Getting Out of Your Head: The Mental Half of Everything

From the New Yorker
From the New Yorker

Happy 2015! Now, stop lying to yourself.

(Kidding. You can totally keep lying to yourself. I don’t care.)

I was at swim practice this morning and — as has happened many times before — I found myself wondering about the thought process going through other swimmers’ heads. I was at the back of the lane, largely because I have never done a warm-up fast in my entire life and I don’t (usually) cheat drills, so I always end up at the back before we start the main set and that’s fine. But, then, when we got to the main set, I was the only one who made all the intervals and followed all the instructions about negative splitting and descending, without “resting” any of the efforts or putting paddles on for the whole thing just so I could keep up. This is a little frustrating, but it’s mostly just mystifying.

Why would you consistently put yourself in a lane you can’t actually do the workout in? Does it make you feel better about yourself? If you have to cheat the workout, then aren’t you not really doing the workout? I totally understand pushing yourself sometimes and wanting to just see if you can hang. I’ve done it too. Sometimes it makes sense to do whatever you can to try to keep up with a lane that’s too fast for you. Sometimes that’s what you need. But, not every time.

There’s a weird mental thing that goes on in sports. I suppose it goes on in everything, in life. But, when there’s a time and a distance and a schedule, it’s impossible not to ignore what kinds of lies you tell yourself. Are they working?

As long as you can do the warm-up fast and make some of the intervals, even if you have to put on paddles and pull the whole thing, then you can still tell yourself you belong in that lane. You’re not slower than you’d like to admit; you’re just having an off day. Because I’m at the bottom end of fast when it comes to swimming, those lies are more prevalent around me. The people who aren’t close to the fast lane yet don’t care or maybe they just don’t know how far off they are. The people who are legitimately fast mostly can’t be bothered with the lies. But, those of us who are fast enough to know we’re not fast, we have the most emotional issues. We can see what we’re not.

I get in my own head a lot. It’s not my predilection for injury and accidents, or my inability to sustain large training volumes, that is my biggest problem. It’s my tendency to doubt myself, to question and worry, to see the lies for what they are.

Since I started training again for real in October and went on my racing binge, things have felt weirdly effortless. The races all hurt, but in a way that was possible to lean in to. I had my ‘this is the slowest I’ve ever gone’ and ‘I’m the worst ever’ moments, but I came back from them all. I was sure my mind had finally gotten on board. Then, the Christmas Relays were miserable and I wanted to do nothing so much as lie down on the side of the course. I started struggling in some workouts and cutting things short. Last weekend, I headed out for my hour run with four miles at goal marathon pace, following a bike ride, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do it. I felt terrible and I couldn’t stop thinking about the last time I failed at this workout. I almost stopped.

But, then, instead of doing 30 minutes easy into the goal pace, I just started going faster and faster. It was hard, but at least it was hard because it was supposed to be hard. I kept waiting for it to feel effortless, to settle, for my mind to be convinced I was unconquerable again. And, finally, it did. All of a sudden 6:50s felt like I was just ticking off the miles, like I could go forever.

If I’m being honest with myself I know that I cut two miles out of the warm-up. I know that if I’d done those two miles, I would have struggled to drop down to pace. I know that half of my four miles at pace was on false flats downhill. I know that as soon as I finished the four miles, I was jogging 9:00 pace home. And, I know it hurt more than I let myself think about. I know that there were lies I had to tell myself about how easy it felt and how I killed it, but they worked. Sometimes, you do need to pretend you belong in this lane. Sometimes. But, you only get so many times saying that before you stop it. Don’t use them every swim workout.

The last 10 days have been a little rough with the round-the-clock “bootcamp” grad school orientation — which includes lots of night and weekend work on things that are NOT my specialty. And, it’s hard to remember that it takes practice to get good at something. And, even when you are good, you still mess up sometimes. Even Michael Phelps misses the wall on his flip turns sometimes, even in the big meets, just like the rest of us.

Open Water Swimming


This is basically why I won’t be doing the HITS triathlon tomorrow. I can’t risk getting hit in the face with my temporary fake teeth still healing. And, also, I feel pretty shit and I can’t really run more then 5-6 miles.

Yay. #HappyDay100 or whatever.

Adventures in Swimming: When Stupidity Makes You a Better Athlete

Last week, Steve and I were visiting my parents both for Thanksgiving and also to go to my ten-year high school reunion, which was sort of awesome in its ridiculousness. Part of the thing about that kind of a trip, particularly since my parents now live about a mile from where I grew up in Chicago before we moved to the suburbs (*boo hiss*), is the reminiscing and the stories and the ‘remember how Kelly used to be so much cooler than she is now.’

Since they live very close to the park where I learned to swim and spent most of my afternoons as a kid, some of the stories were about swimming. Including my favorite story:

When we moved to Chicago, my parents signed me up for swim team. I had, theoretically, learned to swim in the backyard pool of the guy who owned the daycare I went to in Florida. In reality, I had not learned how to swim. But, I didn’t know this. When I got to swim team, the first thing everyone had to do was prove that they could swim one lap. The coach said ‘Swim a lap.’ So, I did.

I didn’t think about the fact that I couldn’t or never had or didn’t really know how. I jumped in and started “swimming.” Since I was 100% convinced that in order to swim good you needed to breathe a lot — like really a lot, like every time my arm left the water I picked my head up, every single time — I mostly was flailing and gasping and swallowing gallons of water. It looked like this:

If you try to search for photos or videos of kids failing at swimming, there basically are none. But, MOST kids fail at swimming. Parents stop lying to yourselves.
If you try to search for photos or videos of kids failing at swimming, there basically are none. But, MOST kids fail at swimming. Parents stop lying to yourselves.

But, and this is my favorite part, I didn’t stop. Just as it never occurred to me that I couldn’t swim a lap before jumping in, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do it even as I was failing. Because safety, we were doing our lap in the lane right next to the wall. I was “swimming” along the wall and could have just reached out to touch it if I needed to. In theory, that was the point. In theory, if a kid was drowning, they would stop. I didn’t stop. It never even crossed my mind to grab onto the wall until the coach looked down and was like ‘Whoa, kid, stop.’ And, then, I basically thought the coach was telling me to stop because I was doing so good.

I failed the ‘can you swim a lap’ test and got put in Remedial Swim Team or Adventures in Swimming, which met an hour earlier. I actually learned how to swim and moved out of Swimming Adventures pretty quickly and up through the swim team lanes. Maybe it was because I went to practice a lot — swim team practice was every day but most kids only went 2-3x/week; not me, I had nothing else going on — or maybe it was because it simply never occurred to me that I couldn’t do what the coaches said.

By the time I was 9 or 10, I was good enough that I supposed to move out of the medium lane, where the 8- to 11-year-olds were, and into the fast lane with the middle school and high school kids. I hated it, though. I didn’t know the older kids, they hadn’t moved up from Adventures in Swimming with me, they didn’t like me. And, worse, I couldn’t do what the coach said, I would get lapped and struggle through workouts. So, I discovered that if I told the coach I didn’t feel good and wanted to swim down a lane, with my friends, then the coach thought I was being a trooper for still coming to practice when I felt bad and I didn’t have to swim with the high school kids. It was a win-win.

Or, I guess, it was a lose-lose. Eventually, I did that less and less, until I was always swimming in the fast lane. Eventually, another kid moved up with me and a few of the middle school girls took me under their wing and I got faster. Eventually, I actually got pretty good and started making finals and semi-finals at city-wide meets, something that never happened for the kids coming out of my tiny park district pool. But, I had learned how to make excuses and you can’t unlearn that. Once you realize that you can grab onto the wall, that it’s right there, you really can never go back to when quitting never occurred to you. Once you know that’s an option, you really can’t unknown it.

I kind of wish I could go back to being that stupid kid.

Reasons I Have Come Up With to Not Swim

– It’s cold.
– It’s dark.
– The pool is probably closed.
– I have a lot of other shit to do.
– It’s too late for a swim and I’m tired.
– It’s too early for a swim and I’m tired.
– Who needs swimming anyway.
– It’s a rest week and I shouldn’t waste energy swimming during a rest week.
– I just did a hard workout and nailed it, so I deserve to not have to swim.
– I just did a hard workout and bombed it, so I deserve to not have to swim.
– My back hurts.
– My stomach hurts.
– Which brings us to yesterday: I ate a hamburger and fries and KitKat bites too close to my run and had to take way too many bathroom stops during the run and now I feel really sick to my stomach and should probably lay down instead of swim.

How Much Do I Need to Swim?


I have decided: not much. It turns out when it’s up to me the first thing that gets cut in the training schedule is swimming. It’s not that I hate swimming. It’s fine. I just hate finding out which pool is open, going to the pool, standing on the deck in the cold — because all pools here are outdoors, jumping in the water and waiting to warm up, sometimes never warming up, staring at the black line over and over, dealing with silly Masters people or dealing with silly public open swim people, getting out and running back inside. It’s easier not to.

So, I have decided that while I am training for CIM I do not need to swim much. I figure as long as I swim 1-2x/week then I won’t forget how, right? After CIM, I’ll go back to 4-5x/week. This sounds like a brilliant plan, particularly since it means NOT swimming right now.

I mean, really, I’m going to swim a 1:0x for IM CDA, pretty much no matter what, right? And, I’m definitely not going to put in the crazy hours between now and June that it’d take to jump up a level in swimming and suddenly be a 55′ IM swimmer. So, who cares. But, man am I going to feel stupid if I end up swimming a 1:15 or something.

How much do you swim?

For no reason, just because.
For no reason, just because.

Training Week: Sept. 23-29

(Yeah, this is a day late. But, well, tough shit. It’s not like y’all are editors who are going to stop giving me jobs if I miss a deadline. So. Priorities.)

Last week was very easy. This week I was trying to get in more solid training before switching more to marathon training. It didn’t exactly work that way, but life doesn’t exactly work that way.


Swam 3,000y at Masters. Lots of 50s and 100s and IM sets. I swam terrible and was in a terrible mood, but it’s possible that’s just because I was annoyed I was swimming so terrible. Apparently I had planned on going to a strength class in the evening and forgot. I went to trivia instead.


Biked two hours with 2 x 10′ at 175W (half-Ironman pace) and actually felt pretty good. Not great, it was still heavy legs and it was originally supposed to be 3 x 10′,0 but “coach” said to cut that short. You have to listen to Coach.

Ran about 7 miles easy with the high school kids. We went up and up and up.


Ran 8.5 miles with drills and strides, then the 4 x [3′ at 6:20, 1′ rest, 30″ hill sprint, 3′ recovery] workout. It was hard and I had to work after, but couldn’t really do much of anything.

Did not swim in the evening. Went out for dinner instead. Yes, Steve is in his off-season already…


Biked 14 miles easy from work, to practice, home.

Ran 6 miles with the high school kids that was really primarily 12 x hill repeats. Did about 4 of them easy, 4 medium and 4 hard (one crazy hard just to see if I could keep up with the Varsity high school boys — I can almost, barely, but it’s really a bad idea). Then, 15′ of core. I did have the whole brief almost-fainting spell after practice. That meant I did not swim in the evening. With the whole heart episode I just had to lay on the couch all evening and recuperate.


Had planned on swimming, but I was still such a mess from the shitty episode the day before.


Easy 25′ run and 1200m swim, with hard pick-ups and some race pace. At least, I hope this pool was meters, because otherwise I was swimming pretty slowly.


Santa Cruz Triathlon.

TOTAL: 11:15

OK, time for marathon training. Which will sort of look the same, but it’ll feel different in my head.

Training: Sept. 9 – 15

Saturday I raced Pacific Grove. My lifelong dream of two-and-a-half months was to win Pacific Grove. I did that. And, then I still had to go to work today and clean the house yesterday. This doesn’t seem right. I definitely feel like there should be more of a reward/break/general acknowledgement from the world of my awesomeness. People as I walk down the street should be like, “YOU, how can you perform mundane chores like buying a new shower curtain! You are a doer of dreams! You should go home and eat cookies!” This is probably why I got tired of triathlon: because there’s something to be said for achieving a set achievement, then laying on the couch and watching Law and Order, not going back to training.

Which is a long way of saying that this past week was very light on the training but that was the point and it was worth it. Then, this upcoming week (after I can move again) it’ll have to be back to the grind. More lifelong goals of multiple weeks must be achieved.


Rode 25′. That is all. Felt like that was “recovery” from the race on Sunday.


Swam 2,000y in the morning with four hard 50s and then three 100s on a tempo pace.

Ran 4 miles or so easy with the high school kids, with a uptempo section in the middle.


Rested from all that easy training. (Except I had to walk a bunch at the beach and it was tiring.)


Ran 4.5 miles quite easy + 15′ of core with high school kids.


PRE-RACE: Swam 1,100y with four HARD 25s and a race pace 100y. Then, rode 7 miles with five 10″ sprints and 90″ of race pace. I do these sprint bursts and hard 25s like REALLY hard the day before a race. It sort of reminds me that going fast is painful?


Pacific Grove Triathlon. Duh. 2:20:58 — I think they call it a 1,500m swim, 24 mile bike, 10k run. Plus: mile running warm-up and maybe 100-200y of swimming warm-up. No cool down, which was stupid.


Swam 1,000y. It was painful.

You thought I was kidding about taking it light? Hah. I never kid about taking it easy.