10 mile swim

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


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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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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 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.


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Questions About Open Water Swimming: 3) What If You Get a Cramp?

I am doing a series of posts in which I answer questions my (non-swimming) friends have asked me about open water swimming. One of these questions is, “What if you get a cramp?” But no one ever asks me this question calmly; they usually ask it like this: “WHAT IF YOU GET A CRAMP???!!!11!?”

Let me allay your concerns. A cramp does not turn you to rock and cause you to sink inexorably to your death.

The Thing is covered with rock, and he can swim and fight Namor at the same time. He must have excellent body position

The Thing is huge and covered with rock, and not only can he swim, he can fight Namor at the same time. He must have excellent body position.

A cramp is just an annoyance, not a crisis.

I get cramps every once in a while, more often in pools than in open water (more on that in a bit), and here’s what I do when I get one that I can’t ignore:

  1. I stop whatever I’m doing.
  2. I do something else.
  3. If 1 and 2 do not solve the problem, I gently stretch the cramping muscle. And then
  4. I get on with the swimming.

I am not a medical professional. I can only tell you what it’s like being me living in my body. But I have never had a cramp that required me to get help — or even to get out of the water. I do steps 1-4 while floating.

When you train, you learn how your body works and what your issues are. For me, I get cramps in my calves or in my feet, and I get them during or soon after kick sets or after pushing off the wall. A change in activity is usually the precipitating event: maybe the kick set goes fine, but when I push off the wall in the next set, a calf cramps up. One crazy day in September this year, I swam 15,000 yards in a 25 yard pool — not my first choice of venue — and by the end my calves would cramp with every push off. But that was a day of several hundred turns. It was not a normal day.

More to the point, in open water, there are no kick sets or walls, and, as a result, I almost never get cramps in open water. In fact, I can only think of one time I got a cramp during an open water swim. Again, the trigger was a sudden change in activity. I was nearing the end of a two mile race and looking for the finish; I did a quick whip kick after two miles of steady flutter, and one of my calves cramped up tight. So I shook the leg out and kept swimming, cursing heartily. I lost a little time, and I may have offended some delicate sensibilities, but the cramp itself was not a big deal.

Preventing cramps is better than dealing with them when they come. I’m pretty sure that dehydration contributed to the cramp during the race: it happened at the end of a swim in a warm lake in August. A two mile swim is not long enough to require hydration mid-race, but I probably should have had more fluids beforehand. In a longer race (like the two ten-milers I’ve done) either you’ll have a kayaker along to hand you liquids or there will be hydration stations on the course. You should stay hydrated at practice too. You don’t notice yourself sweating in the water, but you do. Have a good drink before you start, and put a water bottle on the side of the pool for breaks.

While we’re on the subject, the claim that you must wait an hour after eating to swim or risk deadly stomach cramps is complete and utter nonsense. I eat as I walk over to the pool. Sometimes I eat on the pool deck. During a long swim, I eat while floating on my back in the middle of the water. We all do. And swimmers regularly eat through swim meets. You can eat your lunch and go right to swim. Be sure to have a good-sized glass of water with it.

Finally, if you have a medical crisis of any kind during a open water race, you will have support boats on the course to assist you. If you actually do turn to rock, perhaps they won’t be much help. But I’m willing to take the risk. Happy swimming!

 


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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.


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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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On “Swim”

Recently a friend posted an article from Sports Illustrated about our local hockey team on Facebook. I read it. And then I looked at the SI.com header and saw the categories listed, things like soccer and golf and NFL. One of the categories was “swim,” and so I clicked on it.

When I see the word “swim” on a sports website, I expect to find coverage of the sport of swimming. I’m crazy like that. But if you know anything about Sports Illustrated or their annual swimsuit edition, you can guess what I found: photos of models in bikinis, sitting on beaches and lounging in meadows and perching in groups on convertibles, but none of them actually swimming.

A person can find many disturbing things on the internet, and heavily photoshopped photos of almost naked women are low on the list. But I am resentful of the way Sports Illustrated has co-opted the word “swim” to mean “photos of almost naked women here to be ogled.” Swimming is not about putting your body on display. It’s about using your body to move through the water. It’s about power and motion and efficiency and joy. It’s mostly about joy.

The whole matter wouldn’t be worth mentioning except that I know people — many people — who tell me that they don’t swim or that they feel uncomfortable swimming because they don’t want to be looked at.

It makes me very sad. I love swimming. I would like other people to love swimming. But these people don’t swim. And they are not unusual; Body Positive Athletes reports, “93% of people have identified a fear of judgement about their size, shape, or level of fitness as a barrier to starting physical activity.”

Swimming is a great sport for people who are returning to exercise — people who are overweight, ill, injured — and yet those are sometimes the people who most fear exposing their bodies to others, people who have been ridiculed for the way their bodies look.

I don’t know how to make uncomfortable people feel comfortable about putting on a swimsuit, how to combat our obsession about how we look and how other people look. All I can say is that I’ve swum in a lot of places, and I have seen a lot of people in swimsuits, and none of them have bodies like you see in the so-called “swim” section of SI.com. Human bodies are squishy and lumpy. They have fat and moles and hair. They sag. Speaking only about my own body, I am so pale I make beluga whales look tan. But swimmers don’t go to the pool to look at other people’s bodies — or to be looked at. We go to swim.

This beluga whale is very pale. Photo by le LIz.

This beluga whale is very pale, and so am I. We both love to swim. Awesome photo by le Liz.

So, if you can, as best you can, forget about “swimming” as defined by Sports Illustrated, and think about swimming as it really is: power, motion, efficiency, joy. Do you love swimming? Swim.


I love swimming, and I love this commercial. Make me one with the female equivalent of this man in it, and I’ll buy whatever it is you’re selling.