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Friday, October 21, 2011

Swimming

   When I was much younger, probably 8 or 9, my mother signed my sister and I up for Red Cross swim lessons.  My sister moved up a level or two right off the bat, and was recruited for the high school swim team.  On the other hand, I was moved back a level, despite having grown up playing in our backyard pool.  Yes, my swimming career began with getting held back.  Shocker.  I eventually learned how to swim a lap, dive a little, tread water, retrieve stuff from the bottom of the deep end, and do some other water-related tasks, and by the end of swim lessons, they actually allowed me to pass levels 6 and 7 in one shot.  I did, however, have a few years on the other kids in class with me.  When I was 12, after a fairly successful first modified cross country season, I wanted to participate in a winter sport, so I ended up joining the Penfield Sea Dragons swim club.  I thought that running success might equate to swimming success- I had some lung capacity, right?  Unfortunately for me, it didn't work that way.  I competed and I tried, but I was certainly no natural born swimmer.  The season culminated at the "C" meet- for those that didn't meet the "A" or "B" standards.  I won a couple of ribbons at that meet; so, amongst the worst swimmers, I was slightly better than mediocre.  Awesome.  For whatever reason, the puffy painted flag with pins signifying our best performances still hangs in my childhood bedroom.  There,  proudly displayed are my pins proclaiming my first ever 50 free, swam in 48 seconds, and my best 100 free that year, a blazing 1:37.  Not surprisingly, I stuck with running.  I'd tried swimming, and that was enough for me.  Or so I thought.

   Fast forward about 11 years, and I found myself in my orthopedist's office, where he was telling me that behind my ailing hip was an ischial tuberosity (the sit bone, or, as I often so delicately put it, ass) fracture.  No running for 12 weeks, I was told, certainly a tough pill for me to swallow, after having been in the best running shape of my life just a few months prior.  "Can I bike?",  I'd asked.  He replied yes.  "Can I swim?", I'd added, figuring that I'd get sick of just biking all that time.  Another affirmative response.  Shortly afterwards, I found myself typing "triathlons, Rochester, NY" into the Google searchbar on my computer.  The Finger Lakes Triathlon sat off in the future, 14 weeks after I'd been told not to run for 12.  My body would remember how to run; I was learning how to ride a road bike on our $250 Walmart purchase.  But, could I swim 1500m without drowning or entirely embarrassing myself?  On a whim, I'd done the JCC Indoor Triathlon that winter, where I'd swam something like 800 yards in 15 minutes, after two brief sessions in the pool for training.  I hadn't gone in the water since that time.  So, I was off to the pool.  That first day, I hopped in and swam 1700 yards, roughly equivalent to 1500m.  I  struggled and gasped for air, but 33 minutes later, I hadn't stopped.  Several hours later, after determining that a 33 minute swim wouldn't leave me in last out of the water, I was officially registered for the Finger Lakes triathlon.

   Improvements come quickly and easily when you're just taking something up again, and that was how it was for me that first summer.  It helped that I couldn't run; I had more time to swim.  I bought myself a "Swim Workouts for Triathletes" book, and followed it religiously.  At Finger Lakes, despite horrible nerves, a panic-ridden start, and the discovery of my tendency to pull right, I still found myself in the top 10 out of the water.  After that race, despite returning to running, I decided that I'd keep up with swimming.  I knew that more triathlons would be in my future, and I also knew that I never wanted swimming to feel as awful as it had those first 1700 yards in the JCC pool.  The 2010 season rolled around, and despite continually dropping pool times, my open water times remained about the same.  Still, every woman who beat me that season did so by more than the margin of just our swim times, and overall, I was still placing lower on the bike.

   Thus, 2011 began by upgrading the bike in a big way, and putting my focus on that.  Plus, I was still faster in the pool than I had been a year ago, so I figured that the open water performances would follow.  Two races into the season, my swim performances had been mediocre, but I still hadn't lost to a female by swim time margin.  That changed at the Tri in the Buff, but I used the fever I'd been running all week as an excuse not to worry about it.  I then swam slower at Musselman than I had the year before; it ended up not hurting me overall, so I used the morning chop on the water as an excuse not to worry about it.  Then, I stopped improving in the pool.  I started to worry about it a bit, especially given that my bike splits continued to improve (thanks, Gray race wheels!).  Then came age group nationals.  My swim there was nothing short of a small disaster.  I came out of the water in over 27 minutes after sighting horribly, getting run over by later waves, and generally losing my focus.  I'd swam faster cooldowns in the pool.  I'd never swam more slowly in an Olympic distance race.  Mentally, it took me over five miles on the bike before I was able to put it behind me, recover, and will myself back in the race.  As per usual, I analyzed splits afterwards, and discovered that of the 16 women that had defeated me, 14 had done so by less than the margin of difference between our swim splits.  I outswam exactly 4 out of the top 100 women, and 1 out of the top 50.

    Frustrated, I tried changing up my pool workouts.  I tried to self-diagnose what I was doing wrong.  I probably started swimming differently; I started thinking too much.  70.3 Worlds came, and I again swam worse.  I pulled left, for the first time in my life.  There, I had 69.1 miles to make up for it, but my performance in the water still cost me the overall amateur title.  Swimming has hit a standstill for me, and I know that it's time to revamp.  As disenchanted as I am, I've managed not to obsess this past month, and I've been able to use my swims more as recovery workouts after marathon training runs.  Soon enough, I'll be working with a kick-ass coach who can't wait to get her hands on my swimming (or so it seems), and I'm clinging to the hope that I have an obvious yet easily amended form flaw that's holding me back.  I know, though, that it won't be that easy; if my Sea Dragons days told me anything, it's that swimming is not amongst my natural talents.  But, I'll have a winter to work on it, and I have a good feeling that some guidance will be the key to getting me back on track.  Most of all, I just want to find some enjoyment in swimming.  Right now, I'm either unhappy in the water because I'm killing myself, wheezing and flailing, in order to hit splits that are even remotely respectable (by my standards), or I'm comfortable but slow.  Although half-ironman and ironman distance races aren't swim-heavy, I may be at a point where I can't get away with coasting through the water, expecting to be able to make it up on the bike and run without totally embarrassing myself in the nearish future.  I don't expect miracles, but I do expect more of myself, and in a couple of weeks, I'll be ready to start tackling those demons!

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