Monday, March 4, 2013


In October, I wrote that I was going to start focusing on swimming and that as a result, there would probably be a lot in this blog about swimming.  Since that time, I've written four blog posts: three about cycling and one about running.  Doh! I've swam a lot since the New Year, though, so it's about time to reflect on what I've learned so far.

I attended my first masters class not long after I wrote my blog entry about becoming "George the Swimmer."  I put it off and put it off until I got this tweet from Andrew Shanks, one of the coaches at Dynamo, a highly-respected swimming and multisport group here in Atlanta:
I couldn't just ignore that:

As you can see from the screenshot above, it was promptly re-tweeted by my supportive wife (who has a pretty good sense of what motivates me), thus solidifying my commitment.  And as if that wasn't enough, she responded to it and tagged several other people, some of whom began responding: 

So, as I said I would, I went on that Thursday morning.  And to be honest, I regretted not having gone sooner.  In mid-November, there was hardly anyone there.  The coach, Maria Thrash, put me in a lane by myself and gave me a lot of attention.  I went two more times, and then I broke my arm falling off a mountain bike.  That was a shame, because when my arm was finally healed, I spent another full week or so re-building my confidence to go back again.  I finally bit the bullet on Monday, January 28th.  This semester, I'm only able to fit it into my schedule on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, given that my first class starts at 7:30 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

In my life, I've had two real swimming goals.  The first was to swim 4224 yards (roughly the Ironman distance) in the pool.  I accomplished that in November of 2011, about five months after learning to swim from scratch and about two weeks before competing in Ironman Cozumel.  The second was to have perfect Monday/Wednesday/Friday attendance at masters for six weeks--from my return on January 28th until the start of my spring break on March 8th.  Barring anything unforeseen, I'll accomplish that second goal at the end of this week.

Have I improved?  I really don't know.  I can certainly do some of the drills better than I could when I first got there, but I'm not sure if I am actually any better at getting through the water yet.  Masters consists of a lot of swimming with "equipment"--buoys, paddles, kickboards, and fins--and a lot of short repeats.  All I had ever done in the pool prior to going to masters was swim the yardage my coach put on my schedule.  Thus, I have very little basis for comparison.  I won't really know whether I'm any better until (a) I get back in the pool and swim long distances, or (b) race.  Neither of those will happen until May at the earliest, so until then, I'm going to take it on faith that I'm getting stronger and more proficient.

There are other things I have learned so far.  In no particular order:

--Don't speed when you leave the Dynamo parking lot.  There's a school just up the road, and the police hang out and wait for people who are rushing through the school zone.  Oops.

(Yes, I'm a teacher.  Yes, I got a ticket for speeding in a school zone.  Let's try not to read too much into this.)  

--My lack of swimming prowess stems from a few factors, some of which are more readily fixable than others.  First, I have phenomenally inflexible ankles from years and years of running.  As a result, my feet contribute absolutely nothing to my forward progress.  In fact, they stunt my forward progress; my feet are so unpointed that the whole lower half of my body sinks into the pool when I try to get horizontal.  (And yes, this is also due to a weak core.  I'm working on it.)  If I try to use a kickboard, I literally stop still in the water.  I have to use a single fin in order to make any progress down the pool if I'm not using my arms.  Second, my arms only do so much to overcome my dragging lower body, given that I don't have a great deal of strength in them.  Several shoulder injuries in the last few years has meant that I've had numerous two- to three-month periods in which I was hardly doing any work with my arms.  That has left me much weaker in my shoulders than I was five years ago.  Third and finally, I don't have the sort of coordination that good swimmers have.  I imagine that this will improve with time, but I don't know if I'll ever match the coordination of accomplished swimmers, such as the UGA Swim and Dive team show off here:

--As someone new to swimming, I'm bad not only at the actual swimming, but also at the skills that accompany swimming.  I'm all over the place during some drills, flailing my arms and gasping for air.  In addition, I suck at petty things, like putting on my paddles and turning while using the equipment.  This makes sense--most new cyclists aren't very good at cornering or changing tires--but it serves as a persistent reminder that I'm new to this.  

--My speed goals in swimming actually seem fairly moderate (read: achievable) if I think of them in terms of time spent in the water.  At Ironman Wisconsin 2013 (with a wetsuit), I'll be very happy if I swim seven minutes faster than I swam at Ironman Coeur d'Alene 2012 (with a wetsuit) and five minutes faster than I did at Ironman Cozumel 2011 (without a wetsuit).  That only amounts to 7 to 10 seconds faster per 100y, or about one second per 100y a month since I started masters in January.  If I qualify for Kona 2014, my goal will be to go twelve minutes faster than I swam at Coeur d'Alene and ten minutes faster than I did at Cozumel.  That amounts to 14 to 17 seconds per 100y, or less than one second per 100y a month since I started masters in January.  I don't think that that is unreasonable considering how much room I have to improve and considering that I'm already planning a major swimming block in November, 2013.  (You may note that I've left my Kona 2012 swim out of my consideration.  Although I'm sure that I will one day look back on it as a key moment in my sporting life, I don't consider it an indication of what I was capable of doing at the time.)         

--Masters is not nearly as intimidating as my wife made it sound.  (In her defense, I probably inferred a lot from her stories that wasn't there in order to justify my staying home.)  For one thing, it's not judgmental.  The coach has enough experience to have seen slower swimmers than me, and besides the people with whom I'm sharing the lane that day, none of the rest of the people that come to class can see what I'm up to in the guppy lane.  We all just do our thing.  Along similar lines, it's not nearly as stratified as I once thought.  I thought that the lane you were in was paramount, and you had to try and stay with the people in your lane.  It's really not that way at all--at least not at my end of the pool.  I'm in different lanes with different people pretty much every time I go to masters, and I may exchange a word or two with my lane-mates about what exercise was just assigned.  Other than that, I hardly have any interaction with the other swimmers when we're actually in the pool.  If I do, it's normally positive.  

At times, I've found that I actually look forward to masters.  I like having a structured practice with other people (even if I don't interact much with them) and a coach telling me what to do.  Once I got over my initial issues about feeling stupid, I have actually found it easier to motivate to go to masters than to do many other things.  The 5:00 alarm comes early, but only a touch earlier than it would be if I was not going to masters.  Plus, with Kacie's RAAM training, she's in bed early and up early most weekdays anyway.  It's easier to crawl out of bed when she's crawling out of bed, too.