Inbetween my first sprint triathlon and my first olympic triathlon, I had to come to terms with swimming longer distances and, importantly, purchasing and getting used to my first wetsuit. Stepping up to the longer distance presented a considerable increase in the individual and overall lenght of the race, having previously completed 500m swim, 20km cycle and a 5km run, I would now be facing a rather more serious 1.5km swim befoehopping on the bike for 40km and then a 10km run to round it off. The swimming was the part which caused me the most concern having only really started to learn to swim crawl at the beginning of the year the thought of swimming a mile, in a river, did not fill me with happy fealings. At least the event organisers allowed the participants to wear wetsuits for the swim, which, I was told, would help considerably. I could not corroberate this alleged advantage, having never had the chance to swim in a wetsuit. I ordered a reasonably priced HUUB Archon wetsuit from Wiggle and took it with me on a short break my girlfriend and I made to Asturias region in northen Spain. The plan was to break in the wetsuit by swimming in the Atlantic; beach holidays are not my forte (given my obvious pigmentation disadvantage) so using beach time to test my open water swimming skills fitted rather well.
Getting into a wetsuit is alot harder than I remember from the few times I wore them as a kid, but I did not imagine that there would be instructions. Being a man and an engineer I tend to try first and read/ watch later. So, after the first time I tried putting it on and managed to make some small rips in surface having not realised (i.e. not read the instructions) that these swimming oriented wetsuits are super sensitive to sharp objects and finger nails (tips gleaned from swallowing my pride and looking at the instructions). Luckily, although I made some small rips, they are easily repairable with the same adhesive you use for patching inner tubes! So,with my wetsuit back to top condition I squeezed into it for a couple of trial swims in the oh so cold atlantic off the north Spain coast.
Three things really struck me during this first foray into the open water, firstly how much the neoprene really helps to give a huge buoyancy boost, especially around the legs, where I really need it the most. Being mainly a runner, my legs are on the lean side which means they sink pretty fast during any type of swimming. Since the more horizontal your body can be during front crawl the less resistance and faster you will be , the added lift from the wetsuit is a major plus, it was a lot like swimming with a pull buoy between my legs, in the sense that I could pull myself along just with my arms quite comfortably.
Secondly, open water can be cold, especially the atlantic, even in summer. My head in particular was frozen, so much so that it felt like the classic ice cream brain freeze time a hundred. I have no idea how people can manage to swim for any length of time without some special on your noggin. Hats off to the likes of Sean Conway swimming round the UK day after day. A neoprene swim cap would certainly be necessary for me if the water temperature is much below 20C, maybe I am just getting soft in my old age and need some comfort.
Thirdly, swimming in open water presents an obvious navigational challenge. This is not really related to swimming in a wetsuit per se, but since wetsuits are mostly worn in open water I want to mention it here. I had not properly appreciated how much we rely on the intrinsic restrictions of swimming pools to keep us swimming in a straight line. I had obviously correcting my swimming direction by following the markations on the pool floor (with the occasional bumping into the lane divider) . Take me out in the open water and suddenly I am staring a a murky blue green mist below me and no idea of my orientation. As it turns out I tend to swim to the right, which is handy for when I eventually take a look where I am going and see that I need to adjust my course left. Sooner or later I need to master the art of looking forward while breathing. I have spent aconsiderable amount of time optmising my breathing to the side to glide more efficiently, it is going to be a challenge to weave in navigational looks ahead into my swimming style.
All in all, my first foray into open water swimming with a wetsuit has been a steep learning curve but certainly worth doing well in advance of any competition, which in this case is Tubingen Triathlon and then the highlight of 2016, Gloria Ironman 70.3.