“Smell the roses.” Even while racing!
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on July 30th, 2010

My recent post My Triathlon Uplift has proven to be my most popular ever, as measured by the number of positive comments. What I observed was that the great majority of those  in the race seemed motivated more to participate in a ‘healthful fellowship’ than to prove themselves athletically.  As I reflected on this I thought further about the “group dynamics”  during the final leg, a 13.1-mile run.

Here I was able to observe the entire field from the leaders, who finished in just over 4 hours, to the final finishers who came in 4+ hours later.  I was struck by the relative isolation of the leaders in this particular race. The top 10 to 20 finishers, were spread thinly, in some cases several minutes apart  for most of the run. Those in the middle and back of the pack were engaged in a much more communal activity – seeming to race with, not against, each other in large, close groups.

I’ve pondered this a great deal since in 30 years of open water racing I’ve mainly been a front-pack finisher and a keen competitor.  This has meant mastering tactics like sighting quickly — and coaching others who swim in open water to do the same.

Thus a message I received this week from Bob McAdams a TI Coach in New Jersey was mind-expanding: “My first real open water swimming experience was last summer, while working with a student who was preparing for his first triathlon.  After some lessons in a pool, we went to a nearby lake with marker buoys.  It was also my first experience in a wetsuit. The temperature was something like 58 degrees F and I was amazed at how well a sleeveless wetsuit protected me from the cold.  I was also surprised to discover it let me float without kicking.

Although I can do sighting strokes, we both found it easier just to pause now and then and look at the shore.  What impressed me the most was the changing scenery.  I remember being struck by the fact that I could actually use swimming to travel somewhere!”

I relate strongly to the possibility of using swimming to travel somewhere you wish to go, rather than ping-pong between the walls of a man-made box. My first swimming urge, at age 7 or 8, was to be able to swim to a floating raft, 20 yards offshore at Bar Beach in Hempstead Harbor on LI Sound. For all my swimming ability at the time, it might as well have been across the Sound in Connecticut. The desire to reach that raft was as strong as any I recall from childhood.

But what Bob wrote about choosing to pause to look at the shore struck me, as never before, as possibly a very smart strategy even for racing, for open water swimmers and triathletes who are new to open water racing. Previously I’d just assumed that we should encourage everyone to strive for early mastery of the quick-peek sighting stroke that top open water racers use.

But anxiety, not inefficiency or lack of speed, is the most common and daunting challenge faced by novice open water racers. One of the best ways to not just maintain calm, but to actually enjoy the experience, would be to do all you can to avoid feeling rushed.

So why not include in your race plan to intentionally pause along the way to look at the shore, the changing scenery and take in — and feel good about — how far you’ve traveled.  The time you’ll add will be negligible (in fact by staying relaxed and avoiding the common tight-chest sensation you could even save time) while the enjoyment you gain will be considerable. And when you do pause, note and appreciate the company of all those you’re swimming with.

Learn more about how to gain greater enjoyment from open water swimming in my ebook Outside the Box.  Read a free excerpt here.

4 Responses to ““Smell the roses.” Even while racing!”

  1. Tom McGowan says:

    I love this post. I tend to put my head down and swim during open water races. A few weeks ago I joined the Ocean City Swim Club at the Jersey shore for their weekly open water workout. Since I wasn’t racing I was able to relax, slow down and enjoy the beautiful serenity of the Atlantic Ocean – It was a blissful experience.

    BTW, I also grew up on LI and went Bar Beach as a child. So, I can relate to the desire to reach that raft.

  2. Renee says:

    Great article.
    After doing multiple triathlons, there was one race that was sooo awesome- i took my time to enjoy the beautiful scenery and not get all wrapped up in my finish time. i’m very glad i did. the Survival of the Shawangunks race in New Paltz, new york. The first lake was so clear- i was checking out all the neat stuff on the bottom and the next 2 lakes had dramatic cliffs and the last lake mohonk mountain house. If i just blew through the swims- i would have missed out on such an incredible experience. i took time to smell the roses. check out the views

  3. Renee
    If you do SOS this year, you’ll see me as part of the water safety team lining the swim course in that first lake — Awosting — in kayaks or on rescue boards. I have swum 100s of rewarding hours in Awosting, and still more in the 2nd lake you swam in SOS — Minnewaska. Awosting is my favorite place to swim on Planet Earth, I mean, Water.

  4. Chris Norman says:

    Hi Terry.

    I just finished my first olympic triathlon last Sunday. Last year was my first sprint triathlon and my first competition since high school (I am 41). At the beginning of last year I could not swim 50 meters without gasping for air. I swam consistently three times a week for 9 months and the most I was ever able to swim without needing a break was 150 meters.

    I got a hold of your material and tried my hardest to implement what you advocate. At the beginning of this year I focused as much as I could on relaxing and I went from a max of 150 meters to the very next swim of 2000 meters. I was in total shock. It was the day it all began to click, and I turned the corner.

    I absoluttely owe everything to the Total Immersion philsoophy. I have been working on form and technique ever since. Last week before my olympic tri I swam in a friend’s lake, and I swam nearly two miles. Afterwards, my friend said, “You didn’t seem to be swimming real fast, but what I did notice is that your first stroke and your last stroke were identical.” He could not have given me a better complement. I know speed will eventually come. My focus, however, continuous to be form.

    Next year I plan to do a half iron man and a full marathon. When it comes to my swim practice, I do nothing unless it is endorsed my TI. While there is a lot of material and philosophies out there regarding becoming a better swimmer, in my mind, TI is the authority in everything to do with swimming. I would love to find a similar philosophy and authority in the area of run and bike. Do you have any suggestions? What is fascinating to me about TI is that it both preserves energy and allows you to become faster (too seemingly contradictory notions).

    Because I am a novice in all three sports, I don’t know if there is anything in the run and bike arena that is simiarl to the TI philsophy. In the last couple of days I have come across Chi Running. I see some similarities. What do you think? What I like about TI is that I don’t get confused by all the competing theories. I know TI works, and I am sold out to it. I would love to find the same thing in the other two sports so that I can become the best triathlete possible.

    Thank you for everything. Any insights you have would be appreciated.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.