Dr. StrangeGlove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wetsuit

Behold, the Xterra Vortex-3 wetsuit. There is no S in FAST!

The Xterra Vortex-3 full-body wetsuit took my breath away the first time I used it. Literally. As a tune-up for the Marquee Triathlon, I entered the 1,000-meter Splash N Dash to test-drive my spiffy new purchase.  By the time I circled to the surface of that race, past the thrashing remnants of hands and heels, I found myself plunging down into the black depths of a nightmare.

One week before the main event, I was more confident of drowning in my own excrement than I was of actually finishing the race. It’d taken me longer to swim 1,000 meters in my speedy new wetsuit than it takes me to do 1,500 in a pool. It was the bad dream of overachievers the world over: I’m sitting in the organic chemistry auditorium with a sharp pencil and a Scantron… How did I find myself here? I haven’t been to class all semester… Alkanes? Alkenes? Alkynes? I don’t know this material… and now I have only 10 minutes to finish this exam or I won’t graduate!


So I did what any self-respecting procrastinator would do: I phoned a friend, or five.

My friend Jon is competing in the half-Ironman at the Marquee Triathlon on Sunday and also swimming the Escape from Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge events in April.

“Jon, I don’t know what to do. I can’t swim in my wetsuit and I have six days to figure this out.”

“But it’s the Xterra Vortex-3. That’s a great wetsuit!”

“Dude, it was on clearance – and unless it comes with a jet pack that I can conceal in my ass-cavity,* I’m not sure how it’s gonna help me.”

“OK, OK. Calm down. How many times did you look up to see where you were?”

“I don’t know. About a thousand.”

“Well, that’s your problem. When you stop to sight, you slow down and wear yourself out getting started back up. Just keep your head down and trust that you’ll go straight. You may only need to look up once every 25 strokes.”

OK, OK. Head down. Every 25 strokes. I can do that.

I called my other friend John. He used to compete in relay triathlons, and his team even made it to nationals.

“Start out on the either side of the field. Not in the middle. The slower swimmers stay to the outside so you won’t get run over or kicked. I had a friend who broke his nose, and another guy got stitches in his lip. Blood everywhere. Just stay to the sides and you’ll be OK.”

Broken nose. Busted lip. Stay on the outside with the slow people. Got it. Did I mention he was their relay runner?

My friend Kellee doesn’t do triathlons and hates to swim, but she is a Pilates instructor and just got back from a conference where the Pilates coach for the US Olympic Team gave a lecture about training elite athletes.

“She actually trains the synchronized swimmers for the Olympics,” Kellee said. “She was telling us how strong and fit they are in the water, with amazing endurance, but you get them on land and put gravity in the mix, and they’ll twist their ankles stepping off the bus. They have no strength on land.”

“That’s fascinating. But I’m not Esther Williams and this isn’t the Aquacade.”

“Well, that’s not the best part. She was talking about training elite athletes and said that when you do a really hard, strenuous workout, you need to give your body at least two days’ rest to recover and rebuild. If you do a moderate workout, you should give yourself at least one day’s rest. Otherwise, you’re not really building muscle – you’re just constantly breaking them down. So I don’t think you should do anything this week – you should just let your body heal, and we can go get a cocktail.”

Let body heal and recover. Go get cocktail… Unfortunately I am neither an elite athlete nor my typically saturated self, right now. I can’t drink because I’m taking antibiotic horse-pills for the aforementioned gangrene. Next!

I remembered my old friend Mark, whose last experience with a triathlon involved post-race therapy at an Asian massage parlor. That said, he’s one of those fit, lean, wiry types that could do some damage in a fight, so I figured he’d be my last, best chance… seeing how this was Friday and my race was Sunday.

So, I called Mark twice (work and cell). I sent him an email. I called his second-in-command to track his skinny ass* down. She recommended I text him, and here is the transcript of our textual coaching session:

Mark: You’re going to freeze your ass on Sunday. WFT are you doing?

Me: Let a friend talk me into being a swimmer in her relay (I was not drunk). I have a full wetsuit and that’s what’s killing me.

Mark: Hard to stroke properly in one. You should just tell everyone you were drunk. That explains it better.

Me: I will tell everyone I was drunk but that won’t explain what’s going to happen in the lake on Sunday. Any advice for that morning? Besides DON’T DROWN.

Mark then proceeded to download decades of experience in 140-character bursts: Start on the sides, not in the pack. Pick a spot on land as reference while breathing so you don’t have to look up as often. Sight about every 15 strokes to make adjustments. Stroke count gives you an idea of how far you have to go. Don’t start too fast. Stay calm and start slow till you get comfortable. Work on rhythm and build speed. Focus only on surviving to the halfway point, and when you get there, head for the finish with more purpose. Sing songs in your head “Little Ducky Duddle went swimming in a puddle, a puddle, a puddle so small…”

And with that, I decided to get reacquainted with the Xterra Vortex-3. It hung forlornly over the bathtub. It had been just a week ago that I thought this wetsuit was my new best friend: My Batsuit, my Superman tights, my Captain America shield. Plus I’d gotten it for only $159 – regular $400! I longingly remembered tracking it like Santa as it made its way across our great nation to land in a pouch upon my doorstep.

And just like Christmas in April (or is that Easter?), I tore into that package: The Xterra Vortex-3 took my breath away the first time I saw it — the virgin Neoprene able to transform an aspiring athlete into a superhero swimmer in a single (tugging, struggling, shoulder-wrenching) zip. I spent the next 20 minutes wedging myself into it, then posing in the mirror and pairing it with my three (3) new swim caps (pink skull-n-crossbones, black-and-white multi-skulls, yellow angry smiley face)… and breaking a sweat while I waited for Pat to get home… any minute now… and taking a drink of water… and trying to sit on the couch (rubber and leather – good times at the Pat and Stacy World Headquarters!)… and unfastening the neck velcro… should’ve been here by now…  and standing in front of the open freezer… and hey, at least it provides protection against gratuitous crotch-sniffs from the curious dogs… and oh, man, I should have gone to the bathroom before I tried this thing on… and there’s Pat right now!

I flexed my muscles, strutting and twirling like Kate Moss’s husky third-cousin: “What do you think? Do I look fierce and fast?”

Pat bit his lip. “There is no S in fast!”

I would have kicked his ass*, except that by this point I was panting and couldn’t lift my arms.

But now, a week later, having proven conclusively that there is no S (for Stacy) in FAST and that the Xterra Vortex-3 was not my new best friend but instead my evil, rubber-clad twin, I figured I might as well do one last cram session before the big swim on Sunday. I was thinking of suiting up for the pool… in my wetsuit… in April.

Yes, I’d read the care and feeding instructions when I opened the Xterra Vortex-3 bag. Do not swim in warm water. Store in a cool, dark place. Do not clean with harsh chemicals. In fact, I’d even asked my friend Jason for advice. One-hundred pounds ago, back when he decided to undertake a triathlon-based weight-loss program, he and I had observed the peculiar technology fetish of modern-day triathletes. The $5,000 race bikes, the laceless shoes, the 1-ounce bicycle helmets, the crotch-padded swim bibs, the aerodynamic nose-plugs, the cardboard endurance snacks (now with 20% more gingko biloba!). At the time, we agreed that only tools got so excited about tools: It was, after all, the race that mattered.

But here I was tooling around with this foolish idea: “Would I be a tool if I took my wetsuit to the pool to get used to it?”

“No, you wouldn’t be a tool,” Jason had said. “But the chlorine would damage the Neoprene. I’d check with the manufacturer first.”

It was 6 PM on a Friday night. Screw the manufacturer. I had 36 hours to meet my destiny – and only $159 invested in this adventure. I drink that much in a week, and if anyone at the pool wanted to laugh at me, well, screw them too. Better they laugh at me tonight than say, “What a dumbass!”* on Monday when they read in the paper about the fool that drowned in her own excrement at the Marquee Triathlon the day before.

Waddling onto the pool deck to the opening notes of  Black Sabbath’s Iron Man, I was delighted to see not an open lane, but an open end. The synchronized swimmers had cleared out, managing not to break their ankles in the process and leaving the equivalent of four, unroped lanes wide open. I plunged in… and popped right back up to the top like a Styrofoam beer cooler in Lake Bistineau.


Taking Mark’s advice I started counting strokes… then I figured it’d be easier to count my breaths since I am a metronome of exhalations. Stroke, stroke, stroke and breathe (left). Stroke, stroke, stroke and breathe (right). Three strokes per breath. Six or seven breaths per 25 meters. Round up to 30 breaths per hundred. Multiply by 15… 450 breaths for the race… I gulped and closed my eyes… and kept swimming… and managed to go pretty straight with my eyes closed. Sure, I ran into the wall once before I finally figured out the stroke-count thing, and then I swam into the lane-rope border when I pushed off at an angle (but I swam straight into it). And once, when I was holding onto the wall, and feeling the cold front move in from the west with the brisk wind in my face and an icy sport-bottle of water in my hand, I realized I was now sweating underwater, but I wasn’t hyperventilating. Granted, I lost count of my breaths and kept having to start over at the wall, but over the course of 30 deliberate minutes, I learned to stop worrying and love the wetsuit.



* That would be $5 for our local spay / neuter campaign.