Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Fantasy Swimming Report Part 3: The Training

Believe it or not, there are actually more people who want to swim across the Chesapeake Bay than there are available spots for said masochists so there is a lottery process to determine the "winners." I took my first shot at the lottery in 2013 and was denied which was a blessing disguised as a large neon sign that said, "YOU'RE GETTING AHEAD OF YOURSELF BIG BOY!" (And as usual, the neon sign was right). So I went looking for some other opportunity to satisfy my sudden and inexplicable desire to swim across bodies of water also known as "aquaphilia" which, depending on the Wikipedia link you click, can either mean (a) a love of water sports or (b) a form of fetishism that involves sexual activity under water. Obviously definition (a) applies here. I will be wearing a full body wetsuit so definition (b) will only come into play if I run into a frisky dolphin with a switchblade.

"Why would I crawl into a bathtub
to hide from a swim? I should
have thought this through."
The event I found last year was a three mile swim to benefit cancer research which took place in a relatively calm body of water off a local river. I trained my ass off for it and as a result, completing it turned-out to be relatively easy. (Holy shit did you actually just reach-out and touch the money?) Based on that experience, I took another crack at the Bay Swim lottery and on January 6th I received an email that made me start sweating like a functional heroine addict at work on a Monday. "Congratulations! Your Name is Selected for 2014 GCBS 4.4 Swim Entry. Please Proceed." Please proceed with what? Shaking? Vomiting? Curling-up in a ball in the bathtub and weeping like the dad from Say Anything?

The "proceed" part was about actually signing-up for the race which was their way of saying, "are you sure you really want to do this?" Apparently I did because I plunked-down my somewhat hefty entry fee and signed on the dotted line. It was five months and two days before the swim. Plenty of time to ramp-up the training but I had done enough swimming at that point to identify my limitations and to recognize I was going to need some help. So I did what any golfer would do in that situation (after changing drivers and putters three times), I hired a coach.

Before we get to the training, however, let's set this up by more clearly defining exactly what my limitations are beginning with the fact that, from a physical standpoint, I am the anti Michael Phelps. Here is the tale of the tape (boxing expression):

"Would you be so kind as to
direct me to the locker room
so I may don my Speedo."
Dimensions: Phelps is 6'4" with the wingspan and torso of a man who is 6'7" which means he has (a) extra pulling power with his arms and (b) relatively shorter legs which give him a stronger kick. The FGR is 5'9" (really more like 5'8" and three quarters) with scrawny arms and legs which seem best suited for sitting and eating a turkey club sandwich. ADVANTAGE PHELPS.

Hands and Feet: Phelps has huge hands which catch large amounts of water and his size 14 feet act as flippers. The FGR wears a men's small golf glove (cadet small at that) and has size 8.5 feet that barely pivot at the ankle anymore thanks to more sprains than I care to remember . . . mostly from playing basketball, another sport they didn't envision for me while I was on the genetic drawing board. As a result, my progress moving across a pool with a kickboard is barely perceptible . . . kind of like the progress of my writing career. ADVANTAGE PHELPS.

Flexibility: Phelps is double-jointed which means he has a far greater range of motion with his arms and legs than the average person. The FGR is single-jointed and I've reached the point where at least 50% of my back is inaccessible with my own hands meaning I can no longer do my own manscaping. ADVANTAGE FGR (because screw range of motion, double-jointed people are creepy).

On top of all of those limitations, I am also not blessed with what many people refer to as "great physical strength" which tends to come in handy when trying to pull your body through water. To the extent that I am good at any sports, it's because I have decent hand-eye coordination and a deep subconscious and irrational belief that I am better than everybody at everything. Based on my size, the word "Napoleonic" might come to mind and I'd be hard-pressed to fight you on that one (though I'm confident I'd win if it came to that).

So that is what I presented to my new swimming coach (we'll call her "Annie" because her name is "Annie") - a man of slightly below average size with way below average sized extremities, poor flexibility and no chance in hell of bench pressing his own weight even once. And those are just the physical limitations she could detect after observing one lap. It would take several more sessions for her to appreciate the full package including the short attention span, the reluctance to follow directions and the complete inability to ever just "let it go."

I will admit that not every passing swimmer
was necessarily an unwelcome distraction.
In between twice a month training sessions with Annie, I would swim three to four days per week at the staph infection factory that is the indoor pool at the small college near my house. Training at a pool frequented by a lot of dedicated swimmers can be a humbling experience because, unlike going for a long run and getting passed by a faster runner one time, a faster swimmer passes you over and over and over and over again and each passing comes as a not so subtle reminder that "you sir are slow." You just need to remember that (a) the guy blowing by you is twenty years younger than you are, (b) he's probably wasted his whole life in a pool training to be a swimmer while you've wasted your whole life practicing to be above average at a variety of sports and (c) you are in it for the long . . . holy shit where in the hell did that old lady come from? Who is she . . . Ryan Lochte's freakin' grandmother? Oh the demoralization.

When you finally settle down to the point where you can ignore the other swimmers, your mind wanders all over the place - from work to family to whether you remembered to re-sequence your Netflix queue which is good because it distracts you from uncomfortable thoughts like, "is the fart bubble that's rolling around in my Speedo visible to all of the moms on the bleachers watching their kids take swimming lessons?" (Swimming Tip: always try to fart right before a turn because it presents the best chance for a full release). Other similarly troubling thoughts are "what if someone dropped a running hair dryer in here?", "is the top of my crack showing?" and "is everybody pointing and laughing at me?"

At some point when training for an outdoor swim, you need to leave the relative comfort of the indoor pool and actually swim in the open water. When you live in Maryland, you have a myriad of choices for swimming venues ranging from rivers to lakes to reservoirs and even Baltimore Harbor if you don't think the HAZMAT suit will be too cumbersome. The obstacle is that you really shouldn't go swim a couple miles in a river by yourself which means that you need to find some swimming buddies. Unfortunately, I've spent the past twenty years accumulating golf buddies, none of whom could swim to the bottom of the country club pool to retrieve their car keys as far as I can tell. So short of asking the FGW to get in a rowboat and follow-me, I was at a bit of a loss for outdoor training opportunities.

Then a few weeks ago I caught a bit of a break as I met a guy swimming in the lane next to me who invited me to join a group that gathers periodically to swim outside. (One of the rare times when breaking my rule against making small talk with strangers paid off). Next thing I know I'm on a mailing list for swimming fanatics who gather several times a week with volunteer kayakers to keep an eye on them. Perfect. The final piece of my training puzzle had fallen into place . . . or so I thought.

"I swam the 50 freestyle at the 1990
Pan Am Games . . . yeah that's it."
My first encounter with the swimming fanatics was at a river with the goal of going out and back for a mile and a half. Bear in mind that I had never met these people and my only communication with them was a couple of emails where I validated my ability to keep a respectable pace (I may have taken a few liberties with that one). When I arrived, brief introductions were made, we threw-on our wetsuits and in we went. The woman who ran the group and appeared to be in her sixties agreed to swim with me and "keep an eye on me" which was good because if we had been a herd of antelope being chased by a cheetah, I would have been dinner.

I have experienced all different varieties of tired. Two a day lacrosse practice in the heat tired. Last three miles of a marathon tired. Two week trial where you're making your case up as you go along because you have no idea what you're doing tired. And of course, three day bender tired but on this particular evening, I found a new kind of tired. Swimming with a bunch of strangers and being the anchor tired. When we made the turn, I was gassed from trying to keep-up and it was clear that I was expending twice as much energy as the next slowest swimmer. When they stopped to regroup on the way back, I just kept going to build a cushion which quickly evaporated. It was clear that I was in over my head (pun intended) and that this was going to do nothing for my confidence. I was either going to have to learn to swim faster or abandon this particular group. I chose the latter because with only three weeks until the race, it was no time to take the honorable Ned Stark route and face a similar fate (guess who finally just started watching Game of Thrones?). It was time to cut and run.

So for the past couple of weeks it's been back to the pool but, with the thankful arrival of Memorial Day, at least I've been able to escape the Turkish baths and swim outside. I've devoted my time to breaking-in the new wetsuit and convincing myself that this is doable for me. I've solicited advice from multiple sources on everything from course strategy to where to park. At this point there's really nothing left to do but try to get a good night's sleep (yeah right) and then walk into the Bay tomorrow morning and start swimming. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to spend a few minutes in the bathtub chewing on my nails.

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