It feels just like flying. I'm completely submerged, weightless gliding through the silky water. The only sound is that of the bubbles as they rush past my ears. The outside world is completely gone and it's just me with my own thoughts, and the gentle warm water as it slips past my skin. This moment is complete and full of promise. It lacks nothing and wants nothing. But all too soon it runs out, like my breath, when I burst above the water and take my first stroke.
I think of this moment on these cold mornings when it would be so much easier to stay in bed and sleep a few more precious minutes.
The problem is, of course, a basic one. It takes much more mental energy to get to the pool than it does to run or bike. To run or bike, all you really have to do is put on your gear and head out the door. That's it. Perhaps the refrigerator and the promise it holds might distract you, but if you can avoid the kitchen, you're well on your way.
But swimming is a completely different animal. You not only have to avoid the kitchen, but make it to the pool, pack all your gear, get changed, ignore the siren call of the hot tub, and jump into the cold water. As President Bush might put it, you've just spent a lot of your workout capital.
I swim at a local Masters class a few times a week. I find that unless I have a coach, I really don't have much workout capital left to motivate myself to swim. With a coach and a few lane buddies, I'm forced to push myself.
Do you know what L2 (L squared) means? Long and Lovely -- that's what my coach likes to see when we swim. There's a swimmer's vocabulary I had to learn when I first began swimming.
As always, I like to set the bar low. When I swim I use a simple guide; "Try not to suck." I know that's not really positive motivation, but for non life-long swimmers it'll have to do, especially when you're next to a lane of Masters collegiate swimmers. These aquamen and women are fast; they have an effortless stroke that I admire as they glide through the water at tremendous speed.
Swim speeds: Easy, fast and fasy
Now theoretically, I'm supposed to be able to able to swim at about ten different speeds (From easy to 10, 20 and all the way up to 100 percent effort), but in reality I find I only have three speeds:
1) Easy: This is the speed I swim at for 90 percent of the time. It consists of a stroke that somewhat resembles the idea freestyle form, but is about 90 percent slower than most swimmers in the pool. It does have one big advantage: I can breathe. The other two speeds lack this essential swim technique and that's why I seldom use them.
2) Fast: This is the speed I use when the coach says "swim 50-yards easy and 50-yards fast" or "50-yards build, 50-yards negative split, 50-yards at a strong effort, 50 yards over kick or 50 yards at 90 percent."
My fast speed actually consists of two speed settings. The first 25 yards is what you might actually consider fast (about the speed of a motivated penguin waddle). The second 25 yards involves a lot of thrashing and flailing and heavy breathing, but little forward progress (about the speed and direction of very drunk penguin).
3) Fasy: Fasy is the speed somewhere in between fast and easy. Properly defined, it's the speed that I swim after a fast swim. It's a rebuilding speed that gets me back to easy. It's not the thrashing, flailing and heavy breathing of a fast stroke, but it's also not yet the relaxed "I'm able to breath" speed of the easy stroke ... but it's getting there. It's fasy.
What I find really fascinating about swimming is how different it looks from above the water, than it feels in the water. For instance, at my top speed I feel like I'm powering through the water like Superman soaring through the heavens. But if I were to look at myself from the above the water, I'd look like I'm out for a leisurely Sunday morning swim.
I told this to a lane buddy of mine and he said that it was because water is 900 times denser than air. That seemed like a reasonable explanation until I was out running hard and was passed by one of the local elite runners like I was on a meandering stroll. It seems the real explanation is the obvious one, I swim like I run: Fasy.
Butt-mounted propellers and other swim toys
Which reminds me of a workout I had the other day. Sometimes I swim with this great German coach, and he's very German. For instance he'll give you a set like this: "You vill schvim von hundred meters at 1:35.5, followed by von hundred meters at 134.8 -- NOT 134.9."
Which is fine, except that I'm sharing the lane with this guy who has all the swim toys. You know the paddles, the pull buoy, the so-called "swim fins," the giant uber goggles and the "swim snorkel" that bends up between your eyes. All he's missing is a butt-mounted propeller.
Well I can't make the interval and the coach says I need to keep up with turbo butt. And there's no way that's going to happen unless I put on my diving fins which, by the way, the rotund retired guys wear at a Masters class I go to in my mom's Florida retirement community.
These boys have massive beer bellies and are the shape and general hairiness of pregnant Kangaroos. The coach will say, "let's warm-up with an easy 50." Before I even push off the wall the retirement boys are there and back like fat and well-tanned Michelin-men-underwater-torpedoes.
By the way, have you ever noticed that when you swim you tend to bargain with yourself like a used Turkish rug salesman? You know what I mean, the internal conversation that goes like: "Self, if you swim one more set, then you can call it quits and go get lunch," or "Self, just swim until the top of the hour and you can jump in the hot tub."
Why is this? This doesn't happen on long runs or bike rides. I think I figured out the reason today. On a run or a bike you tend to be committed to finishing the distance since you need to get back home. In the pool you just need to swim another 25 yards. The solution is simple. We need pools at least 1,000-yards long.
There would be no internal bargaining if you were outside in the cold and your choice was to swim back to the start of the pool or get out and walk back. I bet you'd be putting in at least a 2,000-yard workout every time.
Roman Mica is a Clydesdale amateur triathlete who lives and races in Boulder, Colorado. His favorite race drink is brewed by the Boulder Brewery and his favorite nutrition supplement is made by Dairy Queen. Visit his Web site at www.everymantriathlon.com.