On Distances and Their Measurement

People often ask me, “How far did you swim today?” Most days at lunch I walk from my office in the middle of a small college campus, through two academic buildings, to the pool near the edge of campus; I run into people along the way and coming back, and this is what they ask. These are non-swimming people, of course. Swimmers don’t start conversations with, “How far did you swim today?” It’s not that it’s rude–you certainly might talk about distance–but you don’t start there. Instead swimmers ask each other, “How’s the water?” “How’s the water?” is a great question with lots of interesting possible answers: cold or hot, fast or slow, smooth or choppy, and full of kids/debris/jellyfish.

Triathletes, strangely, will ask you, out of the blue, “What are you training for?” Once at Lake Hartwell, my friend K and I met a triathlete coach with a group of new swimmers; she asked us, while we were treading water, “What are you training for?” and I did not know what to say. I wasn’t training for anything; I was just swimming. I like swimming. Now, of course, I can say, I’m training for a ten-mile swim.

Regular people, though, ask, “How far did you swim?” It’s a fine question, if not a great conversation starter. The problem is answering. My answer might be, say, 3000 yards, my standard 2013 workout. But the non-swimmer wants to know how many laps that is, which means we need to do some math, because I have no idea how many laps that is and have to divide 3000 yards by 25 (muttering, muttering, muttering to myself), which equals 120 lengths, or 60 laps. I don’t think in terms of laps. Laps are not relevant. You know the joke about the guy who goes into the pizza shop all alone and orders the largest pizza they have, with all the toppings? The waiter asks if he’d like it cut into eight pieces or sixteen, and he answers, “Eight! I can’t eat sixteen pieces by myself!” The number of laps is like the number of slices; what really matters is the size of the pizza.

I bring this up because I’m thinking about the size of my pizza for 2014, my yearly distance goal. December is the time for swimming resolutions and goals for the new year. My swimming resolution is easy to make because it is the same every year: to stop breathing right after the flip turn. I never manage keep this resolution, so I can use it year after year after year. It’s a classic.

My swimming distance goal, on the other hand, goes up. I participate in the USMS Go the Distance program; you set your goal for the year and track your progress with your USMS fitness log, or flog (the program and the flog are free to USMS members). I reached my goal for 2013–404 miles–on November 22nd, and I’m seeing how far I can go in the rest of the year. A flog is a great little motivational tool; I like entering my distance every day and watching my progress bar grow. For 2014 I have decided to go for 500 miles. Nike, the sponsor, gives awards along the way, and the award for 500 miles is a swimsuit. Swimsuits aren’t cheap, and I run through them like paper napkins at an ice cream stand; a Nike swimsuit is quite a prize.


I figure that prepping for the ten-mile swim is going to require me to put in more mileage anyway, although perhaps not all that much more. Donal Buckley at loneswimmer.com has written about how much preparation a person needs to put in for a given length of swim (How To: “How much do I need to swim for – x – open water distance?”). After emphasizing the need to swim regularly and to practice in open water and after warning that there are no hard and fast rules about distances, he suggests 20K a week to prepare for a 15K swim. 10 miles is just over 16K. According to my flog, which figures things like this for me, I swam 10.80 miles (=19,000 yards, =17,374 meters) last week, so I’m not far off his suggested distances now. I need to get in one longer swim a week. Of course, if I swim 10+ miles a week, I could do 500 miles in a year easy.

I keep coming up with new benefits to preparing for a ten-mile swim–something to say to triathletes! a new swimsuit!–and I haven’t even officially started training.

5 thoughts on “On Distances and Their Measurement

  1. So, I have a question about this. As a very very lightweight swimmer, the laps thing seems pretty relevant. How do you swim 3,000 yards without counting all those laps? Me, when I swim in a pool, to do — say — half a mile, or 900 yards, I have to count every one of those 32 lengths. If I try to count strokes per length — to try and see if my total immersion drills are increasing my efficiency at all — the challenge of keeping two separate counts in my head just overwhelms my brain.

    It’s for this reason that I prefer swimming in the bay, when I can. But the water there is about 49 degrees F right now, so I’m skipping that for now.

    1. I very rarely swim 3000 yards straight. When I do, I accept that it is unlikely that I am going to be exactly right, which is hard for me. If I am doing something like the one-hour postal competition, where you swim as much as you can in an hour, I have a person counting laps for me. That’s required, by the way, by USMS, because it’s hard to count.

      In practice I break it up. So I’ll start with 500 yards, which I have trouble counting, but I know it will take me about 7:30 to do it. I am steady in a warmup at 1:30 for 100 yards. If I lose track, I check the pace clock to see how long I’ve been swimming. Then I do sets of something on a time, and I can keep track by time. I like to alternate 100 IM and 100 free. So I can do 12 x 100, doing the IMs on 2 minutes and the free on 1:45, and I know that after 15 minutes I’ve done 8 and after 22:30 I’ve done 12.

      (I’m having trouble with that set. Doing them on 2:00 and 1:45 is too long a break, but I can’t keep up 1:50 and 1:40. I need a different interval.)

      When I did 44 x 100 on 1:40 for my birthday, I got 44 poker chips and two plastic containers. I put all the poker chips in one container, and after every 100 I moved a poker chip to the other container. When I was out of poker chips, I was done. Of course, my friends went and pretended to mess with my poker chips, but they didn’t really. I knew it was going to take, what, 73 minutes and 20 seconds, so I could do the math if I needed to.

      I often wish that a minute had 100 seconds because it would make the math much easier.

      I loved swimming in your bay! I did the Alcatraz swim (one way, from the island to the shore) in June 2011, and it was so beautiful. It was a cloudy day, but San Francisco was still sparkly in front of us, and we just swam to it. I keep a photo from the day on my desk at work.

      1. This is pretty helpful, thank you, Melinda. I like the poker chips idea! But it’s also comforting to know that there are alternatives to counting every damn lap.

        When you say “44×400 on 1:40” that means 1:40 for each 100 yards, right? You are fast! I am probably about half that speed: or 45-50 seconds for every 50 yard lap. But I don’t train like you do either.

        I love the Bay as well. It feels like life to me. I am also intensely grateful to the Berkeley ladies who led the movement to clean it up in the 1970s and 80s.

      2. Hooray for the Berkeley ladies! And hooray for the Clean Water Act!

        I’m not that fast, but I’m steady. Last January I did just over 4000 yards for the one-hour swim; that’s 100 yards = 1:30 pace. It would be nice to do more this year, but I’m thinking more about endurance than speed these days.

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