10 mile swim

It isn't far to swim when you have friends waiting at the end.


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On Swim Equipment

In swimming, as in the rest of my life, I am torn between two competing desires. On one hand, I want to live my life free of the encumbrances of material possessions. On the other, I want cool toys.

Here is my advice about the swim equipment I use, in order of most to least necessary (or least to most frivolous):

1) Goggles

Goggles are one of the greatest inventions of the twentieth century. I met a man at the Lowcountry Splash one year who swam for Clemson University in the days before goggles. He said that his eyes hurt all the time. I believe him.

I usually wear Speedo Hydrospex Jr. goggles. They are marketed as youth goggles. But they fit me — unlike so-called adult goggles, which are really goggles for men and their great big heads. You can buy goggles marketed to women, but you pay less for youth sizes, and they work fine for me. Ignore the labels; get what works.

If you swim inside, you probably need clear or lightly colored lenses. If you swim outside, you probably need darker ones. They also sell goggles designed for open water swimming, ones that supposedly give you a better range of vision; I’ve tried a couple pairs, but they haven’t made a difference to me.

2) Fins

I love my fins. Without fins, kick drills are dull. But put on fins, and not only are you getting a better leg workout, you are moving much faster — and having more fun.

There are all kinds of fins for swimmers: long, short, special for breaststroke, etc. I have short ones, TYR Burners. Don’t use scuba fins; they won’t encourage the right kind of leg motion for swimming.

I should say that while I love my fins, my fins don’t always love me, by which I mean that I can wear them for months without trouble and then go through a period where they chafe my feet. I’m in one of those periods now; one of them is trying to chew through my right big toe. I don’t know why. Love is strange.

Fins and kickboard, wet from practice. My photo. Mar 2016.

Fins and kickboard, wet from practice. My photo. Mar 2016.

3) Ankle band

Many pools — though for some reason not mine — let you borrow pull buoys, which hold your legs up and keep you from kicking when you are doing pull drills. But as I’ve noted before, I don’t like pull buoys. Every once in a while I try one out, just to confirm that, yes, I still don’t like pull buoys. My back end floats just fine on its own; it does not require extra buoyancy.

But pull drills are easier when your legs are immobilized, and that’s why I have an ankle band. You put your feet in it, you twist it around, and bam! your legs are tied together. When I was a kid, we would use an inner tube for this purpose; if you weren’t careful when you put it on, the valve stem would poke you in the ankle. Now manufacturers make bands for this purpose. — no valve stems.

The ankle band I have comes from Finis and costs all of $5.

4) Kickboard

You don’t need to have your own kickboard. Pools generally have kickboards for you to borrow. Nonetheless, I like my kickboard better. Because it’s smaller and less buoyant than the standard type, it keeps my arms lower in the water, which puts less stress on my shoulders.

I worry about my shoulders. They are the parts that are going to wear out when parts start wearing out. They should get a rest during kick drills.

5) My fancy pants sports watch

I have a fancy sports watch — a Garmin fēnix 2. It’s got five different buttons on it. It’s got an altimeter, a barometer, and a compass. It will keep track of your cycling and your hiking and your downhill skiing. I will never use 90% of this stuff.

The reason I have a fēnix 2 (as opposed to anything else) that it is one of the few devices that will track both pool and open water distance. For pool swimming, you input the length of the pool, and the fēnix 2 keeps track of laps. For open water swimming, you activate the GPS to measure distance.

I got the fēnix 2 in November, and so far I have only used it in pools. I hope to be trying it out in an open water swim soon. Once you get the hang of pressing the right buttons to activate the lap counter and drill timer, though, it works great in the pool. List price is $400, but it can be had for half the cost.


If you are looking for information on a particular type of equipment, you can check out US Masters Swimming‘s reviews, both in the Swim Bag section of their magazine (accessible online) and in their video product reviews.

Please tell me about the equipment you like in the comments!


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500-Mile Go the Distance Cap

As promised, a photo with my 500-mile Go the Distance cap for 2015, now that it has finally come. If you swim 500 miles in a calendar year (and log it with US Masters Swimming), you can buy this nifty cap.

500miles.jpg

Me with new cap. And we have new lights in the pool. It’s so much brighter. March 2016.

It fits well for a silicone cap. They are usually too big for me.

In other Go the Distance news, as of March 10, I have swum 104.55 miles in 2016:

2016-03-10

 


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On Being a Beast

“You’re a beast swimmer,” said the young woman in the locker room. She was talking to me.

Dear reader, in case we haven’t met in person, let me tell you what I look like. I’m a middle-aged woman. I’m five foot four and a half. I wear thick glasses with plastic frames. I look like someone’s mom. I am, in fact, someone’s mom.

And yet this young person, who had been swimming in the lane next to me for most of lap swim, said to me, “You’re a beast swimmer.” No one calls me a “beast” (or “machine” or “killer”) anywhere else. It only happens when I’m swimming.

I may not look like much on land. But in swimming how your body looks is less important than what you do with it. Muscles and size are less important than technique. I’ve taught Division I intercollegiate athletes — including (American) football and lacrosse players — in my May term swimming course. These young men are big. They’re in great shape. And they work hard. On land, any one of them could outrun, outlift, outdo me in any way. In the water, though, I can outswim them all. I’m twice their age. I’m half their size. But while they have muscles and size, I have technique.

(And the good thing about technique is that it can be learned. I mean, you’re not going to get younger. But you could improve your stroke technique — a lot.)

Maybe you’re a big scary-looking person, and you spend your time trying to convince others not to be afraid of you. But I’m small, and I spend my time trying to convince others to be a little — just a little — afraid of me. Only when I’m swimming do people look at me and see power.

Of course, when you get down to it, it’s how you feel on the inside that really counts. And on the inside, I’m a beast.


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You Can’t Swim in the Same River Twice: On Personal Records

One of the many things I like about open water swimming is that I never think about my PR. PR stands for “personal record,” and it means, of course, your best time for a race. My running friends talk about their PRs: they beat their PRs, they almost beat their PRs, they want to beat their PRs. Jen A. Miller recently wrote a piece, Trying to Beat My 25-Year-Old Self, in the New York Times Well Blog about trying to beat her personal record, set ten years before, for a 5K run. That’s the thing about having a PR: you always want to beat it.

But thinking about your personal record in open water swimming is complicated. If you run 5Ks (or some other set distance), you can compare your time from ten years ago to your time today. The distance is fixed, and the conditions relatively stable. Open water swims, on the other hand, are not uniform. They come in a variety of lengths. And more important, courses and conditions make a huge difference: a swim in a lake is not comparable to a swim in a river, and a swim in rough conditions is not the same as a swim in calm water.

I know that the fastest I have ever swum was on May 24, 2014 at the Lowcountry Splash: five miles in 1:13:29. It seems impossible that I will ever swim that fast again. The current was unusually swift. All the course records were broken that day. I was the fastest I’ve ever been — and so was everyone else.

I keep a spread sheet with information about my races: event name, date, distance, time, and notes. The entry for the Lowcountry Splash is highlighted. Zoooooooom.

I keep a spreadsheet with information about my races: event name, date, distance, time, and notes. This is an excerpt. I’ve highlighted the entry for the Lowcountry Splash: zoooooooom.

The next year at the same race the current was not unusually swift; I swam the course in 1:26:37, thirteen minutes slower. Should I be disappointed that I didn’t beat my PR? What for? I don’t control the current. And it was a great swim on a beautiful morning. There’s no point in comparisons. You can’t swim in the same river twice.

River current isn’t the only factor to take into account: all open water swimming is dependent on conditions. Last August I swam two miles in 54:24 at the Lake Lure Olympiad. Last September I swam two miles in 1:03:17 at the Dam Swim for Drew in Lake Murray. I didn’t get nine minutes slower in a month. At Lake Lure the water was warm and smooth; we swam two simple loops around a one-mile course. At Lake Murray, the water was rough; we fought through waves the whole way across the lake.

I was faster at Lake Lure. I had more fun at the Dam Swim. Which one was the better swim?

Some people find it motivating to compete with their younger selves, to beat their PRs. But I’m not interested in playing that game. The great appeal of open water swimming is that each race is its own experience, new and incomparable to the others. Each swim is its own swim. Each swim can be your best swim on that day.


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Snow Outside, Swim Inside

“You can’t go swimming. It’s snowing,” said the man in the office next to mine. People say crazy things like that to me all winter long. I’ve learned there’s no point in arguing with them. The best thing to do is smile and nod while slowly backing away, preferably in the direction of the pool.

There are people you need to listen to when they say, “You can’t go swimming.” Lifeguards. Park rangers. Doctors. A few years ago my doctor told me that I might have a major medical problem, the kind that could kill me, and that I shouldn’t exercise until we had done tests to rule it out. I said, “I can’t go swimming?” And she said, “You can’t go swimming.” It took over a month for all the tests and scans. It was a miserable time. But until I was cleared, I didn’t go swimming.

However, people who say, “You can’t go swimming. It’s snowing,” are not people I need to listen to. My pool is inside, and it’s heated. In fact, it’s warmer than my office, which is kept at a temperature more suited for storing wine than English professors. (I think the university is hoping I will age better at a low temperature.) Snow outside is no reason not to swim inside.

My university campus in the snow. Photo by Daniel Crowe.

Campus in the snow. This is the way to the pool. Photo by Daniel Crowe.

Strangely, people are not convinced when I explain about the indoor, heated pool. They repeat that it’s too cold to swim. I wonder if they don’t understand that swimming is a heat-generating activity. If your only swimming experience is lying around in a pool on a summer day, you might not realize that exercise in water warms your body the same as on land. But it does. I get hot swimming. When I swim sprints, I go all pink in the face.

There are too many real problems that can keep a person out of the water. There’s no need to worry about pretend ones. I am waiting for spring when I can get outside to the lakes again. But all winter long, snow or no snow, I’m still swimming.


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How to Be a Swim Kid Your Whole Life

Oh, the joys of being a swim kid! The swim parents I know have been sharing MacKenzi Thibodeaux’s To The Little Girl in the Swim Cap and Goggles, written as a letter from an adult to a child. The adult reminisces about the many joys of summer swim team, telling the little girl, “You are so, so lucky to be a swimmer. I hope that you do not take this time in your life for granted.” It’s signed, “A girl who doesn’t have her swim cap or goggles anymore.”

It’s a sweet article, and many people I know have enjoyed it, but I find it so very sad. The writer believes that the child can only be a swimmer for a limited time, that she can only have her cap and goggles for so long before she has to put them away forever. But that’s not true. I know that’s not true. You can be a swim kid your whole life.

I swam as a child, and I remember all the things Thibodeaux talks about and more: the early morning practices, the travel, the friends. My friend K swam as a child too, and every once in a while we come up with some common memory — like eating Jell-O powder at swim meets. In the 70s and 80s, kids at swim meets would eat powdered gelatin straight out of the little boxes, mouths and fingers dyed bright orange or red or green. Jell-O powder is mostly sugar, and it was supposed to give you a quick energy boost. I don’t think swim kids eat powdered gelatin now — they have gels and sports drinks instead — but they do write their event numbers on their hands and arms so that they don’t miss their races, just like we did. And children still race each other during practice and whack each other with kick boards on birthdays. They still make great friends.

Now I’m old enough to have children of my own, but I’m still a swim kid. I go to the pool, and I see all my swim friends, just like I used to. We talk. We race each other. We don’t usually whack each other with kick boards, but we celebrate birthdays. We have fun.

In some ways, swimming as an adult is better than swimming as a child. The travel is better. Last summer, K and I drove down to Charleston on a Friday afternoon to swim the Lowcountry Splash. We spent the night with friends who fed us a terrific dinner, including a trifle for dessert; then we got up in the dark, ate leftover trifle for breakfast, and swam a beautiful five miles down the Cooper River on Saturday morning. After the race we drove home with the top down, and when we stopped in Columbia, I had a peanut-butter banana bourbon milkshake for lunch. It was called The Elvis, and it was a lot better than Jell-O powder. I got home just over 24 hours after I left, bruised, sunburned, dehydrated, half-drunk, and about as happy as I’ve ever been. There was no child on this earth having more fun than I was.

Thibodeaux writes to the little girl in the swim cap and googles, “Cherish this time you have, time of learning new things and making new friends, because all too soon one thing will lead to another and life will get busy or you will grow up and have to ‘throw in the towel’ on something that defined a major part of you for such a long time.” But why should any of us give up something that defines us? Why should we give up something that makes us happy?

Life does get busy, and we do grow up, but we never have to give up swimming. If you need to, you can take a break; the water will be there when you come back. You can learn new things. You can make new friends. You can be a swim kid your whole life.