Adventures in chlorine

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Above: At the very edge. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

BitDepth#1174 for December 06

The guy had to be trolling me.

Every time I stretched out to slap the pool wall before my turn, he’d kick off at sprint speed to the other end of the pool, then just lean back there, all Polaroid goggles and bearded calm, staring up at the sky.

This continued for ten laps, and then I just shrugged. There’s something very internalising about swimming long distance in a pool, the rumble of your exhaled breath in the water, the tiled path you follow, the growing weight of your arms and alarming insufficiency of your kick as you work through each turn through the smoky cerulean water.

The first lesson you learn in challenging yourself against a pool full of water that will drag you to a stop and sink you if you stop moving is that everyone swims their own pool.

A decade ago when I began to swim for exercise after learning why two compressed vertebrae made walking painful, I was pitiful. I’d swim six laps of the pool in an hour, stopping to consider the injustice of the world for long minutes in-between.

Over time, I spent more time swimming and less moping. One day, I didn’t stop at all.

I used to count off my laps with shiny bits of sea glass, green and matted by abrasion, moving them from one pile to another at the pool’s edge.

Swim statistics

Swimming continuously made that plan obsolete, so I began investigating ways to count laps. I started six years ago with SportCount’s Lap Counter, a ring with a simple button that you press to count off circuits of the pool lane. The device tracks lap time, but the information is difficult to get to, needing lots of presses of the button and is overwritten with each successive swim.

My second lap counter died a few weeks ago and I picked up the Huawei Fit again, a fitness tracking smartwatch I’d tested in early 2017 that’s usable in a pool, though not in the sea (most aren’t saltwater capable).

My first tests were unhappy, because it really didn’t track swimming very well, but a software update, the last to date, dramatically improved that a few months later.

I’d avoided fitness trackers because they seemed to be a particularly undiplomatic, even brutal kind of coach, offering hard numbers with no perspective or context.

I suspect that’s why a certain EIC of my acquaintance refused my offer of a fitness capable smartwatch to deliver feeback on her new striding lifestyle.

But the same rules that apply to business and politics also apply to exercise. What gets measured gets done, and surprisingly, the way it gets measured also matters. The smartwatch reveals information that the counting ring buried and while its estimates for lap turns are probably iffy, it’s pretty good at calculating distance.

So I’ve switched from the number of laps as a swimming guide to a combination of time and distance to shape my approach.

Once I looked at the numbers, I decided on a new goal, to swim a mile with each outing at the pool, working first on endurance then on speed.

The time comparisons have led me to realise just how badly the chlorine content of the pool irritates my nostrils while the stroke analysis demands coaching remedy.

It’s not surprising. I’m self-taught as a swimmer, learning on lazy weekends in calm waters off Granville beach and as a result, I’m pretty awful at it. My kicking is informed by my past riding a bicycle, and I’m sure my strokes look like a caveman’s spastic battering of innocent water.

But I bring one thing to the lane when I kick off. I am a cussed swimmer, too stubborn to do anything but plough ahead.

I think of that when the mer-people zip by me, all lean muscle and perfect form in a flurry of clinically correct bubbles.

I’m swimming my own pool.