Beyond Barriers

Learning to swim like a fish.

Learning to swim like a fish.

In February, I decided to become a swimmer. My goal was a simple one, really—to swim well enough to complete the swim portion of a sprint triathlon in June.  While the goal was simple in the setting of it, the mechanics in reaching it were more complex.

If you’ve been following my quest, you know that I was successful. I completed the Pirate Tri on June 9, at Point Sebego. The swim portion was actually easier than I imagined that it would be.

I have continued swiming since June. I’ve cut back a bit from my prior training level; I’m no longer swimming three times each week, and have even taken a break from the pool for a couple of weeks.

Because I want to complete one more triathlon before the end of the season, I’ve started back swimming, aiming for two pool sessions each week, along with my running and bike training.

Swimming requires a high level of skill comparative to biking and running. Skill and technique are a big part of success as a swimmer. Additionally, swimming requires becoming comfortable in a foreign environment. Humans are not designed to live in the water. We adapt to our aquatic surroundings.

When I first started in the pool, I hated the feeling of my head being in the water. The breathing was difficult. There were several other technical components that I struggled with and still battle each and every time I’m in the water.

Being able to get the breathing part down was a big deal for me. It took me about six weeks. Once I could breathe, I could focus on other things.

There are still times when I’ll be in the middle of a swim and I’m overcome by a feeling approaching panic. I have to fight through it and get myself back to that place where I can go up and down the pool without feeling overly anxious. It requires discipline and controlling my thoughts.

Occasionally, there have been times in the pool where I enter something akin to a trance state where the rhythm of my breathing, my kicking and my strokes align and when this happens, it seems like I can swim forever. It’s what many athletes define as “the zone.”

Wednesday was one of those days. Surprisingly, my late afternoon swim started poorly. I had gotten up at 4:00 in order to run before daylight, donning a headlamp. This was necessary so I could complete a training run prior my 7:30 breakfast meeting in South Portland.

I really pushed myself during my run. Then, I had a busy day of appointments following my initial meeting. By the time I got to the pool, I was mentally fatigued and feeling it physically, also. I almost decided against swimming.

After my first two lengths, I felt exhausted. My legs felt like rubber and more like anchors than propellers. Interestingly, after I took a short break, I started going up and down the pool effortlessly for 16 lengths. During this stretch, I felt like I was outside my body, watching myself. It was the strangest feeling I had ever experienced. It was peaceful, relaxing, and enjoyable.

I shared this with my osteopath yesterday, during an appointment I had for some OMM on my knee, hip, and ankle (treatments required for aging triathletes). She talked about how our minds often tell us that we can’t do something and that mental discipline—which all elite athletes possess—allows us to push through barriers.

Thinking about this, I realized how swimming for me was a great metaphor for many of the things I’ve been experiencing lately, in my life, and in my work.

Our brains, often due to cultural and societal conditioning, send us messages that if we give in to them, actually hinder us and can pull us down. Pushing through our limitations, often self-imposed, or imposed by others, allow us to move ahead and achieve successes. Often, this becomes a source of empowerment.

Swimming symbolizes adapting to an environment that might be foreign and unnatural.  There are skills required to adapt and even excel in that environment.

These are important lessons to carry forward.

2 thoughts on “Beyond Barriers

  1. A while ago I came across a memory from a man who trained with Bruce Lee. He regularly ran three miles with Lee, but this day Lee changed his mind and said, “We run five.” The man tried, but soon was beyond his range and was gasping to keep up. “Bruce,” he said, “I have to stop. If not, I’m going to die.”

    “Then die already,” was Lee’s reply. The man, thoroughly pissed off at Lee’s attitude, somehow kept up and completed the run. Afterwards he confronted Lee, who told him something like this: If you’re going to let your self-imposed limitations tell you what to do, you might as well be dead.

    Good on ya, Mate.

    • LP,

      The Lee story is a good one. It validates that our mind is often our enemy and our limiter in what we’re attempting to do.

      So often, spending all my time in my head becomes self-defeating. It’s why I need a certain level of physical activity, often in order to get me out of my head and analyzing or even doubting that I can accomplish the task before me.

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