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When I started writing this, it was 2 pm and we're on our way to Toronto. From Toronto, we're flying to London, England, and from there heading to Exeter by train to meet up with our great friends Andy and Caroline to begin the adventure of a lifetime - and something I never thought I'd do.

We're going to the Glastonbury Music Festival in Somerset, England.

We left the house around 12:15 pm. The entire city of Cleveland was in the midst of celebrating the Cavaliers' NBA Championship that ended "The Curse" - a 52-year drought of a Cleveland sports team winning a national championship. We'll be missing the parade and revelry of the week, but I'm ok with that.

Glastonbury is on my bucket list.

As we drive, I tell Jim "It's too late now to worry about what we forgot to pack." In the back of the car is a huge duffel bag containing our tent, sleeping bags, camping pillows and lamps and tent stakes. It also contains two new pairs of rubber boots (known by the English as Wellingtons, or "wellies").

The last time we did a festival was way back in 2004. We were young(er). It was the Coachella Festival in California. We went to see Radiohead. And the Pixies. The crowd was 55,000-strong. It was great. But we said: "Never again."

Coachella suffered from being in the desert. It was hot - 106 degrees F at midday. As soon as the sun came up, our tent turned into a sauna. Jim and I almost killed each other to get out of the tent at 7 am. I got sick from tainted festival food and spent almost the entire return trip - six hours of flying - in the airplane loo (yes, using the English slang now).

The Glastonbury crowd is more than double that of Coachella - over 100,000 people - and the weather is usually the exact opposite. Cooler (70s) and raining. That's why we bought the wellies. For the inevitable MUD.

But you may ask: why did we decide to do another festival? 

The answer is quite simple. Glastonbury is legendary. And we got tired of the constant prodding from Andy to "please come to Glastonbury and let me show you the greatest place on earth."

And Turin Brakes are playing.

It was time. Time to say yes. Time to experience this thing while Jim is still in his 40s and I'm... Well... Not getting any younger.

After my comment about forgetting something, Jim says: "The only things I'm worried about are getting there and getting our tickets."

He's more practical than I am. We can BUY a toothbrush. We can't buy tickets at the door.

The tickets are being shipped to Andy's house to arrive the day before we leave for Glastonbury. And, as I said, we're flying out of Toronto (it was half the cost of flying out of Cleveland, for crying out loud!) - a five-hour drive. We're flying into Heathrow and taking the train. We have two and a half days to get to Exeter. We know that giving ourselves extra time is no guarantee that everything will happen on time. I trust you've seen the movie "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles."

So, why worry about forgetting my underwear or sunscreen? 

And thus, the adventure begins. Stay tuned.

Day 1 photos:


Which way to Canada?


First (short) delay:


Tent and luggage has been checked, sitting down, relaxing and celebrating with airport hops - our waiter said "yay Cavs!!"


When I started writing this, it was 2 pm and we're on our way to Toronto.
First race in just a swimsuit in 29 years.

Yesterday, I took on the challenge of my first open water swim event. I had decided to start "small" by choosing the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim (GCBS), an event that was "only" 4.4 miles. It is considered one of the top 50 open water swims and is referred to as the "Boston Marathon of open water swimming." It takes place between side-by-side lanes of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge(s) and therefore would supplement my love of bridges with a view from below - even below boat-deck level - rarely experienced by anyone.

There is so much I don't know about open-water swimming strategy. And yesterday, I made mistakes and bad decisions fueled by both ignorance and inexperience. But I'm here to live and learn, and write about it.

My ignorance comes first. Damn my introvertedness! I should have read more. I should have consulted more open-water swimmers. I foolheartedly assumed "I'm a swimmer" and I knew what I was getting into. I assumed I knew how to train for distance. (I swam the mile in competition for crying out loud - who cared if it was 30 years ago?) I assumed I knew how to fuel for a two-hour excursion. (I had the experience of ten years of running marathons for crying out loud - who cared if swimming was a totally different sport?) I also assumed I knew WHEN to fuel. (Who cared if this event started five hours later than my marathons and triathlons?) And finally - I assumed I was completely comfortable in open-water chop. (I had survived some of the worst and most-freakish Ironman swims in history for crying out loud.)

Well, 30 years is a long time - and I've changed a lot since I was "a swimmer." I'm built like a runner now. My arms might be a little more muscular than they were eight months ago, but they're still waif-like compared to real swimmers (or compared to my former swimmer self). I may be a good swimmer compared to my fellow triathletes, but I have a long way to go in the distance-swimming realm. I have a lot (note: TONS) to learn about fueling for long-distance swims. After yesterday, I've confirmed what I hadn't been able to convince myself of yet: that swimming requires way more energy than the same amount of time running or biking. Therefore, I canNOT fuel (and hydrate) the same for swimming as I do for marathoning or triathlon-ing. This would be one of the proverbial lightbulbs I saw go on in the air above my head between the bridges.

On to the race report.

Here's Jim standing (waaay) in front of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge
The swim covers the entire length from left to right.

I was nervous enough beforehand that my old bugaboo - inability to sleep - came back to haunt me the night before. The saving grace was that the GCBS started around noon, so I had time to sleep in. Thankfully, I managed three to four hours of decent sleep. My husband Jim was REALLY happy about the late start. He didn't have to get up at 3:30 AM to go out and find a 24-hour coffee shop.

We were able to grab breakfast at the hotel around 8:30. I had juice, coffee, a bowl of oatmeal and a hard-boiled egg. I grabbed a banana to eat before the start.

Right before start with my trusty
Here's the start showing swimmers headed to the bridge.

The start was on the beach. We ran into the water, and swam out to the very beginning of the bridge, then turned left to go between the bridges. I swam on the left periphery of the mass of swimmers and had a relatively easy time getting to the bridge. I was actually surprised how quickly I made it out to the first pylon of the suspension bridge.

Shot of bridge showing main suspension span/shipping channel

The chop WAS quite bad. It was the worst I had ever experienced in a race - the conditions would surely have resulted in cancelation of a triathlon swim leg. I was mostly alone in the water, and I got a thrill body-surfing the whitecaps, but underneath the suspension bridge (in the shipping channel), we got pounded by surf and spray. It was a bit disorienting at times, and I'm sure it contributed to my eventual fatigue, but I remembered to stay on the left (pretty easy). I even remembered to turn over to look up at the bridges.

The view from there was nothing short of spectacular, and I was thankful I wore my wide-view goggles (the one good decision I made even though they were untested). The sheer size of the bridge pylons, cables, and uprights was magnificent to behold at such close range. It was like heaven for the nerdy engineer in me.

Here's an official shot (from GCBS Facebook page)
taken from one of the boats in 2014

Two miles was on the far side of the suspension bridge, but I never saw the aid station boat - not that I needed it. I felt compelled to check my watch shortly after that, and I misread the figures. I had gone 2.38 miles and my time was 1:22 which surprised and discouraged me. It was actually a 1:22 (/100yd) pace!! (In retrospect, had this been an Ironman swim, it would have been my fastest ever by two minutes.)

Because of the error, I decided I had way-overestimated my abilities as a swimmer and figured I just had to get through the rest of this thing. I kept an eye out for the 3-mile buoy and support boat to stop for water because I was starting to feel a little hot.

I stopped at the boat and drank a couple tiny cups of water and Gatorade, and then checked my watch again. Here's where I realized my earlier blunder (phew!) - and DID notice my pace was still well under 1:30 (my original goal pace).

After this stop, everything started to go downhill. My first mistake: I should have drank more. I was in too big of a hurry to get back to swimming.

Shortly thereafter, I started to overheat in my wetsuit. Somewhere around 3.4 miles, I started to feel a little nauseous - presumably from dehydration and swallowing salt water, although I considered sea-sickness as well. Feeling extremely hot and ill, I began to take intermittent breaks to fill my wetsuit with water to cool off. The greatest feeling was when the water surrounded my arms - it renewed me and I regained the ability to turn over my arms well for about a minute - until I had to stop and cool off again.

The heat was getting the best of me. I started started to feel dizzy and depleted. It didn't feel like muscle fatigue - it felt like complete lack of energy. I needed food or water or I wasn't going to finish. I tried to rest doing breaststroke and backstroke but nothing was easy in the waves, and I was being dragged way right. I noticed a guy near me flagging down a kayak. I took the opportunity to rest and get some water (thankfully, kayakers were carrying water). I drank almost a whole bottle of water and hung onto the kayak so long that the kayaker wanted to "take [me] to a boat" - I think my reaction was "NO! I want to finish!"

I thanked him and finally got back to swimming, very slowly, and had to flag down another kayaker shortly after. He had Gatorade - which I hoped would give me energy. At this point, I was very close to the end of the bridge, right around the corner from the finish. I was almost done - but spent.

The water got even warmer as we approached the finish line, and the water-in-my-wetsuit trick no longer provided the slightest bit of cooling. Fortunately, my energy came back (probably from the sugar), and I was able to swim hard while most people around me were standing up in the shallow water and walking.

Jim's view of the bridge from the finish line.

 

So glad to be done.

It was too little too late, but I got to the finish. As soon as I was on land, I was gripped with a horrible desperation to get out of my wetsuit. I saw Jim and begged him to help me get it off, but he wanted to wait until I was out of the crowd. I was frantic - "no, now!!" I struggled, he struggled, but it was finally off and I could breathe again. I was about to tear it off with my bare hands.

Unlike usual, I was able to drink right away while recovering post-race. Had a random few muscle cramps, the weirdest of which was my ring-finger on my left hand. It locked up, the pain was excruciating, and I couldn't bend it for several minutes. It was so bizarre. Other than that, I didn't feel bad, only tired, and after a short sit-down, I was up and about pretty quickly.

Wait.. what did I just do? All smiles afterward.

I checked my time and place - 2:09, 1:35 pace, 13/35 in my age group - and immediately went into post-race analysis mode, albeit with nice cold beer in hand.

There are many lessons to be learned going forward in this new sport. The most important thing was that the words "never again" we're not uttered. My first thoughts were more like "ok, I have a lot to figure out before my next one," "I love open-water swimming," and "this is a very well-run event with amazing volunteers."

One of my strengths is the most difficult thing about swimming: we must fight an element not part of the natural environment for a human. I love water, I love rough water, and I feel at home in it.

Everything else is a weakness that will need to be addressed and tested during training: not knowing how or how much to eat and drink before and during a swim, not knowing what temperature is my personal wetsuit-cutoff-temp, and not knowing how to pace myself in all conditions.

I've also reviewed my training and preparation for this particular event. The day before the race, Jim mentioned I had gotten "really skinny." I looked at myself in the mirror and realized he was right. I've been suffering some emotional despair lately and had lost my appetite. In two weeks, my weight dropped about four pounds, and I've skipped or abbreviated my training sessions because of low energy and mental fatigue. I suspect that also had an effect on my swim yesterday.

I'm looking forward to many more open-water swims in the future and embracing the learning process. The most encouraging news I got after the race was that conditions yesterday were some of the worst ever experienced at the GCBS, and there were a lot of people forced to abandon the race. It restored a little confidence knowing I was able to tackle it unprepared and push through to the finish.

Here's the official tracking of my Garmin GPS watch.

 

Taken in Memorial Hall while getting a quick tour of the Naval Academy
with great friends the day before the race.

This may be the most difficult thing I ever write. I will cry while writing it so be warned: the page is wet and may warp while you're reading.

I recently lost a friend. Not recently in the past month or so, but recently in, like, the last two weeks. He was one of the greatest people I've ever had the pleasure to know. He was one of the greatest people anyone had the pleasure to know. And he knew a LOT of people. He LOVED a lot of people. And a LOT of people loved him. I don't know how someone who was so loving and so loved could ever have lost the will to live.

But he did. And he took his own life.

He left behind a loving, adoring wife. He left behind a myriad of loving, adoring friends and athletes in the local running and triathlon community, all of whom would have been much less inspired had they not crossed paths with him.

But I can't speak for them. I can only speak for myself. And in speaking, I will say that my life will never be the same without my friend Bob. And his death will haunt me until the end of my days.

Bob was more than just an accomplished athlete. I met him when I started triathlon in 2001, but it seemed like I had known him forever. In him, I found a kindred spirit. He was one of the few amateur athletes, besides myself, willing to embrace his competitive nature. We trained together in those early days - my hard days with him were probably his easy days. We raced together too. My early success in triathlon had a lot to do with Bob's influence. I would not have qualified for Kona in my first Ironman had it not been for him - in fact, I thought we would be racing in Kona together, but, sadly, he failed to qualify. We always said we would go to Ironman Kona together someday, and my heart breaks because I know now that will never happen.

We fell out of touch after my bike accident in 2003 when I lost my motivation to do anything athletic for several years.

But when I came back to competitive racing in 2008, Bob also came back into my life. At that point, he was mostly just running - and was busy blowing people minds with times in his 40s that most runners can't even dream about in their 20s and 30s. He kept telling me he wanted to pass on to me what he had learned about training. Because he KNEW me. He KNEW I tended to run myself into the ground (pun intended) and beat myself up. He KNEW I needed to stay healthy. And he knew he could help - with knowledge that kept him running fast when most people were on the downslope. I never asked, he just offered. We WERE kindred spirits still.

He also always knew when I raced - and when I raced poorly - and knew when I would judge myself harshly. Before I could even check Facebook, he would have offered up pearls of wisdom behind the scenes in the message console. He was always looking out for me. But why?

I found out at his funeral that it wasn't just me. He looked out for myriads of other athletic friends. Bob had a way of making you feel like the most important person. Where did he have time to work, train, race, AND be a best friend to hundreds of athletes? He was truly special.

Many people would compare us, but seriously, I didn't have his unwavering drive, enthusiasm, and energy. I broke down. I had bad races. Did Bob even have bad races? If he did, no one knew. Did he come out of every race situation unscathed? Was he even more like me than I thought? Did I fail to see the signs? When he was offering up all his knowledge to help others, was he really on top of his own game? This is what I will be asking myself always. Were there signs?

And back to that question: were we as much alike as I think we were? Because that's what scares me.

I recently caught a TV interview with Michael Phelps in which he discussed how he's changed since the 2012 Olympics, i.e., the things going through his mind in 2012 compared to how he deals with swimming and competition now. His answer also scared me. He had dark moments. Moments of feeling inadequate and worthless. If amazing athletes like Michael Phelps and my friend Bob can get to the point of questioning their worth, what chance do I have? I hate myself. I've hated myself since I was 13. I hate myself after I race poorly. And I hate myself even after I race well - when I look to the future and see huge failures on the horizon.

What makes an athlete think like this? Why have I put so much importance on performance?

Again, all I can do is speak for myself. It goes back to my youth, to my family, to the way my parents reacted to my athleticism. I'm sure it wasn't intentional. No parent wants to give their child a lack of self-worth. But my athletic (and scholastic) performances had become my way of proving I'm worthwhile. Especially when I feel useless at my job and at other tasks of everyday life. When I fail at racing - the one thing that's completely within my control, I just want to throw up my arms and say "what's the point?" I can't do anything right. Why even exist?

I fear I continue to fight the fight because I'm a coward. But then, I find small values here and there, and I lose myself in swimming, running, and making art. I think about my husband and my cat and realize I'm being stupid. I convince myself that they need me. Although I have no idea why. But I work hard to not take that thought path. I spend a lot of time crying. Especially since Bob left us. Sometimes, I spend the whole day crying.

Here's where I say it's really difficult to explain depression and lack of self-worth to people who haven't been there. And I will always wonder if Bob went to that deep dark place and could not return. Was it sudden? Was it something he thought about for a long time? It's happened to me spontaneously and inexplicably - at the slightest provocation. Sometimes it comes as a panic attack - which is preferable because I can't think, I can only gasp for air. When it's not a panic attack, it has come as an outward attack on myself. And I have spent time in the hospital for it. It isn't a rational thought process. In fact, it all happens so fast that I'm only here today because someone was looking out for me.

I remember one of the eulogies at Bob's service. One of his best friends reiterated (with pregnant pauses) the fact that there would have been help had he asked.. if only he had reached out - or given someone a chance to help. But I also know this is very difficult to do and not everyone wants to deal with a depressed person (no matter how much people say you can count on them). How do I know who will understand? Whose love is truly unconditional? Especially when I ask questions they can't answer - it's usually: "suck it up" or "think positive." And, is it fair for me to expect someone to feel empathy for feelings they don't have the capacity to feel? Especially when everyone thinks it's curable with some kind of medication. It isn't. It will never be. It's hard work to keep my head above water and not drown.

I don't want Bob's death to be in vain. I want it to mean something. And writing all of this is my way of making it worth something. Even if just opens up channels of communication between people. Or gives others the impetus to ask their friends how they are and open up their hearts to listen to the real answer. We're all in this together.

This may be the most difficult thing I ever write. I will cry while writing it so be warned: the page is wet and may warp while you're reading.

I thought I'd never see a book chapter like this again after
I scrapped my engineering degree for an art career.

As I was saying in my last post, I recently went back to my swimming roots and became both a swim coach and a student of the sport once again. I've learned a lot about swimming while coaching, but I found that I wasn't learning enough, and I wasn't sure what I was learning was going to help me become a better swimmer. It might work for kids who are new and still learning the ropes, but I've been through all the ropes of the past, and I'm well aware that theories about swimming and swim training must change and evolve. If they didn't, then we would rarely see world records fall.

During the 1990s, I focused on marathon running and I (thought I) had sworn off swimming for good. My time as a swimmer was over, and I wasn't looking back. There were more than enough years of performance anxiety, two(or three)-a-day workouts, that chlorine smell, taper-less seasons, and tough coaches. 
After a more-than-ten-year hiatus, I returned to the pool in 2001 for triathlon and fell right into bad habits. I didn't necessarily fall BACK into bad habits, but my running musculature and biomechanics created and accentuated a whole new set of unknown bad habits. And because I was stubborn and knew enough to "get through" the swim leg of triathlons, I never spent time learning how to swim again. I mean, I already knew how to swim! I had the times to prove it. Why should I spend extra hours in the pool when I could get larger pay-offs spending them on the bike? And Ironman-distance races made it even less important to log massive yardage in the pool because the swim leg is only a tiny part of the overall race. Had my focus been on Olympic-distance, I would have worked somewhat harder to perfect my swim.
My triathlon years found no lack of swimming advice to be given (to me, not by me). Everyone within earshot of the pool deck seemed to want to critique my swim stroke, my yardage, my frequency... Some told me I held my head too high - or I looked too forward. "You must look DOWN at the bottom," they said. Some told me I had to kick more or kick tighter. "Your kick is too wide, it's creating drag," they said. Some told me I had a lopsided stroke. "You need to get your elbow higher on the left side," they said. Some told me I didn't rotate my shoulders enough. "You need to rotate your body - practice kicking on your side," they said.
I never listened... Well, ok... I listened a LITTLE. I tried the "expert" suggestions. I gave it time and worked at very awkward, unnatural motions. Yet, every single time, I ended up slower. It was maddening. All these swimming people and triathletes teaching me what they learned when they took seminars and attended swim camps. And every time, I gave up and went back to swimming with my comfortable lopsided, heads-up, scissor-kicking, flat-shoulders stroke. It was ALWAYS faster.
It reminded me of high school - when my parents were accosted by the "swim parents" in the pool bleachers questioning that I couldn't possibly have only just started swimming - at age 14 - after beating their kids who were swimming since age 6. People said I was "a natural." But they overlooked something: I worked. Really. Hard. I was naturally "at home" in the water, but I wasn't born with the best stroke. I did my drills - diligently - and it got better. I only recently learned why my flutter kick has always been problematic: the dreaded "clunk foot" (Google it). My feet are not flexible. It made me a good quarter-miler on the track, but it's the reason I would never be a sprinter in the water.
Reacquainting myself with swimming skills and technique has illustrated all the things I let fall by the wayside for 28 years. I was doing all the things coaches yell about: I used the wall as "rest time" and I didn't streamline off it, I abandoned my bilateral breathing, I dragged my feet through the water. And drills? Well, let me just say - drills were something I did NOT have time for. I was much too accomplished to do drills, right? When people did drills in the lanes next to me, I would think to myself: "thank heavens I don't have to do THAT anymore."
Boy was I wrong. I had become the epitome of complacent. Funny that I fell into bad habits that I never had time to develop in the first place. Had I been swimming at age 6, they may have been my bad habits. But I started at age 14. With a high school coach. And we did drills. Lots of drills. And my competitive swimming technique was molded correctly from the start.
So the question remains... if my good swim technique had dematerialized into a collection of bad habits, why didn't all the swimmer/triathlete advice make me a faster swimmer? And why did my so-called bad habits still put me close to, if not in, the lead pack at triathlons?
Last week I learned the answer to this question.
...And here's where I stopped writing to go swimming. And after my swim, I was able to come back to this discussion with way more knowledge about my own current bad-habit-ridden swimming technique and discuss it further...
But, first, an answer to the question posed before I went to the pool. The reason why I'm still "fast" despite the way my stroke "looks," is this: I have one really good thing going for me: my underwater pull.
My kick showing how wide my left leg goes
(see my foot near the lane-line? ugh)
My right arm with nice high elbow
My left arm just flopping about
sometimes misdiagnosed as a rotation issue
but I think it's more than that
How do I definitively know this? Because I recently picked up a book written by Olympian and legendary coach Sheila Taormina called Swim Speed Secrets (for Swimmers and Triathletes). While reading, I heard my own words after listening to people spew their swim theories to me: I have no idea what you're talking about, but the only way I know to go forward is by pulling back water. It's quite simple, and yet, I watch swimmers and coaches and triathletes continue to work on the things that just don't matter much in the greater scheme: looking straight down at the bottom of the pool? Sure, that flattens out your body, but it certainly doesn't make you GO FORWARD in the water. Rotating your body while you swim? Sure, that helps you reach and work your hips, but it doesn't make you GO FORWARD in the water. And that whole fancy theory about Bernoulli's principle and the S-curve? I never believed that anyway (even with my B.S. in aeronautical engineering). You must pull back water! Like most swimmers, I know exactly what it feels like to grab the water and pull/push myself forward. I've always known it. You can throw your laws of physics and theories of fluid dynamics at me, but it doesn't change the things I inherently know. Pulling back water makes me GO FORWARD.
With all my bad habits and drag-producing swim form, I still get faster when I get stronger because I know how to work the stroke underwater. While I was coaching, I often explained to my swimmers how surfaces - hands, forearms, etc. - are what we use to push the water back (this is especially true in breaststroke because it involves surface area on both arms and legs). And when there were too many coaches on the pool deck, I swam in the lane next to my swimmers and watched them underwater. I could usually identify exactly why some of them didn't swim faster even after many, many hours of training. If you try and try and try and see little improvement, take a look below the surface (or read the book).
A few months ago, I told one of my swimmers I know what's wrong with her [very slow] breaststroke and that I thought I could help her. She said to me: "I've been trying for four years, but it's not happened yet. I doubt YOU would be able to fix it." (Remember here, I'm a wet-behind-the-ears assistant coach, and I certainly don't want to step on head-coach toes. From the surface of the pool deck, everything looks good. But below the surface, it's instantly obvious: she has no underwater pull. None.)
Anyway, back to analyzing my own swimming... with new knowledge and a newfound desire to get it right (note: I have several big swims on the books this year), I turned a critical eye to my own underwater stroke. It took little, if no, time at all to identify the problem. All of a sudden, everything started to make sense. My lopsided stroke and kick are actually symptoms, not the cause.
I have the same problem swimming that I have running: a dominant right side. My right arm has good form and a strong pull, and my left arm (or whole left side) is not doing much work at all. During my intra-blogpost swim, when I forced myself to breath on the left, even with a pull-buoy, my left arm didn't feel like it was grabbing any water at all. It was being dragged through the water while the other side did all the work. I had to consciously focus and work to keep that elbow high. And when I did, I started to feel the water again (I hadn't even noticed I had lost my feel for the water on that side!). By the end of my swim, things were starting to feel "right" again in the water - I was even able to bilateral breathe like my old high-school self. (The reason I remember how good I was at bilateral breathing was because my coach used to give me hand signals for pace during long-distance races like the 1000 or the 1650 - I distinctly remember telling him it didn't matter which side of the pool he was signaling from because I could turn my head to breathe either way.)
It won't be easy to rebuild my left strength, but I'm committed to this swim thing, and now at least I have a diagnosis and plan to move forward with tangible results. It's a nice change to have a learning experience like this - where I'm not sat on the sidelines during or after a race throwing up my hands in frustration and confusion (like so many times in the last few years). And I think that's what being an athlete is to me. It keeps me young not only because it works my body but because it makes me a perpetual student and engages my mind as well.
Once a swimmer:
1980 OH Platt High School Girls Medley Relay
(yes, I'm the one in the hat)

As you know, I recently became a recovering triathlete. After 15 years of chasing some kind of redemption for every unsuccessful race, I got tired of comparing myself to everyone else (EVERYONE is a triathlete these days) and always coming up short - in speed, strength, body image, and gear. I had become the very thing I hated: a slave to consumerism - especially involving the Ironman brand - and a very unhappy person who no longer enjoyed anything about the sport that had become so important to me that it was a part-time job.

Thankfully, my wake-up call didn't turn me into a non-athlete, but instead sent me back to the sport that started it all: swimming. It was my first competitive athletic pursuit, and after 30 years of denial, it finally came back around to offer me joy in its purest form. But I struggle to write something new about swimming. I'll never be an expert. Everything I know about swimming has been said, so what could I possibly pass on as knowledge in my blog? I kept coming up empty-handed until yesterday's swim.

While I was doing laps in the pool, I realized that the way I'm swimming now is both completely different and, at the same time, exactly the same as I did 30 years ago.

Let me explain.

First, I need to add that I've become a swim coach - yep, a certified USA Swimming coach. I've been assistant-coaching a Cleveland-area team - the Westside Waves - for six months now, and I'm hooked. I've already learned a great deal about swimming from a coaching perspective, and it has had a profound effect on both my love of swimming and my love of mentoring a younger generation of swimmers.

Geeking out with Theoretical Hydrodynamics

The rules and practice of competitive swimming have evolved quite a bit from when I was in a racing suit on the start blocks (coincidentally, even starts are different). But one fundamental idea has not changed. The fastest swimmer in any race is the one who is most efficient in the water. The race will never go to the strongest swimmer. The race will go to the swimmer who is the most hydrodynamic. Show me a swimmer that can bench-press 200 pounds, and I will find you a swimmer who can only bench-press 50 but can beat your guy in the water.

This is swimming in a nutshell.

What does this have to do with me? Well, funny you should ask....

I was never an efficient swimmer. I started swimming competitively at the age of 14. Most of my cohorts had been doing it for eight years by then. The only reason I was any good was a hard-work ethic, my genetics, and my natural ability [to float fast]. Because I grew up in the water, swimming came naturally and water wasn't scary. I eventually gravitated toward longer distance swimming because I never learned how to kick efficiently or with propulsion. (I dragged my body through the water, and I had the football-player shoulders to prove it.)

My natural kick in freestyle was what they call a "two-beat" kick, i.e., I kick twice for every stoke revolution. Today's swimmers do not know that term. They are taught a six-beat kick whether they swim 50 yards in competition or the mile. It was one of the first thing I learned as a coach.
After a few more "lessons," I made a conscious decision to start using my new tools in my own training. I couldn't advocate one type of swimming to my swimmers then get in the water and demonstrate something else. I wanted to be an example to my swimmers as well as a coach. And, as a former triathlete, I always said that to train for triathlon, you need to swim with swimmers, bike with bikers, and run with runners. I denounced any triathlon-style swimming and would often rant about the way I saw triathletes training in the pool or being coached differently than what works for competitive swimmers. I repeat: the best swimmers are the ones who are most efficient in the water. End of story. Similarly, I also rant about running shoes marketed to triathletes as though they different from running shoes made for runners. It's genius marketing as triathletes are willing to shovel out twice as much cash for them. (Even more if they sport the Ironman logo.)

But I digress.

In trying to embrace new breakthroughs that science has given us about swim speed (and what I'm teaching my swimmers), I've struggled like a first-year swimmer. I've had to teach my body to dolphin-kick off the walls (we never did that in the early 80s), take full arm-strokes underwater, and - *choke* - do massive amounts of backstroke (because if anything makes you a better freestyler, it's becoming a better backstroker, and the kids learn backstroke almost as early as they learn the crawl). And, I've had to learn - *gasp* - to six-beat kick.

Even though I always had a good stroke, doing these things in combo with my scrawny running arms made it very difficult to get my daily yardage in the pool up over 4500 yards. It took about two months and everything hurt every day. But by the time I was comfortable at 5000, my whole view of the process had changed, and I could talk to my swimmers with a better understanding of what I was asking them to do. And I found that, unlike coaches who didn't swim regularly, many of my sentences were starting to begin with "I know this isn't easy, but it will make you a better swimmer...." Yep, I KNEW of which I spoke.

And, it paid off. I got faster. I got more comfortable and I stopped hating backstroke. Some of it was due to strength. Most of it was technique. My husband Jim took video recently of me swimming, and the first thing he said to me was: "your stroke is mostly the same, but you look stronger and you're kicking [more]." I'll take it!

Here are two videos for comparing the difference four months makes (unfortunately, it's not a huge improvement): the first one is from December 2015, showing my horrible [non-]kick, and the second one is from March 2016 showing a slightly improved, noticeable kick (and it's more streamlined too).

December:
March:

I guess it's all about problem-solving. I've once again learned to embrace my first love without judging myself. I'm far from perfect, but I also found I'm not too old - or set in my ways - to learn and apply new lessons. And that may be the most important lesson of all.

I'll attempt to share more of my trials as both an old and new swimmer and any upcoming open water swim races that I do. Hopefully it won't be too boring to my readers.

I'm back to pool swimming much to my dismay after my last post, but there aren't any open water opportunities in Cleveland in the winter. I've been logging as many days of swimming as possible while still working on my art and doing contract work in programming. I've also been running and biking (indoors) because old habits refuse to die. Frankly, sometimes, my mind just needs to get out and run. Fortunately, during my runs, I've been finding random natural things in the Cuyahoga Valley to use in printmaking. It must look silly to people driving by as I'm running along with handfuls of dry grass and twigs trying not to break them.

My playlist lately centers around one album: Turin Brakes new release called Lost Property. In fact, even when I don't want to run, this album gets me out the door with my headphones. Because it sounds so great with headphones.
As for my printmaking... I've been trying my hand at collagraphs. It started with printing things I found while running in the valley and then I decided to try printing water, or, more precisely, the effects of water. These are all artistic experiments at the moment. I glued my found natural objects to cardboard or matboard plates and made water patterns on plastic or primed cardboard plates using sand and carborundum grit (and water, obviously). I've had a little success - but each one is more of a learning experience than a finished piece. Now there are an infinite number of things I want to try using grit to hold ink and there doesn't seem to be enough time in a day. But, for kicks, here are my favorites of the collagraph prints I've done so far - they're all black and white proofs, but soon will be experimenting with color (I hope):

I'm back to pool swimming much to my dismay after my last post, but there aren't any open water opportunities in Cleveland in the winter. I've been logging as many days of swimming as possible while still working on my art and doing contract work in programming.

Last Saturday, I decided to attempt my first real solo open water swim - from La Jolla Cove to La Jolla Shores in southern California.

It wasn't significant because of the distance. It was a mile - a distance I've swum many times in the past, in many bodies of water.

It wasn't significant because it was open water. I've swum many open water swims before - in triathlon races and in triathlon training.

It wasn't significant because it was in the ocean. I've swum in oceans all over - the atlantic coast, the gulf coast, the pacific coast, the Hawaii coast.

It wasn't significant because the water temperature was 57 degrees F. If you read my last blog post, you know I've swum in water more than 10 degrees colder.

It wasn't even significant because of the waves. I've survived swimming in chop so bad that other people drowned the same day.

No. It was significant for ONE reason. I wanted to conquer an irrational fear of swimming alone in the ocean and prove to myself that I would not have an irrational moment of panic.

You see, I grew up in the water. I may have swam before I could walk. My childhood friends called me a fish because I never got out of the pool. On summer days at ocean beaches, I would rebel when my parents dragged me out of the water to eat lunch, or rest, or (God forbid) go home. And I've never been afraid of open water. Well,... except for a little while after I saw Jaws at age 10. During that time, I wouldn't even put my feet in a wading pool lest there be sharks that were somehow transported there (and survived). In my defense, I was 10! And I was not allowed to see scary movies after that.

But, to get back to my story - it's true, swimming in open water, especially the ocean, was something that did not strike fear into my heart as it does many triathletes who stand on the beach in their first ocean swim triathlon. Many times at race starts, I've even found myself talking people through their fear of the ocean and the waves and everything that goes with it. Don't worry, have fun, dive through the waves not over them, try to swim with the swells, and capitalize on the current when you can. But mostly, HAVE FUN.

Because - that's what I always do when I get to swim in the ocean.

But to be fair, I've never really swum in the ocean - or open water for that matter - alone. By myself. I've always been with other people in races or in training groups. If I needed to swim alone, I would parallel the shoreline under the watchful eye of my parents or my husband.

The only time I remember being in open water completely alone, I had a bizarre experience. I was in Utah Lake during the ill-fated inaugural Ironman Utah in 2002. It was my first Ironman. A freak morning windstorm came up and blew swimmers all over the lake - and suddenly I found myself completely alone in the water. When I realized this, I was dumbstruck with panic for about half-a-second. That momentary lapse into fear has never completely left me. Mostly because it baffled me. Seriously, it made no sense whatsoever. I'm one of those people who feels more at ease in water than on land. I even dream about being able to breathe underwater. Why, then, was I so scared?

I've processed this so many times, it's burned into my brain. Was it the cold water? Was it the being alone? Was it the fact that my first Ironman would be a complete fail? What. Was. It? Even weirder, I recovered from it so quickly that the moment became a mere blip on the radar that day. However, lately there's a nagging feeling that somehow, that moment of time would eventually hold me back from the solo open water swimming that I'm hoping to do in the future.

I had to conquer it. Clear and simple. I chose to attempt that in La Jolla last Saturday.

The reason I was there was to meet up with my husband Jim on the tail end of his business trip to San Diego. Before the trip, I told him I wanted to swim in La Jolla Cove because it's a well-known open water training and racing location. So, we booked a the weekend at a hotel only a few miles away.

Saturday morning, I got up and went on a running reconnaissance mission, hoping to find some swimmers at the cove that day that might answer any questions I had. As luck would have it, there was a guy in a full wetsuit just finishing his swim when I got there. I asked him about the water and if he could tell me something about distances. Here's what he told me: the water was about 57 degrees F, lots of people swim in the cove and they swim all day long. He was surprised there were only a few there at the moment, but it could have been due to rough surf. Then he pointed to two tall cylindrical buoys to the left - he called them the A and B targets - and said they were about .25 miles and .45 miles respectively. To the right of them was a round buoy - also at .25 miles - and off in the distance was another stick-like buoy at .75 miles. The far beach past that buoy (La Jolla Shores) was a mile. Here are two photos that Jim took:

This is La Jolla Cove. If you enlarge the photo, you'll see two little
white buoys between the vertical centerline and the left edge of the photo.
Those are the .25 and .75 markers, and the beach is right above them in the
 distance, where the water meets land (to the left of the reddish structure).
Here's a view of La Jolla Cove from the other direction.
La Jolla Shores beach is behind the trees in the front.

My mind was instantly made up. I wanted to swim to the beach, point to point. I decided to run there and scout out a place for Jim to pick me up. On the way back, I saw a lifeguard/fire-rescue guy and asked him about safety. To summarize answers to my questions: it's the ocean, so (1) it's cold, (2) it's rough water and (3) yes, there are sharks "out there" - but there have been no shark attacks in La Jolla. I did a little googling on my phone and found out that in 2015, the beaches were closed after a kayaker had a close encounter with a hammerhead shark. I stopped reading. No Fear.

When I got back, I told Jim my plan. Surprisingly, he didn't even flinch. (I think he's beginning to accept how serious I am about this swimming thing, and, between you and me, I think he's being a saint about letting me drag him to pools and lakes and coves on our trips.) To save space in my luggage, I only packed my wetsuit top, but I wasn't sure I needed it. I saw a guy go in that morning with only a jammer-type suit. We prepped and then drove up to the cove.

The first thing I did was look for other swimmers for final advice. To my relief, there were three swimmers - members of the La Jolla Cove Swim Club - getting ready to swim. They confirmed what I had been told about the distances and the temperature. They also advised me to wear a wetsuit if I wasn't sure about the cold. Then they gave me a quick review of the dangers and told me how to get "out there" (you know, out past the waves without dying):

  • Know the stages of hypothermia. (got it - I told them I had been through those stages once in 2009)
  • Swim out towards the left so that you don't get caught up in the current and smashed to pieces on the rocks to the right.
  • Don't swim too far left because there's another set of rocks there. However, stay close to those.
  • If you have a neoprene cap, wear it. (I didn't. But I had two latex caps and was told to wear them both.)

I noticed they were all putting on swim fins. Did I need fins? The woman said "do you HAVE fins?" like it was a matter of life and death. I said no. They said some people can make it just fine without fins.

Like I needed something ELSE to worry about.

The two men were wearing full wetsuits. The woman was wearing what looked like a neoprene (or thick material) swimsuit and a neoprene cap. After a mental debate, I decided to wear my wetsuit top, only to avoid hypothermia because Jim would be waiting for me at the beach and I'd have no way to contact him if I was going into shock from the cold. I didn't want to ruin our vacation by being stubborn and doing something stupid just to prove a point. Besides, there will be plenty more opportunities for me to tempt hypothermic fate.

The last words I was told by one of the swimmers: "We're spoiled. Once you swim here, you'll never want to go back to pool swimming."

Making our way down to the cove - I'm in the yellow cap.

I walked down to the water with them, and just followed the first one out into the water. It was nothing short of amazing, and actually, surprisingly easy. The waves were not scary - they were fun! I didn't really feel much of a current pulling me to the right, and once I was out in the cove, all I noticed was how great the water felt and how sunny and blue the sky was. I said thanks and goodbye to my new friends and aimed for the beach.

The cold water was a non-issue. This still surprises me as I had once gone swimming in 56-degree water with a wetsuit in the Outer Banks, and I remember it being painfully cold. I expected 57 degrees to feel the same. It makes me wonder if (hope?) I'm starting to get more comfortable in cold water. I reached the .25-mile buoy and signaled to Jim that I was, indeed, good to go and would make my way to our meet-up on the beach.

And then I just swam. And it was good. And there was no panic. None. I even did some backstroke to appreciate the sky.

When I got closer to the beach, I swam into a group of kayakers and waved, and then started to feel the current and the waves pushing me ahead. I was disappointed it ended so soon, but it was time to body-surf my way in. Amusingly, surfing the waves was the only point that I got myself in trouble - I got caught up inside a wave and struggled for few seconds to reorient myself and come up to breathe. It would have been ironic if I made it all the way to the beach and then drowned in standing water.

Yippee!

When I finally stood up on the beach sand, I heard the following (very geeky) thing in my head:

"You've taken your first step into a larger world."
These are the words Obi-wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) speaks to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) following his first lesson in using the Force. It's true - I WILL have a hard time going back to a pool. I'm a salt water animal. My La Jolla swim was the closest to heaven I've ever felt.

Here's the video. I swear the waves on the way out didn't look as big to me as they do in the vid. (Again, I'm the one in the yellow cap.)

Last Saturday, I decided to attempt my first real solo open water swim - from La Jolla Cove to La Jolla Shores in southern California.

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