On Sunday, I completed the first "race" of my 2017 open-water season. I put race in quotes because I struggle to call my open-water swim events races the way I used to call my triathlons and marathons races. Unlike the latter two, I approach swim events with different goals - to finish, to feel strong, to beat my previous effort (if there was one). Open water swimmers are different that way. Most of them swim to swim, as I do, and not to win. They swim to get to the other side. They swim to conquer the water - the elements - or because they feel a kinship with the water. During pre-race check-in on Sunday, I met a guy who "does only one event [this one] every year." He does it to stay in shape, and he always finishes in the middle "somewhere," but he loves the idea that swimming is just him and his speedo against the elements - and that's it.
The event I did was the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. It's a 4.4-mile swim across the bay between the two separate lanes of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. I did it last year (2016) and had a less-than-enjoyable experience because of overheating in my wetsuit. This year, I had no intention of wearing a wetsuit, which would obviously make me slower, but the goal was to have a strong swim. You know, one with no stopping, no lolly-gagging, no eating and drinking, no molesting a kayaker for water, and no consideration of dropping out.
Because all those things happened last year (2016 race report).
This year's race was different in many ways. As I said, I swam without a wetsuit. But my preparation has been different. I'm swimming a lot more and a bit faster in training. I also knew what to expect in terms of the course. And the race day was different. The swim started at 8:30 am instead of noon. Chesapeake Bay was about three degrees colder, but it was also calmer. And the tides were slightly different.
The day started for me with that old racing bugaboo: a sleepless night. It was most surprising for me because my husband Jim and I had spent a lovely evening in Washington, DC, with dear friends, and I was in a very relaxed and happy mood. I wasn't thinking about the swim, but apparently my subconscious was preoccupied with it. I don't know why. I was trained well, I had finished it last year, and I had no designs on placing.
When the alarm went off at 5:30, I had to remind myself of how many races (including Ironman Kona) that I had, indeed, completed on no sleep. But I was disappointed in myself because I ALWAYS feel better when I get even just one hour of sleep.
When I got up, I quickly ate a banana and a liquid protein/carb drink, we took showers, and headed to Sandy Point Beach for the start.
Here are some photos of the Bay Bridge from Sandy Point State Park (location of the start) in Annapolis, MD. This shows almost the full distance we have to swim (the bridge span is just over 4 miles long):
Mile two is somewhere between in the middle of the suspension bridge span (in the shipping channel), here:
Mile three is somewhere under the truss bridge span, here:
With a predicted high of 90 degrees F, it was already warm, so we stayed in the shade while I doused myself in sunscreen, and waited for my start in the second wave. The race director gave us the lowdown on what to expect: almost perfect conditions, with tides changing from right to left halfway through and a water temperature of 71 degrees F. As it did last year, the statistic on number of volunteers blew me away: near 750 volunteers helping about 650 swimmers (that's more than one per swimmer!). It's impossible to overstate how well-organized this event is.
Before my start, I got in the water for a short warm-up just to be sure the water temperature was ok. I was surprised that it felt much colder than when I swam the day before, but after about a minute, I felt very comfortable and was confident in my decision to go without a wetsuit especially after seeing people struggling with that same decision and remembering how I overheated last year. I decided before the race that I would not need to drink or eat during the swim, and I made sure I was well-hydrated by drinking 32 ounces of SkratchLabs hydration during the two hours beforehand.
Pre-race photos (from Jim's camera):
In a matter of moments, it seemed like we were on the starting line. I still felt like the only woman without a wetsuit (in fact, I was one of 46 women without). I started way to the left which, afterward, we realized was a much greater distance than those who started on the right near the breakwall along the side of the bridge. But I wanted to stay out of the congestion at the right. Even so, I still got pummeled by other swimmers for the first five minutes or so. Once we turned left to get between the bridge spans, we had much more space, and I rarely ran into other swimmers unless they were stragglers from the first wave.
I had decided to swim as steadily and continuously as possible with pauses only to avoid hitting others or catch my breath. From last year, I remembered the locations of the mile markers, and I still hadn't decided if I would check my time and pace when I reached them. I reached the first pylon of the suspension bridge (just under two miles) having successfully NOT checked my Garmin at mile 1. The water wasn't nearly as choppy as it had been last year and I felt relaxed and strong and swam pretty easily for most of the first two miles. I focused solely on trying to keep my pace steady with very little effort. But when I saw the giant orange 2-mile buoy, I couldn't stand not knowing if how I felt corresponded to my pace, so I flipped over on my back to check my time. I saw 51 minutes - just about where I wanted to be.
Some of the unique moments I remember from the race this year were noticing the different water temperatures in the sun and in the shade from the bridge, almost accidentally noticing both of the two aid stations (even though I didn't stop), being passed by a guy towing a personal swim buoy with a GoPro mounted on it, and watching a paddle-boarder glide majestically past me within about three feet. All of these things made me smile.
In 2016, my struggle began around 2.5 miles. I remember looking at my watch at that point and thinking there was no way I still had two miles to go. This year, I never even knew that feeling. When I saw the second aid boat near the truss span of the bridge (and the 3-mile buoy) and noticed people from my wave stopping there, the competitive instinct kicked in, and I decided to pick up my pace to catch at least one person. One turned to two, and three... and then I found myself in a battle with another woman who took to drafting off my feet. At one point I got tired of her touching my feet, so I stopped to let her pass me. But I stayed within sight of her and a guy who were swimming my pace. Her stroke looked choppy and strained, and by the time we all reached the far-end breakwall and turned to get out from under the bridge, I had enough of following them and made my break. I would swim as hard as I could to the finish. Last year, this part of the swim was extremely warm, and I had to stop several times from overheating. It seems like forever from there to the finish line, but I held on strong to stay ahead of them and pass several more swimmers in my wave.
When I crawled out of the water at the finish, I saw the clock. I was certain I would beat my goal of under two hours, but, unfortunately, I came out at 2:05 - only four minutes faster than last year (although the distance on my GPS watch was over 4.7 miles). It was disappointing, discouraging, unsatisfying... all those things, but those feelings lasted only a few minutes because I felt great! I was sore, but it was so SO much more fun.
In analyzing my swim, I checked out the pace graph after uploading the event file to Garmin Express. My pace was even but just slower between miles 3 and 4 and then I picked it up again (when I made the conscious decision to push hard). Unfortunately, I have to attribute it to lolly-gagging - I wasn't even conscious of it. There was a bit of chop that hit me a few times in that segment, but I wasn't fatigued. If nothing else, it gives me a tiny bit of confidence to face a few longer races in the near future. I didn't taper this week, I only cut back my yardage Friday and Saturday because of lingering soreness from an extra-long swim on Tuesday.
I am thankful for the support from Jim in this new sport despite having to cut short a business trip and get up early on Sunday just to wait around for me to start and wait around for me to finish. On a hot day. If it's any consolation, I think I'm finally doing the sport I love most.
|It's always about the watch, isn't it?|
Just when I'm smack in the middle of writing up a thoughtful analysis of how I'm fixing my (non-symmetric, right-side-dominant) swim stroke and my (drag-inducing, lack-of-a) kick, I had a revelation in the pool yesterday. It came after about a month of frustration and stressing about why I don't seem to be swimming any faster after weeks of hard, and long, workouts. I've been working on improving so many things using video and drills and fins and my snorkel. And I feel like a different person swimming these days.. I'm working on all the things experts say will help me swim faster (from the best-rated online sources, coaches, and books) but nothing feels natural, and nothing feels "right" (yet?). I do feel stronger. And I feel faster. But my lap-times are slower.
I pace and shake my head and jump up and down in frustration and discouragement. And I come back to the problem on a daily basis. Yesterday, I got in the pool and tried letting go of all the things I "know" and all the things I've been taught and just tried to swim "natural," without focusing on any one thing.. without thinking about my stroke or my kick or the positions of my hands and feet.
And nothing happened. The. Same. Speed. No faster. No slower. I tried not to cry. It was all I could do to stay IN the pool and not get out and walk away from the workout. Overwhelming defeat was settling in.
I decided to do a set of 100s experimenting with a bunch of different things while giving myself enough rest between intervals to get an accurate assessment. I tried breathing on the right. Breathing on the left. Putting my head down. Kicking harder. Kicking narrower. Bilateral Breathing. No discernible difference. And then.. back to using a pull-buoy to see if it was faster. And, guess what, it WAS. Two seconds faster! (in the swim world, two seconds is a lifetime).
Yep. I was boggled. I tossed up my hands in disgust.
Then, like a bolt out of the blue, it HIT me. I asked myself: "What, besides floating my legs, was I doing different with a pull-buoy?"
The answer: my FLIPTURN! When I use a buoy, I don't dolphin kick off the wall.
Could that be it? Was it possible? They say the underwater dolphin kick is THE second fastest "stroke" - second to all-out freestyle sprint. When I coached, we routinely stressed the importance of a strong dolphin kick off the wall. And if you remember the 2016 Olympic men's 400 free relay, you know it was pretty much won on the Michael Phelps flipturn - he went into the wall in second place and came up ahead after the most phenomenal underwater dolphin kick ever.
I decided to swim my final 100 yards with no dolphin kick off the wall - and wouldn't you know? That was it. My time was almost identical to my 100 with a pull-buoy. Who'dathunk? The one thing I've worked hard to develop in recent years (because back in the olden-days, we flutter-kicked off the wall) was the one thing I'm still not good at. It makes sense to me as I started swimming at age 14 and never had the flexibility and durability most swimmers develop at a young age when they learn to dolphin kick for butterfly. My butterfly every only had one kick - it was mostly shoulders.
Part of me was relieved to have figured out I'm ultra-draggy while making like a dolphin, but the other part of me was really disappointed because I had worked so hard to make it a natural thing - I was secretly thrilled each time I reached a further point underwater off the wall. The dilemma now becomes: should I spend lots of time on my dolphin kick for my pool workouts? Or should I start acting like a real open-water swimmer and just accept it as is?
There is one thing I'm sure of: I am now grateful for no walls in the ocean.
Swimming is the most "mental" sport I know. Distance swimming even more so. And I've been struggling to wrap my mind around the really long training sessions I've planned in the next few months (not to mention the swim events). After reading a little article on SwimSwam about the lessons we learn from our swim coaches, I began thinking about all the things I've learned, not only from my swim coach, but from swimming itself.
Swimming is the great teacher. In the pool. With teammates. And especially in open water - where we are always only one breath away from drowning.
I now believe most of my mental control in long distance events like marathons and Ironman races can be traced back to my swimming roots. And having been a competitive swimmer before anything else is likely what influenced me to (prefer to) do most of my long training sessions alone. For many, many years, people have asked me how and why I do it alone: "How do you handle 6-7 hours on the bike all by yourself every weekend?" I have no idea. I set my mind to it, and do it. After all, running alone had always been therapy. It cleared my mind. It made me less anxious. When I started doing longer triathlons, it never occurred to me to subject people I knew to MY long rides (even people who DO long rides). OK, so I'm an introvert. But don't get me wrong. I've truly enjoyed running and riding with others. It's just that I never actively seek out company. And it never bothered me to be alone hammering away for all that time.
How did I get this way?
Swimming. Every day. Swimming twice a day three times a week. At times, swimming more than ten-thousand yards a day. Swimmers remain swimmers because they don't flinch when the coach says we're doing 10x1000s for a single workout. Surviving those workouts in college made me mentally tougher than that week I had four final exams in two days.
From the moment I walked onto the swim team at 14 years old in high school, never having been coached, never having experienced a single swim workout in my life, everything in the pool was a progressively harder thing to do. After every workout of my freshman year I vowed I would quit. But I didn't. And by sophomore year, I was swimming in Lane 1. With the fast kids. And I had great friends in my teammates. But, unless you're at a swim meet, swimming is not a social sport. You get a few moments to commune (or commiserate) with your lane-mates before the next interval. There's no time to talk, or laugh, or enjoy the scenery (what little of it there is on a pool deck).
It's all mental. Some people compare its boredom to treadmill running.
I remember my first 1650. In practice. I was terrified. I didn't think I could swim that long without stopping. One of the swimmers on the boys team told me something I would never forget. He told me to detach my brain from my body. To imagine I was a machine. And that's what I did. And, whoa! It worked. No pain. Three years later, I would be swimming the 1650 in competition. And loving it. It WAS all mental.
But swimming long distances is also a very, very lonely thing. It's quiet. Like I said earlier, you can't have conversations. You can't even smile if you're enjoying yourself. (To be fair, I HAVE smiled "inside.") Losing focus for a second means you'll suck down water, ram into the wall, or, if you're like me in open water, swim in circles. That's another reason swimming is a mental sport. It's not natural. We were born walkers. Runners. Bikers. Air-breathers. Surrounded by air, not needing to "think" when we breathe. When we're swimming, we're surrounded by water and have to consciously take a breath. We battle an element we're not built to thrive in. Yeah, our bodies may be 90% water, but we don't have fins and/or gills. There's a reason more people have climbed Mount Everest than swum the English Channel. Humans are not made to be swimmers.
But some of us are drawn to water. And that's where I find myself now. Trying to conquer the water again. Trying to rekindle the mind-control I once had. Once again, I'm learning to appreciate the quiet. To nurture the solitude of longer and longer sessions in the water. I'm learning to rein in my enthusiasm at the start and prepare myself mentally for spending more than three hours in the water. I KNOW I can do it. And most of the time I really enjoy it. But, like my younger days, my mind gets in the way when I think too much about it.
And the quiet in a pool is one thing. The quiet in open water... well, that's something entirely different. It can be deafening if the fear seeps in. Fear of currents. Fear of the cold. Fear of weather changes. When I go back to the lake in the next month or so, I'll face a whole new set of conditions under which to practice mind-control. And I will need to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable. It's all mental.
I find that the best way is the old way. Each time I conquer a goal, it's one more thing to convince my mind of the next time. Just don't give up, and eventually, all the mental obstacles will give way to knowledge - knowledge that anything is possible. You just have to train for it.
I know I've written about the subject, but my swim kick is the closest thing to dismal as it gets. It's never really been an asset - I've been told it's a liability - but I was always ok with that in the past. I dismissed criticism with a million-and-one excuses for why I didn't kick in the water and why I didn't need to:
- I'm a distance swimmer!
- I DO kick, it's just a two-beat kick. (Is that even a swimming term anymore?)
- I started swimming at 14 and never developed a good flutter kick.
- I'm a breaststroker, not a sprinter.
- I have to save my legs for the bike and the run!
- The more I use my legs in the pool, the more it will screw up my running muscles. (This was a high school myth, I think.)
- and the list goes on...
I'm not sure what's going on lately, but either my disaster-magnet status has somehow injected its influence into lane swimming or I live in a very discourteous part of the world. I've had several angry exchanges with fellow swimmers over sharing pool lanes recently. When all lanes are taken, I usually ask someone if they wouldn't mind sharing - but this is only to be courteous and avoid someone getting hurt. I don't HAVE to ask.
Good pools usually don't give people the "no sharing" option. They make all lanes circle-swim and people are expected to choose lanes based on their speed. By "good pools," I mean pools where the lifeguards and most people know the drill (and will help new-comers), and swimmers are lane-sharing is expected. "Great" pools go the extra mile and mark the lanes with signs indicating circle swim direction and swimmer speed.
My local community pool is neither good nor great. Unless I swim at 5:30 in the morning with the "regulars," when asking to share a lane, I tend to get refused more often than not, and even the lifeguards are reluctant to help. And the excuses are hilarious. One guy said "you don't want to share with me because I'm not a good swimmer," to which I offered "no problem, I'll stay to one side" and he said "no, seriously, you DON'T want to share a lane with me."
(Um.. YES, I do. Why the hell would I ask you if I didn't? I don't have time to waste while you lolly-gag through your floating workout.)
One lady started to say it was ok to share, then she decided not to, and yelled at me: "I can't share because I'm not a good swimmer like you," to which I offered, again: "I will stay out of your way." Then she put up a fight: "No! I swim into the lane-line when I share. I'm not trying to make it difficult, but..."
(Um... yes, you ARE making it difficult. Lady, you don't have that option. EVERYONE wants to swim today.)
The next time.. two lanes, four people swimming, two in each lane. I stopped one of the better swimmers and asked: "can we do circle swims?" He said "NO! [seriously, he yelled at me] I CAN'T do that." I was dumbfounded, so I said "you can't?" and he said "NO I CAN'T. But I'll be done in 10 minutes." And then just turned, ignored me, and started swimming again.
(Um... I don't HAVE 10 minutes, I'm on a tight schedule, dude. Seriously, what makes people act this way?)
I posted the story on Facebook and one of my friends suggested next time I simply just show them how to circle swim.
(NOW WHY DIDN'T I THINK OF THAT?? It's brilliant. Next time for sure.)
I was beginning to think it was me, but then I spent a week away from home and swam in a "good" pool (in Brookline, near Boston), and I found that circle-swimming didn't upset swimmers there. They just do it, no complaining.
So, chalk one up to the pool environment. Or maybe it's living in an affluent neighborhood in the midwest. Who really knows?
Just remember, everyone wants to swim and you can be nice about it or you can be a jerk. I say: choose to be empathetic - understand we're all in this together.
Could 2017 also be the year I decide to blog more regulary? Is twice a month considered "regular"? Well, whatever - I just needed to vent.
In a year of environmental, political, social, and economic uncertainty and my second year focusing on open-water swimming, I already committed (read: paid entry) to two races, both in Maryland and both I've done (well, started) before: the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim 4.4-mile and the Ocean Games 9-mile. Neither was a resounding success last year, and thus, I have two goals so far for this year, i.e., do better than last year.
Speaking of goals, the more I delve into the realm of open-water swimming, the more interested I get and the more pie-in-the-sky goals I tentatively set for myself. I've even become interested in this crazy sport called ice swimming (Google it). But I'm currently struggling with a big mental setback: coping with the physical changes (and challenges) of going from a runner/triathlete to just a swimmer (who runs and bikes occasionally).
|With football-player shoulders (30 yrs ago)|
|With runner shoulders (2 yrs ago)|
Let's get the first one out there: the weight gain. Yep, I know, I know. It's muscle (for now - it may very well be fat when I start back into cold water swimming). But I've been longingly staring into my closet afraid to even attempt putting on clothes that might be tight on me. Back in high school and college, I weighed 20 pounds more and the only shirts I could wear were large - I had this crazy, unwieldy, oversized upper body. All my long sleeves were short. I always felt like a freak even though I probably wasn't as freaky-looking as I imagined.
Surprisingly, I'm really struggling to accept that this is what it will take - these body changes - to do what I want as an open water swimmer. My former runner body will not last long in 55-60 degree open water. After all these years and all the positive body image messages out there, why does this still bother me? Why am I struggling to rise above it? Obviously, I have a LOT of work to do before I can look into the mirror and say that I like myself no matter what I look like. But I'm trying. And hopefully, my passion for swimming and drive to achieve far-reaching goals as an open-water swimmer will win out over something as petty as body image.
But I do love this new sport and I can't wait to get back into lake swimming once the water warms to at least 50 degrees. In the meantime, I'm taking cold showers after my pool swims and reading Becoming the Iceman by Wim Hof and Justin Rosales.
I've also been doing a lot of drawing lately, some realistic, some not-so-realistic:
2017 is here and many of us have a new reality to face. And by "many of us," I specifically mean "those of us who are passionate about the environment." We have a new president who doesn't believe in climate change. I believe science is telling us we have reached a critical state, and we must do everything we can to protect our planet from further abuse. I believe clean and renewable energy is a good idea - for both the environment, the future of energy, and world power-struggles. And as a swimmer, I also believe we must stop polluting our oceans and waterways and destroying the animals that call them their home.
But I'm only one person, and in the last days of 2016, I found the artist in me powerless to resist a call to use my art to illustrate the very issues I feel most passionate about. I'm not sure how it happened, but images made their way into my consciousness, and at times, these images even kept me up all night.
As a result, the most direct and graphic work I've ever created (and perhaps, most disturbing to some), is the following three diptychs of etched linocuts that I made in December 2016:
If these images inspire people to "Google" the issues, or even better, be mindful of the oceans or the environment, then I feel I've done something with my talent (or lack thereof), and my presence on the earth is not just a waste of resources (which I used to believe).
2017 is also my second year in a new sport, open-water swimming. I started 2016 by conquering my fear of swimming alone in the ocean - in La Jolla Cove. (You may remember the blog about that.) It's been a long time since then, and I've succumbed to hypothermia in one race, overheated in another race, and finished my longest-ever open-water race - the Swim to the Moon 10K in Michigan.
This year, I must conquer the biggest hurdle I face as an open-water swimmer: acclimating to the cold. I wrote about my experiments in cold Lake Erie in September and October, 2016. But that's only the tip of the "iceberg" - the water temperature in those swims was in the mid-60s F, and the water I must eventually face may be well into the 50s.
I have a plan and I will talk about it as it unfolds. In the meantime, I've re-entered the 9-mile swim in the Ocean Games in Ocean City, MD. I vowed to finish it this year and do it as a fundraiser for brain trauma (the cause it supports). The race is in July, and I would be grateful for your support, which you can do through CrowdRise or through the widget in the right column.
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