I swam 50,000 yards in one month…This is what I learned

I smelled like chlorine, my skin itched, and I had goggle marks around my eyes for the entire month of November. 

I loved it.

I decided to take part in “Swimvember” a swim challenge coordinated by Multisport Mastery and Jen Harrison triathlon coaching. Each swimmer earns points just for swimming (there was a minimum yardage for a swim to “count”), and through bonus challenges, like specific workouts, swimming twice in one day, meeting a certain yardage over a few days, and tons more. 

I went into this thinking I could stand to have some external motivation to swim more than I currently was (generally 0-1 times per week), and if my swimming improved, it would be a bonus. 

My earliest memory of swimming is begging my mom or dad to take me into the water. Though I grew up spending my summers at the beach and taking swim lessons, I was terrified to put my face in the water and had no idea how to actually locomote underwater until I was six or seven. I remember winning the six and under category in our local beach’s kickboard contest and burning with the shame of knowing I’d actually walked while holding my white styrofoam kickboard out in front of me. 

Eventually, I learned how to swim to the point where I’d probably stay afloat if I fell off a boat. I started swimming for exercise in college. I enjoyed it even though I was slow. I didn’t know how slow I was until I started doing triathlons and found myself consistently exiting the water dead last. The entire transition area would be empty except for my bike, standing all alone among the dozens and dozens of empty racks. 

Over the years, I’ve bought swimming DVD’s, taken swim lessons, attended swim clinics,  and faithfully (and very intermittently) attended Masters. Gradually, my swimming progressed from abysmal to mediocre to about average, at least by triathlete standards. 

But I never believed I could be a decent swimmer. I thought good swimmers grew up doing swim team. I feared swimming more frequently would be a waste of time; that I’d ingrain the flaws in my stroke even deeper.

Swimvember changed that. After swimming 25 times for a total of 50,000 yards this month, I have become faster, stronger, and more confident in the water. I am astounded and thrilled, but I’m also a little embarrassed that I never thought to apply the stuff that works for everything else in my life to swimming until now. 

Because this is what I know works in the water and everywhere else in life:

Show up
There were days I just didn’t want to swim. Days that my arms were tired from the day before, days that I’d gone to bed a little too late to hear my alarm going off at 5:15am, days that I just felt like working out in my basement instead of running out to start my freezing cold car in the dark, and letting it warm up while I sipped some instant coffee. Sometimes I cut my swim short because I ran out of time or energy. 

But I showed up. And all that showing up counts. Even the easy, minimum yardage swims counted for a point, added to my momentum, helped me build strength, swim by swim. 1500 yards isn’t much on its own, but stacked on top of all the other swimming, it adds up. The short, easy session you show up for is always better than the perfectly planned long one that doesn’t end up happening. 

Get uncomfortable
The more you do things that are out of your comfort zone, the wider your comfort zone gets. After years and years of swimming for 20 to 45 minutes at a time for anywhere from zero to eight times a month, I’d gotten comfortable with my little swimming routine (or lack thereof). But it wasn’t getting me anywhere. 

It was only when I got out of my comfort zone—doing swims as long as 3700 yards, swimming twice in one day, swimming 10,000 yards within four days, swimming on back-to-back days as often as I could—that I grew as a swimmer. A month ago I thought of a 2400 yard swim as a big deal. Now it feels pretty normal. 

Do what works for you
Figure out what motivates you and use it to your advantage. I like to compete. I thrive on external accountability. That’s why I like having a training partner, hiring a coach, signing up for a race, or in this case, joining a virtual swim challenge with the opportunity to earn points. 

I was in this thing to win all the points I could, despite knowing I wasn’t even in contention for the top ten, and despite the fact that literally, nothing was at stake. I just wanted those damn points. I wanted them so bad Dan is wondering how he can implement some kind of points system in our marriage. 

When I got into Barton Springs Pool, a pool I’ve been wanting to swim in ever since I heard of it ten years ago, I realized why I was one of only three people swimming in it. It was the closest I’ve ever come to a Polar Plunge. I didn’t care if this was my relaxing 40th birthday weekend in Austin with my husband while the kids stayed with their grandparents. I didn’t care if I couldn’t feel my hands, feet, or face. I didn’t care if I feared I was going to get raped in the deserted, open-air locker room while I changed my still damp body into dry clothes after swimming. I didn’t mind coming to the pool at times that I’d previously thought were way too inconvenient (traffic, dragging kids to childcare, etc) when a point was at stake.

I can’t quite articulate the pleasure I got from pulling up the group spreadsheet and entering my points.

Maybe an arbitrary point system wouldn’t motivate you, but something does. Figuring out what that is is half the battle.


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