Give It 6 Months

I visited Edmonton for work this week, and stayed downtown at the Westin. No big deal – I’m frequently in and out of Edmonton and although usually I stay at the Delta South, it was more convenient to be downtown for my appointments.

I have avoided that particular Westin like the plague, since it was the site of my “restructuring” from my former job at the end of March this year. I knew full well that the axe was about to fall on my neck. The signs were all there, and my former boss wasn’t so stealthy in concealing her plans. Sloppy and cruel even. On the day before my beheading, she even sent a meeting request for the wrong time, so that I ended up waiting outside the chambre de guillotine for an hour. She texted and told me to go and “have a nice breakfast”, but I didn’t and hid behind a pillar and watched the executioners enter the room.

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Once my head was removed, I spoke with my lawyer, chatted with colleagues, took a nap, ordered room service, and then went for a swim. Or at least I think that was the order of events. I definitely remember the swim.

Two weeks later, I started in my awesome new position with the world’s best company, landing in a role that aligns closely with my values and my skill set, with leadership who lead, for real.  My head slowly reattached itself to my body. I healed.

A close friend said to me “Give it 6 months. You’ll be a new person.”

In the year I’d spent in my previous role, I gave up much more than my head. A gruelling travel schedule saw me away from home nearly 80% of the time. A company culture of working until exhaustion saw me diagnosed with Metabolic Syndrome – constantly swollen and stressed, with broken blood vessels in my eyes. I gained 35 pounds, even when living on Air Canada pretzels – a lot when you’re barely 5 foot 4. I didn’t even buy a ski pass last year. I did one measly, disappointing swim in the summer of 2017. I was mired in Excel spreadsheets full of numbers that meant nothing. My wetsuit hung pathetically in my closet.

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When I reflect back, the relentless travel and long hours did serve a purpose: keeping my mind away from the end of my marriage. Although when I was finally operating like a normal person again, I experienced what my therapist calls “delayed grief”, and it became one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with – but 6 months after the fact. I cannot recommend this approach to moving through traumatic life events.

When I started this swim blog, I was (head intact) searching for positive habits and an approach to recovery, rather than reinvention. I wanted to peel back the barnacles and find the person underneath. Shuck my own oyster. A changed person, indeed, but a person with undeniable basic needs:

  • swimming, or to be in or near water as much as possible
  • other consistent and regular exercise
  • time with my daughter
  • time with my friends
  • good nutrition
  • sleep
  • kindness

There are a few other bullet points, but this is a family blog. Within 6 months, I had completed and exceeded my initial swim goals. I had established myself in my new, amazing role and loved starting work every single day. I had started divorce and other necessary legal proceedings. I’d started running. I’d bought new underwear. I grew my hair and fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a roadie for a rock and roll band. Just kidding. That never happened. 😉 I started working with a business coach. I signed up for the future.

This is not to hold myself up as any sort of role model. There’s plenty that happened within the last 6 months that I’m not proud of. But there’s plenty that I am proud of. And 6 months becomes 7, and then 8, and then 9, and then suddenly I’m at the Westin again with my head attached to my neck and I’m shaking it because I can hardly believe how much is possible with a little, or a lot of:

  • swimming, or being in or near water as much as possible
  • other exercise
  • time with my daughter
  • time with my friends (Wow, do you ever learn who those are, and aren’t, Glen.)
  • good nutrition (no Air Canada pretzels, thank you)
  • sleep
  • kindness

I have just over 8,000 more metres to swim to achieve my 2018 training goal, and 2 weeks to learn whether my application for the Lake Zurich swim is accepted. Within the next 6 months, more amazing things will happen, and more change, because that’s the constant and the way it should be for me.

And the next time I stay in Edmonton, it won’t be at the Westin. Not because I don’t like it (ohhh Heavenly Bed, you’re the best), but I left my old head there and I don’t really want it back.

It’s the Time of the Season for Swimming…and Pie

First things first. It is so beautiful in Rossland in October.

Photo Credit: the amazing Don Conroy

I think about moving a lot – there would be some benefits to my social life, my airport situation, and my access to things I love like art, cinema, concerts, and new restaurants. At the end of every summer I start looking at real estate listings on the Island or the Lower Mainland. It’s like I’m programmed to spur on even more change, just as the leaves are turning colours. I feel like I also need to “shed” and reinvent and make a new start.

But somehow this season, my favourite season of all, elicits a feeling of settled-ness and happiness that keeps me in this spectacular place. Even though it’s expensive to swim due to a recreation funding conflict between Rossland and Trail, I cough up the cash for my membership at the Trail Aquatic Centre and start into the new season of a different kind of swimming.

I hike gloriously colourful trails with my dogs and I marvel, like the big sensitive nerd that I am, at the greens and oranges and reds of the leaves and soil and mountains. The sunrises are sublime – hot pink and orange from my bedroom window. The sunsets are slow, soft lavender, purple and blue. When the clouds roll in, the contrast of metal grey with the blue sky almost chokes me up. Told you I was a big nerd. Nature astounds me.

It’s more important for me to live and breathe and BE in this amazing place than it is to see the films that showed at TIFF in September or have a wider variety of shirtless, fish-holding prospects on Tinder.

Many of the swimmers I follow on social networks are able to continue their open water training outdoors, and it does indeed look fabulous to swim in 12 degree lidos or Welsh lakes in the middle of October. But there is something about settling into a season with what you have available that is comforting and valuable and even reassuring. I like the pool. I love the hot tub afterwards, even the pee. I like the people there, and choosing locker #69 every time because I am a 14 year old boy at heart. I like driving home in the dark in my farty old sweatpants and listening to the CBC. I like eating 15 pieces of toast in my kitchen and waking up the next morning with the most epically chlorinated bed head ever. It’s truly a sight to behold and way better than Lady Gaga in A Star is Born or even Beyoncé.

Having taken a 2 week break from the pool since returning from England, I decided to start a completely new program from scratch – one that will lead me into a 10k destination swim in January (to be revealed later!). Starting at a 3k training baseline, I’ll work my way up to 8 km in the pool by mid December. I have a number of technical goals to work on this fall, including improvements to my rotation and my current straight-armed recovery. There’s a lot of kick, and even more pull. My weight training program is focused on building the upper body power I need to conquer longer swims, and includes specific exercises to increase my core and shoulder strength. It feels more planned than ever before, which is weird for a spontaneous nut like me, but as it turns out, there are wise people who have already thought of these things and confronted these challenges. Who knew? I thought I knew everything.

My daughter Scarlet and I are celebrating our Canadian Thanksgiving this year as “NoFucksGiving”, due to our acceptance and resignation with a particularly sad and frustrating situation that has taken up much of our emotional space over the last few weeks. We heal. We let the system take control. We gravitate to those that make us feel good. We take long walks. We swim. We accept invitations for care and love and support. We eschew a big dinner and a whole day preparing it for a dinner consisting entirely of a beautiful pumpkin pie from Mountain Nugget. We’ll join good and generous friends for even more dessert, and settle in to watch creepy movies on Netflix in our pajama bottoms and coziest hoodies.

So why would I move?

I’m already moving. I’m changing, swimming, hiking, running, and waking to beautiful sunrises. I have everything I need here. I have a 10 k in January. So yes, maybe it should be “SomeFucksGiving” – but only for things worth giving fucks about. I think those things are pretty clear to me now, and abundant here in this place, and only become more clear with every length and flip turn and bite of delicious pie.

There’s no place like home, my homies.

Adventures Across the Pond Part 2: Swim Serpentine

Time flies, innit. Last weekend I was milling around in Hyde Park at the Swim Serpentine Festival. It was a grey and rainy Saturday, and I probably didn’t have enough warm layers.  I picked up my package from the registration tent and spent some time exploring the sponsor booths and food trucks. Several waves were already swimming, and the announcers kept the crowds (yes, there were crowds!) entertained with music and anecdotes about several of the swimmers.

Swim Serpentine is a one day open water swimming festival in Hyde Park, right in the heart of London.  The site was the location for the open water events in the London 2012 Olympics. Hugely popular, 6000 swimmers descend on Hyde Park for a day of distance events, talks, films and chilly cameraderie with fellow wet-suited open water lovers. The beautiful, colourful centerpiece of the lake was the London Mastaba, designed by famed architect Christo.

Swimmers can register for the half mile, one mile, 2 mile, or Super Six events. I signed up for the 2 mile and was put in Wave 11, which meant I wouldn’t swim until 2:45. I arrived around 10 so that I could catch the talks and films and drink as much hot tea as possible.

I decided to include the Swim Serpentine event as the culmination of my 2018 open water season. I wanted a destination swim, so that I could celebrate my birthday and the summer that was. I chose London because I love it there, and I was eager to go back and visit my friend Sadie. The open water swimming community in the UK is huge, and I wanted to soak up some of that energy.

Festival-goers and swimmers congregated in a tent to escape the chilly drizzle and watch the speakers and films. We sat on cozy, blanketed hay bales and enjoyed programming specifically geared to swimming. I sipped my tea and nibbled my cheese toastie and wished I had worn more than a t-shirt under my light jacket.

Up first was Beth French– who is a force – and her power comes through on the stage. She spoke of her attempt to swim the Oceans Seven Challenge, and covered everything from training, her recovery from being wheelchair-bound with ME, to mental strategies, to her experiences with man-eating creatures. She left me inspired and honestly wondering if I would have the fortitude to take on such a daunting challenge. I challenge you to watch the trailer for her documentary Against the Tides, and not feel the feels.

Jenny Landreth is just as funny and entertaining in person as she is as the narrator of Swell, her “waterbiography” of swimming’s suffragettes. She told some inspiring stories about the pioneering women of this sport, peppered with her own experience discovering cold water swimming. She is hilarious and brims with interesting information. I loved her book and it was very cool to see her live on stage.

Libby Page read from her best-selling book The Lido, which I really want to read, especially after my lido-full week of swimming around London.

The series of short films was also awesome and inspiring. I need to make friends with someone who has a drone so that I can make my own epic swimming movie. Know anyone? It can wait til next summer. 😉

Around an hour before my wave time, I headed to the change tent to begin the laborious process of shimmying my cold, goose-bumpy body into my wetsuit, lubing my neck and stretching. The change rooms were al-fresco with a few changing tents for the shy among us, myself included. I’ve just never been able to get down with being naked in a room with 200 other naked people.

The start area was crowded with excited swimmers (and one weird guy in a gorilla suit), some warming up and others milling around, jumping off nerves etc. We had a quick, large group dryland warm up and then it was our turn to jump from the deck into the cold, brown Serpentine. Many more than seven swans were also swimming, and pooping.

The course was a one mile loop, and for the 2 mile we would swim 2 laps.

From the start, I noticed that there was way more traffic than any race I’ve ever been in. There was plenty of foot touching, head smashing, and elbow pokes. The straightaways between each end of the course provided a chance to break away and find some space.

The water was cold and not very “fresh”, but I soon warmed up and settled into my pace for the first mile. Swimming past the vivid red and blue Mandaba was really cool.

At the end of my second lap, I was quite fogged up and wasn’t exactly sure where to swim through the orange buoys to the finish. I overshot it by about 100 metres and had to turn back (after saying a big loud FUCK – in my head of course) and round the corner again to make it to the ramp. I climbed out of the water, posed for a photo, collected my very nice medal, and made my way down the runway to an area where several hot tubs were set up. I spent a few minutes in warm human soup (shudder) and made my way to change back into my cold and damp clothes, and pretty much bee-lined for a kiosk to buy the biggest hot chocolate I could find. No Venti sizes here – this is England. So I bought 3.

When I reflect on the event, I feel good about my swim and I really enjoyed being part of something at that level of scale – 6000 swimmers! If I did it again I’d sign up for the 6 mile option, where you swim in several waves to make up the distance, just to try something new. Although, I can’t imagine being in a wetsuit for that long, or changing in and out of cold rubber all day long. Future me would bring a cozy parka and maybe a lackey to fetch me hot toddies.

I made my way back to the Green Park underground station and headed to meet friends and eat carbs. I was tired, cold, and not feeling great, but I was so happy to have swam well and participated in something so different.

Today I am drinking some nice, hot Kicking Horse Coffee in my kitchen, still dealing with the horrid cold virus that has lodged in my chest, and thinking warmly about my week in London. It was both liberating and refreshing to indulge in a holiday that centered around swimming. It gave me the structure I like to have as well as the freedom to change plans as needed and desired, and I liked that it built up to a big event that helped to keep me focused and motivated through the week.

I am learning a lot about myself and what my motivations and values are. Now that my official “event” season is over, I’ve started to think about what I need to do this fall in order to maintain my fitness level and distance goals.

This year I really enjoyed the chance to swim long events. I think I’m made for it. While all distances are fun, I like the idea of pushing my body and my mind to places I never  thought I could go. I’m building a list of events that I’d like to try. There’s this lake in Italy….

Strength of mind has been important for me, especially going through the end of a relationship and all of the ugly challenges and energy that extrication from an abusive deadbeat involves. I’m now a single parent exclusively, which means heightened responsibilities in terms of my time, my finances, and my mental energy.

It’s a challenge, but one I’m definitely up for.  Swimming gives me solace and structure. It gives me hundreds of deep breaths, strong shoulders, and best of all, buoyancy.

Another Spin Around the Sun…In Slocan Lake

I had a birthday this weekend. You just can’t stop them from happening every year. I’m fortunate in that mid-September is often still warm enough for lake swimming in BC, and this weekend was no exception.

I have always enjoyed canoeing and camping on Slocan Lake. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world, with gorgeous beaches, clean water, and plenty of variety in terms of campsites, canoe routes, whitewater rafting, and places to explore. I’d never swam across it before though, and the occasion of turning 44 seemed to be the perfect opportunity with the water holding a balmy and refreshing 15 degrees C and the rain holding off (because of my special birthday rights). The lake is approximately 2.7 km across from Silverton to Sandpoint Beach.

I was also very keen to try night swimming. And it did not disappoint.

I set off from the boat launch in Silverton around 7 pm, wearing my thickest, warmest wetsuit – a Blue Seventy Sprint – 2 swim caps, and positive thoughts of warm fleece, hot tub time machines, steaming mugs of Earl Grey tea, and Swedish saunas.  Scarlet had both dogs and all of our camping gear in my big old blue canoe, as well as a bright light to guide her crossing. She’s an experienced, skilled, and capable paddler, and I had no concerns with her ability to guide me safely.  The sun set quickly while I was in the water, and soon I was making my way across in darkness next to the canoe. One word sums up this experience – exhilarating! The combination of the cold, the eerie play of the light on the surface of the water, and the feeling of swimming weightlessly into navy blue nothingness was just awesome. I definitely want to do it again. And again! Read More

Eating, Sleeping, Breathing…and Reading

If there’s one thing I love as much as open water swimming, it’s reading!

I always have 3-5 books on the go, and my choices run the gamut from fiction to business to personal development – and my current favourite: memoir. I belong to a lively local book club and look forward to our monthly meetings the way other people look forward to Christmas or their Botox appointments. In fact, tonight I am hosting our get together and I have bought lots of chocolate and red wine to help stimulate the discussion. No boys allowed.

I will devour anything related to adventure and exploration (vicarious living?) and have always enjoyed anything about Shackleton, Everest expeditions, and being lost at sea.

Since I’m a keen swimmer, I’ve been adding a few swimming titles to my library. If you’re a reader like me, you might find some of these to be perfect titles to curl up with post-swim, under a blankie with a cup of tea or a snifter of Fireball, smelling of chlorine and feeling like tired magic.

(I haven’t provided a link to purchase these books, because I think you should always check at your local bookstore first!)

Turning: A Year in the Water by Jessica J. Lee (Hamish Hamilton Publishing)

This melancholy memoir recounts Lee’s experience swimming the 52 lakes that surround Berlin. It’s full of rich and beautiful writing, full of emotion and self-exploration. It resonated with me in terms of the time frame Lee sets for her goal, and the personal issues that drive her to depend on swimming to work shit out. I read it in short, small doses and found that allowed me to soak up the lush descriptions and powerful prose.

Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long Distance Swimmer by Lynne Cox (Harcourt)

If you’re an open water swimmer and you haven’t heard of Lynne Cox, then we can’t be friends. Ok – maybe we can be friends, but you have to read this first! Cox’s open water story is so inspiring, and so amazing. This accessible book was a page-turner for me as I couldn’t wait to see what challenge she’d conquer next. It also sparked my interested in the arena of cold water endurance, since I’ve been wondering if that’s a future possibility for me. Cox is my patron saint of open water swimming. She’s done the English Channel (setting records!), the sharky Catalina Channel, the Cook Strait, the Strait of Magellan, the Cape of Good Hope, the goddamn Bering Strait, and motherfucking ANTARCTICA. This woman’s excellence knows no bounds and reading about her accomplishments literally has me on the edge of my seat and researching crazy ideas. Lynne Cox is simply a remarkable human. And bonus – there are pictures! I love books with pictures.

Swimming in the Sink: A Memoir by Lynne Cox (Vintage)

I haven’t actually read this one yet but I thought I should add it because LYNNE COX, and it’s sitting on my nightstand right now.

Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton (Blue Rider Press)

Canadian author and artist Leanne Shapton captures so much of the experience of growing up as a youth in a swim club, and how those experiences impact the making of a life beyond the practice and the pool. It’s a hard book to describe, both deeply personal and surgically sharp in observation. Shapton’s art is interspersed throughout, and creates a wonderfully sensory reading experience.  Her photo archive of her beautiful bathing suit collection is breathtaking.  A reviewer of this book states, “My talent crush is official and deep.” I have to agree. 

The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou (NeWest Press)

Angie Abdou is a Can-lit goddess, and her first novel perfectly captures the exhilaration of Olympic dreams, the uncomfortable choice architecture of teenage romance, and the mindset of discipline that is so elusive to anyone who’s ever really loved a sport. She writes about pressure so effectively, through characters who are both relatable and inspiring.

Swell: A Waterbiography by Jenny Landreth (Bloomsbury)

First of all, I wish I’d coined the phrase “water biography.” Isn’t it brilliant? I’m halfway through this account of the feminist history of the swimming suffragettes, and I’m enjoying it so much. Landreth tells the stories of groundbreaking and inspiring swimming women with brilliantly cheeky humour and joy. Her own story, woven throughout, is insightful and very fun to read. And again – pictures!

I’m sure there are a zillion other really good swimming books out there. I’d love to hear about them all. All of them! If you’ve read something that inspired you, made you laugh, or challenged you to slip into a Speedo, let me know and maybe you can come to my next book club. I’ll share my Fireball.

That Time I Escaped from Alcatraz

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When I told my good friend that I would be writing this week, I promised a tale that would include a diaper and CPR.

THIS TALE CONTAINS BOTH.

Without further ado, I’d like to tell you about the time I escaped from Alcatraz.  Yes, I joined the likes of that (in)famous Bird Man and other brave escapees.

How did it happen?

My escape from Alcatraz was part of my 40 year old swim odyssey, but I didn’t get to plan it in advance. On my actual 40th birthday in September 2014, my family arranged a surprise party. I don’t normally love surprises because I’m a complete control freak, but this one was simply awesome, unexpected, and welcome. After a lovely dinner, I walked into my house to find my friends all dressed up as characters from my favourite movie, Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic. We had Zissous, Klauses, and even a convincing Alastair Hennessey.

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And my present (as if the party wasn’t a giant present in itself) – my present was a trip to San Francisco to do the Alcatraz Swim. This is an annual event organized by Water World Swim (who organize many other cool destination events). The swim itself isn’t particularly long at 1.5 miles, but the chilly waters and finicky currents of the San Francisco Bay make it a challenging one.  I was so excited and freaked out. I thought I’d completed my 40th year challenge, but I was pumped to add one more fabulous destination swim to cap off an amazing season. And best of all, my parents would be joining us in the city I grew up knowing as the inspiration for their “Song“. Read More

My Open Water Story: Part Deux

Screen Shot 2018-05-26 at 8.38.11 AMSo, I was swimming again. And turning 40! I wanted to celebrate the unlikely success of both major life events, so I plotted a summer of races in all kinds of places: Across the Lake Swim in Kelowna, Sandpoint’s Long Bridge Swim, the Rattlesnake Island Swim, and the Lake Chelan Swim. There was another surprise swim, but it was a surprise for me and I’m saving it as a surprise for you. I am a sucker for clean water (who isn’t?), so I set up a fundraising campaign through Charity:Water and set a goal of $1000.

First was the swim leg of the Christina Lake Triathlon, with my trusty team of pals. This event is held every year in late June, and as a “sprint”, it requires an 800 m swim, 20 km bike, and 5 km run. All walks of life from Hardcore Strava Dawgs to People Who Drink Slurpees turn up to this event, which, depending how hardcore you are, includes campfires, beers, and a giant baked potato (or 2 if you’re crafty). I don’t really count this as a SWIM swim, but it definitely served as the kickoff to my other events.

My next swim was Kelowna’s Across the Lake Swim, Canada’s oldest open water event founded in 1949. It’s a 2.1 km crossing of Okanagan Lake, and finishes up at Lakeside Park. When you finish, you get oranges, cookies, and chocolate milk. This is important to me. It truly is the best swim to try if you’re new to the game – a very supportive atmosphere, tons of fun, and good swag. You get to ride a yellow school bus in your bathing suit. Even the check-in and safety meeting the night before is fun. In fact, I must mention that I haven’t bought a towel since I started open water swimming. If you ever need one, let me know. Read More

My Open Water Story – Part 1

I always loved swimming. Even when I wasn’t officially swimming (that giant gap between age 13 and 39), my body has felt happiest in the water. This blog is an effort to capture some of my passion for swimming, being in the water, discovering new places to swim, and challenging myself to be the best I can be.

I grew up in Saskatoon, the first daughter of parents who met as lifeguards during the 60s. From a very early age I was enrolled in Red Cross swimming lessons and lifesaving stages. When I was 8, my parents signed me up for speed swimming, and I took to it immediately. Not only did I love being coached  and going to practice, I loved going to swim meets and being part of a swim CLUB.  Riding the bus to faraway meets, staying with new billet families, and making friends from all over my own city and many others was very motivating. My swimming friends became some of the most influential of my life. I’m still connected to many of them. Read More