Laps of Pells: Mike Hannay (triathlete)

“I tried to remember the hours of training in pools preparing me for this moment. The sheer joy of the time spent on sunny afternoons in the clear spring waters at Pells, where I’d practised a cornucopia of strokes, one for every possible situation.”

Many local triathletes use Pells Pool during summer as part of their event training. Writer-in-residence Tanya Shadrick asked one of them, Mike Hannay, to tell her what happens when the calm of our pool is left behind for what he calls ‘trial by open water’.  

It’s daunting stuff! Melodramatic perhaps, but that is what most triathletes, the experienced and the newbie, feel about an open water swim. Swimming is the ‘ticket of entry’ to triathlon. A triathlon can’t be won in the swim, but it can be lost. Ambition can be betrayed by a poor swim. It can torpedo a newbie’s hope of a finish, and the dreams of glory for the racer.

Time and energy ‘lost’ in the water are all but impossible to recover back on land. That’s why we triathletes spend hours at splendid Pells Pool ploughing watery furrows and following the thick lines at the bottom. Our purpose is to build the biggest endurance ‘diesel’ engine possible, hone our technique so we survive the trial by open water and exit the swim not physically and mentally worn out.

The thought of the race swim, especially for newbies, raises the pulse. Jumping into cold dark water or a raging sea is neither natural nor helped by a fertile imagination. We get so used to swimming in our nice clear pools that we tend to ‘freak’ a little when we realize we can only see a few feet in front of us in the dark and murky water. The panic is an emotional mix of fear of the unknown and failure to perform.

No amount of time in any pool can counter this irrationality entirely. There’s a kindred spirit amongst triathletes, however, in shared hardship. We all know that our fear is – like the race distance – something to overcome. ‘If you can keep your head’then you can call yourself a triathlete. There’s a sense of unspoken belonging amongst us whether we are competing to win or finding out if we can survive to the finish.

The start of a triathlon is nerve-wracking and is magnified by the tumult of a mass swim start in open water. It’s like swimming in a washing machine. A crowded, crazy cluster of splashing, stops and starts, lots of physical contact, and swimmers desperately seeking space from each other. You have to swim knowing that you will hit the backs of legs, arms and even heads of your competitors and that you will be hit too. It isn’t unknown for swimmers to swim over the top of one another in a desperate attempt to get ahead.

In my first open water swim, my plan was to survive by any means necessary. I remember how we descended into the rippling canal like wetsuit-clad convicts, shackled together by an invisible chain tugging us forward. I tried to focus on the race aspect of the swim, but trying not to drown had a gravitational pull on my thoughts.

I tried to remember the hours of training in pools preparing me for this moment. The sheer joy of the time spent on sunny afternoons in the clear spring waters at Pells, where I’d practised a cornucopia strokes, one for every possible situation. Long and slow, choppy, fast, powerful pull, high arm, swinging arm: All this, yet doubt dripped into my thoughts, wearing away what fragile confidence I had.  

Less than an hour earlier, in the stillness of the sunrise on a warm summer’s morning, I was setting up for the day in the transit area. I looked across at the glass-like canal that would soon have 3,000 athletes crash into it. The only thing that broke the peace and quiet of the scene was a hot air balloon as its flame belched fire like a solar explosion inside its great orb. It lit the canal surface like a  neon sign marking the race grand depart. Now the gigantic golden balloon had been joined by several others of many different colours, and they seemed to heighten the excited atmosphere and make me feel even smaller in the great canal waters as we swam hesitantly out to the start line, watched by hundreds of spectators.

The countdown to the start began. I re-positioned my goggles. I looked into the faces of my competitors. Expressions ranged from purposeful to panic.

There is the blast of an air-horn – GO! We are off. All I can see is splashing,  swim caps, arms and legs. My goal was to stay smooth, and conserve energy but I feel like a fish in the nets of a Newhaven Trawler. I’m trying to swim, any stroke, but I’m constrained by bodies all around me. Arms and legs appear and disappear into the dark green-brown depths like the limbs of drowning sailors.

I’m trying to breath bi-laterally as I have done thousands and thousands of times patrolling the lanes of pools without a thought. In the maelstrom of the race start, breathing at all without taking great mouthfuls of canal water is impossible. My mind is racing. It’s tougher than I thought, I can’t get a breathing pattern, I’ve only being going for a few minutes and I’m already feeling fatigue in my flailing arms. Then, as if by magic, I break into my own space of clear water. A peace and quiet comes. Now it’s just me against the clock for the next two and half miles.

I can still see other swimmers, some are passing me, some I pass. You learn to spot  the “kicking” bubbles from swimmers that may be in front of you. Spotting someone in front of you from their kick helps keep you swimming straight, as well as the vital skill of sighting between strokes, to take the shortest route between the race marker buoys.

Before I know it I’m at the first buoy. It seemed miles away from the start point. Now I’ve got to it and my confidence grows. “Come on you’re doing great” I tell myself, “get to the second buoy and there’s just two more to the swim exit.”

I turn and sight the second buoy. As I do, I realise why I’ve arrived at the first buoy so quickly. There’s a current and wind behind us. This now hit me in the face! I curse, remembering the convenient absence of these elements in pool swimming.  It takes all my resolve to keep up with the other swimmers. I’m swimming all over the place searching for bubbles and trying to find feet to get on to for energy conservation. “Don’t worry, take your time, get into a rhythm” I repeat. “Just take it steady and you’ll do this.”

I reach the second buoy, turn the corner and can feel doubt evaporating. Physically I’m feeling okay. I strike out for the two remaining buoys. Passing each in turn, my spirits rise as I know that I’ll finish my first 3.8KM trail by open water as if I’m back in the calm of the pool.

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