Here are some specific things I learned from training for and doing the IMFL06 swim. Though I will not be training for another ironman for a while, I’m noting them for the future and perhaps they will help some other “weak” swimmers who are planning to do IMFL07.
- Being able to swim 4000 yards in a pool at IM pace in 2:00-2:10 is too slow. Shoot to be able to swim the distance at IM pace in 1:50 or less to allow for rough conditions or other unanticipated delays. Occasionally practice swimming for 10-20 minutes longer to make sure you can easily do so if required on race day.
- Practice swimming in the ocean or other large bodies of water to get used to dealing with chop and swells. Bilateral breathing and low, close to the head, hand entry into the water (which I learned from Total Immersion lessons) does not work well in rough conditions. Wait to sight on crests of swells. I would guesstimate that the swells at IMFL06 were somewhere between 3-4 feet on my first lap and 4-5 feet on my second lap. Whatever they were, my husband saw red flags flying along the beach.
- Prepare for seasickness. This year I heard that a lot of swimmers got seasick from the rough conditions. I’m actually very prone to motion sickness so I took steps to avoid it beforehand, namely, wore ear plugs and took both ginger pills and Bonine, which makes me less drowsy than Dramamine. Though I swallowed a fair amount of seawater, I never felt sick during the swim.
- Slow swimmers should start in the back and towards the outside of the swim course so you have an "out" if you need it. Some faster swimmers choose to swim on the inside of the course since all that matters is rounding the 2 outermost buoys. The mass swim start is very chaotic but the pack will spread out a lot along the first stretch. Since it's a 2-lap course, faster swimmers will likely overtake slower swimmers so slower swimmers should avoid being close to the buoys along the return leg where they may get swum over. On the second lap, slower swimmers will have the course to themselves.
- Practice swimming in a wetsuit. With a full wetsuit, the added rubber around my shoulders and arms made them fatigue more quickly. The added buoyancy of the wetsuit also made my kick come out of the water easily. If I’d worn my wetsuit more often, I probably would have been more used to the added resistance and keeping a tighter kick and been able to swim a bit faster.
- Learn to read the water currents. Besides stronger wind conditions during the second hour, I think my second lap was much slower than my first lap because I headed back out on the course on a diagonal path to the left of the first buoy, as we were supposed to do, instead of closer to where I started the race, which was considerably right of the first buoy. Due to the longshore current, which caused many swimmers to drift to the left early in the course, the smart thing (in hindsight) would have been to run along the sand further before reentering the water for the second lap. Beware that the current direction may be different next time.
- Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Don’t believe anyone who says you can’t drown while wearing a wetsuit or that wearing one will make swimming easy. Don’t shy away from practicing in less-than-ideal water conditions (just be sure someone is available to help you if you need it). Don’t count on support along the IMFL06 swim course.