The last couple of weeks brought with them a whole host of DNFs among my favorite marathon swimmers. I’ve been following several SPOT tracker maps, just to see the orange dot suspiciously speed up in the middle of the course or die out. This, in itself, is not a tragedy. I’ve DNFd myself a few times, many of us do, and compared to all the other awful stuff that happened in my immediate vicinity this month (war zone, a colleague murdered under suspicious circumstances, a wild display of racism and hatred re the war on both sides) it’s perhaps no big deal that someone’s avocation didn’t quite come to the conclusion of which s/he dreamed.
Nonetheless, it was particularly disheartening to follow Molly Nance’s journey, partly because we’re online friends and I’ve been following her grueling training schedule on the Did You Swim Today? Facebook page. Molly started increasing yardage for her crossing just as I gave up on my Catalina plans, and I was blown away by her determination and commitment as she posted about longer and colder swims. I was particularly moved by her struggle to complete the 6-hour qualifying swim in sub-60 water.
Molly’s swim was to take place while I was on an astoundingly-unfortunately-timed family visit to Israel, and as everyone was following the horrible news about the unfolding war and mounting casualties on both sides, I click-refreshed her SPOT tracker map. I knew how much she wanted this, how committed she was to her success, and my heart sank in my chest when she posted on Facebook that she was done and on the boat.
Molly’s full, candid, and vulnerable report of her swim is wonderfully written and it makes me like her even more (and I already liked and admired her plenty!) Because I have such respect and fondness for Molly, I’m addressing this post to her, but I think the same goes for everyone who DNF’d this season.
My Dear Friend,
You’ve trained so hard. You swam, you ate, you visualized, you rested, you went to the pool, you went to open water venues, you spent money and time and precious logistical resources planning your trip, you relied on family… and you didn’t get to stand on the other shore.
I know how much you wanted this. I’m so sorry you left, as you so evocatively wrote, your dream in the water.
I also know that you have the immense maturity to learn from each experience, and that plenty of us look at DNFs as “failures on the path to success.” I wanted to offer a slightly different take, one that invites you to be a friend to yourself, and as kind to yourself as you are to so many other family members and friends around you.
Do not look back in regret on your swim.
The picture above depicts a rock near the Dead Sea called Lot’s Wife. The mythology behind its odd shape is that, during the destruction of Sodom, Lot’s family, who got advance notice to flee the city, was instructed not to look back. But Lot’s wife couldn’t resist gazing back lovingly at her home and the dream she left behind, and as she turned around to do so, she instantly transformed into a rock.
I don’t think Lot’s wife looked back at the city. I think she looked back at the woman she was when she lived in it. I think every look back is a look at us in the past. This is especially true in marathon swims. How many of us, right after DNFing, sat in the boat and looked back at the water, feeling an instant identity split: the person you were a moment ago, putting one arm in front of another, and the person you are now? Some of the worst pain and mental self-doubt perhaps alleviated as you sit on the boat, it is tempting to beat up on you-of-the-past, and ask yourself if you’ve made the right decision. Our entire culture is rife with sports ads featuring [much skinnier and younger] people grunting, suffering, with slogans glorifying pain.
You of the present are not you of the past.
The “you” you were a moment ago was in a world of pain. Maybe your shoulders were giving up on you, every stroke sending pricks of searing pain. Maybe you were shivering. Maybe you were suffered debilitating nausea. Maybe all sorts of nasty scenarios from the past floated into your head in this dark teatime of the soul. You are alone in the water, even if there’s an amazing crew of dedicated friends in a boat above you. Only you know how you feel. And the “you” you were in the water is very different from the “you” you are just a second later, sitting in the boat, wrapped in warm blankets, drinking hot tea, hugged and loved by friends. It’s easy, in the relative physical comfort of the boat, to forget how awful you felt just a moment ago. Which brings me to my second point.
Seasickness is pretty much the worst feeling in the world.
I’ve been cursed with a treacherous inner ear, which means I spent much of my childhood vomiting on planes, in cars, in boats, and pretty much everywhere in between. As my dad once retorted when I complained about friends traveling to exotic places, “there’s nowhere they’ve been that you haven’t barfed.” I’ve tried Dramamine and ginger powder and the whole shebang. It helps, but it doesn’t fully immunize one against that awful moment where one thinks one’s gut is going to spill out of one’s mouth.
Nausea and vomiting can be fairly dangerous, as I found out in Tampa this April; they can bring with them a drop in blood pressure and the onset of hypothermia even in warm waters. But even in itself, seasickness is horrible. Awful. And the “you” that feels a little bit better on the boat (by “a little” I mean “not feeling like you’re about to die”; the boat is a really sad place for a seasick person) can easily forget how dreadful the “you” in the water felt, trying to barf, failing, being tossed around by the waves, barely remembering who you are and why you’re doing this.
Andrew Malinak recently wrote a poetic, beautiful piece called Take It Too Far. Many people thought it perfectly captured the spirit of the sport and shared it on Facebook. When I read it, I was torn between my appreciation for the evocative, empathetic piece, and my resentment of Spartanism glorified in the piece (of which I wrote a lot elsewhere.) Here’s where I think Andrew and I part ways: I think that, however far you take it is as far as the “you” that you are can take it.
Training for a channel swim is taking it pretty far, I think. I remember the six-hour shifts I was putting in the pool before my solo Tampa attempt, how much I cried in the water, how I resented the people in the lanes next to me because they left at the end of the workout and left me by myself, and I can scarcely believe I was motivated enough to keep doing this and logging crazy yardage day after day. I took it as far as the “I” that I was, could. Molly, you took it pretty far, too – your training volume was astounding and incredibly impressive. The “you” you were in the water made the right decision at the moment you decided to quit because whatever you decided was right.
So don’t look back in regret. Instead, look back at the memories, the training, and the camaraderie, with fondness and with love for the “you” you were. Be your own best friend, and rest happy in the knowledge that you have many friends and admirers you’ve never met in person, all rooting for you and sending you a big hug, wrapping you in a big fuzzy towel, and handing you a thermos of hot, soothing tea.