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Month: March, 2014

Fighting burnout, stoking the fire

Traditionally, as the end of the summer comes, the leaves, the temperatures, and my training all begin to fall. But not this year.

By time late September 2013 rolled around, I still had weekly open water swims of over 7k. The Puget Sound is beautiful, and all I wanted to do was swim in it. Sounds harmless. Then I went and joined a swim team. Then I joined a second swim team. By late October, there were weekdays opened with a 5:30am swim practice and closed with an open water swim in the darkness newly brought about by Daylight Savings Time. As the months got colder, I added post-swim trail runs with some training buddies, and would continue to push the 6k mark as the Sound dropped into the 40s late in November. This level of training had continued since May, and my real training was to start in January.

Or so I told myself.

What I’d forgotten, or overlooked, or ignored in those playful autumn months is how important is my annual break-up with swimming. And now here I am at the end of March fighting total burnout. While my workouts are meant to be getting longer, simply getting in the water is regularly a struggle, and I’ve even begun asking myself why I’m doing it at all– the most dangerous of questions. In fewer than three months, I’m to be swimming 120 miles down the Hudson. By then, I suspect swimming and I will, in the best scenario, not be on speaking terms. The chances of us still being friends by June seem remote. And this is a terrifying prospect considering we’re only at the beginning of the season!

Now it is too late to take three months off, and there is no way to go back. So it becomes a mental game.

Last Saturday I stepped onto the Golden Gardens beach, warm hands in the pockets of the parka protecting me from the pelting rain. As I approached the newly-made campfire, a few confused faces noticed the lack of swim bag and towels. Midway through my workout the night before, as I thought about what would come with the following morning, the cold, damp, shivering sandy wetness that accompanies most Seattle swims, I decided I’d remain warm and dry on the beach. Only if the sun came out and a compelling reason presented itself would I swim. I needed a day off, a mental health day.

So I waved my friends off as they left on their swim in the cold, rough water. Then followed them with cameras. Then discovered that when they reached their turn-around point they’d see a wall-full of anemone. A few minutes later, Lisa shouted up from the water below, the wall was covered in starfish. Melissa, Guila, and Maria all said the same.

Then the sun came out. I’m glad I keep my swim bag in the car. The starfish were gorgeous, as always.

Haiku 2

To the victor

“Fame, money, and girls
are what it’s all about,” said
no swimmer ever.

Haiku 1

Closed water

Flip. Flip. Flip. Flip. Flip.
Flip. Flip. Flip. Flip. Flip. Flip. Flip.
Flip. Flip. Flip. Ugh, pools.

Different strokes

Friday evening, in that brief period just after quitting time and just before the weekend begins, I attend my one organized swim practice of the week. Coach, team, the whole shebang. This week, it so happened we were given a set I’ve come to dread. It was a set that wasn’t all freestyle. Gulp.

In a past life, I was all about the IM and fancied myself a decent butterfly-er. Now, frequently pool-less, I am not and do not. But the four strokes still do have their time and place, which is something I need to remind myself every time I am encouraged to do different strokes at practice.

Here they are, in reverse IM order:

Freestyle: Specifically, front crawl. This is what one does when one wants to go someplace. Unless you are in absolutely no rush to get anywhere, or your name is Vicki or Sylvain, freestyle.

Breaststroke: aka breastroke. Want to see where your headed? Swimming through something nasty and don’t want your face in it? Just need to shake out those legs a bit? Then breaststroke is for you. If you’re at all like me, you certainly do not chose this stroke because you are trying to get somewhere quickly. It is best left for when trying to spot the next orange dot or silhouetted tree through foggy goggles.

Backstroke: The only acceptable time to swim on your back is when you are swimming under a bridge. At practice on Friday, after seventy-five yards of facing wrong-side-up, all I could think was; this set is stupid, no bridge is one hundred yards wide. As a bonus, admiring the skyward girders and trusses means you’ll miss those gloomy subaqueous shadows that reside beneath bridges.

Butterfly: Want to show off a little? Butterfly is a great way to do it. Yeah, I just swam 10k…and I can still do this!

Again today, I was subjected to an IM set. It was not hard and we never had to do more than twenty-five yards of any one stroke at a time. It gave me time to reflect. Maybe mixing it up every so often has its benefits, like getting my two arms back in sync while and working a few neglected muscles. But at what cost? Most of the time I’d rather just get through my workout and on to waffles.

Photos: Alki Beach

Birthday swim

I have an embarrassing and…given the image I try to maintain…shameful secret. It needs to get out in the open so I can start the recovery process.

Here it is: as of a month ago, I had NEVER been skinny dipping.

Stop your judgment right there, mister. I’ve already said I’m not proud of this. Looking back at my life it is easy to see how it happened; trips to the beach were mostly family related, and every pool I’ve had access to frowns on that sort of behavior during lap swim. But this is no excuse. Add in sad fact that back in my early teens I lost the ability to do “just for fun” swimming, the idea of swimming in birthday attire never registered as sensible. But again, I’m through making excuses.

To further inhibit more recently contemplated attempts, the water at my local beach is super clear. Oh, and super cold. Super cold and super clear are not the conditions I want when I unexpectedly bumped into a fellow swimmer.

The good news is, this all ended a month ago. Thanks to the Suzie Dods 24-hour SERC-a-thon in San Francisco at the beginning of February, I found my first real opportunity. In brief, the SD24hSERCat1 was a 24-hour team relay held in Aquatic Park, San Francisco Bay, a sheltered cove sandwiched between Crissy Field and Fisherman’s Wharf occuring between 9am on 8 February and 9 February 2014. Unlike the Puget Sound, the Bay is turbid, with visibility just past the finger tips. It rained the whole time.

My first shift after sundown came around 8:30pm, at a time when the idea of again jumping in the 51 degree water still seemed like a fun idea. I’d just returned from having a drink with a few friends coincidentally visiting town that weekend, and rushed in to the South End Rowing Club to get ready for my turn in the water. Still debating whether or not this was a good idea, I put in my ear plugs, donned two swim caps, wrapped a towel around me to deck change, and part way through the process grabbed my goggles and walked out the door into the rain. When my teammate came ashore, I walked to the far side of the beach, about one hundred feet from where our rugged support team kept a vigilant watch despite the weather, tied my towel to the Dolphin Club dock, and dove in.

In my mind, it was subtle and stealthy. If it wasn’t, nobody has mentioned it to me yet.

Two loops of Aquatic Park, a mile and a half later, I came ashore, grabbed my towel, and headed to the sauna.

Here’s what I learned:

  • The cold takes over as it always does. As usual, there was nothing sexy about my first few minutes in the water – just the same old self-control and instinct-repression I’ve become so familiar with in Seattle.
  • After that, it is just swimming. I still dealt with the same mental issues as in every other swim that weekend, the same swimming-related issues, and the same personal issues that the sensory deprivation of swimming is so good at letting me dwell on. There wasn’t anything different.
  • When a kayaker shines a flashlight at you, consider using modesty.
  • People are usually too busy to notice what you’re doing. If you don’t make a big fuss, you’ll get away with a lot. (Turns out public nudity was banned in San Francisco a year prior to this event.)
  • If you are with the right group of people, no one really cares what you are wearing.

And now that I’m an experienced veteran at skinny dipping, did someone say Solstice Swim?

 


1 I don’t think we ever came up with an official title.

Getting to Manhattan

There was a time when I had ceased to be a swimmer. I ran a bit, played some water polo, got into triathlons, and then graduated college and started travelling a lot. More on this later, but at some point I got back into swimming, and when I did I immediately started looking for a goal. I recalled a friend from my age group team had swam around Manhattan way back when. As easily as that, I decided I, too, was going to swim around Manhattan. Why not, right? I mean, it sounds really cool.

The thing about the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim is, it’s hard to get accepted. They check your swimming resume, ask all about your training plan, and generally want details about you as a swimmer. Crazy stuff like that. It was so obvious to me that I could complete the swim, why did they need me to prove it? I mean, I’d done a 5k or two and survived adolescence on a swim team, so. Plus, I’d already traveled to the Lake District that September to do my four-hour qualifying swim. (Side note: Lake Coniston is gorgeous in September, but the 54 degree water takes some getting used to.) Despite my best efforts at sounding confident, 2010 would not be my year for MIMS. Surprise, surprise.

So I buckled in, looked around, and quickly found a way shorter body of water to cross. In May, I completed my first marathon swim by crossing the Strait of Gibraltar (more on that to come as well). Now, with that and a 6.5k under my belt…the belt of my swim suit, I guess…surely they’d let me in next year. After all, I knew how to swim over ten miles. November came; the “thanks for applying” letter came shortly thereafter.

By now, late 2010, I’d put traveling on pause and was back in New York, living in North Brooklyn. To continue my resume-building, I swam the Kingdom Swim in Vermont and the Chesapeake Bay swim plus two NYC Swim events in the summer of 2011, volunteered for a few other NYC Swim events including as a kayaker for MIMS. To be extra certain, I agreed to fundraise the NYC Swim’s charity. In late October while on vacation at the beach in South Carolina, I found out my efforts had paid off. An hour or so later, I was in the ocean doing a victory lap.

The only thing left to do was to figure out how to do this thing. How hard could it be?

And this just in, all of my application essays still exist on the NYC Swim site. Cringe. Perhaps someday I’ll share them, if I can ever bring myself to read what young Andrew wrote back then.

The benefit of being regular

On Saturdays, my typical morning routine is to swim off Alki Beach at 9:30am, followed by a warm-up period in Tully’s, followed by an additional drink or two at Celtic Swell one block over. It is planned, it is prescribed, it is predictable, it is other synonymous ‘P’ adjectives.

The benefits of being a regular at a commercial establishment are readily apparent. For example when I get my post-swim beverages, both hot and cold. Like anyone who frequents a café, pub, or otherwise, I can count on a friendly smile awaiting me when I walk in shivering, a welcome respite from the cold impersonality that trails the new guy in a big city. Being this type of regular also comes with a free drink every now and then, an added bonus.

But that type of regularity, the Regular Patron, is not the only type of regularity. A big part of my Saturday routine has been a practiced effort to make my routine a routine. To arrive at a given time and, more importantly, to finish swimming at a certain time. To establish one time each week when everyone knows there will be at least one other person swimming at the beach. Whereas the Regular Patron comes wanting, the Regular Swimmer comes to share.

One of the best things about CIBBOWS, the open-water swim group that calls home Grimaldo’s Chair at the end of Brighton 4th Street in Brooklyn, is their well-rehearsed predictability and dependability. Throughout the year, and especially in the summer and especially on Saturdays, a group of swimmers will be at the beach from around 9am on through the early evening. Without fail. There is no need to call ahead; you just know there is always someone there.

When I swam with CIBBOWS, I always intended to meet them at 10am for a swim. I wanted to be a Regular. The train ride from the Upper East Side was over 90 minutes and more often than not a late night or a hangover or both precluded me from arriving as planned. I was not the predictable one of the group for sure, often arriving around 1pm just as most people were packing up. But that was fine, I could depend on the rest of the group to hold down the tradition on which I depended; I’d just arrive when I could, do a short swim, and then eat everyone’s left-over snacks.

Upon arriving in Seattle, no such group existed. It wasn’t long before I found a small network of swimmers willing to join me in the always chilly waters and often inclement weather of the Pacific Northwest winter, but every meeting required a plan: time, place, directions, guest list, warm-up spot, transportation. Fun for us, but certainly not great for the part of me that wanted to sleep in an irresponsibly show up mid-afternoon, and not great for getting those unsure and unfamiliar to drop in.

It is now over a year later and we’ve grown. We’ve picked a time and place. Every Saturday, we say, someone will be at Alki Bathhouse at 9:30. An average swimmer will be in the water for a half-hour, and will then head to Tully’s to warm up, we say. And we advertise this. When someone asks, “Will you be cancelling this weekend because of [holiday/weather/Seahawks]?” we’re quick to remind everyone that Of Course we will be there at 9:30am, independent of time, temperature, and teams. We’re always there at 9:30am. Always. And this is working.

As of this weekend, we’ve expanded our formerly invite-only swim group to an ad-hoc, make-it-if-you-can group of eleven plus, shivering on the beach on Saturdays! Local residents have taken note of the unusually large numbers of regular swimmers in the water. Our fireside chats at Tully’s are taking over a larger and larger portion of the café. And this is only February!

The benefit of being the Regular Swimmer is that other people become regulars.

Now, my new goal is to meet someone at the beach who arrived for a swim at 1pm because she knew a group would still be there hanging out after their regular 9:30am swim. And maybe someday, I can be that person again.