On January 24 of this year, I jumped into a swimming pool and swam laps for the first time in many, many years.
It felt great—for about one and a half laps. Then the pain started, and once it started it didn’t go away. I managed to complete 1,000 yards that day, but I don’t think I swam more than 75 yards at a time. In between, there were lots of breaks to catch my breath and to remind my arms that they really do know how to do this.
Two days later, I was sore, but I was back. This time, I was able to make myself do “repeats” of 100 yards—four laps—separated by easy 50s, either swimming breaststroke or kicking with a kickboard. Stopping for a breather after each 100 or 50, of course. It wasn’t pretty, but it was progress.
Growing Up In Pools
Between the ages of about 10 and 23, much of my life was spent in swimming pools. I joined the local swim club the summer after fourth grade, and swam summers for a couple of years before starting to swim year-round. But it was years and years before I really got the hang of it. In high school, I wound up swimming distance freestyle, mostly without distinction.
After high school, I went to Missouri U., where I had no shot at making the swim team. But I did keep swimming—evenings, during open swim. I found it was a great way to both keep in shape and blow off college stress, just doing my own workouts without a coach barking at me.
After a couple of years at Mizzou, though, the weight of the big university was getting a little much for me, and I switched to North Central College—about a tenth the size of Mizzou—where suddenly I could be an editor on the school newspaper and be on the swimming team.
So for the last two years of my college career, I was a swimmer again, and in many ways it was the best two years of my life.
At North Central we didn’t do the crazy yardage that some swim teams were doing those days—we’d get in about 5,000–6,000 yards a day as I recall—but our workouts were intense, with lots of high-quality sprint work. During the height of the training season, the cumulative fatigue clouded everything we did. Too tired to study, too muscle-twitchy to sleep. The payoff, though, came at the end of the season, with the magical taper before the conference meet, when the workouts were cut back and suddenly we had all of the energy we’d been lacking for the previous three months. In my senior year, that taper led to the best swimming meet of my entire life, where I dropped my times like crazy, and had a lot of fun doing it.
But after the intensity of my two years swimming at North Central, and after more than a decade spent in swimming pools, I was ready to get out of the water. I took up running to stay in shape and to satisfy my competitive urges. I realized that hey, you could work out AND see the world at the same time. In a pool, you can only see what is within nine walls—the four walls and bottom of the pool, and the four walls of the natatorium. Within those walls, your vision is further limited by your goggles, which, besides restricting your field of view, more often than not get fogged up within a lap or two. Any entertainment during a long swim pretty much has to be supplied by your own imagination.
But with running, you can take in a lot more. Until I started running, I had no idea how boring swimming had been.
So for the next 30 years or so, I pounded ground and took part in running races of every distance from the mile to the marathon—just once, for the marathon—but mostly stuck to 5Ks, 10Ks and half-marathons.
But while running gives you more in-flight entertainment, it does carry its risks. Namely, all that pounding. I had a couple of stints on the DL—i.e., physical therapy—once for a bad knee and once for a herniated disc. But I recovered, and in 2015 I was having a pretty good running year, including three half-marathons in the spring.
But on one run in September, it all came crashing down, with an acute pain in my calf near the end of the run. The pain mostly stopped when I stopped running, but when I tried again a day or so later, it returned immediately, and I knew my running was done for a few weeks.
And as it turned out, I was finished for the rest of the year. My calf recovered, more or less, but then I caught a nasty cold. And whenever I would try to run, I would get some kind pain in my lower legs: calf, knee, ankle, whatever. Something was always hurting. I heard the message loud and clear—these old legs have had about enough running.
Back To The Pool
So it was back to the pool. I made it a New Year’s resolution to start swimming again, but it took me more than three weeks after the new year to actually get up the guts to join the YMCA and get in the water.
It was painful at first, as I knew it would be. But with each workout, I was gradually able to do a little longer swims without resting, and a little longer total yardage for the day.
One gratifying thing: even if my arms and shoulders would turn to jelly in a short time, I still had my flip turns. It was almost like I’d never left the pool in the first place; with the very first time I approached a wall, I knew exactly how to adjust my last stroke, and then duck my head, flip over, twist and then bounce off the wall. After doing millions of them as a kid, I guess the movement has become imprinted in me. That was a pleasant surprise.
I kept up with it. After a few weeks, I was up to 2,000 yards per session. That’s barely a warmup for world-class swimmers, but enough for me to feel like I’ve had a good workout, and is a decent yardage for the amount of time I usually have available. I’ll go longer if I can.
One day in late March, I had some extra time and I pushed the total a little, and also, for the first time, swam a 500 freestyle without stopping. It felt remarkably good, and as I got down to about four laps to go, I felt just as strong as I had on the first lap. I decided to find out just how strong I actually was. After the turn to start the last 50, I hit the gas, accelerating steadily through the penultimate lap until I was going at just about Top Speed—faster than I had swum in decades—as I approached the last turn. I executed a perfect turn, got a strong push-off, grabbed a powerful pull to bring myself to the surface, easily resumed Top Speed for a few strokes and then pushed it to Beyond Top Speed, and it still felt perfect. I was gliding along, high in the water, my turnover furious but mechanics not degrading at all. It was like the second-best feeling in the world. I slammed into the wall at the end, heart pounding and lungs heaving, and it felt like I was back in college. It had taken me a couple of months, but I could swim again.
Of course, I know that the “now” me would appear to be treading water against the 35-years-ago me. I know that, even if I could survive a season of the training rigor we went through in college, I wouldn’t approach the kind of times I swam then. But just to be able to touch that feeling of sprinting full out again was something special. The goals are different now: I just hope to get, and stay, in some semblance of “shape,” and maybe to stave off the grave for a few extra minutes. And if I can enjoy it while I’m doing it, so much the better.