I’ve been a runner most of my life and I’ve logged hundreds of miles across this great country over the years. I figured it was time to try something new so I embarked on a quest to find another way to challenge myself.
Cross-fit? Chucking huge weights at other people and pogoing on and off boxes won’t work for me.
Cycling? The seats are too hard and the feeling of someone’s side mirror flicking me as they pass me on Sargent Road is spooky.
Hiking? Paranoia about coming across Bigfoot or a clandestine marijuana grow would keep me from having a good time. I eventually decided to give lap swimming a try.
I headed to a local pool armed with a beach towel, board shorts, and a plucky attitude. “How hard can this be?” I thought with naiveté similar to that guy who thinks he’s qualified to ascend Everest because he made it to the top of Mount Diablo and he is a gold card member at Dick’s Sporting Goods.
It was early morning and the only people in the pool were two elderly water fitness students. A couple of teenage lifeguards sat stone-faced like guards at Alcatraz watching Capone eat breakfast. I stepped into the pool confirming with each step that the water temperature was in that five-degree window where I could survive. Too cold, I’m out. Too warm, I’m out.
I pushed off the wall with as much gusto as the guy in the lane next to Michael Phelps when the gun goes off. And I lasted as long as that fellow’s dream of upsetting the 23-time gold medal winner lasts — about 10 yards. I thrashed and splashed, water flying into the air, my chest heaving as I gasped for air. I churned up a wake the size of the one trailing the Delta Queen as she ferries Social Security recipients up and down Ol’ Man River.
I stopped and stood up in the water. My heart was pounding so hard I could feel my eyes throbbing in their sockets. The water fitness students and the lifeguards were all staring at me, mouths open, all four of them thinking the same thing, “What the ( age-appropriate expletive) did I just see?.”
I gently submerged like the USS Nautilus after she planted the Stars and Stripes at the North Pole in ‘58. I hoped the observers were fooled into thinking I’d flayed about on purpose, like it was some sort of advanced lifesaving drill. I pretty much stayed underwater for the next half hour as I searched for my dignity at the bottom of the pool.
A week later I spoke with a friend who competes in triathlons. He pointed me towards the swim program he used to enhance his stroke. It took me a month or so but I improved quite a bit.
But I learned about more than balance, stroke rate, and propulsion during that time. You should know there is a certain protocol in lap swimming. You don’t just show up and jump in the first lane you see. Your fellow lap swimmers want to establish dominance over you like the lead Orca. They walk in and send a message by immediately placing their goggles and water bottle at the end of “their” lane. Some are equipped like they are exploring the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald-high tech goggles, snorkels, flashy caps, expensive fins. They are the alpha fish.
Swimming can be a form of meditation … unless you have a lane grabber nearby. They’re the people who erase the word “community” from community pool. The pool belongs to them and we’re just squirrels lookin’ for a nut. They swim backwards, veering from side-to-side blatantly ignoring the rules of the road. They create tsunami waves in their bid to recapture the magic in their butterfly stroke that’s been dormant since their last high school swim meet during Reagan’s first term. You end up dodging their wakes, their elbows, and their egos as you try to finish your workout.
That being said, I still swim a couple of times a week. It’s a great way to stay in shape. Plus I love the smell of chlorine in the morning. It smells like … victory.
Chris Piombo is a local family man, coach and marathon runner.