Matt's Swim Journey as an Adult
It’s currently early August 2022 and I have a 70.3 coming up in mid-October. As an adult-onset swimmer who struggled from early last year to early this year to establish any competence or confidence in the water, is the 1.2-mile swim my biggest concern? Not at all. Frankly, I’m more concerned about my knees making it through the 13.1 mile run leg. Why the swim doesn’t worry me anymore is the real story here though but let me go back just a bit.
In February of 2021, after being off the bike since my teens when I rode centuries every Saturday when I hadn’t even ever heard the term ‘century’, I decided to buy a used road bike and see if I still enjoyed it. I started riding with a C group ride and immediately the joy was there once again. The ride leader on our second or third ride mentioned he was training for a triathlon. I had only ever known of IM type triathlons and said “Wow, I could never do those distances.” He said he was doing something called an Olympic distance and that there were also triathlons at a “sprint” distance. He told me the length of each leg and I thought, “Hey, I could do THAT!” And so, the idea was born.
I joined a gym to have access to a pool and treadmill primarily and got started training. Bike and run came along well enough, but the swim was brutal. My first sprint saw me lose my cool when I got kicked by another swimmer and gulped a lung full of water on my way to a 16-minute 400-meter swim. I kept it together, lapped almost everyone on the 12-mile bike leg and managed a decent 5k run leg to finish in a little over 1:30:00…but I had finished my first triathlon!!!! I knew my swim needed work, and I also knew that I was hooked.
I finished, with better times each time, two more sprints in 2021 along with a handful of 5k and 10k runs and trail runs. All through the winter, I spent hours each week at the gym banging away on my swim performance only to find myself gasping for air every few hundred meters no matter how I swam. After running 2 half marathons in January and February of this year, I finished an “intermediate” length triathlon involving a 750-meter pool swim that I was able to complete with only one short pause. Knowing I wanted to move on to longer races and open water swims though, something had to change.
I worked hard training for the Cactus Man, my first Olympic distance triathlon on May 1, 2022. I had started open water swim training in February with a quality tri wetsuit and sheer terror of deep water. By race day, I had decided I could complete the 1500-meter open water swim for Cactus Man if I used the breaststroke. That was what I did and finished the swim in 55:00…dead last. I had a tough time on the longer bike and run legs but finished with my first Olympic distance finisher medal held proudly in hand.
I had been training during all this with the self-conceived philosophy “Train Hard to Race Easy”. What an idiot I had been. I was sore constantly and on the edge of chronic fatigue syndrome…at Olympic level training!! I had heard of 80/20 and passively ignored it, but now I had to find some way forward other than what I had been doing because it was killing me. Not only that, but I was also not getting any better on the swim, no matter how hard I fought with the water.
Desperate to find a way to move into longer training for longer races, I picked up the 80/20 Triathlon book and got to reading. I finished the main portion of the book describing the ideas that form the training method and the “week of slow” transition on Saturday afternoon of the week I received the book. Monday morning, I hit the gym pool…slowly and swam 2325 yards nonstop!!!! To say I was amazed would be a gross understatement. I was absolutely blown away. I had given my full attention to going slow, maintaining good form, and breathing easily to stay below my VT. It wasn’t until I had been swimming an hour that I stopped as I was out of time. I looked at my distance and my 2:37/100-yard average pace and could barely believe my eyes. It was much the same as I applied the principles of 80/20 training to the bike and run, but this blog is about my swim journey, so I’ll stick to that.
Feeling a new sense of hope and personal power at such immediate and significant gains in the pool, the obvious next step was to really go after the confidence I needed to achieve in open water. The outset of the “Age of 80/20” as I call it was the third week of May 2022, and I was still quite apprehensive of going distance in open water as I had only done so using the breaststroke so far. A couple weeks really getting comfortable with distance in the pool, and by the second week of June I was open water bound.
The swims, either with others or solo, have been better each time out and I am without fear of the open water or its depths. Yes, I swim solo because there are days when there is simply no one to swim with or have go shore sit while I swim. I have the buoyancy of a wetsuit as well as a swim buoy which, like my bright green Team VPA swim cap, is highly visible on the water and I am aware of the risks that exist in my swimming environment.
So, this is how I went from absolute certainty I would drown in a pool on a 400-meter swim to gliding along for 2000 yards or more in open water with no worries at all in under a year. This morning before work, I banged out another smooth and easy 1000 yards. Next Friday, I’ll take a late start to work and have a goal distance of between 3000 and 4000 yards set. I’ll get it done because there is nothing standing between me and that goal that I can’t overcome. I know it and I will get there. If you know you can do something, if you really believe in yourself and your abilities, nothing and no one can stop you!
Matt Dellaro @matt_d_team_vegan_athletics