Queering the Triathlete (and Other Discomforts)

A Melancholy Zebra determined to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

8 Rookie Mistakes of A Marathon Swim

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Back in Septembe of 2016, I began one morning with my feet in Lanai sand (or rather some dubious mud and staring at a stretch of weird brown water.) Several hours later, I crawled my dank and dripping weeds out onto Maui sand and then did a celebratory leap off a cliff.

I’ve done endurance events before. I’ve done Ironmans and Half-s, marathon and half-s, long bikes and even longer hikes to the tops of mountains and back down again, but nothing compared to that much time in the water. The water is unforgiving and will beat the crap out of you in ways you never expected, and somehow it will always be home. 

  1. SALT MOUTH IS REAL. I cannot say this enough. Salt mouth will wreck your tongue and throat and everything in between upways and downways. I’d suggest testing several methods to deal with the discomfort, but resign yourself to the fact that you will feel it afterwards, sometimes for days. I personally preferred a 1:1 or 1:2 ratio of Listerine and water along with Gatorade or whatever drink mix I was using for hydration. Swish and spit. It may only feel like a 20-second reprieve from having your tongue stuck to a salt shaker, but those 20 seconds are a blessing from the divine. After your swim? Good luck.
  2. You did not use enough diaper cream. Diaper cream is your savior from second degree sunburns. All of the fancy pants sunscreen will wash off after enough time in the water, but diaper cream will not rub off, even with soap and a rough terry washcloth in your hotel room. If every inch of your shoulders and face and ears and neck are not covered in diaper cream (and you’re white like me), you did it wrong.
  3. Trust your crew, but trust yourself first. Until you’re hallucinating, then trust your crew, and bitch them out later if they were wrong. You should know every sighting point on your route, every feeding time and the options available, every piece of gear, every tide, and so forth. I made the mistake of not correcting my crew when they took me on the wrong line, adding an extra 20min at least to my swim and some riptide-fighting shenanigans as well as costing me my “official” status. I knew the line was wrong, but I assumed they knew something I didn’t. Communication is key.
  4. What you think you’ll want to eat is wrong. What you want to eat while doing endless pool laps or endless repeats in sheltered ocean waters is not what you want to eat in the middle of a channel when the 6ft swells are rocking you up and down and sideways. That cooler full of nutrition bars and drink mixes tastes a lot better when it’s sitting patiently on the sand or a pool deck waiting for you to finish a lap than it does being tossed to you off a boat in the middle of rollers. Bring every kind of nutrition you can think of because the likelihood of wanting to puke up your staple food is high. (Or train in rollers and eating in the ocean like a smart person.)
  5. It is not a triathlon or a marathon. It’s a completely different game. Triathlons and marathons end with a run. Tired? Cramping? Walk. Sit down. Use the porta-potty. In the open water, you don’t have that luxury, and most likely, the tides are going to end up worse the closer you get to your destination. Empty the tank all you like as that small landmass gets larger and larger, but keep in mind that all of those small directional decisions you/your crew made early on may have landed you in a riptide or  a current pushing you the ass-opposite way that you want to go. If you can’t get up and go and make some kind of forward progress against terrible conditions, good luck, kid. There is no swim equivalent to walking when the conditions get terrible, an easy option that still brings the finish line closer. There is only “swim harder than you ever were before now.”
  6. Feeding takes practice. It’s easy to scarf down a food bar standing in the sand. It’s not easy to scarf down a food bar exhausted and nauseated and treading water. Train your brain to eat things it has absolutely zero interest in touching ever again, and train that stomach to deal with it. Just because you can’t feel the calories leeching out your pores doesn’t mean that you don’t need them. And in the open water, dehydration and delirium don’t look like a slow stagger into the ground– they look like drowning.
  7. Marine life is irrelevant (until it isn’t.) Expect weird fish to wriggle across your skin and jellyfish, and for god’s sakes, have a plan for sharks. During my channel crossing, I got slapped by at least 7 pieces of Portuguese Man-O-War tentacles (and at least once right on my face) and let me tell you: that shit feels like someone set your skin on fire. The best part? The preliminary treatment is to rinse with salt water. Given that you’re immersed in salt water, this means that you get to keep swimming! On fire! (It goes away eventually. I swear.) I was lucky enough not to see any sharks during my crossing, but you and your crew better be looking out and have a plan to get you out of the water ASAP.
  8. Recovery is an entirely different process. Normally, recovery involves lots of food and rest and light activity. Only, thanks to salt mouth, lots of food is not a possibility in the normal sense. The only things I could eat for a good 24 hours were ice cream and yogurt and anything cold, sickeningly sweet, and texture-free. Liquid calories became essential despite feeling bloated and having third-spacing of yuck.

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