Today marks a week since I attempted to swim around Manhattan.* I’ve been thinking of little else since. What could I have done to get past Hell Gate? Did I really push it enough, or did I hold back? Should I have stopped and asked Agnes what’s up when I saw both jet skiers come by to talk to her?
Initial thoughts? I should have been prepared to go 70 strokes per minute (SPM) for about an hour, an increase of 15 SPM over my usual. However, after talking to a swimmer I admire and trust, and after reading the Bible of open water swimming technique, I don’t think that would have helped. My technique isn’t what it should be; it certainly is not as effortless as my daughter’s. I work a couple times a week on getting my technique correct. More often than not, my technique suffers after either a long time in the water or my mind wandering. I sometimes go back to the sloppy “keyhole” technique I, and most kids in the ’70s, learned at the Y or in Scouts. I’ve worked over the years to erase that technique from my mind and I think I mostly have. What suffers most is my catch. When I’m not paying attention, more often than not I will all of a sudden throw in a pause right before the catch and/or push down rather than back when I start the catch.
So I think by working on my technique for longer periods, I will improve my distance per stroke (DPS) which could help me get through Hell Gate next time. In fact, my speed had improved over the last year while training for 20 Bridges. I did three CSS tests in my weird Russian pool (3 laps equals 100 yards): October my CSS was 1:36. Six weeks later in mid-December, it improved to 1:35. Three months later a vast improvement to 1:32. I think what I’ll do in the coming years is continue to test my CSS, but do it in my daughter’s school’s pool (SCM). The problem with the Russian pool is that for each 100 (yard) set I get six push-offs vs. four in a normal pool. My initial results will be probably in the 1:40’s since I’ll have fewer flips and meters vice yards, but that’s ok.
Two areas of my swim were absolutely on point: nutrition and injury prevention. Nutrition-wise, I stuck to my usual plan: let me swim for an hour before you give me anything to drink. I need that hour to get the nerves out and brush away the cobwebs. In that first hour I knocked out almost four miles, and it felt great seeing three bridges zoom on by me. My feeds consisted of Crystal-lite flavored water, Justin’s nut butter samplers, little bite-sized pepperonis from Whole
Paycheck Foods, little Babybel cheese. I didn’t want my first feed till 2:00, and it would be a nut butter (always Agnes’s choice of flavor). When I didn’t get a feed at 2:00 I should have known I was in trouble. When the nut butters got boring, I asked for something different. “Agnes,” stroke stroke “pepperoni,” stroke stroke. She seemed really excited that I had cheese and meats as feeds; perhaps I was the first swimmer to not just give her a bunch of bottles of carb mix? I should add here that at the end of the swim, Agnes complemented my kids for always having the feeds ready for her, so I can say that my crew was also on point.
As for injury prevention, this was, frankly, the most surprising to me. I tried to keep it quiet in my social circles, both online and IRL, but my funky elbow has been giving me troubles for the past four or five months. First, for those who only know me through this blog, a picture of my fukt-up elbow.
From top to bottom: elbow from the outside (posterior?); elbow from the inside; elbow extended as much as possible; elbow contracted as much as possible. (Btw, the marks on the mirror are from white-board markers; we use the mirror as a message board!) Even thought my elbow looks horrid, I don’t think it affects my stroke at all, or at least not much. I have no problem with the elbow during the catch phase. I guess the only affect would be when my hand enters the water as I can’t reach as far with the right arm as I can with the left.
However, for the last few months my elbow’s been giving me trouble. Pain has ranged from the bony deposits on the olecranon (in picture one, the topmost part of my arm you see is not my elbow (medial epicondyle, technically) but the bony growth on my olecranon). I think technically it is known as an osteochondroma, but can’t be sure. The medical records covering my elbow surgeries are in St. Louis in the military archives; I never made copies, unfortunately. All this bony growth has led to arthritis. Interestingly, when I had my military retirement physical, an orthopedic surgeon took x-rays of my elbow, and spent a great deal of time looking at the films. He seemed genuinely interested. His only comment, and this from a doctor who looked to be in his mid- to late-50’s, so probably with a few decades experience behind him: “I’ve never seen elbow arthritis, but I imagine if I ever did, it would look just like this.”
So I knew five years ago that I might have trouble with this in the future. And it reared its ugly head months ago. But that’s not all! No, not all. I was lucky enough to get tendinitis as well! At least, that’s what my extensive WebMDing came up with. The pain started in the brachialis, and would get severely painful, almost hot. (Climber’s elbow?) I would feel it swimming when I extended my arm in preparation for the catch. It affected my swimming so much I’d have to shorten the reach of my right arm. More often than not, the pain would be so great I’d have to cut my workout short. Then, normal things like walking, with my arm hanging naturally, would hurt those tendons. I bought one of those elbow braces that are really just a warm snuggly hug on your elbow, thinking that warming up the tendon prior would do the job, but no. It still hurt. My wife’s had tendinitis before and found that continuing to use the tendon, cautiously, was the trick. So I cut my workouts back but still did them. I was okay for maybe two days then it didn’t matter. More pain. I took an entire week off. Still hurt just walking around.
I decided to stick to one plan and see how it goes. I took ibuprofen when the pain necessitated it. I swam an hour a day, two days on, one off. That seemed to do the trick. (I managed to do two long swims during this period, 10,000 yards and 11,200 meters, with low pain.) It still would hurt when I did speed work, and after my first open water swim here in Russia (5.8k), it was very painful for the rest of the day. Ibuprofen again.
I came up with a plan for 20 Bridges with the help of my crew chief cum doc from Issyk Kul: 800mg of ibuprofen 30 minutes prior to the start of 20 Bridges, then the equivalent of 800mg in Children’s Motrin (40ml) as needed during the swim, not to exceed 2400mg in 24 hours. Therefore I knew I had two doses I could take while swimming. (I put the 40ml into a water bottle with about 4oz of water. Doesn’t taste good, but it gets the meds into my system quickly.)
Well, during the swim, maybe around 4:00, I started to think about my lower back. I knew the minute I had anything even approaching pain, I had to get the meds down my gullet. So, another stroke stroke “ibuprofen” to Agnes, and somewhere around four hours into the swim I took my first dose. And never took another one.
It was an incredible feeling. The last thing I expected was to not have pain in my elbow. Not sure why, but I’m thanking God (and my training?) for nine-plus hours of swimming with no elbow pain. My left shoulder a couple times, however, went “Ouch” really loud. It would be when I wasn’t paying attention and my catch would slip. I rarely have shoulder pain, so this took me by surprise. But it really wasn’t anything for me to worry about during the swim. The next morning, while on our way to see Lady Liberty, I pointed to something with my left hand, back behind myself. Imagine, if you will, locking your elbow to your side, lower arm parallel to the ground, and rotating your lower arm away from your body keeping your elbow glued to your side. I did that movement and made it maybe three inches before extreme pain in the front deltoid. Weird. Within a few days, I had full motion again with no pain.
But, most important, my elbow never hurt during the swim nor after! The day after my Issyk Kul crossing last year I was in the car and reached with my right arm to open the glove compartment and BANG extreme pain in the elbow. Remembering that, I brought a sling and my elbow brace with me to NYC. Used neither. It was wonderful.
Finally, the mental game. You sometimes read or hear marathon swimmers mention how this sport is so-and-so much percentage mental. I really believe that. I spent the last eight months or so imagining myself swimming the whole thing. (I should have visualized myself swimming through Hell Gate!) I had all these great things I was going to do after. I was going to consider myself a “real” marathon swimmer. I was going to write up a short article for a work newsletter. I was going to get an iconic swim next to my name in the long swims db. Maybe The Seafarer tattoo I’ve wanted for so long?
Granted, I didn’t swim around Manhattan. I’ve already discussed that. But boy oh boy, did mental toughness ever get me through the second ‘half’ of the swim. So many times I wanted to quit. But I really didn’t have a reason. I wasn’t cold. I wasn’t nauseous. I wasn’t in pain. At times I was bored, or really, how to describe it…tired of being in salty water? Weary of the tedium? Running out of things to think about? Praying for the Hudson to push me even faster? Not sure, but I couldn’t quit. I came way too far, in air miles, in $$$, in training. Just couldn’t do it.
I guess that means three areas were on point: nutrition, injury prevention, and the mental game. Good. Now I can concentrate on my speed. Hell Gate, I will conquer you! See you in 2019?
*Coincidentally, a friend of mine just completed 40 Bridges today. Yes, she swam around Manhattan twice non-stop. Granted, she’s renowned for how incredible of a swimmer she is.