I competed in a 2-mile open water swim last weekend. Someone at my work said he was doing it about a month ago, and I decided I needed an extra challenge in my life. By the time I worked out getting a pool membership again, I had about 2 weeks to train. But hey, I used to swim distance events on the high school team, I've done plenty of 1-mile swims in the lake at scout camp without feeling particularly exerted, and I've been feeling like I'm currently in the best shape of my life.
Scout Camp Swimming Lake is not in the same league as Real Big Dammed Up River Lake--not at all. And open water swims are not like swimming in a nice little pool. I knew I needed to add a certain percentage to my pool time to account for flip turns and a lack of a straight line to stare at, but I couldn't really have prepared for the psychological aspect of being--not all alone, because there were lots of other swimmers, and kakayers and motor boats patrolled the swim lane--but still, pretty much alone in your own little world of murky water with flashes of rocky shore or open water caught during breaths in between. It became disorienting extremely quickly: nothing under you, everything around you too far away to really see. It was also very hard to swim in a straight line. I had to interrupt my stroke constantly to steal a glance ahead and line myself up off the next buoy. It probably would have been easier if I had enlisted a personal kayak escort, as some swimmers had done--just line up off your kayaker and forget everything else.
I'm not saying all this to imply that I didn't love it--because I did. I loved the immersion, I loved the extra mental challenge to go along with the physical challenge. Actually, I pretty much hated feeling disoriented and had a very painful air bubble to boot, and by the end I really, really had to pee, but looking back, these are of course the moments we live for. To be challenged, and to push.
After all, open water swimming is kind of like lead climbing. You are there, you are exposed, and you are in a position of commitment because you can't just stop when it gets hard and find immediate relief from this state of challenge. In lead climbing, you've got to get to the top first, or at least to a place where you can put in your next piece of gear if you are really sure you want to bail and don't care that you'll have to leave a really expensive piece of equipment behind in order to do so. In open water swimming, it's not like you can just grab the side or touch down. You can wave to your escort boat and they'll probably be able to get you in a pretty timely fashion--but they aren't all that close to you, and you still have to wave for help before you are really in trouble.
I finished the event way faster than both I and my parents thought I would (1 hour, seven minutes, 56 seconds. I came in 14th place overall out of 61 swimmers and was the 4th placed female to finish. Not bad for 2 weeks of training!) I couldn't even find them when I got out because they were still out in a motor boat on the course following someone much slower who it turned out wasn't me at all. Another thing about these swims is that with matching yellow swim caps, we all look the same from far away. "Good job!" My dad said, "I'm really proud of you. I was really worried you were in over your head when you told me you signed up for this event, and I was worried we couldn't find you and you'd be stuck in the back and discouraged." Gee thanks for the confidence, Dad. But it's true, I'm really not who I used to be, physically, but maybe especially mentally.
I'm kinda getting really into this stuff. Being afraid and uncomfortable and having to really trust myself--and the confidence I gain by being my own, strong, decision-making island. Really pushing my personal fitness by doing physically exerting things in exotic settings. Not saying I'm about to go swim the English Channel or lead climb El Capitan--but you never really know what your limits are until you push them.