Facing your Fears - Louella O'Herlihy

Those that know me laugh at my benchmark for what I discern to be ‘cold water’… pretty much anything under 20C! Trust me, in the height of summer last year in the UK I got cold swimming in the sea WITH a wetsuit after about 30 minutes.

Fast forward to 4 weeks ago, end of April 2021. Foreign races were being cancelled so I’d planned some UK races hoping that the amazing weather we had last year would be here again. Ooops! I’d entered a local Middle Distance triathlon, Challenging Events Huntsman (1900m lake swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run) in the beautiful New Forest, 23rd May. As it got closer to the end of April I still hadn’t even put a toe in the sea, let alone swam! So on 25th April on my way back from competing in a duathlon, I thought it would be “great recovery” to wade in the sea up to my knees. The sun was shining, there were kids swimming in just trunks…I mean this would surely be a breeze. I’m not going to lie, it got ugly!! It was freezing AF and I think I managed about 2 minutes of shrieking whilst running in and out in bare feet with the water barely reaching my ankles.

This needed a more strategic approach, clearly! So I thought I’d approach it like I do my training:

  1. Have a vision
  2. Practice visualisation
  3. Keep myself accountable
  4. Do the work
  5. Be a badass

HAVE A VISION

This needed to be positive. I had 4 weeks before my race. LOTS could change in this time, especially the weather..hopefully! Not being able to control this, I focused on what I could. In order to put out a good race at the Huntsman, I needed to finish the swim! I know from previous racing that cold water (ITU Pontevedra was 14.2C water temperature with 8C ambient temperature for 1500m) gives me cramps by 750m, makes me swim slow(er), makes me miserable and hurts like hell on my feet, hands, head, shocks my system and chills me to the core. It was the closest I have ever come to a DNF and I was afraid of this again. My vision had to be clear, embracing those emotions so that I could go where I needed to get to.

PRACTICE VISUALISATION

I imagined race morning, the sun coming up over the lake, with mist still hovering over it. It looked cold but clear.  I was staring straight at it, taking in the direction I had to swim and counting off the buoys. I imagined myself pulling through the water, the cold on my cheek making me feel alive. The last buoy in sight and the water flowing off my wetsuit as I emerged, and started my run up to T1 ready to take on the biker course. I was there. So every day on waking I told myself how much I was looking forward to this swim and how lucky I was I had the sea to prepare myself for it on my doorstep. I thought of phrases I could use while on the swim to anchor me to the task rather than focus on the cold, and I repeated these to myself.

KEEP MYSELF ACCOUNTABLE

I wrote in my diary the days I would go down to the sea and start by just paddling. I kept the goal each day really small so that I could achieve it and feel I was making progress. By having this written down it made me do it. I also chose a select couple of people to share what I was up to with; people I knew would be supportive rather than mock me.

DO THE WORK

So I started with timing myself just walking up and down in the sea up to my ankles. I managed 10 minutes the first time, after I’d run in and out a few times. The next time I didn’t have to run out nearly as many times and upped it to 15 minutes. The next time it was 20. This was all still going never above the knees. I now felt it was time to really test myself. I was going to get the wetsuit (and as much neoprene as I could lay my hands on) on and see if I could just dip all the way in. I had just bought a neoprene balaclava style hat so was feeling confident! So I went down to Branksome beach (Poole) where all the hardy skins open water swimmers congregate at 6am and donned my swimsuit, bootie, neoprene vest, neoprene balaclava and wetsuit. I had the walk of shame when I needed a scantily clad swimmer to help do my zipper. I made my excuses and strode purposefully down to the water’s edge. The sand alone was cold. But I pushed these thoughts to the back of my mind, repeated my mantras and waded into the water up to my waist. I then lunged forwards to start swimming and had to immediately stand back up as I’d forgotten to put on my goggles! This done, I set off. I embraced to cold…it came, I acknowledged it, then kept thinking about my anchors and my race. Before I knew it I’d been swimming for 10 minutes. I carried on until I reached 500m then turned and made my way back. First time in; 1Km in about 27 minutes (I said I’m slow in the cold!). Job done. I emerged and practiced my run to Transition. And felt pretty chuffed with myself. I then drove home shivering and stood in the shower for about 10 minutes while trying to warm back up. But I didn’t care. I’d conquered it so far…now I needed to almost double the distance.

BE A ‘BADASS’ & HAVING SOMEONE IN YOUR CORNER IS A MUST

By giving myself a little phrase like this it made me feel like a reward for doing something I feared. I met up with a fellow tri club teammate who was also doing the race so we decided to do a recce of the lake. I was not prepared for it feeling COLDER than the sea. We did 1200m and I couldn’t continue for the second lap. It took me over an hour to stop shivering this time. This was a set back and shook my confidence. Time to enlist badass thinking… do it again 4 days later. This was the last test as now I was into race week. We got to the lake at 7am. I did the mental rehearsal again and this time we managed the full distance. Having someone there to do it with definitely made me push myself to go further. Now we had confidence for the race.

RACE DAY

7:40am swim start. I lined up ready to go. I looked at the lake and the direction of the buoys I would be swimming round. There was mist on the lake…but no sun. It was cold. The water temperature was 14.4C the air temperature was 9C, and I was ready! I got into the water and went for it. Sure it got cold, especially by about 1200m when it started to rain, but I knew I had this. I was smiling. I was focused. And when I got out of the water in 37 minutes I knew I had accomplished something better than in Pontevedra. My mindset was different, although the conditions were similar. I ran the 1km up into T1 with a huge smile on my face (while dodging all the gravel with my numb feet!)

It did take about 12 minutes to do my whole transition from swim to bike including the long run in and out of the bike racking area. My hands were cold so getting the wetsuit off was tricky, but soon I was wrapped up and on my bike and heading out into the cold and wet. I didn’t care. This was where I would now put in the hard graft and work hard to keep warm and fight the rain and wind on some of the more exposed parts of the New Forest. At times I distracted myself from the cold when I saw the cutest little baby donkey or slowing to go round some cows crossing the road. This all make racing in the New Forest magical. I finished the bike in 2 hours 58 minutes (5th fastest women’s bike time of the day) and took myself out onto the run.

Here I had other issues to deal with. My running has had a set back since Christmas due to increasing problems with bunions and other tendinopathies in my feet and ankles. I set out at 7 mile 50 pace for the first 2 miles and it was 3 miles in before I could feel my feet they were so cold. I stopped twice and took my trainers off as it felt like I had a stone caught in them, but it was just because they were numb. By mile 2 I could already feel my left foot and ankle begin to complain, so I eased back on the pace, running as hard as I could without causing damage. I have never looked forward to the end of a race as much as I did with this one. I was cold, hurting and hungry!! The cold had definitely made me more hungry than I normally would be for this distance. I picked up the pace in the last 1km to have the obligatory “strong finish” and smiled as I crossed the line, thankful that it was over…but also proud that overcome a huge hurdle and fear of cold water swimming. Now I will have more confidence should similar circumstances present themselves again.

I finished the race 9th female overall, 1st F50-54, in 5 hours and 31 minutes.


About the Author
LOUELLA O'HERLIHY
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