10 mile swim

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

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On Adjusting the Yardage

I’m having a rough time right now. I’m dealing with it by swimming a lot of butterfly. It’s no surprise that I’m having a rough time right now; it’s December, and December is difficult. Fortunately I have enough self-awareness to recognize what’s going on. I swim for my mental health — any physical benefits are just happy side effects — and I know when I need to adjust the dosage, I mean, yardage.

There are times when a person swims long, steady, meditative swims under beautiful skies. And there are times when a person swims sprints, 12 x 25 alt free and fly, in old, dark 25-yard pools.

Swimming butterfly is the opposite of meditative. It is all-consuming. I have to concentrate on technique the whole time: putting my hands up straight ahead of my shoulders, keeping my feet in the water. When I get tired, my hands hit each other in front and my feet pop out, and I think, “Dammit, woman, get it together.” By number eight I’m breathing hard. By number twelve I’m done.

But if I swim enough butterfly, peace descends upon me like a blanket placed on my shoulders. Sometimes I can feel it hit as I’m walking back to the office. It’s clearly biochemical — endocannabinoids– and it works. Make your own mood-altering chemicals, my friends, in your own bodies.

Yesterday I swam this:

  • 2 x 500 modified SKIP
  • 12 x 25 alt free/fly on :30
  • 200 free, breathe every 5 strokes
  • 200 free breathe whenever I wanted
  • 6 x 50 kick on 1:00
  • 12 x 25 alt free/fly on :30 (again)
  • 4 x 75 (25 free, 25 fly, 25 free) on 1:20
  • 4 x 75 (25 free, 25 back, 25 free) on 1:20
  • 4 x 75 (25 free, 25 breast, 25 free) on 1:25
  • 4 x 75 (all free) on 1:15
  • 100 cool down

That’s 3600 yards. A SKIP is Swim, Kick, IM, Pull; I did the 500s as 200 swim, 100, kick, 100 IM, 100 pull.  And those 25s, by the way, are really on 25 seconds (free) or 35 seconds (fly), so I can have more rest for the fly.

When the roof was being fixed at my pool last month, the pace clocks at either end of the pool became unsynched. I didn’t realize it until the first time I did a set that involved 25s or 75s. I came up at the far end, looked at the clock, and became completely disoriented. Time made no sense. So now I’m using the stopwatch function on my watch, which is as difficult as the rest of December: I’m not wearing reading glasses while I swim, and I can barely make out the numbers.

My eyes are old. And it’s December. But I’m dealing with it. I’m swimming butterfly.


The 400 IM, or How to Teach Yourself Not to Panic

Don’t panic and carry a towel: good advice for hitchhikers and swimmers alike.
Image from Wikipedia Commons.

I’ve started swimming 400 IMs. I’m not swimming them because I need to practice all four competitive strokes for my ten mile swim. I’m swimming them because I need to practice not panicking.

But let me back up. An IM is an individual medley, equal distances of the four competitive strokes in a set order: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle. A 100 IM is 25 yards (or meters) of each one; a 200 IM is 50 of each; etc. A 400 IM, then, is 100 butterfly, 100 backstroke, 100 breaststroke, 100 freestyle.

The 400 IM is traditionally considered a tough event. It is the longest IM swum in regular competition, and it hurts like hell. Tony Austin at SCAQblog has suggested that there should be a merit badge for every USA Swimming kid who completes a 400 IM without disqualification in competition; I want a badge just for doing the 400 IM without dying in practice.

Merit badge for surviving a 400 IM: Image from SCAQblog

As I said above, I don’t need to practice the four competitive strokes to do them during the ten mile swim. I will probably do some breaststroke along the way–it’s easy to look around and get your bearings doing breaststroke–and if the weather is nice, I’ll do some backstroke to look up at the beautiful Minnesota sky. But I don’t plan to do miles of either back or breast, and I don’t plan to do any butterfly at all.

I’m practicing the 400 IM for other reasons. Both Lynne Cox (Open Water Swimming Manual) and Steven Munatones (Open Water Swimming) advocate doing all strokes in practice for open water events. Cox notes, “It [doing the four strokes] will give you a variety of swimming skills to work out; it will keep your mind active; and it will enable you to work and stretch different muscle groups so that you can build overall strength” (60). Munatones adds another advantage, “The ability to swim straight is one of the best assets of an open water swimmer. In addition to bilateral breathing and having an efficient freestyle stroke, you can help yourself become more symmetrical by adding butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and individual medley sets to your pool swimming workouts” (121).

Check out this USA Swimming video of the 2013 National Championships in the women’s 400 IM; two of the eight competitors are introduced as 10K swimmers as well as pool swimmers.

I would add yet one more advantage to swimming the 400 IM to the ones named by Cox and Munatones: it builds perseverance. A 400 IM is at the edge of my endurance. It’s the 100 butterfly, of course: 25 yards is not a problem, 50 yards is doable, but 75 yards begins to hurt, and somewhere between 75 and 100 I can’t breathe. Sometimes I can’t get the air in. Sometimes I inhale water. Getting to the backstroke leg is a relief but not a rest; I still have 300 more yards to go.

This, I would say, is a good simulation of choppy water conditions at the end of a long race: I’m worn out, I get a faceful of water, and I can’t breathe. It’s not that I’m practicing the IM. I’m practicing swimming while coughing and feeling as if I’m dragging an anchor.

Some days I’ve just thrown a 400 IM somewhere into my 4000 yards. But I’ve also done this ladder set as my main set a few times; I adapted it from Steven Munatones’s IM workout suggestions in Open Water Swimming. I take 15 seconds (or so) between each swim:

100 IM + 100 free
200 IM + 200 free
300 IM + 300 free
400 IM + 400 free
= 2000 yards

It’s not pretty, and it hurts a lot. But I can do it. I’m learning not to panic.

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On Butterfly

I am unconscionably vain about my butterfly–unconscionably and unjustifiably, because I’m really not that good at it. But I can do it, and I do do it, and that sets me apart from most folks in any pool that I’m in. Periodically someone will compliment me on my butterfly, which is very bad not only because it fuels my vanity but also because I interpret any compliment about butterfly as functionally equivalent to a marriage proposal. One Saturday I was swimming at the Furman pool, and a woman told me my butterfly was “sweet”: “That’s some sweet butterfly,” she said. I smiled on the outside and said, “Thank you!” but on the inside I lamented, “ALAS BUT OUR LOVE CAN NEVER BE FOR I AM MARRIED TO ANOTHER!”

Most people I swim with are happy to swim lap after lap of freestyle, but I have five good reasons why I swim butterfly (and maybe you should too):

1. Butterfly uses your whole body.

Butterfly uses all your muscles, and probably some you don’t have. Maybe you saw the reports in November about how doctors have discovered a new knee ligament; I am sure butterfly uses that ligament. The Livestrong website has an article about the muscles that butterfly works, but I think it would be easier to list the muscles that it doesn’t work. Maybe your tongue? I don’t know though; even my tongue hurts after doing butterfly. It’s a full body workout.

2. Butterfly burns all the calories.

You can find calculators online that tell you how many calories you’re burning when you are swimming different strokes. But you can ignore them: butterfly burns all the calories. If you are swimming so that you can eat, butterfly will let you eat more–trusting you are not too tired to pick up a fork.

3. Butterfly is sexy.

So, judgments about sexiness are subjective and dependent on individual preferences as well as cultural factors. But look at this:

Or if you’d like a nice underwater view (although with lots of non-sexy gurgly noises):

Butterfly takes power and grace, and power and grace together are seriously sexy. If you haven’t watched a good butterflier and said to yourself, “I wonder if those skills are transferable,” well, you will now.

4. Butterfly feels real.

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.

As far as I know, Sylvia Plath did not swim, but swimming, like dying, is an art, and no part of that art feels real like butterfly does. I can swim freestyle a long way and zone out; I can forget what lap I’m on or even which direction I’m going. But I never zone out doing butterfly; I am always completely present. I suppose this is a corollary to point 1, about butterfly using your whole body, but if you are questioning whether you exist (or if you are just a brain in a vat), I suggest a couple lengths of butterfly. It feels real.

5. Butterfly is intimidating.

Maybe you are a big hairy man covered with tattoos, and your problem is convincing people that you are not that scary. But I am five-foot-four-and-a-half with freckles, and my problem is communicating that I am much scarier than I look. And this is where butterfly comes in. When I swim butterfly, people give me space. Not even the most clueless beginner gets in the lane with the crazy woman swimming butterfly. It makes me laugh, but it’s true: I’m scary when I swim butterfly. You could be too.

I am not the only one who is a fan of butterfly. The Warrenton Masters Swim Team is sponsoring a USMS postal competition, the Butterfly Is Not a Crime Postal through August 31, 2014. Earlier this year, Sylvain Estadieu became the first male to swim butterfly across the English Channel; the incredible Vicky Keith was the first person to swim butterfly across the English Channel back in 1989 (see her website Penguins Can Fly).