How to Turn a Turtle into a Fish

Three years ago I couldn’t swim. Unless you count swimming like a turtle, with your head held out of the water, actual swimming. I decided if I was ever going to attempt a triathlon I was not going to turtle swim, so I figured I’d better learn how to swim with my head in the water.

So…did I hire a coach? No, of course I didn’t. I was much too embarrassed to do that. What I did was watch and listen to my 6 year old’s swim coach, and then, under cover of darkness, when (I hoped) no-one was watching, I went to the pool and practiced swimming with my face in the water. I got the hang of it pretty quickly and, while I later learned that my stroke was horrific and I had no reach, rotation, or pull to speak of, I actually mastered the breathing part pretty quickly. Which was good for me because that actually terrified me more than anything.

Of course, swimming more than one 25-meter length without stopping was another matter. That seemed impossible. My terrible form, coupled with a fear of drowning that caused me to hyperventilate, resulted in my needing to “get my breath back” after each length. Thankfully, shortly after embarking on my swimming adventure I took a vacation to Cornwall, in Southwest England, with my sister. There I got to practice my swimming in a 10 meter indoor pool, which was perfect as I could rest every few strokes. (I was also chased by a cow during a run, but that’s another story…)

I kept up my “swimming” over the winter at The Freedom Center in Manassas. The pool at this facility is particularly nice, and the lifeguards had probably never seen anyone quite as pathetic as yours truly. I was sure one of them was going to jump in and “rescue” me at any point. I would swim for 30 minutes, once a week. Each time I went I willed myself to swim one more length without stopping, until I could manage about 6 at a time. I could also keep going longer if I switched from freestyle to breaststroke. Just to clarify, my breaststroke was no slower than my freestyle….

By that point I had signed up for the South Riding Triathlon, and in June 2009 I attended a triathlon clinic to learn how to transition from swim to bike. When I signed up I thought we were just going to do part of the swim but, when I got there, I realized I had to swim the entire 400m – all at once! I did my usual freestyle-to-breaststroke switcheroo to get through the swim, but on the second go-around the coach said I’d have to swim it all freestyle. I can’t remember if I actually managed it, I was so freaked out!

So I joined the Master’s Swim program. That was painful. I was the youngest and fittest in our group of 4 ladies, but I was the slowest swimmer. I got through each one-hour workout using sheer determination and stubborn will, and by the time the triathlon rolled around in September, I was actually able to swim 400m, freestyle, without stopping. I think it took me about nine minutes.

Shortly after completing South Riding Triathlon I joined Tri Performance. I have been swimming twice a week with the team ever since. There have been good days and bad days. There have been days when I have thought I will never, ever, get the technique right. There was one day last summer, during which I had some of my worst swims ever, when my coach picked apart every part of my stroke and I did my best primadonna impression by jumping out of the pool and stomping off. And there have been some great days, usually when I realize that I love swimming and give it that little extra effort.

Today is exactly 18 months since my first triathlon. I have just returned from a 1 hr, 3000m workout. I swam a 300m in 5 minutes. (Thanks for the push, Jack!) While swimming is still my weakest event in triathlon and I still can’t do a flip turn, I have come a long way since those days in the 10 meter pool.

And that’s how you turn a turtle into a fish.


About racingtales

Runner, triathlete, writer
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12 Responses to How to Turn a Turtle into a Fish

  1. Beth says:

    Thats really impressive! I admire your determination.

  2. Jack says:

    Alison, it’s my pleasure. Actually, I feel like you’ve been pushing me these days. I don’t think I would have pushed myself that hard at the end of the 300m swim we did if it weren’t for you steaming up on me. I feel as though I’ve progressed slower than you in the past 2 months. I’m not sure what it is, but you seem like you have endless energy. Maybe it’s all that running you do 🙂 Anyway, it’s always a pleasure swimming in the same lane as you.

    • racingtales says:

      Jack, I think we both push each other, which is great, and makes training sessions so beneficial! I’ve found with swimming – as with running – that there’s this improvement-plateau cycle. I felt like I plateaued over the summer and couldn’t make any improvements, then everything suddenly came together when we moved back indoors and I started improving again. And there’s always a reserve tank for that extra push in the last 50. 🙂

  3. lester says:

    I finilly found your blog. Good run this morning, I hear you are the new president of SRRC, congrats for that ,this is the first step, next : Queen of England!!!!

    • racingtales says:

      Ha ha Lester, very funny! Actually, this is my 4th year as president of SRRC. It’s a great running club with a very dedicated group of people. You should come run with us some time! In fact, we’re having a kilt run on Saturday!

  4. lester says:

    Hey Alison, I was really inconsistent in the last 2 weeks ( vacations, aquiles tendon pain, lazy) in this point I just want to finish Shamrock under 3:50 or worse case, just finish without getting hurt for the rest of my season. Race ,like you know is week and half away. What you recomend me to run from here to the race? thanks!!

  5. racingtales says:

    Last 2 weeks = ok because you should be tapering anyway! Take it easy for the remaining week before the race. I’ll be doing 10 Saturday, easy track workout Wednesday, 3 miles @ marathon pace Thursday. No tempo running next week!
    As for your time, I think you can still shoot for a 3:30, unless your achilles is really bothering you. Go out easy (easier than you want to) and don’t speed up until you get to halfway. If you can get that far without pain, then you can go faster, and reassess again at 20. If you’re hurting then just continue at the same steady pace.

    • lester says:

      thanks Alison, how many miles SRRC is running next saturday ,and what time? if is the 10 that you recomended me , I’m in!

      • racingtales says:

        Lester, we meet at South Riding Starbucks at 7am. I am running 10, others will be running various distances. Oh, and it’s a kilt run (annual thing) so if you have a kilt, wear it, and if not, don’t be surprised when you see a bunch of guys in skirts!

  6. lester says:

    like you know Alison, english is my second lenguaje , let me ask my wife what is a kilt before i say yes, and I’ll let you know if I wearing one ;o)

  7. Wow, this gives me hope. I know how to swim but haven’t done it in years, and never did anything to train for form, speed, or anything but casual fun.
    I have sworn publicly to get to the pool several times but so far only have excuses to show for it. Kudos on your early and continuing determination and stubborn work ethic!

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