it, and you are set to go!  The wetsuit is ready, the change of clothes, the shoes, snacks and water bottles are there and ready to go.

For some reason time really seemed to fly.  I had plenty of time to stretch, make multiple trips to the bathroom, chat with other triathletes, and focus on the task ahead.

But then I found myself in the porta-potty when they announced the first wave was leaving in fifteen minutes!  OMG! I still had to put on my wetsuit and do a practice swim.  However, fifteen minutes is plenty of time to wipe your butt, put on an over-sized wetsuit, and walk down to the beach.

The practice swim confirmed what we all have been hearing for the past few days, the water was really, really cold!  I also realized that entry into the water might be an issue as I watched a group of swimmer get taken out by a wave.  Once past the breaking waves, the feet didn’t seem to mind the cold much, but the hands and face protested.  I started out with side stroke and got into a rhythm and then transitioned to crawl. But the ice cream headache during crawl was a bit much for my food poisoned, recovering body so I stopped to tread water for a bit before heading back to shore.

Uh-Oh, WAVE!

Lining up at the start was a little scary.  It was the first time that I realized just how far apart each of the buoys were.  Was this really a 500m swim?  Looks to be a lot longer! Time to concentrate.

The first wave left and the 2010 Santa Barbara Triathlon sprint had begun! I could see that very few people were swimming with their heads in the water.  They also seemed to take a while to get around the first buoy and make progress toward the second. Not very reassuring as the second wave, my wave, lined up at the start.

Then they announced 30 seconds, time to focus.  I pulled my goggles down, checked my swim cap and took a deep breathe.  Then the countdown began.

The horn blew and the wall of men in front of me disappeared.  I remember seeing feet, splashing, and then looking up and seeing a wave. A giant and thinking to myself that this was going to suck.  Why didn’t I look up before I entered the water and waited two seconds?  The wave hit me and a few others, flooding my face with salt water and knocking the wind out of me.  Time stood still.

Unlike the others, I was still standing where I was hit.  I immediately dove into a side stroke, but quickly noticed that something was wrong.  I was out of breathe and every movement of the arms and legs felt like I lacked power.  Was it the cold.

While getting to the first buoy and turning to parallel shore didn’t take long, looking the length of the buoys and barely being able to see the far buoy was psychologically distressing.   This was going to be a long, painful swim.

Despite my body trying to tell me to stop, I pushed on, doing any stroke I could muster that would keep me moving toward the end.  From side stroke, back stroke, dogie paddle, to crawl, I kept myself going, absolutely determined to see this through to the end.  While I realized that my goal of 55min was probably not going to happen at this point, I knew that I still had to give this event my all.

Rounding the last buoy, I realized how wide I went.  I went so wide that I was in a world of my own, seeing blue and white caps splashing about 20 meters to my right.  I must have swam crooked for a little too long… oops.   I swam straight toward the chute on the beach.  While others were starting to stand up, I gave myself a few extra strokes and then exited the water.

My heart was racing, I was out of breathe, cold, and wondered if doing this was really such a great idea.  Of course it was, the hard part was now over and the fun was just about to begin!

The Little Piggy Goes “Wwweeeeee”

T1 was pretty fast. All I had to do was strip off the wetsuit, toss on the shorts, GPS, helmet and shoes and go.  While I had some issues getting my Polar watch off and replacing it with the Garmin GPS, not putting on the gloves, socks and switching shirts like I did last year really saved some time.  I grabbed the bike and mounted.

Those first few pedal strokes after the swim are some of the most amazing to me.  You are covered in salt water, the wind is drying you off and your legs are still a little confused about what you want them to do.  Yet, you can feel the power being transferred to the road and it is exhilarating.

It wasn’t long before I caught up to a few cyclists and went whizzing by them.   I was moving at a speed just under 20mph and it felt great to pass someone else for a change.  I had ridden this course almost a hundred times over the past few years, so this really was like a Sunday ride to me.

Going up the first hill, I came upon two young-ins making their way up the hill on mountain bikes.  As I approached them at high speed, I yelled some words of encouragement.  As I passed them, I could hear the frustration of my passing them in their heavy breathing.   One remarked to the other to get moving, to which he replied with a gasp.

Going down the hill toward the Biltmore, I was reminded of the Geico commercial where the little piggy goes “weee” all the way home.  This was fun, I was hauling ass, so what the heck.  At 33mph down the hill, I let out a big loud “wwwweeeeeeeeeeeeeee.”  I don’t think the volunteers were amused.

The turn around came quickly and I thought I was slightly ahead of last year’s pace. Knowing that a run was about 12 minutes away, I backed off on my return ride to East Beach.  Even still, I kept passing people.

I even passed people climbing up “hell hill,” the hill that I came screaming down just a few minutes before.   There were three cyclists making their way up the hill and that was the motivation I needed to get to the top.  “I’ll pass you and you and you, and you,” as I started my climb.  Before I knew it, I got to the top and looked back just before the turn…  to my astonishment, it looked like the other rides were just starting their climb.

Settling in and cruising back to East Beach was fun. I knew the bike was coming to and end rather quickly and I wanted to enjoy it.  Turning on to Cabrillo Blvd, leaving the volunteers and officer in my dust, I turned my attention toward T2 and the run.

Dismounting and running back to my transition was a blur.  I didn’t notice the crowd or much else.  I was in my zone, mentally ready to finish this event.

Body Says Stop

T2 was quite fast.  Rack the bike, slip off the helmet, change shoes, grab the waist pack and go.   It went as easily as it sounds.

Unfortunately, about a quarter mile into the run, my entire right leg from hip to heel decided it had had enough and started cramping up.  I pushed on, focusing on my form, lift the heals, push forward from the hip and stare at the horizon.

I then noticed my GPS was showing some odd readings.  For instance it said I had covered 2,600 miles and was going 86mph! If only!  Without the GPS, I had no idea what my pace was and my strategy relied upon knowing the pace and keeping my run consistent. But that was before my right side decided it had had enough.

The run was one of the most painful of all, and I found myself limping along.  I was crushed, this wasn’t how I expected to end this event.  Still, I pushed on, and brought the event home, crossing the finish line in 1:08:44, a full four minutes longer than last year. <results posted here>

Crushed, but Motivated & Content

Yes, my time was worst than last year.  I suffered through a freezing cold swim, had the time of my life on the bike, and pushed through one of the worst cramps I have ever had on a run.  I even did it while still recovering from food poisoning the day before.

Even factoring in all of the above points, comparing times to last year leaves me crushed.  The Santa Barbara Triathlon was an event that I was sure I could pull off a decent personal record in.  Unfortunately, things happened that prevented this from happening.

Did I give this event 150% effort? Yes.  Could it have gone a lot worse? Yes.  Am I so crushed that I’ve lost motivation to go on?  No.

Triathletes have good and bad events.  The 2010 Santa Barbara Triathlon is perhaps one of my bad events.  There will be others in the future too, but I must learn from this and move on.

With that said, I have three weeks to get ready for the 2010 Carpinteria Triathlon.  See you there.