Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Like a Wildebeest in a River

You’ve seen the nature film: a herd of wildebeests in East Africa, throats parched after a long trek across the arid savannah, reaches a cool and thirst quenching river. Despite their suffering, they approach the river skittishly and with a great deal of caution. But finally, desperation for a drink overrides their fear and they gather at the bank and begin approaching the river's edge to drink. A log drifts slowly with the current, being moved along closer and closer to the thirsty animals. Just a log… No, wait – are those eyes? The last time I saw eyes on a log, it was an ent chopped down by orcs in “The Two Towers” as the army of cool tree people attacked Sauroman’s castle with Merry and Pippen.

In horror, you realize that this is no log. “Look out, wildebeests,” you cry out. “It’s a crocodile! Run away! Run!!!! One of you is going to die if you don’t get out of there!” The wildebeests ignore your lunatic ravings at the TV and continue drinking greedily. Suddenly, like a bomb going off in the river, water and wildebeests explode everywhere as a huge crocodile grabs one of them in its merciless jaws and begins dragging it into the deeper water. The wildebeest struggles in vain, going nowhere as it thrashes around in the river. Water splashes everywhere as the doomed beast fights to get away. Well, take away the crocodile, trade a swimming pool for the river, and I was like that wildebeest today, thrashing around in vain while attempting to swim with the local TNT Augusta half-ironman triathlon team.

I joined the team at 6:30 AM at the YMCA to give them a brief mission moment. I expressed my thanks as a cancer survivor for what they are doing, and then told them about the young girl with leukemia that I encountered in Nashville this past April. Then Coach Steve, a certified triathlon coach and an ironman triathlete, got the team started with their 1,500 meter swim, and told me to go ahead and get in the pool in lane one.

“Is there a kiddie pool?” I asked as I lowered myself in, only half in jest. He asked how long it had been since I swam. Well, if you define “swim” as moving around one way or another in the water, then not long at all. I am not at all afraid of the water and can swim, just not efficiently, and I have never been good at the freestyle. I got a mental block as a kid trying to learn it, and just ended up doing other self-taught strokes, but none of them well or long distance. Coach Steve said “Swim a lap down and back, and I’ll see how you do.” I started down the 25 meter pool, struggling quite a bit with my stroke but slowly moving along as the triathlon team cruised without effort down the other lanes.

I was glad to stop at the end of the 50 meters and get my evaluation. The coach told me that we would talk about my arm stroke later, but that the big problem was my kick. He said that my kick was actually hurting more than helping. I was kicking from the knee, and my feet were pointing down, actually brushing against the bottom a few times in the shallow water. Coach Steve gave me some shortened flipper things to put on and a kick board, and said to kick my way down the pool. Man, it was hard! The kick board kept sinking into the water and I had to keep putting my head up to breath. I kept stopping for instruction and advice. At one point Steve said “Art – I don't get it. You’re not moving!” I could have argued with him because I was pretty sure that technically I was moving – backwards, that is. But that seemed like a minor distinction. Every now and then I would get it more or less right for about 4 kicks, and I could feel the difference. I did another lap with the kickboard, trying to get it right – but more often than not it was pretty pathetic. I am pretty sure that a 90 year old holding a 25 pound iron weight instead of a kick board would have gone faster, and a lot more gracefully.

He had me get out and watch the other swimmers – how they held their feet, how their arm motion was, how they rotated their bodies, how they breathed. He had me get back in and try swimming another lap, and gave me some more instruction. I snorted some water at times and actually had to stop and stand up for a second to avoid choking a bit. In particular, I could feel that my left hand stroke was very inefficient. I ended my time in the pool by putting on a long pair of flippers – albeit a mismatched pair – and using the kick board for one more lap. I could really feel the difference because they forced my feet to stay up and pointed backwards. Now if only I could bribe an official and wear flippers during a triathlon. Seems fair to me.

I am glad I did this. It was frustrating to watch the whole team gliding effortlessly along for nearly a mile while I struggled badly for 1/8 that distance. But as Coach said, I have the endurance – I’ve done marathons (though not for a while). It is just a matter of technique and practice - and of persevering and not getting discouraged. So I think I need to get some swim goggles and start attempting to apply what I was taught today. It was very, very instructive.

One thing for sure – I won’t go swimming in an African river any time soon. The wildebeests would be totally safe with me in the water. And I'd be crocodile food.


IzzyBubbles said...

I love it...I've had several friends try to talk me into triathlons, and I've always waffled for this very reason! I can swim well enough to move along, but have a mental block with the freestyle. It makes me feel a lot better to know someone else is the same way and got some benefit out of good old fashioned coaching. Maybe there's hope for me doing a triathlon one day after all!

Racn4acure said...

Hi IB - yeah, it is going to be tough to make that transition to triathlon for me. I don't own a bike either. But job one is getting that swimming down so that I can at least feel like I am not fighting the water. That is what I will concentrate on short term. I know a number of people that have done triathlons that could not swim a lick when they started. So we can both do it, too. Art

Elayne said...

Art~ I am so happy to hear how you stuck with it and WISH sooo bad I lived near by. I have taught swimming for nearly 30 years and teaching freestlye is my absolute favorite part! I am glad the coach was able to watch your stroke and give you some great tips!
E-mail me if you have specific questions, I'll do my best to answer w/o being able to see you swim :) Best of luck w/ your training.

Racn4acure said...

Oh me too, Elayne - what a great help that would be. I will definitely have questions. I take to water like a fish takes to land.
Not really, but all my life I have had a mental block about the freestyle stroke. I will need to blog about that sometime. Art

fjbmhokie said...

Prescription goggles aren't that expensive. I buy them for my son for around $15-17 each. (Try campmor.com or swimoutlet.com) They have to be the same prescription in each eye, but if your eyes are close, it will be good enough because googles fog and water isn't always crystal clear. As a person who is severly myopic (~-8.5), I would get headaches if I swam for too long without being able to see, plus I need the depth perception. Good luck with your swimming. It can be a very enjoyable sport.

Racn4acure said...

Thanks fjbmhokie - that is good advice. I will check it out.

I think if could be enjoyable if I could figure it out. I will say once I figure it out.

GO HOKIES!!!!!!!!!