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 you. 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 thermost 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.)

Pool Action!

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The last two weekends have been all about the pool! Last weekend I went to Santa Clara to see the Arena Grand Prix. That was incredibly exciting! So much fast swimming from people we know! I saw Michael Phelps win his heat of 200IM only to come in–shock of shocks–third, after Conor Dwyer and Chase Kalisz. I was lured by a handsome talkative man to an artisan jerky booth, only to find out that he was Tyler Clary. I eavesdropped at conversations between world-class coaches and Olympic hopefuls, and I saw Simone Manuel power through the water and was super impressed. What an inspiring thing to do – I’m so glad it was nearby.

And today, I swam my first-ever pool meet at San Mateo Masters. The USF team came in full force and swam some fast and happy times. I was in the slowest heat, but surprised myself by swimming the 1500M in 30:43 and winning my heat. It’s not lightning fast, but it’s pretty neat given how sluggish my off-season times were. Did my best at the 800 mixed relay, and am now resting at home. Happily, I got to swim a lot of nice, relaxing, slow laps in the warm up/cool down pool, and so I feel like I’ve done my share for today. Tomorrow I’ll go for a chill, quiet swim at USF or in the bay, and Sunday is all about Pride. I am seriously considering riding my bike in my swim gear.

Exciting Shorts

Hey! Here’s my new wacky summer cap!

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Lots of short, fun things occurring. After last weekend’s 4k lake swim, I got excited about Kingdom Swim and am back at the USF pool every day. I’m not swimming particularly long workouts, but I’m working on technique and breathing and healthy body mechanics, which strikes me as very important.

Today I spent my swim time coaching my friend Ziggy, who is training for his first sprint triathlon. Ziggy is a fabulous runner and cyclist and used to swim quite a bit as a kid (his turns are great!) and only needed a little bit of Total Immersion guidance on streamlining, calm breathing, and making himself horizontal. By the end of practice his form was looking pretty great, which I was very happy about!

Tomorrow morning I’m swimming the Golden Gate Sharkfest. I wish the swim started and ended in San Francisco, which would simplify my morning, but I’m sure the idea to go to Sausalito, take the ferry, and swim South to North makes sense tidewise. The race is 1.6 miles, but I’m told that the water near the South Tower is problematic and crazy and that we should expect to be pushed to the East. We’ll see how it goes, and I hope the Great Whites will take a day off.

On Sunday, I’m going, as a spectator, to see the Santa Clara Grand Prix. I’ve never gone to a pool meet before! And with all my swim heroes, too. Beside myself with anticipation!

And the following Saturday, I’ll swim my first-ever pool meet! It’s the Pacific Masters Long Course Championship in San Mateo. Fear not, gentle reader, that I might break some record by accident; I will be the slowest of the slow, which will become even more ridiculous given the fact that my coach wants me to swim the 1500m. I suppose going as long as possible offers the least chance of embarrassment and mortification, but I can see people in the bleachers thinking, “I wish this lady got out of the pool so we could move on with the meet.” I have a game plan, which essentially consists of negative-splitting the three 500m chunks of the swim. I told the coach that I would just embarrass the team, but he was fairly insistent that I do it, and I caved in to the (nicely laid) guilt trip.

All of which may not be joblike, grueling preparation for Kingdom Swim, but I’m still putting in some happy, smart yards, and more importantly, shaking off the cobwebs and getting back in the habit of swimming every day.



Race Report: Catfish 2.4 Mile Swim

I’ve been whining so much about pool problems that I forgot what this sport was all about: open water! So, when I happened to get an email from USA Productions about the Catfish Open Water Swim, and noticed it was the next day, I registered right away.

I really like swimming in bay area lakes. The water is clean and calm and the temperatures tend to hover in the high 60s, which is wonderful. This swim was supposed to take place in South San Francisco, but they moved it to the Quarry Lakes near Fremont, which are a gorgeous spot, and–as opposed to some South Bay reservoirs–open for swimming even when there’s not a race going on. Good to know!

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I’m really glad I went; it was a glorious, sunny morning and the lake was glassy and crystal clear. There were about 300 people there, but only 12 of us swam the 2.4 mile course without a wetsuit. This is what it looked like:

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As can be seen in the map, you can’t really see the turnaround point from the start (plus, we were a bit misinformed about what the buoy situation out there was going to be like), but it all turned out to be fairly self explanatory once we swam around the bend. As is frequently the case with lake races, they ran security using SUP paddles, and while the kids were not very strict with enforcement (folks cut around the buoy line and were not penalized), they seemed to have fun.

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It was fairly clever of the race organizers to let the wetsuit folks go out five minutes before our wave; there were 40 of them and 12 of us and the assumption was that some violence could be avoided. But there were a fair amount of slow wetsuit folks, and so, by the time we got to the turnaround buoy I’d overtaken several folks from the previous wave. And I started out in the back behind everyone else!

This probably calls for a bit of commentary about the psychology of these short races. In the last few years I’d gotten used to very long races, in which I already know I’m going to be, by far, the slowest swimmer in the group, and so I abandon all hope and just swim at my leisure and pleasure, keeping a lot of stamina and energy for the end and watching my stroke really carefully. These shorter affairs are a completely different story. The pool of competitors is much larger, and since many of them are triathletes (this race, with the 1.2mi and 2.4mi distances, catered particularly to that group), you can’t assume that swimming will be their forte.  And so, I found myself doing something I haven’t done in ages when racing: Competing with, and overtaking, other people.

When I saw the 10k Olympic race in London, I was fascinated by the strategy the different competitors employed. Many of them, probably Thomas Lurz included, were counting on drafting behind Ous Mellouli and overtaking him at the end. Ous, like a real champ, just forged ahead the whole time and finished first – much like Keri-Anne Payne did a few years earlier. I have a lot of respect for people who don’t play the drafting game (even though it’s perfectly kosher and legit to draft), partly because it’s never worked very well for me. Most folks I swim shorter races with are not TI folks; they kick and create bubbles and commotion around them and it’s just not worth the trouble. But I’m pretty proud about how strategic I was in this race. I pushed to reach a group ahead of me, drafted a bit at someone’s thigh, then overtook them. I got to overtake at least four wetsuit people this way in the last quarter of the race. It felt good to swim strong. One person clawed me a bit after I passed him, which is a known occupational hazard; I retaliated by shifting to a 6-beat kick and creating a ton of bubbles around his head.

I was rather pleased with myself as I got to the very last buoy, and then encountered a somewhat complicated finish line: the lake has permanent lane lines in it, and we had to cross under or over them to get out.

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As you can see in the picture, at the very end of the race you basically have two choices: cross under or over the lane lines. I opted to swim under them, continued to stroke till my hand raked the bottom of the lake, and ran out on shore.

I did pretty well for an old, undertained, injured lady.

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My Bia has me at 1:40 or so, which makes sense given that I started the GPS when the wetsuit wave started. It also has me at 2.6 miles, which means some sighting snafus but not nearly as bad as in previous escapades. I tended to veer toward the left, but since it was a counterclockwise course, that actually worked in my favor, as I took very tight turns around the buoys and sighted frequently.

Most importantly, I had fun! And even though the distance is roughly a quarter of what I’ll be swimming in Vermont in mid-July, I know that the aggressive push I put in at the last quarter of the race means I had a lot more endurance and fuel in me, which could last me for the few hours that the race will take. I’m estimating a finish anywhere between 6:30 and 7:00 hours, depending on lake conditions.

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At some point earlier in the year, I registered for a trans-Golden-Gate -Bridge swim, which apparently happens next week. I’m still undecided whether I want to get into the bay, but if I am, I’ll report from the field. Meanwhile, the priority is to actually get this ass back in the pool and put in some serious yardage, so I’m fit and comfortable come Kingdom Swim.

Minneapolis: Five Days, Four Workouts!

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For the last five days I’ve been in Minneapolis for the Law and Society Association’s annual meeting, which has been an absolute delight. What’s also delightful is the location of my AirBnB rental, uptown near Hennepin and 28th, and next door to the spic-and-span Uptown YWCA. What a terrific facility!

I did three swim workouts, which I absolutely loved. The water is chlorinated, but treated with UV that makes it feel less harsh. The facility is almost empty. I never had to circle and only twice shared a lane, for a very short time.  The first two workouts focused on intervals and short sprints; on the third one, I just swam for fun, enjoyed gazing at the beautiful light caressing the pool through the big windows, and exchanged pleasantries and jokes with the folks in the other lanes. And how can one not enjoy swimming when the wall bears the inscription “eliminating racism, empowering women”?

The fourth workout was the Fred Dubow Memorial Fun Run, which we do every year at LSA. As the Bia map above indicates, it was not a three-miler! But the course took us on bridges across the Mississippi River, and despite the suffocating heat it was a beautiful way to get to see the city.

Back in San Francisco tonight, where I need to sort out my pool situation and start racking up yards for Kingdom Swim!

My Bia is Here!

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My Bia Sport watch has just arrived! I’m very excited. That’s it, on my wrist, in all its glory. Here’s a little bit about it:

I’ll go on a run with it tonight, and in the bay on Sunday, and tell you how it’s going. I’m beside myself with joy about being able to transmit my swim GPS data to all my friends and supporters in real time from my wrist.