Book excerpt 3 – Bubble Boy

“… It was December 13, 2020. The official start of my Triathlon Journey. I chose a 70.3 triathlon plan from 8020Endurance and loaded it onto the Training Peaks platform. My official training sessions were about to start. Day one was a Monday. Planned workout for the day? Nothing. Those plans always start with a Monday rest day. “I can do that no problem!” I thought. Easy peasy.

Early Tuesday morning, though, I found myself heading to the Gatineau Québec’s Sports Centre indoor pool. When all other swimmers and triathletes took a left exiting the change room and showers into the main pool with its swimming lanes, I would instead take a right. Why? Because that’s where the children’s pool was. 

In I went, standing in the barely waist-high water of a wading pool. With both palms of my hands on the edge, I slowly lowered my face through the surface of the water to, as the YouTube video instructed, “Slowly and evenly blow bubbles out of my nose for three to five seconds.” I then lifted my head out of the water, took a breath in by my mouth and repeated. Like one of those desktop toy birds bobbing their head into a small cup of water repeatedly. That’s it. Those were my swimming sessions. So there I was, post-major shoulder surgery, learning to breathe! And here, at age 57, I thought I already knew how. Apparently not. So there I was in the kiddie pool. Yes, blowing bubbles.

Days later, I  eventually moved to the awkward horizontal position in the water. From there, the tricky part: After lowering my head and blowing bubbles, of course, I would now not so much lift, but rather, turn my head, breathing from the side now. To this highly technical skill, I had to add slowly kicking my legs, so they didn’t sink all the way back down. And by all the way, I mean the entire 24 inches, which was about the depth of the water in the children’s pool. This was already getting complicated.

Turning or rather rotating my head, as if a skewer was driven through my spine, as the videos so delicately put it, therefore keeping me straight, and not lifting my head was technique no.2 (after not breathing in water from my nose or mouth presumably while my head was facing down), in what became a list of hundreds of things to think about when you learn to swim.

So, while channelling my very best imitation of a shish-kabob, I tried to forget those other things. This was not easy, as some were rather important, such as keeping my mouth closed, before turning my skewer, I mean body. There was so much to think about. “But don’t think of all of them at the same time,” the videos would warn. Ok, thanks, and that’s helpful how?

Puzzled onlookers would try not to stare from the adult pool area during these somewhat less-than-Herculean triathlon training sessions that I was embarrassingly demonstrating to everyone. Even the young kids would point, asking mom or dad what that strange man was doing. “He looks like a weiner on a BBQ!” “Don’t stare, sweetie, that’s not polite.”

Back in the change room, probably out of sheer embarrassment, none of the swimmers or triathletes would speak to me, of course. Correction, one did, briefly. I remember the look on his face. It was a combination of encouragement, I suppose, puzzlement obviously, but mostly, to be honest, it was pity. To my sheepish hellos, he managed only a quick “Hang in there, buddy” and then sped away. Promptly following right behind him, I remember clearly, was what was left of my male ego, that figured it’d sooner follow a real man than stick around with Bubble Boy.

Several weeks later (on and off due to Covid-19 pandemic closures, further holding back any real progress, might I add), I would eventually graduate as Expert Nose Blower and join, with great trepidation, the adults in the real pool. With actual lanes. To y’know, like … swim. That was, after all, the point of all this getting up at the ungodly hour of 5:00 AM, in the freezing Canadian winter, to shovel off my car in the pitch dark and haul my butt to do something at which I was totally incompetent — and that truthfully at the time, I hated. I remember clearly the dread when it hit me, turning off the television after watching a late-ending football game, “Oh great, I get to go swimming tomorrow morning! Ugh…”

Shoulder in pain and with restricted movement still, I will never forget the self-doubt as I got out of the water that first time in an actual pool lane. This, after not even 10 minutes of trying to swim. Nauseous. Dizzy. And this was just getting out of the pool! So, it would be a lie not to admit there were several of these three and sometimes four-a-week sessions, where my attempts at swimming caused me to wonder if I could ever really become a triathlete.

How would I ever be able to swim two or four entire kilometres in full or half Ironman races? And without stopping? Well, that would be an even crazier idea. No wonder people who are not confident swimmers avoid getting into triathlon. No wonder it challenges others to face their fears and grow rather than make excuses. As an athlete. As a person.

You need to know that, to me; these pool sessions were not good. Or fun. Or easy to force myself to do. The emotions I felt either just thinking about them, while I got up those early mornings requiring me to muster up all the courage I had not to skip them, and even in the change room about to enter the pool, were as follows: hesitancy, fear, embarrassment, pain, and doubt. Get the message? This was not anything close to fun in any way, shape or form. But even at my age, people have pushed themselves to do way more heroic things than that. So I stuck with it.

In fact, early in my triathlon journey, I read a story online about the U.S. Navy Seals and their superhuman training program. It spoke of a big brass bell in the middle of a courtyard with a cord hanging from it. The Navy Seals’ military training regimen is probably one of the most demanding in the world. Akin to torture some might say. But they have a simple rule. You can quit anytime, no questions asked. Seriously. All you need to do when you’ve had enough and you feel you just can’t take anymore is go over to the middle of the courtyard and ring the bell. You are then dismissed. You can go home. That’s it. So every time I wanted to skip a workout, I imagined a brass bell hanging from the beam in my kitchen. I never rang it…

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