Friday, August 17, 2007

A Swim in the Atlantic Ocean: Not So Much Fun

There is no getting around the fact that in order to do the best you possibly can in a race, there must be a certain amount of suffering involved in training. Is suffering too strong a word? Then perhaps discomfort. You simply cannot push yourself for an extended period of time in a race if you never do so in training, despite what some so-called experts may suggest. In my younger days I certainly tried to push myself in training, feeling that the reward of a personal best or high placing in a race would be worth the temporary pain I was experiencing at the time. In his excellent book Bowerman: The Men of Oregon, author Kenny Moore quotes 1964 5,000-meter bronze medalist Bill Delllinger as saying, “After you are in decent shape, running is easy. Anyone can do that. It’s like brushing your teeth. But real training? That’s hard. It’s like getting your teeth cleaned at the dentist’s office.”

Now at age 51 and well past the age of personal bests, most of my training is done in the comfort zone. I do push myself on occasion, when I feel like challenging myself. Mostly that happens on bike rides and trail runs however, not in time trial road runs or on the track, as in the past. But I rarely undertake a workout from which I know going in I will derive little or no enjoyment. Life seems too short these days for that.

The other day however, I did one of those rare “dentist office” type workouts. I have decided to aim for a half ironman triathlon in early September, a race I did two years ago. I felt that completing a half ironman would be a good goal for this year. It will be my first since turning 50. The swim is held in the ocean, and being a firm believer in specificity of training, I knew I would have to venture into the chilly Atlantic Ocean at least once or twice before race day. As it is, I have hardly been swimming (just four swims in the past two months), thus it seemed even more imperative. But I knew it probably would not be much fun. Even in the hot and humid dog days of August, the ocean in Massachusetts is still plenty cold, the water temperature in the low to mid 60s.

Nonetheless, I put on my wetsuit (a very time and effort-consuming task in itself) and ventured into the water. At least the ocean was fairly calm, no ten-foot waves crashing onto shore. In fact, at low tide, I had to walk a good 50 yards off shore to find water deep enough in which to swim. The cold enveloped me right away, enough so my brain immediately said “Why don’t we do about five minutes and call it a day. At least you can say you got into the ocean.” But I put those thoughts aside and slowly swam in a southerly direction. The goal was to do at least 30 minutes, maybe 45 if I could stand it. The time seemed to go by ever-so-slowly, but I kept on slogging away. Even the small waves made negotiating the water a challenge however, lifting me up and dropping me on the other side, a disorienting feeling. A little past 20 minutes I turned around and exactly at 45 minutes I scurried out of the ocean, happy to embrace the muggy, humid air once again, peeling off my wetsuit as I went.

I don’t know how far I swam; surely not too far. But at least I got this necessary workout in the books. The water temperature in Rhode Island is likely (hopefully) to be a little warmer and more inviting than what I experienced during this swim, so that is a good thing. If only I could say the same thing about the dentist.

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