If you follow marathon swimming—or even the news—you’ll recall that the biggest swimming story of the past year was Diana Nyad’s attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida. In August she was thwarted by currents, in September by jellyfish. Next summer, at age 62, Nyad plans a fourth attempt. (In 1978, at age 28, she swam for nearly 42 hours before aborting the swim.) The NY Times article Marathon Swimmer Diana Nyad Takes On the Demons of the Sea, asks whether the demons are nature’s or her own. What drives someone in her seventh decade to persist in a quest that has three times turned her back decisively?
One reason the article hints at is the attention it brings: Her ‘sisyphean swims’ last summer drew far more press than Sun Yang’s incredible 1500m world record, with the media spotlight continuing for months before she finally entered the water. In the ‘70s, Nyad was arguably the best marathon swimmer in the world. She set a speed record for swimming around Manhattan and a distance record by swimming 102 miles from the Bahamas to Florida.
As the article states, “Nyad’s achievements and Muhammad Ali-like bravado earned her spots on ‘The Tonight Show’ with Johnny Carson” friendships with celebrities, and helped lead to a broadcasting career. With the possible exception of Matthew Webb the English Channel pioneer, no other swimmer has matched her knack for converting sheer endurance into fame and (a measure of) fortune.
The article is well worth reading. Here I’ll comment on two points that struck me. The article opens as follows: Diana Nyad is swimming for four hours in the 50-meter pool at the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center. When Nyad swims in a pool, she counts in her head, ticking off laps, first in English, then in German, then in Spanish, then in French. The goal is to focus her mind on repetitive thought, as a yogi does with a mantra. When Nyad swims in the ocean . . . she doesn’t just count, she sings. She’ll do “It Ain’t Me, Babe” 10 times then “Paperback Writer,” 10 times. Nyad keeps in her head a playlist of 65 songs. Nyad knows how many seconds each takes, how many strokes. “When I complete 2,000 ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’s, I know I’ve gone 4 hours and 45 minutes exactly,” Nyad says. “I never lose track.”
My [far more modest] experience with marathon swimming taught me a similar lesson: You must train for mental discipline even more than physical endurance. In preparing for my first 28.5-mile (47km) Manhattan Island Swim in 2002, my main goal was to ‘hardwire efficiency’ so deeply that it would endure hour after hour and in any water conditions I might encounter. My tools for neural imprinting were Focal Points and Stroke Counting.
Focal Points I drew from a list of dozens I’d refined over the years, but focused mostly on Balance and Streamlining. Balance Thoughts included . . . Weightless Head and Hand . . . Arm Floating Forward . . . Light Relaxed Legs . . . Head Resting on the Water while breathing. Streamlining Thoughts included . . . Swim Tall . . . Separate Water Molecules . . . Banish Bubbles . . . Swim Silently.
These thoughts had two effects: While training they improved my efficiency and deepened awareness of nuances in my stroke. During the marathon, they kept me ‘present.’ I strove to experience and optimize every stroke. Focusing only on this stroke was the best way to avoid being overwhelmed by the enormity of the tens of thousands of strokes that lay ahead.
Stroke Counting In training it let me compare the efficiency effects of one Focal Point vs another, and helped me organize my practice. I aimed to swim a certain percentage at 12SPL, 13SPL, 14SPL. (One of my goals was to complete MIMS in fewer than the 27,000 strokes taken the previous year by TI Coach Don Walsh.) During the marathon counting provided a framework for Focal Points . . . 100 breaths (300 strokes) Weightless Head . . . 100 breaths Swim Taller . . . 100 breaths Mail Slot . . . Repeat.
The defining distinction between my approach to mental discipline and Nyad’s is that playing mental music is actually a form of disassociation, a way of distracting oneself from what otherwise might feel like crushing tedium. When I swam my first marathon—across Long Island Sound from Greenwich CT to Oyster Bay NY in 1972—I played the Kingsmen’s Louie, Louie in my head for hours on end.
Waterproof mp3 players are as popular among those who swim to ‘get the yards in’ as watching TV or reading magazines are to the hordes ‘burning fat’ on treadmills and stair-climbers. But real moving meditation requires immersion–finding purpose in tiny-yet-meaningful details–in what you’re doing. In every swimming stroke, there’s no limit to opportunities-to-optimize your stroke.
Can a Marathon Change Your Life?
The second intriguing question raised in the article also addressed Nyad’s motivation. Besides enjoying the spotlight, what else drives her? These words appear near the end: Some of Nyad’s closest friends wish she would apply her considerable energy to other pursuits. “You know, it’s enough already,” says Bonnie Stoll, Nyad’s lead handler, business partner and best friend. “Diana thinks that it will change her life, and I think Diana will be disappointed that it doesn’t change her life.”
The most valuable life lesson I learned as I moved into my 60s was to Live Fully Today. I’ve always been goal-oriented and expect I always will be. But for some 40 years I focusing on how fulfilled I’d feel at some future point justified sacrificing the quality of right now. In college, I got through months of muscle soreness and bone-deep fatigue by thinking about how fast I’d swim at season’s end. Five years ago, I was still willing to sacrifice things—scenic bike rides, yoga classes–I thoroughly enjoy to squeeze in a training session that felt necessary to complete a marathon or break a record.
Yet there’d been times when disciplined and faithful preparation was interrupted for weeks, even months, by illness or injury, where I still achieved my dream. Then I reflected that my best practices happened when I was excited to be swimming, rather than checking off an item on my schedule.’ Today, I strive to be guided by a goal to Make Each Practice Transcendent. That occurs when (i) I do what I feel powerfully drawn, not duty-bound, to do and; (ii) when I plan tasks characterized by ‘arduous experience and cognitive difficulty.’
No marathon has the potential to change your life. Only the quality of your experiences along the way can do that.
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