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Triathlete Blog

Water Wings

By April 30, 2009July 9th, 2015No Comments

The other day, Chris (aka “husband” for those of you new around here) and I walked out of the pool when he said:

You’ve got some water wings.

Remember water wings? It was pre-1985 growing up in Brooklyn, New York on East 52nd Street. Behind our small shared house, there was a fenced in yard with colorful flagstones that you could slide on in the rain, a rusty swingset and a plum tree that would drop ripe fruit late fall to squish on those flagstones. There was a red wooden fence that separated our house from our neighbor’s house and behind it stood a concrete fountain in the form of a young boy, naked, whose penis would shoot water into a concrete bowl below. I sit here now as a grown adult wondering who would purchase a fountain of a young boy urinating because for the first time it strikes me how truly bizarre it was (imagine a grown adult goes to a fountain store, looks at all of the choices and points to the naked boy and says that one, that is the one I need).


Aside from the pornographic fountain (I cannot tell you how much that distributed me as a child), there was also a shed. Inside that shed I don’t remember much of what was stored and that’s probably a good thing. Sheds are scary places. On Ragbrai, if you see a shed in a yard with a free beer stop you learn better than to stop lest you find yourself voted most likely to be violated behind Squeaky’s Porn Shed by a man who thinks you have a purty mouth.

Lessons you learn on Ragbrai are lessons you learn for life.

Inside that Brooklyn backyard shed I do remember I had a pair of water wings. Sometimes we called them “swimmies”. They were bright pink with little Snoopy’s on them. I’m not sure where I would wear them – it’s not like my mom sent me into the Atlantic with a set of water wings and wished me well. But I do remember our neighbor had a pool about 4 feet deep that probably required me in a set of water wings.

Flash forward here I am as an adult. Am I going to be 34 this year? Who can I talk to about that? I’d like to take a few years off from having a birthday. I’ve been trying to swim since I started this sport 10 – yes, 10 – years ago. I still remember the first time I swam 800 yards straight in preparation for my first triathlon. 16 laps that felt like forever – and a day. Nowadays 800 is a small fraction of the mainset. No swimmies necessary. I feel like I’ve come a long way.

Finally I am making progress on my swim. Monday night I was in the pool with husband which prompted the comment about water wings. Earlier in the day I had completed a long run with hard efforts – some that even were max. And that’s just great. Because my mantra lately has been learning to redefine my max. Did you know that you can teach your body what max is? What you think is max is not max. Trust me. Try it – give it a little more, push a little harder. There it is, new max. At some point it levels out but you can always give it a little more. Your body WILL slow you down (ever blown up?) before you truly reach your max as a survival mechanism. Until then, max away and redefine it.

Anyways, I was already maxed out from the run when I found myself facing a swim later in the day. A swim containing 10 x 100 with a few just below ALL OUT and finally MAX. But in the pool this year I’ve learned not to fear the capitals. Rather, embrace them, give it my BEST, go ALL OUT and finally redefine my MAX.

In theory the swim should not have gone well. You don’t run hard and long and swim MAX. But I had to try. I have a rule – I always give it 20 minutes. If it feels like crap, I bail. I have very, very rarely bailed. If I bailed every time I thought something would not go right, I would bail many days. But at least give yourself a chance. Let yourself surprise yourself.

I warmed up and somehow managed to keep my legs kicking and body position on top of the water. There was a good chance this could go well. I decided to take my chances and see more. I couldn’t believe it but my just below all out pace was a pace that used to be about 3 seconds faster than my max pace last year. Maybe the clock is fast, maybe the lane is short, maybe the water is facing downhill today. Whatever it was, I was running with it – rather, swimming with it and on to the next set.

I kept it up – and kept getting better. I almost peed myself (but didn’t) with excitement. This is it – a new max. The arms are turning, my legs are burning but the clock is my friend today. Holy crap!

Then, I came to the last 100. 100 – ALL OUT MAX. Is it possible to combine all out with max without implosion of arms, lungs and lefts?

Enter maniacal underwater laughter. Let’s find out.

In the lane next to me was husband standing at the wall. Quickly I devise a plan:

Do a 50 with me all out leaving on the top.

It was like speaking twinspeak. It made no sense but in a second he had put on his goggles and was turned to watch the clock ticking down to the top. And then, we took off. I figured if I could race him for 50 I would just hold on for dear life for the 50 left. It worked, we split the 50 at :35 and almost almost almost…


But not yet. This year I will break 1:10. For the swimmy swimmers out there, this is nothing. For me, this is everything. It’s like breaking a 6-minute mile on the track. Or pushing a power to weight ratio over 4 watts/kg. Breaking 1:10. Milestones you beg yourself to break and when you finally do…you can bronze your goggles and rest.

In some rare turn of events, I have managed to impress husband. We exit the pool and he notes my water wings with a you’ve gotten really fast.

I brush it off:

That’s how I roll these days.

He laughed. I laughed. How ridiculous, right? It just seemed like the right thing to say. Not because I have any right to roll that way but because I realized if you’re going to swim faster you’ve got to roll with or at least roll like the faster swimmers in the pool. Quit making excuses about how slow you are or putting yourself in the back of the lane because you aren’t a real swimmer. Or might not keep up. F*ck it! Let them swim over me. Every week I keep upping the challenge. Last week when the fast lane was doing all out 75 IMs I put myself in there and hurt to keep up. Nothing makes you work harder than doing all out 75s freestyle while trying to keep up with someone doing backstroke. Miss a breath, get kicked, lose a paddle – I love it. ALL OF IT. Make it rough and BRING IT ON. 3000 yard mainsets? Perfect. Sending off on the 1:20? Might as well try. 3 x 700 descend? Let’s do 4.

I set out this year to earn my water wings. I have realized 3 things: 1 – you can go so hard in the pool that you find yourself huffing and puffing for 30 seconds afterward at the wall; 2 – you can redefine your max over and over again, it’s not set and it’s waiting to be upped; 3 – if you want it, work for it, stop thinking and hoping and get ready to just do the work.

The work? Hurts like hell! Swimming hard really hurts.

Enough said.

In about an hour, I’m off to masters. It’s sprint free day. I am going to put myself into the lane with the guy who at this point probably thinks I’m stalking him. I’m really not. I don’t even know him. But I am stalking his speed. And the times he can hit. And each time I am in the pool I get one second closer to leading that lane.

And if I can’t keep up, I’m not too proud to pull out my water wings.