Ironman St George: Part I: The Swim

Where do I start?

I am thrilled with my result.  4th place Pro woman in a come from absolutely last (by far) fight.  It is all that what ‘never give up’ truly means to me.

My experience in St George is so expansive I am struggling with the picture frame to put it in.  I have had more than a few requests to put a race report, to help people understand what this “toughest Ironman ever” really meant.  I’ve talked to people about the race, mostly to help release some of stress that occurred to meet the immensity of the task, but I’ve yet to put it all together in a cohesive way.

Here’s my best shot.  Piece by piece, sport by sport, because this was quite the race.

The swim:

It was calm.  I had swam in Sand Hollow reservoir twice before the race, both times it was windy and there was a bit of chop, not the end of the world, but as we were swimming early, I, like many people, assumed there would be not much wind out there.  And race morning seemed perfect – it was a treat to get in the water and warm up (sort of, at 63F/17C the water was as ‘warm’ as it’s ever been), but it was comfortable.  Key word, “was”.

average conditions in the ‘windy’ late morning for practice swims

Pro-start was at 6:45 am and it was peaceful and straightforward – a far cry from all other age-group mass starts I have ever done.  I was at the back of the back, but I was ok with that, and was swimming with a small group of girls until the first turn, about 1km out.

Sign #1 that something was amiss.  As we were swimming out, you could start to feel a bit of a roll, no chop hitting you in the face, but more movement than is normal for what started as a calm water swim.  Then things became more apparent as I turned the first corner.

Waves had kicked up and were swelling to swimmers left, so I did my best to relax and work methodically across the 2nd length of the swim.  It was getting a bit tough to see where we were going as buoys became harder to sight.  At this point I told myself not to worry about sticking onto any packs of other pro women and just focus on doing what I needed to do.  That became increasingly difficult as I rounded the 2nd turn.

To give you perspective, Meredith Kessler finished this swim in about 52 min (absolutely incredible!).  I finished in 1:34, so I was out there about 40 min longer and therefore spent a lot of time suffering in increasingly bad conditions.  Although anything can happen in a race, I had planned on trying to make it through the swim in about an hour or less, that was what I had trained for and was on track for.  But anything can happen.  And this race, at this 2nd turn, was not about time anymore.  It was much more important than that.

It became very unnerving by the time I reached the 2nd buoy.  I was alone, being the last pro swimmer in the group.  The waves were in my estimation, about 4-6 feet tall, and in talking to other people, that seems to be the general consensus (therefore, not a Clayton-‘exaggeration’).  If you’ve ever swam in something like this, then you know how challenging this is.  You swim up and down, smash into walls of waves, fall down waves you’ve crested, and as finding your balance in the water is very difficult.  Reports were that wind on the water reached 40mph+.

(pls let me know if this is your photo & I will credit)

So I was alone, often stopping to tread water, attempting breast stroke to calm down my rate of breathing (as I was tending to hyperventilate a bit), and going no where.  In fact, breaststroke was more tiring at a point than attempting to swim about 15-20 strokes, then hitting a wave and swallowing more water, so I often had to just get swimming to save some energy (ironic).  I was often looking left and right to see where the ‘spectator’ (which will soon turn to ‘rescue’) boats where, and I watched a kayak guy dump in and struggle to hold onto his boat (no idea if he got back in).  I watched a speed boat launch off waves going into the wind, I watched another one rolling along in the surf.  It was at this point that I started to worry about my safety, because I was getting really tired.  Panic, I can manage to a point, I know what’s happening and I can keep a pretty level head, but there is no way to trick yourself out of energy loss in violent water.  Nor was this particularly warm water, so that also added to the energy cost.

I took on a lot of water, mostly, I think, swallowed.  I have no idea how much of it I might have inhaled.  That also means a lot of air, which eventually leads to burping (if you’re lucky), gagging (if the burp won’t occur), and then vomiting (the least of my problems).  If you are also somewhat prone to sea sickness & it’s symptoms, this water would have caused it.   At one point, while I was doing a combo of all three while treading water and getting hit by waves, I saw a kayaker who was out of his boat and sitting on one of the submerged rock platforms in the reservoir (there are a few but you’d have to be a local to know where they were).  He yelled something at me (which I couldn’t hear b/c the wind was so fierce but I knew what he was asking) and then flashed me the a-ok sign as a question, and I nodded and flashed it back.  I didn’t feel a-ok at all, but I didn’t want to give up.

(if this is your photo, pls let me know)

I eventually came up open a paddler who had managed to keep her board upright and was holding onto a buoy.  She encouraged me to come over and hold on for a minute.  I held on for a while, maybe 3 minutes, maybe 5, I have no idea.  I asked her where were we supposed to go.  Waves were so big it was difficult to sight and the air had a bit of a haze (maybe from dust or sand) to it that made it difficult to see in the distance.  Buoys had blown off course.  She told me where to go, and that there was another boat at the turn (this is about another 1km to go before the 3rd turn).  I asked her how many more buoys.  She said about 4, or 5, she wasn’t sure, but it gave me a goal to be able to work on.  I pushed off her boat and tried again, faced with a lot of white frothy waves ahead.

All I could think was, I would just be so mad if I didn’t get the chance to ride my bike and run this course.  I would feel as if something was stolen from me.  There were some very difficult moments out there floating in the water just deciding what was the right thing to do.  I’m a sensible person, but I’m also very competitive, and I have a lot of faith in my ability to be tough.  It was hard to know what the right thing was to do.  Then at a point, there really was no other choice but to swim forward and find your way to shore.  I did start to worry about weaker swimmers going down in the lake.  Thoughts like that only amp up your anxiety, so I tried to put it out of my mind and just focus on myself.  Was I worried about drowning?  The thought had crossed my mind.

At this point, the fastest of the age groupers caught up to me.  In fact, the first person I saw was a woman.  She stopped and asked me if I was ok.  Just knowing someone cared helped lessen the stress.  Then more age group men came along.  This was reassuring also, because I had been swimming on my own for a long time and being all alone in the water (as in, no boats even remotely close) was scary.  Everyone was in the same boat, everyone was being respectful of the challenge in the water, giving each other space and just getting through this thing.

One sensation I found interesting was I kept feeling rain splattering on my face and back.  I thought this might have been spray from the other swimmers, but eventually I realized as I was treading water, that the tops of the whitecaps were blowing off and spraying down the waves into us.  New to me.  I think my saving grace in this entire event was that I grew up near the ocean, and have spent a lot of time playing in big surf and rolling around in waves, some time surfing and having to crash and roll and stay composed in the power of water.  If you had just swam in a pool before coming here, this would have been beyond your worst nightmare.

One major red buoy blew way off course.  Because I had stopped to talk to the kayak woman, I knew the buoy was wrong, but there were a lot of people swimming towards it (adding ++ extra distance if they then continued on to the correct turn near the motor boat).  There is some speculation that some people didn’t actually complete the full course.  To that I say I really don’t think it matters much, if it meant they got to shore safely.  It’s just a race, and safety is paramount.  However, after swimming all that way there was no way I would not get to the last buoy.

Amateur video of the race can be found on this link:

In finally making it to the turn with a scattering of bodies we turned and headed back to shore (500m or so maybe?).  Waves were now crashing from the right and rolling us over, but it was ‘easier’ swimming and your energy cost of swimming was lessened.  It was also hopeful, to know that you were swimming ‘home’.  It took a bit of work to swim straight and I felt I was often getting pushed left but the swim exit became closer and closer and I’ve never been happier to see land.

I was immensely proud of myself getting out of the water, and so proud that I had earned the right to continue on with this race.  I was also absolutely exhausted and mentally drained.  But biking is easy right?  You’re not going to drown, you can coast & recover, you can eat, and you can warm up.

Hmm.  Only somewhat true on the day, but I hadn’t found that out yet, because I was busy repeating myself in T1 to the transition girls that I was “just really cold, really really cold”, and “so tired”.  I probably said that 5 times.  They helped towel me off, get sunscreen on, and get me moving.  They were positive and encouraging and so incredibly supportive.  Their empathy was immense.  Writing this experience brings a tear to my eye as I wrote that last sentence.

I have never experienced something like that I hope to never again.  However, I now know that I have the ability to deal with an event like that, and rely on myself to get through.

I would like to again extend my warmest regard to all those ‘spectator’ boats that soon became ‘rescue’ boats.  There are a few numbers floating around out there but last I heard was that 275 people were pulled from the water.  Another 50+ finished the swim but did not make the cut off.  It is amazing that nothing worse than that happened, and that is a testament to the courageous efforts by race directors, volunteers and anyone who was out there helping out, including, I’m sure, other swimmers that helped swimmers in the water.

Stay tuned for Part II: The bike.

At least it was so ridiculous that one can only really see the humour in it.  I promise to guide my writing into a more uplifting format.

To all the IM St George swimmers, be very proud of your accomplishment.

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