Looking back, it seems I've come a long way. I remember when running a half-marathon was a big deal. Now, I still try to get in a long bike the day before, run the 13.1 miles and jump in the ocean afterwards for a 1 mile "recovery" swim. Since when was any workout a recovery? I remember when I couldn't wrap my head around running 13.1 miles.
When I was about 13 years old and in Pony Club, I did a tetrathlon. We had to swim, shoot, run and jump our horses over a stadium course. The jumping I had no problem with, and I could always run. The shooting (air pistol) was very hard. My toothpick arms had a hard time holding the gun steady as I aimed at the target. I thought the swim would be cake since I had practiced swimming laps in our backyard pool. I hadn't anticipated competing against future Olympic medalists training for hours a day with their swim team. The gun went off, and I started off doing what I thought was freestyle. The other girls zipped back and forth, lapping me as if I was standing still. My arms were so sore and tired, I thought they were going to fall off. My dad caught the whole thing on video tape. It's quite comical. As the other girls fly through the waters like lithe dolphins, my long, noodle arms flop out of the water and back in, like lazy crooked propeller blades.
Maybe I should have remembered this when committing to triathlon. But I figured there were lots of other triathletes out there who didn't come from a swimming background. I would muscle through. Only thing is...I didn't and have never had much muscle despite protein shakes and weight training. After my first triathlon, I realized my swimming needed help. I could do freestyle comfortably but worked hard to go nowhere. I found a Total Immersion coach and learned proper technique. I started doing masters swim workouts. Slowly, I got better.
Just when I got an ounce of confidence, I moved to San Diego where locals cut their teeth in the swimming pool and the ocean. I was quickly put in my place after my first sprint triathlon when I placed in the bottom of my age group. In St. Louis, I had been on the podium several times. Now, I was swimming with the sharks instead of the ducks. But I was still a duck--getting eaten!
It's been a year now since I moved here. I'm still taking lessons, going to swim clinics and diligently going to my masters' swim workouts. I'm still in the slow lane. It's been an agonizingly slow process but I have been steadily improving.
It first hit me how much I had improved when I took a solid 8 weeks off to recover from a chronic sinus infection. Upon returning to the pool, I had lost 30 seconds from my 100 meter time. I was fatigued after swimming 40 meters. I couldn't believe how hard swimming was all of a sudden. That's when it hit me. Oh. All the work I had put into my swimming before had been paying off. I had no idea until I stopped swimming. Sometimes you need to regress before you realize how far you've come.
It only took 6 weeks to return to where I was before my swimming hiatus. Not bad. Not bad at all. I'll take it. I've been working doggedly. But my stroke feels smoother. The water is more slippery. Plus, my shoulders and neck don't hurt after I swim. All of a sudden, I can swim 2500 meters in my class and feel refreshed afterwards. Before, I would feel completely spent after each workout.
I did an easy mile in La Jolla Cove on Sunday. I didn't feel like it since I had just run a half marathon but I promised myself I could quit if I got in the water and still wanted to turn back. As soon as I dove in, I saw glittering schools of fish and bright orange Garibaldi, glowing against the soft velvety green seaweed background. The thought of quitting was washed instantly from my mind. The refreshing saltwater quieted my tired mind and soothed my aching body. I quickly found a rhythm with my breathing and my stroke and was moving away from shore. I heard clicking and whistling under the water at one point. Looking up, I caught a glimpse of a shiny gray dorsal fin to the east. Dolphins. In that moment, all was right with the world.
The group I had gone out with had a kayak to support them. Since I was the slowest swimmer, he stayed with me until my turn-around point. The rest were going 3 miles so he hurried to catch up to them. He gave me a worried look but I waved him on. I had no fear even though I was half a mile from shore in the middle of the ocean. The water was calm and blue and warm. I didn't even have my wetsuit. I could see other swimmers and kayakers about. After reassuring him, I calmly swam back to shore. I focused on reproducing the slippery feeling I get in the pool when my technique is spot on. Pretty soon, I had the right feel, which elated me. I picked up speed and happily soared back into the cove. I spent a few minutes swimming around, gazing at all the fish before heading up to the lawn.
From the lawn, I could see where I had been swimming. It was hard to believe I had been out there by myself. A dot in the vast emptiness of the ocean. But I had never felt alone. Quite the contrary. I had felt completely at peace. I may not be a fast swimmer. But I've been getting better. And I'm good enough now that I can enjoy the ride.