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msnbc.com
updated 3/17/2005 11:56:44 AM ET 2005-03-17T16:56:44

I really like to swim. I love the feeling of moving through the water, of floating, of gliding weightlessly. I grew up in California, so swimming has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

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I wasn’t a competitive swimmer, but I knew all the strokes and was fairly proficient before I decided to try my first sprint triathlon in August 2003. The distance of the swim was a half mile (750 meters), so I knew I was going to put in lots of time in the pool. And like the great explorers of old, who set out with just a compass, a stiff wind at their back and the will to wander, I jumped in and started flailing away.

I don’t know if it’s possible to sweat while you swim, but I was working hard. As it got closer to race day, I started swimming in the lake, which is a whole new ballgame (I’ll get into open-water swimming in a few weeks). I continued to work at it but felt nervous about doing the swim portion of the race.

With my heart thumping like speed metal thanks to a huge jolt of adrenaline and the claustrophobic chaos of a mass start, I started the swim doing the breast stroke. I pretty much stuck with it for the duration, emerging from the lake 25 minutes later to start the bike portion. I was going so slow that at least three people, life preservers at the ready, asked me along the way if I was OK. I was exhausted, but relieved that it was over.

I wanted to continue doing triathlons, so I knew I was going to need some help with my swimming. In March 2004, I took a class called Swimming for Endurance, which is how I met my coach. This past January, I took a more advanced course, which took the same principles and drills we learned in the first course and fine tuned them.

The idea is to use as little energy as possible during the swim portion of a triathlon (you don't want to blow it all in the first event). The natural tendency when you get in the water, especially during a race, is to just start swimming as fast as you can. More motion doesn't necessarily mean greater speed, but all that splashing and kicking will succeed in tiring you out — quickly. The drills are designed to help you concentrate on your kick, stroke and body rotation, to slow things down and focus on getting the most bang for your buck from the kick and stroke.

During these drills, I am not necessarily going at race pace. Instead, I focus on pulling strongly and efficiently on the stroke, maintaining my upper leg kick and keeping myself long and lean in the water, like an outrigger canoe. By doing the drills, I have cut the number of strokes it takes me to get across a 25-meter pool, going from 33 strokes to 18, as well as my time.

Once you finish the drills, then it’s time to settle in and do laps. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. It is every bit as monotonous as it sounds. Running can also be boring, but at least you are outside and the scenery changes. But lap swimming is exactly the same. For 50 meters, 100 meters, 500 meters, 1000 meters …

My friend Juliet, who will compete in Ironman Arizona in April, does a 4000-meter swim each Saturday. That’s 80 laps, folks. She initially tried using a water-proof radio so she could listen to music to break up the monotony. But she found that she started losing count so that was the end of the music.

Inevitably, after you settle into your rhythm and stop focusing on your kick, your stroke and your breathing, your mind starts to roam. With your head in the water, sound is muted and all you hear is your heartbeat. It’s quiet. Too quiet. This is the perfect environment for “the voice” to chime in. And it does.

“Did I remember to set the VCR for ‘Lost’? I have to find out what happened to Claire  … (Exhale ... inhale ... exhale ... inhale ...) ‘Luuuuuuke, I am your father’ … I can’t believe the A’s traded Mark Mulder. That *&#@$ Billy Beane is losing it. Why do I still care? … God, I hope we can really be friends. He really makes me laugh … I need to give Jen a call tonight … How am I ever going to be able to do this for 2 miles?”

Part of my swim drills is countering the voice. Just as I focus on maintaining my kick, I have to focus on chasing out the negative thoughts with positive ones. When you’ve been conditioned for 40 years to only see the negative, this is the hardest drill of all.

“I can’t do this … Honey, you ARE doing it!”

“I won’t be ready by August … You’ll be ready. You’ll be more than ready.”

“But I … HEY! You’ve dropped two sizes, you are in the best shape of your life, you have great friends who are on your side, a great family, you are genuinely happy. Shut up and swim!”

Ah yes. It is a marathon. Not a sprint.

And before I conclude this installment, I just want to give a special shout out to one of the women in my training group, Linda. She has a morbid fear of water and has had to watch for years as her kids and husband water ski, swim and frolic in the waves. But this year, she decided she wanted to do a triathlon, and to conquer her fear. She started taking swimming lessons a few weeks ago. Last week, she finally got the courage to put her face in the water and float. She’s kicking up a storm now. You are my hero, Linda. Great job.

Next installment: Saddle up! It’s time to buy a road bike.

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