I was still really nervous from my practice swim, but I was also really determined. Chatting with others in the start corral helped a lot- they were as nervous as I was, and we all worked up a bit of a “screw it, let’s go!” attitude. I danced it out a bit to the music, trying to shake out the nerves as I moved up through the chute. Finally it was time to cross the starting line, so I put on my brave pants and jogged towards the water. I moved through the water until it was chest deep, then dove under my first wave. I used everything I had, kicking, grabbing water, whatever I could to move forward. Ducked under another wave, kept moving. Ducked under another wave, kept moving. Rinse and repeat. Finally I realized I was no longer at the point where I needed to go under the wave- I could get up and over it with enough paddle. Which was also terrifying because you fall off the back of the wave and feel it suck you back towards the shore. So I kept kicking and pulling and kicking and pulling, desperately trying to get away from the waves. Finally I was far enough past the break that I was no longer being sucked in, and I put a huge smile on my face. I was clear! But I was also still freaking out. On the way in I kept thinking “get past the break, the rest is easy.” But it wasn’t. It was still rocking and rolling worse than I’ve ever experienced. So I rolled over onto my back and went to my trusty backstroke, grabbing huge swaths of water (and occasionally someone’s leg), actually passing other swimmers. At one point I rolled over onto my front and saw the turn marker less than 25 meters in front of me. I actually said, “Oooo look it’s the buoy!!!” People looked at me weird. Whatever.
I went with a side stroke to get to and around the buoy. On the 200 meter straight away I focused on smoothing my stroke forward and actually managed to get some sort of freestyle stroke going, but the ocean was so rocking and rolling that it was tough to get a breathing rhythm. The current was with me, and I rounded the second turn in no time. More side stroke towards the shore, watching the waves come in behind me and getting nervous. A lifeguard must have seen it on my face and asked if I needed assistance. I said no, but that I was a little nervous heading into shore with the waves. He told me not to try to catch a wave but to duck under and let it go past me. I grew up boogieboarding a lot so I knew how to catch waves but also knew this white water was too rough to handle. So I watched behind me and caught two waves, dropping off before it broke, allowing it to drag me in but staying out of the surf. After the second ride I put pedal to the metal to get as far forward as I could before the next wave, then ducked under the break and let it go over me. It was super strong, I could feel it pick me up and roll, but I popped up and kept moving. Finally I was flirting with getting my feet on the ground, but the current was so strong it was sweeping me down the beach rather than in towards it. So I kept pulling all the water I could grab, trying to get forward. Finally my feet solidly touched ground, and I jumped up to let one wave catch me in the back and push me forward onto the beach. Quick check of the watch- it only took me 22ish minutes to get through the first lap! I had hope that I could actually complete this thing.
I walked the 150 down the beach- I wanted to conserve my energy, and I was hoping for a break in the swell. I waved to my mom and flashed a big smile- she had recruited the people next to her on the pier to cheer, and their shouts picked me up for another round. Again I started to attack- under the first wave, move move move. Under the second, move move move. Went under the third, and suddenly I wasn’t popping back up. I reminded myself to relax, that I would surface eventually, but I knew I was taking a ride and somewhat in trouble. I put my hands up above my head to reach for the surface and came up through some really thick whitewater. I was on my feet and realized I had been dragged a good 50 yards down the beach and was once again in waste high water. I had lost all the ground I had made. I heard someone spluttering and coughing and realized there was an older guy 5 feet from me who was struggling to get his head above water, so I lunged over and grabbed him under the arm to put him on his feet. We both started to struggle towards the pier since it was the most direct line to the buoy. It was like swimming on a treadmill, putting out so much effort and going nowhere. Once again I started forward, but now I was getting really tired. Instead of diving under the waves I started just ducking under, and I was losing ground. Past the first set, past the second. Then it was like the waves of doom were coming towards me. Swell that was so high and crashing down right on top of me, I was just fighting to keep my head above water. The lifeguard was telling me to get near the pier- that the current would suck me out and I’d be past it in no time. I caught a little bit of it, but then had another wave crash on me and I just got stuck. Couldn’t get forward, couldn’t get back out of the swell, couldn’t see the buoy. I turned around to put my hand up and yelled to the lifeguard, “I need help!”
This guy was AMAZING. He swam over, had me hold his life preserver in one hand and his hand in my other, and we ducked under another wave. He kept saying, “Okay, this one’s big but it’s not going to get us, you’re going to go under when I tell you.” Four waves later I said, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to go in, I’m done.” He started to tow me in, with me kicking to help him out, but I was just exhausted and disoriented. Then the lifeguard on the jetski drove up and my lifeguard friend threw me up onto the sled. He wanted to stay with me but apparently at this point the swim was devolving into chaos, and the driver told him to go grab another person and told me to get up on the ski behind him so he could keep the sled free if they needed it.
Seriously- the things that go through my head during a race. I literally thought, “this is my first jetski ride… I’ve always wanted to go on a jetski! Wait a sec, I’m being pulled out of the race on a jetski. In my wetsuit. I’ve made forward progress with the help of lifeguards. Kind of. I’m out of the race. Oh man, I am THAT swimmer. Damn it!” We shot forward over a huge wave (wheee!), pulled a u-turn, and he took me back to shore.
As we were heading in I could see the ambulance on the sand, with lifeguards gathered around a swimmer, giving him CPR. He was not moving. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Finally the gravity of the situation hit me- this was no joke. This was life and death. For a sport. I walked back to the start again and stood there, watching these huge swells crashing over and over, and contemplated all the work I had done to get here. I was so thrilled to have completed one lap and I wanted so badly to get on my bike, but I did not want to get back in those waves. I was exhausted.
On the beach next to me was the guy I hauled out of the water earlier. I asked him if he was going back in- he said no, he was done. Another woman walked up next to me and was also debating her swim- she had finished one loop but had been standing there watching the waves and didn’t think she could do it. At this point a man came over to us- he had just finished his second loop and came over to give us a pep talk. Sort of. He said, “You just have to go for it. If you think you can do it, go for it. But if you’re hesitating at all, don’t go in. You can’t replace you. Your life is more important than this.” And he pointed to the guy they were loading on the ambulance.
Yep, we were done.
The timing official asked us if we were out, and I said yes. The woman I was with hesitated and said, “We didn’t finish the swim, but can we still ride our bikes and run?” Technically, this is a no-no in Ironman. If you don’t make the swim cut off, you’re out. The official hesitated and then asked if we had completed a lap already. We both nodded vigorously, and he shrugged. “You’re already chipped out of the swim, you’ve checked in with me and DQ’d. If you want to get on your bikes… I’m not going to say anything.” We both smiled, shrugged and said okay! Together we jogged up the beach and started peeling off our wetsuits. I had to make a major mental shift from “this is over” to “let’s ride!” Truthfully, I felt weird about it. I didn’t HAVE to do it- technically my race was over. But I had come this far and been given the gift of bonus time. My day didn’t have to be over yet.