10 mile swim

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

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Questions about Open Water Swimming: 1) Don’t You Get Bored?

I asked friends to tell me what they wanted to know about open water swimming and about my experience at Swim the Suck, the ten mile race I swam in Chattanooga last week, and the most common question was, “Don’t you get bored?”

I don’t get bored. I didn’t get bored at Swim the Suck; I loved all ten miles of it. One of the people I met at the dinner the evening before the swim — she was swimming the event for the second time — said that she thought of it less as a race and more as a tour. And having swum the course, I agree: it was a tour of the beautiful Tennessee River Gorge from the water. You can see photos at my race report.

Open water swimming is like hiking. You look around. You see things. You need to pay attention to where you’re going, as you do when you hike — you’re looking for obstacles and making sure you stay on course — but you can enjoy the scenery as you go.

I think that’s what people may not understand about open water swimming, the fact that you can enjoy the scenery. The mechanics are simple. First, you see ahead when you sight. Sighting is when you lift your head to look in front of you; you don’t need to do it in a pool (in a pool you follow the black line), but you do have to do it regularly in open water. Sighting is tiring, however, and it slows you down. I’ve learned to sight like an alligator, lifting my head just enough that my eyes are above the water, but still, at the end of a long race, my neck is sore.

Here I am sighting while swimming in Lake Jocassee. Photo by B the kayaker. May 2015.

Here I am sighting while swimming in Lake Jocassee last spring. There are no alligators in Lake Jocassee, just me. Photo by B the kayaker. May 2015.

It’s easier to look around when you breathe. I breathe to the right and to the left equally well, so as I swim I can see what’s on either side of me. As we went down the Tennessee River last weekend, we enjoyed the mountains in early fall. Here and there we passed a house; M, my kayaker, pointed out a place that had a three-story-high tree house next to it, and we talked about it as a possible Airbnb location.

I pick races in beautiful places on purpose. The Lowcountry Splash is another example; you get an unbeatable view of the Ravenel Bridge (seen in the photo at the top of this blog). I suppose when you’re a serious competitor, you don’t spend time sightseeing, but I’d rather enjoy the view than win.

Of course, I don’t get to swim in beautiful places all the time — or even most of the time. But I don’t get bored swimming in a pool either.

When you swim two miles a day in a pool, you don’t just get in the water, swim two miles, and get out. Usually I swim a warm-up, a set with kicking and/or pulling, and a main set; maybe I’ll have a short cool-down.

At least a couple times a week I incorporate other strokes besides freestyle (crawl) into the workout. I developed a pain in my shoulder swimming backstroke (which is ironic, since I was swimming backstroke to protect my shoulders), so I’ve been doing more fly and breast. My favorite way to include those strokes these days is in 75s: 25 free, 25 other, 25 free. I do these in sets of four or six; for example, a possible 900 yard set is 4 x 75 with fly, 4 x 75 with breast, 4 x 75 with fly. Swimming a variety of strokes is one of the ways you keep the workout interesting.

Every day on my way to swim my workout, I walk through the fitness center. It’s a large room with two kinds of things in it: exercise equipment and devices to occupy people while they are using the exercise equipment. Music plays. Television screens are everywhere. It’s as if people have to be distracted from what they are doing in order to do it.

But I don’t need to be distracted from swimming. People talk about the need to practice mindful eating, to take pleasure in our food and be satisfied by it. I try to practice mindful swimming: I take pleasure in it, and I am satisfied.

Of course, there are days when I am no good at mindful swimming. I come in distracted. On those days, I use swimming to clear my head. Perhaps what I am experiencing other people would call boredom, but I call it a respite. My mind can rest as my body swims.

Over a year ago, a month or so before I did my first ten mile swim, I wrote a blog post called Why I’m Not Bored. It’s about the physical experience of swimming: what you see, what you feel. I wrote at the time, “When I’m swimming, I’m smiling.” Last weekend, at the end of Swim the Suck, my face ached. I realized the next day that it was from ten miles of smiling.


Why I’m Not Bored

“Isn’t it boring?” asked the man in the parking lot. The conversation was C the lifeguard’s fault; I could see him looking in my direction and talking to a man on the side of the pool as I swam on Friday morning. But I didn’t worry about it at the time. Lifeguards look in my direction a lot: it’s kind of their job. It turns out that C was telling the man about me. And then I encountered him and his friend, the one who asked me the question, on my way to the car. They wanted to know if I had really swum 4000 yards that morning (yes). They wanted to know what I was training for (10 mile swim). They wanted to know about boredom.

It may be that I’m a bad judge of what is boring. I’m interested in many things that other people find dull (day job: English professor). That’s OK with me; as I’ve said before, we don’t all have to like the same things.

But I don’t find swimming boring.

There are things to look at in a pool, from other swimmers to light sparkling on the surface. You have to pay attention; you have to know where you are in space, how far you are from people, lane lines, walls. But pools are also beautiful, and I’m happy to watch bubbles off the fins of the woman in the next lane every time I pass her. I never get tired of the view of blue sky upside down through the water in the middle of a flip turn. Small beauties, length after length.

And while it is impossible to talk to people while swimming, I frequently find myself in conversations. Last week I stopped at the wall between sets, and the young man in the next lane over politely asked me teach him how to flip turn. Asking me to teach you how to flip turn is like asking me to teach you how to put on your socks — I’ve been doing it so long I can’t describe the process — but I did my best. Swimming is social; when you go to a pool, you become part of a community.

Finally, there’s a key aspect of swimming that people forget: even when there’s little to see and no one to talk to, there’s so much to feel. I was thinking about it yesterday, the constant tactile stimulation of swimming. When you’re moving through water, all your skin is feeling something all the time. I don’t have to see, and I don’t have to hear because I’m busy feeling.

I’ve complained before that I don’t like swimming in a wetsuit because I can’t feel the water. But the times when I swim in my wetsuit one day and then swim without the next, all my nerve endings light up like Las Vegas as soon as I hit the water, and I feel everything. It’s not boring.

On my way to my regular pool, I go past people walking on treadmills and climbing never-ending stairs in the fitness center, huge screens with FOX and ESPN in front of them and the Sirius satellite radio station playing “Mr. Roboto.” There’s a lot to see, and it’s plenty loud. It looks like hell, frankly, and not a single one of them is smiling.

When I’m swimming, I’m smiling.