The Struggle is Real

Last night I hopped in the pool for a little 1hr swim – 2600yds. I’m not exactly a speedboat and  I was in my head a lot as I could see other swimmers streaking by me. My peripheral vision in the pool is probably greater than most due to poor head positioning and a constant urge to compare my pace to others. This is a habit I need to break, better head positioning will make me faster and freeing myself of self-doubt just might create less drag in the pool and in perhaps in life. Mark Twain said that “comparison is the death of joy,” he said a bunch of other notable things too, but this one resonates for so many reasons.

For an entire hour I fretted as I was passed by neighboring swimmers. The doubts crept in and settled deeply and each lap became a mental struggle. I felt as if I was swimming hard and getting nowhere, my focus was drawn away from technique “high elbows, catch and pull” and instead I fixated on falling behind the pace of everyone else. I felt inadequate and even started to compare my effort and fatigue to what I would likely experience during  Ironman Wisconsin. How would I ever exit the water in under 2hr and 20 mins if it was taking me this long to swim a lap? I felt the struggle everywhere –  my heart, my lungs, my watch, my head, and my ego. Now as I write and reflect, I wonder what slowed me down more – my constant need to compare myself to others or my lack of technique?

When my hour was complete I breathlessly gathered my gear and headed to a quick poolside de-chlorination. Adequately rinsed and marginally dried off, I was headed to the locker room to change into my running clothes and set off for the 1 mile run home. Before I exited the pool deck I was stopped by a barrel chested man with a big smile and friendly eyes. In a thick Hispanic accent he inquired, “How do you swim for so long? I have been watching you for an hour and I amazed at how strong and smooth you are. You just keep going like it is nothing! How do you swim like that?” My immediate reaction was to check over my shoulder in case he was talking to a real swimmer that might have been behind me, but nope, he as talking to me. I told him I was slow and struggling to breathe most of the hour but I have been practicing for a few weeks and am training for an Ironman and had lots of practice left to do. He smiled bigger and told me he had grown up in Mexico and never saw a swimming pool in person until he had moved to the United States. He just learned to swim in January and his goal was to swim 12 laps without stopping, he had graduated to 3 full laps without resting and completes 12 laps no matter what before getting out of the pool. He went on to say, “12 laps without a rest seems almost impossible, but you make it look so easy, I struggle with every breath but I won’t stop.” The struggle is real. His 12 lap goal is no less difficult than my 2.4 mile race. His milestones are as difficult as mine. “You’ll get there,” I reassured. “Every week it gets better.” I say these things as if I truly believe it. He said he watches swimmers after he is done to learn and observe the “possibility of what I will hopefully be able to do.”

I hope he becomes better than me, I hope his optimism is never overshadowed by self-doubt, and I hope he is certainly gentler with himself. I after all just spent an hour comparing myself to others feeling inadequate stroke after stroke, yet without batting an eye I formulated a prescription for his temporary ailment –  physician heal thyself.

No matter what my Polar M400 told me about how my workout measured up with heart rate, lap times, calories burned and distance covered, I discovered something far more sustaining and healthful. Swim practice/training isn’t a competition. I shouldn’t focus on how I rank in comparison to others – we all got to the pool through separate and very different paths. Everyone in the pool today is on a journey – to find something, to become fit, to relax, to blow off steam, to train for a race, to do something someone told us we could never do, to do something we never knew we would have the option to do. Our journey has nothing to do with how well other people are doing, or how fast they are going. It is simply just doing what we want to do, and going where we want to go. And of course letting go of the struggle, being present in the moment and content with what and who we are. The struggle IS real…but it doesn’t have to be…




Last week I was struggling to find the motivation to go to the pool and begin my Ironman swim training. I was changing out of my uniform to my commuter clothes for the 55 minute train ride home. The Metra platform is strategically located next door to the brand new LA Fitness Gym. The training gods knew what they were doing when they built it here – I must walk right by it to get home.  However, tonight like many nights, I had my list of excuses of why I couldn’t go: I’m tired, I’ve been up since 4:30am, I haven’t had a rest all day, The gym will be packed, I’ll never get a lane at 5:30pm. And then I felt ashamed. It was the exact conversation I had with myself the previous week and somehow I NEVER found my way to the pool.

With exactly 6 months before Ironman WI, lamenting over the prospect of poor preparation for a 2.4 mile swim and thoughts of being plucked out of the water by rescue boats or even worse awarded a disqual for taking more than the 2 1/2hrs allowed gave me just enough impetus to don my swim suit, and slip track pants and a sweatshirt over for an easy transition from the locker room to the pool. I even went sockless to make sure there was little to get in the way of me grabbing a lane and getting my training started.

After a 10 min warm up I was gently tapped on the hand by a tiny, slender elderly woman asking if she could share the lane. I gave her a thumbs up and continued on with my laps, plodding along slowly but surely checking my watch every other lap just to confirm that 1. Time was moving, 2. I was as slow as I felt, 3. There was an end in sight. Like two slow canal barges, my lane partner and I passed back and forth – never touching, never splashing, never creating a drag or slosh. In the back of mind I told my inner competitor that I was barely keeping pace with a 70 year old and I should be ashamed. That is exactly what I get for blowing off the pool for an entire winter.

On a water break my new companion stopped to tell me I was the perfect lane buddy and she felt safe alongside me and begged me not to stop swimming. My ego was soothed, I had a purpose, not to be fast and mighty, tonight it was to be mindful and protective, I could be fast tomorrow, I was needed in my current state, and lane buddy needed me this way!  A wet shriveled hand reached across the lane “I’m Megan! It is nice to meet you!” I exchanged compliments and introduced myself and went right back to my laps, still just as slow albeit happier knowing I was the BEST at being a lane buddy.

30 minutes later my workout was done and I was relieved. Megan swam up to me for one last chat. She told me how nice it was to have such a peaceful swim and told me how she often gets knocked around by big guys and wanted to know if we could share again. “Absolutely Megan, I would really like that!”

Timing is everything, had I not gone, had I not been “ready” to swim, had I decided to answer an email or grab a coffee before my workout I would have missed Megan and missed a chance at being the BEST lane buddy on planet LA Fitness.  Starting off slow is winning!


Off We Go!

Negative Split (n): completing the second half of a race faster than the first half; requires a great degree of discipline and achieves a much better overall performance.

A negative split is an art. Most runners bolt out of the starting corrals at a sprint and then they try mightily to sustain a decent pace in the middle of the race but their likely fate is the agony of slowing down to a slow shuffle by the end. A negative split calls requires patience and discipline. Ignoring the crowd’s energy and stiffling your own adreneline. It requires confidence in your ability and training, understanding your limits and showcasing your individuality, gradually picking up your pace as the race progresses, utimately finishing in triumph and saving yourself from the misery.

The Negative Spilt is the secret to life.