26 January 2009

Transcendence in a pool

There is a soft transcendence to long distance swimming. But, as Marcus Low discovers, you have to be fit to feel it.


The closest a human being can get to flying, is to submerge him or herself in water. The relative density of our bodies is close enough to that of water so that we can glide like agile birds or butterflies in the full three-dimensionality of that world under the surface.

This is the kind of pointless abstraction with which I could amuse myself on the way to the pool for my first swim after years of inactivity.

The disappointing truth was that I wouldn't be swimming for existential or speculative scientific reasons, but to provide some resistance to my 29-year-old body's slide toward middle-aged disrepair and general creakiness.

Health24's ‘600 metres in six weeks’ beginner programme advises one to start with 250m on your first day – that is five lengths in an Olympic-sized (50m) pool. On my first morning, before work, at 7 sharp in the crisp sea air at the Pavilion pool in Sea Point, I stubbornly insisted on trying for 400m.

The first few laps were fine. Then that spiralling-out-of-control fatigue kicked in, that you find in virtually any sport worth mentioning. Just like a tired soccer player's passes suddenly lose their accuracy, the unfit swimmer soon finds his streamlined gliding turning into an embarrassing splash-about.

All memories of the swimmer's mantra, ‘hand over hand, wrist over wrist, head squeezed firmly between your upper arms and point your toes’ are forgotten. Energy conservation turns into slothful waste. As your arms tire, your stroke becomes shorter. The kick goes out of your legs, and suddenly you're halfway across the pool, forgetting to breathe, and wondering why you didn't stay in bed.

Thank the swimming gods fitness and technique are things we can work on.

I have always thought of swimmers as fitting into two distinct categories. One is the macho, testosterone-ridden, pretend-you-are-a-rocket kind, like Michael Phelps and Ryk Neethling, who tear through the water like a shark on steroids. As a teenager, I had a brief skirmish with this kind of swimming when I broke my school's under-14 breaststroke record… unfortunately as good as things ever got for me in the pool.

The second category, and the one I soon came round to, is the slower, more relaxed, excuse-me-while-I-meditate form of long-distance swimming, in which the need for speed is replaced by that for rhythm and efficiency. If the off-beat Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami could compare marathon-running to writing fiction (see his book What I talk about when I talk about running), then I think the same could be said for this kind of swimming.

Like the writing of fiction, this kind of swimming is a solitary pursuit. As you make your way up and down the pool, you may see a fellow swimmer. You may even make brief eye contact if you and she happen to turn at the same time. But a moment later you are off again, and all there is is you, the rhythm that is consuming you, and the need to keep going.

Tap, tap away at your keyboard.

All of this is obviously physical – the breathing in through your mouth, out through your nose, the fatigue in your limbs – but the final allure is in the mind. As you turn for your thirtieth length and find yourself carried forward as if pushed by a force outside yourself, you are no longer just swimming, but in the midst of a journey of epic and mythic proportions.

Whatever you want to call it, and I guess some may not even care to notice, there is something special about hitting that zone.

Choosing to engage with this transcendence is probably a matter of personality. But whether it is just chemicals pumping through the brain, or an unusual confrontation with the nature of your own body, it is certainly the reason I find the water so powerfully attractive.

Back at the Pavilion pool after another exhausting swim, I find myself head in my hands, dizzy, and nauseous. My bluish limbs burn with fatigue. The truth is that the last time I swam myself into that soft transcendence was more than five years ago. And, until I once again pay my dues, the gates of heaven will remain firmly shut.

So, all I can do is to keep at it, like a novelist jutting away at his magnum opus, until one day, after many mornings doing painful battle with the limits of my body, the fatigue will, I hope, once again give way to transcendence.

(Marcus Low, Health24, January 2009)

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