Back in 2004, I started taking triathlon more seriously. I got a coach. She made me do tests. One of the first tests she made me do in the pool was 3 x 300. I looked back in Training Peaks for my results:
(1) 300 at 4:42
(2) 300 at 4:41
(3) 300 at 4:40
Average is 1:33 per 100. Heart rate was at 130 after each one- maybe too easy? I have a hard time pushing myself in the pool.
Fast forward to today. Today is February 2012, 8 years from where I started. Since then I’ve done a lot of swimming. And every once in awhile, it’s good to go some place you’ve never gone to breakthrough. Enter: the monster swim. Annually, my masters team puts on a monster swim event. 100 x 100 on the 100. I remember the first time I did it, I did 75 x 75 on 1:40, a little over 5600 yards.
The next year I did all 100. From there it became a challenge that I set for myself – could I swim the first 50 without any pool toys? Could I do the last 10 as 100 IM? The last time I did this swim was back in 2010, I was about 16 weeks pregnant with Max. I did 6000 yards and held mostly around a 1:25 on the 1:40. It felt like a lot of rest. To me, 15 seconds is enough time to hop out of the pool, take a pee, make a sandwich and have a conversation with your lanemate.
Give or take a few seconds.
This year I knew if I did the monster swim, I needed a new challenge. I’ve done all 100 on the 1:40. What could I do to top that? The last 10 all fly? Hold under 1:20? Hmmm…..Then, I got the registration sheet.
This year we’ll offer a lane for 100 x 100 on the 1:30
Something has clicked with my swimming recently. I credit this mostly to my child. Before having him, I was always punctual. I’d be on deck 5 minutes early and carefully select my lane. But a funny thing happens when you have a child. From that point forward, you are always late. When you arrive late at masters you have two choices: swim by yourself on the wall or swim in the fast lane.
One day, I just took a swig of my coffee, said a few Hail Mary’s and jumped into the fast lane. I had no business being there. But week by week, I got faster. I just kept putting myself back in there and doing anything to keep up. Since then I’ve learned a few things: there’s no interval that fins or paddles can’t help you make, coffee sipped throughout practice exponentially increases your odds of keeping pace and depending on who is in your lane, you can indeed fear being lapped on a 50.
When the monster swim rolled around, I announced to Timmy, my new lane husband (yes, sadly I divorced Tom, it’s not you, it’s me for a faster, younger, heavily tattooed guy to draft off of), that I was going to do 100 x 100 on the 1:30. His reply:
The night before, I didn’t sleep well. I had a dream that I ended up in the wrong lane. I had a dream that I missed the interval. I showed up on the pool deck with a pit in my stomach and sweaty armpits. It was like race morning. I was giddy but nervous, confident but honest with myself. I knew I could do it but knew how hard it would be. And I also knew once that clock started there was no turning back.
I checked my lane assignment.
100s on the 1:40
I quickly ran over to Coach Dave and told him there’s been a mistake. I’m doing the 1:30. It’s been decided for weeks. It’s the only reason I’m here. He tells me the lane will be crowded. I tell him I’m small, you’ll never notice me.
We wait on deck. I stand by lane 1 waiting for the start clock to count down. It felt like Timberman 2009, I’m standing in knee deep water at the start line with Andy Potts, Simon Lessing, Chrissie Wellington. Though I know I qualified to be there, I felt like I didn’t belong. On deck I felt the same way. And was just about as nervous.
I’m surrounded by what feels like world class swimming company. There’s Coach Dave who swims 200 back about 30 seconds faster than I swim 200 free. Christina, one of the fastest girls on the team. Rich and John who probably swim a 50 faster than I can run it. Timmy who rattles off all the names of the shots he took last night, Liquid Cocaine, Slippery Nipple, and hungover he will still swim faster than me. And, Doug, who’s swam the English Channel. A few times.
WHAT am I doing here?!
The first 10 were easy. They always are. We were holding under 1:15 and I was feeling great. It was just like practice – in my view were nothing but Timmy’s feet. I have never loved a man’s feet so much. If I got any more on top of him I literally would have been on top of him, mounted.
There were 7 of us doing the 1:30. We split the lane, some of us starting on one end, some on the other. Do the math. If Coach Dave leaves the other end of the pool swimming around a 1:05 pace, and Liz leaves the other end swimming around a 1:15 pace, when will these two trains collide? The answer is if Liz swims any slower than a 1:20 pace. With each 25 I could see Coach Dave chasing me like a hungry shark. I was swimming scared. It quickly became apparent that I had to swim the entire set under 1:20. I’d never even done that on the 1:40. Around 15, another lanemate asks me how I’m doing:
I haven’t been caught yet.
We coasted through the first 20. Then 30. I found a phenomenal rhythm from 30 to 40 where I felt invincible. I could hold this pace all day. In between sips of coffee and Power Gels, my blood was running sugar, caffeine and confidence.
And then I hit 47.
Which was about the time the bear jumped on top of me.
We took a 5 minute break at the 50. Catch your breath, take a pee, refill coffee. I had set the goal to swim the first 50 “naked” – no pull buoy, no fins, no paddles. I did it. I never exceeded 1:17. I drafted 3 amazingly fast men with their fancy dolphin kicks off of perfect flip turns. I open turned. I never got caught by Coach Dave from the other end.
After the break, I figured why not do the next 10 without toys. I felt recharged. I had more coffee. Around 5500 yards a man stood by the diving block talking to me. 25 yards later, I realized that man was my husband. I was in that zone where I noticed nothing but swimming. Focus on the feet, the feet – STAY WITH THEM! I stayed right on Timmy’s feet through 60. And then Marty jumped in. So I stayed on Marty’s feet. I put on fins until 70. Pulled with paddles through 78.
Then, at 7800 yards into it, I entered a very dark place.
A very, VERY dark place.
It wasn’t a bonk nor a meltdown, it was just that moment that my body finally caught up, pressed the panic button and sent the message to my mind with sirens, bells, buzzers, whistles of pain, in other words, the message of:
WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING TO ME!?
Every endurance athlete knows this place. You can see the way out but until then it might as well be 1000 miles away. My back ached like nothing I ever felt. My triceps hurt. No, scratch that, my biceps hurt. My biceps, triceps and delts hurt. I think Coach Dave jumped on to my back. With the bear. How am I going to get through this? Why does this hurt so much? I tried gel. I tried coffee. None of it pulled me out what felt like 23923478924 yards ahead of me (though I only had over 20 to go).
Then a brilliant moment:
I’ll put on fins!
Wait a minute…
I’M ALREADY WEARING THEM!
I tried mixing up my strokes. And somewhere around 8200 yards, on my back doing backstroke, I looked up at the lights. Are you there God, it's me, ELF. I didn’t see God but it was close. I thought about the few times in life that I have physically been to this place. The start of back pain in labor. Fatigue in the last 10K of of Ironman. Sometimes I think we chase experiences (and races) that bring us here. The place where you have to accept the pain and then IGNORE IT. It’s rare and raw but once you are there – you truly learn things about yourself that you can learn no place else. I realized two things:
1 – No one goes through _____ forever because the time will pass, it always does.
2 – I can do this.
From 85 to 90, I became like a machine. Swim 4 lengths, stop for 12 seconds, repeat. At 92, Timmy picked up the pace. 1:11, sub 1:10. At 98, I took off all toys. At 99, Timmy dropped a 1:04. Seriously? And after 100….
I stopped swimming.
Well, I was all done – what did you expect?
My back throbbed. My arms ached. My mouth tasted like Kona Punch and coffee. It was not a good taste. I was hot but cold, I was tired but energized, I had just swum 10K.
I’ve done a lot of things as an athlete. I’ve got some great PRs, awards, memories. But this one is up there. This might have been more fulfilling than Ironman. You see, you just have to finish an Ironman. There’s no time constraint. Sure, you have a time goal and a placement goal but if you can’t/don’t do it – you still get to say you’ve done an Ironman. But when you set out to do 100 of something on a time constraint – you either do it or you don’t. The interval keeps you real. And when you finally do it, well…
It feels honest and amazing.
I’m always thinking about the next big thing. How can I top this? Maybe next time I’ll do 75 without toys, maybe next time I’ll do the last 10 as IM or maybe next time I’ll shoot for 100 x 100 on the 1:20.
In that case, I might look up and NEED to see God.
Why talk about these events or these paces? Certainly not because I am a great swimmer. I swim with guys who are dropping their 100s in the low 50s. That's FIFTY SECONDS. But I want athletes to see that you can start some place and with hard work, consistency and patience (those are my "secrets") you can end up some place else - faster! I look back at where I was 8 years ago – holding 1:33 at a hard pace. Some of you might be thinking – 8 years, that’s a really long time! Athletically speaking, 8 years is nothing. It takes years to create progress. And the faster you are or more experienced you get, the harder you have to bust your ass for each second. Sports are not instantly gratifying when it comes to numerical progress. You can work an entire year and gain 1 second on your swim test or 1 watt on your bike test. But it’s still progress.
And if you’re not seeing progress – break out of your comfort zone and do something a little scary. Sometimes all you need is a shake up. Swim in a meet, run a 5K, do an indoor time trial. The longer you’ve been in the sport, the more you have to change the stimulus to get change. Progress becomes a matter of continually raising the bar for yourself.
How high will you set it?
Decide that and then DO IT!