Wetsuitless and Wild

Alcatraz and its environs.

Would you swim in these frigid waters sans suit?
Photo credit: Ricky Romero

So I’m doing this dinky little race on the West Coast in 3 weeks. And the swim is a little more hard core than many triathlon swims: 1.5 miles, point to point across a bay, water temps in the high 50s, 1 hour time limit. Sensible triathletes would be prepping for this by practicing their strokes in the warmest wetsuit at their disposal. I…am thinking of doing it without one.

Before I became a triathlete, wetsuits and I were cool with each other. I used them primarily for scuba diving where they were either shorties that I totally forgot I even had on, or full suits that were thick and provided some much needed warmth in deep, colder water. But the thing with scuba diving is that you are not spending a whole hell of a lot of time repeatedly lifting your arms over your head (read: pretty much never). Also, wetsuits in scuba can be a little looser because you’re not too worried about shaving seconds off a decent with your bitchin’ hydrodynamics.

In contrast, in triathlon I’m convinced wetsuits are pretty much a bitter capitalist’s revenge on the athletes he can never be. They are awful. It’s exhausting to lift your arms in them; there have been some that provide me with too much buoyancy; I can’t feel anything that’s going on with the water (like currents and where they are flowing); and I will undoubtedly get super hot in one by the time the swim is over.

Now, I am not for whom wetsuits were designed. I have quite a lot of natural buoyancy and have no problems with my swim positioning or balance in the water. And there are very, very few situations (usually involving inclement weather and giant swells) where I am afraid of drowning. I am also fat and round and suits don’t quite fit quite like they are designed to do.

2012 peasantman swim exit

See? Don’t I look lovely charging out of the water sans wetsuit? Why would I ruin that look by adding unnecessary rubber? Also, my head is always going to be down when exiting a swim. I am focused very hard on not tripping and falling on my face.

My first year of tris I rented a variety of wetsuits and took them out into open water. I fondly recall these as being pretty slow and miserable swim sessions. The wetsuits always got chucked as soon as I hit land. For my races, I raced all of them wetsuit free. Since all my triathlons have, so far, been in the mid-Atlantic region in the summer, this wasn’t really a big deal. Water temps are always in the high 60s through (one horrid time) the lower 90s.

But Alcatraz is a little different. High 50s (est temp 57 or so) is cold enough for the water to be pretty shocking just wading in. Add in the boat start, where you just dive off the boat and go with 2000 of your closest friends, and it sounds like a swimsuit only swim could be a little rattling. There is also a low hypothermia risk if I get out of the water cold and the air temp is low enough that I can’t warm up (I don’t know how much of a risk this really is since I run hot, have more body fat than your average triathlete, and will be forced to run right after exiting the swim, but I assume it is a risk). It also takes more energy to keep a body warm without a wetsuit than with one on. I will need all the energy I can muster to get through the bike and the run after I get out of the swim. On the other hand, if I am so uncomfortable and slow in my suit, it’s a legitimate fear that I will be too distracted to make it to the shore within the time limit.

So what do I do? These are the things I know at this point:

1) I cannot wear a full sleeved wetsuit. Even if you want to sneer at me in the comments section and tell me to suck it up and get used to the thing, I’ve simply run out of training time to get comfortable.

2) Denis and the Wave One swim coaches all think I am a good enough swimmer to do this thing without a wetsuit. They even provided me with some tips for getting ready for a cold water swim, which I am implementing regardless because they are good tips.

3) There is one final compromise option to explore yet: I have never successfully tried a sleeveless (my current full sleeved wetsuit was one that I won). It would not be as warm, but it might be more comfortable, which would be the best of both worlds.

My plan so far is to prepare for cold water swimming like I’m not going to wear a suit, but try a sleeveless:

1) Find cold open water; swim in it. This past Saturday I took a trip to Sandy Point to swim in the Chesapeake (62F). It was fine. Numbing and it did take a few minutes to get used to it, but I never felt overly cold. This coming weekend The Accomplice and I are heading out to Rehoboth Beach to get in some real cold water swimming. The Atlantic is currently boasting refreshing water temps of upper 50s and I plan to take advantage of it.

2) Cold showers. My hot water tap in the tub is going unused this month as I learn to get used to sudden icy water splashing on my person. They say it will help you acclimate and each time will be a little easier. So far all I’ve learned is how not to emit a high pitched squeal at the start of each shower, but I’m giving it a go.

3) Testing out a sleeveless suit. I’ll trek down to Freshbikes some time this week and see if I can rent a sleeveless for the weekend. I’m mildly hopeful that it’ll be better than the full sleeved, but am not willing to get my hopes up too much at this point. If it does work, I’m happy to plop down a wad of cash for a spanking new sleeveless wetsuit.

4) Invest in a giant tub of Vasaline and use liberally. Chafe prevention AND heat retention. It could be love.

Worse comes to worst I will swim Alcatraz in nothing but a tri suit and earplugs. It’ll be cold but I don’t think it’ll kill me. And, though this is so not the point, it would make me kind of a badass.

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