10 mile swim

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


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How to Swim 500 Miles a Year

For the past three years (2104, 2015, and 2016), I have swum over 500 miles a year. It’s hard to articulate why. It’s not as if when I was a child I dreamed of being the kind of crazy person who swims 500 miles a year. But that’s the kind of crazy person I turned out to be. And if you think you might be that kind of crazy person too, here’s my advice on how to do it.

Let me note that I have two advantages. First, I work at a university with a pool. That means that most of the time I just have to get out of my office and walk across campus to swim (walking across campus is easy; getting out of the office is hard). Second, I have a lot of control over my schedule. I don’t have infinite flexibility, but I have more power to decide when I do things than some people do.

On the other hand, my life is not simple. I have a full-time job, two kids, a dog, and regular volunteer commitments. I have things going on. I’m sure you do too. So how do you get to 500 miles a year?

1) Put swimming on the schedule, and make it mandatory.

There are some things that I have do at certain times. For example, I have to teach my classes at their scheduled times. Teaching class at its scheduled time is mandatory. I do not schedule meetings, student conferences, medical appointments, haircuts, or anything else during the time I teach.

In the same way, during the school year I swim at the pool at lunchtime. Swimming at that time is mandatory. I do not schedule meetings, student conferences, medical appointments, haircuts, or anything else during the time I swim.

Last summer, I was coaching swim team on weekday mornings starting at 8 am. I got to the pool every morning at 6:15 to swim a couple miles before the children arrived. That was the only time I could swim, so that was when I did it. Every day.

Put swimming on the schedule, and make it mandatory.

2) Make alternative plans.

Sometimes (heaven help me) I have to go to a lunch meeting. Or I have a university event or a conference out of town or maybe even a vacation. That does not mean I don’t swim. I figure out another way.

In 2015, our pool shut down unexpectedly and without warning. The Powers That Be arranged for us to swim for free at a nearby pool, which was terrific. Unfortunately, that pool’s open swim hours were not the same as our open swim hours. I rescheduled everything I could. I made it to lap swim at that pool, every day, until our pool reopened.

When I went to Vancouver for a combination work trip/vacation, I swam at the Kitsilano Beach pool. When the family went to Disney in Orlando for my in-laws’ 50th anniversary, we swam at Lucky’s Lake Swim (it helps to marry into a family of swimmers). I’ve swum at public pools and health center pools and various Ys, not to mention some lakes and the occasional ocean, in the U.S., Canada, England, and Ireland.

I have written about travel swimming before; my quick advice is to pack a suit, a cap, goggles, flip-flops, a lock, and a towel. Bring your second-best towel, just in case.

The point is, you will inevitably run into problems. Don’t give up. Find another time to swim; find another place to swim. Make alternative plans.

3) Trust the swimming.

There are days when I don’t want to swim. There are days when I don’t have time to swim. You know what I do on those days? I go swimming anyway.

I have found that the days that I don’t want to swim and I don’t have time to swim are the days when swimming helps me the most. I think better when I swim. I work better when I swim. I am a better person when I swim.

Don’t debate with yourself about whether you should go swimming. Just go. Get up wherever you are, and head toward the water. Trust the swimming.


There are obstacles that can keep a person from swimming. I have experienced some of them. I had a period of time when I could not swim, in the sense that my doctor told me, “You cannot swim.” When my children were small, it was very difficult to find time to get to the pool. I know that costs and transportation problems are significant impediments for many people, and there are probably other issues I haven’t thought of.

But if you don’t have those barriers in your life, and you think it would be fun to swim 500 miles a year, don’t mistake solvable problems for major obstacles. A regular — if somewhat crazy — person can do it.


Here are some numbers: 500 miles is 880,000 yards. I usually swim 3600 yards a day, five days a week. If I’m heading toward a big swim, I swim more. But at a 3600 yard a day, five day a week pace, a person can swim 500 miles in 49 weeks, leaving three weeks for illness or unavoidable obligations.

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My monthly totals from 2016. Screenshot from my USMS flog (fitness log), December 2016.


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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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Snow Outside, Swim Inside

“You can’t go swimming. It’s snowing,” said the man in the office next to mine. People say crazy things like that to me all winter long. I’ve learned there’s no point in arguing with them. The best thing to do is smile and nod while slowly backing away, preferably in the direction of the pool.

There are people you need to listen to when they say, “You can’t go swimming.” Lifeguards. Park rangers. Doctors. A few years ago my doctor told me that I might have a major medical problem, the kind that could kill me, and that I shouldn’t exercise until we had done tests to rule it out. I said, “I can’t go swimming?” And she said, “You can’t go swimming.” It took over a month for all the tests and scans. It was a miserable time. But until I was cleared, I didn’t go swimming.

However, people who say, “You can’t go swimming. It’s snowing,” are not people I need to listen to. My pool is inside, and it’s heated. In fact, it’s warmer than my office, which is kept at a temperature more suited for storing wine than English professors. (I think the university is hoping I will age better at a low temperature.) Snow outside is no reason not to swim inside.

My university campus in the snow. Photo by Daniel Crowe.

Campus in the snow. This is the way to the pool. Photo by Daniel Crowe.

Strangely, people are not convinced when I explain about the indoor, heated pool. They repeat that it’s too cold to swim. I wonder if they don’t understand that swimming is a heat-generating activity. If your only swimming experience is lying around in a pool on a summer day, you might not realize that exercise in water warms your body the same as on land. But it does. I get hot swimming. When I swim sprints, I go all pink in the face.

There are too many real problems that can keep a person out of the water. There’s no need to worry about pretend ones. I am waiting for spring when I can get outside to the lakes again. But all winter long, snow or no snow, I’m still swimming.


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More on Swim Caps

Why do we wear clothes? I’m no cultural anthropologist, but I’d say clothes serve two main purposes: they protect us from our environment, and they allow us to communicate information about ourselves to others. And when we are not wearing very much clothing, the few clothes we are wearing have to do a lot of communicating.

Which brings us to the swim cap. Most of the time, when you’re swimming, you aren’t wearing much clothing. And though a swimmer communicates information about herself with her swimsuit and her gear, the most efficient means by which a swimmer can assert her identity is through the swim cap.

I’ve been thinking a lot about swim caps lately. I’m frustrated. Back in early November, I reached my 500-mile Go the Distance goal for 2015, and I have been trying ever since — that’s two-and-half months — to buy a 500-mile cap from US Masters Swimming. Just to be clear, I don’t want them to give me a cap; I want the opportunity to pay them money for a cap. They are updating their online store. I made some quaint 20th-century suggestions — could I call someone on the phone with a credit card number? could I mail someone a check? — but to no avail. I have had plenty of time to think about why I want this 500-mile cap.

It’s not to protect my hair from the environment. Non-swimmers are sometimes surprised to learn that a cap does not keep your hair dry. Caps are like wetsuits; they let the water in. A cap will, however, keep your hair out of your eyes when you swim. And it will keep your hair out of your pool’s filters. That’s why some places require caps — to protect the pool, not you.

Just as important, swimmers wear caps that tell other swimmers about themselves. You can proclaim your love of breaststroke or Brazil or breakfast. You can declare your allegiance to a team or other group. A little while ago, a student gave me a couple of caps from the university’s club swim team. I usually bring one with me when I travel. When I wear it, I feel I am a representative of the institution, and I make a special effort to behave myself. Last summer I wore it when I swam at the gaspingly beautiful Kitsilano pool in Vancouver, my purple university cap in that huge blue pool.

When I swim at my regular pool, I usually wear a cap from an open water swim. At every open water race I’ve ever done, I’ve received a race cap. Swimmers are required to wear the cap for the event. During a race, it makes it easier for safety personnel to find and identify you. It usually has your race number written on it in Sharpie.

After the race you take your cap home and wear it in the pool, and you have on your head the physical reminder of your fabulous swim. Sometimes a cap will have some super cool race logo, and people can look at your head and think, “Look at that super cool person with the super cool race cap.” At least, you can imagine that’s what they’re doing.

Some of this summer's caps. From left to right: the Dam Swim for Drew, Swim the Suck, the Lowcountry Splash.

Some of this summer’s caps. From left to right: the Dam Swim for Drew, Swim the Suck, the Lowcountry Splash. Red was the hip color in 2015. My photo.

People take caps seriously. I swam a race one year that gave out caps that said something about a Virginia triathlon series on them. It was not a triathlon, and it was not in Virginia; the race organizers must have gotten them cheap in bulk. When I wore my race cap to the pool later, one of my friends confronted me. “When have you done a triathlon?” he demanded. I’m not interested in triathlons, and he knows it. He felt I was wearing the cap under false pretenses. A cap must serve two purposes, and while that cap did a fine job keeping the hair out of my face, it communicated inaccurate information about me. It was not a wholly successful cap.

You can’t get sentimental about caps. They don’t last forever. And there’s always some point in the spring before race season starts when all my caps seem to be stretched out and start to rip, and I start wondering if I’ll make it to the first race of the year without having to buy a cap. I don’t want to buy a regular cap. I want a race cap.

My caps aren’t ripping yet, but they will be. And, as I said, I don’t want to buy a regular cap. I want that 500-mile Go the Distance cap. If I ever get one, I’ll post a photo. Sure, it will keep the hair out of my eyes. But more important, it will say, truthfully, “This is a person who has swum a long, long way.”


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On the Flip Turn

People talk to me in pools. It doesn’t surprise me anymore, although I still find it odd; strangers don’t just start up conversations with me anywhere else. Sometimes I think it’s because I’m a regular at the pool, so people see me a lot and feel they know me. Sometimes I think it’s because I’m small and female, so people find me unintimidating. But recently I’ve started to think it’s because I’m happier in the pool; I look happy, and so people want to talk to me.

People talk to me about lots of things, but more than anything else they talk about flip turns. No one has ever asked me about swimming butterfly or holding a kickboard, but many people have asked me to show them how to flip turn. The other day, a young man asked me why I was doing flip turns, which did surprise me, as I thought the purpose of flip turns was obvious: it’s a good way to turn around.

Of course, a person like me who only races open water doesn’t really need to do flip turns in practice. In fact, Steven Munatones (in Open Water Swimming) suggests that pool swimmers training for open water races practice swimming from one end of the black line to the other (from “T” to “T”) and turn in the water without pushing off the wall at all.

But I don’t practice so that I can swim races; I sign up for races so I have an excuse to swim. And I love flip turns. I love them completely and unironically, and I don’t love anything completely and unironically — except my children and maybe vanilla ice cream with hot fudge sauce.

Vanilla ice cream with hot fudge sauce. No ironic detachment needed.

I love flip turns the way I love vanilla ice cream with hot fudge sauce — without ironic detachment.

When you’re swimming, there’s an instant of weightlessness in every flip turn, a split second when you are suspended upside down and backwards right before you push off the wall and start up your stroke again. It’s a moment of grace during which you are excused from gravity.

And the flip turn is the smaller person’s advantage in any race. Curled up, I’ve got a small radius, and I can flip fast. In the summer, when I’m swimming 40 x 50 m in the 25 meter pool with the guys, all of whom are six to ten inches taller than me, my entire race strategy rests on my fast flip turn. If I can keep up with them for the first length, I’m ahead after the turn, and I can hold them off on the way back.

There’s no point in describing how to do a flip turn; I can barely follow written descriptions of flip turns, and I know how to do them already. My advice to you, if you want to learn, is to watch YouTube videos. Here’s Ryan Lochte, showing you how it should look:

 

And Go Swim takes the flip turn apart for you. This is step one in a five step series:

 

One trick to remember, especially if you get water up your nose: gently exhale through your nose as you go around. Humming will work. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

The flip turn is one of those skills that marks a person as a “real” swimmer, someone with training. But don’t learn to do a flip turn so that you can become “real.” You are already real. Learn to flip turn because flip turns are fun. They will make you happy.

 

 


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How to Swim When Your Pool Is Closed

Swimming is not an optional activity for me. I swim two miles a day, five days a week. I don’t ask myself whether I’ll swim on a given day any more than I ask myself whether I’ll eat lunch. On rare occasions something comes up, and I can’t swim, and on those days I deal with it as the mature adult I am. But I don’t enjoy a day off. I work best on two miles a day.

This Monday, however, after I walked across campus to the pool, I encountered this sign.

This is a bad sign. My photo. Oct 2015.

This is a bad sign. My photo. Oct 2015.

There is something wrong with the roof over the pool. I assume it’s related to the incredible amount of rain we had in early October. In any case, the roof may cave in, and the pool has been drained, and no one knows when it’s going to open again.

But swimming is not an optional activity. Every day I heat up leftovers in the office microwave and eat them for lunch; if the microwave broke, would I stop eating lunch? Of course not. I’d figure out another way.

By the time I got to the pool at lunchtime Monday, the fitness center was already working on another way; they had called Westside Aquatic Complex to arrange for us to swim there. Westside is a county rec center; it’s 10-15 minutes drive away from campus. We swam there when our pool was closed for renovations in late 2013, and Westside swimmers come to us when their place is closed for meets. It’s a beautiful facility, and I’m happy to swim there when I can.

So I went back to my office, found the WAC open swim schedule on their website, and rearranged my whole life so that I could make there for lap swim for the duration. Their open hours are not the same as our open hours, but I cleared a space in the middle of the day, moving my responsibilities around, and I have just enough time to make it there for two miles of swimming if I don’t mess around.

And I’m not going to mess around. I can waste time with the best of them, but I was trained at a young age to get my homework done so that I could go to swim practice. This is the same deal, thirty-plus years later. It’s just a matter of remembering what’s important.

I swam at WAC Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday this week, and I plan to make it Friday as well. It’s not exactly easy. They don’t have a swimsuit water extractor (or any permanent lockers) there, so I have to keep a wet swimsuit in my car all day; I hang it up when I get home, but it doesn’t dry overnight. I’m carrying around a wet towel too, which isn’t great, and my shampoo is going to spill in my gym bag at some point, because it always does. Oh, and I’m wearing jeans to work for the duration. I don’t have time for grown-up clothes.

But you can’t just stop swimming because of some inconveniences, big or small. I’m fortunate to have another pool to swim in. And I’m less than five miles from my 500 mile goal for the year. I’m pretty sure I’ll swim that 500th mile at Westside.


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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.