the ironman swim

There exists a difference between being physically capable of doing something, and being emotionally ready to do it. I’d always known this. There is however, a second difference – one between knowing something and understanding it. I only understood the need for emotional readiness in physical acts after I started running/swimming.

I’ve always been an emotionally driven runner/swimmer. The perk being that at all major upheavals in life, I’ve run/swum, at times oblivious of the undercurrents that were making me do so. The downside: the staid greyness of the working life offers little by way of upheavals, and hence I run/swim with a guilty irregularity. I remember one such run – a 10 km route I like – that I was running after months of not having run. I felt so broken by the end of it, I called Ansa out of sheer mental exhaustion. Yet, it wasn’t so much the run that challenged me – I’d done longer distances – it was the silent foment that happens without the knowledge of the runner. It can be devastating. However, that is what somehow propels you to do greater distances.

When Dagar was due to leave India for good, we decided it was apt to mark the occasion with one last swim. I’d seen her go from struggling to do 20 laps of the pool to doing over 50 now. My year so far had been unremarkable in terms of my fitness goals, so I thought I’d gun for the Ironman swimming distance I’d been eyeing for a while. 3.86 km at one go. I’d never done over 2.5 km before.

On the day, as the hour approached, it began to rain. The halting, whimsical rain added to the emotion of the moment – an impending  farewell to someone who’d been an unlikely friend. We drove in the rain, singing along with the radio, speaking little, laughing sillily.  We got to the pool, the rain had abated. The water in the oddly shaped 22 metre pool was surprisingly warm. I began to swim.

I’m often asked, what goes through my head while I run/swim. I don’t know how to answer. I distance athlete isn’t often in control of his  thoughts. The thoughts (if they do, when they do) happen to you. In the pool, as always, I focussed on counting my laps. The first 50 went by easily, no surprises. This is the point during which I get into a sleepy rhythm. The act of swimming is a sensory reclusion of sorts.There are so many components to it – the coordination of the limbs, the optimal time to gulp air in, the length and duration of the stroke, the pace of exhalation under water, the cadence of the swim – and though all these become sort of automatic after a point, they leave no room for conscious, controlled, sustained thought. Sight is reduced to following the line on the floor, with the periodic splash of other swimmers’ bright bodies. Sound is reduced to the guttural echoes of one’s breath, consuming and soothing. There is little to taste but for the occasional accidental swig of chlorinated water. Water leaves little to the tactile sense.

100 laps go by.

By this time I’m close to the most I’d ever swum. I don’t feel particularly fatigued. I press on. After lap 120, I start to feel a disinterested ache in the muscles of my upper back. The pulls on the water aren’t as strong. I check my watch, I haven’t lost pace. By lap 150, all I remember is a phantasmagoria of depletion and determination. I have another 26 laps to go. At every turn at the wall, as I push off into another 22 metres, there is moment of perfect stillness as a glide a metre or two before beginning the stroke. My body is in one straight prostrate line, palms joined in front, shoulders covering my ears that hear nothing, legs together, toes pointing out, a moment of streamlined serenity. At every such moment I have an intense urge to stop swimming and drown. In retrospect that sounds too dramatic, but in that moment, I’d rather drown than give up on the swim. There is an emotional stubbornness to this swim. I remind myself to start the stroke, and so it goes.

At lap 176, I’ve finished the distance I wanted, but I turn around and press on anyway. I do a total of 182 laps that day for a total distance of 4 km. I touch the edge of the pool and hit stop on my watch. The time reads 2 hours 5 mins 1 sec. The exhaustion is the kind I haven’t felt in months. My upper body already feels sore, and my legs quiver as I sit by the edge of the pool. I’m smiling. Dagar does 100 laps that day. It is a befitting end to an extraordinary friendship, however shortlived. Once out, we guzzle down a glass each of nimbu-paani and say our final goodbyes.

As I take the metro back home, the next thought of course is to swim 5 km.

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3 thoughts on “the ironman swim

  1. “There are so many components to it – the coordination of the limbs, the optimal time to gulp air in, the length and duration of the stroke, the pace of exhalation under water, the cadence of the swim – and though all these become sort of automatic after a point, they leave no room for conscious, controlled, sustained thought. Sight is reduced to following the line on the floor, with the periodic splash of other swimmers’ bright bodies. Sound is reduced to the guttural echoes of one’s breath, consuming and soothing. There is little to taste but for the occasional accidental swig of chlorinated water. Water leaves little to the tactile sense.”

    Wow, a-jinx-yeah. And, phew!

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