How do you plan for an event that you knew going into it you wouldn’t be performing at your best? You go into it confident in the love of your sport and make an enjoyment plan instead of a performance plan. That is exactly what I did, I planned on enjoying Swim the Suck, enjoying the scenery, the beauty of the course, and enjoying my love of the sport. Then what do you do when in the first 5 minutes you find yourself not even enjoying the swim? What happens when you feel fatigue build in the first half mile of a 10-mile swim and then decide you’re done at mile 2? How do you mentally rebound from that to finish and can you?
Back-up six months, Swim the Suck, a 10-mile downriver swim in Chattanooga, Tennessee was one of those post-season events you sign-up for and it sounds like a GREAT idea at the time, then a month out and you’re thinking “what the heck was I thinking?!?!” Fast forward to the event, the most professionally organized large marathon swim event I have attended, amazing staff and volunteers, superb safety plan, swim coordination info, and friendliest knowledgeable event supporters that I have ever met. The course was breathtakingly beautiful, one of if not the most beautiful courses I have ever swam, you couldn’t beat it. The day before, the sun was out, I had a surprisingly great 3K pool session at Ooltewah Swim Center, I had foolishly in hindsight hiked for 4 hours on Raccoon and Signal Mountain taking pictures of the Tennessee River Gorge, viewing old springs, rock formations, and discovering waterfalls. I was happy, relaxed and getting my gear ready for what would be a “fun” swim.
I knew going into Swim the Suck I was still carrying a lot of load and fatigue from my English Channel crossing, I hadn’t been training that much all things considered, hit 20K in a week only one time since I had gotten back from England, hadn’t been eating bad, but definitely not well (courtesy of constant ice cream sales at the supermarket). Since England I had been enjoying life, enjoying swimming and having fun giving myself the break I needed. So going into Swim the Suck, I didn’t expect to do particularly well, what I did expect was to do decent and enjoy it, which is where all my lessons learned began.
I remember my coach telling me a long time ago that feeling good on race day is a privilege, it’s not guaranteed and you don’t have to feel well to perform well. I felt good race morning, confident, smiling and happy, I had met some new friends beforehand and was in a great mood. I got in and yes, I knew there were 105 participants, but I wasn’t expecting the mass type start you get in triathlons for a marathon swim. I don’t know what I was expecting, but not that. I got kicked in the face, jabbed in the side and people were sprinting like it was going to be over in 30 minutes. Ugh, a sigh and I started swearing, 5 minutes in and this is where I think my mental check-out began.
After a half hour, my arms were tight, I told my kayaker I sometimes need a couple miles to warm-up so I must just not be warmed up yet. Truth is, after 2 miles, I hurt even more, I didn’t want to do it anymore, I had nothing to prove, and I wanted out. Problem is, it’s a river in the middle of gorge and there’s nowhere really to go but to the end (unless you signaled for a support boat). The scenery was beautiful, but I wasn’t even enjoying that. Everything appropriately sucked (get it, Swim the Suck haha). Time-wise I knew it would only be 4 hours of misery with the ¾-per mile current push, but the thought of swimming for another 3 hours was bringing my spirits down rapid fire. How do you mentally get back into the game when you feel like the foul word for crap, nothing is going like you want it, performance wise you can’t even achieve your anticipated not so good performance, and you aren’t enjoying anything about what you’re doing when you know you love what you are doing?
I don’t know the answer to that. I’ve thought about it the past few days and the only thing I can chalk up is focusing on love of sport, that you’re doing what you love, you laugh at how bad it is, make jokes and keep moving forward. That’s pretty much how the swim was. I couldn’t settle into my stroke or find a pace to save my life so I’d stop, joke with my kayaker about how if I go under, it’s because I got sucked into the power turbines or if we saw a house that we should stop and grab some moonshine. It was like that the whole way once I settled into the fact it was going to be a really, really mentally tough swim for me. No joke, there were times I would have rather swam near 17 hours in the English Channel again than continue with this 4-hour swim.
Then a miracle happened, the wind picked up half way and conditions got worse. This sounds odd to call it a miracle, but my mind shifted from “this sucks” to “I know what to do in these conditions, it’s time to make a move.” For the first time since I started open water swimming, I understood how experience plays into performance. I knew what to do when it gets bad, I know how my body reacts and I can make an educated and tactical decision on where to position myself on the course relative to others, relative to the waves, how to adjust my stroke, when to push hard and when to fall back. I have never felt better than I did that hour in the wind and it was because I had experience behind me and knowledge that I could apply to the course. It wasn’t just swimming down a river, it was working with the river and working with the elements nature was giving me to make a calculated decision on performance. Because of this experience, I felt regardless of outcome, my swim was going to be a success, not performance wise, but education, learning and experience wise.
Reflecting on the swim, I didn’t’ feel like I needed to write a recap, but I thought it was important because I don’t think people really reflect or write about events that don’t turn out how they hoped or when they don’t perform and their peak. What I learned was far more important than the swim itself and any performance I could have produced. I finished, so arguably people could say I was successful, but I firmly believe you can finish and not be successful or DNF and be successful based on your outlook of what you learned. My swim was not successful performance wise, but very successful with what I took away from it, feeling that moment where experience pays off, meeting and encouraging new marathon swimmers the same way I was encouraged and inspired when I was new. I also learned that it really was true, that I don’t have to feel good to find strength in the water. When the wind picked up, for example, I was so tired, my body hurt so much, and that was the best part and only enjoyable of the swim.
I learned my true strengths as a swimmer, my weaknesses, and learned that the lack of joy for this swim may be more meaningful that what was seen on the surface. I learned that I may not enjoy fresh water swimming for marathon distances, which is really important to know. This is a new thought, something I will have to experiment with in future events, but there’s a huge difference between ocean and freshwater swimming, they are not the same for so many different reasons. I enjoy the meaningful play swimming of rivers and lakes, maybe 2 or 3 miles, but I’ve never gotten that personal deep down satisfaction of a finish or joy from them the same way I do when I swim in the ocean. It’s something for me to take a closer look into.
Who knows though, I mean one could throw a lot of reasons out there why it wasn’t fun, the blistering hot heat of the river (20 degrees warmer than what I’m used to), the lower body position hindering me over the distance due to lack of buoyancy versus salt water, the fact I swam 3K and hiked 4 hours the day before (I did mention this was foolish right), the fact I forgot that pre-swim eating for cold water and hot water are two totally different things and I didn’t take that into account, or that I didn’t have my lucky pink swim cap and that I was being punished by the river saying “if you’re not in pink, I’ll let you finish, but I’m going to make you suffer the whole way” (completely joking there, but still a thought that went through my mind).
The most realistic reason, it just wasn’t my day with the water and I’m okay with that. I’m a firm believer in the water deciding who does well and who doesn’t, it senses the energy of the people in it, and I think the river had better people with better energy to attend to that day than me. I’m proud I finished, I’m proud I learned about myself more than some of my better swam events, and I’m most proud that the people I met who were swimming it for the first time finished with pride and joy. Seeing their faces and smiles afterwards, in addition to the phenomenal mouth-watering taco bar, was more important than any performance, good or bad, I could have had in the water. I guess what I’m saying is the most important thing I learned, you can give your best and be proud without being your best. I love swimming and I am thankful for every opportunity to be in the water regardless of the outcome. Every day is a great day for swimming!