10 mile swim

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


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Four Places to Swim Before You Die

I don’t like bucket lists. And when I get sucked into a bucket list about swimming (14 Places to Swim Before You Die is a typical example), I am invariably disappointed. Some of the places listed are good places to float, especially to float while drinking a cocktail, but they are not places to swim.

I think I can do a better bucket list. I offer you four places to swim before you die:

1) Across a lake

You don’t necessarily have to swim across a lake. You could swim across a channel or a strait, or you could swim from an island to the shore. What’s important here is that you swim across. Start on land and head out into deep water; swim and swim until you get to the other side, using nothing but your own body to get there.

You don’t have to swim a huge distance; you want to be able to see where you came from at the end. Then you can stand on the land and look back across the water and think, “I got here all by myself.”

You feel like you’ve gotten somewhere when you swim across a lake.

2) In the rain

Swimming in the rain is among the great joys of life. There is some voice inside you that says responsible, grown-up things like “Go to work” and “Don’t eat that cookie” and “Come in out of the rain.” When you swim in the rain, you can tell that voice to shut the hell up. Swimming in the rain feels like Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Day. It feels like Jeans Day.

When you swim in the rain, you feel the raindrops on your shoulders. You feel them on your arms when you lift them out of the water and on your face when you breathe. It doesn’t matter if you get wet, because you’re already wet — you’re swimming.

All rules are suspended, all debts are forgiven when you swim in the rain.

3) In the nude

If you swim a lot and you think about swimming a lot, eventually you’re going to come around to one inescapable conclusion: wearing clothes in water is weird. All the research into fabrics, all the fancy swimsuit technology — it is all to make swimming in clothes more like swimming naked.

For long distance swimmers, especially women, swimsuits cause as many problems as they solve. Lynne Cox notes in her Open Water Swimming Manual, “Because of problems with chafing, there were top female open water swimmers in the 1920s and ’30s who swam naked. Today there are women who wear two-piece swimsuits until they get in the water, and then they ditch their tops, hand them over to their escort paddlers, and when they finish their workout, they put their tops back on and head to shore.” When I’m swimming long distances — in a pool as well as in open water — I use Body Glide on my shoulders, neck, and arms to prevent chafing where my swimsuit rubs against skin.

It is important that we respect the conventions of the communities in which we swim. In other words, you can’t just show up to the pool naked. And goodness knows I have no more desire to be the only nude swimmer at a pool or beach full of clothed people than I do to be the only person in pajamas at the next faculty meeting.

But before you die, you should get yourself to a place — a physical location and a social space — where you can take off your clothes and swim. Wreck Beach in Vancouver is a good choice.

On this side of the sign, you can swim naked. On the other side, you have to wear clothes. Which side are you on? My photo. June 2015.

On this side of the sign, you can swim naked. On the other side, you have to wear clothes. Which side are you on? My photo. June 2015.

In the life I lead, I don’t get to swim naked often, but each time I do, I remember, “Oh, yeah, this is what swimming is supposed to feel like.”

You can approximate the feeling of swimming in the nude by swimming in a full wetsuit and then later in just a regular swimsuit. I do this in the spring sometimes, swimming in the lake in a wetsuit one day and in the pool the next. When you push off the wall the second day, all the nerve receptors in your bare arms and legs light up like the midway at the state fair. It’s as if you feel the water for the first time.

4) In the same place you swam yesterday, and the day before, and the day before.

If I had one last swim, I would want to swim in the same place I swim every day — my home pool.

The key thing about your home pool is that it’s yours. You know how far it is from the T at the end of the lane to the wall, so you always hit the flip turns. You know the best lane and the worst lane. You know all the lifeguards and all the regulars, and they know you. You know your pool.

Before you die, swim at some place long enough and often enough so that it becomes your home. Make it yours.

I like to see new places, and I like to swim in new bodies of water. But when it comes down to it, the best place to swim is the place you’re in, in the body you have. Go swim there.


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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.