Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Meditation, a Black Pearl, and the Art of Open Water Swimming

Open water swims aren't easy for me. They're not awful - don't get me wrong - but getting used to swimming for a long time in Lake Michigan wasn't the easiest thing for me to do either - especially when it's choppy, or sea-weedy, or murky. I suppose that's normal -- who in their right mind would *love* swimming in a muddy washing machine? Like most folks, SJV and I would often opt out of open water swims when the water looked ... less than optimal. But this year SJV and I are in a class that meets every Thursday night -- regardless of the waves, the visibility, or the presence of dead fish. (Usually there aren't waves, which sortof annoys me, as I'd like to have practice with Monster Waves before encountering any at Steelhead. But murkiness and dead fish are pretty much par for the course.)

I've been swimming since I was a wee kiddo, so I was a little surprised when I'd have slight panicky feelings when the water would get super murky, or super choppy. A few weeks ago, we were headed out to the 1/2 mile marker on a relatively calm day, but the water was pretty murky, and all I could see in front of my face was sediment. I also had a feeling that we were pretty deep at that point, so I had this strange sensation of claustrophobia and acrophobia at the same time. The benefit was that I boogied along pretty well -- nice fast split. But I was surprised at my reaction -- I've never truly freaked out during a swim, even when the chop was significant (maybe 2 foot waves? the photos make it look more calm than it was - folks were getting fished out by the coast guard the whole way) and my goggles fogged up so bad during last year's Michigan City triathlon that I couldn't see a thing. (See below.)

Fast forward a few weeks to my Frigid Swim (also known as The Ice Bath) - when I emerged from the lake with frozen heels and frozen toes. A sanity check revealed that I needed a thicker and fuller wetsuit. So, off I went to contact the guys at TriBug (awesome guys) to purchase the DeSoto Black Pearl that I had tried on at the beginning of the season. Within a day or two I was swimming in my fancy new full-sleeved wetsuit, which makes me feel (and look!) faster and ... well ... warmer. :) Now, armed with my baby Black Pearl, I am a bit more buoyant (always a bonus) and I can cut through the water a bit better. Nice.

That extra padding, and a few more practice swims, and I was starting to feel more calm in the water again. But I also started thinking about my swims in a buddhist/meditative sort of way -- focusing my attention on my stroke, and on my form, and on the feeling of the water on my hand (except when my hand grabbed seaweed, when I focused on speeding up to get out of the seaweed). So, this last weekend when SJV and I volunteered for gear watch down at the beach on Saturday morning, I figured I'd get in a nice long swim. After watching the folks from Swim Across America start from the beach, I hopped in the water -- which was pretty choppy (1 foot waves, or so they said) but relatively clear. Right away, I swallowed water and got hit in the face with a wave, which proceeded to go right up my nose and burn like the dickens. Great practice, but never fun. A wave would come along and move me a bit sideways, then a roller would lift me up and bring me back down. It went sortof like this: slap slap (on the face) roll up, roll down, kerwhack (on the other side of the face), slap slap ... (repeat, ad nauseum). Pretty soon, I got into a rhythm -- I started to expect the slaps and kerwhacks, the rolls up and the rolls down, and to work with them. And right when I got comfortable, I'd get a kerwhack rather than a slap, and the rolls would come from the side rather than the front. I'd get caught off-guard, and would sputter a bit.

It got me thinking. You can't predict what an open water swim will be like -- even from the beach, looking out at the wave-height. You can't even predict what the next wave will be like. It might be a slap, which you're expecting. But it also might be a kerwhack, which you aren't really expecting. The only thing that you do know, and that you can count on for certain, is that it won't always be what you expect, and that you can't predict what the waves will do -- but that you can (with your Black Pearl and your practice) finish the swim.

I won't lie and say that my swim time improved dramatically when I let go of my wave-expectations. It was my attitude about the swim that improved and, I suspect, my energy expenditure. Rather than fighting the waves that I wasn't expecting, I was working with each wave as it came. Each on its own, and on its own time.

I could be really cheesy right now and say that life is the same way -- that you can't predict the waves, and the more you fight each wave that comes in, the more energy you expend (unnecessarily) -- and the more tired you are when you reach the beach. And you'll reach the beach, of course. It's just a matter of when you do, and how you do it, and how you feel about the swim.

But I'll refrain from being super cheesy today, and just say that I'm happy that I made friends with the waves this weekend.

Expect the unexpected,

1 comment:

Jennifer Harrison said...

The swim is a nemisis for most...but you have a great attitude. We both just wrote a blog on OW swimming - I was just thinking about it and wrote one today too! KEEP up the good work and JOHN too (!) and GOOD luck at Steelhead! :)

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Idgy the Cat