10 mile swim

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


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New Year’s Day

“I admire your dedication,” said my new ophthalmologist. I was in his office (more on that later), but we know each other socially, and he was talking about swimming.

When people find out how much I swim and how regularly I swim, they often say something to me about my dedication, whatever that means. I don’t feel particularly dedicated. I’m not a person with a lot of will power. If you put me in a room with a good-looking cake, for example, I will eat that good-looking cake. And yet I’m in the pool five days a week, swimming at least two miles a day. I swam just under 575 miles in 2015.

Today (January 1st) my regular pool is closed, and my usual backup pool is closed, but I wanted to go swimming anyway. So I went for Plan C, the Kroc Center, and paid for a day pass. The Kroc Center is a perfectly acceptable place to swim: the water is too hot, and the pace clock is in a weird location, and I swear there’s a cross current, but the pool itself is clean and bright. I realized that I could see my watch while I’m swimming, unlike in my regular (very dark) pool; my eyes are bad, but in a place with reasonable light, I can read the watch well enough.

Also there’s a kids’ pool next to the lap pool, with a surprisingly good water slide. I went down it three times, just because I could.

The last time I was in the kind of aquatic center where you can swim laps and go down a water slide was the day of my friend C’s memorial service. If you have read the blog before, you know about C; she came for the first ten mile swim in Minnesota. My toenails are always painted teal for her, to raise awareness of ovarian cancer. Early detection is the best weapon we have against ovarian cancer; educate yourself about the symptoms.

On the day of C’s memorial service, I swam at the Kennedy-Shriver Aquatic Center, one of the places she used to swim. The pool is so much like the pool she and I swam in as children on a swim team thirty years ago — not when you look at it from the deck, but in the pool itself, the way the lanes are set up in relation to the deep end — that it was easy to imagine she was in the next lane, swimming with me. When I was done, I went down the water slide, just because I could.

In the afternoon, we said goodbye to C.

I didn’t swim on the day of C’s memorial because I’m dedicated. I swam because swimming is what I do, in good times and in bad. Swimming gives me time to think. C and I used to talk about the mental aspect of swimming: she swam through chemo more than once — she didn’t need a cap, she said, when she had no hair — because it gave her time to think.

It’s New Year’s Day, and it’s traditional to set goals for the year. But I’m not making any big swimming plans right now. I have entered the lottery for the Chesapeake Bay Swim, and we’ll see if I get lucky. I’d love to do Swim the Suck again, if I can swing it. And I have set up my USMS Go the Distance goal for 500 miles for 2016.

But I was at the ophthalmologist last week because I’m having trouble seeing. I have been having trouble for some time, and things are getting worse. I can’t do what I need to do because I can’t see. So, while my number one rule for this blog is that it’s about swimming — not about my family or my work or anything else — I’m noting here that my big project for now is getting my vision problems resolved. If I do, maybe I’ll be able to drive myself to some beautiful open water swims this summer.

Whatever happens, you know I’ll be swimming. Happy 2016, everybody. Hope I see you in the water.


This is my friend C’s obituary, on the Teal Toes website. You should read it, even if you did not know her, because it shows you what a good life looks like — it shows you how to live a beautiful, meaningful life in far too short a time.


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On the Emergency Workout

It was a difficult week. I swam five days, and three of those I swam the emergency workout.

The emergency workout is for days when you are at the end of your rope, when you have lost the rope, when the rope is on fire. It doesn’t do all of the things a workout should do: there is no warm-up, no drills, no stroke work, no cool-down. It has two key qualities: it is efficient, and it requires no thought.

It can be shoehorned into a day when you don’t have time to swim but you also don’t have time to be insane.

My emergency workout is simple: 36 x 100 yards on 1:40. It takes 60 minutes. I follow the pace clock: leave on the 60, on the 40, on the 20. I know I will do that cycle twelve times, but I don’t even have to count to twelve: when I’ve swum for 60 minutes, I stop.

All hail the analog pace clock!

The analog pace clock. I leave when the red second hand is on the 60, the 40, the 20. If the black minute hand is on the 10 when I start, I swim until it’s on the 10 again. That’s all there is to it.

The emergency workout requires nothing of me but that I swim.

Other workouts focus on particular skills, strokes, techniques; they build endurance or speed. This workout does none of that. It has one purpose, and it has never failed me: no matter how bad things seem when I start, they seem better when I am finished.


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How to Be Happy: Open Water Edition

A long time ago I was in a conversation with a colleague in the Psychology department who intoned, “Everyone wants the same thing.” Of course, I asked, “What is that?” And he smiled as if he were about to say something very wise and replied, “To be happy.”

At that moment, I was filled with an unhappy and uncollegial desire to shake him till his teeth rattled. It may be true that everyone wants to be happy—I am not certain, but it could be true—but even if it is true, the pronouncement “Everyone wants to be happy” has got to be one of the least useful true statements ever. Maybe we all want to be happy, but that doesn’t tell us much about ourselves or other people because we all become happy by doing different things.

Which brings us inevitably to the topic of open water swimming. Open water swimming makes me happy. It makes me insanely happy. When I am swimming, I am filled with what Alan Greenspan called “irrational exuberance.”

This swimmer’s high occasionally hits me in pools, but it usually takes a good two miles in a lake. I imagine it can be explained by biochemistry, which suggests that swimming might make lots of people happy. But most people seem to have no interest in trying it. They have different ways of becoming happy.


On Thursday K and I went to the lake for our second swim of the spring. It was a beautiful day. The water temperature was still cool at 71 degrees F, but not cold enough to require wetsuits again. The air temperature was also 71, perfectly fine; the wind, though, was blowing at 13 mph (according to my magic hyper-local weather app), and I said on the drive that the water was going to be choppy.

It was. I was delighted. The first half-mile out was crazy: it was cold, and the waves were coming at us, and I thought, “This is fantastic!”

If I’m going to swim in open water, I want it to feel like open water. If I want glassy calm and 78 degrees, I can go swim in a pool. I was fighting waves out there, getting tossed around; I was lifting my arms high to clear the water and breathing far back to keep from getting hit in the face. It was hard work, and the water was cold, and I was thinking about Beowulf swimming through the north ocean, battling sea monsters all the way. I was smiling as I was swimming.

When we got to the turn around point, K was waiting for me. He was not happy. He said something about how much better it had been last week. I was noncommittal. He said something about how I couldn’t possibly like swimming in these conditions. I said I quite possibly could.

We started back.

As we swam back and the waves pushed us in and I sang “The Sea Refuses No River” to myself, I thought about the previous week’s swim, when I had been trying very hard not to whine so much about my wetsuit: I couldn’t feel the water, I was floating too high, I was getting abrasions on the back of my neck. I find wearing the wetsuit disorienting. In H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Call of Cthulhu,” people have dreams about a city (later found on an uncharted Pacific island) where the angles are “wrong”–there’s some alien non-Euclidian geometry at work, horrifying to the human mind–and that’s kind of how I feel about swimming in a wetsuit: the angles are wrong. And yet wearing a wetsuit doesn’t bother K at all. He likes it. He was happier last week.

All in all, I swam three miles. When I was done, my face hurt from three miles of smiling.

Everyone wants to be happy, but we all become happy by doing different things: the swim that makes me very happy might make you miserable and vice versa. The trick is to find out what makes you happy–and then to do it.

Waves at the lake. My photo.

Waves at the lake. May 1, 2014. My photo.


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On Arm Muscles

I have arm muscles now. I guess I have always had arm muscles, but I mean visible arm muscles; when I flex, something happens. It’s hilarious. I think of the story in the Book of Genesis when the visitors come and tell Sarah that she is going to have a child, and she laughs. Sarah is 99, Abraham is 100, and I’m 45 next week. And yet, Sarah and Abraham have a son! And I have biceps!

I shouldn’t be so surprised. It’s not as if this is a miracle. But these muscles are completely unintentional. They are an accidental by-product of my swimming. I don’t swim to reshape my body. I swim to reshape my mind.

Not long ago, I had a conversation with a friend who referred to me as an athlete, and I told her, I don’t think of myself as an athlete. I think of myself as a person with some mental health issues that can be controlled by swimming.

Swimming calms me when I am anxious; it makes me happy when I am depressed. When I am crazy and I can’t think, swimming gives me my mind back. The effectiveness of swimming (and other aerobic exercise) as treatment against depression is well established. Bonnie Tsui celebrates the emotional and mental benefits of swimming in a recent Sunday New York Times opinion piece:

We enter the meditative state induced by counting laps, and observe the subtle play of light as the sun moves across the lanes. We sing songs, or make to-do lists, or fantasize about what we’re going to eat for breakfast. Submersion creates the space to be free, to stretch, without having to contend with constant external chatter. It creates internal quiet, too . . .

You don’t have to be a great swimmer to appreciate the benefits of sensory solitude and the equilibrium the water can bring.

But this perception of swimming as a solitary mental phenomenon contrasts with another, one that views swimming as physical, muscular, even exhibitionist. Consider this passage, the opening from Andrew Palmer and Brian Platzer’s If I Were Built, I’d Swim Laps (from the Shouts & Murmurs humor column in the New Yorker):

If I were built, I’d swim laps. I’d swim freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly, sidestroke, doggy paddle, and the little-known turtle stroke, to work my obliques. I’d wear bright red Speedos with flames rising from the crotch, an American flag swim cap, and Swedish goggles, and I’d shave my body from head to toe to gain a competitive advantage. I wouldn’t be a competitive swimmer if I were built, but as I swam laps at the local Y I’d pretend I was.

This guy is hilarious, just like my implausible arm muscles. I don’t have a bright red Speedo with flames rising from the crotch, but I do have sparkly goggles with gold stars, and I am (as my friend K points out) the envy of all the 10-and-unders when I wear them. Our narrator, the would-be swimmer, imagines himself “built,” confidently working on his obliques, but from my perspective he’s got it all backwards:

If I were built, I’d stay at the beach till sunset with my dogs, swimming at top speed in the darkening ocean. I wouldn’t fear the ocean if I were built—its obliterating vastness and perpetual thrashing, how it hides a whole shadow world of pre-human creatures who bite or sting or haunt us with their indifference. I wouldn’t think of any of that if I were built. I’d love how it felt to swim in the ocean, my arms pulling hard through the salty water, my body bobbing in the waves. I’d feel connected to something deep out there. If I were built, I’d be at one with the universe.

The narrator thinks that having muscles would make him happy and unafraid, but that’s the wrong way around: it is through the swimming itself that you lose your fear and start to feel “at one with the universe.” Maybe along the way, when you weren’t thinking about it, you develop arm muscles, and you’re built — kind of, for a certain limited definition of “built.”


At the same time, ever since my friend referred to me as an athlete, I’ve been reassessing: I am swimming around 15 miles a week. If I’m not an athlete, then who is? And what is an athlete, anyway? Mrs Swim Write Run introduced me to this quotation from Bill Bowerman, legendary track coach and co-founder of Nike, and I’ve been thinking about it:


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“It’s Always All in the Mind”

As I said in my previous post, if you’re going to swim, you have to be willing to spend a lot of time with yourself. Some people do not enjoy the experience. Consider this Deadspin post from July 2012 titled I’d Rather Go Through NFL Two-A-Days Or Make Myself Puke In the Pool Than Do What Michael Phelps Does. Nate Jackson, who swam summer-league and year-round as a child and then played tight end for the Denver Broncos (much later), compares the swimmer’s workout to the football player’s:

Football two-a-days are brutal, yes. But it’s a frantic brutality, a violent chaos that sweeps you up and allows no time to consider its merits. Swimming is the opposite. You’re all alone down there. No plays to remember. No snap-count. No variables. Just you, stroke after stroke, counting and singing and talking to yourself to the rhythm of your body. And it’s all in the mind. It’s always all in the mind.

“ONEtwothreefourONEtwothreefourONEtwothreefourFIIIIIIIVE . . . Whats with these HOmies dissing my GIRL? What’s with these HOmies dissing my GIRL? What’s with these HOmies dissing my GIRL? What’s with these . . . BAdadadaBAdadadaBAdadadaDAAA, BAdadadaBAdadadaBAdadadaDAAAAA!” That was my inner monologue, to infinity and beyond. Cue the psychosis.

I laughed out loud at Jackson’s account of his thoughts while swimming; that is as good a description of the singing swimmer as anything I’ve ever read. I don’t think I have ever sung “Buddy Holly” to myself while swimming, but I’ve sung a lot. Last fall I went miles and miles on “16 Days“; in times of desperation, swimming open water far from shore, I go for the longest song I know all the words to, “American Pie,” on repeat till I make it in.

The singing phenomenon is widespread: multiple news reports describe Diana Nyad singing Beatles songs, “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and Bob Dylan, and Neil Young, as well as counting. But does this lead to psychosis or sanity? Here I think we have to say, different strokes for different folks: many, myself included, find the repetitive motion of swimming (and the singing) meditative. Charles Sprawson, in his cult classic on swimming, Haunts of the Black Masseur, quotes Bill Bachrach, legendary coach, “The swimmer’s solitary training, the long hours spent semi-submerged, induce a lonely, meditative state of mind.” I’m not lonely, but I am alone, semi-submerged, and the meditative state of mind means I get out of the pool much saner than when I went in.

At the same time it’s not exactly true that when you swim there are no variables or things to remember. You can do a swim like that, long and unstructured. Most of the time, however, you don’t just get in a pool, swim 4000 yards, and get out. You swim sets on intervals. This is what I swam yesterday:

  • 400 free warm-up
  • 200 free, 200 kick, 200 pull, 200 free
  • 8 x 100 pull on 1:50
  • 400 kick (alternating flutter and dolphin by 100s)
  • 12 x 100 alternating IM and free (IM on 1:50, free on 1:40)
  • 250 kick
  • 150 free/back/free cool down

That first line reads “400 yards freestyle warm-up”; the third is “eight repetitions of 100 yards, pulling (i.e. arms-only) on a 1:50 interval.” You can tell I was playing number games with 400s and 800s; sometimes it’s 500s and 1000s. But in any case, I’m thinking about distances and times and where my right hand enters the water, and I’m switching up strokes and drills.

What I do in my head varies too. Some days I’m singing, but some days I’m working through whatever problem I’ve brought to the pool, whether from work or from home. One day last fall I went to the pool having spent a fruitless half hour tearing apart my office looking for my lost parking stickers; as I swam I remembered where I put them.  On still other days, when I am angry and fed up and absolutely do not want to think, I do sprints. My go-to sprint workout is 60 x 50 on :50. I can maintain that pace for the full set, but it doesn’t give me time to think about anything. And it has never failed me. 60 x 50 on :50 wipes my mind clean; it’s the hard reset, the return-to-factory-settings.

As Jackson says, swimming is “all in the mind. It’s always all in the mind.” The question is whether you like it there.

If you swim, what’s on your mental playlist? Or, tell me, what’s the workout (swimming or other exercise) that you do when you are fed up?