Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Whole New World

I slowly swam a mile up at a pool in Pittsburgh recently.  One piddly mile that any youngster could do earning a Boy Scout badge. 

Myself and Field Marshall Sarah Quesen :)
I was never taught as a kid to swim.  There is a distant childhood memory of my sister jokingly pulling me into a Holiday Inn swimming pool when I was 4 or 5 and my Dad racing over to pull me out.  And maybe that is how the die was cast ... my petrifying fear of the water.  From this point forward, I always found an excuse to avoid water of any sort; I simply had no inclination to jump that chasm of fear and learn to swim.  Why would I ever need to?

Fast forward, way forward to 12/31/1999.  Out on a distant stretch of the East Gallatin River in southwestern Montana, my dear friend Ross Bricklemyer and I were floating along in a canoe and ended up capsizing it in an accident that literally almost cost me my life had Ross not been there to yank me out of the icy waters.  Truly.  But ... that is a story I will reserve for the next post or two.
After that accident, I tried to confront my now-monumental fear of water by tackling my fear directly.  In 2002, I embarked on quite a long solo canoe trip across the breadth of Quetico Provincial Park in northern Ontario.  This strategy simply didn't work.  While it would have hardly mattered if I knew how to swim, what with the freezing water temperature at that time of the year and the certain quick hypothermia had I tipped over the canoe, I was so worried about drowning in any of the numerous lakes I crossed every day, that the trip was much less the mental release than I planned it to be.  After this odyssey, I had pretty much given up any hope of swimming.

As has been chronicled at length in this blog, in 2010, I blew out my ACL in an ultra.  After the surgery, my friend Sarah Quesen urged me to consider taking swimming lessons to stay fit and in shape while I rehabbed the knee.  As a competitive runner, there were not many other exercise options for the following months of recovery.  At first, I was dead-set against the idea because of my stormy past relationship with the water but as I thought about it more, the idea had merit and so I agreed.  Sarah was able to locate a swimming coach Beth Byron willing to teach me from below ground zero and I will never forget the first day Beth and I met that spring at the WVU Student Rec Center.  We spent an hour that day in the kid's pool learning to put my head underwater and even that was considered a sweeping victory!  Here is a typical post from that time period; too funny!  

Swimming lessons went by for weeks, and then months.  Several things come to my mind.  I have never tried to learn something so difficult, ever.   Progress was painfully, imperceptibly slow.  I discovered swimming has less to do with fitness and much more to do with technique.  As I have previously recounted, I quit it one hundred mornings at least, filling the natatorium air with F-bombs and storming into the showers in a huff.  One unpleasant morning, I swam to the side of the pool and told Beth I was very discouraged and it was a wonder she didn't fire me.  I'll never forget her saying, "I wouldn't fire you, Phil.  You would fire yourself."

Getting ready for my first "swim meet" ever!
In any event, suffice it to say there was something inside of me (stubbornness?) that kept me moving forward and, to my credit, I never gave up.  What was once an exhausting journey of a mere 25 meters down from one end of the pool to the other end eventually became easier and easier.  Than I was able to swim 50 yards.  Then 100 yards.  You get the picture.  Even throughout 2011, when my knee was better and I was back to running ultras, I decided to get in a couple of swim practices a week, each consisting of 500-to-1000 meters tops.  This is chump change for any dedicated swimmer, but it was a big deal for me!          

Now isn't life so strange and isn't it the case that truth is stranger than fiction?  Last spring, and as I have also chronicled in this blog, I was diagnosed with FAI in my right hip and told I was to give up running races.  So I turned to swimming as a primary source of exercise, almost out of necessity mixed with desperation.  Yes, the very swimming I cursed, despised, and quit one hundred times ...  

It wasn't too long into 2012 before I started to build up on the swim practices, both in distance and in difficulty.  I discovered you can take the runner out of the race but you can never take the desire to train and compete out of their soul.  Hence, enter Sarah Quesen once again.  For a few years prior, I had watched Sarah swim the Annual 1650 Yard Challenge held every March at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  Not surprisingly, she started getting on my case last year about swimming it in 2013.  A few months ago, I decided to go for it, and so it was that I ended up in Lane 7, Wave 8 in said Challenge, getting ready to do something that in a million years I would have previously never thought I could have done.   

If you have made it this far into this post, I will not bore you with a race report here.  Sarah had a very good swim and seemed quite pleased with the results particularly on the heels of her own health issues.  I will say this regarding my swim.  There is no amount of training I could have done to prepare myself for losing my swim meet virginity, so to speak.  All the swimmers and spectators, the adrenaline, the words "Swimmers, take your mark" emanating from the loudspeaker.  The entire mile was one where I felt like I was hyperventilating.  But I will confess I was a bit choked up when I touched that wall at the end of lap 66.            

Thank you, Sarah and Beth.  Thank you for being accelerators in my life.  While one door has closed, another one has opened.  You have given me a great gift ... a whole new world.


  1. This is so, so, so, great. Truly. What a fabulous silver lining! Yes, you are a swimmer now, and no longer do you have to fear the water. what a gift you have given yourself, Phil! Woop!

    1. And a big Charlottesville "woop" back to you, Sophie!

  2. Hey there Grand Canyon Buddy! Just getting caught up on folks' blogs after many months rather "unplugged." Big congrats on the swimming. Having flunked beginners swimming TWICE as a child, I am impressed. All the best...

    1. Hi back, Sue. Glad to see you are plugged in and back in business. Thank you for your kind comments and I hope to cross paths with you again ... maybe hiking the Long Trail?!?!