Sink or Swim. Or a Little of Both.

Sometimes you should get a trophy for just surviving.

One of my favorite, most fulfilling parts of this Run Like A Mother experience is hearing from beginners. The women who are taking on a 5k for the first time; who are brave enough to try something slightly intimidating and physically demanding; who have enough confidence in the process to continue to double-knot, even when their quads hurt, their families don't understand, their belief in themselves is wavering.

What can be hard for me, though, is being able to viscerally relate. I am happy to encourage and sympathize and dole out the occasional batch of tough love to anybody who needs it, but it's hard for me to truly recall what it feels like to struggle to simply run. Don't get me wrong: I struggled through many miles, but that lung-sucking panic of what have I gotten myself into? I think I might just die right here that seizes your oxygen-deprived brain has subsided, thankfully, after 20+ years.

At least when I'm running.

I was humbled, though, the other afternoon when I finally mustered up enough confidence in myself to join a master's swim workout at the University of Denver. They're called the Aquaholics, they're the best master's team in the state, they swim in a beautiful 50-meter pool. To me and my paltry swim career which ended in 7th grade, they radiate intimidation as surely as they do chlorine.

But after 26.2 in NYC was yanked from me, I had a choice: I could let my stress fracture drown me mentally, or I could do my best not to drown physically.

So I get there and am relieved the pool lanes are going the short way, instead of the unconquerable 50-meter way. There are about 8 lanes of Aquaholics warming up, and I'm about to put myself in lane 6 (read: the slowest lane for people who learned to swim as a child) when the coach said, "Jump in with Kate. She'll help you out." So I sidestep down to one faster lane and jump in with Kate. Immediately, I can tell I'm in trouble. This is the warm-up, and I'm struggling to stay in her bubbles. (Translation: we're supposed to be going easy, and she's already pulling away from me.) But we chat as we hang on to the end of the pool, waiting for the real workout, and I like her. I admit to her I've done one sprint triathlon this summer, with maybe two swims total before that. She assures me I'll be fine.

If by "fine" she meant I'd be o.k. through 25 of the 100 yards of the lord-knows-how-many-100-repeats we did, then I'dΒ  drink way too much chlorinated water and my shoulders would feel shredded and I'd have to forgo flip turns because I couldn't catch my breath, then I was fine.

But really, I was rocked. Flailing and failing. I couldn't find a rhythm--or sense of enjoyment. I couldn't comprehend how Kate could get so far in front of me in such a short period of time. My legs felt weak and unstable. Most of all, I just wanted to quit. Oh yeah: kind of how I felt two decades ago, when I bought my first pair of yellow-and-green Asics and tried to run around my college campus.

Kate, true to form, cheered me on as I came in dragging and she set off on another 100. "Three to go," she'd announce, omitting the fact that she was just talking about this set of a multiple set workout. I hung on as best I could, proud that I feigned just one goggle emergency towards the end so I could sit out for a lap. I had to take a break, or my arms might have fallen off. Or my lungs might have filled up with water. At the very least, the lifeguard would have been called into action.

At the end of what felt like four hours, we kicked a few lengths side-by-side using kickboards to cool down. "Is the pool this way 25 meters or 25 yards?" I asked her, hoping it was the former: what little swim muscle memory I have is used to yards, so maybe this was longer and tougher meters?

"Yards," Kate replied knowingly. "But, I promise, it's uphill both ways."

I am, like so many of you, going to climb again today.

39 responses to “Sink or Swim. Or a Little of Both.

  1. I just found your site and love this post! Welcome to swimming! I did my first triathlon last summer, a sprint, and was so afraid of the 5k at the end. As a swimmer (after taking a 15 year break) it’s comforting to hear that you felt similarly back in the day, running for the first time. I can’t imagine ever feeling as comfortable running as I do swimming- it’s nice to hear it’s not totally out of reach. And I bet after 4-6 weeks you will feel much stronger in the water.

  2. I can relate so much to this post. I’m so inspired by beginner runners and want so much to understand what they are experiencing, yet it’s been so long since I have been there.

    But then, the pool ‘analogy’ makes so much sense to me. I can remember going through a similar rehab experience and making it one length and gasping for air. Meanwhile, I’d watch as other people would be doing their repeats for what seemed like an hour or longer. How incredibly humbling that was!

    Thanks for the reminder to understand our strengths as well as our weaknesses.

  3. I did my first sprint triathlon last summer (two this summer) and the swim was my hardest part. This year I started to feel better in the pool. The swimming stretched me out, made me feel loose (and tired, and hungry) and changed things up. Having said that – I haven’t been in the water since August 15th – the day of the tri! You’ve inspired me to add swimming back in to my routine to rest my crunchy legs.

  4. I just joined the masters swim team in my area as well, after about a 25 year break from my childhood swim club days. Running was giving me some aches & pains so I decided to go for something a little easier on the body, but I can relate to the first days experience of it being TOUGH!! Good luck with it.

  5. I loved this post. WTG, Dimity!! I love swimming, and I think I’m decent at it (sometimes the older folks at the Y will comment on how fast I am, but it’s all relative, right?), but I’d be WAY too intimidated to swim with Masters. I have no idea what a 100 repeat even is!

  6. That is amazing! I’m so proud of you! I would rather throw a 20-30lb weight around my head and through my legs than to swim in a pool where I might drown but maybe someday I’ll have the courage to learn how to swim the right way.

  7. Hey ladies – I recently found your website (and am currently reading your book – it’s awesome and I plan to give out several copies at Christmas to my running sister and sister in laws!). I have a problem, though. I am a first-thing-in-the-morning runner, before my husband goes to work, and it is now DARK at 5:15 when I get up. This used to be the time of year when I would head into the basement and get on the treadmill, but this year I have found a neighbor to run with! Yay! So the dark is doable with a friend. However, I am in serious need of some sort of night running gear for safety/visibility and was wondering what you guys recommend. Then I thought maybe you might have other readers wondering the same thing? So I’m asking for recommendations – do I get a reflective vest, those wrist/ankle reflective things, blinking LED lights – I don’t know! I just know that I am LOVING these cool, dark mornings and am hoping to run outside as long as possible this year (I live in Minnesota, so I don’t know how long I’ll be able to tough it out once the snow falls and the temp drops below zero). Thanks!

    1. Hey Rachel: welcome to the site! And so glad you found a running partner: so much better than the dreadmill. πŸ™‚ Have you been on our facebook page (Run Like A Mother: The Book)? I’m going to post this as a status update on Friday. Probably Friday morning. You’ll probably get a ton of good comments there. And hey: you’re Minnesota tough, my friend. Sub-zero runs are nothing. πŸ™‚ Many happy miles to you.

      1. Thank you Dimity! I just went to FB and “liked” the Run Like a Mother: The Book page, so hopefully that’ll do it. I’m excited to hear what others recommend – I was looking around online earlier (while my 3 kids tried to kill each other in the background) and got completely overwhelmed with the options. Thanks again!

        1. Hi Rachel, I recently started running at night to beat the FL heat and found a running light belt which I just love. It’s a Go Motion Sport Runner Litebelt and the cheapest place I found it was at Amazon (around $40). It has an adjustable light on the front, blinking red lights on the back so others can see you, and 2 zippered pockets for gels, keys, cell phone etc. It’s lightweight and totally awesome and you don’t get the tunnel vision that you get with a headlamp. It’s made my night running a lot more enjoyable now I can actually see where I’m going:)

            1. Rachel: dimity here again. Sarah will post it tomorrow (Sat.) morning as status update. Promise. I know you probably have a few other things on your mind, but just wanted you to know we haven’t forgotten you. πŸ™‚

    2. I live in Indiana and run outside all year round. It is totally doable. For me the temp needs to be above 10 F so as not to freeze my lungs. Any colder and my lungs start to hurt. I would just recomend buying a running jacket with reflective strips and going with that. I am sure your shoes have reflective areas on them too. πŸ™‚

      One big thing that I discovered that really helps with running when it does get cold is a neck warmer that you can pull up over your mouth so the air your breathe in isn’t so freezing! It really does make a difference! Also yak traks for your shoes when there is snow on the ground and you are set!

  8. i am a swimmer. love it, love it, love it. that being said, i never swim for speed. i swim for distance. so, i feel like i can swim forEVER (like all of 2000 m…ha!) whereas, after 4 months of marathon training, i still felt like death warmed up sometime after mile 18. i swear i’ll never run that much at one time ever again! it is running that i have a love/hate relationship with because it is sooo much more difficult for me! currently training for a half, and on the injured list…again. man, the only good thing there is i get to hit up the pool a little more frequently….

    ANYWAY, i understand the difficulty of throwing yourself out there pushing yourself beyond the limits of what you thought you could do. and way to go!!!

    ….and if you could share with me some workouts to change up mine, that would be AWESOME!!!!

    1. Hey Virginia. totally appreciate your perspective: gotta love the support that water gives (and the occasional hang-out at the wall). sorry to hear you’re on the injured list…join the club. πŸ™‚

      When I swam solo at the Y a few times over the past 18 months, I pulled workouts from this site:

      I also just got a new book called One-Hour Workouts. It’s for triathletes, but I love how efficient they are: you could easily do run + swim ones.
      The pages are laminated, so you can take it to the pool. πŸ™‚

      Hope that helps–and many happy miles in the water and on land. πŸ™‚

  9. What a killer workout! Swimming was my first love, but I haven’t done laps in a looong time. I know I’d be overwhelmed with that “what was I thinking?” feeling after about 75 yds. And totally ravenous after 150 yds. You’ve inspired me to get some swimming shampoo/conditioner and get back in the pool. It won’t be easy, but I’m definitely more “floaty” than as a kid. πŸ˜‰

    1. LOL, Sharla. And right on about the ravenous thing. I’m so hungry after a swim, the steering wheel in my minivan looks good as I drive home. And yes, haircare is also a must. Time to upgrade from Pert. πŸ™‚

  10. Swimming is my first love. I feel at home in the water and I never miss a practice. Now running… oh boy! It is uphill all of the time. I swim with a bunch of runners. They put in 7 miles before practice. I struggle to run 3 on a good day. Thanks for the post! Your humor and insight are just what the “running coach” ordered!

  11. I took up swimming 4 years ago when I had a stress fracture, I knew how to plough my way across a lake in a steady front crawl but had not swum since childhood & had certainly never swum laps in a pool. I’ve sunk a lot of dollars in it over the years, lessons and clinics are hugely worthwhile, but I really LOVE it, just as much as I love running – open-water swim races are some of the funnest things going, and it truly is a good idea if you are an injury-prone runner, it’s superb cross-training (I am not a super-enthusiastic cyclist, so I find swimming is much more my second love, with cycling coming an unfortunate third)… Good job getting out there, Dimity, and keep it up – next thing you know you will be the one showing new swimmers the ropes!

  12. Good for you for getting out there! I have thought about joining that program too, but am really intimidated by it! Swimming is the weakest link for me when it comes to my tris, and I really want to improve. Did the coach assist you with your stroke or did you just do the written workouts? Also, was it super busy with lots of people in each lane, or not so much? Maybe I could meet up with you and some of the others that have posted, then I wouldn’t feel so intimidated???!!??

    1. Aimee: happy to go with you. The coach is on the deck, and he/she is happy to coach if you want it, but doesn’t unless you ask for it. (They have a bunch of coaches, so it may vary a bit with each person.) Usually, I’ve seen 2-3 in each lane. Not bad at all. A bit more crowded on long course days (I’ve only done that once). E-mail me at runmother at gmail dot com and we can set something up. Like I said, I’ve been back a couple more times, and it’s been easier/more comfortable each time. πŸ™‚

  13. When I was training for my first sprint triathlon this spring/summer, one of the lifeguards kept trying to talk me into joining their Masters team. I have to admit I’m curious. I never would have thought of it if he hadn’t asked me every time I went to the pool. I like swimming. It was the easiest part of the tri for me. Biking was the toughest actually. I think my bike weighs about 100 pounds (that might have something to do with it). I’ve been improving in my running, but I have to admit, I still wonder if I’ll ever get to that point when I’m thinking (while running), “I’m really enjoying this!” I feel pretty beginner-ish in all 3 areas!

  14. When I hear the term “masters” to be honest, it scares the crap out of me.

    You know, I got back into the pool this summer after YEARS of not swimming, and even when I did swim competitively, I was always getting the old foot tap to move aside.

    I get intimidated still at my local rec center pool when the old dude with the ginormous pot belly, who only swims 6 laps to my 40, can still sprint past me when he decides to actually take of of his trips down the lane.

    And yet, for me, getting there, doing it… and even having a lovely elderly woman say, “You have SUCH a smooth stroke!” is all the reward I need.


  15. I’m at that beginner runner stage — walk a bit, run a bit, walk again while trying to stay upright on the hills while breathing so hard your lungs hurt, run a bit, repeat until loop is done. Someday I hope to look back and realize that I’ve forgotten how hard it was to start.

    Enjoy swimming — I’m trying to convince my son to take lessons again so that I can slip into the pool for a few laps now and then. Wish me luck!

    1. Good luck, Lori. Sounds like you’ve got the running drill down. Hang in there, and I promise, one day you’ll go on autopilot and won’t even notice. πŸ™‚

  16. This makes me miss swimming, Dim!

    I wanted to chime in: I hung with tough Masters team (Univ. of SF) so ANYONE can do it. I had just taught myself how to swim with my face in the water. The folks in the lane were all AARP members, and they spanked me! But it was awesome. Swimming in Olympic-size pool is a joy. Enjoy H2O for me, and I’ll take joy in pavement-pounding for you. xo

  17. Wow! I’m impressed you went. There is master team at Macalester that I’ve thought about checking out. Scares me, though. A friend just took swimming lessons while her daughter was. Anyway, kudos to you!

    1. Try it, Sarah Jane, for at least one workout. I bet you’ll find a lane that works for you. Even though this was tough, I so appreciate the company and a set workout, one I’d never do on my own. Plus, it’s Macalaster; everybody’s nice in Minnesota, right? πŸ™‚

  18. I’m really impressed that you tried. I learned a year ago last summer how to swim “for real” and have joined a gym with a pool this summer to see if I can’t somehow help my learning curve along. I’m slow to say the least! I ended up sharing a lane with a guy last time I was there that I’m sure was related to Michael Phelps. I think he was doing about 10 laps to my one. It was all I could do to think about something other than what he must be thinking of me! I applaud you for sticking it out!

    1. Hey Amy: nice job getting out there. Swimming is such a technique-heavy sport, taking some lessons is definitely not a bad idea at all. And one thing to keep in mind, whether you’re swimming or running or whatever: people, especially in endurance sports, are usually too self-centered to notice what you’re doing. One coach told me that once–when I broke down riding my bike and asked for a ride up a crazy hill–and it’s stayed with me for years. That helps me when I think everybody must be saying, “How slow is she?”

  19. I love that pool, but must so many former Olympic athletes crowd up the lanes turning the “slow” lanes into Olympic qualifying trials? Colorado has a problem: you can’t spit without hitting an Olympic class athlete. It makes it impossible for the recreational athlete to get a workout without feeling like a schlumpa schlump. I used to do a master’s swim workout when I lived in Northern Virginia, and it was a fun, good workout, and I was okay – not the fastest, not the slowest. I might be getting injured running, and I just persist because I can’t even think about swimming here because I know I’ll be drowned in their wakes.

    Good for you, Dimity. It takes some cojones to get in that pool.

    1. Hey Amanda. Thanks for putting it perspective. I was laughing reading your comments…slow lanes in to Olympic qualifying trials. Amen, sister.

      That said, I’ve now been 4 times, and it’s getting easier and I’m finding my pace. Jill, another commenter above, has thought about it, and if you want to join us, we could go. Strength in numbers, right?

      Dimity, with the cojones. πŸ™‚

  20. I have longed to join this swim team, but afraid of the time it’d take away from my running. But as I wrote on my blog the other day, I’m now “Swim with Jill” since I’m not running a whole lot and the DU swim tean has re-entered my brain. I salute you for getting being brave to get out there when I know fear of the unknown was racing high. You probably go at noon and I’d have to go in the evenings….but I pray I find a Kate! Keep swimming uphill!!! πŸ™‚

    1. Hey Jill: I went in the evening last week. I think the lunch/evening crowd is a little mellower than the morning one, but don’t quote me on that. πŸ™‚ If you ever want to go, let me know. I’m aiming for 3x a week these days.

  21. Swimming absolutely kicks my butt… Seriously. I don’t do it enough to feel any sort of improvement. I feel the benefits, just not improvement. I can only swim down and back without stopping only if I do the backstroke back and can catch my breath that way. I still have to rest for a minute or so in between full laps. That’s usually when I resort to running laps (forward, backward, side-step), so that I’m still moving and not looking like a total moron. πŸ™‚

    Great job with the workout! Sounds like the Aquaholics are enough to intimidate even seasoned swimmers! You should be proud of yourself.

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