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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Feeling Helpless In Surf

Bonking on the hot lava fields of Kona. Crashing on your bike on a slippery road. Getting out-sprinted at the finish. Facing an oncoming wind. Feeling the lactic acid pain while doing interval sets in the pool.

The feeling of helplessness by triathletes is well-known. Read their blogs, check out website forums and talk to them after their weekend rides. Their tales of fatigue, dehydration, injuries and hitting the wall are part of the triathlete lore. The pain, the discomfort, the exhaustion are the core of many discussions.

But as open water swimmers know extremely well through trial, error and experience, the helplessness when faced with the power of the ocean is at a whole different level.

Bonk on land and you can slow down. Cramp up while running and you can walk or stretch. Get in an accident and you can call for help on your mobile phone. There are reasonable ways to deal with the elements of heat, humidity and wind on land.

But what do you do when the surf is thunderous? What do you do when the ocean currents push you faster than you can walk? What do you do when facing a sea of jellyfish or frigidly cold water? What happens when a Portuguese man o war stings you so badly that your body is paralyzed in pain, venom pouring into your pores so fast that no medicine can offset the debilitating pain, and there is a real threat you will sink below the water's surface never to surface?

Waves, currents, wind and marine creatures in an aquatic environment all have a unique way to make you feel small, powerless and weak. There is simply no equivalent on terra firma.

There is no crutch out there in the surf. No back-up or support system. No sidewalk to rest. No place to hide from poisonous floating marine predators.

It is just you and Mother Nature.

While endurance athletes on land follow the philosophy of no guts, no glory, no pain, no gain, it can be a different story out in an angry sea: no lanes, no lines, no walls, no mercy.

But reason should rightly prevail out in the high seas. While hitting the wall on the bike or run is an issue, personal safety is the real issue out in the rough open water.

Gerry Rodrigues, coach of pro triathletes and Tower 26 workouts in Santa Monica, advises, "Courage is defined by sitting rough conditions out. You can to be safe and know your limits in the open water. Understand your limits and, if necessary, turn back to shore." At the Tower 26 workouts this week, the athletes faced some large surf off the Southern California coast with wave faces up to 14 feet and powerful inshore currents. "Today was definitely a day for the experienced. Most of the swells had faces of 4 – 8 feet. A monster rip tide about 50 meters wide and 75 meters long made it difficult for even strong swimmers to get through the surf – and then get back to shore."

Gerry, world 25K champion Brendan Capell and one of the world’s most experienced watermen, Ky Hurst, the 4-time Australian Ironman champion (note: this is a surf life saving title, not the multi-sport endurance event) and is a member of the Surf Life Saving Australia Hall of Fame, got in where others hesitated in awe. "The better and more experienced swimmers made it look easy to get out to the practice buoy. But the conditions were too challenging for most. It was pretty easy to distinguish those athletes with ocean experience and those who are still acquiring open water skills and have yet to be comfortable in the surf."

So how does one get comfortable in the surf?

1. Short of boogie-boarding as a kid or body surfing as a teenager, do as many open water swims as possible, both in practice or in competition. No two open water swims are the same, so this accumulated experience will serve you well in times of challenging conditions.
2. If you are really nervous, use fins to help you get through the surf and fight the currents. The fins will help you swim faster and will be helpful in getting you in and out of the shore. After you gain more confidence and speed, you can try the same without fins.
3. If a seashore is not readily accessible, train in the afternoon when surface chop and wind are more likely than not rather than in the early morning when lakes tend to be glassy flat.
4. Wear a wetsuit to increase your buoyancy.
5. Observe the ocean. Count the time between sets. Enter the water when there is a natural lull in the size of the swells. If you understand the number of seconds between each wave, you will know approximately how much time you have to dive below the whitewater, resurface and swim out to the next wave.
6. Swim with your head up. If you know exactly when and from what direction the waves and whitewater is coming, your level of anxiety may decrease.
7. Wear goggles with larger lenses so your field of vision is greater than goggles with smaller lens.
8. Psychologically be prepared to get tossed and turned under the waves and in the surface chop.
9. Do not start if you are hyperventilating or your heart is racing onshore or as you are getting in the water. Wait until you have calmed down.
10. Learn how to dive under waves of all types – ask a surfer or lifeguard or experienced swimmer to teach you.
11. And the most important rule and recommendation of all – swim with a buddy.

Siri Lindley, a triathlon coach, explains, "If you are out there and the conditions are real tough, stay calm. Breathe. Staying calm and being calm allows you to have the strength to make your way back to shore. Think smart. Respect the ocean. Always. Learn how to manage rips and surf before diving in. Being informed brings confidence which reduces fear. And practice. Ocean swims, open water swims - practice, practice."

Siri Lindley is right.

Even President Obama does it...although we have yet to see him in the Waikiki Roughwater Swim.

Nice form, Mr. President. Just do not get stung.

Copyright © 2010 by Open Water Source

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