Dec 112013
The water and I are fighting. I don't know who's winning.

The water and I are fighting. I don’t know who’s winning.

The swimming lessons continue. I’m getting more comfortable in the water, but only by small margins. Our instructor has me working on a few different drills now, including treading water and more work with the kick board.

My major holdup right now is breathing. That’s sort of a big deal in the water, and suffice to say I’m not doing it right. It’s a matter of timing, really. And turning my head far enough. And keeping my legs going. And rotating my shoulders. And not running out of momentum. And making sure I’m exhaling again as soon as my face is in the water. Yeah I’m really bad at this.

Right before our class starts, there are two classes full of little kids. I sit on the bench beside the pool, mouth agape, and watch them as they effortlessly play with the water, breathe as much as they want, and wiggle their way from end to end and back again. It seems instinctive for them. I’m sure that they were taught, but when they were taught, it clicked.

It’s not really clicking with me yet, but it’s not the end of the world. Things like this always take a long time to click with me, but I’m determined enough to keep trying them until they do. I have a few lessons left in this class, and if it hasn’t clicked by then, I’ll just sign up for another one.

Dec 052013
Chatting with Mary, our instructor.

Chatting with Mary, our instructor.

The concept of the water doesn’t bother me. I like being on the water in a boat, or playing in the waves at the beach. Kayaking is a lot of fun. I’ve always thought that despite my inability to swim, I was entirely comfortable with the water.

That theory took a blow tonight, as my swimming instructor took us to the deep end of the pool for the first time. My panic was not overt. I didn’t freak out, at least not in a way that the casual observer would see. But I knew it, and Katie knew it. My kicks became short and choppy, my breathing fell apart, and my whole body became tense, just as soon as I saw the pool floor slope away beneath me. Things were fine and dandy, practicing in the shallow end. But as soon as failure (and drowning) became a real possibility, my mind sent all of the classic signs of panic through my body, and the wheels fell off.

Fear is a funny thing. It feeds on itself, magnifying the dangers we face. Like most people in modern, Western society, I spend so much of my life comfortable and unafraid, that when fear does rear its head, I don’t know what to do with it. My immediate reaction is to be fearful of the fear, compounding my problems.

On a mountain bike, when faced with an obstacle you’re not sure of clearing, the solution is most often as simple as pulling two levers with your fingers, and twitching an ankle to unclip. You can stop, eyeball what you’re afraid of, approach it slowly as many times as you like, until you’re comfortable enough to try and clear it.

Kicking just as fast as my little legs will go!

Kicking just as fast as my little legs will go!

Such options aren’t really available in 9 feet of water. For a moment, as I wobbled and sputtered my way to the far side of the pool for the first time, hands out in front clutching a kick board, the panic reaction nearly overwhelmed me. My body stiffened. I got water in my nose. I forgot entirely what I was supposed to be doing. I just wanted it to be over. I kept at it, kept breathing and kicking. Finally it was over, and I grasped the wall with white knuckles, more shaken at the experience than glad to have done it.

Subsequent attempts were only marginally more successful, in terms of swimming technique. But they were also mildly successful in a more important way: shrinking the monster. Every trip down the lane and back is one more time I didn’t die. One more time I made it under my own power. By the end of the session, I still felt the clutch of panic as the floor dropped away, but at least I knew it was coming, and that meant I could stay a little ahead of it, even at my snail’s pace. Now that I’ve acknowledged the fear, identified it and faced it, I feel that it’s only a matter of time until I beat it.

And for that, I can’t wait until I get back in the pool.

Nov 252013
Doing a new thing? That means a new shiny!

Doing a new thing? That means a new shiny!

I’ve made it no secret that I can’t swim. This comes as a surprise to a lot of people, for whatever reason, but you may as well have asked me if I speak fluent Russian. Their surprise is a surprise to me, since I’ve never really been able to do it. I suppose it’s something like my bewilderment at people who never learned to type; I’ve been able to do it for so long, and from such an early age, that I can’t imagine not having the ability.

It’s not that I haven’t been taught. I have, several times, by several different methods. In second grade, they bussed all of us over to the local YMCA for lessons. I didn’t pass. The following summer, while at a hotel on vacation, my dad took the “throw him in and he’ll learn” approach. I sank. He had to come in after me. I didn’t speak to him for days, convinced that he had been trying to kill me. In high school, several of my friends were incredulous that I couldn’t even float, and watched, perplexed, as I demonstrated my ability to simply sink to the bottom, on my back, and lie there.

In the years since, I’ve developed some sort of flailing “technique” that one might be tempted to call swimming. It’s like a doggy paddle, if the doggy was out of shape, uncoordinated and a little bit panicked at the idea of being in the water. It’s not pretty, but it’s effective enough to (hopefully) get me from where I land in the water, to the nearest floating piece of debris or life raft. What it isn’t, is anything that you imagine when I say the word “swimming.”

Through the race season, while conversing with friends and competitors about my efforts in running and biking, the inevitable question arose almost without fail: “Why don’t you do triathlons?” The ability to swim is assumed. Most triathlons, short of the Ironman variety, have reasonable swim distances. The follow-on assumption is that if one can run and ride for long distances, adding a swim is no big deal. Except, of course, if you can’t do it.

After years of answering the question with some embarrassment, I’ve decided to do something about it. After all, being told I can’t do something is essentially what spurred my whole lifestyle change from bloated couch potato to addicted racer. A few years ago, I blew up my knee. In rehab after surgery, they told me that I’d likely never run more than the required mile and a half for my annual fitness test. In response, I started running 5k’s that fall, and the following Spring, signed up for a half marathon. I’ve done a half dozen since, and have no plans of stopping.

So after much hemming and hawing, and with more than a few pep talks from Katie, I signed us up for lessons at the YMCA in December. Katie’s coming with me for a refresher, and as moral support. We’ve been coaching each other for years now, so it’s only natural that she’d come along. While it may seem counterintuitive to learn to swim in middle of winter, I’m banking on everybody else thinking that, too. The fewer people who show up to witness my aquatic thrashing, the better.

I’ve spent the year engaged in a lot of activities that some of my readers have told me are crazy. While in the middle of some of them, I was sometimes inclined to think they were right. But putting on the goggles and getting in the pool this December will be, in many ways, the biggest challenge of my year.