Only amateur athletes will ever say “I’ll just turn up and give it a go.”
You don’t see bin men turning up at the local hospital asking if they can pop down to surgery as they once watched an episode of Casualty. Yet anyone with a pair of trainers will at some point have turned up on a start line with no idea what they’re about to do or why they are there but, what the heck, let’s give it a go anyway!
However this attitude forgets that there are there are two types of fear in the world: the fear of the unknown and the fear of the known.
The unknown fear is the fear that keeps you awake at night in case aliens sneak into your bedroom and steal your socks. You’re pretty sure that if aliens did visit the earth they’d have better things to do than raid your sock drawer – but, as you can’t be 100% sure that E.T. is not phoning home and boasting about it, you worry about it anyway.
That’s why the unknown fear is a stupid fear. It’s based on misinformation – aliens steal the last bag of crisps from the cupboard, not socks – and it usually means you end up scared of something that you shouldn’t be scared of at all.
In triathlon, we have a lot of unknown fears. The big one is swimming in open water. Until you’ve swum in the sea or in a river or loch you don’t know what to expect. There could be monsters! Or, worse, it could be cold!
The first time I swam outdoors was at Bardowie Loch, north of Glasgow. I swam with an instructor who ran a regular open session on a Sunday morning. There were about 20 of us there. Most in wetsuits, one in budgie smugglers (put it away, Iain!) and one man with a loud voice who set out the rules and offered some tips for swimming in cold water for the first time.
“Go in backwards,” he said. “Let the water hit the small of your back first, then, when you’re used to it, roll over and repeatedly dip your face in the water. It’ll help you adjust.”
I don’t know why the base of your spine controls your response to cold water, but, it seeped up my wetsuit, and then through the zip at the back, all I could say was:
I’d hate to think what I’d have said if I hadn’t ‘reversed in’.
I found out. I dipped my face in too.
However, as I started to paddle, then swim, then dipped my face again and again, the water became more tolerable. My feet were cold, my hands were cold, but my body felt fine, and, after a few minutes, I could keep my head below water and start to swim using the front crawl.
What was an unknown fear, a fear of swimming in cold water, was no longer an unknown fear. It was a quite justifiable, perfectly reasonable known fear!
Now known fears are fears of things you know are scary. Like cold water swimming. But, having practiced, and trained, and adjusted to the cold water, you can justify it to yourself: “I know this will be cold but, after a few minutes, it will be fine.”
And that’s one of the good things about training. It teaches you not just how to run, swim or cycle but it also teaches you to convert your unknown fears in known fears or, perhaps, something which isn’t ever a fear at all.
I’m not scared of swimming in lochs anymore. I know what they’re like. I know how cold they can get when it’s early Spring or Autumn. I’m happy to turn up and give it a go as it’s no longer a fear.
Swimming in the sea however…
I’m scared of swimming in the sea. There’s currents and undercurrents and waves and salt and sharks and I hear aliens nick your socks when you leave your clothes at the beach.
When I entered Norseman in 2016, it was the sea swim that scared me. It was three miles in a Norwegian Fjord, in icy water after jumping from the back of ferry.
I was scared of that jump. In the weeks before the race, I kept thinking of that jump. It was something I’d never done, something I could never prepare for – unless I wanted to start a search and rescue mission after jumping off the back of a CalMac ferry.
Without the training, my fears got the best of me. “You’ll die in those waters”. “you’ll have a heart attack, jumping from a warm boat in freezing water”. “You’ll get hypothermia.”
I ignored the voices though, got on the boat, got to the drop off point and jumped off the side.
And nothing happened. The water was warmer than expected. There were few waves. I swam round and my fear was just a fear of nothing.
I say all this because I had those same thoughts before Escape From Alcatraz 2018 triathlon and this time the fear won – but I’m okay with that.
This time my fear was based on what I knew – the swim was 2.5 miles across San Franscico bay and I hadn’t trained enough for it. A busy period at work had meant I hadn’t had time to go to the pool. My running and cycling was fine but I hadn’t swum enough for a challenging swim.
On the Saturday morning before the race I tried to swim in the bay. I swam in a sheltered spot and tried 1km to see how it felt.
It was tough. Even in the sheltered spot I didn’t feel strong in the water and it was a struggle to swim quickly against the tide.
I knew then that I couldn’t take part. The bay was going to be harder and longer. The leap from the boat was not going to be a leap to overcome an unknown fear, instead it was going to be a leap of hope that a lack of training wouldn’t matter.
And looking at the bay I thought it would be stupid of me to start. To ignore the warning in the practice and to hope that somehow swimming further and in harder conditions would somehow be easier. That wouldn’t be a smart move. Instead, I didn’t race, and I don’t regret not racing. Sometimes you have to recognise that fears are justified and that you have them for good reasons – to race again, so that with preparation and training you never need to think “I’ll just turn up and give it a go.”