Triathlon is not easy and at times setbacks happen, as in all sports, but when it happens early in the day in the swim it can make our sport extremely cruel. Whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned racer issues can happen in the swim that can wreck your day, and in some extreme cases put an end to it. The important thing is to go away and look at what happened, rectify the issues and bounce back stronger. Resident swim coach, Dan Bullock, offers part-tribute and part-explanation on why and how continuing to move forwards can overcome what might seem like massive hurdles. He explains through experience how goals often need to redefined and given more time to allow them to cultivate into greater achievements.
Often in racing, or any other challenge for that matter, it is not always about winning or the end result. Open water swimmer Diana Nyad, who now makes swimming the English Channel look like no more of a challenge than a trip to the local lido, has tried to swim the 166 kilometres from Cuba to Florida four times. Poisonous jellyfish, the cold, day after day of immersion, storms and sharks make this one of the toughest open water swims possible. Her first attempt was back in 1978. During her most recent attempt the 62-year-old abandoned again after the stings from Jellyfish proved too much.
The important lesson we can take from Diana is that she does not consider this a failure, more a re-evaluation of what success means. The attempt took the coordination of a medical team, boat pilots, navigators, nutritionists and coaching staff. All the training undertaken and the logistics of bringing this team together just so Diana could that first stroke spells success to me. She summed it up nicely: “Sometimes you just don’t arrive at your destination. Somehow you still have to find the pride and the joy in your journey.”
I have worked with two Ironman athletes this year that were quite evenly matched across the three disciplines. I met both of them back in 2005 when they first started out in the sport and undertook some serious swim training. Their progress since then has been impressive. Each has now completed at least 10 Ironman races around the world and this year Kona was definitely in their minds. When we first met both athletes were swimming 3.8K in over 90 minutes. This year both swam under 70 minutes at their respective races in New York and Canada. For one of the two the race unfolded in such a way that they now have the trials and tribulations of preparing for Ironman Hawaii at short notice. For the other, we are already looking ahead to next year and how to bounce back.
To improve once again over the coming year we have to ask many questions. Do we need to do more technique work? Maybe more open water swimming?
Or maybe we need to increase strength by introducing gym work? If Kona is the end goal, maybe we also need to look into race selection too? What’s important here is mental attitude, support and determination that run alongside the physical training to get to the start line before even trying to qualify.
Another client, who came to me in December 2011, was a novice athlete who was starting from a position further back having attempted to race Ironman Regensburg in 2011. The race ended in disaster. A panic attack half way around the swim meant that he had to be pulled from the water before he even had a chance to demonstrate his strong bike and run disciplines. Disappointed the athlete didn’t do much swimming in the autumn and when we met in December was struggling to make 200 metres of continuous front crawl.
In order for him to bounce back I knew he’d require a long block of confidence first and foremost. The way we could achieve this would be through fitness, swim technique and recording of stats, so we could monitor improvements that would boost confidence. This way we could help to remove all the doubt that was sat inside his head. In order to do this he needed to listen to his coach, not question anything and get on with it. As a coach and a swimmer a key skill I find of benefit is the fact I have made all the mistakes along the way and can help my athletes steer clear of them.
In this case our work started in early 2012 but we had the added set back of a running injury that hindered his ability to perform any kind of kick. To help we used a pull buoy but I was nervous that he was going to become reliant on this once the injury had cleared. As the injury cleared we slowly made progress and the athlete was able to perform several 1.9K swims that were broken down into sets and a few straight 2K swims while maintaining an efficient stroke. We pushed him to the point where he could break two minutes for 100m. This was an indicator that he might get close to sub- 75 minutes for 3.8K at his Ironman in a wetsuit with a reasonably clear swim.
The second attempt at Ironman was planned for Austria 2012 and while at the race I received the news that it would be non-wetsuit swim because of the water temperature. He was devastated. The crutch he had to fall back on had been kicked away. I calmed and reassured him that he had done the work and not to be overly concerned. Yes it would be harder now, but his technique was fine and did not need a wetsuit to survive or to compensate for a poor kick. There would be many others with genuine reasons to be worried. In the race he started at the back of the pack terrified. Everyone claims to be the one at the back but I knew it really would be my swimmer. He slowly waded into the water. First the water came up to his knees and thoughts of being pulled out like at Ironman Regensburg flooded back. Deeper and deeper he waded until the water was at his chin. Now he had a choice. He could not go any further without swimming. Having spent at least 10 minutes to get 200 metres into the race he started to swim. Whether it was the thought of the family sacrifices made during those long rides, the ribbing from his team mates or his coach pointing out no T-shirt or tattoo again, I’m not sure. Something kicked in and he was going to finish this one. The time of 1:41 for the swim was immaterial and the first stage of his journey was complete. Having broken through the mental barrier of the swim he was now able to unleash a strong bike and run before going on to finish.
We continued working together through the summer and started to be a little more specific targeting Ironman Mont Tremblant in Canada in August this year. Now I had his trust and he had now found confidence from finishing Austria he started to believe a sub-75-minute swim was possible. Success and progress seem a classically self-fulfilling process when it comes to swimming. The more you improve your swim, the faster you swim, and so more benefits seem to take shape.
Physically sitting higher in the water due to more speed helps the head turn less to obtain air as the trough around the head deepens. You will be faster as a result. Dreading swim training less means you are more likely to attend. The more swimming you do means the more the bad habits are crushed and the better movements win through and remain. Overcoming previous obstacles to swim improvement are paramount, especially in this case.
Giving the swim more time and developing belief in the process was key, along with adding in some more technical and fitness work. Slowly the prospect of swimming at the 1:52 pace (for 100 metres) required was not unrealistic. A frequent test set was to swim in a 50-metre pool and hold 100m, 200m, 300m and 400m at this pace with little rest (10 seconds between each set if it was a good day). We would swim two or three rounds of this 1000m block of work. At any one point with a month to go I could randomly take a 100-metre split on any of the swims and it would be no slower then 1:45. I was positive he was now in shape for the 1:15 Ironman swim.
What I needed to do next was to convince him to believe he could now swim this fast and position himself correctly when it came to the swim start at Ironman Mount Tremblant.
Wading in for 10 minutes from the back like in Austria was not going to allow this to happen. Come race day wetsuits were legal and he was in a great state of mind as he waded in to position himself mid-pack just to the outside as we agreed. At the swim exit he was elated with a 1:16 split that seemed to take little out of him. His bike was strong, despite the rolling course, following such a well-executed swim. I have helped many people to faster swims but this was perhaps the most satisfying and challenging. It was certainly the hardest I had worked for as a coach.
Even if you’re in good shape things can wrong because the day is so long, and usually when you least expect it. It’s important to focus on your weaknesses but don’t let anything else slip, and try to plan for every possible circumstance. My partner, Vicky Gill, swam and biked particularly well at Ironman UK this year and with her strongest discipline to come was perhaps on course for something special. Nutrition issues left her bitterly disappointed and upset with the run. Importantly Vicky has bounced back and we have booked tickets for Challenge Barcelona on September 30.
Whether you cross the line after an Ironman on your first attempt or some part of it, you must consider getting to the start line a victory. Making it to the start in one piece with no injuries or illness is massive achievement. If your race does not go as planned what happens next is up to you. I hope you will be planning your next event and more importantly looking at how to right any wrongs, especially regarding the swim, which can wreck a day before it has got started. It’s not just about the day, though, but about having pride and joy in your journey, and from here amazing things can happen.