Before I left for a seven-day swim vacation, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I knew that I would be meeting a small group of swimmers and triathletes some place on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. From Tortola, I knew that we would board a rather large sailboat, the Promenade, and then sail around the BVIs. I knew that the Promenade and her crew would provide us with food and lodging. Throughout the week, I knew we would swim twice each day and probably have some time to snorkel and relax in between. And I knew that this sounded like a pretty good trip.
After I stepped aboard the Promenade for this swim vacation, I couldn't believe what I had gotten myself into. After I arrived on the island of Tortola, I couldn't believe how blue the water was. After I jumped in for the first time, I couldn't believe that I didn't need a wetsuit. And as we sailed to the next island, I couldn't believe that each day got better than the last.
Before: Wake up, brush teeth, grab swim gear and head out the door. Drive to the pool and pay $2. Swim.
After: Jump off a 65-foot trimaran in the British Virgin Islands. Swim.
Before: Swim about 3,000 yards in chlorinated waters staring at a thick black line.
After: Swim from island to island in the Caribbean staring at sea turtles, coral, various shades of blue, and multi-colored fish
Before: Work on swim technique.
After: Work on swim technique after underwater videotaping and analysis...in the sea. (The water's that clear.)
Before: Swim for 45-60 minutes and rush off to work.
After: Swim for about an hour and then fall asleep on the deck of a sailboat after coffee and a hot breakfast.
Before: Meet up with a few friends and get in a good pool workout.
After: Spend a week with fellow swimmers with similar interests while exploring underwater caves, shipwrecks, and sea life.
Before I went on this swim vacation, I didn't think it was possible to combine quality training time with quality relaxation. After seven days, I couldn't believe that I had to go home. This vacation was quite possibly the best week of my life. That's no exaggeration. That's truth.
All of my prior swimming ventures have been trumped. National swim meets, high school championships and various open water events, beaten. Twenty-six years of swimming surpassed by one week. Seven days of swimming.
Horse racing, alpine skiing, and beauty pageants. Surfing, car racing, and snooker. Believe it or not, all of these activities have at least one commonality. In each sport or activity, you could earn a Triple Crown title. In this context, three is not a crowd and two out of three won’t cut it. On three separate occasions, athletes (and animals) perform at an elite level in a variety of settings.
Including open ocean.
My personal triple crown of open water swimming events includes various one-mile open water races, the infamous Gatorman 3-mile competition, and completing the La Jolla Cove 10-mile relay solo. If I had a triple crown of swim locations, this would include Midwestern lakes, the Pacific Ocean, and in a few weeks, the Caribbean. Recently, I’ve been searching for an open water swim race; something longer and also challenging enough to take me out of my comfort zone.
I was flipping through web pages for the Catalina Channel swim, and that’s when I discovered the Triple Crown of Marathon Swimming. With the exception of a support boat and crew, these three races are solo events. It’s you against yourself, the currents, the tides, and the marine life. Physical contact with anyone or anything is not allowed. Wetsuits are not allowed. Neither are fins.
To earn this triple crown title, one must successfully swim the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, and around Manhattan Island wearing a bathing suit, one swim cap, one pair of goggles and some grease. The English Channel is about 21 miles, the Catalina Channel about the same, and to circumnavigate Manhattan Island is 28.5 miles. 70.5 total miles. Plus, the water’s not too warm. And just to add perspective, more people have successfully climbed Mount Everest than have swum the English Channel. Most swimmers start the Catalina Channel swim at night. In the dark. And finally, imagine yourself taking a stroll around the streets of Manhattan. Now imagine swimming around it. Good stuff, huh?
I don’t know when. I don’t know how. I’m not even sure why, but one day I will complete one of these swims. Then maybe we’ll talk triple crown…
“No guts no glory, no pain no gain, no lanes no lines, no walls no mercy.”
Why do you like training on hills? Why did you go that far? Why were gone for so long? Why do you wake up so early? Why is your hair kinda green?
My quick and easy answer is just a smile and a shrug. The longer version is that I like to see what I am capable of. And for me if I need to see what I'm capable of, it can't always be about swimming. With 23 years of training and competing, swimming is my fallback sport. But it just wasn't working for me. My training was unfocused. I was bored and repeatedly asked myself ‘Why am I doing this again?'
I need a clear purpose with both training and racing, and a passion for the activities I choose to occupy my time. I need intensity, and I wasn't creating that intensity in the water. I didn't feel like I was accomplishing anything and was at a standstill.
Then I tried a random workout in a park close to my house. This outdoor workout consisted of squats, push-ups, walking lunges, broadjumps, suicides, bear crawls, burpees, wheelbarrow walks, and v-ups. In just under 25 minutes, I felt like I had run a marathon. I finished soaking with sweat and decided that I wanted to try this again.
I signed on with the group that sponsored that workout in the park, and I have been training with them at 6am. For the first time in years, I have a ‘coach.' Each workout is purposeful and tests various dimensions of my fitness. The intensity requires a lot of concentration and leaves no time to think about stuff that tends to keep me awake at night. I appreciate rest days and I actually look forward to a long run or swim.
I've collected small victories with each workout, and surprised myself along the way. I'm tracking my progress by keeping a workout log and setting new goals as I go. As the mini-victories accrue, the result is a boost in my confidence.
Victory #1-Strength: I'm capable of repeatedly bringing a bar racked with weight from the ground up over my head with my arms fully extended. I can lift my own bodyweight and flip a tire the size of an inflatable backyard swimming pool.
Victory #2-Power: Words like clean, jerk, snatch, push, and press hold new definitions.
Victory #3-Coordination: I can safely swing a kettlebell over my head and jump up on a box without banging my shins on the edge.
Victory #4-Flexibility: I used to cringe at the thought of certain movements because I knew my shoulders would not cooperate. Used to.
Victory #5-Endurance: Just when I think I can't do one more push-up, squat, lunge, or burpee, I do one more.
These are just a few motives to get me out of bed at 5:30. These little victories are adding up, and I'm still counting.
Sunday's rough water swim in La Jolla brought back flashbacks of age group swimming. In Missouri, most of the swim meets are indoors. On the weekends, the local high school, college, and community center gyms housed many swimmers. These gyms were our bullpens, ready rooms, and staging areas.
When I showed up in La Jolla Sunday morning, I felt like I was back in that bullpen. This was not a laid back atmosphere. It freaked me out. I walked over to the edge of the cove, overlooking the water, and stared out at the pier. A mile and a half away. Looking at the distance from that overlook freaked me out even more. But I knew this was going to be a new experience, I should enjoy it. So I talked myself down from that ledge of negative thinking, decided that I would give it my best effort, and see what this race is really all about.
By 1:30, our group of future Gatormen was ready to go, but the course was not. During the slight delay, I heated up quickly under that yellow swim cap. We were all eager to get in the cool water. As we walked down the concrete steps to the sand, I heard the announcer say it was the largest showing for this event ever, close to 600.
The beach filled quickly with swimmers; all crowding the edge of the water, all facing north towards the pier. I get claustrophobic just picturing it. There was a glob of yellow and red balloons just west of the pier where we were told to make our first left turn. There was another glob of yellow and red balloons to the left of the first glob where we would make our second left turn. Then swim back. Check.
If you've seen mass swim starts, you know it looks chaotic. If you've experienced a mass swim start, you know it's crazier than it looks. If you've done a mass swim start from shore with 600 ultra-competitive, uncompromising challengers, you and I both know it's insane. However, in that start, there was a brief moment of calm. Just after the gun start, everyone moved forward, vertically. The water was churning, but it was remarkably quiet. As the swimmers in front of me dove forward onto their stomachs, chaos ensued. That horizontal movement brought feet in my face, water in my mouth, fingers up my nose, fists in my eyes, and elbows in my ears. My heart rate skyrocketed and I just hoped that the person in front of me was swimming in the right direction.
The Cove became a vacuum, and it was sucking us away from the beach. This is what drafting is all about! I watched the millions of tiny bubbles in front of me. It looked like someone had laid a thousand leaky oxygen tanks on the bottom of the ocean. I was entranced by these bubbles and settled into a rhythm. Not a minute later, I was attacked. Never saw it coming. Smack in the middle of my back, right on the spine. Two sharp fingernails dug into my flesh and scraped down my skin. I remember thinking, well that ought to draw some blood, and then I was furious. I let out a bloodcurdling scream underwater which made me feel a little better. But I couldn't remember if a good defense made a good offense... or if a good offense made a good defense. Either way, I defended myself with a swift and powerful breaststroke kick in the direction of my attacker. My foot made contact and I swam like mad to get out of that boxing ring.
I regained my rhythm and set my sights just to the left of the pier. I started counting strokes, telling myself I would not check my watch until I counted 500 strokes. What's funny is that pier never really got any closer. Until I was right on it and made the first turn. I thought the swim out had been choppy and rolling, but this brought rough to a whole new level. And, it gave me incentive to get to the second balloon glob quickly before accidentally catching one of those waves into shore.
The rolling water, course strategies, and the distance of the race had finally broken up the pack, and the swim back was lonely. I knew there were other swimmers out there, but only caught glimpses of them. I kept counting strokes and checking my watch. The white "Finish" sign took on a more rectangular shape than the "big white blob" I had been sighting. Then I could see the bottom. And finally, my hands hit the sand. I stood up and ran it in. A volunteer handed me a ticket to pick up my official finisher's t-shirt and I grabbed a Clif bar from the table.
As I walked up the steps, munching on the Clif bar, I was surprised that people were still there. A few tents were up and groups of chairs were scattered around the grass. It had been a long day and things were winding down. I wanted a nap. I gathered up my stuff, finished the bar, and left the bullpen.
Balboa Park in San Diego, CA does not offer much in the way of ocean swimming. It's a park in the middle of San Diego, very close to downtown but not that close to the Pacific, relatively speaking. However, Balboa Park shares a connection with the La Jolla Rough Water Swim, an annual event that takes place in La Jolla, CA this Sunday.
The 1916 inaugural swim took place during the years of the Panama-California Exposition held in Balboa Park. Most of the Spanish-style buildings in the park today were built for the Exposition. The swim was the result of a challenge the World's Fair committee issued to San Diego communities. The committee wanted each community to showcase what they had to offer, and La Jolla had "the Cove."
The La Jolla Rough Water Swim has been called the "Boston Marathon of Swimming" and the "Granddaddy of Open Water Swims." This is the 77th year for the swim; an event that has endured wars, funding challenges, and shark sightings. It has quite a history.
I signed up for Gatorman, a trademarked term for the 3-mile swim. At 1:30pm, 500 of my closest friends and I will don bright yellow swim caps. From La Jolla Cove, we'll swim out to Scripps Pier, a distance of 1.5 miles. I'm expecting a flurry of arms and legs at the start, probably a few bumps on the head, some rolling waves, and mouthful of sea water here and there. But that's ok, this race is not the La Jolla Calm Water Swim.
At the pier, we'll turn back, swim the remaining 1.5 miles, cross the line, log our official chip-timed finish, and earn the title of Gatorman or Gatorman-Woman. This will be the first time that I will swim this course, but with 77 years of history I have a feeling it won't be the last.
I usually wind up standing at the edge of the pool or ocean for a few moments before a workout. I stare at the water, elbows tucked in close and knuckles pressed on the bottom of my chin. And I talk to myself. Silently.
It's gonna be cold. That looks like someone I know. I have to go to the store. I should call my dad. I'm tired. What's coming up this weekend? Did I train enough for this? My shoulders feel tight. I need to get in. Did I pay rent yet? I'm a little hungry. Big wave. I should go now. Was that a stingray? Did I lock the car?
Finally I dive in, and that's when things start to fade. Five senses become four underwater. Seeing, tasting, smelling, and feeling, all possible. But sound is muted.
All those thoughts I had before are silenced underwater. It doesn't happen right away, and it doesn't happen all the time. It happens while I'm training as well as during a race. And not just with swimming. Any challenge, big or small, brings it on.
I don't know if you've experienced this? You're in that zone. You're catching another runner on the road. You're finishing your first triathlon. You finally ran a mile without stopping. You did your first real pull-up. You're logging 5,000 meters in the pool. You're just jogging down the beach. Or climbing up a mountain.
"At the peak of tremendous and victorious effort, while the blood is pounding in your head, all suddenly becomes quiet within you. Everything seems clearer and whiter than ever before, as if great spotlights had been turned on. At that moment, you have the conviction that you contain all the power in the world, that you are capable of everything, that you have wings. There is no more precious moment in life than this, the white moment, and you will work very hard for years just to taste it again." (Yuri Vlasov, Soviet Weightlifter)
Swimming is my escape. Challenges are an escape. Mute the negative thoughts. Mute the fears. Turn up the volume on the clarity.
The 2007 swimming national championships started this week. A big meet taking place at a big pool with a big name, the IUPUI Natatorium. Yesterday, Erik Vendt broke his own meet record at this natatorium, in the 1500m free. He won the race by more than 16 seconds. Katie Hoff and Katie Ziegler finished the 800m freestyle with a .47 second separation, adding to the history of this 25 year-old pool. "I love this pool," Vendt said. "I've only swum one meet here, but it has a lot of history, a lot of mystique."
Growing up an age group swimmer in the midwest, I was able to experience this 'pool' firsthand. This was the first time I ever swam in a pool with a bulkhead. And a scoreboard. And a completely different smell than the ultra-chlorinated middle school pool back home. There was even a place to warm-up before each event - the blue-tiled, so deep your ears popped, diving tank. At 8 years old, that was big time. I loved it too.