I spent the entire summer swimming open water three times a week. There was an 8-week period where I never set foot or fin in a pool and it was…glorious. Sadly, open water swimming season is now nearly gone. I made what might be my last swim in open water last Monday in Lake Michigan. A week prior the water was a calm and comfortable 72 degrees. On Monday the temperature had dropped to 60 and the water was a mess of anger and chop.
Know what that means? Time to go back to the pool.
It was last Wednesday that I returned to the pool for masters practice. The set was easy enough – something like 4 x 400. The first time through was 4 x100. May I just say I miss the pool – and masters (somewhere Jen Harrison is bronzing that statement). I pushed off and thought to myself I remember this! The push offs, the turns, the taste of chlorine. But standing at the wall after the first 100, I realized something – I was wheezing. And I was really out of breath. For a time that I used to be able to repeat over and over again.
I rescind what I said about missing the pool and masters.
It got worse. My splits were slipping and I was getting more fatigued. Times that used to be easy were now feeling like a painful effort. Not only that but by the third 400 I was nearly lapped. And on the last one I came in at a time of nearly 40 seconds slower than my usual 400 time.
I left the pool in my own pool of pity and frustration. A winter’s worth of swimming four times a week gone in 8 weeks? How is that possible? And how long until it would come back? I had literally busted my ass all winter to the point of where I could swim in John and Chris’ draft. And now…lapped?
The next week I went back to the pool. It was Thursday. Sprint day. My kind of day. Long sets in the pool – boring. If it’s over 200, is it really necessary? The good thing about sprinting is that it’s so short that by the time the hurt sets in you are at the wall catching your breath. Nothing short can be that bad, I tell myself. Right?
I arrived on deck and see Tom. We seem to have an unspoken understanding that he will lead anything short and I will lead anything pull or long (long being anything over 100). Today we were on the wall. The wall plus Tom is a dangerous situation. We’re talking white caps. The wall plus Tom plus a set of anything over 100 IM means the swim might just be cancelled. But I have learned to enjoy the wall and the turbulence because it feels like for open water. Nothing teaches you to swim in choppy water like sharing a lane on the wall with a guy that’s 6’4” and roughly 260 pounds doing 50 fly or better yet – try swimming free behind him while he’s doing dolphin kick with fins.
The set was a Coach Maria classic – it was all over the place, nonstop and by the end of it you’re thinking to yourself – what the hell just happened there? 50s fast, 25s all out, 100s IM. I was pleased because I was finally hitting times that were closer to my normal times. I was also pleased because I can still do 50 fly. I was not pleased because I nearly swallowed the entire pool in Tom’s wake. Looks like I did not waste the entire winter killing myself in the pool, it will come back to me.
Saturday morning it was time for masters again. I was feeling pretty confident that I could return to my regular lane after the decent practice I had on Thursday. I arrived on deck, gathered up my pool toys when the coach made an announcement:
You are either going to love me or hate me today.
Great. Just what I want to hear at 7:30 am on a Saturday. But, please. What could coach say that would possibly be any worse than these sets from my file of Saturday morning workouts I’d like to never see again:
Timed 1650 followed by 200 fly
10 x 100 all out max effort on the 3:00 where you get out of the pool after each one
The infamous Fisburn set of 5 x 100, 4 x 200, 3 x 300, 2 x 400, 1 x 500 all done on the same interval
6 x 100 IM on the 1:45
What, you think I’m skerred? Try me.
10 x 500 on the 7:00
OK, I’m skerred. And scrqd. That would the word screwed after the vowels got scared shitless right out of it.
The 7:00? Are you kidding? We all groan. And try to negotiate. And we win. In all fairness, it was about 20 against 1. Plus we were all armed with pull buoys and fins. Both of which can be easily thrown. The coach really didn’t have a choice (or a chance). But he did give us some choices (nice) – you can pull three of them and you must kick one of them.
Now that we had negotiated the interval, it was time to figure out how I was going to mentally survive 5000 yards in the pool. The first 500 is a warm up. The next 500 is pull. The third 500 I do as 5 x 100. Then 2 x 250 pull. Next up was 4 x 125 kick. 500 swim. 20 x 25 sprint. 500 pull. And finally 500 swim with every 4th length nonfree. And about 300 yards into the last one my arms fell off.
It was somewhere after 3000 yards that I remembered how much I really do love pool swimming. Somewhere after the 3000 mark, I laugh at myself while thinking this. And really it was just in the past year or so that I started feeling this way. Years before that all I did was complain about the swimming, getting wet, getting lapped – and wonder why I never got any better at it. About two years ago I had enough of my bad self. I decided that if you can’t beat the damn swimmers you might as well join them. Once I started joining them – in everything – I mean all 4 strokes, fins, kickboards, paddles, whatever the hell else they strap to themselves to get faster – once I started doing all of it I started getting accepted. Once I got accepted I got into faster lanes. Once I got into faster lanes I got faster.
It's (sort of) that easy.
The other night I got into the pool for a shorter swim of mostly strength and drill work. As I was putting on my cap and goggles, I couldn’t help but notice the awkwardly curious stare of a young child next to me. Yes, I was doing my drill work in the kiddie pool, kept at a balmy 85 degrees and filled with about 100 gallons of…thank god for plastic pants. Anyways, she was your typical 6, maybe 7, year old girl with a big pony tail, pink goggles and a pink bathing suit.
Are you having fun? I asked.
Yes, she said quickly before disappeared underneath the water then came back up quickly to catch her breath. She started talking to herself in only a way that is socially acceptable for a child. When is it that it becomes socially inappropriate to talk to yourself? It’s been said that self-talk is a tool that children use to make sense of their world and regulate themselves.
I can think of a few adults that should probably start talking to themselves.
I was doing some drills, kicks, swims and at one point decided to do some 100 IMs. For extra fun I decided to do reverse IM. And may I ask why is that I can do 100 reverse IM faster than 100 IM? After each reverse IM I stood at the wall ready to throw my heart up in my mouth because it’s been a really long time since I’ve done any consistent set with fly. Waiting for my HR to descend from zone 5z, I noticed the girl in the next lane.
She looked like she was flapping a set of wings while diving up and down in the water. In a word it looked psychotic. And I expected her to take flight.
That girl needs lessons, I thought to myself. Then I realized something…
She’s trying to do fly.
And something even worse..
Oh my god she is imitating me.
Do I really look that bad?
Don’t answer that, I said. To whomever I asked.
I finished up with more swimming before gathering my things and heading for the pool door. The little girl and her friend were in the end lane and looked up at me. They were staring at me in a way that made me wonder if I had just swam the entire set without my swimsuit on. I started opening the door when I heard the girl say something:
It’s not as easy as it looks, she said.
I smiled - and thought to myself, you know what, kid…you’re right.
It’s not easy. None of this is. Pushing your limits never feels like cupcakes and daisies. Setting a personal best doesn’t come without a lot of pain. It’s easy in our world to think that there is some shortcut through the pain or hard work that will help us arrive at the destination. But there isn’t. On the outside those that excel make it look easy but trust me behind the stoic face or smile they are gritting their teeth, feeling like their quads will burst or wondering if their eyes are bugging out. It’s not easy, kid, but that’s what makes me go back again and again, doing sets of 10 x 500 and seeing if I can make the interval, do 50 fly keeping all body parts intact. Keep trying – because when you finally make it look easy that’s when you know you’re getting one step closer to mastering it.
I'm trying to think of things in life that are easy - and all I've come up with is...cheese. Friendships, work, marriage, children, faith - none of these things are easy. But these are, in life, the things that have most meaning.
If I've learned anything in life, it's that if you're not working hard for it, it's probably not worth it.