On Sunday, I swam in my first open water race. I signed up with the help of my friend Kevin. Like when I did the marathon, I was pretty much the only foreigner there (I saw two others competing) out of over two thousand Taiwanese.
Unlike when I did the marathon, I had Kevin and the group of people signed up in his group to help me figure out where to go and what to do during registration. Kevin had told me the race was three to four kilometers long. I was a competitive swimmer for 12 years, but I hated distance and never swam anything longer than a 500 yard freestyle in competition, and only a handful of times. So I tried to train, going to the pool one to two times per week and doing main sets of descending 500 meters. At the end of the day, I figured it wouldn’t matter if I swam slowly because I knew I would finish. Kevin also warned me of two main obstacles. Number one: jellyfish. The stretch of coastline that was the racecourse would sometimes be inundated with jellyfish. Should I worry? Should I wear a full body suit? “No,” Kevin told me. “I’m just wearing a speedo.”
Number two: There would be a lot of old and slow people there just kicking and hanging out. As we waiting in line to get ready to go to the beach for the start, I noticed a man had a beer in the bag attached to his floating stick. Everyone needed a “floating stick,” which just had to be something that floated and presumably could keep you buoyant if you needed a rest. I bought my floating stick (basically a lifeguards floatation device) at the pop up shop set up in a tent next to registration. I didn’t want a floatation stick (and definitely not one so big), but it was required. I figured that as an experiences swimmer, I wouldn’t need one and it would probably just get in my way. Sure enough, it got tangled in someone else’s floatation stick within the first five minutes. We untangled ourselves and kept swimming. I saw schools of blue, yellow, and silver fish. The water was cool. It was beautiful. Until it wasn’t. Round a bend and the depth increases, plunging the bottom into darkness. And now, on this stretch of coastline, the incoming ocean waves beat a little harder, swell a little larger. The salt’s also gotten to you. You feel every exertion not through your lungs or muscles like you normally do during physical activity, but through your stomach and the shifting of the contents therein: one banana, some peanut butter, a cup of plain yogurt. Okay. It’s okay, you think. I can swim backstroke. You flip onto your back and continue chugging along. It’s slower, but it feels better. You close your eyes because the sun is too strong, even though your reflective goggles. You look up every once in a while to make sure you’re not close to hitting anyone. You’re not. But you are listing inward toward the rocky shore. But you’re quite a ways off so you relax and close your eyes only you open them when you sense a sudden darkness. The sun’s gone behind a small cloud. You think about how strange it is that in this case there’s no need for silver linings because the cloud blocking the sun is itself a positive. You’re fine. But you’re also getting close to the sharp rocks associated with the bend in coastline up ahead, so you flip over to your stomach, use your floating stick like a kickboard and join the flow of old ladies and men kicking and chatting. You’re fine. As long as you don’t think about your body, because when you think about you’re body the only input is from your stomach and your stomach doesn’t seem to like the fact that your body is swimming in the ocean. You hum half notes to yourself. You look at the rocky shore and see a few little wooden shacks that you’d never seen from the road above when you ran this coastal route a few times training for the marathon. Before now, you’d always thought swimming was better than running because if you got tired you could just float. Now, looking at land, you want to job the last two kilometers. On land, you muscles are master to your spatial position, only submissive to gravity, constant and unidirectional. In the ocean, pitch, pull, rise, fall… You’re OKAY. You kick around another bend and now you can see the finish line: bodies congregating on a beach. Music playing on speakers. Slow and steady wins the race. I can do this. Why didn’t I go to sleep earlier last night? Why didn’t I eat a better breakfast? You’ve been listing outward so now you’re kicking near the safety boats on the edge of the racecourse. No one else is around you. Try flipping to your back again. NOPE. Flip back to the stomach to begin kicking. NOPE. Feel a stomach spasm. Submerge. Expel a smallish bit of stomach contents. Relief. That wasn’t so bad. You’re okay. But – spasm. Submerge. Blow out the white, milky contents. Begin swimming a mix of sidecrawl / breastroke so it doesn’t look weird and no one notices when you continue to: spasm, submerge, blow out white chunks and liquids and fan them with your hand to help dissipate them. You’re okay. Eventually the spasms stop, but still your whole body is shaking, an after-effect of the violent stomach convulsions necessary to produce vomit. You’re fine! No one has seen you. You feel so much better. You start swimming freestyle, fast, like you want to spring the last 1000 meters. So you can finish sooner? So you can escape the vomit chunks? So you can utilize this sudden surge in energy? The salt’s getting to you again. Flip onto your back. Resist the urge to turn around and see how far from the finish line you are. Add oil. You’re badass. Do you know how many people would’ve stopped? Do you know how many people wouldn’t even try something like this? You’re fucking great. You turn around and see the beach less than 200 meters off, so you do freestyle – powerful, long strokes – the rest of the way in. Stand up and every feeling of discomfort slides off you like water off the turtle’s back. As I walked out of the water, I saw two of the guys from my group. They were waiting for others to finish before taking a shuttle bus back to the beginning of the race. I sat down in the sand, drank water, and ate a granola bar. I was thoroughly disappointed. It took me one hour and forty minutes to finish. I had felt ill for approximately 45 minutes of it. But I know I can’t use that as an excuse because the waves and the salt are PART OF THE RACE. Maybe this means I can’t do ocean open water. Or I need to get sufficient sleep the night before race day so I can take a Dramamine. I finished. That’s a success in itself. I didn’t freak out when I began to feel sick or when I vomited. I was calm. This wasn’t the first time I vomited during a race, but it was the first time I felt alright about it gen the myriad organisms floating around out there that would probably enjoy partially digested banana. Another man from our group (he was constantly smiling and trying to communicate with me even though he did not know that much English and I know even less Chinese) finished and we all headed to the shuttle bus. Walking through the finish line pomp, a woman with a microphone saw me and said: “Oh! Welcome! Where are you from?” Microphone in my face, I replied: “Chicago.” “Oh! Chicago! Welcome!” Back at the starting area, my group took pictures and ate box lunches. They invited me to go to the beach with them later to “play SUP” (stand up paddle boarding). I wanted to say yes because I want to be the type of person that says yes to things and lives life! But it was only 10:30am now and they weren’t meeting until 3:30. I knew I didn’t want to wait around for five hours, but also, if I went back to my apartment I wouldn’t want to leave. So I told them I couldn’t make it and got a ride home from another woman who was leaving. Back home I proceeded to eat, sleep, and binge watch Orange Is the New Black, Season 3.