Blogs tagged with "motivation"

When Hurricane Irma hit Florida this year, my tiny view of the open water swimming world was drastically expanded. I wasn't directly impacted by the wind and water, but the chain of events following in the wake of that storm seemed to have an otherworldly hand at work, leading me right to the place I belong. 

It started with Irma's devastation in the Florida Keys forcing cancellation of the 8-mile Swim for Alligator Lighthouse in Islamorada, FL, an event in which I was registered. I set off on a desperate internet search for a way to capitalize on the months of training I did for that event. There were only a few drive-able options in September and October, but I was severely limited by commitments on several of those weekends. However, there WAS a perfect fit: a 10.5-mile swim in New York's Finger Lakes on the same weekend as the cancelled event. The hitch: event entry was already capped (at 15 swimmers).

I wasn't giving up so easily, so I wrote an email to the event coordinator, Bridgette Hobart Janeczko, in hopes she might accept my case. I offered to bring my own support kayak and kayaker (my husband, Jim), and she graciously accepted. I will never be able to thank her enough. This event would eventually be somewhat of a revelation to me - on many levels.

Friday morning, Jim and I packed up the car - kayak on top - and drove 4.5 hours to Watkins Glen, NY. We had no idea what to expect but it all started on Friday night with a course preview in Seneca Lake. With several of the other swimmers, we were given a tour by boat of the course and points of interest such as mile "markers" in the landscape. Bridgette explained areas of concern and gave navigation tips. I'm not gonna lie - while on that boat, I was beginning to feel like I was in way over my head. Listening to conversations, I realized I was surrounded by swimmers who specialized in distances much longer than 10.5 miles. I think I spent the entire boat trip cowering in a corner of the deck. But it was no fault of theirs. It was all me and my disaster-magnet insecurities. After the boat tour, Bridgette generously served a catered dinner to the swimmers and kayakers who came out that evening. We were also able to leave our kayak there overnight. I went to bed that night worrying about surviving the water temperature and being the last one to finish. I even considered not starting. I did NOT belong here.

Here are some photos of the Friday night tour:

Surprisingly enough, I was able to get some sleep that night, and the next morning, we did arrive at the staging site. I've rarely seen such great organization. Yes, the swim was small.. but every kayaker was given a radio and a whistle for safety. All kayaks had numbered flags on suction-cup bases. The biggest question everyone had was: "What was the water temperature?" A few of us (less hearty) swimmers still needed to decide whether to wear wetsuits. After last week in Lake Erie at 70 degrees, I was all but certain I could handle the cold, but a couple other swimmers put the temperature question back in my head. Seriously, I had not even brought a full wetsuit - all I had was a sleeveless neoprene vest. After the Ocean City wetsuit debacle, I decided on swimsuit only. The convincing argument was air temperatures forecast in the high 80s.

Some pre-race photos:

The kayak line-up:

Swimmers listening to instructions and being paired up with their kayakers:

Our little set-up:

Waiting on the dock and our boat shuttle to the start:

The swim start was in deep water. It was a beautiful cloudless morning and we were boated out to a jetty to meet up with our kayakers who launched about 15 minutes earlier. It all happened so fast once we arrived. Most of the swimmers jumped off the boat with gusto. I went the wimpy route and climbed down a ladder to slip quietly into the water off the back of the boat. (At least three of us chose this option, I think mostly fearing a "goggles" disaster.) 

Several people said the water was "perfect," but I thought it was ever-so-slightly cold. It wasn't necessarily worrisome-cold, but in the waaaay back of my mind, there was concern. However, swimming out to the kayaks relaxed me enough to put fear to rest and within seconds, Bridgette counted down to the start and we were off - headed due West to the shoreline. Once out of impending boat traffic, we made an L-turn and swam north along the shoreline of Seneca Lake. I swam relaxed and easy and the first two miles flew by. My 20-minute feedings went quick, and I felt very little cold. I glanced at my watch only during feedings to see my pace was around 1:30 per 100 yd (26.4 minutes per mile) - just where I wanted it. The water was calm and clear and, seriously, we couldn't have asked for better water and weather conditions.

It was all near-perfect... until I hit a warm patch of water near the salt factory (mile 2) on the shoreline. The warm patch was very deceiving. Once I felt it, going back into the cold water was disconcerting - it had a profound effect on my comfort level. I tried not to think about it. It was the same temperature as before - it just FELT colder. My fingers started getting numb and by the end of mile 3, I started to shiver. Yep, my core temperature was dropping. Anxiety was taking over.

I was only three miles in, but memories of two bouts with dangerous hypothermia sent me into panic mode and that old bugaboo - negative self-talk - sent me into a downward spiral. Some thoughts that went through my head: "Oh no, I'm not going to finish," "Holy crap, I'll be the only one that dropped out, and I'll have to face all the other finishers as a complete failure," "What am I doing wrong?," "Why am I colder sooner than last week in Lake Erie?" I was doing that THING. I wasn't fighting the urge to give up. I was giving myself permission to quit.

I HAD to fight this narrative. I decided not to tell Jim what was going through my mind. Telling him would give it a voice. I had to just keep swimming. Hypothermia was NOT inevitable! It COULD, and WOULD, get better. If other swimmers can do this, I can too! I fell back on things I knew: pick up the pace to generate some heat; take feeds as quickly as possible to keep moving; take deeper breaths to stay calm and ward off the shivers; think of warm fuzzy feelings (like my cuddling up to my cat).

And then my mind quieted enough to remember something - there was hot water in the kayak! Before the race, Bridgette had made available several airpots of hot water to those wanting them. Jim had carried one in the kayak just in case, and at the next feed, asked him for it to warm up my hands.

(Afterwards, Jim told me what a complete disaster it was for him to manipulate that big pot and not demolish or mix up his whole system in the kayak. But I was so thankful that he was able to work it out.) Once he had it out, Jim expressed concern - worried the water was too hot and it was a really bad idea to pour boiling water on my hands. I told him to DO IT!! I had no feeling in my fingers anyway. He obliged. It actually worked (and seriously, I wanted to take a shower in that boiling water). Some feeling in my hands returned, but I still had to fight, and I kept fighting.

And, while I battled my hypothermia demons, time kept ticking away... before I knew it, we were in sight of the 5.25 turn-around. And the sun was warming things up. And by the time we turned, I had almost regained all feeling in my hands. I was thrilled enough to wave to the people waiting for us at the turn-around buoy.

And a new thought creeped into my head... I began to believe I could, and would, finish.

That's all it took. The 5.25-mile swim back was mostly marked by the ability to watch things go by on the shoreline (since I breathe mostly to the right) and increasing fatigue. A couple major landmarks (the salt factory and the jetty) seemed to remain frustratingly far away no matter how long or far I swam (we all joked about that after the swim). Even when I eventually reached them everything went by in slow motion. Unfortunately, my Garmin watch lost GPS reception at 6.82 miles, so I no longer had any idea how fast or far I was swimming except when Jim clued me in. I focused on keeping my stroke long and relaxed and swam hard enought to catch the swimmer in front of us without blowing myself out. I kept the lead until the last few hundred yards when he and his kayaker cut the L-corner to the finish and beat me by about 30 seconds. I was surprised but I didn't care - it was over! I finished. Without a disaster.

Jim took video snippets from the kayak - shows how amazing the day was: 

I climbed onto a pontoon boat that took the latest group of finishers to the main boat where we could warm up and get dry while waiting for others. There, I found out I finished fourth (and first female). I'm STILL a bit shocked. We were eventually boated back to the staging area where we had time to hang out and socialize with swimmers and kayakers (most of the kayakers were from Nazareth College Swim Team - this event is actually a fund-raiser for them). AND Bridgette generously fed everyone again - it was one of the best post-race meals I've ever had.

It was at this post-race gathering that I had the opportunity to meet the remarkable people I swam with in Seneca Lake that day. They all have smiles a mile wide. They have swim stories that will blow your mind and make your hair stand on end. Collectively, they have done the events and big swims I've only ever read (and dreamed) about. And there was amazing camaraderie among these swimmers. 

There was Craig, the swim electronics geek - he and I accidentally swam three events together this year. (I may be his jinx because he came in second overall in most of them.) There was Mary and Eric (it appears they often come as a pair as she's his coach) - they have done more mileage in a year than I will do in a lifetime. Their collective stories involve a total of three collarbone breaks. I got the feeling that to know them is to "get" the true marathon swimming mentality. They were both only about a month after the 20-bridges 28-mile swim around Manhattan. Mary swims these (colder-water) things in a two-piece suit to avoid extra stress on her shoulders. Yep, that's bad-ass in my book. Eric pointed out a muscle spasm in his calf that would have reduced me to a screaming lump, and when I asked "does it hurt?" His reply was "it's not comfortable." (Pain doesn't even phase these people.) Then there's Steve. He just swims. And swims. And swims. In 2017, he completed one of my bucket-list events, the Hudson River 8-Bridges Swim - seven days of swimming more than 15 miles daily. He said he lost 17 pounds that week. There was Jia and Lyn who had stories (and gah!, pictures) of sea lice rashes from swimming in the Florida keys. There was Kim, who struggles with cold water, who, in the boat afterwards was in a state of shivering that bordered on full body shudders. All she said was "don't worry, this is normal for me." I hope she wasn't offended that I kept trying to put my arms around her to warm her up. There was Jane who did the eight mile Boston Light Swim in 65-degree water (warm for that event) and said that Seneca Lake was "almost too warm." And finally, there was Bridgette, who set up this race - an accomplished marathon swimmer herself - who ran a tight ship to make sure everyone had a support kayaker, was safe, had what they needed, and finished. She's the reason everyone who started reached the finish line. (Another thing I love about the marathon swimming world: time cutoffs for events are usually disregarded to let everyone finish. It happened in Key West. It happened in Seneca Lake.)

Seriously, I think the more we learned, the more Jim began to fear what I might ask him to support in the future.

I'm looking forward to 2018.

Here's a photo of me after the finish with my custom-designed shark suit (I had the design printed by Q Swimwear - very comfortable and well-made):

Review of 10.5-mile open-water swim event in Seneca Lake on September 23. I had to fight some demons in this one, but I learned a lot about myself. The event is incredibly well-run, and I had the fortune to meet some very inspirational swimmers.

I know I've written about the subject, but my swim kick is the closest thing to dismal as it gets. It's never really been an asset - I've been told it's a liability - but I was always ok with that in the past. I dismissed criticism with a million-and-one excuses for why I didn't kick in the water and why I didn't need to:

  • I'm a distance swimmer!
  • I DO kick, it's just a two-beat kick. (Is that even a swimming term anymore?)
  • I started swimming at 14 and never developed a good flutter kick.
  • I'm a breaststroker, not a sprinter.
  • I have to save my legs for the bike and the run!
  • The more I use my legs in the pool, the more it will screw up my running muscles. (This was a high school myth, I think.)
  • and the list goes on...
Now that swimming is my primary sport, my whole attitude toward kicking has changed. These days, we don't distinguish kicking styles - even distance swimmers need a strong kick. Here's a great article from The Race Club about the importance of kick to overall speed. A good kick supplies 10 to 15 percent of overall propulsive force. My kick, however, did nothing for me. In fact, I'm not sure you could even call what I did "kicking." It was just a vague reference to kicking. My kick had one purpose: to float my legs. When I made a conscious effort to kick, it became a hindrance. It made my stroke choppy and added drag... it literally slowed me down. Have you ever looked out the airplane window and watched the air-brakes pop up on the wings when you land? Well that's what my feet look like in the water.
 
But where to start? I already knew (from video and other swimmers) my kick was wide and un-symmetrical, and it pretty much stalls every time I take a breath. I noticed in longer swims, I have a bizarre tendency to drag my right leg so it's even stiff when I get out of the water. Come to think of it, I do this while I'm running too - it's my right foot that trips me up on uneven sidewalks. Here's a good shot of my crazy-wide kick. (I'm smack in the middle of the photo.) Nice high elbow though.
 
 
I was determined to educate myself on how to fix my kick to make it better and faster even if it meant taking a step backward in training.
 
The first lesson? Have flexible feet. Well.. my first thought was: I'm screwed. I considered throwing in the towel immediately. The very thing that made me a good runner was the thing that was going to sink (literally) my swim kick. I have what's called the "clunk [or rigid] foot" - a term taken from Timothy Noakes' Lore of Running. I spent my running career coddling my feet.. giving them love in the form of high-tech running shoes with lots of cushioning. They were never expected (or asked) to yield or be flexible. No siree! My feet were getting the last laugh. And unless I did something to change them, they would do nothing for my swimming.
 
Flexible feet can be developed, and I've been researching how to do it. It involves stretching and stretching and more stretching. Some say to sit on your feet with your knees off the ground. I found out the hard way I can't get my knees up for more than a split-second. Yep, this may take a while. The photos below are what my foot looks like fully extended (seriously, that's as good as I can do) - before (top) and after a few days of stretching. I've convinced myself they show (an oh-so-miniscule amount of) progress. I'm determined to get my toes to touch the ground if it's the last thing I ever do.
 
 
The second lesson on kicking? Kick from the hip, not from the knees. While watching others kick, the difference is instantly obvious. I've noticed when runners learn to swim, their legs take on the appearance of running in the water - they employ an enormous amount of knee-bending creating a massive amount of drag. And training with a kick-board tends to accentuate and reinforce this type of kicking because of its upright body position in the water. Thus, to work on kicking from my hip, I've mostly ditched the kick-board during kick drills to focus on streamlining my body in the water. I'm using fins to develop strength and better technique, and I'm doing more backstroke to further develop the hip-kicking motion.
 
The third lesson? Kick more narrow. This is one of the hardest things because my foot position is (literally) the furthest thing from my brain while I'm swimming. But forcing myself to kick narrow decreases drag and makes me use my feet more. Think about it: if my legs are taking up a space wider than my shoulders (the widest part of my body (hopefully)), then I'm creating drag. One suggestion was to put a rubber band around my knees forcing me to kick with my feet in a very narrow space. One of my swimmer friends told me he's been "trying to create a propeller motion" with his feet based on what he's noticed in the kicking motion of great swimmers. Cool! But in my current state, with my big dumb inflexible feet, I'll be happy with just a narrower kick.
 
So my focus over the past few months has been two-fold: swimming longer for arm strength and endurance and developing a kick that actually works. The most useful drill seems to be streamline kicking without fins with a swimmer's snorkel. This allows me to keep my head down without worrying about breathing - I can just attend to what my feet are doing. When I do hard 50s after this drill, I can actually "feel" propulsion coming from my kick. The biggest issue will be translating that kick to my longer swim sets. Kicking hard while sprinting is one thing - adding it to distance swimming is something entirely different. But I have to start somewhere or I'll be going nowhere in the water.
 
The bottom line is that a streamlined kick is a just like everything else we do in swimming - it's not so much about strength as it is about perfecting a specific skill. As my favorite coach, John Klarman, used to say: "Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect." Kicking skill is much more important than I previously wanted to believe - certainly orders of magnitude more important than most triathletes believe. And as a recovering triathlete that still loves to run, I also must stop worrying that a strong swim kick will destroy my running. (It won't.) But that's an entirely different issue - or, more likely, rant - for a future post.

I know I've written about the subject, but my swim kick is the closest thing to dismal as it gets. It's never really been an asset - I've been told it's a liability - but I was always ok with that in the past. I dismissed criticism with a million-and-one excuses for why I didn't kick in the water and why I didn't need to.

Could 2017 also be the year I decide to blog more regulary? Is twice a month considered "regular"? Well, whatever - I just needed to vent.

In a year of environmental, political, social, and economic uncertainty and my second year focusing on open-water swimming, I already committed (read: paid entry) to two races, both in Maryland and both I've done (well, started) before: the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim 4.4-mile and the Ocean Games 9-mile. Neither was a resounding success last year, and thus, I have two goals so far for this year, i.e., do better than last year.

Speaking of goals, the more I delve into the realm of open-water swimming, the more interested I get and the more pie-in-the-sky goals I tentatively set for myself. I've even become interested in this crazy sport called ice swimming (Google it). But I'm currently struggling with a big mental setback: coping with the physical changes (and challenges) of going from a runner/triathlete to just a swimmer (who runs and bikes occasionally).

With football-player shoulders (30 yrs ago)
With runner shoulders (2 yrs ago)

Let's get the first one out there: the weight gain. Yep, I know, I know. It's muscle (for now - it may very well be fat when I start back into cold water swimming). But I've been longingly staring into my closet afraid to even attempt putting on clothes that might be tight on me. Back in high school and college, I weighed 20 pounds more and the only shirts I could wear were large - I had this crazy, unwieldy, oversized upper body. All my long sleeves were short. I always felt like a freak even though I probably wasn't as freaky-looking as I imagined.

Surprisingly, I'm really struggling to accept that this is what it will take - these body changes - to do what I want as an open water swimmer. My former runner body will not last long in 55-60 degree open water. After all these years and all the positive body image messages out there, why does this still bother me? Why am I struggling to rise above it? Obviously, I have a LOT of work to do before I can look into the mirror and say that I like myself no matter what I look like. But I'm trying. And hopefully, my passion for swimming and drive to achieve far-reaching goals as an open-water swimmer will win out over something as petty as body image.

But I do love this new sport and I can't wait to get back into lake swimming once the water warms to at least 50 degrees. In the meantime, I'm taking cold showers after my pool swims and reading Becoming the Iceman by Wim Hof and Justin Rosales.

I've also been doing a lot of drawing lately, some realistic, some not-so-realistic:

Could 2017 also be the year I decide to blog more regulary? Is twice a month considered "regular"? Well, whatever - I just needed to vent.

I'm a proud fan girl.

This morning, the day after the Cubs won the 2016 World Series, I wake up a Cleveland Indians fan. And not only a fan, but a season ticket-holder who attended every home playoff game of the 2016 post-season. In person, I watched my team battle against the odds and the injuries and win its first two series only to lose after leading three games to one, in an epic battle in Game 7 of the World Series - a game that will go down in history as one of the greatest game sevens ever.

It was devastating and heartbreaking and frustrating and all of those things at once. But it got me to thinking. Who am I most heartbroken for? Myself? Not really. I'm still a fan. Do I feel sorry for Cleveland? Kind of. We all have to get up this morning feeling like "we" came THIS CLOSE to greatness but ended up back in Cleveland, often called the "mistake on the lake." Do I feel sorry for the players?

Absolutely.

And I know that they probably all get on airplanes and go back to their homes and families in different parts of the country and don't have to live here with the disappointment of another failed championship. They get their huge paychecks and forget about it, right?

Except, based on everything I've witnessed and read and heard, I don't think that's really the case with this team. They are much more than working professionals collecting a paycheck. They're a TEAM.

And I empathize with them because I've been a competitive athlete my whole life. I grew up in a competitive athletic family, and I know what sports disappointments are all about. I know that football losses ruin Thanksgiving dinners. I know that injuries ruin track seasons. I've cried over many of these things, not only for myself, but for my high school teams and my college teams. And I know the heart of an athlete. I know what our Cleveland Indians players are feeling right now. And I know that they will take this with them into next season and it will haunt them.

It will haunt them because of HOW CLOSE it was. I think a blow-out would have been easier to handle. I know this because I, too, came THIS close to a championship and it still haunts me to this day. When I was a senior in high school on the swim team, I lost a state championship by one-tenth of a second. I always wondered what my life would be like had I won. Would people have treated me different? Would I have liked myself better?

I will never know. But I do know that my feelings for the Cleveland Indians have not changed.

And it makes me realize that, as athletes, we do what we do because we love it. We come back the next year and try again. It took a long time for me to get back to the sport I truly love, but I swim now and I keep pushing my limits.

And it also makes me realize that we should never, as I have done in the past, let our sports performances define us or tell us whether we are worthy or not. And I will not judge professional athletes on whether they win championships or not. They can be heroes to us for so many more reasons. For making us realize the human potential. For taking us back to the kid inside us. And for their charitable contributions and actions. Those are the important things they give us.

And those are the things we should recognize in ourselves.

A week from today, I'll be toeing the line in my longest swim ever - a nine-mile race in Ocean City, Maryland. I don't know what I was thinking when I registered for such a long distance as my second open-water swim race. Well, yes I do. I was thinking: no problem, I'll have plenty of time to train. Go big or go home, right?

However, at the time of registration, I had no way of knowing I would be going to the Glastonbury Festival only three weeks before the race. I didn't factor in the eight-day hiatus from training - or the jet lag. Now, I find myself up against the wall and not at all confident in my current ability to finish nine miles.

Swim first,
ask questions later.

The difference this time is that I don't lack the confidence in myself. I don't have that fear anymore. I'm actually looking forward to this race even if I cannot finish. I'll be doing the thing I love - swimming in the ocean - where I feel most at home. If I don't finish because I don't have the training or racing experience behind me, then I don't finish. It will be because I didn't do what I needed to do to get to the finish line. And it will not define me. I've sloughed off the burden of assuming I'm a crap swimmer or a crap athlete because I don't finish a race.

What I WILL do is kick myself for not thinking ahead. (Obviously, I'm already doing that, but not as an excuse.) In fact, I'm laughing at myself because of how ridiculously unprepared I am for a potentially grueling experience. It's just that it's not the ultimate goal.

One thing is for sure - I would never have missed Glastonbury for all the training in the world. I will happily live with that. The lessons I learned there were more powerful than those training or racing could have taught me.

In fact, the only reason I'm writing this particular blog post is to put it "out there" so that when the going gets tough, I can remind myself I wrote this. It's a commitment for me to honor. To not give up. To tell the story of the struggle. If I don't get to the finish line, I will have to be dragged out of the water unconscious.. or injured.. or sick because of nutrition mistakes. It will NOT be due to lack of will.

I want to finish, but most of all, I want to enjoy the process. I want to make mistakes. I want to learn. Swim races are not the goal for me. Swimming is. The act of swimming, that is. Open water swimming gives me a high and a challenge no other sport has given me. It's me against myself. When I'm out there, I don't feel competition around me. I only feel the water.

And that's what sport should be.

Hopefully I'll look this happy after 9 miles but I'm not expecting to.

I have several friends in England and find myself journeying there on a regular basis, especially around Christmastime when London streets are festive and brightly lit. This year, my husband Jim and I needed to use the airfare we banked when our trip to Sweden was canceled after my surgery. We chose to use it on a trip to the UK in December.

Besides experiencing the holiday season in London, the other reason for this trip was to see my favorite band, Turin Brakes, play in Liverpool December 4. It was also a reason to visit Liverpool - birthplace of the Beatles - a city we have never been to.
Before the trip, I had been swimming regularly. I didn't want to lose all my swimming fitness while in the UK, so I started researching potential swimming locations. During this research, I learned something I didn't know about British culture.
There are a lot of swimmers. Many of them swim year round. Outdoors.
If I really wanted to "make like a Brit" while in England, I would have to learn how to swim in cold water. How cold? All I knew was that I once saw people swimming without wetsuits in the Serpentine while I was running in Hyde Park in December. Having raced a triathlon there in 2013, I already knew the Serpentine could be frigid even in September. My research also taught me swimming in cold water required acclimating your body over time. Since proper acclimation was not possible, my swimming plans would need modification. I wanted to get a couple real workouts in, but I also wanted at least one attempt to swim in cold water. I would pack my wetsuit just in case I needed it. 
Another thing I learned was that England has recently undergone a sort-of outdoor pool-culture renaissance with the refurbishing of a large number of huge outdoor swimming pools, called "lidos." The "lido culture" was enormously popular in the 1930s, and many of the pools were updated before reopening in the 90s and 00s. Mostly popular in summer, some of the lidos are open all year. A select few of them are even heated. It would be nice - and my plan was - to experience both types while in the UK.

My goal (or hope), then, was to swim in five different locations on this trip. Before we left, I made a list of possibilities. Of course, as both a swimmer and a lover of the sport, I also included the pool built for the 2012 Summer Olympics, located in London's Olympic Park complex (after learning it is open to the public).

On to the trip.

Monday, 7 December was the first day we had no specific plans in London after arriving from Liverpool. After some thought, the location and time available made the Olympic pool the one to do first. It required no acclimation and Jim also viewed it as a tourist destination. We did laundry that afternoon and then headed to the Olympic Park.

The 2012 Olympics took place all over London, but the pool and the stadium complex were in one location, now called Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. When we arrived via the Underground, we were surrounded by shops and restaurants. Walking to the pool, we were surrounded by construction areas with billboards heralding a coming active residential and working community.

The pool building - the London Aquatics Centre - was expectedly grand - it was dark, but we tried to get some photos (below). The cost to swim was £5.20. Swimmers had their choice of the warm-up pool - 50m in length but split into 25m lap swimming - or the competition pool - 50m long by 25m wide by 3m deep, with ten lanes.
Which one would you choose?

The competition pool was quite busy, but not as busy as I expected. (The clerk at the entry DID say they get approximately 20,000 people weekly). There were five or six swimmers per lane with three occupied by a youth swim team and another reserved for a group. The first thing I noticed was the lanes were circle-swimming in the other direction - clockwise. Whoa! So it's not just driving on the left! But after closer inspection, I realized each lane was alternating direction: even lanes were swimming counter-clockwise (here, it's "anti-clockwise"), odd lanes - clockwise. There were marked "slow" lanes and unmarked (fast?) lanes. I wanted to circle-swim clockwise since I've never done that, and Jim told me to get in one of the faster lanes. So I jumped in lane 5 and started swimming. To my surprise, I was one of the faster swimmers in my lane - and in the pool. The swimmers around me were incredibly friendly and polite and slowed down or stopped to let me pass when necessary. It was one of the nicest, cleanest, and fastest pools I ever swam in.

I swam for about 40 minutes - about 2500 meters. I want to note that above the diving well at the far end of the pool were two huge digital pace clocks - not with numbers but with digital clock "hands" - it was all.. just.. so.. state of the art. When I jumped out, I told a fellow swimmer in lane 5 that I was visiting from the USA and would love to dive off the blocks just once. Another swimmer heard me and suggested I do it even thought it was against the rules - he said the lifeguards may yell at me but what's done would be done. They egged me on, so I climbed up on the block and instantly drew a whistle from the lifeguard. I pleaded my case but was denied. Thus endeth my quest for the Olympic starting blocks. (I was also told the pool has never been drained, and it's entirely possible that Michael Phelps' DNA is still floating around in it.)


Pool swim 1 accomplished. Afterwards, I was buzzing for the entire evening. Jim kept asking me what made this pool so great? I guess you'd have to be a swimmer to understand.

Here are a video and some photos that Jim took:

Check out the digital pace clocks!
In there is the warm-up pool, also 50 meters but set up for 25-meter lengths.
Check it!
Michael Phelps might have stood here too.

Diving well
London Aquatics Centre from the outside - looks wavy.
The Olympic stadium.

The next day - Tuesday, 8 December - I set my sights on a second pool. I didn't want Jim to have to spend our entire vacation on a swim search, so I found one near the day's planned events and carried my swim stuff with me. That day, we had a late-morning reservation for the Crime Museum Uncovered at the London Museum. It was a fascinating exhibit of crime history, noteworthy criminal cases, and the Metropolitan police, and by the time we got out, it was well after 2pm. We grabbed a late lunch and hurried to take photos at St. Paul's Cathedral before it got dark.

It was still early, and even though I still planned to swim, we were very close to a pub recommended to us in Liverpool - The Old Bank of England. The interior was beautiful and their menu looked amazing. But I promised myself only one pint, and then we made our way to one of the best-rated outdoor pools in London - the Oasis Sports Centre in Covent Garden. Jim could hang out and/or shop in Covent Garden while I was swimming.

The Oasis Sports Centre was about an eight-minute walk from the pub. It was cold and rainy, and the closer I got to it, the less I wanted to swim. The thing that kept me going was the knowledge that this pool was heated. The Oasis pool cost £5 to swim, and there are TWO pools - one inside and one out. Both were a good size with three lanes each.

I gathered my strength and walked outside in my swimsuit. The outdoor pool - 27.5 meters in length - was busy with four or five people per lane. I noticed swimmers were huddling down in the shallow end to stay warm. When I got in, I understood. It was warm water! I swam laps in the middle lane - they were also alternating circle-swim direction per lane. Again, I was one of the fastest people in the pool. I swam for about 40 minutes and found I was never conscious about the water or air temperature. About halfway through my swim, a new lifeguard came out and started shouting and moving people into different lanes. I got moved to the "fast lane."

Overall, the swimmers in Covent Garden were not nearly as aware of other swimmers' speeds as they were in the Olympic pool. One male swimmer with a horrible stroke refused to back off every time I tried to pass him. He would just clobber me until I could get in front of him. It seemed a bit rude, but everyone was speaking different languages in this pool, so maybe I was having a bit of a culture clash.

Getting out of the water was a shock. The air was in the 50s but it felt frigid - thank heavens for hot showers! I changed quickly, and before I left, I took a quick photo of the pool from inside the building (Note: the lifeguard yelled at me for taking this photo but no-one in it is recognizable.)

It doesn't look big, but this pool in Covent Garden is 27.5m in length.

Pool swim 2: done. My hands and feet took a while to warm up after getting chilled from the air after my swim. Jim and I ducked into several bookstores before I could feel my fingers again. I now started to question whether I really wanted to swim outdoors in an unheated pool.

Wednesday, 9 December, we planned to visit the British Library - a place Jim has been promising to take me ever since he went there a couple years ago on a business trip. Our good friends Andy and Caroline would also be arriving in London that day so we made plans to meet them at the Library at noon. Thus, I would have to swim that morning. And, it just so happens that there is a unique swimming location just up the street from the Library.

This next swim would be so much more than just a swim. It was an opportunity to be part of a living art installation. It's called King's Cross Pond Club, and it's a temporary man-made pond in the middle of a very busy construction zone. When I first googled "winter swimming in London," this place came up at the top of the list. As a location, a work of art, and a swimming destination, it didn't disappoint.

We arrived shortly after 10am, but no one had been swimming yet. I asked the ticket-taker/lifeguard if people really swim in December - he said they did. The cost was £3.50. The water temperature was 7 degrees C. I looked at Jim - he did the calculation in his head (one of his many talents): "45 degrees F." I looked at the lifeguard again: "Can I wear a wetsuit?" He said "Sure. I recommend it." He also said all I would need was a five-minute dip to get the "full effect."

(Whatever THAT meant.)

I paid my entry and went to the changing rooms. While putting my wetsuit on, I heard someone in the changing room next to me. The person was there for only a few seconds and then left. I yelled to Jim, waiting outside the door, "Is there someone else here?" Jim said "Yes, there's a guy." He changed pretty quickly, so I asked: "Is he wearing a wetsuit?" Jim said "No, he's just in swim trunks." Yikes! My first encounter with one of these crazy cold-water-loving English people. I thought about it for a second... and then remembered the lifeguard's recommendation to wear a wetsuit. I, for one, certainly wasn't going to question his expert opinion. That other guy wouldn't last more than a couple minutes.

At least five minutes had passed by the time I walked up to the pond. I even put on two swim caps to avoid head freeze (remembering how bad my face hurt when I swam in 56-degree Atlantic water). When I got up there, the crazy English guy was actually swimming - in 45-degree water without a wetsuit. He wasn't just in for a dip. He swam around and around and around... moving normally - you know, as though he WEREN'T actually submerged in icy water. Was I a complete wimp? I put my foot in. Yep, it was an ice bath. Wait, no it wasn't. It was MUCH COLDER than an ice bath. I rethought the wimp statement and climbed in.

The first thing I noticed - besides the unbelievable cold - was that this was THE cleanest, clearest water I've EVER swam in. Even now, I can still taste it. It was extraordinary. I swam around a little, not quite ready to put my head in (just a note: crazy-English-guy was not submerging his head either). I had to work up to it... and then I was able to swim for a bit. The pond is oval-shaped - 10m wide by 40m long - with plants on one side and a main swimming area. We asked a lot of questions, impressed with the lifeguard's knowledge of how it all works (more information online). The plants actually act as a filter for the pond, and there's a limit on the number of swimmers daily so that this small ecosystem continues to work. I imagine it will attract crowds next summer, and I really hope it becomes a permanent fixture. Despite the cold, this place is a treasure, and I'm unable to conjure up the words to fully describe how completely amazing it was to swim there. The water was so so SO beautiful.

The cold eventually started to get to me - my fingers and feet were not going to last long. I was determined to stay in at least as long as crazy-English-guy-without-a-wetsuit. I can say that after being in the water for a bit, my body didn't go into shock. In fact, I started to get used to it. It hurts for the first couple minutes and then everything starts to feel ok. Numb fingers and toes were the biggest issue for me and I lasted about 12 minutes - for the record, I'm saying I got out because we needed to get to the Library.

While changing, I saw another swimmer on her way to the pond - she wore swimming gloves and booties and a neoprene vest over a regular bathing suit. Now THAT was a SMART crazy-English-swimmer. Surely, I could have been in there for HOURS had it not been for my extremities. Anyway, Jim took some photos and video at King's Cross Pond Club. I highly recommend going there before it closes if you get the chance. Maybe wait until it warms up... like in February, perhaps?

The water was ridiculously clean and clear.

The plants are not only filters, they provide natural beauty to the installation.
From the observation deck.
Zoomed out to show the entire set-up
I like the striped motif on the temporary buildings too.

There it was: three swims in three days. We spent the rest of the day catching up with Andy and Caroline and visited the Natural History Museum. I didn't even TRY explaining to the bag inspector at the museum what I was doing with a wet wetsuit in my backpack.

Thursday would be difficult to get in a swim. We met Andy at the Imperial War Museum while Caroline had a work meeting, and by the time we said our goodbyes and saw them off on a train back to Exeter, both Jim and I were exhausted from being on our feet for so long for two days. We had plans to have dinner with another great friend - Sam - who lives in London (she writes a very interesting blog about London cemetery residents). Thus, my goal of five swims in five days came to an end. I wasn't too disappointed after a four pints and two pubs and great conversation with Sam.

But Friday morning, I was determined to do the one thing that would haunt me if I didn't do it: act like a proper Brit and swim outside in an unheated pool in December. I had to find the right place - something within walking distance from anywhere we needed to go that day. Friday had been set aside for shopping and the National Gallery. But my swim was first priority.

There were three places I had in mind, but only one of them would actually be feasible. The first was the Serpentine Lido in Hyde Park. It wasn't possible because I was not a member of the Serpentine Swim Club (and it took more than a morning to join). The second was the Tooting Bec Lido - the most historic (built in 1906) and second-largest (91m long by 30m wide) of the outdoor pools in the UK. Again, not possible - besides being over an hour away, in the winter it was only open to the South London Swim Club. The third was Parliament Hill Fields Lido on the outskirts of Hampstead Heath. Score! This one was possible - less than an hour away and I could swim for a measly £2.50.

Jim figured out how to get me there in 40 minutes: the Tube and a bus to Parliament Hill, then walk to the Lido. I packed my wetsuit but on the way, I told Jim I made a decision: "If just ONE person is not wearing a wetsuit, I'm going in without it." My fate was sealed, because... you KNOW there would be at least one crazy-English-swimmer. In fact, there were several. And yes, some were men in only Speedos.

Parliament Hill Fields has the true "Lido" experience. It's a huge outdoor pool surrounded by a concrete deck with a cafe. The lifeguard told us the pool is 61m long and 27m wide. This is what we saw when we arrived:

Chilly and rainy. Not really swimming weather - but this is England.
That's Celsius - pool temp in Fahrenheit was 48 degrees.

This experience would be one for the ages. In the change room, I met a girl who was donning a full wetsuit. She told me she swims for 30 minutes and just a week ago she switched to a wetsuit because she couldn't take the cold anymore. I put on my bathing suit (here they call them "swimming costumes") and walked outside to meet Jim on the deck. The air was chilly enough.

The lifeguards at Parliament Hill Lido were the friendliest of all - they were all smiles and gave me tips on how to get in the water. In a nutshell: "start at the shallow end and do it very gradually." They also told me not to overdo it since I had not acclimated yet. The lifeguards were dressed more for winter than for pool weather, and they stayed inside. They were definitely the smart ones, I noted, as I began to doubt my intelligence - or maybe my sanity - when I stepped into the water.

The water was ice-cold, but the pool was gorgeous and really clean and clear. It had a stainless steel liner with little perforations so you didn't slip. I got in up to my knees at the shallow end, and slowly walked towards the deep end. It hurt. Once I waded in up to my thighs, I had to wait for about a minute for the pain in my legs to go away. Then, I took the plunge.

I was in up to my neck for a split second before I lost my breath. It was like having the wind knocked out of me - like being punched in the chest. I remembered the same feeling when I jumped in the reservoir at Ironman St. George in 2011. That water had been in the high 50s - and I was wearing a wetsuit. This was MUCH colder. And there was no neoprene to save me. It took a bit of time, but I was finally able to swim - actually SWIM - for six laps before my fingers (yep, fingers again) had enough. I was actually getting used to it, and, surprisingly, my face didn't hurt this time. While getting out, I looked around. There were women and men in only bathing suits, some with neoprene gloves and booties, the girl in just a wetsuit, and an elderly lady with a full wetsuit, neoprene cap, gloves, and booties. All types. All crazy English swimmers. I loved them all. And I was one of them.

I swam. In London. Outdoors. In December. In an unheated pool. Without a wetsuit. Mission accomplished. Jim took a few photos and video at Parliament Hill Fields Lido.

It's hard to see, but that is me in the shallow end.
Yep, I'm swimming.
I can't talk because my lips are frozen.
I can only gesture. This means "I have NO feeling in my hands."

After my London swimming experience, I understand how people who swim in winter can do it. They swim year-round and slowly acclimate their bodies to colder and colder water. I like to believe they do it because they love swimming. But there may be some benefit to this cold-water life. I found this notice on the way into the locker/changing room at Parliament Hill Fields Lido:

Maybe the winter swimmers are not crazy after all. Maybe, just maybe, they're the smartest ones among us.

I have several friends in England and find myself journeying there on a regular basis, especially around Christmastime when London streets are festive and brightly lit. This year, my husband Jim and I needed to use the airfare we banked when our trip to Sweden was canceled after my surgery.

When Hurricane Patricia hit the west coast of Mexico,
San Jose del Cabo had amazing surf for two days.

I've been struggling with this post for a long LONG time. Not on paper, but in my head. Something happened in Mexico. And I can't shake it.

In a word: I changed.

I changed from the person I was into the person I keep wanting to be. I started to ask myself those deep soul-inquiring questions. Why? Why are you doing this?

I had no answer.

For the past several years, I've become a slave to Triathlon (capital T) and the Mdot. These are the Lifestyle Corporations that induce me to shell out enormous amounts of cash chasing something that is supposed to make me feel good about myself. Yet, the more I tried to be a Triathlete, the worse I felt about myself. And the more Triathlon friends I surrounded myself with, the more I started to hide from them.

It comes down to one "ism": "Comparison is the thief of joy."

All I've done is compare myself to others and I keep coming up at the bottom of the list. Never good enough. Never fast enough. Never cool enough. Never good-looking enough. Never having the best gear. The newest gadget. The fastest clothing. I was afraid to talk to any of the Triathlon people because I would seem like the "low-income ugly red-headed cousin who ran in cotton sweats." (Why this is bad, I have no clue, as I used to embrace that part of me, the part that was different and unique.)

But I kept trying - if I was faster, people would like me, right?

The problem is, I didn't like myself. I didn't like what I'd become. I resented the Lifestyle Corporations that existed only to take my money, and sell me overpriced races and stuff that would make me "faster" or look "cooler" and tout my accomplishments. Triathlon is all about gear and bodies (note, please don't hang me, Triathlon friends, I'm interpreting the 95%). I found myself in forums where people said things like "how many bikes is too many bikes?" walking around at races with too much skin on display (which, obviously, always looked better than mine), and being on a team where my cohorts say things to me like "going to Kona is great, but how does it help our sponsors?"

I spent a lot of time with my mouth agape at things Triathlon people said, a lot of time being disgusted with the commercialism of the whole thing, and a lot of time worrying that I would never measure up.

Most importantly, I forgot the Number One Fundamental Reason For Doing Something: because I enjoy it.

This past weekend, I watched a movie called "The End of the Tour." It's basically one long conversation between two men: acclaimed writer David Foster Wallace (one of the people I am apt to name when asked "If you could meet anyone, living or dead, who would it be?") and Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky. They spend five days together in 1996 during the last week of Wallace's book signing tour for Infinite Jest. It begins with Lipsky learning of Wallace's suicide in 2008. I don't know why this movie affected me so much, but it precipitated an almost four-day soul-defining time-out. It made me realize I have become a drone. I've defined myself by outside standards instead of inherent inner value. I've stopped caring about making a difference and started accepting failure. This has happened in life as well as sport.

I was reminded of a time when I never needed to race. I could go swimming or biking or (especially) running just because those things gave me myself. When I challenged myself with additional miles, I did it not because someone else was doing it, but because, simply, I wanted to challenge myself. Seriously, the reason I started distance-running in the first place had everything to do with self-help. It cleared my mind. It gave me peace. It just felt good. And I never told anyone I was doing it because I never cared what anyone thought about it. I even liked doing it alone.

Now, I read everyone's daily updates on Facebook and rate myself. I stopped doing sport for the pure joy of it and started doing it for external affirmation. Getting the medal became important. Winning was important. People would like me more if I won, right? I started (harshly) judging myself by everyone else's accomplishments. Daily. I would, and will, never measure up.

I've been fighting against this attitude my whole life - this hypocritical dichotomy. Deep down, I believe people have worth just because they exist, and I deeply value my friends because they're my friends, whether they have achievement medals or not. But, over the years, my OWN worth has stemmed from my school grades, my swim finishes, my track finishes, how prestigious my college was, how prestigious my job was, how much money I made, whether I was married, whether I had kids, how many marathons I did, how many Ironmans I did, and finally, the dream I've been chasing for a few years, whether I can finally make it back to Kona and have a good race there.

Why?

I've nothing to prove. Lately, it's not like everyone hasn't done an Ironman. I've become a drone to the Triathlon Lifestyle. To the Corporations who know how much money I (don't) make but will find a way to make me fork it over. I do it year in and year out, and nothing changes. They get richer and I'm still the same person I was. With more stuff. And less worth.

Something has to change. I have to change.

I was smiling during and after the rough IM Los Cabos swim.
I was sad it ended so quickly.

And now, I can say without doubt, that instead of learning nothing in Mexico (note: I started Ironman Los Cabos, I didn't finish), I learned everything in Mexico. I learned that I love Mexico. I love the food. I love the people. I love the landscape. I love the water. I LOVED the water. Not the drinking water. The ocean water. While I was out there fighting the chop in the 2.4-mile swim of Ironman Los Cabos, I was having the most fun I've had in a race. Ever. And now, I want to do that. For no reason but because it's fun, I feel challenged, and I want to.

I think I want to swim. In the ocean. Long. Distances.

Thus, I may have something new to write about. Let the adventure begin.

Here are some of our photos from Mexico.

First place we ate in San Jose del Cabo was a little hole-in-the-wall
called El Mesón del Ahorcado (The Hangman).
The tacos were to DIE for. Look at all the salsas!!

Cabo Pulmo National Park

Coastline of Cabo Pulmo National Park, we snorkeled here.

Again, with the food..
this was Mexican street corn, so so SO great
(I know, it's only a cup of corn scraped from the
cob with sour cream and queso blanco, but OMG, what more do you need?)
It's also coincidental to note that someone in Cabo San Lucas
compared my dress to a dorado (fish).

And here's a video I made of snorkeling at Cabo Pulmo 
(we somehow figured out how to rent equipment from the non-English-speaking Carlos who has a little shack on a tiny beach and lets you take "showers" with a hose - amazing reef right off his coast):

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