February 25, 2013

Qualifying for the Worlds -- Swimming

Yesterday I did the first swim meet of my life. It was not a big deal, and yet it was, as with everything you do for the first time.

There is a clear advantage to being a novice at something -- if you are willing to accept and embrace it.

"Eighty percent of success is showing up," as Woody Allen said.

That indeed was the measure for me. The biggest obstacle to yesterday's indoor swimming competition was finding the courage to try it, challenging the idea I have of myself as someone who cannot swim fast, that I am not -- never -- going to get any better, and that I wouldn't enjoy competing in the sport.

As a runner, I always encourage novices to try a race -- it's not about speed, it's about having the guts to prepare and start, it's about trying something new to challenge yourself. The results are invariably amazing (see The Casual Ultramarathoner and Never too Late to Discover You're a Runner).

We all possess potential that lies far beyond our expectations. That's where a fresh challenge can help us get unstuck as it reminds us that we are capable of more than we think as long as we are willing to try and take that first step. 

Getting to the swim meet was a matter of overcoming my reluctance -- mental resistance -- to showing up, fuelled by negative scenarios. Mental resistance can take many forms; I am most familiar with fear, procrastination, and being hard on myself.

"Resistance is not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within," writes Steven Pressfield in The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles.

All of us battle resistance every single day. Awareness helps to overcome it.

In the superb Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed writes about the solo 1,100-mile hike from California to Washington state she undertook at the age of 26 after losing her mother to cancer sparked a deep personal crisis. Strayed had no previous overnight hiking experience.

On her first day on the trail, starting from the Mojave Desert, Strayed descibes her attitude toward the potential natural dangers including rattlesnakes, mountain lions and "wilderness-savvy serial killers".

"... I wasn't thinking of them. It was a deal I'd made with myself months before and the only thing that allowed me to hike alone. I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.

"Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn't long before I actually wasn't afraid. I was working too hard to be afraid."

Challenging our preconceptions about ourself -- our ability, our talent, our potential -- is necessary for growth. Doing so often inspires anxiety as our mind races through all the things that could go wrong, the ways we could fail, fall short of expectations -- our own or those of others.

I could not help but feel a wave of regret wash over me as we -- Coach Roseline and teammates Simon, Andrew, Tim and I -- arrived at the Vancouver Aquatic Centre where 119 people had registered to compete in this cross-shaped 50-metre pool; though 25-metre lanes were used for this meet.

Why did I make myself do this? A swimming competition? I am not a swimmer, certainly not a fast swimmer.

After we found a spot on the pool deck to park ourselves and our gear for the day, we began a warmup at 10am among the myriad of other competitors. Aside from getting your body ready to race, it is also helpful to navigate a pool you don't know, experienced teammate Simon said.

Indeed, the water was a touch cooler than I am used to, while the sides of the pool were very different to those at Brennan Park. I couldn't help but feel nervous between the organized chaos of swimmers warming up, even as I had ordered myself to stay calm. It was just a first swim meet after all, not a big race I had trained months for.
Like many of the swimmers, I took a couple of turns on the only start block (also different to the Squamish pool) where we were allowed to practice -- both times my goggles flew down my face as soon as I hit the water.

Why did I make myself do this?

The first heat in the first event, the 400 free, was scheduled to begin at 10:30am right after the warmup and I was in it -- the swimmers with the slowest time estimates go first. 

Coach Roseline double-capped me to secure the goggles, as she had done in training earlier in the week; add one cap, then add goggles, add another cap over top low enough so it sits over the top rim of the goggles. She assured me they wouldn't budge.

I got ready to line up behind lane 6. An issue with the timing system delayed the start for about 15 minutes during which my goggles were so firmly pressed onto my eyes that I could barely stand it, but I didn't want to risk moving them from their failsafe position.

Then it was time for my debut as an indoor competitive swimmer. As you wait behind your lane, the timers check your name. Then there are two signals, one indicating you can step onto the block, and the next sigalling the "Take your mark" command will soon follow, upon which you stay completely until the Beep start signal, then you go.

As soon as I hit the water surface with my goggles still firmly in place, I relaxed instantly. I was in the water; all I had to do was swim 400 metres, sixteen 25s, though I count them as eight 50s. I felt good, smooth. I focused on breathing out under water, an easy thing to forget, and keeping track of the number of laps so I could pace the effort. 

I wanted to beat the 7:32 I had swum in training 5-1/2 weeks ago, and I was very happy to swim 6:56.

Getting that first heat out of the way made all the difference; my dive was fine, the goggles stayed in place, and it was simply a matter of swimming back and forth. And I had just improved my 400 time by 36 seconds.

Coach Roseline was taking our 50m splits at each event, so we could see how we paced ourselves, how it compared with previous times, and our goals. Her enthusiasm at the meet, like in training, was infectious and encouraging. She loves the sport and she loves helping others love to swim, and swim faster.

A five-page program listed each heat with the names and times of competitors in every event so you knew when and in which lane to swim. It was fun and inspiring to watch the others, especially of course the other three Titans.

A swim meet is very different to the running races and triathlons I am used to -- there you have one start, and one finish. Here you race, hang out, eat, drink, time and watch others, race again, and repeat. There is no fixed start time for each event, and each heat -- just a fixed sequence, so must pay attention.

Next up was the 100 free. My 1:45 estimate had seeded me in the second heat, in lane 7. Now I was more relaxed though it is important to stay focused. In the heat before me, a guy lost his balance in between "Take your mark" and the start signal and was disqualified. He shrugged his shoulders, not a big deal but a shame to miss out on an event.

Two 50s, or four 25s, means going as fast as you can, though I have learned that at this stage my stroke is better if I don't try so hard. Again, my dive went smooth, as did my swim and I was thrilled with 1:27.

In the 200 later that afternoon, I swam 3:12 compared with my estimate for 3:45.

And in the 800, I swam 14:24, instead of my 17:00 estimate.

It was a great experience; by showing up I gained a much better handle on my swim times and fitness and found fresh concrete goals to aim for. Coach Roseline has been trying to get the Titans squad excited about the FINA World Masters Championships, held in Montreal next year. Aside from a 1K open-water event that anyone can enter, swimmers need to meet age group standards. Superb benchmarks.

So, not only did I survive my first swim meet, I enjoyed it and am already planning to take part in the next one, the MSABC Provincials in April, where I hope to secure at least one worlds standard. I need a 36 50m, 1:20 100m, 3:00 200m. 6:15 400m, 13:20 800m or a 45:50 50m breaststroke.

The one that speaks most to my imagination is the Sub-3 200m of course :-), as it has been a magical target that has been on my mind for a few years now, just not in minutes and in a different sport. 

I have to be grateful for the injury that has sidelined me as a runner for eight months, and counting, as it has forced me to challenge a few key beliefs I had about myself. I love to run, I am a runner. But I don't want to be trapped by my inability to run and the conviction that no other form of exercise can replace it.

My key goal is still to return to running, so that I can resume my quest for the Sub-3 marathon. But in the meantime I am discovering and aiming for new targets to challenge myself, physically and mentally. Goals that force me to overcome mental resistance, in whatever form it may arise.

The swim meet helped me challenge the notion that I am not a swimmer.

I was a beginner runner once -- a woman who started jogging such short distances at such a slow speed that it would take a few years before I thought of myself as a runner. And it would take a few more years before I discovered an ability to run "fast".

Fast is relative, and that is a good thing. I have no plans to compete in Montreal in 2014. But you never know. It is all about finding inspiring goals to motivate your training, and to keep challenging the preconceived ideas you have about yourself.

And if you encounter resistance, embrace it, even follow it, Pressfield recommends: "The more important a call or action is to our soul's evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it."

February 23, 2013

Tapered for tomorrow's swim meet

It's been a week that was focused on tomorrow's English Bay Swim Club "Love to Swim" meet at the Vancouver Aquatic Centre.

Coach Roseline Mondor-Grimm had a taper week in store for the four of us, all Squamish Titans, competing there tomorrow; this meant less volume and higher intensity over our three one-hour sessions in the past five days.

I also had to learn how to dive off the start blocks, something I had hoped to avoid by simply diving off the edge of the pool. The Coach said, firmly, "I'd rather you don't."

On Monday, those of us headed for the swim meet swam about 1.6K (compared with 2.5K in the previous session), with the longest set a 400 free, then it was time to practice our starts. Assistant Coach Yi-khy Saw, a 1500m specialist who swam for Malaysia at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, was on deck to help.

The others already knew how to dive off the blocks, and soon went to the other side of the lane to practice their flip turns with Yi-khy. Doing flip turns at the meet is beneficial, but optional -- a proper start is not, so Coach Roseline taught me how to do it.

There are two key things to focus on. One, Roseline said, you must stay still in the time between the "Take your mark" call and the "Beep" start signal -- movement means disqualification. This may seem obvious if you have watched swimming competitions on TV, as I have, but I am glad she reminded me because there are so many other things to think about on those blocks.

Such as not falling flat on your face and/or losing your goggles. Indeed, you must remember to tuck your chin to your chest before your head hits the water, Roseline said, as my goggles slid down my face during the first few attempts. I'd hate to swim 16 or 32 25m lengths without goggles on Sunday.

She recommended I put my feet side by side with my toes curled around the edge of the block. I double forward my body with my fingers gripping the block too, and my knees slightly bent. Once cleared by the start signal, I need to use my leg strength to push forward, which will lift my arms forward too, while keeping my chin firmly on my chest. Roseline recommended I do not look ahead for now.

I practiced on Monday and again on Wednesday, both for about 5 to 10 minutes. Hopefully that will allow for four smooth starts tomorrow -- staying motionless when required and keeping the goggles in place will be my key goals.

Wednesday was a sharpening session; again we swam 1.6K in total including 3 sets of four 50s, doing each set slow, medium, fast and superfast respectively. I did not feel superfast.

Friday morning's workout I almost missed as I woke up late and tired. I am glad I went, though, as the core set provided a great boost of confidence. After a 400 warm-up, we did 3 100s of drills, swimming on our side, and streamline kicking. Then we swam four 50s aimed at a target time, followed by 30 seconds rest between each (unless we missed the target time then the recovery got shorter).

The Coach had me aim for 50 seconds, saying 55 would be OK too. Swimming behind Andrew and Tim in the lane, I forgot to watch the clock in the first 50 metres. I thought I made the 50-second target in the other three, possibly even 45. I felt good, strong and comfortable in the water.

Next we swam another 400 free, then did a second set of four 50s. My goal was 50 seconds this time -- no leeway to 55. I paid better attention to the clock, and left when the four coloured hands were on 15, 30, 45, and 60 respectively, though I focused on the blue one on 30.

Both the coach and I were surprised to see me hit the wall in 43 seconds. And repeating that time in the other three 50s too. Roseline's coaching and the taper are working, yay!

Earlier in the week I had questioned my decision to do the meet, but now I am glad because it has helped me become more aware of my splits and current level of fitness. I will not be among the fast swimmers tomorrow, indeed I will be among the slowest, but I will certainly be a more educated, and therefore more motivated, one because of the preparation for the meet.

It is not just about times but knowing them helps gauge your progress, and encourages you to sustain the training. It has only been seven weeks since I joined Roseline's squad, and I cannot wait to see the results after another four months. 
Each swimmer is allowed to compete in four events and had to provide time estimates for seeding. I opted for the 100, 200, 400 and 800 free, predicting I'll need 1:45, 3:45, 7:30 and 17:00.

The 100 free is the most popular at tomorrow's meet, with 89 people registered. My time estimate of 1:45 ranked me at 80, shared with two others including fellow Squamish Titan Andrew Clegg. Tim's 1:30:01 put him at 69, while the fastest Titan in this meet, Simon Crevier, is ranked a shared 13th with an estimate of 1:02.

The longer events are less popular: I am one of only 19 people listed to do the 800 free, and my 17:00 predicted time seeds me last. Both Tim and Andrew are among the 17 registered for the 1500. 

Tomorrow will be the first time in eight years that I will swim 800m continuously, a thought that is less intimidating when considering that distance makes up less than a quarter of the 3.8K I will have to swim in August at Ironman Canada.

February 22, 2013

Words on Writing I Like: Deena Metzger

"In their purest use, words not only describe reality and communicate ideas and feelings but also bring into being the hidden, invisible, or obscure. Words can leave us in the known and familiar or transport us to the unfamiliar, incomprehensible, unknown, even the unknowable. Words, therefore, are the primary route toward knowing the particular worlds we inhabit and our unique and individual selves."

- Deena Metzger in Writing for Your Life: A Guide and Companion to the Inner Worlds

February 17, 2013

Trying new things -- a swim meet

This week I pushed away my final doubts and registered for the English Bay Swim Club "Love to Swim" meet held next Sunday, Feb. 24. You can register too until the 20th.

It will be my first time at a swim meet. I do (yet) not do flipturns and have yet to learn diving off the start blocks. But I can swim, which is a good start.

I opted for four freestyle events: the 100, 200, 400 and (gulp!) 800. 

You have to provide your estimated finish times. I based mine on the 400m I did a month ago, when Squamish Titans swim coach Roseline Mondor-Grimm clocked me at 7:32.

For the meet, I estimated 7:30 for the 400, 17 minutes for the 800, 1:45 for the 100 and 3:45 for the 200.

Tim is registered too, he's doing the 50, 100, 400 and 1500 free. This will be his third swim meet, and Tim recommended I try one after doing his first two years ago encouraged by his then-swim coach Jan Francke.

The key goal for me is swim-specific fitness as I gear up for a return to triathlon, and Ironman.

"While the swim portion of the Ironman may only represent 10 percent of the race, it does play a significant role in the outcome. The time taken to exit the water is just a fraction of the whole picture of performance— the state in which we exit the water and how much energy is expended during the swim is critical to the overall performance at the end of the day," writes ironguides Coach Alun 'Woody' Woodward in Swim Technique - Part 1.

I am working hard on my swimming because it will help me lower the amount of bricks I will feel in my stomach come race day -- the more fit I can get in the water, the more comfortable I will be. Anxiety is a pre-race sensation I am looking to avoid at the start of Ironman Whistler in August.

My goal is to feel exited and confident, nervous in a good way, the way that helps sharpen your focus.

Sunday's meet will provide a great opportunity to test my current level of fitness, and watch some very fast swimmers in action.

Since the first week of January I have been training in the pool three times a week with the Titans, which means I have 18 one-hour sessions under my belt. I hope to do another three this week before Sunday's meet.

On Friday, I swam a little over 2.5K in the hour-long workout with coach Roseline. The longest continuous distance I have swum is 600 metres, so I'll be very curious to see how Sunday's 800 time will compare with my 400.


I have only once done a pure swim race, the 4.2K Across the Lake Swim in Taupo, New Zealand, in 2005, as Tim and I spent six weeks there getting ready for Ironman New Zealand. At its deepest point, the bottom of Lake Taupo is 186 metres below the water surface, an interesting fact to ponder as you swim across this massive body of water, also popular with cyclists as they follow the 160K around it in the annual Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge.