I know I’m not a very good swimmer, but it wasn’t until the start of the Ironman at 7am Sunday morning that I found out just how truly awful I am. Actually, for the first two or three minutes things seemed to go ok, but then I caught a hard kick to the face from another swimmer. It not only hurt, but alerted me to my situation. I was slow and falling behind. Soon I noticed something else. I’m not sure if it was my bloody eye, the large waves or simply my appalling lack of skill, but the one thing that was clear was that I couldn’t swim straight.
I kept swimming anyway, but no matter what I did I only seemed to fall farther behind, way behind. After what seemed an eternity, I found myself floating half a kilometer off shore all by myself, like an empty plastic bottle that’s drifted out to see. I could barely make out the main group in the distance and the buoy that marked the first corner of the first lap hardly seemed to be getting any closer. It was becoming painfully clear to me that I had no business swimming in a competition like the Ironman.
If you ever compete in an Ironman, countless people will tell you that you’re only doing it for yourself. If that were true my race would have ended right there. I wanted to be on dry land, not drifting out to sea. I knew I was too slow to make the cut off and floundering around in the water for another hour would only make me more miserable. All I had to do was simply put my hands in the air and one of the rescue boats would ferry me to shore. Yet as thoughts like these began to run through my head, I remembered all the support I’d been given, all the people who ran with me and biked with me, all the people who had donated money, time and effort. I remembered all the emails and messages, and I thought of everyone who would be online waiting to see my progress. I thought of the wonderful family that had opened their home to me in Wales and that had come to cheer me on. I thought of the words I’d written on impossibility and I knew I wasn’t doing this for me. There was nothing to do but to keep swimming.
Progress was painfully slow, but eventually I passed one buoy after another. Eventually, people began to lap me. Not a great sign on a two lap course, but I was happy for the company and kept going. After what seemed like an eternity I staggered onto the beach. The crowd was cheering enthusiastically for people as they finished, but of course, I was only half way done. Again I had doubts, I knew I could walk off the beach with everyone else and no one in the crowd would know. The course leading back into the water was already shut and I didn’t want to get back into the water anyway. I called out for the time and one of the workers responded: it had taken 1:04 to complete my first lap of 1.25 miles (1.9 km). There was still hope, but only a small one. Totally rested and swimming with others, I had used almost half of the two hours twenty minutes allowed. I wanted to stop, but people were counting on me. I asked them to open the gate and let me through.
The second lap I was alone from the beginning, except for the occasional lifeguard who thought I must be hurt or drowning and who would offer to pull me out of the water. Never, I would swim until the time was over. One of the lifeguards must have heard my resolve, because instead of simply offering to take me to shore, he shouted directions at me and told me which way to go. Not only that, but he started to paddle his surfboard alongside me and would call out to me when I strayed too far off course. As I rounded the first buoy he was still next to me and he pointed to the next. I asked him if I could make it, and like so many other people before him, he told me I could. I kept swimming. By now he was telling me how much time I had left. I was exhausted, but when I’d stop he’d tell me I had to keep going. I did. When we rounded the final buoy it was a straight long swim back to the sure. He pointed and told me I had 20 minutes, but that I could do it in 10. It took me 12.
There aren’t many moments in life you know you’ll never forget, but coming out of that cold sea was one of them. Tired and exhausted it took me a moment to realize that there were hundreds of people cheering as I came out of the water. It took me another moment to remember that I was alone. Those hundreds of people were waiting and cheering just for me.