Last August I started swimming again. Not the splashing about or floating around in the resort pool kind but the concerted continuous heart-rate-raising sort.
It has been six years since the last watery bout, the reason for the hiatus largely a combination of busy-ness, injury and just plain laziness. But interestingly, what drove me back was not physical but mental. I was looking for peace.
This might sound strange and you may expect that physical well-ness might be a greater driving force – after all swimming is credited with toning muscles, increasing both heart rate and flexibility and improving breathing all with less stress on the body than many other forms of exercise (quite important when you’re both injured and unfit). But having been promoted into a new job at the end of 2013 with all that taking ‘ a step up’ entails (stretch number 1), some pretty unrelenting spates of overseas travel (stretch number 2) and a general lack of good quality, restful sleep (stretch number 3), my mind was stretched to breaking point and I needed to ‘make it stop’.
So at the end of August, into the pool I went – a 16m rectangular water bath in the basement of the building at work – and except for my 3 weeks away over Christmas, I have ploughed up and down for 40 minutes, lap after lap after lap, at least once a week.
Every week I climb down the ladder, the water temperature slightly cool against the warmth of my skin. I push off from the end, head down, feet kicking and arms reaching forward rhythmically, hands slightly cupped to gather and pull then reach forward again. My hair slicks back and my body feels buoyant and sleek – like an arrow moving purposefully along the surface of the water – as I knock off the first fast, heart-rate-raising laps.
Then the pulse shifts and there’s a different effort required, one that draws from somewhere deeper in order to calibrate the energy of breathing and body. The constant flow of arms and legs becomes meditative as the techniques learned in the early mornings and swim meets of childhood kick in. My mind wanders then returns to the water then wanders away again. Thoughts tumble around in between limbs and muscles and breath – sometimes from the day, sometimes from longer ago and I let them all trundle about at will with the rhythmic reach-and-pull, reach-and-pull, reach-and-pull in the background.
There’s something about letting thoughts roam without driving for some sort of order or resolution that settles them somehow.
Then my arms tire, my body rolls with fatigue and I focus again on the water. Technique moves to the forefront as I check that my arms stretch forward, that my core draws in to hold my position and that my kick doesn’t slacken its pace. My head swings to the right with every stroke, methodical in its pursuit of air. I count the laps down in my head, the promise of the end driving me on until I touch for the final time. I rip off my goggles and exhale gratefully. One hundred laps – done.
It started slowly – 50 laps with a rest after every ten – and as the muscle memory and fitness has returned I’ve been able to increase the laps I churn out each time. Every swim has a different cadence: sometimes it’s harder to get started, some days there’s a definite dip in the middle (pardon the pun) and sometimes those last laps drag remorselessly. And the day I’ve had seems to have no bearing – I’ve gotten enthusiastically in the water on some days to be met with a feeling of ‘swimming through treacle’ while on others, the water feels like silk and lethargy seems to float away with every stroke.
But more importantly, for 40 minutes each week I stop referee-ing all of the little voices and let my head just sort itself out. And in all of the reach-and-pull, reach-and-pull, reach-and-pull, I find my very own piece of tranquility.