Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Back to life, back to reality

One minute, 42 seconds.

That's what a year gained me.

What to make of it?

At the same time four dozen people, some I've "met" through facebook, were swimming 28.5 miles around Manhattan Island, and more than a couple of hundred others were running 100 miles across the Sierra in the Western States Endurance Run, I was completing a 2.4-swim race, the Folsom Lake Open Water (FLOW, get it?) event last weekend.

Endurance, I submit, is relative.

Last June, running onto shore after the first lap to fetch my old goggles because my new pair flopped uselessly on my face for most of a mile, I finished FLOW in one hour, 31 minutes and 53 seconds.

Last weekend, swimming straight through (I have a habit of stopping several times during my regular swims), I finished the same course in one hour, 30 minutes and 11 seconds.

An improvement of one minute, 42 seconds. Which may be moot considering the time it took me last year to change out my goggles.

Like I may have mentioned, what to make of it?

My thoughts take two tacks:

1.) What, me worry?
(Call me consistent … or terminally mediocre.)
2.) I could do better.
(Call me a cardiologist.) 
I swim, ultimately, because I can. It's exercise that I can do — and want to do — every day. I never tire of it … well, today I'm tired, but I'm only taking a break for the day.

For the better part of eight years, I have swum at least four days a week; and for the last year and a half, I have swum exclusively in the open water; and 14 days out of 15, I have kept to the cold confines of Lake Natoma.

I like being "the guy who swims year round in the cold water without a wetsuit" to tangential acquaintances (though, full disclosure, I'm not the only one, even in this neighborhood pond.) But that's all I really am in the swimming world.

So be it. I've written quite enough, I'm sure you'd agree, about the green adventure of swimming Lake Natoma, and I can't get enough of it. Saying these words aloud to a swim friend, I realize I'm addicted to the lake, afraid to leave it too long and face the pain of having to re-acclimate to the cold. The weeks of stinging fingers and arms will come next November, as the lake temperature drops below 50, despite my almost daily dip.

So I don't worry … usually. I have befriended several people who make the swims enjoyable by their camaraderie and shared shiver misery and, eventually, cups of coffee and time to talk about all the amazing things these people do besides swim.

In the grand scheme, besides, not a lot of people can or want to do what I do, and the few of us who do share in that singularity.

But I swim in part to go places, to check off a kind of bucket list. Not only can I add dimension to road trips and campouts now, I have the opportunity to join storied swims, along the ocean, in San Francisco Bay, in a long list of lakes.

Which leads me to the path of most resistance: I could do better.

Therein lies my liquid angst: I don't know how I can purchase more speed.

If you've stayed with me this far and know something about swimming and fitness, you may be right to say: Is that so?

The truth is, I'd stopped looking for answers. This has been an unsettling year for me and swimming. It's not that I haven't enjoyed it; it's that those bucket-list swims — one in particular — tied me in knots of consternation.

A new 10k swim (6.2 miles) made its debut at Del Valle Reservoir near Livermore earlier this month. I didn't go, though I was all afire about it back in January, when I attended a workshop for it.

As soon as I heard swimmers had to finish the race in 3.5 hours, I couldn't comprehend anything else during the workshop. Mind and body told me the same thing: I couldn't do it. So I went to a pool to find out, and finished 6.2 miles (437 lengths of a 25-yard pool, if you're scoring from home) and did it in under four hours.

Hmmm. I resolved to pore over my swimming manuals, review the notes from the January workshop, step off the landmarks where I swim and practice sprints in the cold water to build up endurance and speed, exercise my core … to find the speed I needed.

All those resolutions went where resolutions usually go. All that remained is dogged determination to swim, just swim.

On a shared facebook page, many swimmers from around the world post their pool regimen, complete with times and codes for negative splits (swimming the last leg faster than the first) and short rest times to strengthen their tolerances in the big sprints.

I have ignored all of it.

So it was with blissful ignorance that I reached the end of my FLOW swim, tired but energy in the tank, that I saw a swimmer ahead of me — and if that wasn't wonder enough, I was gaining on her! I sprinted as best I could, crossed the finish line ahead of her, shared congratulations in having finished — and had the gall to think I might place in my age group.

Even as a member of a rather large old-person's age bracket (more of us than the 20-somethings, which I can't decide is affirming or disquieting), the third-place finisher had raced to shore almost a half-hour before me.

Medals (and their lack) are no more for me than an excuse to write about them, so either way I benefit; or you suffer, depending on your perspective.

But I'm concerned about what medals represent: That I could be getting faster, which will get me to swim places and distances I dream of before the day comes I can't swim.

What to make of it?

Addendum: The winner of the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim last weekend, a Yale senior named Abigail Nunn, finished 28.5 miles in seven hours, 30 minutes and 26 seconds — more than 17 minutes ahead of the second-place swimmer. That's nearly four miles an hour, an astounding feat even discounting the aid of changing tides. It was her first attempt at the marathon swim. At my 35-minute pace, I could complete that course (assuming, of course, I could complete the course) in 16.5 hours, more than twice as long as it took Nunn.

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