Sunday, May 31, 2009

All I Really Need to Know I Learned on F Hill

As much as I enjoy swimming, and it has been my main sporting activity for about three years now, it’s still missing one thing and it always will – and that’s hills.

Now I do respect the fact that swimming mixes up the aerobic and anaerobic challenges with admirable intensity. The variety of workouts in swimming truly boggles the mind and has done much to improve my improvisational math skills. And all the little gadgets and toys – the kickboards and fins, the paddles and pull buoys and "cordz" – they’re great. But I have yet to encounter a swim workout or gadget that equals the experience of running a hill.

The late running philosopher and essayist George Sheehan got positively weepy about hills. In fact, I once used an excerpt of his most famous hill essay for a yearbook quote. It went something like this: "But then comes the Hill and I know I am made for more…I am fighting God. Fighting the limitations He gave me. Fighting the pain. Fighting the unfairness. Fighting all the evil in me and the world. And I will not give in. I will conquer this hill and I will conquer it alone.”

I have yet to meet a swim workout that can make me that spiritually loopy. Arguably I just haven’t tried hard enough, but when you think about it, a hill is a monster made up of uncontrollable external forces that a pool is not and never will be. Open-water swimming probably comes closest to equaling the hill-running experience, but swallowing lake or ocean water doesn’t make me feel as if I’m conquering evil. It just makes me feel like I’m going to puke.

For me, the defining hill of my life came in college. A couple miles out from campus, we had a half-mile-long hill we would run to and then do repeats up. The hill had the kind of grade that would literally make car engines grind as they drove up it. About two-thirds of the way up, it flattened for a couple of yards which would always trick our idiot legs and lungs into thinking it was over, but then it rose again, unleashing a devastating wave of lactic acid into our muscles.

We called this hill “F Hill” (and the “F” lent itself to a variety of interpretations). One of our team’s alumni (who made the Olympics twice and for a while held the world record in the 1,500-meter run) once ran up F Hill in a minute and 58 seconds. But the flip side to this is that he was clinically insane. He went for 10-mile morning runs and, as we used to say, 10 miles is not a morning run -- it’s a cry for help.

But I learned a lot about myself during those runs up F Hill. Because the hill also flattened a bit near the top, we called it one of those “it ain’t over til it’s over” hills -- which meant you had to keep going a little further in order to truly finish it: That was a lesson in seeing any task through to the end.

We also learned about the value of small gestures: As individualistic (some would say anti-social) as runners can be, we did support each other on F Hill. But we had to do it without words because we didn’t have the oxygen to spare. A gentle pat on the back pushed more people to the top than anything our coach screamed at us did.

And the “mental lockdown” mode we went into on F Hill is a state of mind I have summoned many times in my non-athletic life, including but not limited to: while giving birth, working at the newspaper until dawn covering presidential elections, waiting out a two-hour traffic jam, and listening to a grade-school concert band obliterate the finale to Brahm’s Symphony No. 1.

Yes indeed, all I really need to know I learned on F Hill.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Off Season

For the college swimmers, it’s now the Off Season, that hallowed time of year when waistlines explode and GPAs can implode.

Seriously, despite ALL the complaining ALL season long about the cramp that swimming puts into their academic schedule, the minute these kids get handed an extra 3-5 hours a day for the remainder of the semester (not counting nap time), Mr. Coach has found that some of them have problems staying academically motivated. More than one Dean’s List student has looked at that long, uninterrupted chunk of afternoon time and decided that it’s best spent in the company of Mr. Nintendo, rather than Mr. Organic Chemistry Textbook.

Time management is like a muscle that works best when it’s being exercised strenuously. You know how sometimes it feels harder to swim or run slowly than it does to go fast? Well, the Off Season is like a world-class sprinter who only needs to walk across the street now but gets confused, wanders straight into traffic, and ends up on the front grill of an ice cream delivery truck.

Thankfully these days Mr. Coach has a large group of highly committed geeks who beat up on any teammate who threatens to deflate the team GPA even one-tenth of a point (they’re also keeping close tabs on the visiting recruits and making sure that Mr. Coach isn’t letting anyone who’s brain dead into the Class of 2013).

At the same time, a couple of these geeks have decided they also need to cram a little more excitement into this year’s Off Season by swimming the English Channel.

“Oh, that Mrs. Coach,” you are chortling to yourself. “Always the kidder.”

No, I am not kidding. Two of the guys are preparing to swim the English Channel in relay fashion this summer. “W-W-Why?!” you ask. Well, you can go to their Web site and find out for yourself and maybe even get involved in the Channeling Peace Initiative. I’m still at the point where I’m trying to wrap my brain around the fact that even though neither one of them will do a 400 IM unless threatened with bodily harm, they want to swim the English Channel.

Oh, and guess who they’re taking to pace them? That’s right. Mr. Coach. He can get in and out of the water (into the pilot boat) and wear a wet suit (they can only wear Speedos and Crisco), but still. It’s the frickin’ English Channel. 21 miles wide and a pleasant 59 degrees Fahrenheit. If the hypothermia doesn’t get you, the oil tankers will. And then I’ll have to change the title on my blog to “The Mrs. Late Coach Chronicles.”

Anyway, there you have it: the Off Season. It’s the time of year when athletes and the ding-dongs who coach them lose control of their minds.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

I'm a Dara, You're a Dara

Dara Torres probably doesn’t realize it but one of the greatest achievements of her sports career to date isn’t something that will be recorded in the record books. It’s not even the medal haul she took home from Beijing (or Sydney or Barcelona, Seoul or Los Angeles). Heck, it’s not even the fact that she acquired her last three out of 12 career Olympic medals at the age of 41, and is now barreling on in 2009.

No, rather, it’s the fact that she has given women of a certain age a new nickname.

You see, back in the day, a lively gal over the age of 40 ran the risk of being called a “Mrs. Robinson” – a nickname that came courtesy of that classic 1967 film, “The Graduate,” where Anne Bancroft (at the real age of 36) played an aggressively attractive older woman intent on seducing a young Dustin Hoffman.

That nickname stuck for a long time until the rock band Fountains of Wayne came along in 2003 with the song “Stacy’s Mom,” which was a salute to, once again, the charms of an attractive older woman in good physical shape.

And then it just got ugly. Somewhere in the last several years, the lovely term “M.I.L.F.” was coined to describe attractively fit older women (Google it if you don’t know what that acronym stands for). I only know one woman in my 40+ age bracket who likes to be called a M.I.L.F. and she’s got a drinking problem.

Soon after that, women of a certain age got saddled with the term “cougar” when it was popularized by the competition reality TV show “Age of Love.” Cougars are, again, attractively fit but sexually avaricious older women.

Yeah, my friends and I definitely lose toenails to running and burp up pool water because we want to be called cougars, M.I.L.F.s, Stacy’s Moms and Mrs. Robinsons.

But then it happened. The first time came toward the end of the U.S. Olympic swim trials last summer. I was headed into the fieldhouse one day and a friendly college kid asked me, “Hey, Dara, you coming to swim?” His greeting caught me unaware, but I quickly smiled, held my head up a little higher and said, “Why, yes. Yes, I am, thank you.”

A few days after that, it happened again. Somebody at a kids’ swim meet, knowing that I swim, asked me, “Hey, Dara, how are the workouts going?” Since then, I have heard of other women – always of a certain age – being called “Daras” and always in the nicest possible way. It is definitely a nickname change we can all live with.

Oh, but Dara? Any time you feel like slacking off and letting those abdominal muscles go to seed, we won’t love you any less.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Mother Mystique

The role of the mother in sports-related genetics has gotten increasing amounts of attention from scientists in recent years.

Yes, obviously all athletes have mothers. And yes, the word is out that a lot of coaches look at the mothers if they want to know what kind of body an athlete might have when he or she has finished growing. That’s because scientific research has proven that all kinds of physical traits get passed on primarily through the mothers’ chromosomes. Let’s call it the “Mother Mystique.”

Specifically it’s something like the mom’s mitochondria determining how much bang for the buck a person gets when they exercise, but I’m a little fuzzy on the details because the last time I heard this lecture was during labor when Mr. Coach got to chatting with the nurses.

Note to other women: Do NOT bring a professor of exercise physiology into the delivery room. They’ll be all like, “Well, honey, the physiological reason you’re feeling pain in that region of your body right now is because your discombobular artery is pressing on your parapsychopelvic nerve but maybe if you try a little more biosystematic oxygenation....” At which point the wife of the professor of exercise physiology tells him to do something NC-17 with HIS parapsychodiscombobular whatever.

But there was also something in there about why Mr. Coach was sure the newest Coach family member (then in transit) would resemble his mother in the body department – i.e., longer, leaner, more sarcastic. And so far, he’s been right.

Little Mr. Coach is pretty much a carbon copy of his mother (but with a much bigger Pokemon card collection). Little Miss Coach is more of a mix of both parents’ bodies but does seem to be lengthening out like me, the older she gets. She also has transitioned from swimming into ballet, and I can tell you those people are even more fixated on the Mother Mystique than swim coaches are.

But a lot of mothers of prospective college recruits (and ballerinas) freak out, thinking their children will be penalized because Mom doesn’t fit her high-school jeans anymore. They shouldn’t. That’s because no matter what the effects of time or Twinkies, your underlying bone structure and body type will be readily apparent to any halfway decent coach. If you want to go on a diet or start exercising more, do it for you. Don’t do it for some dumb college coach.

In the meantime, if you’ve got a kid with a modicum of talent in any physical endeavor, do what any loving mother should do – never let the father forget who the kid gets it from.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Numbersaholic

For me, the hardest part about joining the swimming world has been the numbers. Now I’m as much a numbers freak as any kid who ever memorized 20 years of American League East baseball team starting lineups (oh, like you never did that). I also grew up with a subscription to “Track & Field News -- The Bible of the Sport” with its monthly pages and pages of results and rankings. In college, I added the UK’s “Athletics Weekly” to my reading list, which gave me even more numbers to digest. Yum!

But here’s the thing with those sports’ numbers: Each one generated a fairly manageable amount of data. With major-league baseball, there’s a relatively finite number of statistics that can be measured. And with track, you have two sets of numbers because of the two genders and, for a little while in my youth before metrics took over, I had to know the difference between, say, 440-yard and 400-meter times (about 0.3 seconds).

But no sport, I quickly learned after marrying into the swim world, is as well-quantified (some would say as obsessively quantified) as swimming is. You have six bajillion race distances in both yards and meters. You have pools that are either “short” or “long.” You have four different strokes and another that’s all-of-the-above. You’ve got age divisions that begin at Post-Fetal and don’t stop until Worm-Chow. Oh, and then you multiply ALL of this by two for gender. Unless you’re competing at a masters meet that included a regional Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans-Gendered championship, in which case there may have been more than two gender categories but I wasn’t about to ask. Not after what I saw in the locker room.

Anyway, my brain just about exploded the first time I sat down with the meet results from a simple college, co-ed dual meet. The whole way through the three-page printout I kept asking my husband, “Now was that a good time?” and “Was that fast?” And he’d give me these random answers like, “Just look at the third 50!” and “Yeah, except for where you can see he got stuck on the wall.”

It took me years to completely understand these college swim meet results. But by then, I had hatched a couple of baby swimmers and then it was back to the drawing board. My oldest child was 10 before I could look at one of her times and say, with some measure of confidence, “That was...very good, I think.”

But eventually I did become fluent in Swim Numbers. I got to the point where I could read a collegiate conference women’s 100-yard butterfly consolation finals like a dime-store novel. “Ooh, somebody didn’t rest all the way for this one.” “Not a whole lot of fast-twitch muscle fiber in Lane 3, is there?” And “Now that’s what I call a negative split.”

I felt fluent, that is, until the day Mr. Coach came home with the biggest meet printout I had ever seen. It was eight inches thick. At the time, we were living in Australia while Mr. Coach spent his sabbatical working for their Olympic training center (Mr. Coach is also a professor of exercise physiology, so he gets these breaks every seven years to go watch people somewhere else swim). He had been working on a project to record and analyze races swum at their just-completed Olympic Trials.

“It’s the numbers from Trials,” Mr. Coach said proudly. “Every race by every competitor is broken down by start-reaction time, stroke count, length of stroke, turn time, kick rate....”

It was like waving an open jug of moonshine in front of a fall-down drunk and saying, “You wanna little sip?”

Yup, my name is Mrs. Coach and I’m a numbersaholic.