GILBRETH COLUMN: Taking on the Charleston Harbor swim challenge
I really don’t know why, but I’ve decided to try and do the open-water harbor swim on June 1, the roughly 2.5 mile version of it that extends from the Hobcaw area, goes underneath the Cooper River bridge and finishes up at Patriots Point. The swim is timed to correspond with an outgoing tide — thank God — so apparently a floating bucket can make the swim in a couple of hours or so. I’m hoping that the winds are light and, if blowing at all, come out of the east so that the aquatically challenged such as myself who can only pivot the head and breathe to the right don’t inhale more water that air.
I’ve heard it said from some who have participated that if you can swim a mile without stopping, you’re good to go. In other words, with the current pushing you along, the net of the 2.5-mile swim is effectively reduced to about a mile with no current.
Well, I’m swimming that mile but am still a little antsy because a controlled pool environment is going to be a lot different from the open-water experience. There’s going to be wind, small waves, a frenzy of advanced swimmers clamoring for position, and nothing to hold on to at 25-meter intervals to sneak in that extra deep and satisfying breath.
Not to worry, I’m told, because the event is really more of a head game than a physical challenge. And if you really do get tired, then just flip over and float downstream for a while. No problem. And it’s only 2.5 miles, right? Which is nothing. Local long-distance swimmer Kathleen Wilson would consider that a warm-up lap.
I keep telling myself all that, but it’s no use. Here’s the reality: I’m a mediocre swimmer at best and, to tell you the truth, don’t even float that well. So 2.5 miles for someone like me will be a bit of a challenge. In the meantime, I’m going to increase my training regimen to 2,000 meters three to four times weekly leading up to the event. Think that will do it?
Well, now that I’m of a certain age, I really do find that swimming is the best form of exercise — high resistance, low impact, with the very nice feeling of having had a complete body workout at the end of each session. There is one significant obstacle that needs to be overcome as one gets into it, though, and that would be boredom. And, oh, yes, exhaustion. But as the body gets in better shape, the entire exercise becomes more interesting and fulfilling.
Fulfilling because you can sense that your conditioning is improving and interesting because it becomes quite apparent how unsatisfactory your basic stroke may be.
I’ve been swimming my entire life, yet when I started in earnest a few years ago (after having “retired” from running), it was amazing to me how truly bad a swimmer I was. I unfortunately have detailed recollections of flailing away in a given lane with a relatively high stroke frequency, only to be lapped by people with half the stroke frequency (and consequently using only half the energy) and who weren’t really even using their legs to kick.
A couple of years ago, my son happened to be taking lessons from a local swim instructor, Missee Fox. We were using the city’s Stephens Aquatic Center pool in West Ashley (the best swim deal in town — your tax dollars at work), and the usual routine was for pupil and instructor to work together in one lane, with me swimming independently in an adjacent one.
The two of them did well together, and my son’s technique improved dramatically. But after a few weeks of watching me floundering around next door, Missee couldn’t stand it anymore.
“I hope you don’t think I’m being rude,” she said. “But your technique needs ... a little work.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, everything you’re doing is wrong — arms, legs, head position, the way you turn your head, the way you pull through the water — everything.”
“I’ve been swimming my whole life,” I protested defensively. “I must be doing something right.”
“Nope, but if you’ll just listen to me for five minutes I’ll set you on the right track.”
And with that, she told me to cup the hands and not leave the fingers splayed, you can pull more water that way. (Duh — common sense but it never occurred to me.) She demonstrated how to plunge the hands into the water at a certain angle, to reach and roll a certain way, pull back just so and how to breathe properly. It was miraculous! I’m so much better — not good by any stretch — but now my stroke actually resembles a proper crawl instead of a thrashing octopus.
So with those improvements, I look forward to the bridge swim (with some trepidation) and will provide a full report afterward.
And speaking of aquatics, my friend, Barre Butler, forwards a hilarious “BC” cartoon. Two characters are on a putting green; one of them is practicing putting and the other is a casual observer.
“Isn’t that a new putter?” asks the latter.
“What happened to your old one?”
“It couldn’t swim.”
As a denouement, the following definition of golf is provided: An endless series of tragedies obscured by the occasional miracle, followed by a good bottle of beer.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@ comcast.net.