Every year, somewhere in middle of February, my masters team does a monster swim.
There’s a lot bad talk about doing 100 x 100s. Entire videos have been made poking fun at it! I don’t understand why. First of all, it’s winter in the Midwest. What the heck else are you supposed to do when it’s 16 degrees outside? Second of all, it’s one of those challenges that never stops challenging. You can do all 100 on the 100? Do them on 1:30. Done that? Try 1:20. 1:15. 1:10. Do 10 fly. Kick some. Pull. Lead. Draft. You get the point. Lastly, it’s one of those endurance events that has potential to push you mentally to the edge, to the same place you often find yourself in a half or full Ironman. To know what you do when you get there, you’ve got to go there. Why miss that opportunity?
Last year was a breakthrough year for me. I did all 100 on the 1:30. This is nothing for a “real” swimmer but for me, a self-proclaimed “fake” swimmer, it’s something. Marty, my lanemate, a “real” swimmer who can cruise through 25 yards in 10 seconds with 6 strokes, rightfully gets on my case about everything I do as a fake swimmer: I don’t flip turn. I don’t breaststroke kick. I put on fins at my discretion. And I whine at anything that involves the number 25 and the word MAX-ALL-OUT.
In his words: do you whine this much when you’re running?
Last year, I swam 60 “naked” and then mixed it up with fins and pulling for the rest. This year, I wanted to top that. I had to. But for some reason, I felt scared. Not by the interval but by the distance. It’s like doing your second Ironman. You’re scared in a different way. The first time you’re scared with naïve giddiness but still think no matter what happens, you’re just thrilled to be out there. The second time is different. You know the pain that lies ahead. You know how ugly it can get. You know you can do it. That knowledge and your expectations make for a very precarious place for your self-confidence. Now I wonder: can I top that? Can I go faster? What if I don’t, will I want to give up half way? Will I think less of myself? And, I just got back into swimming 9 weeks ago. 9 weeks ago I couldn’t swim a 100 in 1:30, now I’m repeating 100 on that send off?
Am I really ready to go this distance?
Saturday morning, I arrived on deck. Pumped full of 16 ounces of light roast and two breakfasts. I felt carbohydrately loaded and frenetic – that nervous hyper energy that you get when faced with situations you’re not sure you’re ready to face. I situated myself in a familiar lane with Marty, Bob, Timmy plus Matt (who swam distance from OSU – let me tell you, if ever you want an all star team for a 10,000 yard set, pick the guy who swam distance in college). These are the men I swim with 3-4 times a week. Awkwardly, at times, I’ve seen them at swim team social gatherings, and we almost don’t know what to say – fully clothed, de-goggled, having more than 8 seconds of rest to make a conversation. Some friendships are best kept to first names during rest intervals and kick sets.
The end of our lane was a mess of bottles and gels. Timmy lectures me on the importance of proper hydration when I point out his 3 large bottles of Gatorade. Marty pushes a bottle of bright aqua liquid in front of me with the warning that if things get really bad, take a sip of it. Bob jumps in showcasing his brand new Speedo. When a grown man goes from showing up to practice in jammers to unveiling a Speedo, let’s just say I had to turn the other way. Amongst our mess of hydration and gels, there were also methods of fire escape – paddles, fins, pull buoys and snorkel. When the alarms start to sound in your lats, these items are your fire escape away from the pain.
First things first: we decide on our order. The boys decide to rotate who’s leading. Timmy asks if I want in on the rotation. I look at him, quizzically. Let me introduce myself. My name is Liz and I never, ever lead the lane. I gladly accept last position knowing that the draft of over 24 feet of men strung together in one lane will pull me along…effortlessly.
And it did. For at least the first 50.
The first 10 breeze by easily, with Matt in the lead and me following Bob’s feet. I kept the pace very relaxed. Warming up. Could hold this pace all day (might just have to!). Accidentally I run into Bob, meaning, I end up clinging to his back like a small monkey. Not surprising as Bob has a history of loving the wall just a little too much. I apologize and he tells me if it happens a few more times it would be ok. Another 10 go by and Dave, from the next lane, asks if I’m getting any space on the wall. It takes me about 25 yards to realize what he’s saying, another rest interval to tell him that I’m not getting any space and yet another rest interval to add that Bob said I can touch him as much as I want.
He usually has to pay people for that.
We hit 30. Matt is leading, in backstroke. Timmy has put on his snorkel. Marty enjoys the comfort of his “budgy” which is what Max calls his blanket and what I call Marty’s pull buoy. A grown man never really outgrows his budgy, does he. Meanwhile, I’m still maintaining warm up pace. I decide to keep this approach for the first 40. I’m getting plenty of rest and it feels so easy. I keep waiting for it to feel hard. I keep waiting for my lats to realize what I’m doing to them. I keep waiting, and waiting. And it never happens. Instead, I really, really enjoy myself. There is something so quiet and serene about swimming.
Half way through, at 50, we take a 3 minute break. I ask Bob if I can go behind Timmy. He looks at me concerned, are you sure about that? Bob, I’ve got a plan. I shoved some of a Power Bar in my mouth which means I’ve got a plan and renewed energy. I’m relying on my freakish endurance and superior workout nutrition to do a full 75 naked. And by the way, if ever you want to get the attention and cooperation of adult men, tell them you’re swimming the next 25 naked.
Go ahead then.
If last year I did the first 60 without toys, this year I’m going all the way to 75. Timmy takes off and I’m right on his feet. My favorite feet. Followed them a lot last year. But this year Timmy has gotten really fast. The only explanation for this is that he’s getting married which means he’s drinking a lot less. At practice I can barely keep up with him but 50 into this set, he’s not building as big of a gap. I push myself to hold sub 1:15 from 50 to 75. I find an addictive rhythm.
Around 70, my focus is waning. I’m waiting for the bear to jump on the back. And I have a conversation with myself: are you really tired, Liz, or are you just waiting for and expecting it? Because if you don’t expect it, it might never happen. It’s the first time, ever, that it strikes me that you can make this choice. You can decide how you feel – you don’t have to wait for it to happen. I decide fatigue is all mental today. It won’t happen unless I let it.
At 72, I lose count. I ask Marty what number we’re on and he doesn’t answer me. At what I think is 74, I ask Marty again. What was probably fatigue speaking he says “that’s ok.” He’s obviously misunderstood me but then Timmy, from under snorkel, mumbles something that ends in a 5. Either we’re starting or ending 75. At what I think is 76, I ask Marty again what number we’re on:
WOULD YOU STOP ASKING THAT QUESTION.
I decide to swim another one before putting on paddles. Back at the wall, the coach shouts STARTING 77! And I realize I made it 76 naked!
The next 15 I pull with paddles. The gutter in lane 1 is hungry for paddles and I lose one at least 3 times. The pace is much easier pulling but I’m still not tired. Where is the swim bear? When does he jump on my back? When do my lats start crying? WHY AM I NOT HURTING? I kept waiting for that dark place.
At 90, I put on fins. I make it a goal to do at least 5 IM. I do a few in a row. I’m a beast. AN ANIMAL! I’m going to swim 200 x 100 today.
At 97, I finally feel it – tired. My lats ache. The wall might as well be 25 miles away. The boys are picking up the pace. What was supposed to be “10 as warm down” turned into “10 as hard as you can go at 9000 yards into the set.”
The main reason I did this swim was to prepare me for what lies ahead. In less than 2 weeks, I leave for the swim team training trip. Staying in a room with 4 women I really don’t know. It is something completely out of my comfort zone in many ways. But the swimmers who talked me into it promised a lot of food, sun and outdoor LCM. Sold! I’m heading to the Florida Keys to swim my lats off. Double swim workouts, sometimes 10K a day. Why? To get out of my comfort zone and do something totally different. Not because physically it will give me that much more fitness but because mentally, dealing with that discomfort will take me to a new level. When you’ve done a sport for 14 years, you need experiences like that.
Much of the work I do with others is getting them used to the idea of being uncomfortable – whether it’s physically or emotionally. Getting them to face it. Most people when faced with discomfort shrink back or put up walls of tension. For a beginner to intermediate athlete, it might be getting used to the pain in your legs when pushing hard on the bike. Or the feeling of not being able to breathe when you swim faster. Facing this type of discomfort really hurts, physically. For the more advanced athlete, it’s usually the psychological discomfort of the pressure that goes along with high performance. Facing this type of discomfort takes a lot of emotional energy. But once you face either, you find that it wasn’t so bad after all. Often what we think might happen is much scarier than the reality. And chances are that you are better equipped to deal with the discomfort than you think you are. You just have to stand up to your fears and then – climb over them to the other side.
And what’s waiting there? I’ve heard that on the other side there’s a lot of corn chips and margaritas. No doubt I’ll need a straw so I don’t have to lift my glass but in less than 2 weeks I can’t wait to find out more about that.