Ch. 9 – Widths to lengths (The making of a Triathlete??)

For my ninth chapter in my blog “Fatman to Ironman” I will describe how my swimming lessons would progress from widths to lengths and eventually see me poolside with a triathlon club!

As I write this chapter in my blog I am at home recovering from a STAR Triathlon Club Training session in the pool at Durrington. It is my winter training and we are approaching Christmas 2018.

I had a cracking session and worked really hard. When I got out of the changing rooms that night, I was overwhelmed with a need to reflect. The coaches were full of praise and encouragement. I was doing well and had just set a new 400m TT PB!

Just getting to a state of mind that I could swim with a triathlon club was tough enough. My journey to this night had been epic. Being part of a club reminded me that night, how everyone has a struggle of their own. When you are part of a club you all struggle together. Ultimately you also achieve together.

I owe my swim progress to STAR and the all inclusive welcome arms approach they gave me. But in particular to my Swim training buddies, Sue Allison and Angela Bailey -The DivStars as we call ourselves. You are why I’m still here.

Before I was able to get to this night I had a challenge of my own.


I found it very difficult in my first few adult swimming lessons to be confident enough to put my head under the water. I would take the largest breath I could. Using the skills I had learnt with the catch and pull of front crawl, I would get my self to the other side of the pool – A width.

I would not open my mouth at all! When I got to the other side I would be exhausted, mostly through fear. I would soon learn that I was also exhausted because I had not been exhaling.

It was a natural reaction to retain the air in my lungs, the very air that was keeping me alive. I found it difficult to trust that breathing it all out would not result in me drowning.

Each time I got to the other side of the pool was like conquering a demon, a victory – Survival! I would have to reface those demons head on and get back across that pool. I would get my legs coiled against the wall and ready to kick off, my hands behind my back holding on to the wall for dear life – Frozen and near hyperventilation I would psyche myself up and wait till my breathing was steady.

I wasn’t getting many widths in, in those early 30min sessions.

My swim coach, Sue Hartwell was now working together with Sarah Jenkins. I was using all of the councils resources and the life guard, as ever was poised. I would later form a friendship with that lifeguard and found he lives in the same village as me.

My coaches had been persevering with me for some weeks. We were now heading well into the winter of 2017. I had been learning how to breath!

Bizarre as it may sound, mastering the breathing was the hardest thing I had to learn in order to be able to swim. I had thought it was all about arms and legs, but on reflection – If you can’t breath you are not going to get very far.

I understood the technique of rolling the body and head to the side, on every third stroke. we would practise it poolside. Bubble, bubble breath! I just lacked the confidence each time I kicked off to exhale.

Sue would teach me to breath bi-laterally from the outset. Being a non-swimmer gave her a blank canvas on which to work. As a coach, she wouldn’t have any bad habits to unpick, I was very much a beginner. Eventually it all started to come together and I was beginning to believe.

Once I had mastered bi-lateral breathing my swimming would come on leaps and bounds. I now had the confidence to believe in Sue when she told me breathing out with my head under the water was ok.

Pretty soon I found that the four lane pool wasn’t wide enough for me any more.

My swim coaches, Sue Hartwell and Sarah Jenkins are responsible for making 2018 a year of possibilities. Neither of us would know where this journey was heading. At this stage, we were simply trying to get me off that wall!

Swimming a length

I remember the first time I conquered the length of the pool very well. It was October 2017!

I had been spending the last few “width” lessons in the middle depth of the pool, and had been gradually pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I didn’t really want to do this, but as I progressed with my own swimming I felt it right to let the newbie beginners have the shallow end now. This turned out to be the making of me.

I had recently spent some time in the “Dark end” of the pool, practicing treading water, I would be close to the wall and able to grab on if needs be. Knowing I had strength and endurance to tread water, would give me the confidence to give my first length a go. I would now be fully at the mercy of all the coaches, lifeguards and any passers by. I was going to do this!

The build up to this night would be ideal. Sue had told me we were going to be doing it a couple of weeks back, but the pool had been too busy with people practicing widths. This delay gave me time to practice and hone my breathing, my technique, but above all… Gain confidence.

Just like the first night of swimming, I still found the whole experience traumatic. Getting out of the car and into the pool, was still a battle of wits. It was irrational really, I was in good hands and actually becoming quite capable. I just didn’t believe it.

This would be my swim coaches biggest challenge, and probably still remains so, to this day. I would be told many times just how well I was doing, how good my technique looked, and all in such a short space of time. I would laugh it off at the end of sessions by remarking that I had simply survived. I would go home after these sessions elated. Every time I would have to go through all the battles just to get out of the car and into the pool. By the time I got into the pool and started swimming I was already exhausted through nerves alone.

However, this night would change things… I would swim a length! my first ever 25 meters.

My first ever 25 meters.

I was fortunate that the pool was almost empty, just me and three other people for the entire session. Only one person in the shallows. Tonight I would be in the safe hands of both of my Coaches Sue and Sarah.

There I was, poised, in the shallow end with my arms frmly behind my back, legs coiled and breathing calm. I kicked off and glided beyond the T of the line at the bottom of the pool. I got into a rhythm 1,2, breath. Bubble, bubble breath. I was focussed on that line, determined to get to the end of the pool.

As I passed the lifeguard the water became cooler and darker. This was a bizarre experience. I had never felt this change in temperature before. Somehow the bottom of the pool now seemed so far away. The water was becoming darker and deeper. I began to swim harder and faster. I needed to get the wall, my breathing was now becoming erratic. I was panicking!

I could see the T in the line at the bottom of the pool but it seemed an age away. The “Dark end” was winning. I was beaten and had to grab hold of the side wall! the finish line was less than 5 meters away.

Looking back, I should have simply changed stroke and gone into breast stroke for a while. Allowing myself time to relax and catch my breath. A tactic I would use later when swimming around various lakes and quarries in training for my first open water triathlon.

I was now in the deep end and clinging on to the wall, as ever my coaches reassured me and eventually I let go and got to the end of the pool.

This was an all-together different experience. I was now in the “Dark end” and getting myself in the position to kick off the wall, I was going to have another go!

My legs were coiled and ready to spring me off the wall and past the T. I was off! Even more determined than before. The enthusiasm of Sue and Sarah willing me on was awesome, I can still hear and feel it now. I could hear their cheers under the water! I would quickly be up alongside the lifeguard position and now the water was becoming warmer. The “Dark end was behind me, the pool was becoming lighter. I could see the T. Come on, you’ve got this. I got to the T and was exhausted, I grabbed hold of the side wall and walked back. Two attempts and I still hadn’t got there.

It took me six attempts that night, but on the final attempt I would smash it! I would get out of the pool exhausted and elated, my swim coaches were so proud of me. I would hardly be able to sleep that night.

My next few swimming lessons would see good progression, I was less inclined to panic and able to get to the T regularly. Somehow, psychologically I couldn’t get past it. I would still experience the water changing temperature and getting darker, or lighter. This wasn’t a problem any more. Bizarrely the T was where I would stop. I would breast stroke to the end when I got here.

I don’t know how this habit formed and I didn’t know how to change it. Every time I got to the T I would stop. It was ridiculous and frustrating at the same time. My coaches tried everything they could. It was all in my head.

I remember discussing this problem with my colleague, Nigel Brown at work, early November 2017. I started the conversation looking for some sympathy. I didn’t want another disappointing swim. Nigel is pretty good at reminding me what a fanny I can be at times. That night I would have to “Man up”

My wife Sue held a similar view when I got home from work and started gathering my kit to go swimming. I think everyone had ran out of sympathy and through sheer frustration had begun to be quite blunt. It was down to me. It was all in my head.

So far, despite all the  encouragement and constant praise I had only been able to reward my swim coaches with one length of a 25 meter pool. I would regularly swim 300m in a session but it was all start/stop. I needed to smash this “T demon”.

My birthday falls at the end of November, I had made a wish and needed it to come true. I wanted to reward my coaches and myself at the same time, so I promised myself to have this “T demon” exorcized before my birthday.

Getting in the pool that night seemed different, somehow I felt more relaxed. I didn’t have the panic or fear before I got out of my car, I casually got changed into my trunks. I didn’t kick off the wall as hard and my stroke rate seemed slower. My breaths were calmer. My whole swim technique was so much more relaxed. I didn’t feel the need to get to the end of the pool quickly. I just knew I would get there eventually.

That night I changed the way I approached my swim sessions. I was now focussed and positive – Before this night I had been completely negative and dismissive, totally the wrong approach. The “T demon” had been truly exorcized.

I cant explain what made me more relaxed. I just know I was. On reflection, if I have a bad swim now it is usually because I have tried to swim too fast, too soon. Swimming really is all about relaxing and focussing on technique. It took me a long, long time to appreciate this.

December 2017 would see me right! I now found myself able to swim two or three lengths of a pool consistently.

Joining a Tri Club

My Coach Sue Hartwell had been so full of praise even before I smashed the “T demon”. She had suggested I try out the Tri club she belonged to STAR. Her feeling was that I had reached a plateau in the pool with the adult sessions. She clearly saw something in me that I couldn’t at that time. She really believed I had a great technique and would make a great swimmer. I just couldn’t see it. However, I trusted her and did turn up pool side two weeks before Christmas. This time a new fear and panic would set in. I was going to be in the pool with a bunch of triathletes.

Just getting out of the car that night was hard enough. I was determined not to allow the “T demon” to return. At the pool reception I introduced myself as the newbie and asked where I could meet the Tri Club. Fortunately that night the Club Captain, Pete Newman and a, soon to be Triple Ironman, Dale McCarter were stood chatting in the Foyer. I guess they must have heard my trembling voice and quickly introduced themselves before I ran straight back out and drove home.

I am glad Pete and Dale gave me those few kind and encouraging words that night, without them I would not have made it poolside, and would never have met my Triathlon swim coach and ever suffering training buddy Katie “Narna” McBain.

I would introduce Katie into my – Swim a length, breaking into breaststroke at the T, pause at the wall and chat technique that night. Katie had taken on a huge task, she had never come across a potential triathlete that liked a “chat” between lengths. She never faltered from the challenge, and before long she would have me entering multi sport events, and loving them. We would go on to see many peaks and troughs in my swimming but we always, always had a laugh. I would be in the pool that night with three other Tri newbies, Charlie Waters, Sue Allison and Angela Bailey. That night we formed a friendship and created the DivStars. I would sign up for the club membership the very next day, I never looked back.

Thank you for taking the time to follow my blog. The last two chapters have been very difficult for me to write. This period of my training was extremely mentally challenging. The expression “What doesn’t kill you – Makes you stronger” couldn’t be more fitting. I am eternally grateful for the patience and determination of my swim coaches Sue Hartwell and Sarah Jenkins. I am especially lucky to have been introduced to Katie “Narna” McBain and STAR Together, you have made me “Stronger” and as a result of your efforts I truly believe I will swim around Chasewater reservoir, Staffordshire in June 2019.

“I wouldn’t say anything is impossible. I think that everything is possible as long as you put your mind to it and put the work and time into it.” – Michael Phelps

For my next blog chapter I will describe how I transitioned from a Tri newbie, and trained for my first Multi-Sport event – Avon Aquathlon 19th March 2017


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