Ten years ago today, on September 14, 2003, I found myself on Zuma Beach in Malibu, CA, among a group of other men donning red swim caps as we waited with nervous anticipation for the signal that would send us propelling ourselves (voluntarily) into the Pacific Ocean.
The gun went off and, for better or worse, I followed my comrades into the salty water, wearing a surfing wetsuit I had rented from ZJ Boarding House in Santa Monica days before. Although I was ready for the bike ride and run that would follow, I was seriously underprepared for the immediate task at hand: swimming ½-mile in the ocean.
I waded through the water awhile, and eventually summoned up the nerve to dive underneath an oncoming wave and begin my journey in earnest. I flailed around, doing something resembling a doggie paddle, as my fellow swimmers raced toward the first buoy. My head above water, I surveyed the gap between myself and the bobbing orange beacon in the distance. About halfway out towards it, I paused for a moment and had a thought that felt worthy of consideration: Should I be doing this?
The previous weekend I had attended the Ocean Swim Clinic at Zuma Beach put on by the race organizers. After being given a rundown of tips for breaking through the surf and managing ourselves in the vast open water, we were encouraged to practice on our own. One of the other clinic attendees approached me and, seeing me in just a bathing suit, said with more than a trace of concern/disbelief: “You are planning on wearing a wetsuit for the actual race, right?”
“Oh, sure,” I replied reflexively, when in fact I had never considered doing anything with, near, or otherwise involving a wetsuit, least of all getting into one.
Having done all of my (not very extensive) swim training for the upcoming race in my local pool, the Culver City Plunge, this was my first practice swim in the actual ocean. I began doing the side stroke, which is how I had managed to get from one side of the pool to the other for nearly every lap I had practiced. Although I was aware that this was not exactly a speedy way of traveling in the water, I didn’t care. It was the stroke I felt most comfortable with, and I wasn’t out to win the race – my goal was simply to finish it. How much cooler, I thought, to finish a triathlon – even if I literally ended up in last place – than not to do one at all?
What I noticed was that I wasn’t simply moving slowly in this much-wavier-than-a-swimming-pool water. I wasn’t making any headway at ALL. The side stroke was NOT going to cut it in the ocean – period! I had a week to come up with something else.
My next trip to the pool found me trying out alternatives. My breast stroke was certainly not strong enough to carry me through, so I attempted a “free-style” stroke, not realizing to just what extent I did not actually know how to do a proper front crawl. During the course of that swim, I was suddenly seized with a pain in my right calf so sharp that I bolted upright, my feet immediately hitting the floor of the pool.
It was a cramp, and it was intense. This gave me a whole new concern I hadn’t even considered heretofore. What if I got a cramp like this while swimming in the ocean?!
So there I am in the ocean and the race is underway, and I am having a moment of not-quite-panic but certainly some concern about whether or not it is in my best interest to venture further out. The thought should I be doing this? lasted but a moment, but I remember it vividly.
Equally vividly I remember my own inner response. It went something like this: Yes! You’ll be fine! The course is teeming with lifeguards, should you need them. Keep going!
I continued with the swim.
I swam with the most God-awful technique imaginable. My head was above water the whole time, which meant that I was “swimming” in all but a vertical position. I barely used my left arm in my makeshift “stroke”. I swallowed many gulps of salty ocean water. But I made it to the first buoy, and then maneuvered a 90-degree right turn around it, which positioned me parallel to the shoreline. Navigating in the open, wavy water was not the same as doing so in, say, a calm swimming pool with ropes designating the end of each lane, and so I zigged and zagged, inadvertently adding extra distance to the mere ½-mile that was required. I was frequently disoriented. But I kept going, slowly but surely passing the subsequent buoys that lined the route, one at a time.
I also experienced a phenomenon during the swim that I dare say most of my fellow racers did not. The heads of the swimmers around me kept changing colors! First I was surrounded by my fellow red-cappers, most of whom quickly abandoned me. Then a swarm of yellow caps (the second wave of swimmers, who began five minutes after we did) overtook me. Then it was light blue (the wave that entered the water five minutes after that!).
Then dark blue.
When I made my way around the final buoy for the second 90-degree right turn, I was ecstatic. Heading back towards the shore, with the beach increasingly visible, a voice shouted gleefully from within: I’m gonna LIVE!!! I’m gonna LIVE!!!
Back on the sand some 45 minutes into the race, dizzy as all get-out and breathing hard, I was greeted with what felt like a hero’s welcome by the spectators, which brought a huge smile to my face. I drunkenly made my way to the timing mats underneath the “Swim Finish” sign and stumbled into the Transition Area, where I changed into my bike clothes. I still had an 18-mile bike ride and a 4-mile run ahead of me, but once I had made it out of the ocean – alive and unharmed(!) – I knew I would finish the rest. And I did. And I didn’t even finish last.
The 2003 Nautica Malibu Triathlon was not only my first-ever triathlon, it was the first organized race of any kind I had ever done. Last Saturday – September 7, 2013 – I did the “International Distance” version of the same race (1.5k swim, 40k bike, and 10k run [or roughly a .93-mile swim, 24.8-mile bike, and 6.2-mile run]), marking my tenth completion of the NMT. It was also my 15th triathlon, and 35th overall race or cycling event.
The past decade has seen me go from having to pause at the end of each and every pool length I swam (in order to catch my breath) to being able to swim continuously for two hours without stopping. I have run six half marathons and three full marathons. I completed the most challenging bike ride of my life – The Grand Tour Double-Metric Century (a 124-mile ride, with nearly 7,000 feet of gain) – and then went back and did it again (three more times). And, after no fewer than three attempts, I finally managed to finish a full “ironman-distance” triathlon (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run).
These were previously unimaginable-to-me feats, and I can trace them all back to a single decision I made ten years ago on this date, the decision to overcome a moment of fear/doubt in the water and press on. Though it took place in a matter of seconds, this was truly a Defining Moment, and set into motion an incredibly rich succession of experiences for me and a whole new dimension to my life.
For me, this journey started with the Nautica Malibu Triathlon, and I am forever grateful to both this magnificent event and that decision I made in a moment’s time in the ocean ten years ago today.
Below is a slideshow from this year’s race (all photos but the first one taken by my wife, Samantha!):
You can pause the slideshow below at any time by moving the cursor into the frame and clicking on the “pause” button in between the arrow buttons at the bottom. The arrow buttons allow you to scroll through in either direction at your own pace. You can view the photos with or without captions – click on the bubble icon (second from the left) – green turns them on, white turns them off):