Sleeping with the fishes
Busted knee trilogy – book one – Cool in the pool
Posted Sunday, 26 December, 2004
The warm summer sun burned high in the sky. The water was warm. I kept my eye on the tall water tower on a hill above the lake for reference as I churned along. I was pondering a triathlon and the town beach seemed like a good starting point. Then, out of the corner of my eye there was movement. I was startled. I was, after all, in the middle of the lake.
A woman passed me, swimming easily, kicking and digging with rhythmic robotics. I applied myself to the task, my ego tweaked. She motored away with no effort over the horizon.
That was when I realized that there is swimming and there is swimming.
The orthopedic surgeon has lost interest in me. He said he won’t operate and (paraphrasing) ‘I should just deal with it’. Goodbye fall racing season. Goodbye spring marathons. He says “Give it a few more months” and “It’s a question of ‘pain management’”.
I can’t sit around. It’s just not possible. Being opportunistic and driven, I came up with a plan. I went and joined the gym. It’s an old racquet club with a pool, cardio and weights. Here’s my plan for the long New England Winter… Day One – Stationary bike. Day Two – Swimming. Day Three – lifting weights. Repeat. Once a week I’ll attempt a short run just to gauge if it still hurts. The good news is that I’ve always wanted to cross train more, now I have to.
Sounds good, right? Well, in theory it is. The ‘opportunity’ when you change training methods is that you have a ‘learning’ curve. It takes awhile for your body to adapt, and until it does, it isn’t all that much fun. Not because the effort is too hard, just the opposite. You have to pay your dues before you build a base that allows you to get a good (i.e. ‘hard’, ‘satisfying’) work out in.
I would normally go run for an hour. I’m comfortable with that. My body knows instinctively what pace equals the desired heart rate. It can be easy or hard, just as I want, and even the crappy days are ‘satisfying’. Now, put me on a stationary bike and I struggle with trying to get my heart rate up without twisting my ankles off.
Then there’s the pool.
The irony is that I always considered myself a strong swimmer. I started swimming when I was around 5 years old. My folks had beach front property on a lake and that’s what we did. I always thought swimming was easy. I ‘tested out’ of swimming lessons. I was a certified SCUBA diver by 16. (By the way, runners make amazing snorklers due to our lung capacity)
I’m built like a sea lion, (except hairier). Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve also inherited webbed toes from my Irish gene pool. I kid you not, the second and third toe on each of my size 12’s are webbed together. Plus, I’ve got that egg-shaped torpedo thing going with plenty of adipose flotation pockets, if you know what I mean.
For all these advantages, I’ve never thought of swimming as exercise. I swam to enjoy the summer day, or to get to a hidden beach, or to relax, but never just to swim.
In preparing to enter the pool I had to fish around for the proper attire. First, there are the eyes. You can’t swim in this pool without eye protection. It’s got near-lethal levels of chlorine in it. If you attempted to open your eyes unprotected in this water you would spend the day looking like a dope fiend with conjunctivitis. I ‘borrowed’ my ten year old daughter’s swim mask. I can’t explain it, but it fit. She’s a pool veteran from swimming lessons. She knows about eye-swimming safety and was gracious enough to lend a hand with my equipage.
Next I need ear plugs to keep the water out of my head. If I don’t block the passages, I’ll end up with my own little Venice sloshing around in the cochlear canals. I manage to find one ear plug. Evidently I lost the other one in the middle of the lake last summer. I guess it will work if I only rhythmic breathe in one direction.
Then there is the question of swimwear. I do own an official ‘bathing suit’, or, as my brother euphemistically refers to them; ‘a grape smuggler’. Maybe if I spend more time with the French Canadians, I’ll overcome this hesitance, but not today. I’m a few hundred laps away from wearing that in public, so I opt for the standard orange life-guardesque trunks. I’m ready for the pool.
In the pool at the club there is a coterie of serious swimmers churning away up and down the lanes. Swimming for them is obviously serious business.
I find an unoccupied lane, rinse out my kid goggles, stick in my one earplug and lower my baggy trunks into the pool. I begin to swim freestyle, watching the other swimmers as they pass nearby to see if there are some evident secrets to be learned.
One thing I noticed was that they were all executing fluid flip-turns at the ends to propel themselves down the other way seamlessly. I gave it a try and whacked my heels on the cement. I decide I’ll just pause at the ends, like a beginner runner, walking the water stops.
Another thing I noticed was that they used their legs. They kicked a lot. It was then that I came to the realization, for the first time in my 42 years on this planet, that I had been swimming my whole life without using my legs. I mean, I used, for balance and as a rudder but not for propulsion. In a flash it came to me that this was why my shoulders were the first to tire on long swims.
With this startling revelation I began to try to kick. It turns out that kicking while you are swimming is like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time, it requires some rewiring of your whole swim mechanics. It also raises the actual exercise level through the roof. I found myself gasping for breath and my heart rate soaring, and I thought to myself, “Cool! This has potential!”
Upon further inspection I found that I was trying to kick with my toes in the flex position which is basically like dragging an anchor. Once I fixed that and started to get the rhythm back it started to go… well… swimmingly.
That first day I managed to move back and forth in a reasonably swim-like fashion for 20 minutes. Of course there was substantial pausing and near drowning episodes, but all in all a successful first outing. When I left the club, to my astonishment, I was still perspiring from the effort. As an exercise, this swimming stuff has potential.
I am now happily on that beginner-learning curve where every session brings new discoveries and gains are made in leaps and bounds. I remember the same when training for my first marathon and there was that day I ran farther than I had ever run before in my life, and every subsequent weekend was a personal record of some sort. It was a time of unique reward and fulfillment.
I’m sure I’ll be doing pool speed-work and long-swims before the month is out, although I’m not quite sure how I’ll work in some hills.
I have found this freshness of challenge out of necessity, but you don’t have to be so pig-headed. Do yourself a big favor this winter and head for the pool a couple times a week. Go into it with the right attitude. Give yourself enough time to work through the awkwardness and find your pace. Soon you’ll be sharing the swimmer’s high.