Endurance athletes often say that sports are 90 per cent mental and 10 per cent physical. This is probably an exaggeration but human bodies are certainly capable of much more than we usually believe.
I’ve thought a lot about this saying recently as my mental strength was tested in 2014 – I completed two 10 km swims, led a running group, completed my PhD in chemistry, got a journalism job, started tutoring, had several failed attempts at romance (as my last blog will attest) and became an H2Open blogger. Now on a four-week trip to celebrate it all, I realise that I’m tired. Tired of constantly pushing myself.
So by the time I got to Lanzarote (one of the Canary Islands) halfway through my travels, all I wanted to do was forget the trip, go home and watch TV on my parents’ settee until my brain turned to mush.
It was with that mindset that I jumped into the sea on Tuesday with an endurance swimming training group. Our first swim was supposed to be a warm-up, only 3km. Normally I would complete that easily but following this swim, I was knackered.
After only an hour of rest before our next swim, I was unusually sullen entering the water on Tuesday afternoon. I was supposed to do four 1.4km laps around the bay. But I didn’t. After completing two laps, I couldn’t be bothered to carry on. The coach, who by this point realised that I wasn’t as strong as I’d claimed, was not surprised.
The next day we were told to set a long swim goal. I wanted to do my fourth 10km swim (my first in the sea) – seven laps of the bay. I was determined to overcome my discouragement from the previous day.
But I didn’t. I managed four laps before deciding that I was cold, tired, sore and nauseous and I was done. I had swum 5.6km. Respectable.
Swimming into shore, I expected the coach to be unperturbed by my early exit. That was not the case. He convinced me to do just one more lap.
I finished the next lap and came to shore – 7km swum. Very respectable. The coach did not agree. He convinced me to do just another half a lap. As I dove back into the water, he added: “Might as well make it a whole lap if you can.”
So I finished a sixth lap. Coming into shore to feed, I needed no encouragement to swim the final lap.
In the end, I swam the full 10km (or very close to it). And it was just what I needed.
I realised that in my struggles with school, work and romance, I’d elevated swimming in my mind as the one thing I could do easily. The thing I could rely on and control when everything else was difficult.
But marathon swimming isn’t easy. I wouldn’t love it if it was. But I can do it. Completing swims that are hard, proving myself to myself is what I love, along with the feel of the water. Because I’ve now completed my fourth 10km swim and so my life is better.