The sky was overcast, but mercifully, no rain fell. The air temperature at Madrona Park was 53, water temperature of Lake Washington a few degrees higher. Both should have been warmer in mid-June, but we’re still waiting for the arrival of spring here in the Northwest, even as the month ticks away to summer solstice. I was at Madrona early Saturday for two triathlon clinics: Transition Prep, followed by Open-Water Swim Clinic.

Struggling into my wetsuit was a great warm-up. Sharing my struggle and laughter was Marina, a college friend who just happened to be sitting next to me at the Intro to Triathlon lecture at REI in May. We met in North Hall at Central Washington University in 1988. Twenty-three years- a few lifetimes- later we found each other again. Marina is as beautiful and sassy as ever. Her spirit and determination are contagious- if I can mainline that energy, I’ll get through this crazy adventure.

By the time the transition demo lecture concluded and we entered Lake Washington to run through the clinic’s “try-a-tri”, I was shaking with the chill and with nerves. My breath was shallow and rapid as I doused my face and poured the cold water down the front of my wetsuit. Below the waterline, oily tendrils curled around my ankles and wrists- plantlife straining to reach the light from the murky, green deep.

My group members and I swam back and forth between buoys, the comfort of sand and smooth rocks never far from our white and wrinkled soles. The water inside my wetsuit regulated quickly to my body temperature, providing welcome insulation. I practiced the catch-up drill that has been my physical and mental mantra since entering the swimming pool in February. I forced myself to slow down, to exhale with force, to celebrate the past months’ training that allowed me to glide for yards on the force of my stroke. The buoyancy of the wetsuit was a marvel- my strokes felt almost effortless as the wetsuit kept my legs lifted and allowed my feet to become little motors, churning behind me.

But then I’d have to lift my head to sight my direction, someone would jostle me, or I’d have to maneuver around a pair of kicking feet inches from my face, and I’d lose my rhythm. Anxiety would flood my blood and suddenly I was aware of the vegetal muck grasping at my limbs, the cold tea that was slapping my face, the distance to the shore. The thought of facing a half mile in August’s Danskin tri, with no lakebed beneath my feet to support me when my courage failed- I simply couldn’t fathom it. Even knowing I’d done this once before, in this same lake, without a wetsuit-was no comfort. Thinking ahead to certain failure revved my panic button into high gear.

Then, suddenly, the transition whistle blew. I splashed to shore and ran toward my bike, fighting a wave of dizziness. I remembered to undo the velcro neck closure, unzip my suit, and strip to the waist as I ran across the grass, but once to my bike, I struggled to remain upright as I kicked free of the wetsuit. I nearly collapsed, but remembered advice from the morning’s demo: “If you sit down, you’ll never get back up.” A coach was beside me, yelling “Step on it with your other foot and pull!” Note to self: douse ankles and calves with Suit Juice or spray. Make like a Silpat and slip free from the suit that clings like a leech to your wet skin… Suit off, hands shaking, I crammed my wet feet into socks and shoes. Other note to self: baby powder in socks and shoes, Yankz laces.

Settling onto my bike saddle was like coming home to a waiting martini and dinner on the table after a horrible day at work. I was so happy to be free of the water’s chill and my panicked thoughts that I wasn’t aware of the squish in my shoes or the damp soaking through from my tri top to my jacket. Powering up a few hills kept the muscles warm and the downhill sweep dried most of the wet. The run portion was anticlimactic; we practiced chi-style running back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the park. First clinic, done. I was tired, hungry, I had to pee. The adrenalin rush had passed through and left me feeling hollow. I had thoughts of bagging the Open Water Clinic that followed this Transition experience, doubting I had the courage to enter the water a second time.

But I did. I yanked and tugged my way back into that a cold, damp wetsuit, swallowed a couple of gel Shotblocks and sipped a cup of hot water as an even larger group gathered for the pre-workout lecture. Once again, I was shaking with cold and fear as I re-entered the water. This time, I joined the designated “terrified of open water” group. But the drills gave me confidence. We went longer each time, passing into deep water. I focused on long, smooth strokes, on power-exhalations, on moving forward no matter what. Again the transition whistle blew, signaling the end of the open water clinic. Finished. I’d made it.

Not so fast. We were corralled to shallow water and there I learned we were going to swim the quarter mile distance, marked off in a triangle by bright yellow buoys. As much as I wanted to dash to the shore and call it a day, I pushed off from solid ground and began my stroke. I got as far as I could, but suddenly my will bottomed out. It wasn’t a physical failure or even the cold- my body felt capable of continuing the swim. My mind simply shut down and my limbs refused to remain in motion. A coach caught up with me and a few other swimmers around who were struggling as much as I. She got us through five strokes and then five more, to the safety of a dock. Then we swam to the end of the dock, regrouped, swam around it to the end, then swam to one buoy and one buoy more. Another coach said, as we panted and hung onto a buoy by our fingertips, that he’d never swam a tri distance in his life. He swam from one landmark or buoy to the next, breaking the distance into manageable bites until it was behind him. That tidbit got me back to shore.

I don’t know if I can do this. I am registered for the Cottage Lake mini-tri in Woodinville this Saturday. It’s an easygoing 1/4 mile swim, 9 mile bike, 1.6 mile run meant to be a tri-for-all, a way to break into the tri experience in a non-competitive, supportive atmosphere. I’ve got five days to do battle with the demons that press my panic button at the thought submerging my body into the claustrophobic clutch of the cold, bottomless, murky deep.

Those demons followed me yesterday during my run, sniggering on my shoulder and weighing me down so that I felt as if I was dragging lead weights through Lake Washington. I ran 10 miles on sheer spite.  If I can do that, surely I can splash my way to shore on Saturday. There’s always the backstroke…