It is 4:30 a.m. The great horned owls outside our home have chosen this hour of day to talk with one another. Sue and I lay in bed in the half-dark listening to them the other morning. We both had smiles on our faces. “It’s amazing,” she whispered.
The birds have far more nuance in their vocalizations than you might think on first listen. Their owl conversations are much more complex than just HOOT HOOT HOOT.
In fact what I head this morning, in my half-awake, half-asleep mode, was something on the order of “Get oooout of beeoood and gooo to Muassters Swim!’
Sue was already dressed and gathering equipment to go swim when I lurched out of bed and shuffled through my little Get Ready For Swim routine. This whole early morning swim thing is still a relatively new activity compared to decades of getting ready for running, which is easy, or to go cycling, which is always a pain in the butt because there is always so much equipment including shoes, helmet, bottles and food to lug around even for an hour ride.
Not so bad
Swimming falls somewhere between the two sports in terms of equipment and preparation. Going to swim would be simple enough if it was just the suit and goggles one needed to go to the pool. Instead, the swim world has invented all kinds of floaty devices necessary to bring to the pool or be deemed a hopeless novice. The pool float I use is a pleasant looking object with two sort of blobby ends, one larger than the other. It is black and white, but many of them are what I’d call “pool blue,” sort is sky-colored with a chlorine tinge.
I don’t yet own a float board, but when I do, I’ll write some motivational words on one side on the order of Jens Voigt and his famous “Shut Up Legs” stuck to the top bar of his bike. On my float board I’ll take a pen and write “Just Don’t Drown.” I’ll admit that Nike will never make that slogan because it seems so damned defeatist at its heart. But you make do sometimes with whatever inspiration you can muster. “Just Don’t Drown” is quite a practical bit of advice.
Somehow the words “Just Do It” don’t seem to apply when you get to the pool. There are so many considerations before you even get in the water. Like, how cold is the water today? So one sits on the edge of the pool with calves and knees immersed while adapting to the water. Of course, you just know it all feels fine once you make up your mind and dive in the water. But those moments between ‘out of the water’ and ‘in the water’ have caused many a swimmer to curse their very existence. Just Do It, indeed.
During band camp as an elementary school kid our band instructor invited everyone to join the Polar Bear Club and come swim at 6:00 a.m. Always a sucker for doing things that were harder than everyone else, I showed up every morning with my skinny little body shivering in the morning chill. So there’s a long history of early morning swimming in my genes. That’s also why I participated on the Swim Team at Meadia Heights pool. Workouts were held in the mornings before anyone else was allowed in the pool. That made me feel special.
It felt exclusive and real to be let in the pool when no one else was around. Just the call of birds in the trees, and that plain, flat water. And me. It felt that way walking around in my first baseball uniform as well, with cleats clacking on the asphalt. Those sensations meant I was entering a world of sports where what you did was everything that mattered. I loved the feel of that commitment. Which is why I also loved the sound of that pool gate closing behind me. Whatever dread I felt at the prospect of swimming was countered by the feeling that I was part of a group doing cool things.
That’s part of the mental equipment that comes with doing any sport. We may do tons of our training alone, but we also yearn to belong. To earn our place.
I’m still working my way toward the day I can truly swim at the same pace as the other Academy Bullets Masters swimmers. Most have been at this a while and can swim much faster. Today we closed out the workout with a set of twenty 25-yard intervals. It so happened that I did a set of those on my own last week and was able to hit 21 seconds on most of them. But that was with 30-second rests. And I was going all out.
Today we were supposed to do 25 yards and go on the 30s. If you hit 21 seconds you got nine seconds of rest. All the good swimmers were tearing up the water in the middle of the pool while I hung in the outside lane where I always go. I kept up the first interval. And the second. Then I couldn’t go in time for the third. See, I really do believe in the mantra “Just Don’t Drown.” There comes a point in anaerobic work where swimming beyond your pace and capacity to recover presents a genuine risk of sinking to the bottom of the pool. That was me.
I am just not equipped to keep up yet. That will come in time. My 100-meter time is now down to 1:50 from my former best just a month or so ago of 2:10. So things are coming along. My kick is much stronger and Sue has refined a couple elements of my freestyle stroke.
Rinsing off the chlorine sheen in the shower at home, I stood in the shower contemplating the differences between swimming, cycling and running. Over time, it’s our job as triathletes to equip our brain and bodies to transition between the three disciplines. It may not be possible or advisable in this endeavor to count every step or stroke along the way. That way lies madness indeed. Yet it truly is repetition that gets the job done.
That is true even when you are the last on in the pool when the workout is over. Or perhaps you bring up the rear on the group ride, sucking wheel just to keep up. Or perhaps you’re finishing your last run interval when the rest of the group is sucking water and telling jokes.
Even these experiences are part of becoming equipped to do the sports you love. The main equipment in all three is persistence. That is the most important piece of equipment you have. All triathletes should change their middle name to Persistence.
Or write it on your float board. On the top bar of your bike. Or the palm of your hand when you’re out running. Persistence. It makes winners.