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."

No comments: