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Swimming is the most "mental" sport I know. Distance swimming even more so. And I've been struggling to wrap my mind around the really long training sessions I've planned in the next few months (not to mention the swim events). After reading a little article on SwimSwam about the lessons we learn from our swim coaches, I began thinking about all the things I've learned, not only from my swim coach, but from swimming itself.

Swimming is the great teacher. In the pool. With teammates. And especially in open water - where we are always only one breath away from drowning.

I now believe most of my mental control in long distance events like marathons and Ironman races can be traced back to my swimming roots. And having been a competitive swimmer before anything else is likely what influenced me to (prefer to) do most of my long training sessions alone. For many, many years, people have asked me how and why I do it alone: "How do you handle 6-7 hours on the bike all by yourself every weekend?" I have no idea. I set my mind to it, and do it. After all, running alone had always been therapy. It cleared my mind. It made me less anxious. When I started doing longer triathlons, it never occurred to me to subject people I knew to MY long rides (even people who DO long rides). OK, so I'm an introvert. But don't get me wrong. I've truly enjoyed running and riding with others. It's just that I never actively seek out company. And it never bothered me to be alone hammering away for all that time.

How did I get this way? 

Swimming. Every day. Swimming twice a day three times a week. At times, swimming more than ten-thousand yards a day. Swimmers remain swimmers because they don't flinch when the coach says we're doing 10x1000s for a single workout. Surviving those workouts in college made me mentally tougher than that week I had four final exams in two days.

From the moment I walked onto the swim team at 14 years old in high school, never having been coached, never having experienced a single swim workout in my life, everything in the pool was a progressively harder thing to do. After every workout of my freshman year I vowed I would quit. But I didn't. And by sophomore year, I was swimming in Lane 1. With the fast kids. And I had great friends in my teammates. But, unless you're at a swim meet, swimming is not a social sport. You get a few moments to commune (or commiserate) with your lane-mates before the next interval. There's no time to talk, or laugh, or enjoy the scenery (what little of it there is on a pool deck).

It's all mental. Some people compare its boredom to treadmill running.

I remember my first 1650. In practice. I was terrified. I didn't think I could swim that long without stopping. One of the swimmers on the boys team told me something I would never forget. He told me to detach my brain from my body. To imagine I was a machine. And that's what I did. And, whoa! It worked. No pain. Three years later, I would be swimming the 1650 in competition. And loving it. It WAS all mental.

But swimming long distances is also a very, very lonely thing. It's quiet. Like I said earlier, you can't have conversations. You can't even smile if you're enjoying yourself. (To be fair, I HAVE smiled "inside.") Losing focus for a second means you'll suck down water, ram into the wall, or, if you're like me in open water, swim in circles. That's another reason swimming is a mental sport. It's not natural. We were born walkers. Runners. Bikers. Air-breathers. Surrounded by air, not needing to "think" when we breathe. When we're swimming, we're surrounded by water and have to consciously take a breath. We battle an element we're not built to thrive in. Yeah, our bodies may be 90% water, but we don't have fins and/or gills. There's a reason more people have climbed Mount Everest than swum the English Channel. Humans are not made to be swimmers.

But some of us are drawn to water. And that's where I find myself now. Trying to conquer the water again. Trying to rekindle the mind-control I once had. Once again, I'm learning to appreciate the quiet. To nurture the solitude of longer and longer sessions in the water. I'm learning to rein in my enthusiasm at the start and prepare myself mentally for spending more than three hours in the water. I KNOW I can do it. And most of the time I really enjoy it. But, like my younger days, my mind gets in the way when I think too much about it.

And the quiet in a pool is one thing. The quiet in open water... well, that's something entirely different. It can be deafening if the fear seeps in. Fear of currents. Fear of the cold. Fear of weather changes. When I go back to the lake in the next month or so, I'll face a whole new set of conditions under which to practice mind-control. And I will need to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable. It's all mental.

I find that the best way is the old way. Each time I conquer a goal, it's one more thing to convince my mind of the next time. Just don't give up, and eventually, all the mental obstacles will give way to knowledge - knowledge that anything is possible. You just have to train for it.

Swimming is the most "mental" sport I know. Distance swimming even more so. And I've been struggling to wrap my mind around the really long training sessions I've planned in the next few months (not to mention the swim events).

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.

I'm not sure what's going on lately, but either my disaster-magnet status has somehow injected its influence into lane swimming or I live in a very discourteous part of the world. I've had several angry exchanges with fellow swimmers over sharing pool lanes recently. When all lanes are taken, I usually ask someone if they wouldn't mind sharing - but this is only to be courteous and avoid someone getting hurt. I don't HAVE to ask.

Good pools usually don't give people the "no sharing" option. They make all lanes circle-swim and people are expected to choose lanes based on their speed. By "good pools," I mean pools where the lifeguards and most people know the drill (and will help new-comers), and swimmers are lane-sharing is expected. "Great" pools go the extra mile and mark the lanes with signs indicating circle swim direction and swimmer speed.

My local community pool is neither good nor great. Unless I swim at 5:30 in the morning with the "regulars," when asking to share a lane, I tend to get refused more often than not, and even the lifeguards are reluctant to help. And the excuses are hilarious. One guy said "you don't want to share with me because I'm not a good swimmer," to which I offered "no problem, I'll stay to one side" and he said "no, seriously, you DON'T want to share a lane with me."

(Um.. YES, I do. Why the hell would I ask you if I didn't? I don't have time to waste while you lolly-gag through your floating workout.)

One lady started to say it was ok to share, then she decided not to, and yelled at me: "I can't share because I'm not a good swimmer like you," to which I offered, again: "I will stay out of your way." Then she put up a fight: "No! I swim into the lane-line when I share. I'm not trying to make it difficult, but..."

(Um... yes, you ARE making it difficult. Lady, you don't have that option. EVERYONE wants to swim today.)

The next time.. two lanes, four people swimming, two in each lane. I stopped one of the better swimmers and asked: "can we do circle swims?" He said "NO! [seriously, he yelled at me] I CAN'T do that." I was dumbfounded, so I said "you can't?" and he said "NO I CAN'T. But I'll be done in 10 minutes." And then just turned, ignored me, and started swimming again.

(Um... I don't HAVE 10 minutes, I'm on a tight schedule, dude. Seriously, what makes people act this way?)

I posted the story on Facebook and one of my friends suggested next time I simply just show them how to circle swim.

(NOW WHY DIDN'T I THINK OF THAT?? It's brilliant. Next time for sure.)

I was beginning to think it was me, but then I spent a week away from home and swam in a "good" pool (in Brookline, near Boston), and I found that circle-swimming didn't upset swimmers there. They just do it, no complaining.

So, chalk one up to the pool environment. Or maybe it's living in an affluent neighborhood in the midwest. Who really knows?

Just remember, everyone wants to swim and you can be nice about it or you can be a jerk. I say: choose to be empathetic - understand we're all in this together.

I'm not sure what's going on lately, but either my disaster-magnet status has somehow injected its influence into lane swimming or I live in a very discourteous part of the world. I've had several angry exchanges with fellow swimmers over sharing pool lanes recently.

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.

2017 is here and many of us have a new reality to face. And by "many of us," I specifically mean "those of us who are passionate about the environment." We have a new president who doesn't believe in climate change. I believe science is telling us we have reached a critical state, and we must do everything we can to protect our planet from further abuse. I believe clean and renewable energy is a good idea - for both the environment, the future of energy, and world power-struggles. And as a swimmer, I also believe we must stop polluting our oceans and waterways and destroying the animals that call them their home.

But I'm only one person, and in the last days of 2016, I found the artist in me powerless to resist a call to use my art to illustrate the very issues I feel most passionate about. I'm not sure how it happened, but images made their way into my consciousness, and at times, these images even kept me up all night.

As a result, the most direct and graphic work I've ever created (and perhaps, most disturbing to some), is the following three diptychs of etched linocuts that I made in December 2016:

"Coral Bleaching"

"Bycatch"
"Shark Finning"

If these images inspire people to "Google" the issues, or even better, be mindful of the oceans or the environment, then I feel I've done something with my talent (or lack thereof), and my presence on the earth is not just a waste of resources (which I used to believe).

2017 is also my second year in a new sport, open-water swimming. I started 2016 by conquering my fear of swimming alone in the ocean - in La Jolla Cove. (You may remember the blog about that.) It's been a long time since then, and I've succumbed to hypothermia in one race, overheated in another race, and finished my longest-ever open-water race - the Swim to the Moon 10K in Michigan.

This year, I must conquer the biggest hurdle I face as an open-water swimmer: acclimating to the cold. I wrote about my experiments in cold Lake Erie in September and October, 2016. But that's only the tip of the "iceberg" - the water temperature in those swims was in the mid-60s F, and the water I must eventually face may be well into the 50s.

I have a plan and I will talk about it as it unfolds. In the meantime, I've re-entered the 9-mile swim in the Ocean Games in Ocean City, MD. I vowed to finish it this year and do it as a fundraiser for brain trauma (the cause it supports). The race is in July, and I would be grateful for your support, which you can do through CrowdRise or through the widget in the right column.

2017 is here and many of us have a new reality to face. And by "many of us," I specifically mean "those of us who are passionate about the environment." We have a new president who doesn't believe in climate change.

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 few months ago, I committed myself to learning how to swim in cold water this fall. Or to state it more appropriately, to teach/adapt my body - and mind - to handle cold water while swimming. I gained advice from talking to people and reading blogs and online resources like these:

I decided to start my cold-water-acclimating-process with cold showers. If you know me, you know that cold showers are my Fifth Ring of Hell. The only things worse are vomiting continuously or having a root canal. In fact, my usual shower temperature is slightly hotter than "scalding." Obviously I had a big dilemma.
But a commitment is a commitment, so I started cold and went colder... until I could do it without screaming... and then without wincing... and finally, without even thinking twice before jumping in. It's hard to believe, but I even started to enjoy cold showers, especially after my pool swims. (It helped that the pool water was 83 degrees F.)
But cold showers last about five minutes, and I needed to be able to swim for hours in cold water. So I waited. And waited. And, atypically, it took until October this year for fall weather to come to Cleveland. Lake Erie water temperatures have finally begun to drop. (Seriously, we wore shorts to the first two Indians playoff games #goTribe).
I went for my first sub-70-degree swim on Saturday. There was only one problem - the lake was VERY rough. According to the NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL), the wave height was close to 4 feet (I swim in a spot directly to the left of the date under Lake Erie Wave Height in the figure below):

I took some video to try and show how bad the chop was:

 And the water temperature - about 68 degrees F - was warmer than the air temperature:


The water was surprising comfortable, and I lasted 30 minutes before I got tired of swallowing (potentially contaminated) water and fighting the chop. When I got out, the wind and the mid-60s air temperature was enough to cause all my fingers to go completely numb in about 5 minutes. There were people on the beach who commented that I was "crazy" and that they "admired me" for my dedication. I laughed and quickly made my way to the car. I drove home with the heat on high and took a 30-minute hot bath as soon as I got there.

My next attempt to swim in cold water was Monday. I waited until Monday because I decided high surf AND cold water were one-too-many tough conditions to handle at this particular stage of acclimation. Lake Erie was much calmer on Monday: 


Here's vid:


But it WAS a couple degrees colder - at about 66 degrees F (you can see the little band of 66 near where I swim):


On Monday, I lasted 45 minutes. I started to note changes resulting from the cold water, and some of them were just a bit scary.

First of all, let me state the obvious: getting in cold water is never easy. The colder it is, the harder it is to jump in all at once because, as I learned in London last December, it feels like you've been punched in the chest. The two-degree temperature difference from Saturday was noticeable. I waded in to my waist slowly, then jumped fully in and started swimming. After about 30 seconds, I snuffed out a sense of panic by forcing myself to relax and embrace the water. It worked. In no time, I was enjoying my swim unfazed by the cold. My body actually seemed to get used to it quite quickly.

What I learned from reading was that in cold water, I must keep swimming and stop only momentarily. Since I was alone, I remained close to shore by swimming back and forth in an area about .25 miles wide. I only stopped to turn and sight. I didn't start feeling the effects of cold water until 30 minutes had passed when I started to notice I was losing control of my left pinky finger. But I wasn't shivering, and I didn't "feel" cold. 

I swam 15 minutes more then decided to pack it in when the water started getting choppier and I was having a little difficultly in both hands with keeping my fingers together. My feet felt fine and I still wasn't shivering, but I didn't want to push it while I was by myself. I swam to shore and immediately put on a sweatshirt.

It was at this point things went downhill in a hurry. The air temperature was in the low-60s, and I was in the shade. In a matter of minutes, I struggled with numb fingers to unscrew the valve on my swim buoy. I needed to get my car key! Shivering, I grabbed all my stuff and started running to the car. I stopped - in the sun - only to put my shoes on (also with much difficulty). When I got to the car, I started it and turned the heat on full blast and changed out of my wet swimsuit. I was seriously bummed to find I had left at home my thermos of warm apple-cinnamon Skratch hydrationBut I had stopped shivering and assumed I'd be fine, so I started the drive home.

But I wasn't fine. Something was not right. I felt disoriented. I felt like a I was in a fog. I started to panic. I called my husband Jim, but I could tell I was having trouble speaking and stringing words together. He said I sounded weird and "out of it." I pulled into a McDonalds parking lot. It didn't seem possible I might be hypothermic because the feeling had already come back in my fingers and toes. But I was having trouble keeping my eyes focused. And my increasing anxiety was probably making it worse.

I called Jim back because talking to him made me feel less "foggy." I noticed my hands were shaking. He told me to get some food - that maybe I was hungry. I sucked down two carbo gels that had been in my bag for ages, and then I sat and waited.

About ten minutes later, I started to feel a little better. The car had become a sauna and it made my skin feel hot, but internally I was still a little chilled. The important thing was that my brain began "working" again, and I was finally able to focus enough to drive home. I'm still not sure what made me disoriented, but I ate well before I swam, so I can't fully blame it on simple hunger or lack of nutrition. I think the cold had something to do with it - and I'm judging from my past experiences with hypothermia.

Two things are certain. I need a lot more practice in cold water. And I need to take quicker and better care of myself post-swim.

A few months ago, I committed myself to learning how to swim in cold water this fall. Or to state it more appropriately, to teach/adapt my body - and mind - to handle cold water while swimming. I gained advice from talking to people and reading blogs and online resources like these:

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