For all you swimmers who have forgotten that you were once champions.
triathlon swimming is not the same as swim races. For starters, there are no race lines. Other differences include:
1. murky water
2. unpredictable currents
3. strange tasting water
4. uncivilised competitors
of all the differences above, the one you should be most wary of, is uncivilised competitors.
triathlon swimmers are like Malaysian drivers. the radio ads we hear are so true. Malaysians in general are friendly, caring and tolerant. But put them in a car and give them the keys and hell breaks loose. tailgating, honking, cutting dangerously in front.
impatient, inconsiderate and down right rude. especially in traffic jams.
a tri swim start is very much like rush hour traffic. loads of people wanting to get to their destination the quickest way possible.
so, if this is your first triathlon, the swim itself will shock you. Here are some tips that will help you prepare for raceday nightmare:
1. start at the back
you may have heard this a lot from your other seasoned triathletes. the reason is normally "because you're not sure of your swim and may be slow". the more important reason i feel is because it makes you less vulnerable to uncivilised swimmers. no matter how fantastic a swimmer you are, if you're used to proper swim lanes, you're not 'streetwise' enough to handle swim traffic on your first tri. it is totally everybody for they own out there and starting at the back, you can have a small taste of it and then brave it to the middle pack as you graduate to the front, when you're gungho enough.
2. swim the outer lane
the rule, stick to the inner lane along lined buoys for the shortest route and most efficient navigation is true, but highly inadvisable on your first tri. safety to swim close so that you can hang on to the buoys in case you're in trouble is also not good enough a reason to risk getting in the way of an uncivilised swimmer on your maiden tri. this is because every swimmer is gonna want to stick to that line and if you're slow, chances of getting hit or swam over is very high. stick to outer premises, that way you are not restricted by the buoys on the left and have the option to move to your right or left in case you're stuck in a 'swim'pede.
3. study the course and flag off system
race briefing is normally done the day before or a couple of hours prior (if you're in a sprint). if you missed both, make sure you pay attention to the briefing again when organisers repeat it just before race starts. this is important as the organiser will announce what the swim course is and how you will be flagged off. in my year of tris, there are a few types of swim courses:
a) the out and back
- very simple straight or curved swim course. stick to the back and slightly on the outer lane and you will minimise getting bumped into
b) the origami (funny shaped, like a T or W)
- normally mapped out in restricted swim area like a marina where you swim along boats. navigation is going to be hard so be extra cautious of lost swimmers crashing into you.
c) the carousel
- when the swim course involves looping it twice. highly chaotic even if you start at the back as faster swimmers will lap you. a good gauge is to be wary as you complete the first loop, that's normally where you will get lapped.
flag off normally comes in to ways: mass start and in waves
mass starts are not as frightening. if you stick to the back, you're relatively safe. but be careful of flag offs in waves. strong swimmers from a later wave will be crashing through even if your wave started 5 mins earlier. this is where swimming in the outer premise is important. you will experience higher levels of body crashes, slaps and kicks if you stick to the inner lane by the buoys and you will have no where to go as it'll be coming from the right and you can't go any further left because of the line. imagine a 'swim'pede and being caged in with no escape route.
Some friends told me that arwah zubir's autopsy included concussions. he had started at the back but my wave which consisted of relay swimmers and all women started 5 mins after. if the story about the autopsy is true, it is possible that he got kicked or slapped on the head by a stronger swim in my wave.
4. do the seaweed
notice how agile seaweed is? bending according to currents, weaving around our bodies? this is a good plant to observe for tri swimming. be alert, and move according to the body clashing. avoid being rigid.
when we're swimming, we learn to keep the body straight for maximum efficiency. each stroke mechanically in front delivering power pulls. excellent tip for lane swimming or later into the swim course when traffic begins to lighten due to differing speed. but extremely bad news if you're a newbie and have no idea what a 'swim'pede is.
'swim'pede normally last the first 200m or so. after that, traffic lightens and you can very safely practice what you have learnt about swimming close to the line and lengthening your body straight for maximum energy output. but before this 200m is over, here are some tips on how to do the seaweed:
a) forget proper swim strokes
- whether u plan to front crawl, breast stroke or do a combo, keep in mind that your first 200m ain't going to give you enough room in the sea of bodies to fully extend your strokes. don't force your body to be extended if the traffic doesn't allow. do shorter strokes, bend a little so that your body is limber. it's common physics: a softer surface absorbs impact more gracefully that a hard surface. think "my body has crumple zones..."
b) feel the chi
- water chi is nothing supernatural or spiritual. it's basically light currents you will feel because somebody is swimming too close to you either from the side or in front. enhance your senses, the water is going to be cloudy, sometimes you can't see any further than a few inches from your extended hand.after many swim starts, i notice i will always feel a sudden gush of small currents or see bubbles before something (read: foot, leg, face, body etc) hits me.
bernard's blog says practice swimming laps wearing dark goggles in late evenings. very good tip to help you enhance your senses when sight is a luxury.
c) my head is my temple
our bodies can take a fair bit of torture before caving in, but the slightest blow on the right spot of our heads and we'll be in serious trouble.
the first 200m is more survival than performance. your arms are not your pedals at this stage, propelling you forward. you arms are your shields until the madness is over. extending about half a meter in front of you, use them to gauge if there's something in front of you before you pull forward. if you feel water chi, or touch something, slow down. stop, put your head up and thread water to check your surroundings if you have to. don't worry about somebody bumping behind you because you've stopped in their tracks, at least you head is safely above water and hand slaps tend to give softer blows than full kicks. he'll be annoyed, but will not be able to swim on top of you, he'll have to go around you.
something i do, which you can try mastering is fast navigation. when i feel water chi or touch someones toes, i immediately put my head up. almost always, i will see a swimmer in front of me. i'll do a quick right look to see if there's anyone directly next to me and change my direction north-east. i never check the left. to me, left leads to the dead end buoys, and my objective is to get out of the traffic. after much practice, i have been able to do this without missing a stroke.
5) forgive thy neighbour
'swim'pede is normal and not personal. as much as i have preached about uncivilised swimmers, i have had my share of feeling teeth with my toes and soft bellies as i breast stroked. it's just the nature of a swim start. and seriously, i can't see who's behind me so it was very unintentional.
one swim, the water was clear enough and i saw a swimmer below me! now that is plain rude. but hey! he just wants to go faster.
the point of this, is not so much about how we should accept the chaos that awaits and do the best we can about it, but more about remaining calm. if you got kicked repeatedly, squashed out of your space or swam over, remain calm. getting upset and frustrated ain't going to do you any good. you lose focus, you become uptight and will forget that it's only 200m, not even half the sprint or 1/3 of the olympic distance. relax. shit happens. focus on protecting yourself, try to get out of the traffic for a more peaceful swim. you'll be safe and you will navigate better when you are calm.
my one saving grace from being fully uncivilised is that i am able to change strokes at any point without breaking rhythm. so if i'm breast stroking and touch a soft belly, i will immediate change to front crawl to avoid kicking the guy again. if i feel somebody touching my toes while i'm doing the front crawl, i do a quick right check and swim north-east out of his way.
tips aside, don't worry too much about your first tri swim. you're out there to have fun. if the situation screws up your swim, no worries. relax and know that you'll get them back next time.
besides, weren't we all champs of a mass swim start once in the massive sea called mommy's womb?