Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

Sprint swimming in your 40’s: an exercise in futility, humility, or possibly senility?

Exercise improves health and mood, two reasons I try to do it nearly every day. But frequency does not guarantee quality and I get complacent, especially when it comes to my lifelong sports, such as swimming. To combat that, I enter competitions from time to time. I find that, while physical and mental health are fine motivational forces, they can’t hold a candle to the prospect of public humiliation.

Knowing that my sprint swimming needed a kick-start, when one of my Masters teammates mentioned a few weeks ago that he’d signed up for a meet at George Mason University, I decided to join him.

I started out my swimming “career” in the 1970’s as a sprinter at Fox Hunt Swim Club, the community pool down the street from my childhood home. My favorite strokes were backstroke and butterfly, and I swam them seriously from age 8-12, then less seriously from age 12-18, and then not at all from age 18-32. When I ended my 14-year swimming hiatus in 2003, I went right back to what I knew and began swimming short-distance butterfly and backstroke. I started to compete again and found an upside of having reached my swimming zenith at age 12: with consistent training, I was swimming faster in my 30’s than I did at 18.

In May of 2010, I decided to swim in the U.S. Masters National Meet in Atlanta. My parents, who’ve lost at least 16 years of their lives to swim meets, couldn’t wait to lose a few more days and add the burden of travel to the equation, so they came to cheer me on. My then-fiance flew down, too, and my brother, an Atlanta local, rounded out the support squad. For a swimmer like me, the stakes were as high as they were going to get, yet I didn’t manage to notch any personal bests, nor did I fulfill my lifelong goal of breaking 30 seconds in 50 yards fly.

I haven’t swum in a meet since then. Instead, over the past few years I’ve become a respectable open-water, long-distance swimmer, and it’s a totally different experience. It jacks up my adrenaline the same way sprinting does, but instead of coming from the thrill of doing an all-out sprint, that jolt comes from the realization that I am, for example, about to swim in a shark habitat. With the open water season coming to a close, I decided it was time to get back into sprinting and that this meet, which took place on Sunday, would tell me in the clearest terms whether I still had it.

I had signed up for the usual suspects–50 fly and 100 back –knowing that I couldn’t cram months’ worth of speed training into two weeks. I did what I could and made some progress, but I wasn’t sniffing my old times in practice. I tried to talk myself out of caring about it, but then my parents, who apparently have an incurable addiction to boredom, upped the ante with four simple words: “We will be there.”

On entering the locker room at George Mason Sunday morning, I overheard one woman say to another, “Someone flew in from West Palm Beach for this meet. Can you believe that? I just don’t care that much.” Ah, the sweet sound of sandbagging, every bit as much a swim meet staple as the smell of chlorine.

The scene of the crime.

The scene of the crime.

When I met my teammates Ted and Bret on deck, the three of us fell right into a sandbagging relay.

“I haven’t really trained.”

“I had too much wine last night.”

“I just got some travel immunizations and they shot me right in the bicep.” (Bret contributed that last one, and Ted and I couldn’t help but be impressed.) Moments later I ran into an old friend from my Fox Hunt Swim Club days. He hadn’t swum a Masters meet before, giving him a built-in excuse if he needed it.

Sandbagging aside, we all admitted that we cared about our times and still felt nervous even though we know a Masters meet is a no-stakes proposition. I suspect nerves at this stage of the game stem from the desire to see what you can do, coupled with the disturbing awareness that you have absolutely no idea. The people who claim you get more comfortable in your metaphorical skin as you age never mention that your actual body becomes increasingly capable of behaving like a complete stranger.

I got up on the blocks for the 50 fly, my parents and teammates cheering behind me. Adrenaline gave me a boost on the start, and as I kicked to the surface and started my stroke, I felt pretty good. My arms and legs seemed to remember how to sprint. The second lap took everything I had, but that didn’t strike me as odd. I touched the wall feeling triumphant and thinking I just might have broken the 30-second mark. When I looked at the scoreboard, I saw that I was right: I had crashed through not only the 30 second barrier, but also the 31. Ouch. In five years, I’d slowed by more than a second, a lifetime in swimming. I certainly hadn’t expected my body to do that. (If you want to watch me executing my time-honored sports motto–“if you can’t be good, look good”–check out Lane 4 in this  video.)

To make matters worse, my legs were dead and I had less than 20 minutes to recover before my next event. That would’ve been a stretch even in my prime. Once again, my parents and teammates rallied behind me. Buoyed by their encouragement, I had a good start, but that got me only so far, by which I mean 25 yards. After that, I was out of gas. By the final 25, I was in a full-on flail, my arms wheeling like hands on a spastic clock. I touched the wall and looked at my time: two seconds slower than in 2010. Oof.

I hoisted myself out of the water and went to see my parents. They were all thumbs-up even though they must have known my actual times were far slower than my seed times.

“Were you racing in yards or meters?” Dad asked.

Oh, the poor dear. He had assumed my bum times owed to a longer distance. Nope. The real explanation was much more straightforward. If bodies were cars, in 2010, I’d been driving the equivalent of a Corvette. At some point over the past five years, a thief evidently made off with the Corvette and left me with a Honda Accord. Despite suffering a major setback in speed and style, I admit I enjoyed putting the pedal to the metal again. And though my Corvette days might be behind me, with a little work I bet I can at least trade up to an Audi.

When swimmer’s ear takes on a whole new meaning

Regular readers know I’m an avid swimmer and have belonged to a Masters team for years. I love the team for the friendships it’s given me and also for the camaraderie during workouts. Though you can’t talk underwater, swimming next to your pals makes a solo sport feel almost social.

Sometimes my schedule keeps me from making it to the team practice. When that happens, I have to slog through 3,000 yards alone, and it’s no picnic. First, there’s the struggle against boredom, which I combat by  devising creative workouts involving mixtures of intervals and distances. Then, there’s the struggle to push myself. Who will know if I rest for an extra five, ten or ninety seconds? I try to counter that by doing descents, sets whose goal is to get you to drop your time as you go. (Sometimes I manage to lower my time, other times just my standards.)

But boredom and weak motivation aren’t even the worst things about swimming alone. What really gets me is the music. I’m not talking about bad music blaring out of speakers at the pool, because there isn’t any of that, or from a waterproof iPod, because I don’t own one. I’m talking about the music in my head. That music consists of a single song that, at some point during the 4-mile drive from home to pool, gets stuck in my brain and, like a frisbee jammed in to a DVD player, no amount of force can eject it.

Given the potential consequences, I take that four-mile drive seriously. I cruise the FM waves, hoping to hear just the right song, by which I mean a sticky one that I like and will still like even after it plays on a 55-minute, continuous loop in my brain. “Uptown Funk” fit the bill for quite a while, but now that its popularity has waned, that trip up and down the airwaves has gotten dicey. And before you even ask, no, it does no good to try to plant a song you like, such as “Your Kiss Is On My List” by Hall & Oates, because you can no more give yourself an earworm than a root canal (I oughtta know).

This morning’s trip proved to be particularly perilous. I was sitting at the stoplight a quarter mile from the pool when a morning show mentioned Christmas in August, and before I could even react, a “Last Christmas” grenade rolled right in between my ears. BOOM! It wasn’t even the “good” version, by which I mean the original as sung by Wham! It was Taylor Swift’s cover, from which she should have taken cover. Only the Glee version would’ve penetrated deeper.

I tried all sorts of things to get it out, including going full-on Taylor and sha-sha-sha-shaking it off, but nothing worked. As I climbed out of the pool, my brain was still belting out, “This year, to save me from tears, I’ll give it to someone special (special).”

In fact, that infernal song stayed in my head until moments ago, when I wrote it out with this post. Thanks for letting me give it to someone special.






Little brothers: you can’t teach ’em anything.

While at the pool during last weekend’s family reunion, my brother asked me to give him some swimming pointers. I cracked up.

The idea that I could teach L.J. anything about sports technique represented a serious perversion of the natural athletic order. My brother played college baseball for Georgia Tech and then went on to pitch in the minor leagues. He was a professional athlete, for heaven’s sake! After he gave up baseball, he took up tennis, which he dabbled in as a kid. Once he really put his mind to it, he became a force to be reckoned with and was one-half of a duo that won the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association’s City Championships in 2005 or so. In short, if L.J. so much as thinks about taking up a sport, he’s probably going to excel at it. So even though my brother is four years younger than I am, when it comes to sports, it’s always felt like he’s my senior.

But having swum for most of my life, coached a team, and taught countless kids how to swim, I know what I’m doing in the water, whereas L.J., saw little reason to spend time at the pool unless the concession stand was open. And though he took lessons briefly –my parents insisted that we all learn how to swim as a survival skill –he had no interest whatsoever in the sport of swimming. On mentally reviewing our respective backgrounds, I decided maybe I could show him a thing or two after all.

The lifeguards blew the whistle to start the 15-minute adult swim period, giving us time and space to work. I told L.J. to swim a few yards so I could observe, but really, I just needed some time to adjust to this role reversal.

My brother pushed off from the wall and I watched with a mixture of amazement and envy as he knocked out five near-perfect strokes of high-elbowed, long-reaching freestyle. This, after nothing more than a few lessons as a kid. The only thing wrong with his stroke was his kick: his legs dragged motionless below him like passengers in an unseaworthy dinghy. But that’s a pretty small flaw in the grand scheme of swimming.

He came up for air expecting me to deliver an extended critique, but all I had for him were coaching bytes: “Stretch your arms out longer, keep your elbow high as you throw your arm forward, and don’t let your hips sag.” It’s the same advice I’d give to advanced swimmers, ones who already have good technique but know they need to make minor adjustments to achieve the holy grail of efficiency.  Any swim coach will tell you that success hinges on proper execution of the lazy person’s credo: go as far as you can with as little effort as possible.

My brother seemed almost disappointed and said, “That’s it?” I nodded. “Then why do I feel like I’m dying every time I do it?” A fat, juicy chance to remind my little brother that he was still my little brother was dangling right in front of me, but I couldn’t bring myself to touch it. I told him the truth instead.

“It’s only because you don’t do it often enough,” I said. “Your stroke is excellent. It’s just a matter of conditioning.”

“Really?” That one-word question, which my brother asked with absolute sincerity, says so much about him. He’s good, if not exceptional, at most things he tries, but he seems to have no idea just how good he is, and he has zero swagger. It’s the kind of thing that makes me not just love him but like him.

“Yep,” I said. “If you swam more than 20 yards a year you’d be great.” And by “great,” I meant “Michael Phelps,” but no big sister worth her salt would give up something like that.

Still, Marc Brown, creator of the beloved children’s series Arthur, really knew what he was talking about when he said, “Sometimes being a brother is even better than being a superhero.”

Fatherhood: another thing my brother is really, really good at.

Fatherhood: another thing my brother is really, really good at.


Weekend at Bern’s

On April 25, I and the other four members of a relay team called Capital Punishment swam all 24 miles of Tampa Bay. Actually, thanks to my lousy sense of direction, we probably racked up more like 26 miles. Regardless, the Boys in the Boat and I decided that finishing an 11-hour race demanded a celebration over something a little more luxurious than a chalupa supreme at Taco Bell.

After taking the most glorious shower of my life, I rejoined Bill, Mark and J.C. (Tommy had returned to Sarasota) and we set out for Bern’s Steakhouse. Not only is the restaurant a Tampa institution and regarded by Gayot as one of the top ten steakhouses in the country, but it happened to be right across the street from our hotel.

When I told the Boys in the Boat that I intended to write about our Bern’s experience, they looked at me with skepticism due to an incident that occurred earlier that day. My credibility as a food critic had taken a major hit thanks to the Go Raw Carrot Cake Super Cookies I had brought aboard the boat and busted out somewhere around Mile 12.

“Help yourselves,” I said. “I think they’re pretty good!”

My teammates wasted no time trying them and immediately concluded the orange-ish, bite-sized discs were not carrot cake or cookies, and they sure as heck weren’t super.  In fact, even the “raw” part was in doubt given air temps in the mid-80s.

But I’m not going to let a complete lack of competence prevent me from delivering a restaurant review (of sorts), so here goes. In sum, everyone who told us Bern’s was a Tampa institution is absolutely right, and here’s why:

1. The exterior. As you approach Bern’s, it looks every bit like a place where you’d have someone committed.

Bern's, in all its institutional glory.

Bern’s, in all its institutional glory.

2. The interior. The front doors open into a two-story foyer that’s hemorrhaging red velvet. I went from feeling like I had wandered onto the set of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to wondering whether we’d landed in a different sort of institution, one where the oldest profession in the world does a brisk business.

3. The menu and wine list. The bordello decor was nearly forgotten when our server arrived, bearing not just an encyclopedic knowledge of food and wine, but what looked like actual encyclopedias. Turns out they were just the wine list and menus, even though in terms of page length and weight, they rivaled my college textbooks and require an advanced degree to understand. For example, the pages dedicated to steaks show six cuts of meat in chart form with rows that list steak thickness (broken down to intervals of an eighth of an inch) and corresponding columns for doneness, weight, quantity and price. I feared I might have to carry the one, something I did not feel like doing after swimming 5 miles. I was also in no mood to wade through the wine list, so I deferred to Bill and J.C.. They might still have their noses stuck in the Old Testament had our server not interrupted to offer a few recommendations. After selecting our steaks by throwing darts at the chart, we settled in with our glasses of wine and a set of high expectations.

Capital Punishment doing what we do best and executing Prong 3 of our strategy, even though we'd finished the race hours ago.

Capital Punishment doing what we do best and executing Prong 3 of our strategy, even though we’d finished the race hours ago.

Three hours and two bottles of wine later, we had savored very respectable French onion soup, lovely salads (accompanied by your choice of about 14,000 homemade dressings), and truly excellent, if not life-altering, steaks. But we weren’t done yet.

Aside from being a renowned steak house, Bern’s is also basically the Disney World of food. It can seat some 700 diners, has a wine cellar that holds over half a million bottles, and is home to a cheese cave. The only thing it’s missing is a monorail, but after so decadent a meal, I was just as happy to tour the joint on foot. The fifteen-minute walking tour describes how the Bern’s team sources ingredients, lets you see the kitchen in action, and gives you a glimpse of the cavernous wine cellar that holds bottles that cost more than my parents’ first home. (Really.)

wine cellar

Tough to make out, but this is just one row in a veritable field of wine bottles in the basement at Bern’s.

But even after the tour, we still weren‘t done because we’d made a reservation for the not-to-be-missed dessert room. A space that’s dedicated solely to sweets and is larger than all seven of the other dining rooms put together speaks to my design sensibilities, so I could hardly wait.

The boys and I were led upstairs and into a redwood-lined alcove where we began to peruse the menu. (With only 50 dessert items and 1,000 wines, it was the CliffsNotes of the Bern’s menus.)

Had the mood hit us, we could have picked up the phone in our alcove and called in a request for “Stairway to Heaven” to the pianist who plays near the maitre’d’ stand. But what hit us instead of a mood was a gigantic wave of fatigue.

Like the Tampa Bay Swim, a meal at Bern’s is a marathon, not a sprint: by the time we sat down for dessert, we’d been at the restaurant for nearly four hours. Bill decided he’d had enough of endurance events for one day and abandoned ship.

J.C., Mark and I, determined to leave no maraschino cherry behind, powered through a sundae together. We relished every bite and were glad, just this once, to win the race to the bottom.

The Tampa Bay Swim and other forms of Capital Punishment

You know how something sounds like a perfectly good idea at the time and you find yourself saying “yes,” only to regret it later?

Well, the Tampa Bay 24-mile Marathon Swim was not such a thing. It sounded pretty sketchy when it was first mentioned to me, if I’m being honest.

Despite that, three things made me say “yes”:

1) A sense of athletic pride. This is a seriously misguided sense, one that forgets I’m 43 and recently injured myself taking out the trash. And I’m not talking about trash that included, say, a grand piano. I hauled out one measly kitchen bag loaded with nothing heftier than coffee grounds and blew out an elbow.

2) My good friend and longtime swimming buddy, BillI like Bill a lot, even though he attended the party where I met my now ex-husband and made no move that night to steer me toward something more harmless, like the cheese tray or a pack of rabid wolves. Anyway, Bill hatched a plan to form a relay team –the only sane way to swim 24 miles–and needed at least one woman to make it co-ed.

3) The team name: Capital Punishment. I have long believed that a great team name can obscure a serious lack of skill, as evidenced by my tenure with the Smash Hits.

 Capital Punishment began as a six-person team, which meant each person would have to swim four miles. This sounded manageable, since all of us are lifelong swimmers who crank out two miles or more regularly(ish). But shortly after registering our team, we lost a dude to injury. (The other members of Capital Punishment are both older than I and responsible for trash removal in their respective homes, so really, it was just a matter of time.)

Five miles per person seemed doable, but then a family event crossed another name off our roster. At six miles per person, Capital Punishment was in trouble and Bill knew it. Desperate to get our ranks up to at least five, Bill enlisted the aid of the race organizer, who helped us draft a dude from Tampa.

I don’t know any of my teammates except Bill, and I won’t meet them until I’m in Tampa, but I’m not worried about that. Because each person will swim for 30 minutes at a time while the rest of us hang out in the boat, awaiting our turn, I figure I’ll have upwards of ten hours to get to know the other boys in the boat.

 I also have yet to see a course map—Capital Punishment’s pre-race prep centered on securing deluxe accommodations  near a restaurant with a rock-solid wine list –and am opting just to be surprised.

But I did force myself to take a gander at the weather. The Saturday forecast calls for air temps between 80-90 and water temps around 80, which sounds great to me. What does not sound so great is the likelihood of a 15-mile per hour “sea breeze.”

In my world, a sea breeze is a cocktail, not a euphemism for a wind strong enough to blow a hat off your head. (I will be wearing a bathing cap, and if the sea breeze blows that off my head, then Capital Punishment is officially on its own.)

For every person thinking, “How could this possibly go wrong?” there’s another asking, “and how can I see it?”

You can watch our progress here. As spectator sports go, this open water swim promises the kind of heart-stopping excitement rivaled only by watching your arm hair grow.

If ever a situation cried out, “Good luck with that thing you’re doing,” this is it.

I've got goggles and a suit that's visible to astronauts orbiting Earth. The only thing I'm missing is a flask...

I’ve got goggles and a suit that’s visible to astronauts orbiting Earth. The only thing I’m missing is a flask…

Tuesday: An Open and Shut Case

I make no secret of the fact that I don’t like Tuesdays.  But that doesn’t mean I have some sort of Tuesday prejudice. I really don’t, I swear.  I go into it with an open mind, and Tuesday then proceeds to slowly nudge it shut.

  • On waking at 5:17 a.m., I went downstairs to make coffee.  Due to a textbook case of  Chicken/Egg Syndrome, I inserted a filter, dumped water into the receptacle, flipped the “on” switch and walked away.  Five minutes later I made my triumphant return to a nice, steaming pot of water.
  •  After making a pot of coffee that featured actual coffee beans, I downed a cup and then drove to the pool for one of my ritual swims.  I walked onto the deck of Providence Rec Center in Falls Church at 6:30 a.m., just as a masters team was completing its practice.  I remembered then that a co-worker had told me she swims with that team, and what do you know, a woman who had her features and was built just like her got out on the opposite side of the pool.  I gave a very enthusiastic wave.  My friend waved back somewhat anemically, as people tend to do after finishing a taxing workout.  Moments later I hopped out of the water to grab a kickboard, just as my co-worker was approaching.  I had already said, “Fancy meeting you here! I’m jealous that you’re already done and I’m just getting started,” when I realized that it wasn’t my co-worker.  This woman probably had 10 years and twice as many pounds on my colleague.  I’d gotten the gender right, but that was about it.  “I’m sorry, do I know you?” she asked.  I then set about working on my verbal backstroke.
  •  By the time I emerged from the Rec Center, snow had begun to fall.  This confused my ears, which could have sworn they were hearing birds chirping, what with it being spring and all.
  • I drove home, where I planned to work while I waited for a guy to come and pick up my lawnmower for a tune-up.  My father called just as the guy arrived, and rather than just saying I didn’t have time for a chat, I stupidly explained why.  I don’t know what Dad enjoyed more, the fact that I was thinking about cutting the grass while the skies were busy obscuring it with snow, or that the job title “lawn mower courier” exists.
  • The lawnmower guy left just in time for me to hop on a conference call.  Because a friend who’s staying with me was working in the upstairs office, I grabbed a pair of earbuds so I could take the call hands-free without disturbing him.  I proceeded instead to disturb my right ear canal by inserting not the ear piece but the metal prong that plugs into the phone.

I was then afraid to leave the house, my IQ clearly being far too low to risk operating a car or any other heavy machinery. Next Tuesday is April Fool’s Day, and I’m thinking it’s time to go ahead and be close-minded.

Just the Two of Us

Sometime in 2004, roughly two years after I finished the full-time work/part-time law school grind and one year after I left big law firm life, my self-discipline started to take vacations.  After giving me faithful, constant companionship for five years straight, it had earned a respite, so the idea of sending it away for a little while didn’t bother me in the least.

Unfortunately, the vacation didn’t have the anticipated positive effect.  Instead of being all rejuvenated, my self-discipline returned diminished and weak, as if it had gone to Barbados and came back with dengue fever instead of a T-shirt.

I figured it was just a blip in our otherwise happy relationship and would pass, as these things usually do.  Weeks and then months went by, and still my self-discipline failed to rebound.  I sent it on longer and longer vacations, thinking that maybe it just needed a little more space.  It checked in less and less often, and then one day, I realized we’d drifted so far apart that I’d lost touch with it altogether.

It took me a while to miss the ol’ ball and chain because its absence freed me to give up some of the taxing stuff it was always trying to get me to do, like read novels in Spanish, and to indulge in the easy, fun stuff that I really wanted to do, like eat my body weight in chocolate-covered pretzels.

But eventually I missed it and decided to try to get back in touch with it.  It couldn’t be found through Facebook, Google, or any other passive stalking tactic, so last June, I left some serious bait for it.

I announced publicly (assuming the four people who read my blog constitute a “public”) that I was writing a book, and I mentioned the goals I had for it.  But when even that failed to lure my self-discipline back to me, I was forced to conclude that, instead of just going away, it had actually died.

This past September, just as I was considering writing an obituary and holding a funeral—“considering” being a verb I’d grown very fond of because it requires no real action at all –I thought I caught a glimpse of my self-discipline, in the same way people think they see Elvis at K-Mart.

Only instead of wandering the aisles of the Big K, I was strolling the beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  I hadn’t seen it in so long that I barely recognized it when it washed ashore, but when I carried it up to my hotel room and sat down to write, I knew my old companion was back.  We spent a glorious weekend together, my long-lost love and I, and I drove home with two new chapters, an outline, and a big smile on my face.

If you’ve ever tried to patch up an old relationship, you know it ain’t always easy.

We struggled at first and were all fits and starts until I started to behave a little bit more like someone who was ready to commit.  The minute I did that, my self-discipline began to talk about wanting to move back in with me.  As a sign of our renewed partnership, we went shopping last week and bought a place where my book can live happily while I finish it.   And we started putting dates on the calendar together, a very big step for any couple.

With plenty of light and room to grow, I’m pretty sure my book will be very happy here for the next few months.

My self-discipline and I faced our first big hurdle on Friday, at the pool of all places.  I went there to do a 7,500 yard challenge swim (75 yards repeated 100 times) that my Masters team had completed on New Year’s Day, when I was out of town.

Swimming four miles in a pool is not much fun, even when a bunch of your friends are right in the lane with you.  Last Friday, recreational types who were doing more floating than swimming filled most of the lanes, so I knew I’d have only my self-discipline to keep me company.

The true test of any relationship is what happens when it’s just the two of you.  I knew we’d get through the first hour just fine, since we manage 60-minute swims together all the time, but the prospect of the second hour scared me.  Without my teammates around to keep me accountable, I could hop out of the pool and quit at any moment, and only I would know that I hadn’t finished.

The first hour went as easily as expected, but the second one was a major ordeal.

It was full of negotiations (“Do I have to swim this whole thing freestyle?”), tantrums (“I’m an adult, dammit! No one can force me to do this!”), and near-surrenders (“Six thousand yards is perfectly respectable.”).

But in any healthy relationship, making compromises without giving up who you are is exactly what moves the team forward and makes it stronger.

So I sprinkled in some backstroke, I did a few kick sets, and I made occasional use of a pull buoy.  Two hours and three minutes after we’d started, my self-discipline and I reached the 7,500 yard mark together.  We’re back, and we’re better than ever.