Pool Explorer: Mission Pool

Today I swam 3k at the Mission Pool, located on 19th street between Valencia and Guerrero. I’ve always wanted to go inside, because the mural on the facade is absolutely stunning.

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Lap swim hours at the pool are a bit odd: 11:30-1:00, and afterwards it’s open for rec swimming, which I assume means no lanes and lots of jumping and rowdy, jolly disruption. I showed up five minutes before opening with five other dedicate folks; the door opened exactly at 11:30 and we barged in. The price of admission, as in all of San Francisco’s public pools, is $5, and you have to have exact change (thank you, pool attendant, for letting me in for $4; I’ll pay you the extra dollar next time I’m there!) The parks and rec department offers a ten-swim card for $48, which doesn’t really offer tremendous savings.

The showers and locker rooms are very basic. You don’t get a lock or a towel, but can bring your own; the lockers are fairly small and won’t fit a ton of stuff. But you can bring your swim bag with you on deck, where you’ll see this:

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The water temp seems to be in the low 80s, a bit warm for me but still nice. There are four lanes, not particularly wide, and the lifeguards–very nice folks–designate them by speed. The inner lanes are for fast folks and the outer lanes for slower people, but they play it by ear.

For the first half hour or so, I swam with either one person (splitting the lane) or two people (circling). Neither was too bad. At around 12:15 or so, hordes of people descend upon the pool, and four lanes do not offer a lot of flexibility in terms of speed. For the last 1000 yards or so, I was swimming with five other swimmers! Circling with that number of people can get really cumbersome even if everyone’s really nice, and I had to stop every two or three laps to let people pass (I was the slowest person in the fast lane, but the other lanes had people that were considerably slower than me, so I think being there was the least inconvenience possible.) The pool is in an enclosed inner yard, so no Mission vistas, but that’s probably for the best, as seeing people on Valencia would also mean that they could see us! The sunshine was delightful and fun, the people positive and nice, and everyone’s willingness to make the most out of the crowded lanes made what could’ve been a stressful experience into an overall fun swim.

The showers are reasonably clean, but have no soap, not even the nasty stuff you find sometimes in pools, so be sure to bring your own toiletries.

In short: For $5, a nice swim in the lovely Mission sun, if you can tolerate crowded lanes.

Pool Explorer: Hearst North Pool, UC Berkeley

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In an effort to bring back joy and fun into pool swimming, I’ve decided to swim in all the pools in the Bay Area and write reviews of them. I’ll still go to USF when I have no time to go elsewhere, but once in a while I’ll try a new pool to keep the scenery fresh and interesting.

I’m especially partial to uncovered pools with glorious vistas, so when work took me to Berkeley yesterday, I decided to revisit grad school experiences and swim at the rec center. If you’re not a student, faculty or staff member with a subscription, a $12 day pass gets you into all the facilities on campus.

When I lived in Berkeley I wasn’t much of a swimmer, but I occasionally took a dip in the Spieker pool, where the Cal team trains. But my favorite pool was the Hearst North Pool, tucked in next to the political science building, in a gloriously artistic classic building. There are some classes there, as well–martial arts and the like–but the real crown jewel is the beautiful pool.

The pool measures 33 1/3 meters, a length that I find amusing because the 100 repeats end on alternate sides of the pool. That’s pretty fortunate, because there’s lots to see as you breathe to your sides. The place looks and feels like an ancient Roman bath, which classical sculptures rising all around you against the dramatic sky and the Campanile. There are four wide lanes, designated by speed (slow, medium, medium-fast, and fast). Each lane has two lane lines underneath and plenty of room, enough to swim butterfly without hitting the person circling on the other side. The other swimmers are courteous and pleasant and, despite the need to circle, everyone seems very aware of their surroundings and willing to pass and be passed without fuss.

It was a truly luxurious swim, spoiled only by the copious amounts of chlorine in the water and by the fairly basic showers. A special plus is the fluffy white towel one gets, as well as a lock for one’s things, which really improves the experience. Had I planned ahead and brought a decent shampoo and conditioner, I would’ve been fine.

I hope professional engagements bring me back to Berkeley soon, so I can swim there again, and try Spieker and Strawberry Canyon as well.


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Oy, masters.

You’ve all heard me whine before about masters, and about feeling too slow and too lame to swim even in the slowest lane. Today was a new nadir even for me. I showed up at the pool, full of good intentions, and swam about 600y before the rest of the team showed up. The coach set up the boards and wrote the workout on them. I looked up and noticed that I could easily make the intervals in the slowest lane, so I just kept swimming until I was joined by two other swimmers. They warmed up for another 100 or so, and then, as we all lined up against the wall, one of them pointed at the board facing the faster lane, and basically declared: “we’re doing THOSE intervals, ok?”

That was most decidedly NOT ok, because the intervals on the other board were too fast for me. But there were two of them and one of me, so I said I can try. After 50y it was clear that I could not swim with these folks. I quietly left the lane, walked to the other side of the pool, and swam my workout alone.

When things like this happen–and they happen frequently at USF–rather than feeling ire toward the faster folks crowding the slowest lane, I acknowledge reality and blame myself. The faster lanes are fairly crowded, and I can’t fault folks for joining a person who was swimming by herself in lieu of swimming with five other folks in the lane. But I don’t quite know what the solution is, because anything I could do has downsides or would be ineffective:

1. Argue. “Sorry, I can’t make those times.” But then I feel like I’m ruining other people’s workout, especially since I’m the only lame one in the lane.

2. Modify. I’ve had to do this once in a while–swim 100 to other people’s 150, and the like–and it’s not as easy and seamless as it seems. It also fills the workout with stress, because I have to strategize around what everyone else is doing.

3. Wear fins to keep up. I was actually given this advice online, and all I have to say about that is, if I wanted to swim with a motor, I’d go sailing, not swimming.

4. Talk to the coach. Pointless. The coach is focused on the faster people, especially now that they’re training for the World Championships. And he doesn’t emit the vibe of someone who would be interested in the plight of the slowest person on the team.

5. Capitulate (which is what I did this time.) But if I’m going to do that, why show up in the first place? I’m perfectly capable of designing my own workout, and clearly the prospect of working out with others has not proven an amazing motivator to go in. If anything, I crave working out when I anticipate that I’ll enjoy myself, not when I feel stress and fear about the workout.

6. Find another team/pool. Not as easy as it seems. There’s a masters team in Chinatown, but that Y is closed for lap swimming on weekends and has only three lanes. Sports Club is very pricy and has a lane discipline sergeant who gets people out of the water after 30 minutes. Moreover, the lanes are narrow. Equinox? Very expensive, but the dank pool area is a depressing contrast to the rest of the facility. Embarcadero Y: I know people who swim there. Fast fast fast. Tsunami masters: fast fast fast, and also nowhere near where I live or work. Balboa Pool: their new schedule essentially does not allow for any lap swimming except at 6am. Also, crazy amounts of chlorine and no showers. Mission Pool: Dude, I can’t make it to their hour-and-a-half lap swimming time between 11:30 and 1:00.

7. Get a private Endless Pool and swim by myself.

In short, oy.

Diving In

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It’s so good to be back home! I’m enjoying housework and loved ones and, especially, the cats. This morning I craved swimming and headed out early in the morning for the coachless workout at USF.

I guess I was more jetlagged and confused than I thought, because when I packed my pool bag I left the earplugs behind.  When I found out, I figured I’d ask around and see if anyone had a spare pair. No such luck, and so, I dove in to swim my workout with unplugged ears.

Big mistake, as it turned out! I got dizzy and nauseous within a few seconds. As I struggled to keep on swimming, I thought about Mike’s comment on my previous post, figuring that my seasickness was probably of the inner ear variety. Eventually, I gave up and got out of my lane. I decided to try my luck walking around the pool, just in case someone had discarded or forgotten earplugs. And, Eureka!

With ears freshly plugged, I hopped back in and continued my workout. 20×50 free, 100 easy, 100 kick, 100 drill, 5x(100IM, 100back, 100free), 200 cooldown. Meanwhile, the folks that are competing in the Masters World Championships were practicing starting off the blocks. Our new coach, Kathleen, was filming them on her iPad and tweaking their techniques. I felt a combination of shyness and excitement. Since I only compete in open water venues, I’ve never had to jump off the blocks, or dive in, really; even the Alcatraz swim is done jumping feet first from the ferry (that’s probably wise; the last thing you want is to lose your goggles in choppy, murky, frigid ocean water.) At the West Coast meet I swam a month ago, I was one of a handful of people in all the 1500 heats to start in the water.

When Kathleen was less busy, I approached her and asked for her help, and despite having her hands full with everyone else, she did see me dive in a few times and offer great advice. “Visualize a hula-hoop in the water,” she said, “and just jump through it.” So I did. Spectacular improvement; from belly-flopping I went to boob-flopping. And I only lost my goggles 50% of the time!

Diving in is fun, and from now on, every time I’m at the pool I’ll practice a few dives, too.

Don’t Look Back in Regret: An Open Letter to a Friend

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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.

Your friend,


Race Report: Kingdom Swim

What a beautiful weekend in the water I’ve had! An absolutely stunning trip, with great times in the lake, glorious vistas, and lots of fun and friendly shop talk with awesome swimmers.

I arrived in Newport from Montreal driving a rental car (I flew through Montreal because it was more convenient than Burlington, and it allowed me to see dear friends). Notable things about Montreal: It is not really a bilingual city; it is a French city where everyone happens to speak excellent English. It also offers great quality of life even for people who are not tech mavericks.

It was a great experience to cross the border between two countries at peace with each other–something that, given what’s going on right now in the Old Country, was refreshing. Despite the weirdness of my story (Israeli? Lives in San Francisco? Flies out of the country just to get back into the country? Marathon swim?) I was out of there in five minutes and continued the drive into Newport.

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I ended up at Little Gnesta, which is a gorgeous B&B right near the lake. What a beautiful place it is, and well run by the one and only Ruthie and her delightful little dog. A dinner at Brown Dog Bistro and some reading in a comfortable bed ended my day.

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First thing in the morning, I went down to the start line at Prouty Beach for a nice practice swim. Conditions were amazing. The lake was glassy, the sun was shining, and there was no wind.

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At the lake, I met Keone and Erin, both of whom were incredibly kind and welcoming. And fast in the water! Good times!

At noonish I headed to the town dollar store to buy some provisions: apple juice and advil. I also saw the water from the Gateway center and registered for the swim.

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And grabbed a beautiful healthy lunch in the local market.

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On my way to the B&B I stopped by this beautiful church.

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Then, unloaded the schwag and started food prep for the following day.

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In the afternoon, we sailed the course on the Northern Star. Got to see the border with Canada (a row of cut trees and some sensors) and incredible little islands in the lake.

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Then, we all gathered at the Gateway Center under the tutelage of Phil. The safety meeting was brief and informative. And, the one and only Greg O’Connor saved me and bought me maltodextrin!

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And then, it was time for the Swimmer, Yakker, and Pet Parade! Which was incredibly fun (and I say so as someone who did SF Pride twice in one year.) Have you ever walked a parade with a pet goat and a dog wearing a Sons of Anarchy vest? I can now say that I have.

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After a dinner of abundant pasta, I went to food prep and to sleep. I slept little, but well, and in the morning was very relieved to, ahem, be relieved, which meant I would not have to poop in the lake. Such are the glamorous happenings in the sport. I quickly put on my suit and headed off to the beach, where I was welcomed by the following scene:

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Conditions, again, were stunning – glassy-clear lake, perfect temperatures (low 70s – maybe even a tad too warm, but who’s complaining?) and low to no winds.

After another safety meeting, we were on our way.

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The kayakers are deployed in the water well in advance, awaiting their swimmers after the first buoy. I warned my kayaker, Christine, that I was going to be very slow and last to circle the buoy, and by the time I passed it most of the kicking and splashing crowd has dispersed, allowing us to easily find each other. And off we went.

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It was such a beautiful day and it was glorious to stretch out and swim! We scheduled my feedings for every 40 minutes, which was ideal; I was always a bit hungry a few minutes before the feeds, which was perfect, and it allowed me to time the swim well.

It was not easy for me to navigate the course by myself, and Christine, who was experienced and terrific, could see the buoys from the kayak much more easily. I realized, after a few buoys, that if I sight off Christine I stay much more on track than if I try to sight by myself. I think my left catch is a bit too much to the side, so I tried to overcorrect by crossing it a bit and that kept me on course.

Near the little islands, Christine saved me from a fishing boat with three guys who sailed, basically, right into us. She gave them a piece of her mind, which made me feel very cared for and safe.

After we cornered the islands, my L4/L5 disc, that had been niggling me since the morning, started flaring up big time and the pain was getting more intense. I toughed it out as much as I could, but around buoy 6a it became excruciating to continue. Christine and I conferred by the buoy. I concluded that I could finish the swim, but it would be incredibly painful and would probably cost me a week of walking, during which I had a transatlantic flight scheduled. So, at 7.5 miles I withdrew from the swim. A boat took me close to the finish line, and I swam the remaining few hundred yards to shore. And here’s the team! I am so happy to have met Christine, who is a terrific lady and a skilled, expert waterwoman.

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After the lovely and heartwarming medal ceremony, I had a big meal and watched some flicks in bed, with high hopes to wake up less sore.

In the morning I was full of gratitude as I got up and realized that my back wasn’t hurting that bad and I could function. So pleased that I ended the race when I did! And so, after breakfast with some awesome swimming friends from Vermont and New Hampshire, I drove back to the lake and swam the remaining 2.5 miles. Just for myself, with no medals and people and hoopla.

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It was overcast and a bit choppy, but still a beautiful day on the water. And when I got out and looked at the scenery, I felt really done.

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The Fear at the Pit of Your Stomach

We talk so much about prepping and training and feeding and finishing and stroke, and the only thing we don’t talk about is fear.

Actually, that’s not true – over at the forums there’s an entire thread about fear and open water.  But it’s a thread about sharks and monsters and the like. Those are easy fears to talk about. We can all tout around statistics and talk about occurrences and laugh nervously together and feel better.

There’s another fear that I find much more interesting, much more deep. The fear we don’t talk about is the fear that you–trained, experienced, athletic you–won’t be up to the task. That you’ll fall short. That you’ll be found wanting.

That the niggling dull sensitivity in your biceps tendon will turn into pain, and you won’t get the pain out of your mind. That your feet will cramp. That the new idea you had about feeding won’t work. That your body will punish you for undertraining, for not training properly, for your laziness, your errors in judgment, your human vulnerability, with some craptastic surprise hypothermia.

That the dark voices in your head, saying What Are You Doing This For and Why Not Give Up and Is This What Life Is Made Of will win. That you’ll become bored and unmotivated. That in the middle, the voice that always–always!–says, What’s The Point will poison your insides.

That your friends and relatives, who click refresh obsessively your SPOT tracker page will see the orange line end in the middle of a body of water, and will know that you failed yourself. That all the people helping you, your kayaker or your boat or your crew or the race director and all the volunteers will see you come back on shore on the boat. That the immediate relief of not swimming, of being on the boat, will convert into shame and disappointment. That you will forever speak about the swim feeling that shame reincarnate within you.

That it’ll be cold. That you won’t see the landmarks. That you’ll sight wrong. That you’ll be so slow that they’ll have to reposition you, remove you from the water, ask you to pick up the pace. That in your frustration and pain, you’ll say things you regret to your crew.

In short: What you really fear, in those long hours in the dark, is that the race will show you who you really are.

My lovely, beautiful, driven swimming friends: You only live once. Go out there. Whatever needs to happen, will. It will be whatever it will be. In the grand scheme of things, all that matters is love and belonging. And those who really love you, where you really belong, will love and embrace you no matter what happens tomorrow at the race. Love yourself and embrace yourself. Tomorrow is just one more day you get to swim.

In Vermont!

I’m in Newport, Vermont! I flew into Montreal yesterday and stayed with my friends, Boaz and Kim, who were wonderful hosts. Along the way, I got to know some of their terrific musician friends and their two amazing kids. I slept little, but well, and spent the morning reading to the toddler and pacifying the baby. Good times!

The drive to Vermont was absolutely stunning. Everything is green and fresh and exudes happiness and health. What added considerably to the joy was that the road barely has any advertisements. It’s surprising how much getting rid of all that mental junk clears up the scenery and gladdens one’s spirit.

I’m staying at Little Gnesta, a charming Swedish guesthouse two blocks from the lake. I’m still wiped out from the drive here,  but could not resist a wee stroll downtown to see the start line. The lake looks gorgeous. It seems like there will be some formidable winds blowing around the course, so I’m glad I’m taking a cruise of the course tomorrow. Navigation could prove tricky, and I hope my kayaker isn’t blown to and fro in the wind. Screenshot 2014-07-10 21.05.42

The plan for tomorrow is to take a short, refreshing swim after breakfast, rest some, then go on the course cruise, proceed to the safety meeting, and march in the yakker/swimmer/pet parade. That’s pretty special. I love yakkers and pets, and I love that this little town rewards marathon swimmers the same honor and affection that football or baseball players receive in other places. Fun fun fun!

At night I’ll mix up my apple juice/carb drinks and tape Advil pills to the bottles. I’ll take two in the morning before getting in the water and one every two hours, to combat shoulder discomfort. I hope it works as well as it worked in the Sea of Galilee.

Take another look at this lake, will ya? It looks beautiful.

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Gentle readers: You can follow my swim on Saturday by clicking on the SPOT tracker link, which will update every ten minutes or so.



Course Map is Available, and Humu Does Some Speed Calculations

Course map for Kingdom Swim is available! Be still, my heart.

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I’m loving how well organized this race is – it’s a huge production, and Phil is putting it together with graciousness and good spirits. His emails are delightful. It’s so nice to have dealings with kind and generous-hearted people.

Still, I am undertrained and overfed, which bothers me. I know I can coast 10 miles on grit alone (I wasn’t all that aggressively trained for Sea of Galilee, either), and will do so here if necessary, but I wish I had it in me to put in more pool time. I’m glad, though, that I took the opportunity to do the lake race. Some lake time will prove very valuable here, I’m sure. And, my great (for me) time at the masters meet for the 1500M strengthened my conviction that I can rock this thing in a bit less than 3km/hr.

Theoretically, if I could sustain my 1500M pace over 10 miles, I would swim each mile in 32.65 minutes, which has me finish the course in less than 5 1/2 hours. But I won’t be swimming at pool pace, and there are bound to be sighting issues and feeding issues, so I’m throwing in an extra five or six minutes per mile, which puts me at an approximate finish of 6 1/2 hours. We’ll see how it goes.

(As an aside, I’m so happy I’m not of the digital generation and can do these calculations in my head or with a pocket calculator knowing what to multiply by what.)