No Pool? No Problem!

  • Sarah Neilson

Becoming The Shark: You Are Capable of More Than You Think

Sarah at the swim start of her first Half Ironman

When I was a kid, my family spent summers at my grandparents’ house on the Maine coast. I wasn’t sporty and dropped out of Kindergarten soccer after I scored on our own team in the final game of the season, never to return to the game again. (Except to watch the Women’s World Cup, because INFINITE HEART EYES.) But I was active in the sense that the internet wasn’t a thing that could usurp my time yet, and I spent time outdoors with my cousins and siblings, hiking and riding bikes and turning over rocks on the beach to look for crabs. I also somehow knew how to swim, if you use the term loosely- I’ve never been afraid of the water and don’t remember a time when I didn’t feel comfortable treading water or doing a froggy version of breast stroke to stay afloat. But an actual swim stroke? Like freestyle? Let’s just say, my parents put me in swim lessons to learn it and I quit that too. I lacked motivation to work hard physically. I could read above my grade level and challenge my brain, but my body wanted only what came easily. I have never had good coordination and when challenged to work on technique in soccer, swimming, or any other physical pursuit, I shrank away.

I think that’s why running became my sport. It doesn’t require a lot to get started, and it’s something a lot of people (including me) can instinctively do. I have loved cycling since I was a kid too, but distance running taught me more about myself, about stamina, about euphoria, about limits and about doing things I never thought I could in my body. And one of the things I learned from my tumultuous, grand relationship with this sport is that at the same time it showed me that I could bust through barriers I thought I had and reach new levels of ability, I have some pretty serious limitations that will not allow me to keep doing so. At least not right now, with that sport.

As my injuries got increasingly serious and more frequent, a voice crept into my brain; it told me that if I was ever going to not only cross-train effectively, but diversify my cardio and endurance options, I would need to try swimming again. I hated this voice and told it to shut up, I wanted to run and bike and that’s all. Kind of like my petulant child self who quit soccer and swim lessons so many years ago. Only now I knew, from pushing myself in running, that my body could do hard things, and so could my mind. It was October 2018 and I had just run the Chicago marathon on a double stress fracture in my knee, my 3rd serious injury that year. I was exhausted and broken, so much so that I didn’t even want to run anymore.

I still lacked motivation to swim, though. I wasn’t motivated to go to a pool, to try the strokes, even to buy goggles. But I was lucky- several of my running friends were thinking about doing Victoria 70.3 in June 2019. Most of them were in the same boat as I was re:swimming- they could sort of do it, but had never really learned and had never swum distance. The thought of them taking on what I thought of as the Last Frontier of sport and becoming triathletes deeply inspired me. If I signed up for this race, I’d have to learn how to swim. So I did it. And then proceeded to freak out a little.

Cortney and I became friends through our running group and had connected over our shared love of sport community and of writing. When she told me that she was leaving her corporate job to become a full-time tri coach, I was both excited and relieved. I trust her knowledge and experience and I knew she would work with me where I was, even though I was a challenging athlete to guide because of both my injuries and the depression and anxiety that welled up during that time. I really needed someone to tell me what to do not just in the pool, but in tri training. I was going big, which is something I’d done with running, but a long-distance triathlon is a whole other game. I didn’t know what to expect, which ended up being the biggest mental challenge of the training cycle, and I didn’t have the mental or emotional bandwidth to try and figure out a training plan on my own.

I took a couple of classes at a community pool, but my swim sessions with Cortney were so much more helpful than I could’ve imagined. She is an excellent swim coach. Don’t get me wrong, I was frustrated as hell most of the time, just not getting it, but her patient coaching and gentle encouragement was invaluable. She walked the length of the pool as I swam, observing my stroke; she crouched by that lane and gave me feedback; she told me over and over that I could. Eventually, through lap swim after lap swim with my friend and training sister (and fellow coachee) Danielle, I got to the point where I could more or less do the crawl. I got a little faster, even. (I’m still not fast, but the difference from when I started is night and day.)

"I spent more time discouraged than I did trusting my own knowledge that I know how to do hard things."

I don’t know if anyone’s told you this, but training for a long distance triathlon is extremely time consuming. It takes so much more time than marathon training. On top of that, I couldn’t really run for most of the cycle and I was basically learning how to swim for the first time. There were so many days when I questioned my decision to do this, so many days when I wanted to give up, so many days when my knee hurt and my lap swims were slow and it was so cold and rainy that a long-distance training ride felt like pedaling through some kind of circle of hell. I seriously doubted my ability to make the cutoff time for the swim, and spent more time discouraged than I did trusting my own knowledge that I know how to do hard things. I had lost almost all trust in my body, and in truth I still haven’t fully gained that trust back.

I came within an inch of switching my registration to the relay option and having a friend do the run portion for me. My sports doc encouraged this and I was so scared to re-fracture my knee that I had come to some sort of uneasy peace with it being the best decision. Then I had lunch with Cortney on the first sunny day of March after a seriously dreary winter.

Over tofu salads, I told her my plan. I also told her I was depressed and more uncertain than I’d ever been about this race, that I was skipping a very large percentage of the workouts she’d scheduled and feeling generally deflated. Outside of training, I was extremely unhappy at work and my attempts to minimize my FOMO had led me to isolate myself from my friends who were still running. I constantly pictured myself failing at this race, and was wondering if I should move to a different city where I would have an easier time getting a job in the field I wanted to work in and start a life in which I would quietly and forevermore mourn the loss of sports and everything they had meant to me.

Cortney put down her fork and looked me in the eye. “You need to do this whole race,” she said. She was the first person with authority who had said this to me. Her authority as an experienced professional coach and athlete made her opinion important in my eyes. I trusted her, so I was surprised that she was saying this. My sports doc, my PT, even my friends, who were worried about my string of injuries, had all agreed that a relay was the smartest option. But Cortney didn’t see it that way. She saw my whole self, the one who desperately needed a confidence boost, and the one who had successfully pushed the boundaries of what I believed was possible many times before. She also saw someone who could finish this race on her own. And for that, I am deeply grateful.

My first open water swim, in the frigid water of Ballinger Lake on a choppy Sunday morning only weeks before the race, was a disaster; I panicked, couldn’t breathe, and plunged once more into serious doubt about my ability to do the race at all. But with the encouragement and camaraderie of my training partners who were in the same struggle, and with Cortney’s insistence, I tried again and again and it didn’t take too long before I was fairly comfortable in open water too.

By the time May rolled around, I was run-walking without much pain. My longest run-walk before the race was 7 miles, and that was enough to make me feel confident that I could run-walk the entire half marathon without hurting myself and still finish under the cutoff. I was less worried about any of the individual sports, but as the weekends began to contain 6+ hours of training during peak weeks, I was physically exhausted and my nerves were raw; could I really pull off this whole distance?

I recognized this particular question. It was the one I’d asked myself before my first marathon. In that race, I’d BQ’d by a minute and 1 second. I reminded myself of this every day in the last few weeks before Victoria. On the night before the race, one of my best friends texted me: You are a shark! You are a marlin! You are an incredible athlete! You can do this! That text was the last bit of bravery I needed. I had built a mountain of courage from what I had. She gave me a mantra to carry that bravery through.

"This was the feeling I’d been chasing ever since my first marathon, the feeling of that self-doubt evaporating, banished, leaving only the raw emotion of an epic journey complete."

My parents came all the way from the east coast to cheer me on, something they had never done for a race before. It felt really good to have them there. Some of our athlete friends came up to support us too. On race morning, they found us among the thousands of jumpy, wetsuit-clad athletes, feet cold in the dewy grass as the sun started creeping above the trees. They cheered and took photos, something they would do many more times that day, boosting me every time. When I finally got into the water, I had a little bit of panic because I’d never swum with that many people around before. But I stayed calm, did breast stroke until I got my bearings, and channeled that shark. I was calm but swam fierce. I got out of the water at the end of the course and saw that I had swum my fastest mile by more than 7 minutes. I was elated. In that moment I knew I would finish this race; I knew I was ready, and had been ready.

When I finally crossed the finish line in 7:03, after a beautiful bike ride and a tough run-walk in which my hips were super tight (my PT later told me this is extremely common for Ironman athletes because of having been in the cycling position for so long), I saw my mom. She was waiting on the other side of the finish barrier and all I could do was collapse into her arms and cry on her shoulder. This was the feeling I’d been chasing ever since my first marathon, the feeling of that self-doubt evaporating, banished, leaving only the raw emotion of an epic journey complete. When Danielle crossed the finish line not long after, we cried again. We had both had such a hard year with injury and missing our confidence in ourselves. But we had done it, together, alone, with the help of Cortney and all of our friends and our families. That kind of euphoria is one reason why we are endurance athletes.

Sarah (middle) at the finish line with her training buddies

Of course, now that I’ve done it once, I know I can do it again, and will. But for now, I’m using this experience to remind that kid who quit swim lessons and quit soccer, and the adult that is still trying to figure out which limits she can push and which ones she can’t: you are capable of more than you think.

About the Author:

Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer, blogger, book enthusiast and athlete (among other things) living in Seattle. She can be found on Instagram @readrunsea and on Twitter @sarahmariewrote.

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