The Icebreaker: It was half past seven and a rather foggy morning at Santa cruz which was just an hour away from Stanford. We were at Cowell beach for an open water swim clinic-a session where one is taught some skills for swimming in an ocean and is usually conducted couple of weeks prior to a triathlon event. The sea looked cold, grey and intimidating quite contradictory to the vision I had of it which was a shade of pristine blue basking in the warmth of the sunshine.
I looked at it uncertainly wondering how I was going to enter such forbidding waters. I turned to my husband and daughter who had accompanied me on this little journey. “If you don’t feel like entering the water, we can just chill and hang out”, my husband told me.
Doing an open water triathlon was always on my bucket list. This swim clinic was a golden opportunity to see if I had the potential to swim amidst the waves and overcome the mental block I had towards sea swimming. Being a certified diver I had explored the underwater world several times in the past and have one pool triathlon to my credit. However, I knew it was not the same thing.
My fears were soon dispelled as I saw more people at the clinic who were practically sailing in the same boat. After a brief round of introductions, we wore our wetsuits and were asked to get into the water. Being from India, I was used to warmer waters and the sudden cold wave took me off guard which made me gasp and splutter. Some reassurance on the part of my instructor put me at ease and I soon found myself befriending the waters, swimming a decent distance of 350 metres.
Ocean vs pool: Though I was swimming in a pool regularly, the ocean was a different ball game altogether. Firstly, there was no visibility unlike the case in a pool where you could get a clear view of the floor. A pool comprises of 2 closed ends where one can pause to catch their breath which is not there while swimming in an ocean. Also, one is likely to lose direction in the sea if not careful which is quite unlikely in a pool. Currents and tides pose a challenging factor and can drain one’s energy completely which are not present in a pool.
By end of day, I had fallen in love with the experience which made me sign up for the sprint category. “If this is your first open water, I recommend you start with the sprint distance and then gradually migrate to the Olympic distance.” I was told to which I readily agreed as I was of a similar thought process.
After getting some inputs on the transition process that takes place during a triathlon, I went back home a happier soul, gearing up for my first international open water triathlon the following week.
The D day: We drove down on Saturday afternoon to Santa Cruz. Mounting my bike in a ford SUV, we managed to get to the city in one piece and checked into hotel seaway inn which was right opposite Cowell beach and close to the transition area. After collecting my bib from the sports basement centre, we headed out to one of the restaurants along the beach, hung around for a while and went back to get some rest.
Transition assembly: I had to be at the transition area by 6:45 am to assemble my cycle in a place assigned as per my bib number. I put out my t shirt, running shoes and a small bag which contained items that I would need post my swim like a gu gel, etc. All participants were given red wrist bands which had to be worn, otherwise we weren’t allowed into the transition area. This was to ensure security so that our bikes wouldn’t get stolen. After assembling my bike, I set off to the beach and put on my wetsuit over my tri suit. Wetsuits are highly recommended as the water temperatures tend to dip quite low. The colour of the cap is assigned based on the race category and wave time. My wave time was at 8:30 am and I was in good time to get a warm up swim in the ocean. This was essential as it helped me acclimatize for my main swim during the event. The waves were friendlier this time and I couldn’t wait for the race to start while I stood there chatting with a few locals who had done a few triathlons prior to this event.
Mermaid feeling: It was 8:30 am and we were asked to pass the timing mat. I was called back stating that my timing chip was missing as the mat didn’t beep when I passed through. I looked at my ankle in dismay and was almost in tears when the volunteers hushed me towards the race director-Mike. Being a kind-hearted person that he was, Mike immediately reassured me by noting down my bib number and asked me to go ahead with the swim. He had notified the volunteers stating my timing chip was misplaced which meant I would only get the overall time and not the split timing per division. I thanked him profusely and went into the water. By the time I was mentally down, but I kept pushing through the waves. Incorporating a free style stroke, I swam through the waves and soon forgot about my worries. There were enough volunteers on their paddle boats, ready to usher out anyone in difficulty. The day before I had seen some sea lions swimming in the same area and was wondering if I would have their company this morning. Unfortunately, they were nowhere in sight and it was just me and other fellow triathletes. I reached the shore and scrambled out of the water. My hubby and daughter were there so I gave them a quick hug, removed my swim cap, goggles, wetsuit, dropped it off with them and ran towards the area where our bikes were placed.
T1: It was a good 500 m from the beach and this was counted as a part of the swim time. So, I literally ran barefoot all the way to the bike area, put on my t-shirt over my tri suit, helmet and goggles. Mounting on my bike, I peddled my way through a breathtaking course.
Biker’s thrill: An incline greeted us at the start of the course and we could hear the volunteers daggling their little bells shouting, ‘lower gear, lower gear’. Bringing my bike to a lower gear, I pedaled up slowly before I got on to a relatively flat course. On one side was a spectacular view of the sea shore, the cliffs and the sea gulls perched on a rock. On the other side were pretty houses with trimmed gardens that reminded me of those cottages I read about in Enid Blyton tales while growing up. There were several twists and turns and I had to take my eyes off the scintillating view of the sea to focus on the course. It was a 10 k loop and since I was doing the sprint distance, I had to do 2 loops of this course. I watched the other participants whiz past me shouting ‘left’ which was an alert given lest they collide unnecessarily with the cyclist in front.
T2: After finishing the second loop, I got off my bike, wheeled it back to the stands, took off my helmet and goggles, gulped down a gu gel and prepared myself for a 5 k run.
Brick run: I call this the brick run as my legs felt like bricks as soon as I got off my bike. They wobbled like jelly and even doing a measly distance of a 5 k was a challenging factor. Brick workout is highly recommended for those training for a triathlon as the transition from a bike to a run is the toughest part. Despite doing a few brick workouts, my legs felt numb. It was an incline which greeted us initially and since music was not allowed in such events, I had to distract myself by admiring fellow runners and the visual treats of the sea and sand below. Being a person who finds it tough to run without music, I held my nerve as I cruised through the 2.5 km loop 2 times before I embraced the finish line in style.
The reward: I was elated when the medal was handed over and beamed with pride. I thanked the race director once again for his large heartedness and got my overall timing of 2:03. I lifted my cycle and the Indian flag much to the amusement of other participants as they looked on smiling. Basking in the glory of my first international open water triathlon, I looked back at the ocean and reminisced the surreal experience all over again. I had certainly made a new friend by breaking mental barriers. It is said ‘minds are like parachutes, they work best when open’. I was glad that I opened my mind as I was certainly riding high from this experience and couldn’t wait to embrace more of such incredible ones in the upcoming year! I have miles to go before I leap so intend on doing a few more sprint triathlons before I migrate to the Olympic distance.
Vote of thanks: Personally, want to thank Viv Menon for his constant guidance and Aditya Sahu-both who have encouraged me to keep at it. Also wanted to express my thanks to my mentor Ashok Someshwar who has always boosted my confidence levels.
- Body glide needs to be applied before putting on a wet suit as it helps one get in and out of it easily.
- Ear plugs are recommended during a sea swim as the water tends to get into the ears and could cause some kind of bacterial infection at times.
- Helmets need to have that CPSC sticker without which you will not be allowed to participate in events in the USA.
- Ensure that your bike is thoroughly serviced to avoid a flat tyre and chain breaking.
- Do not compete with others even if they are going faster as the race is with yourself and not others.