Tag Archives: swimming

Swimming in Proverbial Soup

I COULDN’T FINISH THE SWIM CLASS. One hour into the 90-minute workout, I pulled myself out of the pool and told the instructors I could not continue. I was exhausted and my legs were cramping so badly I could no longer kick.

It was a Sunday morning in April, week one of a 10-week masters-coached swim class to help me train for my summer triathlons. I knew I was in trouble when I could not go more than 50 yards without stopping, and the other students were warming up with 100-yard intervals. I can run for hours, but swimming worked my body in an entirely different way. The half-mile (880 yards) swim needed by June was going to require a lot of work.

I pondered what to do for the next week. Should I stop going to the class and swim by myself? Should I hire a coach and get some private lessons? Or, since I’d paid a handsome price for the class, should I just “suck it up” and struggle through the remaining sessions?

Uh, Mr. Race Director? Are these things triathlon legal?

I wonder…Uh, Mr. Race Director? Are these things triathlon legal?

I thought of the classic English proverb:

If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

Was my “thing worth doing” the end goal of completing a triathlon? Or was it rather the training that made the goal possible? If the class would make me a better swimmer in the end, I should continue with it. But given where I was at the time, could I get the most out of the class? It didn’t seem likely.

And if “doing well” meant becoming a strong swimmer, I’d need a lot of coaching and time in the pool, taking time away from running and cycling. Perhaps if I “went at it” by myself, I could improve enough to get by. And that brought to mind this related saying from Tom West:

Not everything worth doing is worth doing well.

In the early 1980s, West was the project leader for Data General’s next-generation minicomputer. He believed if they waited for the perfect design and technology, they’d never finish it. So they went with the best they had, making compromises along the way, but ended with a product that outperformed their main competitor.

My former Aikido instructor had a related take: “If you never fail a test,” he said, “you probably aren’t testing enough.” If your training and conditioning was so good that passing would be easy, it wouldn’t be a real “test” of your limits and capabilities. That seemed to argue for “sucking it up,” going back to the class, and doing my best.

At Kent Lake, "not doing well" the best I can.

At Kent Lake, “not doing well” the best I can.

Or did it? If you test too quickly in Aikido, you won’t absorb the training well enough to understand what you’re doing. Without a solid foundation in the basics, you are ‘building upon sand,” as both Sensei and the Bible put it. That suggested I work on the fundamentals before jumping in with the more advanced swimmers.

Perhaps All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten has the answer:

If something’s not worth doing, it’s worth not doing well.

In running, the cardinal rule is “listen to your body” and adjust your training if you’re tired or injured. Do what you can and don’t make your situation worse. In Aikido, we are told that if you are hurt and can only watch, then watch with focus and energy. You may not be “doing” but you are still learning.

Watching a demonstration with focus and energy. Lest you think this is easy, I suggest you try sitting like this for a while.

Watching a demonstration with focus and energy. Lest you think this is easy, I suggest you try sitting like this for a while.

Could I just watch the swim class, pick up tips, and use them to help train on my own? That seemed awkward. And how could I tell what good form was and was not? I’ve practiced Aikido techniques enough to be able to learn something from just watching, but I couldn’t think of a way  to “not swim” and benefit from it.

And, finally, this from Ayn Rand:

“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”

I’d gone to the swim class the day after running an all-out half marathon. So my poor performance might not have reflected my actual capability. Nevertheless, it was obvious that swimming myself to exhaustion wasn’t going to get me there. Sorry, Ayn.

So which of these did I end up following the most closely? None entirely, but a little of each of the first three.

Pterodactyl Triathlon, July

Pterodactyl Triathlon, July

I chose to train on my own, at my own pace. I also watched some videos, and used a swimming coach a few times to observe my form and suggest improvements. By the end of May I was swimming 800 meters (slightly over a half mile) without stopping, and while I’m still a slow swimmer, I completed the June and July triathlons without trouble.

As for the class, I did not return. Catching up was unlikely, and my racing schedule meant there would be more “day after” sessions, too. So my single class turned out to be an expensive one. As I learned just how much work I had to do, however, it was worth it to me.

Much improvement remains, but I’m doing the best I can under the circumstances. And to me that’s “doing it” well enough.

Tri-day the 18th

“BE SAFE OUT THERE,” the race organizer said, standing in the water by the inflatable dinosaur. “Grab onto a kayak if you need a break.” (He was looking at me. I know he was.)

Then he gave the “go signal” and my group splashed across the starting line and out into Kent Lake for the start of the Triceratops Triathlon.

This was not only my first triathlon, it was my first-ever swim of any distance in open water. But one thought was clear in my mind as we struck out for the first buoy: ain’t no way I’m gonna grab a kayak.

The staging area. You rack your bike here before the start, and come back for each transition.

The staging area. You rack your bike here before the start, and come back for each transition.

A triathlon is a swim, bike, and run event, completed in that order. Perhaps the most famous is the Ironman: 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile run (yes, a marathon) for 140.6 miles total. Other popular distances include the half Ironman (70.3 miles), the Olympic distance (51.5 km, or 32 miles), and the so-called “sprint triathlon” (0.5 mile swim, 12.4 mile bike ride, 5K run). The Running Fit T-Rex series I signed up for are sprints.

Triathlon gear. Clockwise from top right: swim cap in wave color, ankle strap with timing chip, bib for the run, bike tag with race number, "tri top" with the event's logo.

Triathlon gear. Clockwise from top right: swim cap in wave color, ankle strap with timing chip, bib for the run, bike tag with race number, “tri top” with the event’s logo. (Bike and bike gear shown separately.)

Most sprinters finish in 90 minutes or less, which means one can be squeezed into a weekday evening, as this one was. If  there was going to be a race, that is: a nasty thunderstorm knocked out power at home Wednesday morning, and the weather radar promised another set that afternoon. Fortunately, they’d come and gone by 5:00, so our 6:00 start had a comfortable water temperature (77 degrees) and air temps in the 60s, perfect for the bike and run.

Displaying a confidence he didn't entirely feel...

Displaying a confidence he didn’t entirely feel…

The swimming was my biggest worry. Never in my life had I done any meaningful distance, and I found out at a swim class in April just how much work I needed with form, breathing, and especially, endurance. I couldn’t swim more than 50 meters without stopping, and I needed to get to 800. With regular practice and some coaching, I reached it in late May – in the pool. Could I do that in the lake? I wasn’t so sure. But I’d decided no matter what, I wasn’t reaching for any kayaks.

The swim course. The kayaks help swimmers stay on course, rescue people in trouble, and provide float breaks to those who may need them.

The swim course. The kayaks help swimmers stay on course, rescue people in trouble, and provide float breaks to those who may need them.

The race started in waves (no pun intended) to minimize crowding in the water. When you’re swimming hard it’s difficult to see who’s around you, and everyone has his or her stories about getting elbowed and kicked. I got a little of that, but not much. Even better, my goggles never fogged up like they did in practice, and I was able to track the course buoys the entire way. Even though many swimmers passed me (along with a few turtles), I emerged from the water in one piece.


Run for your lives! It's the Creature from the White Lagoon!

Run for your lives! It’s the Creature from the White Lagoon!

Transitioning to the bike was reasonably smooth, the hardest part getting the gloves onto my wet hands, and I pretty much held my own, being passed by many better riders, but doing my share of passing as well. And “drafting” (staying close behind someone to take advantage of lessened air resistance) was not allowed in this event, which made a bike non-racer like me feel a lot safer.

Triceratops Bike GS - 0889

They write your race number on your arms with a grease pencil – and your age on the back of your calf. (Still lower than my race numbers, for the time being.)

Then it was off with the bike shoes and into the running shoes for the 5K. My legs were stiff and heavy at first (as was everyone’s), and someone looking at us runners for that first quarter mile might have wondered which senior citizen’s facility had just had a massive escape. But I got my legs back and finished with a strong time, feeling good. I was a triathlete!

Triceratops Run GS - 411

The race results show my swim, bike, and run splits separately, along with where I placed in each category. As expected, I was slow in the swim. Turned out I was in the middle on the bike portion, and strong in the run – in the top 15 percent. The “T1” and “T2” are my times in transition from one activity to the next. T1 is from end of the swim to the start of the bike, and T2 is from the end of the bike portion to the start of the run.

My race resultsSo, in all there are five opportunities for improvement in the remaining two triathlons. However, as my next one comes just four days after the Devil’s Lake 50K, I’ll not try to set my sights too high.

Next up – some time off of training, which I’m already enjoying more than I oughta. Then Devil’s Lake on July 12.

This group I lined up with here pack some power. Chrissy (second from left) is my swimming coach. She was the second overall woman finisher. Michael, leftmost, is her husband, and finished seventh overall. To my immediate left is Tracy, who also runs ultramarathons and is also an Ironman. Yikes!

This group I lined up with here packs some power. Chrissy (second from left) is my swim coach and was the second overall woman finisher. Next to me is her husband Michael, who finished seventh overall. Leftmost is Tracy, who also runs ultramarathons and is an Ironman. Yikes!

Muscle Power

I hope all my fellow fathers had a great Father’s Day yesterday! I got to spend part of my Sunday with DD #2, who kept an eye on me while I took a pre-triathlon practice swim in Kent Lake. This Wednesday is the big day!

Open water swimming is different from the pool, all right. When my goggles fogged up I couldn’t see the buoys and wound up zigzagging all over the place. Fortunately I didn’t head butt one, or take out any kids.

Hey, this lake has no lines painted on the bottom!

Hey, this lake has no lines painted on the bottom!

Afterward, we celebrated with Bigalora pizza for dinner. If there’s a Bigalora in your area, find the time to try it. Their pizza is made in the Napoletana style, with a fermented dough (the “biga” part), wood-fired with a thin crispy crust. It’s not cracker-crunchy like I had in Italy, but it’s close. And there’s less sauce and cheese than the standard American pizza, but I think there’s more flavor in them, and the toppings are large enough that you can actually taste them.

Bigalora Pizza - Fathers Day

Saturday was Flag Day, an appropriate day for the Liberty Run, part of the Liberty Festival in Canton. This event became particularly famous in 2012, when a record was set for the most runners dressed as the Statue of Liberty. It’s amazing what can get into the Guinness Book, isn’t it. No such grand statement this year, but still a great turnout, and plenty of colorful costumes.

Liberty Run costumes 1-2

Liberty Run costume - 3

Posing with medal, mug for completing the "Uncle Sam Slam" (5K + 10K), and age group award glass. Ah, sweet swag - isn't that the American Dream?

Posing with medal, mug for completing the “Uncle Sam Slam” (5K + 10K), and age group award glass. Ah, sweet swag – isn’t that the American Dream?

There were two races offered that morning – a 5K and a 10K. You can guess what I chose. (Yep. Both.)

I ran a good strong time in the 5K, and then jogged the 10K, where I got a reminder that “run easy” does not mean “run stupid”. Early in the 10K I stopped to snap a photo, causing the runner behind me to run into me. All I can say is that I wasn’t thinking. From then on I made sure to pull over to the side to take a picture.

Also part of the Liberty Festival was a “muscle car” exhibit, consisting of hot rods dating from the 1930s to the 1960s. All of them were in amazing condition, showing the care and attention their owners have spent on them.

82 years old and still smokin' hot.

82 years old and still smokin’ hot.

Needs no introduction.

Needs no introduction.

At the time I wasn’t looking for an analogy, but I tripped over it anyway. Maybe we don’t have the time, money, or desire to restore and maintain a vintage muscle car, but we all ought to take a strong interest in keeping ourselves running smoothly for a long time. The formula for doing so is simple and straightforward; eat right and exercise regularly. And yet those who track such things say that over one-third of Americans are seriously overweight, which is known to lead to health problems. Why is proper care of oneself so hard for many people to do?

I’m not suggesting that people get off the couch and run an Ironman, like fellow blogger Mario Sanchez did at age 55, or become a two-a-day racing fool like me. But I am suggesting that people at least get off the couch.

I realize with many of my readers I’m preaching to the choir, but if not – what’s holding you back? Find something enjoyable that engages your muscles. Run, bike, climb rocks, swim, play a sport. Or just walk. Your body will thank you for it. And you can enjoy that Bigalora pizza without feeling guilty.

Limits vs. Limitations

“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.”
Richard Bach

This week I achieved a milestone (technically speaking, a “half-milestone”) in the pool. For the first time ever I swam 800 meters, or about a half mile, which is the distance to swim on June 18 when I plunge into Kent Lake to begin my first triathlon.

I'm not sure which seems longer - 800 meters, or 32 times back and forth across the pool.

I’m not sure which seems longer – 800 meters, or 32 crossings of the pool.

For a veteran swimmer, 800 meters is pretty routine, and Ironman participants do five times that (2.4 miles), but just last month I couldn’t swim more than 50 meters at a time. So I headed to my favorite ice cream place to celebrate, flushed with success – or maybe it was the chlorine in my nose.

Jamie, a fellow runner, was behind the counter. She told me that her uncle is going to run the Athens Marathon (the original route that Pheidippides ran after the battle), something he’s wanted to do since he was seven years old. What’s particularly memorable about this is that he’s diabetic. In addition to the usual training and fueling needs for a marathon, he will have additional challenges balancing his blood sugar and care of his body while training. His disease is a limitation, to be sure – but he’s not going to let it limit him.

It occurred to me that we often use the terms “limit” and “limitation” as though they are identical. They aren’t. As applied to our abilities, a limit is where we happen to be at the moment, and is subject to change. A limitation is something that defines and bounds us forever – if we let it.

Here is what Dr. Denis Waitley has to say about this:
You cannot surpass certain limits because you simply are not physically or mentally equipped to do so, but that doesn’t mean you have to squander and stifle your real potential by living according to certain limitations inspired by yourself and others. You can learn to live without limitations.

I agree; perhaps “certain limits” are unsurpassable. But do we really know what those limits are – or are we just making assumptions? If Jamie’s uncle had decided that Type I diabetes made it impossible for him to run a marathon, he’d be right. But his limit would be self-imposed rather than truly “unsurpassable”. Later this year he’s going to challenge that limit, and my money’s on him completing that marathon.

Can I run a four-minute mile right now? No. Will I ever run one? Probably not, but I’m a much faster and stronger runner than when I began this blog three years ago, and I continue to improve. Sure, my age and body type establish limits to how fast and how far I can run, or bike, or swim. But I haven’t found them yet. And even when (or if) I do, there will be room for improvement somewhere else.

Three years ago, six miles was a long run and I’d run one half marathon. The Dexter-Ann Arbor race on June 1 will be my third half marathon this year, in addition to three completed 50K trail ultras and a 5K in showshoes. Still to come are three sprint triathlons and my first 100K run in the fall. Will I complete them all? I hope so – but I won’t know if I can or can’t do them until I try.

Frankly, I'd rather snowshoe a half mile than swim it. Anyone for a winter tri?

Frankly, I’d rather snowshoe a half mile than swim it. Anyone for a winter tri?

What’s holding you back from something you’d like to do, – or become? An actual hard, unsurpassable limit? Or is self-imposed uncertainty, or fear, telling you it is? As Richard Bach and Denis Waitley point out, there’s no difference – unless you decide to find out. Why not find out?