At the end of every open-water swim, there’s a moment when I think: Do I have to do another lap? Is the finish straight ahead, or toward that other buoy? Is anything hanging out that I should put back in before running onto the shore?
The longer the swim, the greater the chance that things get a little weird in your head by the end. I was reminded of that in vivid detail at the Lake George Open Water Swim last Saturday. When I was standing on shore at the pre-race meeting for the 5K swim, the finish-line situation made perfect sense: During the first lap, swim around the red buoy to turn. After the second lap, swim to the finish chute instead. Easy-peasy.
But after three miles of swimming, that seemed anything but clear. As I rounded the corner of the green buoy, I picked up my head to sight. Seeing no obvious direction and no other swimmers to follow, I turned to a kayaker in confusion.
“Straight ahead?” I yelled.
She said something that sounded exactly like: “No, around the red.”
I realized my mistake as soon as I turned around that red buoy. I saw what seemed like dozens of swimmers proceeding in a straight and orderly swim line to the actual finish chute as I took what felt like forever (but was probably just a minute or two) to get there the long way around.
“Stupid,” I thought to myself. “So stupid.”
I ran onto shore sheepishly, then shuddered a little when I saw that my time, 1:30 and change, was two minutes slower than my time last year.
Outwardly, I joked about it and laughed at myself and said the truest thing possible about any mistake of any sort: “Stuff happens, right?” Inwardly, though, every time I thought about the race, the same soundtrack played in my head: So stupid. And I found myself obsessively searching for other open-water swims to end the season with, feeling a desperate need to prove I could do better.
This is maybe the best part of open-water swimming: The way it can provide a uniquely clear view of what’s happening in your head. When it’s just you and the water and your thoughts, you’re forced to listen to whatever noise pops up when all else is quiet. In this case, I discovered that my particular brand of noise on that particular day was rather unkind.
The beautiful thing is, once you get a peek at what’s happening in your head, you get a chance to change it. Every time the thought popped up, I switched my focus to the rest of the race: The hour and a half I spent immersed in cool, blue peace, gliding through clear, glassy water or charging through the occasional boat wake. When people asked how the race went, I stopped telling them about my mistake, and started telling them how I enjoyed every stroke—which is totally true. In fact, aside from a minute or two at the very end, my race was kind of perfect.
It’s a small mental shift, but it highlights something big: The way swimming and running and hiking and biking and skiing offer the opportunity to become a better, happier, healthier person.
When I first got home, I opted to not look up race results. But when I received an email from the race directors linking to those results, I changed my mind. No surprises on my time, but I was surprised to learn that on this particular day, the time I’d been so disappointed with was good enough for first in my age group. Is it wrong to think of this as an affirmation that no matter what my time, no matter what absurdities crept in, and, frankly, no matter what my age-group finish, my swim was not only good enough, but a gift?A funny side note: The next day, I saw a swimmer-friend who volunteered as a kayaker at the race. She joked: “There was a 2.5K, a 5K and a 10K race yesterday. Amy opted for the 6K.” Ha!