Thursday, April 20, 2017

Blog is moving to different site...

Surprise! You can now read my blog at - which is also my main website. (I'll leave this one up, but I've copied all the content to the new location as well.)

Friday, April 7, 2017

Kicking and the Clunk Foot

I know I've written about the subject, but my swim kick is the closest thing to dismal as it gets. It's never really been an asset - I've been told it's a liability - but I was always ok with that in the past. I dismissed criticism with a million-and-one excuses for why I didn't kick in the water and why I didn't need to:

  • I'm a distance swimmer!
  • I DO kick, it's just a two-beat kick. (Is that even a swimming term anymore?)
  • I started swimming at 14 and never developed a good flutter kick.
  • I'm a breaststroker, not a sprinter.
  • I have to save my legs for the bike and the run!
  • The more I use my legs in the pool, the more it will screw up my running muscles. (This was a high school myth, I think.)
  • and the list goes on...
Now that swimming is my primary sport, my whole attitude toward kicking has changed. These days, we don't distinguish kicking styles - even distance swimmers need a strong kick. Here's a great article from The Race Club about the importance of kick to overall speed. A good kick supplies 10 to 15 percent of overall propulsive force. My kick, however, did nothing for me. In fact, I'm not sure you could even call what I did "kicking." It was just a vague reference to kicking. My kick had one purpose: to float my legs. When I made a conscious effort to kick, it became a hindrance. It made my stroke choppy and added drag... it literally slowed me down. Have you ever looked out the airplane window and watched the air-brakes pop up on the wings when you land? Well that's what my feet look like in the water.

But where to start? I already knew (from video and other swimmers) my kick was wide and un-symmetrical, and it pretty much stalls every time I take a breath. I noticed in longer swims, I have a bizarre tendency to drag my right leg so it's even stiff when I get out of the water. Come to think of it, I do this while I'm running too - it's my right foot that trips me up on uneven sidewalks. Here's a good shot of my crazy-wide kick. (I'm smack in the middle of the photo.) Nice high elbow though.

I was determined to educate myself on how to fix my kick to make it better and faster even if it meant taking a step backward in training.

The first lesson? Have flexible feet. Well.. my first thought was: I'm screwed. I considered throwing in the towel immediately. The very thing that made me a good runner was the thing that was going to sink (literally) my swim kick. I have what's called the "clunk [or rigid] foot" - a term taken from Timothy Noakes' Lore of Running. I spent my running career coddling my feet.. giving them love in the form of high-tech running shoes with lots of cushioning. They were never expected (or asked) to yield or be flexible. No siree! My feet were getting the last laugh. And unless I did something to change them, they would do nothing for my swimming.

Flexible feet can be developed, and I've been researching how to do it. It involves stretching and stretching and more stretching. Some say to sit on your feet with your knees off the ground. I found out the hard way I can't get my knees up for more than a split-second. Yep, this may take a while. The photos below are what my foot looks like fully extended (seriously, that's as good as I can do) - before (top) and after a few days of stretching. I've convinced myself they show (an oh-so-miniscule amount of) progress. I'm determined to get my toes to touch the ground if it's the last thing I ever do.

The second lesson on kicking? Kick from the hip, not from the knees. While watching others kick, the difference is instantly obvious. I've noticed when runners learn to swim, their legs take on the appearance of running in the water - they employ an enormous amount of knee-bending creating a massive amount of drag. And training with a kick-board tends to accentuate and reinforce this type of kicking because of its upright body position in the water. Thus, to work on kicking from my hip, I've mostly ditched the kick-board during kick drills to focus on streamlining my body in the water. I'm using fins to develop strength and better technique, and I'm doing more backstroke to further develop the hip-kicking motion.

The third lesson? Kick more narrow. This is one of the hardest things because my foot position is (literally) the furthest thing from my brain while I'm swimming. But forcing myself to kick narrow decreases drag and makes me use my feet more. Think about it: if my legs are taking up a space wider than my shoulders (the widest part of my body (hopefully)), then I'm creating drag. One suggestion was to put a rubber band around my knees forcing me to kick with my feet in a very narrow space. One of my swimmer friends told me he's been "trying to create a propeller motion" with his feet based on what he's noticed in the kicking motion of great swimmers. Cool! But in my current state, with my big dumb inflexible feet, I'll be happy with just a narrower kick.

So my focus over the past few months has been two-fold: swimming longer for arm strength and endurance and developing a kick that actually works. The most useful drill seems to be streamline kicking without fins with a swimmer's snorkel. This allows me to keep my head down without worrying about breathing - I can just attend to what my feet are doing. When I do hard 50s after this drill, I can actually "feel" propulsion coming from my kick. The biggest issue will be translating that kick to my longer swim sets. Kicking hard while sprinting is one thing - adding it to distance swimming is something entirely different. But I have to start somewhere or I'll be going nowhere in the water.

The bottom line is that a streamlined kick is a just like everything else we do in swimming - it's not so much about strength as it is about perfecting a specific skill. As my favorite coach, John Klarman, used to say: "Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect." Kicking skill is much more important than I previously wanted to believe - certainly orders of magnitude more important than most triathletes believe. And as a recovering triathlete that still loves to run, I also must stop worrying that a strong swim kick will destroy my running. (It won't.) But that's an entirely different issue - or, more likely, rant - for a future post.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Pondering Lane Etiquette

I'm not sure what's going on lately, but either my disaster-magnet status has somehow injected its influence into lane swimming or I live in a very discourteous part of the world. I've had several angry exchanges with fellow swimmers over sharing pool lanes recently. When all lanes are taken, I usually ask someone if they wouldn't mind sharing - but this is only to be courteous and avoid someone getting hurt. I don't HAVE to ask.

Good pools usually don't give people the "no sharing" option. They make all lanes circle-swim and people are expected to choose lanes based on their speed. By "good pools," I mean pools where the lifeguards and most people know the drill (and will help new-comers), and swimmers are lane-sharing is expected. "Great" pools go the extra mile and mark the lanes with signs indicating circle swim direction and swimmer speed.

My local community pool is neither good nor great. Unless I swim at 5:30 in the morning with the "regulars," when asking to share a lane, I tend to get refused more often than not, and even the lifeguards are reluctant to help. And the excuses are hilarious. One guy said "you don't want to share with me because I'm not a good swimmer," to which I offered "no problem, I'll stay to one side" and he said "no, seriously, you DON'T want to share a lane with me."

(Um.. YES, I do. Why the hell would I ask you if I didn't? I don't have time to waste while you lolly-gag through your floating workout.)

One lady started to say it was ok to share, then she decided not to, and yelled at me: "I can't share because I'm not a good swimmer like you," to which I offered, again: "I will stay out of your way." Then she put up a fight: "No! I swim into the lane-line when I share. I'm not trying to make it difficult, but..."

(Um... yes, you ARE making it difficult. Lady, you don't have that option. EVERYONE wants to swim today.)

The next time.. two lanes, four people swimming, two in each lane. I stopped one of the better swimmers and asked: "can we do circle swims?" He said "NO! [seriously, he yelled at me] I CAN'T do that." I was dumbfounded, so I said "you can't?" and he said "NO I CAN'T. But I'll be done in 10 minutes." And then just turned, ignored me, and started swimming again.

(Um... I don't HAVE 10 minutes, I'm on a tight schedule, dude. Seriously, what makes people act this way?)

I posted the story on Facebook and one of my friends suggested next time I simply just show them how to circle swim.

(NOW WHY DIDN'T I THINK OF THAT?? It's brilliant. Next time for sure.)

I was beginning to think it was me, but then I spent a week away from home and swam in a "good" pool (in Brookline, near Boston), and I found that circle-swimming didn't upset swimmers there. They just do it, no complaining.

So, chalk one up to the pool environment. Or maybe it's living in an affluent neighborhood in the midwest. Who really knows?

Just remember, everyone wants to swim and you can be nice about it or you can be a jerk. I say: choose to be empathetic - understand we're all in this together.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Coping - But Just Barely

Could 2017 also be the year I decide to blog more regulary? Is twice a month considered "regular"? Well, whatever - I just needed to vent.

In a year of environmental, political, social, and economic uncertainty and my second year focusing on open-water swimming, I already committed (read: paid entry) to two races, both in Maryland and both I've done (well, started) before: the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim 4.4-mile and the Ocean Games 9-mile. Neither was a resounding success last year, and thus, I have two goals so far for this year, i.e., do better than last year.

Speaking of goals, the more I delve into the realm of open-water swimming, the more interested I get and the more pie-in-the-sky goals I tentatively set for myself. I've even become interested in this crazy sport called ice swimming (Google it). But I'm currently struggling with a big mental setback: coping with the physical changes (and challenges) of going from a runner/triathlete to just a swimmer (who runs and bikes occasionally).

With football-player shoulders (30 yrs ago)

With runner shoulders (2 yrs ago)
Let's get the first one out there: the weight gain. Yep, I know, I know. It's muscle (for now - it may very well be fat when I start back into cold water swimming). But I've been longingly staring into my closet afraid to even attempt putting on clothes that might be tight on me. Back in high school and college, I weighed 20 pounds more and the only shirts I could wear were large - I had this crazy, unwieldy, oversized upper body. All my long sleeves were short. I always felt like a freak even though I probably wasn't as freaky-looking as I imagined.

Surprisingly, I'm really struggling to accept that this is what it will take - these body changes - to do what I want as an open water swimmer. My former runner body will not last long in 55-60 degree open water. After all these years and all the positive body image messages out there, why does this still bother me? Why am I struggling to rise above it? Obviously, I have a LOT of work to do before I can look into the mirror and say that I like myself no matter what I look like. But I'm trying. And hopefully, my passion for swimming and drive to achieve far-reaching goals as an open-water swimmer will win out over something as petty as body image.

But I do love this new sport and I can't wait to get back into lake swimming once the water warms to at least 50 degrees. In the meantime, I'm taking cold showers after my pool swims and reading Becoming the Iceman by Wim Hof and Justin Rosales.

I've also been doing a lot of drawing lately, some realistic, some not-so-realistic:

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

2017, Year of Activism

2017 is here and many of us have a new reality to face. And by "many of us," I specifically mean "those of us who are passionate about the environment." We have a new president who doesn't believe in climate change. I believe science is telling us we have reached a critical state, and we must do everything we can to protect our planet from further abuse. I believe clean and renewable energy is a good idea - for both the environment, the future of energy, and world power-struggles. And as a swimmer, I also believe we must stop polluting our oceans and waterways and destroying the animals that call them their home.

But I'm only one person, and in the last days of 2016, I found the artist in me powerless to resist a call to use my art to illustrate the very issues I feel most passionate about. I'm not sure how it happened, but images made their way into my consciousness, and at times, these images even kept me up all night.

As a result, the most direct and graphic work I've ever created (and perhaps, most disturbing to some), is the following three diptychs of etched linocuts that I made in December 2016:
"Coral Bleaching"

"Shark Finning"

If these images inspire people to "Google" the issues, or even better, be mindful of the oceans or the environment, then I feel I've done something with my talent (or lack thereof), and my presence on the earth is not just a waste of resources (which I used to believe).

2017 is also my second year in a new sport, open-water swimming. I started 2016 by conquering my fear of swimming alone in the ocean - in La Jolla Cove. (You may remember the blog about that.) It's been a long time since then, and I've succumbed to hypothermia in one race, overheated in another race, and finished my longest-ever open-water race - the Swim to the Moon 10K in Michigan.

This year, I must conquer the biggest hurdle I face as an open-water swimmer: acclimating to the cold. I wrote about my experiments in cold Lake Erie in September and October, 2016. But that's only the tip of the "iceberg" - the water temperature in those swims was in the mid-60s F, and the water I must eventually face may be well into the 50s.

I have a plan and I will talk about it as it unfolds. In the meantime, I've re-entered the 9-mile swim in the Ocean Games in Ocean City, MD. I vowed to finish it this year and do it as a fundraiser for brain trauma (the cause it supports). The race is in July, and I would be grateful for your support, which you can do through CrowdRise or through the widget in the right column.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Losing and the Aftermath

I'm a proud fan girl.
This morning, the day after the Cubs won the 2016 World Series, I wake up a Cleveland Indians fan. And not only a fan, but a season ticket-holder who attended every home playoff game of the 2016 post-season. In person, I watched my team battle against the odds and the injuries and win its first two series only to lose after leading three games to one, in an epic battle in Game 7 of the World Series - a game that will go down in history as one of the greatest game sevens ever.

It was devastating and heartbreaking and frustrating and all of those things at once. But it got me to thinking. Who am I most heartbroken for? Myself? Not really. I'm still a fan. Do I feel sorry for Cleveland? Kind of. We all have to get up this morning feeling like "we" came THIS CLOSE to greatness but ended up back in Cleveland, often called the "mistake on the lake." Do I feel sorry for the players?


And I know that they probably all get on airplanes and go back to their homes and families in different parts of the country and don't have to live here with the disappointment of another failed championship. They get their huge paychecks and forget about it, right?

Except, based on everything I've witnessed and read and heard, I don't think that's really the case with this team. They are much more than working professionals collecting a paycheck. They're a TEAM.

And I empathize with them because I've been a competitive athlete my whole life. I grew up in a competitive athletic family, and I know what sports disappointments are all about. I know that football losses ruin Thanksgiving dinners. I know that injuries ruin track seasons. I've cried over many of these things, not only for myself, but for my high school teams and my college teams. And I know the heart of an athlete. I know what our Cleveland Indians players are feeling right now. And I know that they will take this with them into next season and it will haunt them.

It will haunt them because of HOW CLOSE it was. I think a blow-out would have been easier to handle. I know this because I, too, came THIS close to a championship and it still haunts me to this day. When I was a senior in high school on the swim team, I lost a state championship by one-tenth of a second. I always wondered what my life would be like had I won. Would people have treated me different? Would I have liked myself better?

I will never know. But I do know that my feelings for the Cleveland Indians have not changed.

And it makes me realize that, as athletes, we do what we do because we love it. We come back the next year and try again. It took a long time for me to get back to the sport I truly love, but I swim now and I keep pushing my limits.

And it also makes me realize that we should never, as I have done in the past, let our sports performances define us or tell us whether we are worthy or not. And I will not judge professional athletes on whether they win championships or not. They can be heroes to us for so many more reasons. For making us realize the human potential. For taking us back to the kid inside us. And for their charitable contributions and actions. Those are the important things they give us.

And those are the things we should recognize in ourselves.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Cold Water Swimming I: Self-treating Hypothermia

A few months ago, I committed myself to learning how to swim in cold water this fall. Or to state it more appropriately, to teach/adapt my body - and mind - to handle cold water while swimming. I gained advice from talking to people and reading blogs and online resources like these:
I decided to start my cold-water-acclimating-process with cold showers. If you know me, you know that cold showers are my Fifth Ring of Hell. The only things worse are vomiting continuously or having a root canal. In fact, my usual shower temperature is slightly hotter than "scalding." Obviously I had a big dilemma.

But a commitment is a commitment, so I started cold and went colder... until I could do it without screaming... and then without wincing... and finally, without even thinking twice before jumping in. It's hard to believe, but I even started to enjoy cold showers, especially after my pool swims. (It helped that the pool water was 83 degrees F.)

But cold showers last about five minutes, and I needed to be able to swim for hours in cold water. So I waited. And waited. And, atypically, it took until October this year for fall weather to come to Cleveland. Lake Erie water temperatures have finally begun to drop. (Seriously, we wore shorts to the first two Indians playoff games #goTribe).

I went for my first sub-70-degree swim on Saturday. There was only one problem - the lake was VERY rough. According to the NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL), the wave height was close to 4 feet (I swim in a spot directly to the left of the date under Lake Erie Wave Height in the figure below):

I took some video to try and show how bad the chop was:

 And the water temperature - about 68 degrees F - was warmer than the air temperature:

The water was surprising comfortable, and I lasted 30 minutes before I got tired of swallowing (potentially contaminated) water and fighting the chop. When I got out, the wind and the mid-60s air temperature was enough to cause all my fingers to go completely numb in about 5 minutes. There were people on the beach who commented that I was "crazy" and that they "admired me" for my dedication. I laughed and quickly made my way to the car. I drove home with the heat on high and took a 30-minute hot bath as soon as I got there.

My next attempt to swim in cold water was Monday. I waited until Monday because I decided high surf AND cold water were one-too-many tough conditions to handle at this particular stage of acclimation. Lake Erie was much calmer on Monday: 

Here's vid:

But it WAS a couple degrees colder - at about 66 degrees F (you can see the little band of 66 near where I swim):

On Monday, I lasted 45 minutes. I started to note changes resulting from the cold water, and some of them were just a bit scary.

First of all, let me state the obvious: getting in cold water is never easy. The colder it is, the harder it is to jump in all at once because, as I learned in London last December, it feels like you've been punched in the chest. The two-degree temperature difference from Saturday was noticeable. I waded in to my waist slowly, then jumped fully in and started swimming. After about 30 seconds, I snuffed out a sense of panic by forcing myself to relax and embrace the water. It worked. In no time, I was enjoying my swim unfazed by the cold. My body actually seemed to get used to it quite quickly.

What I learned from reading was that in cold water, I must keep swimming and stop only momentarily. Since I was alone, I remained close to shore by swimming back and forth in an area about .25 miles wide. I only stopped to turn and sight. I didn't start feeling the effects of cold water until 30 minutes had passed when I started to notice I was losing control of my left pinky finger. But I wasn't shivering, and I didn't "feel" cold. 

I swam 15 minutes more then decided to pack it in when the water started getting choppier and I was having a little difficultly in both hands with keeping my fingers together. My feet felt fine and I still wasn't shivering, but I didn't want to push it while I was by myself. I swam to shore and immediately put on a sweatshirt.

It was at this point things went downhill in a hurry. The air temperature was in the low-60s, and I was in the shade. In a matter of minutes, I struggled with numb fingers to unscrew the valve on my swim buoy. I needed to get my car key! Shivering, I grabbed all my stuff and started running to the car. I stopped - in the sun - only to put my shoes on (also with much difficulty). When I got to the car, I started it and turned the heat on full blast and changed out of my wet swimsuit. I was seriously bummed to find I had left at home my thermos of warm apple-cinnamon Skratch hydrationBut I had stopped shivering and assumed I'd be fine, so I started the drive home.

But I wasn't fine. Something was not right. I felt disoriented. I felt like a I was in a fog. I started to panic. I called my husband Jim, but I could tell I was having trouble speaking and stringing words together. He said I sounded weird and "out of it." I pulled into a McDonalds parking lot. It didn't seem possible I might be hypothermic because the feeling had already come back in my fingers and toes. But I was having trouble keeping my eyes focused. And my increasing anxiety was probably making it worse.

I called Jim back because talking to him made me feel less "foggy." I noticed my hands were shaking. He told me to get some food - that maybe I was hungry. I sucked down two carbo gels that had been in my bag for ages, and then I sat and waited.

About ten minutes later, I started to feel a little better. The car had become a sauna and it made my skin feel hot, but internally I was still a little chilled. The important thing was that my brain began "working" again, and I was finally able to focus enough to drive home. I'm still not sure what made me disoriented, but I ate well before I swam, so I can't fully blame it on simple hunger or lack of nutrition. I think the cold had something to do with it - and I'm judging from my past experiences with hypothermia.

Two things are certain. I need a lot more practice in cold water. And I need to take quicker and better care of myself post-swim.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Swimming to the Moon, a Race Report

Number 52: not my age, but close enough!
My last open-water swim event this year was Epic Racing's "Swim to the Moon," an event that takes place somewhere near Hell (Hell, Michigan, that is). I suspect the reason I chose this event was because I loved the name. It's actually several swim distances - one-half mile up to 10K - that take place in a chain of lakes near Ann Arbor (Jim, with his two degrees from Ohio State University, in fact, finds this region of the USA to be his personal version of Hell, as he is surrounded by Michigan fans).

I chose the 10K... because.. why not? It was a lake swim so the water would likely be calm and warm, unlike the ocean in my last one.

We stayed overnight about 30 minutes east of the starting line, which was at Halfmoon Lake. The 10K swims across Halfmoon Lake and through channels and small lakes connecting it to Patterson Lake, where it turns around on private property, and goes back. There's also a 5K that starts at Patterson Lake and goes to the same finish line as the 10K. At the turn, 10K swimmers are required to exit the water and can partake of any nutrition or other items they stashed there in a special-needs bag.

I got very little sleep in the two nights before the race because I've been battling anxiety issues (which, incidentally, have nothing to do with pre-race jitters... just dealing with health problems and family issues). When the alarm clock rang race morning (Sunday), I could barely open my eyes, and the last thing I wanted to do was deal with a race that might take about three hours. But I had made a commitment, and I reminded myself how much I love swimming. I would make the best of it.

That morning, unlike the two weeks leading up to it, saw a drop in temperature into the low 60s. This meant that the water temperature, at 76 degrees, actually exceeded the air temperature. It also meant I didn't bring warm enough clothes to wear that morning. All I could think was: Oh great! This time I'll get hypothermia BEFORE I even get in the water!

But there wasn't a lot of time to wait around, and by 6:30, we were standing on the small sandy beach being accounted for as we were shuffled through the starting line arch to wait for the gun.

Early morning start under the moon.
Everyone was mumbling about the cold. Some people were actually getting in the water to keep warm. My fingers started to get numb. It took a little while to count everyone - so long that I decided to put my raincoat back on to keep warm. I was told by one group of men that I "could use a little more weight in order to stay warm" (I assured them I'm trying, maybe swimming in progressively-colder water next month will take care of that).

One way to keep warm.
After a quick singing of the Star Spangled Banner, we were finally off. Here's a video of the start:

In about five minutes, I had completely forgotten about the cold and was now in the melee of arms and legs and people all trying to spot buoys in dim morning light. That didn't last long (the dim morning light or being stuck in the melee), and before I made the turn into the first inter-lake channel, the sun was out and illuminating the far side of Halfmoon Lake. It was quite beautiful - I was no longer feeling tired but just happy to be swimming along at a speed that allowed me to appreciate the day.

Just before we took that turn - and based on my swim the day before, I determined the distance to be about a mile - I settled into a pace that had me swimming steadily alongside two others: a man and a woman. I would go into the first channel with this little group.

Before the race, a guy had told me the channels were shallow and you could walk through them. What he really meant was you might HAVE to walk through them. I found myself completely tangled up in weeds and trying not to run aground. I had to keep my underwater arm-pull against my body just to avoid punching the ground below. Unfortunately, the woman swimming next to me occupied the slightly deeper water, and I couldn't force myself into her space without sending her into another bank of weeds. I had to back off in order to get into her wake and avoid beaching myself or slamming into the wooden uprights of a foot-bridge over the channel. The two of us also had to stop a few times to find course-marker buoys.

Once we cleared the first channel, as long as I stayed close to the course markers, it was smooth swimming. I had only one or two run-ins with weeds until the second channel. Our little group stayed together through the second channel as well, which was equally shallow and treacherous and included swimming through a huge-diameter metal pipe (that had another bridge over it).

I found myself actually grabbing onto the weeds a couple times in a desperate attempt to pull myself forward. The first time I did it, the image that leapt to mind was one of standing on the pool deck and yelling at my swim team kids for grabbing onto the lane-lines during backstroke to pull themselves along. (They always think I don't notice that.) Hey, it works! I will have to come clean when I see them again.

When we finally reached Patterson Lake, the sun was well up. I stopped for a moment to free myself from a weed that had wrapped itself around my neck. My watch had us at 2.29 miles. Swimmers would now be on their way back. I got my bearings and started swimming toward the next bright orange buoy, only to have a stand-up paddler blowing a whistle at me and pointing me in the perpendicular direction. Swimmers were being directed to swim "directly into the sun" (what kayakers were telling us). By the time I was able to see the next marker, I had almost burned out my retinas, and spotting anything was now an issue. I almost had a head-on collision with a swimmer going in the opposite direction.

Finally I stopped. The girl next to me stopped. The guy next to me stopped. We had to flag down a kayaker to give us directions. It was then I saw the boat with a guy on the back carrying one of the big orange markers. Apparently the buoys had blown off course. He dropped this one directly in front of me and just like that!.. we were back on course.

When I made it to the beach turn-around, the first thing I saw was the time-clock. It said 1:19:something. Before the race, I told Jim that the 10K would probably take me close to three hours - at best, 2:45. This was very good news indeed. I was half-way through and under my predicted "fast" time. A volunteer handed me my special-needs bag containing nutrition.

The woman I had been swimming with gave me the slip on the beach and got back in the water well before me. I had a 21-oz bottle of SkratchLabs hydration mixed with Carbo-Pro, and I needed those calories. But I also didn't want to just "swim through" the second half of this race, so I drank only 3/4 of my bottle and ran back into the water to chase her. The guy from my original group was right alongside me.

He was the clobbering-type swimmer and his stroke was so strong it was like he had a tractor beam - I kept getting pulled toward him as though I was stuck in a gravitational pull. I had to get out of that influence so I swam hard and fast and pulled out in front.

Swimming the flip-side of Patterson Lake was easier because we were pointing away from the sun, it was a clear day, and the markers were now obvious. When I reached the channel, I realized that I was right behind the woman in our original three-some. I did not want to lull myself into swimming her speed again, so I worked hard in in the channel to get ahead. Instead, I swam off course and ended up in that group again - the three of us with me stuck smack in the middle.

Upon exiting this channel, I finally had enough. I swam hard to wrestle myself free of the group and the weeds.

I got out ahead and finally had the last two miles of this race all to myself. There was a lifeguard on a paddle-board who kept coming around to make sure I stayed on course, but I had no problem whatsoever spotting buoys and enjoying swimming hard to the finish. I stopped a couple times when we got back into Halfmoon lake to check my watch. With about a half-mile to go, my stroke finally started falling apart. Overall, I wasn't really that tired, I was just having trouble getting enough strength to keep a strong underwater pull. But I was alone in the water, and I told myself to enjoy it because it was almost over. I did backstroke just to look up at the clear blue sky, and then I flipped back over and pushed to the finish.

Getting out of the water after swimming for that long was a weird experience. It felt a lot like "the wobble" when you first step off the bike in an Ironman. I almost fell. I was disoriented for a few moments. Embarrassingly, it was caught on video, and since I have no shame to speak of, here it is:

My finish time was 2:39:03. And even though I swam hard, my second half was less than a minute faster than the first half. Awards-wise, I finished second in my age group (33rd overall) but the first female masters swimmer was also in my age group, so my time was actually third in my age group. I have a long way to go because there are some really fast women over 50.

Beer glasses are always the best trophies.
And I'm still loving this swim thing... and ready for the next one.

Just for kicks, here's the GPS plot from my Garmin:

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Importance of Bilateral Breathing in Open Water Swimming

In the past month, I've been spending quite a bit of my pool time re-learning how to bilateral breathe. As I've written before, upon my return to regular swimming about 15 years ago, I gravitated toward breathing on my right. I just did what was natural, and it has served me well for many years of competitive swimming in triathlons.

Now that I'm pursuing open-water swimming as a sport, I find my single-sided approach to breathing has become a liability. I've been doing it in my open water swims because it comes naturally and also because it's easier for me to swim in a straight line that way. When I breathe on my left, my weak side, I actually start to turn in that direction. Swimming in circles is an excellent ability if you're stuck in a round pool, but it won't help me get from point A to point B in open water.

Thus, I've accepted swimming slower for however-long-it-takes, and forced myself to breathe on the left during many of my swim sets. Although it's beginning to feel more natural, I will know I've conquered it when I do it without thinking. I have moments of encouragement when I start a set of hard 50s automatically breathing on the left. After the first one or two, it becomes a chore, and I go back to automatic right-breathing, but a little progress is better than none at all.

The real significance of being able to breathe bilaterally became perfectly obvious to me yesterday, when, after a stressful morning, I decided what I really needed was a swim workout with NO stress.. no walls, no flip-turns, no lane-lines, no boundaries. As they say: be careful what you wish for.

I checked Lake Erie conditions (Ohio Nowcast) then drove up to the lake, and without a second thought, jumped in with my swim buoy in tow. There were other people swimming and conditions looked perfect (i.e., calm) to me. See?

Perfect, that is, until I actually got "out there." It was choppy -- not bad enough to make me stop swimming, but bad enough to make me wonder about how bad it was. People here always talk about Lake Erie and its changing conditions. "It doesn't take much to whip up the lake," they say. "It's the shallowest of the Great Lakes," they say. This all means something, but I've never been sure what.

All I know is I've raced in some very bad open water conditions, some so bad that races were cancelled mid-swim and swimmers drowned. And, Lake Erie yesterday was nothing like those conditions. But a little chop in Lake Erie is bad - for other reasons - reasons that make bilateral breathing so important.

Lake Erie chop follows no rules. There is no rhyme or reason (or more importantly, rhythm) to it.

I was reminded of a passage in one of my favorite books, The Outermost House by Henry Beston, that describes a unique wave pattern on the Atlantic coast of Cape Cod. Anyone (including me) who's ever watched or swam in those waters knows it. It's easier to catch waves or swim in waves when they have patterns like this. Lake Erie chop has no pattern which makes it nearly impossible to settle into any sort of breathing rhythm, especially swimming parallel to the shoreline. And the shoreline itself changes drastically from sandy beaches to sheer rock cliffs and back every few hundred yards, which also creates all sorts of conflicting wave patterns.

The whole time I was swimming parallel to the shoreline, all I could think about was the last time I swam in short chop - in Ironman Coeur d'Alene 2011. Even then, although I had to fight the waves, I was able to get my breathing in rhythm with the swells. In Lake Erie, I had no such luck. But I did discover that breathing toward the north (into the waves) was much more beneficial and I swallowed less water (contrary to what's described here even thought it's a very good article overall). When I tried to breathe toward the shoreline, facing south, waves would break over my head and engulf me and I couldn't get air, but when I breathed on the low end of the swell, facing north, I had no problem.

I stuck it out for 1.5 hours and managed a dismal 2.5 miles, but I was exhausted from the fight. And I learned, first-hand, that in addition to training in rough conditions, I need to keep training myself to bilateral breathe because no one knows what will happen during extended open-water swimming. Even if everything looks calm on the beach that day.

The video below is what it looked like when I got out. I've been told the rule-of-thumb is don't swim if you see white-caps off-shore.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Back to the Black Line

Remember this?
I took a few days off after my cold-water revelation last weekend to decompress and to abuse myself by doing a 180 - running in a Midwest heatwave marked by several "heat advisory" days this week. (Note, running is my other zen sport, it's my self-medication.)

When I DID get back in the water, I was reminded of two things: (1) the task at hand, oh so long ago, before the Glastonbury festival, before whipping myself into endurance-racing mode - i.e., re-learning proper technique - and (2) teaching my body how to survive, or thrive, in cold water. Now that I think about it, one of these things may benefit the other.

Here's my thought: if I learn how to swim better, I should be faster, right? And if I'm faster, I will be out of the cold water quicker - right? Yeah yeah, I know I still need to learn how to SWIM in cold water because I certainly haven't forgotten how quickly hypothermia sets in... I'm sure there's an equation for conduction or convection I probably (should have) learned in heat transfer class when I got my engineering degree.

I survived for more than 5 minutes.
I was reminded of my crazy English swimming compadres in London in December (remember that?). They were able to swim in sub-50 degree F water for long periods of time because their bodies had been slowly acclimated to it as the temperatures dropped. If you remember my blog posts about that experience, I noticed a difference in my own ability to withstand cold water even after the second time. And in my previous post, I told you about the advice from Ocean Games race director and open-water swimmer Corey Davis - his recommendations were to take cold showers and extend my open-water swim season into the colder months.

So, that's the plan. But in the meantime, while the water is still warm, I need to determine how to perfect my swim stroke so that I spend less time in that cold water. 

The last thing I did with respect to THIS goal was to get video of my swim stroke underwater. Here it is:

And, whoa, talk about revelations! There's a LOT to improve on. I may have the high-elbow thing going for me, but my underwater pull is ridiculously wide. There's not nearly enough water being grabbed and pulled back. Ineed to get my forearm under my body so I'm moving through a smaller area. I have also recently realized that I swim faster when using a pull-buoy, which I think might have something to do with my right arm not going as wide and breathing on the left.

But I needed more than hunch. I needed data. I'm a scientist after all.

So... here's my (pseudo-)scientific analysis...

I first noted that if I don't think about it, I breathe naturally on my right without a pull-buoy but naturally on my left WITH one. I've been baffled by this for years (since I started swimming again after more than 15 years away from the sport). When I was a competitive pool-swimmer, I could bilateral breathe with no change in my stroke. But now, it's a struggle to breathe on my left. WITHOUT a pull-buoy. I am convinced this means something - like one whole side of my body is weak. 

I started experimenting in the pool in the past several weeks. At the end of my workouts, I swim 50s with and without a pull-buoy and concentrate on what my arms and legs are doing. Here's what I've found (and it's extremely annoying): without a pull-buoy breathing naturally on my right working very hard to keep my body and kick streamlined, my 50-yard time is within one second of my time with a pull-buoy breathing naturally on my left. The difference (i.e., the annoying thing) is the very little amount of effort I have to put in while swimming with a pull-buoy. 

What could possibly be going on here? Are my legs or my kick causing massive drag? It's hard to believe that I'm not getting at least a tiny bit of propulsion from my kick. Is my pull different when breathing on different sides? Am I in a different position in the water?

After studying it the best I can (it's not easy to study with detachment from an internal state), it does, indeed, feel like I'm getting more from my pull when I breathe on my left. I come up with two pieces of evidence: being right-handed/right-dominant, my right arm is stronger, and when breathing on my left, I rotate in a way that keeps my right arm under my body instead of way-wide like in the video. Further study Also revealed to me that I turn my head to breathe at a different point in the stroke cycle on each side. Breathing right, although it "feels" natural, it's more awkward to the stroke and there's an obvious momentary lapse in my kick.

And therefore, this week, while I recover mentally from the failed race finish, I've begun doing drills to fix my bilateral breathing and sync my kick. It's not natural just yet, and it probably won't be for a while, but hopefully I'll have something to show in a month or two.