run bike swim

taming walden pond: traversing fear one breath at a time

June 10, 2014

I’m not completely comfortable unless I am just a tad uncomfortable. Maybe it’s symptomatic of my nurturing, maybe it’s a facet of my intrinsic nature or perhaps a little of both. Regardless, my uneasy disposition is incontrovertible; I am in constant need of a formidable challenge that’s more than likely just a wee bit optimistic given my circumstances.

I really don’t mean to suggest I am the type of person that “challenges thyself” due to some sort of zen-like self-embetterment self-aware conscious effort. I really don’t feel that way about it. It’s very strange, but it’s more like either a deep-seated need for potential failure or a constant need to feel slightly unsettled. Just a little unsafe. An arms reach from safety. The great unknown. For example, bobbing up and down in the middle of a deep pond far enough from shore wherein drowning is a statistically higher-than-average probability.

I’m not extreme. I’m not an extreme athlete. Extreme athletes are fearless and don’t question their motives. My propensity for discomfort is not a matter of “experiencing a rush”. I am not a thrill seeker. I am a dread seeker. Apparently, for some reason, I seek out the stomach churning feeling of dread, e.g. public speaking, giving toasts, performing in general.

One of my favorite Steven Wright jokes:

“You know that feeling when you lean back in a chair too far and almost fall backwards, but then catch yourself at the last moment? I feel that way all of the time.”

Which leads me to, last summer I decided to start training for a Triathlon. Or as they say in my home state of Wisconsin, a Tri-ath-a-lon.

Specifically, I signed up for the Boston Tri, a “sprint” triathlon: a 1/2 mile swim, an 11 mile ride followed by a 4 mile run. I know, I know… it sounds like a walk in the park. BUT A HALF MILE SWIM.

Last August I started swimming fairly religiously. I even acquired a swim coach. And then I acquired a better swim coach. Despite being plagued by a multitude of running injuries I was able to keep up a weekly regimen of at least three to four days of swimming per week.

I need to tell you this… I am not a horrible swimmer. But I am not a great swimmer. I am a sinker. I am dense. It is not easy for me to swim. There is no elegance. I am not relaxed like my dog Cosmo whom, not unlike a polar bear, glides effortlessly through the water. Instead, every reach, pull, breath is a steadied cadence of wide-eyed panic much like my other dog, Sophie. She, too, is a dense sinker.


I actually started feeling pretty good about my swimming this past Spring. Up to this point all of my swimming had been confined to the saline pool at my fancy gym*. After watching dozens of tri-related videos on YouTube and posting queries on Runner’s World’s forums–the most frequently recommended tip was this: practice as many open water swims as possible. (*I rent, I don’t own a car and I don’t have children to feed.)

This is great advice.

First, here in Boston, up until the end of May, it is still pretty cool. Most ponds and lakes have newly thawed from a long New England winter’s slumber so as you can imagine a wet suit is mandatory.

It took me three attempts via online ordering; but I finally got a wet suit that fits me perfectly. I won’t go into details regarding the trials and tribulations of my purchase but I ended up with an 2XU R:2. It’s very nice and makes me look more amazing than I really am.

Getting used to swimming in a wet suit is a good idea; not to mention physically getting in and out of it.

Second, swimming pools are controlled comfortable environments with a clear bottom that you can touch at any time.

Third, subtract a controlled comfortable environment with a clear bottom that you can touch at any time with nothing but yourself and the cold, deep open water…

I belong to an amazing running group in my neighborhood–which I have oddly yet to write about in any great detail considering the enormous impact it has had on my life. I posted a message on our group Facebook page about open water swimming, and triathlons in general, and as it turned out there was a huge response. Many of my fellow runners also happened to be training for sprints, half and full ironman triathlons.


We arranged to swim at Walden Pond, yes, that Walden Pond. Can I just say, how kind of fantastic it is to just… I don’t know, go swimming, literally, in such an epic… literary body of… water. Something, something… I know their is a high-brow metaphor here somewhere.

I digress.

When we arrived the parking lot was buzzing with über athletes dressing and undressing into and out of their wet suits/tri suits/cycling jerseys and/or clicking into and out of their carbon fiber Cervelos. This must be the place.  


We headed to the shore area of the pond and started suiting up. Normally, this fish-out-of-water scenario would bring out David the Self-Deprecator, but I proudly owned up to my new wetsuit.

We walked into the water GOOD GOD THAT’S COLD.

Here’s something about wetsuits I didn’t know. It is a wet suit. Water enters at the back seam, in this case freezing water, and it slowly paper cuts the small of your back activating all kinds of “Danger! Danger!” signals from the central nervous system.

The five of us waded out far out enough into the pond that we were treading water and then a super-endorphin-charged… “Let’s do this!”

I am in the back of the pack, and I watch the group head out. This is it. I plunge into the dark, bottomless and urgent waters of Walden Pond. My face instantly shatters upon impact. I can’t breathe. The pond is sucking the air out of my lungs at a faster rate than I can replace the oxygen. My heart is pounding and it dawns on me that I have no fucking clue what I am doing other than I must get back to shore.


The feeling of defeat at this moment, standing on the sandy shore of Walden Pond amongst the elites of Boston athleticism, was truly awful. “I suck. I can’t believe I can’t do this. I failed.”

When my group returned from their mile-plus swim I was there to greet them. “How did your swim go?,” they asked me.

“Well… this is my first open water swim and I had a major panic attack. Sooooo… It did not go well.”

Our run group leader, Owen, had this to say, “it happens to everyone, perfectly normal.”

A few people left to bike back to Boston and Owen, training for a full ironman, was ready for another mile. Another member of our running group, Gretchen, asked if I wanted to give the pond another shot.

Instead of building Rome in a day Gretchen decided I needed to get comfortable in the water. And so, we treaded water. And chatted. I learned to appreciate the buoyancy of the wet suit, and to float on my back and soak in the rays. I found a comfort stroke. A safe stroke. We ventured out far enough from shore that I could feel my heart uptick with each passing yard but still able to maintain a modicum of calm.

FHR tri copy

The following week Gretchen and I headed out again. Our first leg of swimming included a crawl across a corner of the pond. Midway out I started feeling the vacuum–my tight shallow empty lungs gasping… the realization that I was in the middle of a deep lake… the jack-hammer in my chest, pounding.

“You are ok…,” Gretchen said.

I closed my eyes and rolled onto my back. Deep, long slow yoga breaths. I let myself feel the sun on my face. I escaped the panic. I drowned the lake monster. It was over… and just like that, it was over. We crawled about 3/4 of a mile traversing various corners of the pond.

Despite this success I knew that on our next swim I would be crossing the pond; and I knew that once again I would have to beat the lake monster into submission to be able to do it.

A week later Gretchen encouraged, “You got this! Look at how far you’ve swam already!”

And I did.

I was able to get my face down, relax and swim across the pond. This all probably sounds pedestrian while gazing out along the shore. But face down in the frigid water staring at the lake monster through a pair of goggles, this is, was and always will be a huge feat for me.

None of this would’ve been possible without the support of my running group, Forest Hills Runners, but specifically my teammate Gretchen who gave me a constant stream of positive feedback (from my high-elbows to my sighting abilities), and was somehow able to navigate me through my own crazy head.

The bizarre thing is, I think about those high-intesnity moments of panic in the water–and how those feelings can manifest in other ways in one’s life. I can’t help but think there are lessons to be learned from rolling onto one’s back… and breathing. And chatting. And enjoying the sun.

We can never have enough of nature. Ah, there it is… finally, a Walden reference.

You Might Also Like

1 Comment

  • Reply so you think you might be tri-curious? me too. | david the tornado August 3, 2014 at 3:47 am

    […] if you’ve never competed in a triathlon you must, must get open water swimming experience. [Read about my first open water swim here]. OWS is an entirely different beast than the confines of a pool. It’s taken me many outings […]

  • Leave a Reply