‘It’s time to tackle triathlon season. This time I can swim’

Navigation is an issue when I’m swimming in the sea, so I practise using ‘alligator eyes’

Swimmers taking part in the Athy Triathlon: When most of the swimmers disappeared off into the distance, Paul Cullen was left with the space and time to focus on swimming the 1,500m at his own steady pace. Photograph: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Swimmers taking part in the Athy Triathlon: When most of the swimmers disappeared off into the distance, Paul Cullen was left with the space and time to focus on swimming the 1,500m at his own steady pace. Photograph: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

 

And so, after the long months of training in pools, summer arrives and the open sea beckons. For newbie swimmers like myself, these are exciting times, a chance to apply my recently acquired skills in the great outdoors.

But first, a recap: a year ago, I couldn’t swim a length of freestyle without being out of breath. I’d read the books and watched the YouTube clips; I knew what to do with my arms and legs. But it wasn’t coming together as I struggled not to sink.

The only way this was going to change, I decided, was if I set myself a goal. So I entered a few triathlons, including the sprint distance in Athy and Dunmore East. The running and cycling wouldn’t be a problem, but the thought of swimming 750m was contemplated with trepidation.

Coaching from Peter Conway of Swim Ireland helped refine my stroke. Ever encouraging, Peter said I was doing all the right things, which only increased the sense of frustration at my inability to make progress in the water.

I also joined a local triathlon club, T3, and tagged along to its weekly training sessions in the pool. They were a welcoming, encouraging bunch, but the drills were pure torture for someone like me who was so far off the pace of others.

Somehow, I got through the triathlons I entered last summer, switching strokes and resting on my back when I got too tired. The sense of achievement was palpable but I wondered was there any point in continuing.

Then, just as I was despairing, something happened – as people said it would. Particularly in the sea, where the combination of salt water and a wetsuit provided greater buoyancy, the rhythm of swimming finally clicked for me.

It is a hard sensation to describe – something about the metronomic rotation back and forth about a central axis as you go through your arm movements. Reaching forward, popping that imaginary letter in your hand into that imaginary mailbox slot as you shrug your alternate foot. Like riding a bike, once you’ve got it, you’ve got it and you’ll never forget.

A revelation

Of course, this was the start of things, not the end. A mile, for example, is 64 lengths in a standard pool. Pavel, who trains the T3 crew, chipped in with further advice – simple but obvious in retrospect – that you’ll get “swim-fit” if you swim three times a week for three months.

And so I did. Throughout the winter months, Peter trained a small group of us twice a week in the Trinity College pool. We’d do drills to improve our stroke and find a faster gear for short stretches, thereby widening our comfort zone at normal swimming speed. Over the weeks, the distances grew and so did my confidence.

Unexpected obstacles popped up. I developed sneezing fits after intensive pool sessions, presumably my body’s reaction to chlorine gasses in the pool environment. Anti-histamines, a nose-clip and thorough showering helped but I’m still prone to an allergic reaction on occasion.

By May, it was time to dip a toe in the sea. I invested in a snug swimming wetsuit and a warm hat, and ventured down to Seapoint one fine morning. The water was cold, yes, but only on my exposed feet and hands. My new-found buoyancy, in salt water and wearing a wetsuit, came as a revelation.

For once, I could lie back in the water and watch my toes bob up above the surface, something others take for granted.

So the swimming was, if anything, easier than in the pool, at least in calm seas. Navigation is an issue, so I practised using “alligator eyes” to sight my direction, usually a small yellow buoy in the distance.

Over successive weeks, I ventured out to one of these buoys and back, then three, then all five on one evening when the waters were choppy and the jellyfish were in your face.

I entered the triathlon in Athy again, this time taking on the longer Olympic distance. At the start, bodies slithered over, under and beside me as swimmers vied for position, before most of them disappeared off into the distance. That left me the space and time to focus on swimming the 1,500m at my own steady pace. The first third was against the current, so once I reached the turn, I knew I had it cracked.

Jelly-legged run

It takes three years for an absolute beginner to truly master triathlon, I think. You spend the first learning to swim, and you enter shorter events with the aim of not getting stuck inside your wetsuit in transition and maybe even managing to finish with some decorum.

By the second year – where I’m currently at – you’ve learned to swim the distance in one go, and you feel mighty pleased at that. You’re familiar with the rules and customs of the sport and you’ve invested in little things like drawstring laces to help speed up changes of shoes between disciplines.

That’s where I am. Next year, if I keep it up, I hope to learn to breathe on both sides, and to swim faster. I’m not sure about investing in go-faster bikes, or daily 6am training starts. For now, it’s time to enjoy and appreciate just how far I’ve come.

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