going the distance…

I spent this morning in the ocean with some coaches, getting tips on my long-distance swimming.  I’m new at this, so I had a lot to learn, and it was incredibly generous of these folks to offer their time to help me.  It was arranged via the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), for disabled athletes who are preparing for triathlons and need open-water swim skills.*  This is the first time that I’ve worked with CAF and it was an interesting experience.

First of all, I want to emphasize how appreciative I am of the experience and how responsive the coaches were with me, not knowing me beforehand or being confident of my swimming ability (and, I did choke a few times out there–I’ve never tried to swim for distance in the open water and it was tougher than I thought it would be).

What made me feel the best was when the coaches critiqued what I was doing and challenged me to do better, rather than when they took it easy on me.  For example, for the first 30 minutes or so I simply couldn’t get my head in the water–it was so cold that every time the water closed around my ears I couldn’t breathe.  It was probably partly from the temperature and partly from my own nervousness at ‘seeing’ what was underneath me with my goggles on (I never really want to know what’s down there) that I struggled with this.  And there was also an element of fear because I didn’t know how to swim straight with my head in the water–how was I supposed to see the turn buoys up ahead and aim for them?  But one of the coaches helped me to focus on bringing warm air into my sinuses before I rolled my face into the water, and blowing that out more actively which each stroke rather than holding my breath.  By doing that I was finally able to get my head in and make progress (it was also much less exhausting than trying to stroke with my head out of the water).  And, by the time two hours had passed, I’d put in some really good laps out on the water and had improved markedly.  By the end it was pretty easy to swim the length of the Newport jetty and back.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned from the experience: if I’m going to spend a lot of time in the water I’m going to need a wetsuit (despite my confidence that I already spend enough time in the ocean that I’m acclimated to the cold water temperature).  It took more than an hour after I returned home to get warmed up again after my time out there–my fingers and toes were still numb long after the rest of me was thawed out.  I’d also like to find a swimming buddy who wants to make a habit of early-morning ocean swims.  Once I have a wetsuit I could imagine that this would become an important part of my training regimen.

And finally:  as I was walking back through the waves to the beach (and struggling a bit to get my feet under me in the shifting sand), one of the coaches scolded me a bit:

“Never turn your back on the ocean,”  she explained.

I realized in that moment that I had no fear of the waves coming up behind me.  I laughed it off–telling her that if I fell in, there was hardly any damage done (I was already cold and wet).  And while I’m sure her advice was sound and I should keep it in mind for times that I’m alone, but I like the surprise (or anticipation) that comes from letting the ocean pummel me a bit.  I rarely feel more alive than when I’m being rocked to and fro by the rhythms of the water…

*I’m not necessarily prepping for a triathlon, but I am in the midst of setting some ambitious athletic goals and this morning’s swim was part of that process.