Finding Sports as an Adult

In the aftermath of the Sea of Galilee crossing and the favorable press in Israel, I’ve been wondering how my athletic pursuits strike people who remember me as a kid in Israel, when I was as far from a jock as you can possibly imagine. What prompted these thoughts was a really interesting conversation I had with my dad. Apparently, at the college at which he works (which is right on the Southern shore – in fact, I was sighting on it at the end) everyone was ecstatic about the swim, and my dad told his assistant, “funny, she’s not really an athlete or anything.” His assistant’s jaw dropped and he said, “are you fucking kidding me? How can you say that someone who swam 21 km of cold water is not an athlete?”

But I kind of get it. People who know me only as an adult think of me as a jock, but I picked up the sport really, really late in life. This has had a huge impact on my approach to the sport, as well as on my skill. I’ve been reading a bunch of swimming biographies lately, including Golden Girl, In the Water They Can’t See You Cry, The Deep End, Just Try One More, Swimming to Antarctica. Some of these expose family dysfunction; some reveal the dark side of high school, college and elite swim teams. But while some of these stories are more positive than others–notably Lynne Cox’s and Natalie Coughlin’s–the recurring theme is the centrality of swimming in the heroines’ lives from a very, very young age. Swim practices, often twice a day, eat up their academic and social lives. Unhealthy preoccupation with body shape and fat permeates their existence and often takes place in public. The exposure to sexual exploitation by coaches, or, more commonly, abusive language, wears them out. The open water marathoners often report the shift from pool competition to be a healthy refuge–partly because their talents lie in the long distances in which they shine and partly because the sport is a better home for them.

People who have trained like this often complain about the “old school” model of pool team training, which used to involve massive yardage. Even the coaches who are more about swimming smart rather than hard, like Cal’s Terry McKeever, still have people swim immense yards. While I would not have enjoyed a childhood involving massive amounts of daily discipline, I can see that I’ve missed precious years in which I could have developed speed and an aerobic base. Having started to swim in my thirties, less than six years ago, I started from nowhere and will never be able to pick up the kind of speed that my fellow swimmers have from years of team practice.

Part of the fault lies with Israeli sports, which are a far less smooth operation than in the US. Our school didn’t have a swim team and our physical education classes were little more than preparation for the army. There was no joy, play, or sportsmanship involved. It was all hard, spartan, and devoid of any goals involving lifelong wellness.

Another part of the problem was that I was a straight A student and a musician. Pegged as a nerd, my family and my school emphasized my participation in intellectual activities, assuming I was lousy at sports. In many ways, they were right; I despised sports with balls with a passion and hated sprints. But whenever the teachers would send us on a long endurance run in the valley, I would finish among the first, without even huffing and puffing too hard. If anyone had been paying attention, I might’ve been a distance runner on a track team, or included in the town’s water polo team. But nobody did, and so, neither did I, and I simply assumed I sucked at sports until my early twenties.

But part of me is happy that I only discovered athletics and endurance sports as an adult. I come to the sport with freshness and joy that my worn friends, after years of joy-sucking pool practices, can no longer feel. I come up with creative, technique-heavy sets that my friends can’t invent; they simply wait for the coach to bark the sets at them. And, rather than being shuttled to and fro by swim parents, I make my own decisions about my projects, my meets, and the extent to which I’m willing to invest time and money in my avocation.

7 Miles in Golden Gate Park!

Did this route, there and back, totaling 7 miles this morning. It was flat and not at all hard. I ran at a moderate pace and was not winded or miserable at all.

This route is actually more than half of the Kaiser half route. The actual race will include a wee loop to the East of the park, and a there-and-back bit on Great Highway by the ocean. I feel confident now that, if I add a mile every weekend to the long run, I will do the half and emerge victorious.

I miss the pool! It reopens Jan 1. Tomorrow is recovery day, as is Mon, and Tue I’m doing a short run.

There’s No Ascent in the Water

What with the tragic closure of the USF pool for ten days, the terrifying reports of Fukushima radiation reaching the San Francisco shore, and the pressing need to start increasing land mileage for the half marathon, I’m doing some running these days. I’m about to head out for a 6-mile run in Golden Gate Park. Highlights of the week include a 5.5 mile run *to* the park and back, and a 3-mile geriatric hobble with mouth breathing and dizziness up 22nd street.

The image to the left, taken from the tricksy and deceitful Google Maps, depicts the ascent in only one block – I believe it’s between Church  and Vicksburg. By the time I got to the top, I was panting and red faced and in very, very bad shape. This is one thing I never have to encounter in the water–ascending. Hills, stairs, and other self-propelled elevation paths, make me despondent and they make me feel unfit. I try to do the ChiRunning thing and lean into the hill, but the hill resists!


Thankfully, there are many ways to work on this problem in the city without recurring to in-gym Stairmasters and other implements of Sisyphian self abuse. The city is full of gorgeous stairways, such as the Lyon stairs, depicted to the left. I think I’m going to try and incorporate a stairway like this into my run every couple of weeks and see if I’m making any improvement. At this point, it feels like I can run forever on flat surfaces, but hills really knock me down.

Marathon Swimming and Body Image

I’ve been seeing a lot of ads ostensibly encouraging people to work out because “strong is the new skinny.” This line of advertising has been rightly criticized in feminist websites (see here, for example.) “Fitness” has simply become another moniker for “looking good for other people’s gaze.” And nonetheless, the mainstream cultural message that one ought to be limber, that a chiseled, nonfat body is the athletic ideal, is very pervasive.

Which is why I absolutely loved Karen Throsby’s paper about weight and marathon swimming. Throsby, an online pal, fellow sociologist and channel swimmer, interviews and observes channel swimmers in Dover bulk up and eat abundant calories to become more insulated and buoyant in anticipation of their crossings. She calls their relationship with their newly-gained weight “heroic fatness” and shows how they regard the weight as a sacrifice they make for the sake of the sport, and how they alienate themselves from their fat as if wearing a fat suit.

But Karen also points out that, especially for women, the freedom to be an extraordinary athlete AND to eat, especially in public, is a liberating experience. I have to agree.

The picture above is that of a 39-year-old woman just before she jumps into 64-degree water, in which she would spend 9.5 hours that day and traverse 13 miles. As you see, I have a muffin top, hefty thighs, and a belly. I don’t have a sixpack and I don’t have well-defined, chiseled muscles. And yet, not a lot of women in the world can do what I did on Saturday.

Marathon swimming has been an incredibly liberating experience for me. After doing a long swim, I can’t escape the thought that a body–any body–that is capable of swimming that long is perfect. It functions well, does what it’s supposed to do, and brings me pleasure and accomplishment.

This is not because of the belief that the fat is essential for accomplishment in the sport. There’s apparently a new study by Dr. Thomas Nuckton (a member of the Dolphin Club) that suggests that open water swimmers are not necessarily differently built than other people. While some body fat might help with buoyancy, it doesn’t help with speed, and handling the cold seems more about acclimation than anything else.

Nope, I’m not fat for the sake of the sport. There’s nothing heroic about it. But you know what? Who cares? I’m happy, I’m active, I’m doing great things out there with my body and fundraising for great causes, I get everyone in my community involved in fun projects in great bodies of water – who the heck has time for washboard abs for the sake of having washboard abs?

And this is where “getting fit” or “losing weight” is a scam. The vast majority of dieters regain the weight. And those who keep it off are caught in a crazy cycle of diets that get more and more extreme.

You live only once. Get out there, take a walk for the pleasure of it. Run a 5k for the camaraderie. Sign up for a marathon as a fun challenge. Play ball with your kids or with friends for fun times. Take a swim in the pool or in the ocean to recharge and rejoice in your feel of the water. What other people think about your looks is a stupid thing to worry about. Don’t let it detract from your pleasure in being alive in the world.

Training Plans from Now till Mid Feb: Gaining Running Fitness Without Losing Swim Chops

I’m still basking in the glory of the delightful Sea of Galilee Swim. Congratulations are pouring in on Facebook; the Shvoong article about the swim went viral in the endurance community and beyond. The Israeli Zoggs rep contacted me, is sending me a gift, and offered to contact him personally for any gear needs I might have. All things told, seems like it’ll take a while before my head shrinks back to its appropriate size, but as a dear friend commented yesterday, “enjoy it; life will find a way to bring you back to Earth.”

So now, it’s time to think about what happens next. I haven’t given Catalina any serious thought, but eventually will have to do so. But whether I do the crossing or not, my first big OW swim for the season will be the Tampa Bay relay, which will only be 8-10 miles for me this time and not all in one stretch. And, that only happens in April. Seems like the wise course of action is to fall back to a regime of basic workouts (3-4k or so) and only do one long swim per week, and instead switch gears to running. I’m running the Kaiser Half Feb 2 and apparently have also registered for Bay Breeze on Feb. 15, because (1) a friend is doing it and (2) I’ll already be trained from Kaiser. So it’s time to increase distances with the running.

Seems like it makes sense to spend the weekend doing one long run (say, on Sat) and one long swim (say, on Sun), and then swim four days a week and run two or three. A typical week, from now till mid-Feb, should look something like this:

Mon: run or rest or cross
Tue: swim + run
Wed: swim
Thu: swim + run
Fri: swim
Sat: long run
Sun: long swim

This makes Tue and Thu heavy-ish days. I’d probably drive to USF Koret, leave the building for a run, then come back in and swim. I’d be making team days Wed and Fri. It’s doable, but busy. Thing is, I don’t want to lose swimming fitness and risk botching Catalina or Kingdom Swim (or, if I register on time, Swim the Suck) because of these running races.

I’ve Become Rich and Famous

Well, perhaps not rich, and of limited fame. 🙂 But the Israeli endurance magazine, Shvoong, did a lovely feature on my Sea of Galilee crossing, which I really hope will encourage more Israelis to get into marathon swimming. They have gorgeous temperatures and some amazing athletes; it’s all about encouraging people to swim year-long and to realize they don’t really need wetsuits with the great conditions they have.

Lengthwise Crossing of the Sea of Galilee: Race Report

“Good Morning!” I said softly to my roommates. “It’s four o’clock!” We were staying at the resort village in Kibbutz Ein Gev, which was to be the location for the start of the swim. My mom, Yael, the unofficial producer and chief logistical officer, booked two little cottages for us, so we could get a bit of sleep before the swim. I managed to sleep from 7pm to 2:30am, which made me very happy; my cousin, Tal Katvan, and my dear friend Lisa Galfand-Trudler slept much less. Nonetheless, they woke up and we all made last-minute arrangements. I was in particularly high spirits because I managed to poop at 2:30am. This sort of thing is seldom mentioned in race reports or in advice columns for endurance athletes, but it’s a real issue – and I was relieved I wouldn’t have to deal with it on the swim.

We took all of our gear, feed bottles, warm clothes and the like, to the car, and drove into the boat launching area, where we met Captain Lior Eliyahu, who was preparing his awesome red motorboat for departure. He helped us onto the comfy chairs. My dad, Haim, tied the end of the feeding line to his wrist, so the bottles wouldn’t be lost at sea; my cousin, Tal, was put in charge of the SPOT tracker. We sailed on the Kinneret toward our entry point, Amnon Beach in the north of the lake. Shit, this lake is huge, I thought, but mostly was entranced by the peace and quiet. The boat stopped about 50 metres from shore, unable to dock there. With my customary pre-race battle cry, “Towandaaaa!” I leaped into the water. It was cold, and dark, but I was mostly paying attention to the need to navigate between the slippery rocks and find a good place to clear the water for the start. I ended up climbing on some giant rocks and sitting on one of them. My grandiose plans to stand up and strike a pose were instantly thwarted: I slipped and fell into the water. Spectacular start, I thought; might as well start swimming.

The first hour and a half saw the sunrise from the water. Swimming in the dark was eerie and peaceful; no bioluminescence in freshwater, just the gentle sound of the waves. My goggles bothered me somewhat, until I figured that the glowsticks I stuck in them slipped forward and undid the seal. Once there was enough lighting, I got rid of the glowsticks and everything was well. I was thrilled I took an anti-inflammatory pill before starting the swim, because my shoulder only started bothering me a bit well into the swim. After two hours, I was joined by my pace swimmer, Lisa.

I should mention right now – Lisa is Queen of Everything. An Ironwoman and ultra athlete, she recently received the gold medal for a 100km run. Her presence is so calming and inspiring that every time she swam with me my spirits were immediately buoyed. We played it as follows: An hour of pace swimming followed by an hour by myself, which worked out just great; I swam nine hours, and the first two by myself, so I got four quality hours of swimming with Lisa.

At about Hour Four, my back started bothering me, and half an hour later, my groin. I was still going at a pretty decent pace; a bit of chop woke up the sleepy, clear lake, but the wind was blowing in a favorable direction so I didn’t mind. I am now told that, at that point, there was also some wind blowing to the side, but it was much better than the conditions I had in Tampa in April; truly, nothing to whine or write home about.

After Hour Five, as Lisa came out of the water, the nagging pain in my back and my groin was driving me nuts. I was shivering and grimacing and, mostly, mystified as to the groin thing. After all, I was using a 2-beat kick and hardly using my thighs.I stopped shortly before Hour Six and consulted with the crew. They all seemed to feel for me, and while my dad seemed to lean toward pulling me out, Lisa and Lior suggested that I continue. I thought to myself: if I come out of the water now, when sitting on the boat, will I be able to tell myself that this was the best I could do? The answer was no. I decided to keep swimming. Shortly after, Lisa went into the water for the third time. You could say that Lisa saved the swim. Upon her entering the water I felt a surge of optimism: I can really do this! By Hour Seven, when Lisa left the water, I was in good shape again, ignoring the pain and stroking along.

In the middle of Hour Eight I was told I still had a bit more than 4km to go. That’s not a lot, I thought; I’ve already done 17km. I started playing a soundtrack of ’80s and early ’90s songs in my head – my secret weapon for endurance races. By the time I finished with Peter Gabriel, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Mandy Moore, Lisa was back in the water. We could see the shore, but the sun was in our eyes and we didn’t seem to make it any closer. My dad and Lior announced we only had one km left, but that turned out to be a calculation error based on deceptive buoys. Aaaaargh, I thought, I’ll tell them off when I get out. Oh, shut up, another part of me thought; they’re here to help and doing a terrific job.

We kept swimming forward and the damn shore wasn’t getting any closer. Then, suddenly, there were bamboo shoots sticking out of the lake. Lior guided us toward the beach. At 100m to the end, I found my 6-beat kick and sprinted to shore. After approximately nine and a half hours, I couldn’t believe I was done! Lisa also cleared the water and we hugged and congratulated each other. After all, she swam 10k in one-hour increments; good for her, and fortunate for me!

On the boat, there was a very pleasant surprise: Lior hosed us down with a showerhead of hot water! I sat in a heated part of the boat, covered in blankets and towels, and gradually managed to get dressed. I then learned that the water temperature when we started was 18 degrees celsius, and it warmed to 20 celsius after we were done. This was significantly colder than I hoped for and I’m really proud of myself for pushing through. Lior also told me that the previous group to cross the lake (south to north) did so in the summer, under much better conditions, but we were faster than them (no thanks to my slow swimming; rather, thanks to my efficient feeding, which I practiced so I could avoid treading water and getting colder.) Which, I guess, makes me the unofficial world record holder for the lake (unless there’s a neglected Walter Poenisch type of whom I don’t know.) My family was waiting for us on shore in Ein Gev. After a much-needed shower, I joined them at a seafood restaurant and managed three-quarters of a St. Peter’s Fish, half a potato, and a few spoons of vegetable soup. Our table was located on the lakeshore, and I excused myself to go and see the sunset. Looking at the lake painted in sunset colors, the enormity of what I’d done sank in and I started weeping with joy and excitement.

We arrived at home at around 6:30, and after half an hour I fell asleep. Woke up at 10pm and spent three hours reading the amazingly supportive and warm messages I received by email, on Facebook, and on the Marathon Swimmer Federation website. Hundreds of people, many of whom I don’t know, were following our progress on the SPOT tracker page! I also got a nice greeting from the Israel Swimming Association and an invitation to interview with the country’s national online sports portal, Shvoong. I managed to sleep four or five hours more, and am now up and in good spirits. My shoulders and back are very tight, but I’m not miserable. My throat is still bothering me; I think the apple juice and ginger plan needs some rethinking.

Most importantly, here’s what we were able to accomplish: $2,640 in donations for the amazing kids at Beth Dror. Also, Lior, who runs a wakeboard and wakesurf business at Ein Gev, very generously offered to give the kids a free fun day in the summer. I am so moved by his generosity.

I am immensely proud and happy of what we did yesterday. I say “we” because no solo swim is truly solo. I am so grateful to my parents, Yael and Haim Aviram, without whom this could not have happened. Also, to my awesome cousin, Tal Katvan, who posted lots of great photos and updates on my Facebook wall (I’ll post some here when I’m near a Mac). And most of all – to the amazing Queen of Everything Lisa Galfand Trudler who paced me FOUR TIMES during the swim and is credited with encouraging me to continue when I was cold and in pain. And, to the incredible Lior Eliyahu, best pilot a swimmer can wish for. We managed to do an amazing thing and benefit a very worthy cause. I am so blessed to have such incredible people in my life, and without them, the swim would not have been possible.

GPS testing successful!

The image on the left depicts our evening stroll in the neighborhood with the SPOT tracker! It seems to work just fine. The cluster of points were our dinner at the local burger place, and the long lines are strolls we took that were less than ten minutes long (the thing transmits a beep every ten minutes.) We found the map in perfect working order when we got home, which was of course cause for cheer, and I will set up the page, either with a link or with an actual embedded frame, before the swim for all of you to follow.

In other news, taper has begun! I swam a short 1800y workout tonight full of fast sprints. Feeling a bit rotten because of the short axis sets, that were not great on my back, but nothing that a good night’s sleep can’t cure.

Temperature Rollercoaster!

So, in the course of the last three days, the temperature in the lake has fluctuated wildly, between 17 and 23 Celsius. This is rather alarming news, of course. Nine hours in 17-celsius water is not an easy feat, and while the bay is much colder (circa 12-13 celsius these days) I haven’t spent more than an hour at a time in the water. There’s no clear formula that compares a given amount of time in x degrees to another amount of time in y degrees. I wouldn’t say I’m freaking out, but I’m definitely concerned.

Apparently, there’s an oceanographic explanation for what we’re seeing. According to the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research page, the lake has two distinct layers of water during the summer. The sun warms the top layer, which is lighter, and which lies atop a heavier, colder layer. During the winter months, the winds that blow over the lake during the fall and early winter (approx. 10-30 meters per hour, blowing north to south) mix up the two layers, until they separate again as an effect of the springtime sun.

The good: First of all, I’m glad the wind is blowing north to south. It’s outside wind, not currents, so not as helpful, but it’ll give me a psychological boost swimming in that direction and will make breathing easier. Second, my shoulder is bound to bother me less in cold water, which helps, if not with the inflammation itself, at least with its manifestations.

The bad: 17 celsius is COLD. Really, really, really cold. Nine hours is a lot of time to be in cold water. Fingers will claw. Thinking will cloud up. My crew will have to be very alert. I did plenty of pool work in an effort to bring up endurance, but I might’ve been better off doing shorter workouts in the Bay. I’m resisting really hard the temptation to beat myself up for being lazy.

Corollaries:
1. Gotta do at least two acclimation swims on the week-of, perhaps one as soon as this coming Saturday.
2. Need to alert my crew to the symptoms of hypothermia and tell them to be particularly watchful.
3. Afterdrop is a huge risk, and I need to make sure I have a lot of warm clothes for the boat.
4. We may need to consider keeping my food hot in a thermos to warm me from the inside during the swim.
5. I should go back to what I sometimes do before cold swims, which is walking around in sleeveless tops to brace myself against the cold.