Mar 022016
 

Each weekday morning I go to the swimming pool to, well, swim.  I usually swim three miles, which takes me about an hour and a half. The lanes at my pool are 25 yards long. It takes 5,250 of these yards to make a three mile swim. That's 105 laps, a lap being down to the end and back. Often I get in the water and swim non-stop. Now many of my fellow swimmers swim faster than me, but not many swim longer or farther. I catch views of others as I swim. Many do a few laps and then hang on the sides of the pool talking. Many of them spend more time talking in the water than swimming in it. When I observe this, I feel proud to be such a dedicated swimmer.

New Yorker swimming pool coverThese are my fellow swimmers. But there are a lot of others taking up water space in the pool who are not swimmers. I call them the splashers. They get in the water to wade, chat, clap, bounce, float, splash, act silly, and dance around. Often they do these things in groups and with an overweight leader, and to loud and lively music. I think they pay money to join these groups, and they probably imagine they're getting in shape by doing this. From the looks of most of them, they have a long way to go. The New Yorker captured this phenomenon in a recent cover illustration. Count the number of individuals who are actually swimming, despite the inspirational image on the front wall. (click to enlarge the picture and better appreciate)

The men's locker room at our pool is a communal place. There are no privacy curtains or individual shower stalls. We dress and undress and shower together; we hear and overhear conversations; we may not speak with others, but we do hear and observe things.

On morning I was there getting dressed and I heard loud panting and wheezing. I looked around the corner and there was a large, overweight, out-of-shape man trying to put on his clothes. Even putting on socks was a great effort for him. His breathing was so labored that I wondered how he could swim at all. Lazy bastard! I imagined him lounging on the sofa, watching TV, and eating potato chips and ice cream and drinking beer. I assumed he was one of the splashers. Why did he even bother coming here?

Then some days later I was in the locker room and heard the same panting and wheezing. It was unmistakeable. Him again.

Then the man began talking with another man. His talking was labored, interspersed with the panting and wheezing. But I listened because the conversation was unexpected and startling, and it ended up making me feel ashamed.

The man explained about his brain surgery, and almost dying, and now he has all these health problems, including the loss of his short term memory. He apologized for making so much noise. And I felt like apologizing for my recent thoughts.

The next time I had a chance, I introduced myself to this man. He explained the same things to me about his surgery and his struggles. He once had had a good job, he said. Meaning he once had been normal like the rest of us. The surgery had taken all of his savings, he said. And I said that was too bad and I was sorry. But he smiled and said it was alright, as if to sooth my feelings. He said he was thankful he had the money, and it was worth every penny.

I learned that he is not a splasher after all. He does try to swim, though not very fast or very far. He does what he can.

And I was greatly shamed by this, because my health is mostly good, and my savings are unspent on brain surgery, and I do not struggle to put on socks. I sensed that although I may swim fifteen miles in a week, this man's effort is greater than mine.

I've spoken with him several times since then. And what I've learned is that he is grateful for the life he has, and does not wish to be pitied. 

When men leave the locker room at our pool, friends say: "have a good day." And when we say this to the brain surgery man, he always has the same reply. He says, every day is a good day.

So how do you explain the fact that with all his pain and misfortune, this man lives with more gratitude than most of us do?

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May 212015
 

When I was a boy and aspiring to become a man, I spent most of my summers at Boy Scout camp. For me, this was Camp Pellissippi on Norris Lake in East Tennessee. I began as a regular camper and later became a camp counselor and handicrafts instructor. I was also the camp bugler. I played Reveille to get them up, Assembly to form them into rows before the flag, and Mess Call to bring them to meals. Other calls sounded throughout the day, and Taps was played at the end, when they were obliged to go to sleep.

The highlight of my week at camp was the Saturday morning swim meet down on the waterfront. We swam in the lake, but mostly inside a floating wooden "crib" as it was called. Wooden boards formed the side walls and bottom of the crib, and it was supported in the water by empty oil drums. Water from the lake circulated freely in and out. It was much like a regular swimming pool, having diving boards, walkways, ladders, and life guards. The crib was attached to shore and held in place with cables, and these were adjusted as the lake level rose or fell.

My favorite swim meet event was the underwater swim. The goal was to swim farther underwater than anyone else. Those entered went one at a time and the order was determined by drawing straws or guessing a number or something similar. I became good at swimming distances underwater. I learned how to hyperventilate and store up oxygen in my system, and how to dive in with lungs full and exhale most grudgingly. Another camper was good as well, and one or the other of us always won the event. Often it came down to the order. If he went first, I had the advantage of knowing just how far I needed to go to beat him. If I went first, this advantage was his.

One memorable Saturday, I had to go first. I went through my breathing routine and dove in. I swam down to the end, came back, went down again, came back, turned and went part way and came up. His turn. He went down to the end, came back, went down again, came back, turned and started but didn't come up. Instead a lot of bubbles came up and he stayed down. The life guards dove in and pulled him out, and he coughed up water but soon was okay. We were both pretty serious about winning this event.

Pool signI'm reminded of those days when I go to my pool in Germantown, Maryland, and observe the dire warning about swimming underwater. I can only guess that no underwater swimming events are held at Boy Scout camps these days. In fact, I heard the other day that the Scouts have banned water guns at scouting activities. Apparently as a concession, they still allow the throwing of water balloons, but only those filled to the size of a tennis ball.

Nearby in Silver Spring, the police have picked up children for walking to school or to the neighborhood park without adult supervision, and their parents have been investigated by child protective services for suspected abuse or neglect. 

In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there is a beautiful swimming hole at "The Y" on the road into the park from Townsend, Tennessee. For generations, young boys have climbed up the rocks and practiced diving into those mountain waters. Young girls and older people used to gather along the bank on the other side and watch. The braver boys climbed up higher and made a bigger splash. Recently the Park Service has banned this activity and put up a sign warning of consequences if you do it and get caught. 

I know that there is more risk of my getting hurt from riding my bicycle than from sitting on the sofa watching daytime television, but I would like the choice to be mine, not someone else's. I know that going out in my kayak is more dangerous than shopping at the Safeway, but don't tell me I can't go out. Indeed there are activities whose risks I would not assume: skydiving, BASE jumping, ice climbing, scuba dive cave exploring, and others often termed "extreme." But I would hate to see us tell those people, no, they must not do those things. Or children walking to and from school. Or swimmers swimming underwater.

I would rather live in a land of the free.

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Jun 092014
 

Today was my fourth completion of 4.4 mile Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. I’ve described this event is previous articles and won’t repeat the details here, except to say that it continues to be, for me, a thrilling and satisfying thing to do.

Other people do not always understand this.

Bay Swim rescue boat with swimmerI came out of the water near a woman who told me that she thought she may have saved someone’s life during the swim. A man near her was suddenly in distress and she motioned for help and assisted in getting him into the boat. This event has something like 80 boats standing by to assist if needed, so help is never far away from anyone. Sadly, we later learned that the swimmer’s distress was due to a heart attack and despite the emergency responders’ efforts he was dead on arrival at the hospital.

Robert Matysek from Bay SwimsHis name was Robert Matysek and he was 58 years old. A native of nearby Baltimore, he came from his home in South Carolina to attempt this swim for the 20th time. Several of his family members were also swimming. His family testified that “This weekend was always like Christmas, Fourth of July, and his birthday all rolled into one. He passed doing one of the things he truly loved.”

I was reminded of my East Tennessee hometown days. One of our local physicians loved the hike to Mt. LeConte in the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He had a ritual of making this hike on New Year’s Day with friends and family members. He had done is for years, when one year he had a heart attack and died on the trail. “He passed doing one of the things he truly loved.”

A high school classmate of mine started and owned a large and successful business. But his passion is hiking and climbing mountains in the Sierras. That is the thing he truly loves.

A few weeks ago I did an open water swim across the Tred Avon River from Oxford, Maryland. The distance across the river was only a mile. But “only” is a relative term. As the group of us were walking along the street in Oxford to begin the swim, we passed some local residents standing in a yard and eyeing us curiously. One of them solemnly pronounced: “You people are crazy.”

“Crazy” is also relative. Diana Nyad, who swam from Cuba to Florida, sounds crazy to some. NFL linebackers and Navy Seals and skydivers and Mt. Everest climbers are only a few of those whose passions are far out of line with those of “normal” people. Just riding a motorcycle is judged to be crazy in some estimations. Riding one is okay with others, but riding without a helmet is not, or riding one up steep rocky hillsides is crazy. All is relative, and we each make up our own minds about adjusting the balance of risk and reward.

I do take risks, but not unmeasured ones. I drive my car carefully and avoid crazy drivers if I can. I get health checkups. I do not want my life ended by doing something stupid if I can help it. I started preparing myself to swim across the Chesapeake Bay in early January and kept at it religiously. Robert Matysek had also prepared, being a veteran of this event. He had completed a demanding open water swim in South Carolina just weeks before.

The bay swim was tough for me this year, tough as always. It took me almost three hours to finish. The waves kept pounding in my face and I swallowed no telling how much bay water. Toward the end, where you have to turn directly toward the incoming tide flow I could barely make progress to get past the bridge and around the jetty to the finish. I finished in position 551 out of the 628 of us who started.

I may never do better than this, but I will likely keep trying.  It’s like Christmas and July 4th and my birthday all rolled into one.

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Sep 172013
 

Continuing to pursue my passion for open water swimming, I will be joining a group of eleven swimmers for a week of swimming in Sardinia starting this Saturday September 21st.

Sardinia swim mapThe northern tip of Sardinia on the mainland Italy side has an archipelago called La Maddalena. Its largest island and city share the same name, and this will be our headquarters. Each day we will be going out to swim to and from and around the various islands nearby. We will have local guides and escort boats. We will be swimming about 13 miles total during the week. Needless to say, I am looking forward to this adventure.

The Mediterranean Sea is said to be clear and teeming with sea life around these islands. I have purchased a small waterproof camera to carry on some of the swims and hopefully get some interesting shots from a swimmer perspective, as well as underwater.  Expect a future post describing this swimming trek.

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Jun 102013
 

The 2013 Great Chesapeake Bay Swim was held for the 22nd consecutive time yesterday, despite threatening weather and weather-related complications. Because of recent storms and flood runoff, the county health department had issued a water quality advisory which apparently caused registered 34 swimmers to stay home.  616 of us were not deterred, and 572 completed the swim. Due mainly to the strong  currents, 44 of the starting swimmers were not able to finish the 4.4 miles. These get picked up by the attending power boats and transported to the finish. Despite the qualifications needed to get into the event, there are always a few swimmers who start out and then pull out, but 44 was an unusually large number. My finishing time of 3 hours and 4 minutes was disappointing, although it was enough to win my age group.  It was 24 minutes slower than my time last year, which I would not have guessed because the swim felt strong and fast to me.

I’ve thought a lot about the 44 swimmers who did not complete the swim. There are no casual entries in the bay swim. Each of these people made a decision to enter back in December. They were picked from a lottery with 1200 entries. In January they were notified that they were eligible for the swim and they paid a $250 entry fee which was non-refundable after April 15. We can assume that for the prior months they had trained hard to be ready for this event, putting in countless miles and pushing to increase their speed and endurance. And we can assume that no swimmer stands on the Sandy Point beach waiting for the starting gun but planning to just swim out for part of the distance and then signal to be picked up and have a boat ride to the far shore. No, every swimmer fiercely intends to complete the 4.4 miles, and on this day a large number were unable to make it.

bay bridge swim logoThe main challenge I personally encountered was the wind blowing from the south. I am one of those freestyle swimmers who breathe on the right side after every stroke. In the past I have tried to learn bilateral breathing, but have never succeeded. In yesterday’s swim there were waves coming toward my face every time I tried to get a breath. Often I got a mouthful of water instead of a breath. I began needing to roll further toward my left side and point my face more upward in order to breath reliably.  This took extra effort and modifying my stroke. I assume this and the currents accounted for my slower overall time.

In Tennessee where I was raised, we had an expression for something that produced a mixture of pleasure and pain. We said that it “hurt good.” Even after sleeping nearly 12 hours last night, every bone and muscle seemed to complain loudly this morning. I groaned every time I moved. And yet it was satisfying because it represented a good effort. It hurt good.

Chesapeake Bay BridgeThis was my 4th Chesapeake Bay Swim. Although familiar, it is still an extraordinary event. I would even say inspiring. Some 700 volunteers run the event to perfection. On the water there are 25 Coast Guard vessels, another 55 private power boats, and some 50 kayaks all keeping watch and standing by to help if needed. We swimmers get an awesome view of the majestic bay bridge overhead. The welcoming crowd on the far shore lifts you up. Everyone is so friendly and supportive.

After I was called up for my age group award, a young man congratulated me and told me he was much more impressed with the accomplishment of the older swimmers than with those his own age.

I am definitely an older swimmer, aged 76 the day of the swim.

Why would someone my age want to swim across the Chesapeake Bay?  Hey, some people my age are settled retirement centers, sitting around and taking life easy, watching daytime TV and playing cards. 

I had a dear professor friend named Clyde Francisco. Clyde loved to play golf. One day we were playing with friends on a course that was part of a gated retirement community. We were walking down the fairway when chimes started playing, of all things, “Nearer my God to Thee.” Clyde looked at me and I looked at him. There was a sarcastic twinkle in his eye and a little smile playing around his lips. And he said to me, seriously, “You know, Ed, this life may be good for some people, but not for me. I want to be out doing things in the real world and not cooped up with a bunch of old people just passing the time.”

There’s another Tennessee saying for this. “I’d rather burn out than rust out.”

My sentiments exactly. 

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Jun 032013
 

The Bay Swim is just a week away now. I am in the tapering stage of preparation.  Last week I swam 6 miles instead of the usual 8.  This week I will do several short swims just to stay in rhythm and keep the feel of the water and my wetsuit. The Bay Swim starts two hours earlier this year. We get away at 8am instead of 10. I like the earlier start, as the winds tend to be calmer then. My main hope for the day is calm winds and waves. If there has to be wind, let it be from the west and not in our faces from the east.

I have tried a different training routine this year.  I started intensive training just 4 months ago instead of 6, and I have been putting in 8 mile weeks instead of 10. But I have also been doing more hard sprints and longer distance swims.  Most weeks I only swam 3 times, but I did many 3-mile swims and lots of intervals.  A month ago I began doing 4-mile swims, usually 2 per week.  I have been working harder on speed and having some success. Hopefully I am ready.

Mental preparation is also important, I think. Since we mainly swim between the spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, I have continued to study the bridge and memorize it. I screen captured it from overhead using Google Earth, and marked the 4.4 miles in sections relative to the bridge. I think it helps to divide the swim into sections and to be able to follow my progress and anticipate the distances remaining. (click on the image to enlarge)

The first mile goes from the beach out and under the north span and down to the big curve where the bridges are straight for the rest of the way. The second mile goes across the main shipping channel to the second huge pillar that holds up the highest point of the roadways above. The third mile takes us to the second and lower shipping channel. There begins the fourth mile where we swim along the seemingly endless smaller pillars and watch the cars getting lower and lower overhead. Near the eastern shore we exit on the south side and swim the last tenths of a mile to the finish.

This is the swimmer's view from about mile 3 and looking back to where we came from. You can see the big curve where mile 2 begins in the far distance, and closer on the two huge masonry pillars on the right side. I doubt that I will stop and turn around to take this view, but the views you get all along the way are pretty awesome, as I hope the picture shows.

Reading on the subject of "tapering" in preparation for endurance events is interesting. There is general agreement that tapering is beneficial, but the specific formulas vary greatly. I am being more aggressive about tapering this year. Aggressive meaning I am taking fewer days off during the final week and pushing harder when I do swim.  I am swimming quarter miles (only, despite the temptation to do more) but pushing for speed.  Also I am swimming in my wetsuit in an outdoor 50 meter pool. I expect to do these swims Monday through Friday. After this I will focus on resting and hydrating and trust the process.

Expect a full report on the 2013 swim in about a week.

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May 182013
 

It is not entirely clear that human beings were intended to swim in water. Compared to fish and birds and other swimming animals, we are slow and very limited. Still we, and I, keep trying. Doctors tell us it's great exercise. As a former runner, I know it beats pounding the pavement with my feet, ankles, knees, and hips. 

The earth is covered with a lot of unfrozen water where swimming can take place. There are oceans, bays, rivers, and lakes abundant. But for most of us, swimming takes place in artificial man-made pools filled with clean, filtered water and with life guards watching. There are well marked swim lanes of measured distances and timing clocks to consult. There is a uniformity, a sameness, about swimming in these places, whether indoors or outdoors. I know that in a pool with 25 meter lanes, I need to do 64 lengths, 32 laps, to make a mile. There is no risk of getting lost or off course. Just follow the black line on the bottom of the pool. 

But swimming in the lakes and rivers and oceans is a different matter. And swimming in a tidal river like the Nanticoke on the Eastern Shore of Maryland is especially so. If this account of the 2013 swim is of interest, do read my account of the same Nanticoke swim event from 2012.

As before, the Nanticoke swim begins at a small beach near the marina and starts out along a sea wall to the river. The course is triangular and you swim counter clockwise, staying to the outside of each marker buoy at the corners. We came expecting a three mile swim, which requires swimming around the triangle twice. But when the Coast Guard arrived, they announced that small craft warnings had been posted because of rough conditions which would make swimming difficult if not dangerous. A settlement was negotiated with race officials to allow the swim to go on, but shortened to two miles. Two miles meant swimming out and around the triangle once, and then back to the finish. It also defined a course with five legs which I have numbered on the graphic. 

Nanticoke River Swim 2013 diagramThe first leg was in water mostly protected from the winds and river current. The challenges included starting out with the mass of swimmers in a small space and trying to get use to the unusually cold water, about 61 degrees. The cold water made it hard to breath, and I kept running into other swimmers or having them run into me. I arrived at the first buoy to begin the second leg still struggling.

The second leg was by far the hardest. There was some tidal current in our favor but a terrific wind and breaking waves in our face. Normally in open water you want to swim with your head down as you would in the pool, raising up to check your position about every 6-8 strokes. When I tried to swim like this there were two problems: I was still not getting enough breath, and often times when I tried to breath I got hit in the face by a wave and swallowed salt water instead of breathing air. This put me even further in breathing deficit.  I ended up swimming most of the second leg doing a survival breast stroke and holding my head up to try and anticipate the large waves coming toward me. I knew I was moving slowly but it was the best I could do. I looked forward to the turn into leg three where we would at least be swimming cross-wind and somewhat down wind as well.

I have experienced the effects of wind as both a runner, a swimmer, and a bicyclist. The effects are significant in each of these sports.  One might assume that the wind is more of a factor in biking or running, since you are upright and more exposed to it. One might assume that a swimmer, whose body is mainly beneath the water, would be largely unaffected. This is not the case, and the game changer is the force of moving water. In open water swimming, the wind moves the water and you must deal with that force. If the waves are coming directly toward you and breaking in white caps, water hits you head on and tries to drive you backward. On the other hand, if you are lucky enough to have the wind at your back, and you time your strokes just right, you can actually get a "ride" off of the breaking waves, somewhat like body surfing. If waves are coming from the right and you breath on that side as most of us do, you are facing the waves as you search for a quick breath.  There is much to consider and adjust to in terms of the wind.

I finally made the turn and sighted toward the next buoy far out in the river. Indeed, I was now able to swim normally. But the river had another surprise in store. When I got my next sighting of the buoy it was far to my right.  I was heading straight down the river, parallel to the shore. I corrected and swam more. The next time I sighted the same thing had happened.  I corrected even more and swam harder. What I and other swimmers did not know was that the tidal current was flowing downstream and not upstream in this area. Some later called it a whirlpool. I know I was carried far off a straight course on this leg, but finally I rounded the marker, wondering what lay in store as we headed cross-river toward the finish.

It was not as bad as I feared. I feared that this unpredictable tide would be pushing me off course. But I was able to take a bearing that helped greatly. I sighted a line from an anchored sailboat to some distant houses beyond it.  The sailboat was very close to where I needed to go.  I knew if I stayed on the course of this alignment, I would be heading straight.  This worked out well, and I was able to finish the course rather strongly, probably at about a 30 minute per mile pace. However, my total time for the two miles was an hour and 21 minutes.

I would have hoped to complete this course in an hour or less. Even under these conditions, some younger and stronger swimmers completed in 45 minutes. I was grudgingly happy to have completed it at all. The next day I found myself replaying the course and the conditions and wishing I could do it over and do it better.

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Jan 082013
 

Yesterday I got welcome news. My entry into the lottery for the 2013 Chesapeake Bay Swim was drawn and I am now registered for the swim on Sunday June 9th. Some 1200 of us entered the lottery, and about 700 of us were drawn and allowed to register. This will be my fourth bay swim event. Review my experiences with the 2012 swim here.

bay swim startI ran across some pictures from previous swims.  The upper one shows a typical start from the beach at Sandy Point State Park on the western side of the bay. Do not imagine that I'm one of the mass of bodies surging ahead in the water.  I'm one of those in the back with arms folded, waiting for the crowd to thin out!

The lower picture shows a typical finish from the small beach at Hemingway's Marina on the eastern side of the bay. In between this and the start is 4.4 miles of water and, for me, over two and a half hours of navigating and swimming. In open water swimming, navigation assumes an all-important role, especially given the shifting tides and currents you experience during this crossing.

The start and finish beaches are both outside the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, BaySwim_061310_swimmersbridge2although most of the swimming takes place inside the two great bridge spans.

I am trying a somewhat different training strategy for this year's swim. Last year I started training in December for the June swim. I set a goal of swimming ten miles a week and pretty much kept with it.  I typically set the clock for 4:50 a.m. and was in the water at 6:00.  There was nothing wrong with this approach, but this year I am trying something different.

This year I plan to swim less miles but to do more intensive speed workouts and dry land exercises. I am doing 100 meter sprints as fast as I can go, resting 60 seconds, and then going again.  I am aiming to do a couple of miles worth of these a week, plus a variety of strength training for swimmers.  I may only put in 7 miles or so of swimming a week, but I think this may work well.

I'll know after June the 9th.

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Jul 022012
 

Every open water swim is different from every other. The factors that make this so include the setting, the weather, the event, and the varying condition of the swimmer. The setting for my June 24th swim in Lake Chatuge was idyllic. A meandering mountain lake surrounded by natural beauty and blessed by clean water and almost perfect weather. A well run event with only 114 swimmers, and those a mix of fast and leisurely paces. I was mostly in good condition for the five kilometer race and finished strongly with energy to spare. Unknown to my strong finish, however, I had failed to hydrate properly for this event and paid penalty which I’ll describe shortly. Continue reading »

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Jun 202012
 

The first time I entered and finished the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim (2005) I came out of the water and said "I'm glad I did this once but I never want to do it again." Two years later I wanted to do it again and did. And now, five years later, I have done it for the third time. This year, three men were recognized who have done it 25 years in a row. Multiple swims are the exception, however. Sixty percent of those who complete the bay swim only do it once. Continue reading »

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