How My Martial Arts Training Helped Me Through My First Tri

author : AndriaLL
comments : 1

It was literally seconds after I started swimming that I felt the tightness in my chest. I couldn’t get a deep breath in due to the tightness of my wetsuit. I was being strangled by my wetsuit...

Something I recited almost daily in my Tae Kwon Do classes came to mind a lot these past several months:

“As a dedicated student of the martial arts, I live my life by the principles of the black belt creed: modesty, courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self control and indomitable spirit”

(No, I didn’t punch anyone.)

The words “perseverance,” “self control,” and “indomitable spirit” hit me several times the two weeks prior to my first triathlon, The Boulder 5430 Sprint, which was held on June 15th, 2008.

It was Sunday, June 1st, and my tri group, CWW, was having their first open water swim in Boulder. I was ready. I had taken my adult beginning swim class a few months earlier. Due to cortisone injections in my right foot, I had ruptured a tendon and decided to get a bunion taken care of at the same time. The surgery had left the top of my foot very rigid and my ankle tight, and it hurt to try to flutter kick. As a result, I could only breaststroke. That was okay, though, because I could swim long distances at a decent speed with my breaststroke.

I put my Body Glide and wetsuit on…correctly, too, since I had just watched the DeSoto video showing me how to do it properly. It still took forever and I was sweating like a greased pig by the time we got in the water. It was literally seconds after I started swimming that I felt the tightness in my chest. I couldn’t get a deep breath in due to the tightness of my wetsuit and the tightness in my chest. I was being strangled by my wetsuit, I was hyperventilating, and then I started wheezing. I had quit smoking 99 days prior, and was on 85 mg/day of Prednisone for an autoimmune disorder, so I had not expected this to happen. I had no inhaler with me and I could not get over the asthma attack, even while treading water or floating. I signaled for a rescue and was brought to shore by boat.

There were exactly two weeks between this event and the race, and I briefly thought to just skip the race. Briefly. Thankfully that martial artist in me, the one who endured three-day black belt tests without any sleep, surfaced and would not allow my indomitable spirit to be conquered! Seriously, I thought of my fellow black belts and how I would be rather ashamed to admit skipping a race for such a silly reason. I searched the internet for answers on why this happened and how to overcome it. What I realized was that I had to swim in the open water… a lot. Practice in a pool, for me, was just not equivalent.

For the next two weeks I left work early every Tuesday and Thursday to swim in the Boulder Reservoir with my group and participate in the Stroke and Stride races. Despite serious attempts to persevere through my open water swims, I did end up having to be rescued two more times. Finally, the Sunday before the race, I swam an entire 800 meters in the open water. The deep open water, too—not inside the ropes where we had to swim on Tuesdays. It was an ugly swim…on my back a lot with my inhaler in my mouth…but I did it! I still had one worry about the race itself, however: the fact that there would be people around me. At the Stroke and Strides I would lose my control over my breathing as soon as someone so much as touched me or kicked water into my face.

On Saturday, June 14th, I went to bed around 8:00 p.m. I don’t think I ever actually fell asleep, I was so nervous. The week prior, I had dreamed of doing the race naked, getting pulled under the water by seaweed, and riding my bike in my wetsuit. The alarm went off around 4:00 a.m. and I got up to use my nebulizer, something which I found worked better than my inhaler at delivering asthma meds. Although I had packed everything the night before, I verified it was still there a dozen times before I actually left my house. I was amazed at the amount of traffic as I made my way to the Boulder Reservoir just before 6:00 on that Sunday morning…and then the number of people!


I had gone through the race hundreds of times in my head before I made it to the long line of people. I waited in line for what seemed like forever to pick up my timing chip and get body marked before finding my transition area. I found a spot near some of my CWW teammates and got set up. I headed over to the BT tent to say hi and then to the water where I knew I needed to warm up. I swam, I watched the other waves start, I double and triple checked that my inhaler was accessible. I did this for 45 minutes.

Finally, it was my wave heading over to the start area. I headed towards the back left corner, as the buoy marking the turn was on the right and I wanted to be off the beaten path. When it was time to go I purposely made myself mosey on out to where it was deep enough to start swimming. My natural instinct, had I not known about my open water anxiety, would have been to run and swim as fast as I could. My goal now was to go slow, easy, and relax…I was determined to finish this race, not have to ride a boat to shore again.

My swim was going well. I went slow and easy, and I felt like side stroking was helping me move a little faster so I tried that for awhile. I could hear the next wave splashing its way towards me and when I got back into the breast stroke, I could see that I had gotten into the “fast lane”…the buoy was straight ahead. I tried to speed up and get back off to the side but felt my chest tighten up immediately. The wheeze followed shortly thereafter. I got someone’s arm on the back of my head, but it wasn’t too bad, and then I was in a more quiet area of the swim. I turned onto my back and used my inhaler. I floated for a bit and exhaled. Then I used it again for the second puff. A boat came up to me and a lady on it asked me if I was okay. (This has happened to me in every tri so far!) I said, “Of course I’m okay, how are you?” and smiled. It’s my way of convincing myself that I am fine and it seems to work.


Anyway, I got back onto my front side and did some decent breast stroking to the second buoy. Then I was starting to panic again as another wave, maybe even two, had come up behind me. I was back on my back and using the inhaler. I started to backstroke this time and soon I could hear the crowds cheering. I don’t hear well, so this was getting close! I turned over and I must have been only 50 meters from the end! I remember the feeling of my foot finally feeling the sand under the water and the sense of accomplishment knowing I was going to finish this race!

T1 was good for me. My suit got a little stuck on the timing chip, though. The bike was good considering I was still wheezing pretty hard from the swim when I started. T2 had no issues, and the run was the typical semi-painful, slow thing I usually do. My six-year old was waiting at the finish and ran out to help me get across the finish line. T3 was the killer, though, as when I arrived at the race I had a lot of things on my mind and totally forgot to pay attention to where I was parking my car! It took me 20 minutes to find it!

My times were as follows:

Swim (800 meters) 21:39

T1 2:11

Bike (17 miles) 59:45 (17.3 mph)

T2 2:02

Run (3.1 miles) 35:08 (11:20/mile)

Overall 2:00:43, and happy.

What I would do differently would be to work on my open water swim for a longer period of time before the race. I have hired a swim coach and am currently learning a front crawl. I plan to have huge improvements on my swim next year. I believe coming out of the water being able to breathe and having fresh legs will help me on the bike and run as well. I’m anxious to find out!

What I did right was to persevere, not give up, and make plans to get over a few large hurdles throughout my training.

Thank you CWW and BT!


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date: October 20, 2008