Monday, April 11, 2016

one hundred thousand yards

I love to swim.  It's a fact of my life, a big ol' no duh right up there with the sky is blue and the grass is green and double stuf oreos are goddamn delicious and I certainly don't need to rehash my love for it here, yet again.  When I first got hurt, it broke my heart that swimming was at the top of the long list of things I couldn't do.  But a physical therapist gently suggested that I try a buoy and to quit dicking around with open turns, and it came back.  Slowly.  With all the gear at first; paddles + buoy has always been my favorite combo of toys (hashtag triathletes), I love the feeling of shoving water back with so much strength and power.  So I happily pulled myself bonkers for weeks.  It was something that I could do, running was off-and-on and riding was firmly scrapped, but I could swim twenty minutes easy.  That calmed my brain.  It helped, at times it felt like that twenty minutes was the only time during the day that I got a break, swimming was the glue holding me together through so many long weeks of pain and setbacks and insomnia and general life bullshit.
It's probably not surprising that once I decided on the "wake up and see what my body feels like doing today" plan, almost every day, it felt like swimming.  I dug through my coaching library and pulled out 15-20 of my favorite workouts to swim through (and realized in doing so, as I snippily said on the Facebook, that I am a jackass).  Some days were just that simple twenty minutes easy, but in the middle of March I realized that I had been in the water every day that month and, as we type-A OCD overachievers do, decided I would see if I could keep it up.  In the end, I missed two days.  The day after I got my third round of prolotherapy was one because apparently public pools and slightly open wounds aren't a good mix, the other was a day where I was dealing with some personal stuff and just bagged it.
In February and March, I ran a swim challenge with my athletes, and let them know that I would log along with them just for fun.  It ended up being an awesome two months, the overly-competitive ones talked trash and flopped and chased each other down, and some of them have made ENORMOUS strides in their fitness.  I've learned from my own experience and across dozens of athletes over the years not to mention because every coach in the world says the same thing: there's a lot to be said for watching & making small refinements to technique but for most, the fastest way to improve as a swimmer is to just swim more.  When I first moved to Colorado, I joined masters in Boulder.  After a few weeks, I worked up the courage to ask one of the coaches if he had any advice or technique tips for me.  His response was, hilariously, Actually, I have no idea how you swim as fast as you do looking the way you do right now so maybe you should just leave it alone.  I asked another (slightly nicer) coach the same question, and he took me through the little things that we all go through, but he told me, swim every day.  Maybe only for fifteen to twenty minutes, but do it often, work on technique, keep it easy, and then have patience, wait, let it come.  I spent five or six months squeezing in swims wherever I could, it actually doesn't take that long to swim twenty minutes if you don't care what your hair looks like the rest of the day or that you will smell like chlorine literally all of the time.  Since then, it's been a habit, part of the rhythm of my life, I don't even think about it, I just do it.  
March.  I swam all but two days.  I swam 102993 yards (because some swims were in a meter pool but I keep track in yards).  I can confidently say, even without digging through TrainingPeaks, that this was the biggest month I've ever had in the water.  My longest swim was 6400 yards, my shortest swim was the handful of twenty minute/1200 yard flops that are how I fill up extra time between teaching classes or appointments or whatever down in Boulder.  And it never got old.  I never got tired of the water and if I didn't this month, I'm not sure I ever will, the peace of counting strokes and letting my mind empty, letting stress drain away, it's the meditation Arianna Huffington mentioned in passing.  I can't seem to lay still and meditate but release me into the water and the doors blow open in my mind.  I went through at least five swimsuits, I would guess that at least 50% of it was done with a pull buoy, my hair has lightened a half dozen shades, I busted two swim caps and three pairs of goggles (to be fair I haven't bought any new swim gear in about seven months), I went through an entire tube of lotion in my swim bag and had to buy the stuff for my face marked For Extra Dry Skin.  I started going to the early Monday morning masters workout again and hopped back right in the "fast lane," belligerent, I was going to swim with my friends whether I belonged there or not (see: jackass).  And with paddles on, I was fine, I felt invincible, I didn't get dropped, there was light in movement again, laughter and snarky comments and quoting 80s movies and no one is allowed to say fuck before 7am, it was so familiar, it was the comfort that I desperately needed.  I finally got tired of pulling (who knew?), I tentatively started leaving all the toys behind as often as I could, hanging onto the monster draft, careful, every twinge down my back setting off clanging alarm bells.  But once I realized that most of those were actually just the tag in my bikini bottoms, I found out that maybe I could feel strong again.  And on the last day of the month, I swam a 400 and a 200 for time.  The 400 was cautious, I had no idea to expect, but when I saw the 200 split I went for it, it wasn't a 400 PR but I had texted some girlfriends before getting in the water and said fuck it here are the times I'm going after and I hit the 400 on the nail.  Laughed, pretty hard, at least I know myself a little.  Worked through some recovery yardage and then absolutely dumped it into the 200, and when I got to the wall and touched, looked, I had swam the fastest 200 of my life.  By four seconds.

The little shit, the training dallies, it's not what matters to me as an athlete - and no judgement to anyone for whom it does.  The only reason I know how many yards I swam last month is because of the swim challenge, I had to spend fifteen minutes digging through my log to find my fastest 200 once I got home from the pool, and even once I did, it was just...information.  I'm not someone who obsesses over my bike split, or my finish times, or how many miles I run how fast.  I haven't had a pace field on my watch for years, the times I've been given a workout with paces in it I would either grumpily add another screen to my Garmin while standing in my driveway or run by feel and find out how close I was when the auto-lap went off (sorry not sorry, as the kids say).  It just isn't important information to carry around in my brain. But to move again, the indescribable and incomparable feeling of pushing myself over the water, fluid and graceful and strong, that is what I need and most of the time it is all that I need.  Just every once in a while.  To taste again why I love this sport so much, the art of movement as a friend used to call it, that's why I'm here.  That's why, in part, we're all here.  I'm not a pro, I'll never be a pro, I have no secret daydreams of the olympics or racing professionally or getting my face on a Wheaties box, even if I did have the physical ability - which I obviously do not - I think that my attitude would be the same.  And if all I got out of a month of swimming my brains out was just over two minutes of that feeling in the pool, it was absolutely goddamn worth it.  It always is.
As soon as I got out of the water, I realized that something in my back had shifted or rotated or gotten stuck or wedged or whatever the fuck happens back there, and as the day went on, things got more inflamed and irritated and I will absolutely admit that I ended up having a total meltdown about it.  Because if two minutes of hard swimming is my undoing, how am I ever going to race again?  Or even train or move or walk?  But another day passed, the pain receded a little as I kept doing all the physical things I know to do to try and help my body create and remember new patterns. As it started to calm down, I came to the realization that reacting so strongly was driven not quite so much by pain but by fear.  Now that I'm healing - not yet, healed - I'm terrified of starting over.  I'm terrified of doing anything that's going to take me all the way back to December 30th when I paused for a second and realized that my back was "out" - which is a colloquial way to put it & likely makes any physical therapist bored enough to read this far cringe and click away.  I'm terrified of having to figure out how be strong enough to go through all this again.  I certainly don't enjoy feeling like a disaster but if there is something such as a valid yet irrational fear, this is it.  But I bumped over that setback and I'm hopeful that those will come more infrequently and with less drama as the weeks continue to pass.  And this is for no other reason than I like my pants.
Despite all of that, I do feel like I'm starting to find my footing again.  Just a little.  I don't feel confident about it, I feel tentative, I don't trust my body, I can't right now.  Another one of the races I signed up for way back in December is about to roll through, the New Orleans 70.3.  It's obviously one of my favorites and I've been avoiding thinking about how I would feel to not race it this year.  But I'm going, regardless of if or how much I participate in the day, because I'm far more excited about the large group of athletes that I have coming in to race.  They all chose this last summer as the first team race of the year and without exception, every single one has been training his or her ass off all winter.  I'm pumped to be there while they go explore the limits of their fitness for the first time this season, especially as I think more than a few of them are going to be surprised with what they find.  Some of them have been with me for years, some are fairly new, but all are tremendously awesome people and there is no way I would skip out on a chance to support them live.  
I know how it feels, to train through all the dark, cold, lonely months, to put in the work, day after day, when races seem so tiny and far away, off in the future somewhere.  To work the trainer rides, to be patient with heart rate, to get in the pool in the dark when it's freezing and you'd much rather eat cookies in your sweatpants, to recover and work and recover again.  I also know how it feels to show up at an early season race feeling quietly confident, strong, ready.  This year, that isn't me, and that's okay.  That's not my story this time, but it's better, different, to be there for them instead.  And it's New Orleans, it's drinks with umbrellas and piano bars and jazz festival, it's humidity and sunscreen and it'll be blowing with wind, it's being able to immerse myself into the sweaty and slightly damp mess of triathletes on race morning, I'll wear seven pairs of running shorts in four days, I'll get to spend time with people that make my heart happy; both the city and the race, it's one of my favorite places to be.  I know that whether or not I'm standing on the line myself, simply being there will be good for my soul.  Because after everything I've been through, I still want to be there.  If I am not racing or what would actually be simply participating, I won't feel jealous or sad about it, because my time will come around again.  I might not be confident about anything right now as an athlete, the way I'm feeling or how I'm training or where I'm going, but I am finally certain about this: I will be back.