Are you afraid of monsters? I’m talking monster swim monsters. In excess of 6000 yards monsters. Does that make you scared? Are you shaking in your swim cap?
Prior to last year, that would have done it for me. I had never swum beyond 3900 yards. There was no need to. 3000 yards was more than enough. Anything beyond 3500 was impossible, even crazy.
If you come from a swimming background, this is nothing to you. You probably swam twice a day, 10,000 yards a day. But if you’re not from a swimming background, like me, 3900 yards is a very, very long way to go. That’s 78 laps. That’s 156 touches to the wall. 20 strokes per length, we’re talking over 3100 times of arms going around.
But last year I realized that if I was even going to get better in the pool, I was going to have to embrace swimming. And I was going to have to swim more yards. The perfect opportunity to not only embrace but give swimming a big bear hug came last February. The monster swim. Sponsored by our swim team, it was a swimming event consisting of 100 100’s on the 100. For those not ready for the 100’s, it was 100 75’s on the 100.
I was not yet ready – so I took on the 75’s.
Our coach suggested swimming 75 of the 75’s and then calling it a day. And that was good – because at 5625 yards my entire body was ready to be done. I still remember how useless and worn my whole body felt by that point. I was barely snaking through the water with a weak pull and a heavy kick. But I made it through.
Until today, that was my longest swim to date. But in between now and then, things have changed. Oh my have they changed. You see, I trained for a little thing called Ironman. And that included lots, and lots of monster-sized swims.
Not that I swam more than 4500 yards in preparation for Ironman, but when you do main sets that include 1000’s, 3 of them, you start to build some swimming character. And you don’t forget it.
And when you finally swim nearly 2 ½ miles in an ocean – the most neverending athletic endeavor of my life – you don’t forget that either. And you emerge with tons of watery character to keep you afloat for the following year.
Full of character and with that in mind, I arrived on deck for this year’s monster swim. And this year, I skipped the 75’s and went straight for the 100’s. 70 of them – no more, for fear of wrath by way of coach’s warning.
40 swimmers stood waiting by the lanes. Once the clock started, it wouldn’t stop. Every 100 seconds it would beep sending us off in long lines down the lanes.
I go to my lane assignment joined with other masters swim team friends and some random guy. To our surprise, the random guy agrees to take the lead. I agree to pull up the rear. 7000 yards is a long way to go. Give it about 3000 and people will be begging to bring up the rear. Begging.
The first 10 are uneventful – a warm-up. Random guy is leading, and swimming very fast coming in a good 10 – 15 seconds ahead of us. He’ll pay for that. This is not about who can swim the fastest, this is about pace and can you survive.
The next 10, I decided to pull which turns uneventful and easy into something a little harder. I never get very far with a pull buoy, but at least I give it a try.
At 18 into it, I decide to take a gel. Yes, I’m back on the steady diet of gels, bars, and sports drink. I took a sports nutrition break for a few months back in the fall which has renewed my interest in eating things from packages again.
20 – 30 are an uneventful blur. Swim down, swim back, repeat. Stand by wall. Sip water, push off. Repeat, repeat. The pool is sloshy and turbulent. For every lap I probably take in 20 gulps of water.
At 30, the random guy pulls up the rear. He’s been swimming with paddles for about 2000 yards now. I think to myself that tomorrow he will not even be able to hold his toothbrush. I’ve never seen anyone swim backstroke with paddles but today it is a first.
From 30 – 40, I decide to pick up the pace. I’m swimming smooth and decide today that my only goal will be to swim with good form. For the entire way. That’s easier said than done, especially as your arms get heavy or neck gets stiff from twisting and turning.
Around 40, I ask Jack how he’s doing. He doesn’t respond. I ask him if he remembers his name. He says he is tired. I decide to keep up the pace. What’s another 500 yards at this pace, I think? I start to feel fast and smooth.
Somewhere around 4200 yards, I passed the Ironman mark. I thought to myself about swimming in that damn ocean, the neverending ocean of putting my head up over and over again but not getting any closer to the finishing arch. Nothing will ever feel that long again.
At 5000 yards, we take a 5 minute break. I am wary of those that do not get out of the pool – a sure sign they have been peeing in it.
I see Kate slipping back our lane while eating a Rice Krispie treat.
“You’re going to pay for that in 10 laps,” I say to her with a cautionary smile.
She finishes chewing her chewy treat and says, “but I need the sugar, and it sounded good.”
Oh I laugh. Inside I laugh – very, very loud. I think back to one of my Ragbrai lessons learned – never, ever eat anything that sounds good when you swim, bike, or run. The year was 2004, it was raining and cold, and we rolled into Anamosa. I was hungry and in front of my appeared the gates of heaven in the form of a grocery store. I made a beeline to the bakery section and immediately found myself magnetized to a chocolate covered donut filled with caramel and topped with brownie chunks. I don’t like donuts – but this was something for even me to try. 10 miles later, I thought I was going to barf my entire stomach out on to Joe.
“Something that sounds good during the workout is always a bad idea,” I say to her, half joking but half serious, “this” I say holding up a caramel gel, “this doesn’t sound good to me, but it’s a good idea.” Really, whoever found themselves 50 miles from home on a bike or 2 hours into a run or 5000 yards into a swimming and thinking to themselves I would kill for a gel right now.
5000 yards, 80 minutes, and we are back in the pool. Time to mix it up. Forget freestyle, let’s have some swimming fun. Sue finds a set of fins for me to use. They are literally the size of clown shoes and extend my feet by at least 20 inches. Kate looks at me and says if I’m wearing those fins, I’m leading the lane.
Challenge accepted. I’m kicking my 100’s in 75. The guy leading Chris’ lane next to me is wearing an Ironman Wisconsin cap. A yellow cap of courage, if you will. I make it my goal to keep up with him.
After 500 yards, the clown shoes are killing me. They are too big and make for difficult pushes off the wall. Enough. I go back to swimming.
At that point, almost on cue, Kate says with a grimace on her face “the Rice Krispie treat is now making itself known.” It could have been worse, I thought, it could have been a chocolate covered caramel-filled donut.
Somewhere in between 500 yards of kicking and 5000 yards of swimming, a giant bear has jumped on my back. My triceps start talking and they are not pleased. My neck is tired of turning. But as I swim past the 5625 yard, I realize I have swum past a major swimming milestone. I am now swimming the farthest I have ever swum – in my entire life.
You get to a certain point in your life or in sports where you start running out of opportunities for things like “the first time in my life”. Life has been long already, life has consisted of many miles. But this, these are new miles – actually new yards, and I am seeing them for the first time. This is something to celebrate.
The party plans are forming in my head and for some reason they are flavored with coffee……
At 6000 yards I take Maria’s fins. They are smaller, they are making me 100 times more buoyant than with the bear on my back. He’s jumped off and appears to have gone for a ride atop Jack’s back.
I started doing IM just to break the monotony up. People that say swimming doesn’t get their heart rate up have never done breaststroke arms with a flutter kick, have never dolphin kicked their way under water on their side for 25 non-stop yards, have never alternated 25’s of back and free, have never done all of this around 6500 yards.
The last 500 yards were more for my mind than anything else. I finish them up, painfully and uneventfully. I get out of the pool.
“I thought for sure you’d make it through the entire thing this year,” Coach Chris says to me as I walk from the pool.
Oh no, I thought to myself, oh no I did make it through. 7000 yards. Almost 2 hours. That was more than enough. This is not failure at stopping short of 10000 yards, this is a first time victory. This is something to celebrate.
Celebrate we did, about an hour later, sitting at Caribou. I sipped my Caramel Americano and sat quietly across from Chris. It’s not that I had nothing to say, it’s just that I was too tired to say that I was tired and that 7000 yards was a long way to go.
“Do you think you could have done the whole thing if we could?” he asks. Absolutely, I think, it’s not a matter of if, it’s just a matter of when. One year, when we don’t have to divert our energy to so much running and biking we’ll be able to dedicate it to all 10000 yards of swimming.
And I guess that’s what Ironman taught me. Anyone can do anything. Last year, I worried for days when I was scheduled for a 2 hour run, or a 122 mile ride, or a 4000 yard swim. I worried about all of these monsters that were hiding under my bed, in my closet, in my running shoes, at the pool, beneath my wheels. But once I just faced my fears, I didn't even see the monsters along the way. They were really just in my head all along. So, I guess what Ironman taught me is that I don’t have to be afraid of monsters anymore.
But that doesn't mean I want to go swim 8000 yards tomorrow...