I start many of my columns expressing the sentiment that something “seemed like a good idea at the time.” Today, I will repeat this mantra. In a moment of questionable sanity I signed up to participate in the Tupper Lake Triathlon in New York state in June. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
A triathlon actually consists of four events: swimming, biking, running and dying. They are frequently done in this order. I feel confident that, if there are no time constraints, I will be able to finish the biking and running portions of this particular endeavor before the change of seasons. However, the swimming leg of the event definitely has me worried.
As a child I took swimming lessons when my family vacationed in Maine. I don’t know if it’s due to global warming or a poor memory, but I recall that back in the early 1970s weather conditions on a June morning on a lake in Maine were similar to those on a January morning on Lake Champlain today.
Years of therapy helped me overcome the trauma inflicted by my swim teachers, two women in their 20s. These ladies, clearly looking to pick up some easy spending cash by passing themselves off as “certified instructors,” would tell the class what stroke they wanted us to use to navigate around a buoy in the distance. They would advise us to fight through the whitecaps and avoid the icebergs, and then retreat to a car in the parking lot to crank the heat and discuss the previous night’s activities while we dealt with fatigue and hypothermia trying to follow their instructions.
Fueled by a desire to survive, I actually learned to swim under these circumstances. Unfortunately, I was so scarred by my experience at the hands of my instructors that I never did much swimming later in life. Sure, a short paddle out to a raft on a pond, or a couple of freestyle strokes across a parking lot during a Vermont spring, but nothing that would prepare me for the 1.2-mile portion required in the triathlon. To put a 1.2-mile swim in perspective, this would be like going to the beach in Portland, Maine, getting into the water, and swimming to England. At least it is going to seem that far to me.
With this fact in mind, I decided it might be good to get into the water once or twice before the event. On my first day of training I arrived at the local pool with a towel, swim trunks and the determination to prove to myself I could handle 1.2 miles. There was only one thing preventing me from cranking out the 90 laps required to complete this distance. That thing would be swimming.
Even before I realized the effort of swimming was going to be an issue, I discovered I had to get used to submerging my body in H2O. When you are a kid, splashing around in the water seems very natural. As a 53-year-old, it feels a bit less innate. When I first jumped into the pool, water started to invade every port of entry on my body. I began taking on water like the Titanic. To make matters worse, it felt like Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were both sitting on my back, and I made a slow descent to the bottom of the pool.
I tried to think back to my swimming lesson days and remembered the most important thing I was supposed to do. All I could come up with was to get out of the water, get in the car and turn up the heat.
I flailed around and started to move forward, and my body returned to the surface. After a total of two laps I was convinced I was going to cough up a lung. It was a very humbling experience.
I have since returned to the pool. But I am much better prepared. First off, I wear neon orange earplugs and swim goggles that make me look like a fly. The only accessories missing that prevent me from being a total “chick magnet” are nose plugs and inflatable arm swimmies. And I haven’t ruled these out for future training sessions. I have also retained the services of a coach who is helping me with my stroke and conditioning.
With every workout I am adding to the distance I can swim without a major coronary incident. At my current pace, there is a good chance I will be able to swim 1.2 miles nonstop before my kids start collecting Social Security.
I am feeling so good about my progress that I am thinking about looking into swimming the English Channel next summer. It just seems like a good idea.
Mark S. Albury lives in Northfield Falls.
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