Lessons From the Water

The route--3 km lake, 22+ km river, 9 km lake

The route–3 km lake, 22+ km river, 9 km lake

Last Sunday, on a whim, I texted Arno to  see what he was doing the following day.  I’d decided rather spontaneously that it was time to tackle the mission I’d been thinking about for over a year–a swim from Te Anau to Manapouri.  I’d planned on ‘getting fit’ for it and having a go in a month, but something inside me on Sunday told me I wasn’t really going to be getting fitter than I already was, and that I just needed to get it done.

With Arno available to pilot me down the 23 km or grade I river and carry my food for the journey, I had no more excuses. Details were hammered out and at 10 am on Monday I waded into the calm waters of Lake Te Anau for the first 3 km lake crossing.

One of the benefits of a spur of the moment decision to take on something somewhat epic is that you have less time to really worry about it.  Sure, there was still plenty of worrying between the time Arno committed and when I started swimming, but there was only a 12 hour window for that worrying to happen in and at least some of that time was spent sleeping.  

I worried about being too cold mostly. While the water temps have warmed up nicely from what they were this winter (15-ish degrees celsius vs 8!), my longest swim in ‘training’ had been roughly an hour–far short of how long I’d be immersed if I was to cover the 35 km of lake and river that lay between the towns.

I was full of nerves moments before starting the swim

I was full of nerves moments before starting the swim

Which brings me to lesson one: Most of what we worry about never happens.  Depending on your source, social and psychological sciences place the ‘needless’ worry at between 85 and 92% (or thereabouts).  Which means that an awful lot of mental energy is wasted on worrying about things that either we can’t control, cannot change, or that will never actually happen.  In this case, most of my worry, and my pre-swim’s fitful night’s rest, were the result of such a worry. Thankfully, there was a limit in my case, temporally speaking, to how much I had to sit with this worry. Once I started my journey it’s mootness became more concrete–I was wearing what I was wearing and I’d either get too cold or I wouldn’t, so worrying about it was pointless. I could just swim.

And swim I did. A bit more than 3 km across lake Te Anau–a good solid pace to start with but nothing too ambitious. My goal was to finish first, and push second.  I was feeling pretty good as I jogged the half kilometer gravel path around the control gates at the head of the river.  I was an hour in and took the opportunity to grab my first fuel, some gummy powergel snacks and a couple of swigs of Raro (a New Zealand version of Tang).

The river was awesome. I’d swum the first half of its 22 km length a number of times recently and so knew it well–it’s rocks and chutes and corners.  It was fast and exciting, especially the second half which I’d only swum once.  I had a bit more apprehension here–this section has a few tree choked braided sections where collision with something is a real possibility and there are frequent spooky moments where carcasses of ancient trunks reach up like claws from the abyss–the river carrying you relentlessly forward over their outstretched fingers.  But I had Arno as my guide (he really is a guide–regularly leading commercial packrafting trips down this section of water).

Perfect swimming conditions, nothing to worry about!

Perfect swimming conditions, nothing to worry about!

So I tried to relax and embody lesson two: go with the flow. There is simply no activity I have engaged in during my rather storied life where this lesson becomes so obvious as when I’ve been swimming down this river.  Any form of resistance to the literal flow is immediately felt.  The experience is visceral.  The more I was able to be at ease with what was happening and save my ‘reactions’ for what was genuinely occurring, the more relaxed I was both mentally and physically.  Awareness was a big part of this–in the section of the river that I knew well it meant planning ahead, understanding the nature of the flow from experience, and working with it. I lined up for the corners, allowed the current to sweep me towards the outside knowing that I wouldn’t get pushed too far, and enjoyed the speed.  I didn’t fight the rapids on the surface, gasping for breath against the chaotic waves, but dove down and rode the under currents for a smoother ride.  I saved my energy by stroking it out when the river turned placid and I could swim efficiently. I fought the flow only when it was absolutely necessary, when the consequences for not doing so were both unimagined and negative.  

And for the part of the river where I felt uncertain, I practiced lesson three: commit to trust.  While it is important to decide carefully who you are going to trust, when you’ve made a decision, commit to it.  I was lucky to have Arno with me as our relationship and his water reading skills made it easy to trust him.  Whenever I’d considered this section of the swim previously, even without a committed date, I’d been anxious about this section of the river. But with Arno as chaperone, I was able to relinquish that anxiety by knowing that he had my best interests at heart, would be attentive to those interests, and that as a result I could ‘let go’ of my need to control a situation that would otherwise have been very stressful.  The act of trusting is linked to the ability to take risks as well–those more likely to trust in general tend to be more likely to accept a certain level of risk in their lives. And at least in my opinion, the acceptance of risk (and the inevitably resulting failures) is a key factor in a robust life. And as I finally swam out of the river mouth and into Lake Manapouri, my life certainly felt very robust.

My body, on the other hand, did not. As the adrenaline response from river section slowly faded, I became more acutely aware of how shattered I felt, and the BIG question as to how my body would hold up over the next 9 km of lake.  A year ago I’d had some issues with my right shoulder that required physical therapy and it continued to bug me when I pushed too hard, even on shorter swims.  By the end of the river it was already feeling pretty wrecked–would it last another hour?  Three?  Although I’ve got plenty of experience in land based endurance efforts, my longest swim ever was a 10 mile affair, took just over 4 hours to finish, and happened 15 years ago.  It was a rather outdated litmus test from which to draw strength for what remained ahead, especially considering at the time I’d been healthier (shoulder wise), fitter (swimming wise), and even then been plagued by such severe cramping in my left elbow by the end that I swam the entire last mile with on arm.

Thankfully, all that being said, I have learned a thing or two in the intervening year, one of which I’d been reminded reminded of via a FB post recently.

The final leg...9 km to go!

The final leg…9 km to go!

Lesson four: fatigue is all in your head.  Ok, maybe not all, but certainly the point when you decide that you’ve reached your limit is. When I started to really feel broken only a short distance into the final lake swim, I relied heavily on this idea.  I knew from all my big adventures on terra-firma that the general pain that I was enduring was self-limiting. If I was broken it was almost certainly in a way that was repairable.  The pain caused by low-impact repetitive joint use, on a single occasion (not chronic overuse such as in high volume training)–hardly ever leads to actual acute injuries.  And so although the pain was great enough that I would have traded my little finger for some ibuprofen, I didn’t allow myself to listen to the part my brain that tried to tell me I should stop because I was causing permanent damage.  But it wasn’t easy.  The 30 minutes in between feeds seemed to stretch for hours so that I was continually convinced that Arno wasn’t keeping track of the time. One of my achilles started to cramp.  Both hip-flexors threatened to join it. I altered my stroke in turns–windmilling arms to keep them straight for a while, then shortening my stroke dramatically to keep them bent.  I’m not sure whether the pain even got better, but I was able to keep going.  Eventually, I rounded the headland of Supply Bay and could see the finishing beach. It was still nearly an hour away, but that sight was all it took to let my head know I was going to make it.  After my last feed I was close enough to make out the car my wife had dropped for us.  Despite having stroked continuously for over six hours at this point, the fatigue (almost) disappeared and I felt as though I was finishing the last kilometer of a 2 km swim, not a 35 km one.

All in all, my shoulders (which I am having trouble moving today) carried me for 6 hours and 45 minutes of more or less continuous freestyle. It was an incredible experience and one I hope to offer to the public next year as a marathon swim event  (www.koharacing.com). Happy training.

PostScript: In addition to the above more profound lessons, I also learned a couple of other things that bear mentioning.

The first of these is why distance swimmers almost always rely on liquid diets.  I learned this the hard way as I nearly choked on my first water based feed that consisted of PowerBar energy blasts, a brand of gummy sports chew.  I almost choked! Swallowing food is so much harder than swallowing liquid and the act of chewing and swallowing while swimming proved almost impossible.  Thankfully, I had a couple emergency Gu’s that proved more easily consumable, and some sugared drink mix I was able to fall back on (I’d planned on primarily consuming the blasts), and it saw me through.  

The second is how awesome the NoNumb swimming device is.  Typically for me, after an hour of swimming my hands get cold enough for the claw to develop.  I’d toyed with the idea of wearing thermal gloves, but the downside of gloves is that even the best of them take on some water and thus add a non-insignificant amount of  weight the the hands.  Over the course of some 15000 odd strokes, a few extra grams really matters. The NoNumb device is an ingeniously simple piece of silicone (so much so that calling it a device seems silly) that slips around your fingers to keep them together.  The lack of water circulation between fingers keeps your hands warmer, and keeps the claw from making an appearance even when your hands do get cold. I’d tested it in a time trial of my standard training course, a 800 odd lap around a set of buoys, a couple of weeks ago and posted my personal best by nearly 30 seconds, so figured I’d give it a go on the swim.  It worked marvelously–my fingers stayed together, my hands felt warm, and it was so comfortable that I forgot I was wearing it.  Awesome.  Check it out at http://nonumbsurf.com/

 

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One Comment

  1. Andy, I think your pursuit and success of Ultra-endurance is undeniably beneficial and a great example for other inclined souls to follow. But I believe that the MBF conversation is the big one to be having. I think if people can define this for themselves, then fitness can be part of a varied identity that allows one to live fully. Keep this talk going!

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