So here’s my deal: Yes, I swim, anyone who has ever talked to me for 5 minutes or less most likely knows this, but I still don’t really identify myself as a “swimmer. “ I started swimming with the Stowe Masters program 7 ½ years ago when I needed to cross train through a running injury and, I admit, I was instantly hooked. It is a fun, adrenaline-pumping, low impact, high intensity workout that leaves you completely exhausted and absolutely starving. I found as I moved into my forties that swimming and weight training were the perfect base to protect my body from the stresses of my work as well as from the asinine activities I enjoy, such as running, biking and skiing up mountains, and attempting to keep up with my kids. Master’s workouts also helped improve my times for the swim portion of XTERRA triathlons.
But I am not known for my overachievement in this sport. I was thrown into one of the faster lanes early on, probably because I will die trying to keep up, but my technique was trash and I would exhaust myself just trying to power through the water. It is not easy being an adult learner in the pool, and I have spent 7 ½ years working on technique and think about my balance, arm position and breathing literally with every stroke. I view my lifelong swimmer cohorts who were lucky enough to have had a swim team at their disposal during their formative years with a mixture of admiration and envy. I don’t do Masters meets. Timed pool events send me into a state of panic, and are a good reason for me to suddenly remember that I have a pressing engagement at 6:45 a.m. And I do not routinely show up in the pool on non-Masters days, because slogging out meters without the entertainment of my swim lane buddies sounds like a fate worse than death.
I do love a good badass race or event, however, the kind where the course is just so ridiculously challenging that you laugh at the insanity of it all! So in late October when a couple of my goddess swimmer friends invited me to swim the Brute Squad with them sometime in late November, I was in! Hell yeah! I thought, this will make for an interesting month of November—a sometimes rather blah, indoors kind of month in northern Vermont when it’s cold and dark with no snow.
The Brute Squad is a niche U.S. Masters swim event. It consists of swimming the three events widely regarded as the most challenging pool events in swimming—the 200 fly, 400 IM (that’s individual medley), and 1650 free—consecutively without stopping, for time. Here is a translation for land mammals: 200 fly is 4 laps of swimming butterfly stroke (a lap consists of 2 lengths of the pool, down and back), 400 individual medley is 8 laps of the following: 2 laps of butterfly, 2 laps of backstroke, 2 laps of breast stroke, and 2 laps of freestyle (freestyle can be what you think of as traditional freestyle, but officially it can be whatever stroke or method you want to use to swim without touching the bottom of the pool or pulling on the lane lines). 1650 free is 33 laps of freestyle, again however you legally want to do it. No, I’m not sure who thought this was a good enough idea to create such an event, and yes, it really is a thing.
So this craziness sounded like a good time at that particular moment. I started to lose my enthusiasm in the car on the way home from the pool, however, when excitement turned to realism and I thought about the logistics. I felt like I’d joined a top secret special team consisting of swim immortals CB, MH and CN. I spend less than 1/3 of the time per week than superfast swimmer MH spends in the pool, and most likely less than 1/10th of world class swimmer and Masters coach CB’s time in the pool. CN, like me, was new to the Brute Squad this year, but she could swim for an entire day, if necessary, after she finished teaching yoga and spin classes, kayaking as support crew for endless open water swim events, running Stowe Adaptive Sports, and being a Ph.D. in microbiology, and I knew she would crush this event, no problem!
So I was intimidated by my fierce company. I am primarily a freestyle swimmer. I am slow at the IM strokes. For some reason I actually can swim butterfly, which many Masters swimmers avoid due to shoulder strain, but sometimes I skip it for the lazy reason that “it’s just too hard.”
Simply stated, I was out of my league. I was the water equivalent of a rec path runner trying to ramp up to the Race To The Top Of Mount Mansfield in a month.
But I also can put together a competent training plan. By the time I reached home I had a month-long plan in my head for ramping up to swimming a 200 fly immediately followed by a 400 IM. The first challenge of the event for me would be to legally swim the first 300 yards of the Brute Squad, which would be all butterfly stroke. The second challenge would be to not be completely fatigued after the 300 fly so I could hold it together for the rest of the 400 IM and then the 1650 free. I enlisted the help of my teenage fly girl swimmer Nat in developing a plan to rapidly ramp up from swimming 25 meters of fly to 300 meters of fly all at once. To my surprise she enthusiastically sat down at her computer and banged out her “Swim Workout Of Death,” a totally sassy and impressive fly training workout that also will be an entertaining and informative blog in the near future. So by noon, I was feeling great about my plan. I had this!
Until the email that evening from CB: “Hi brutes, checking on your availability for next Sunday for the brute squad?” My plan went out the window. I didn’t have a month to train, I had eight days to pull this thing together. My first instinct was to bail on the event this year, and try it next year with proper preparation and training. But I know myself, and how realistic was that? I’m one of those people who does best with triage. Anything happening a year from now might as well be happening a thousand years from now, and I most likely would find myself in an emergency training scenario yet again. So committing to the Brute Squad and seeing it through, no matter what happened, was the way to do it. I had been to the pool that day and practiced some fly, not 300 yards, but enough to see that it might be possible to churn out a few laps legally with time and practice. The window of time and practice was now far smaller than it had been that morning. My revised training plan now was to attack the Brute Squad training like a brute, essentially “cram” for 7 days beginning the very next day, and then swim it on day 8. So here is my training log of what happened during those eight days:
Day 1: I hit the pool hard, for a slacker swimmer. The timing of Brute Squad training worked out beautifully with the timing of the annual Masters Virtual Swim, held in October. We were all pretending to swim around Lake Memphremagog, and I‘d been having too much fun trail running and needed to catch up on some distance. So after a good warm up, I blasted off with 300 meters of fly and fly drills straight into the remaining portion of the 400 IM, to see what that would feel like. It did not feel amazing. An hour after the swim I noticed tenderness and a bruised feeling in the front of my shoulders. Sometimes it’s great to be a geek physical therapist! I realized that I’d managed to bruise my coracoid processes at the top of my scapulas with lazy fly form. Instead of reaching out of my shoulders on the arm recovery portion of the stroke, I was simply whipping my arms out of the water and slamming the top of each humerus (the long bone of the upper arm) into each coracoid process. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. But pain is a great teacher.
Day 2: I went to the 6 a.m. Masters swim and swam a workout loaded with IM drills and strokes, which turned out to be perfect. It gave me the opportunity to work on my fly form, which needed to be corrected before I wound up with severe shoulder issues! I focused on the reach during the recovery. I also worked on keeping my body more parallel to the water to conserve energy, and it felt better. This was when I realized that focusing on form with every stroke was going to be a huge component of swimming this event and remaining injury-free. I couldn’t just muscle through the water for 300 meters of fly the way I had been doing with a 25 or 50 fly in the past. Committing fully to the workout and not modifying or bailing on any component of the IM strokes that felt like a strain was a change in my usual “I’m not a real swimmer and I’m definitely not going to the Olympics” mentality.
Day 3: Back to the pool for another 300 meters of fly and fly drills and IM training. I found I could swim a little more fly legally before becoming completely winded, panicking, and defaulting to a fly drill such as swimming the stroke one arm at a time. But I wasn’t anywhere close to swimming 300 meters consecutively. I was starting to worry and wonder how I was going to survive this thing 5 days from now. That evening I also felt significant muscle soreness in my shoulders and upper traps, which I chose to ignore. Weakness! I thought. But after 3 days of fly training I liked how I was feeling. I am a huge proponent of strength training, as my clients know, and the fly is a different kind of strength training from my dry land workouts. I could feel new muscles in my shoulders, upper back, and abdominals emerging that apparently had chosen to snooze through almost 3 years of dry land workouts with heavy weights.
Day 4: Back to early Masters for another IM workout! It felt way better than my own Brute Squad training, which made me suspect that swim coaches really do know what they’re doing. I also had an epiphany regarding strategy for the upcoming event four days from now: Staying alive and well was my goal. I needed to let go of my ego completely. If I felt my heart rate going through the ceiling, I would not kill myself trying to keep up with swimmers who swim circles around me. I really had no business even thinking that I could keep up when they dedicate so much more time and hard work to their swimming than I do. So if I felt close to cardiac arrest, I would not stop or give up, but I would default to the fly drill. I would disqualify myself by not swimming legally, but I would power through the event and it would be a good experience and good training for next year. That realization was very freeing. It took the pressure off and actually made the looming prospect of the Brute Squad look fun. Except that my upper trapezius was still very sore!
Day 5: Another round of solo self-flagellation in the pool. More 300 fly work, 400 IM work into a 700 freestyle. I did not seem to be getting anywhere with increasing my distance of legal fly stroke. I could get to 125 meters before I couldn’t seem to get enough air; then I became too fatigued to propel myself up and out of the water on the recovery, felt like I was going to drown and panicked, and defaulted to the one arm drill for several meters in order to slow my heart rate down. And that evening, the upper trap soreness morphed into actual sharp pain. Ah, just a badge of honor for all my fly training in the past few days and I would wear it with pride, I thought smugly.
Day 6: I am a broken woman. The sharp pains were moving down the right side of my back. My shoulders and quads were heavy and fatigued. I knew that swimming the Brute Squad legally in this condition was highly unlikely. Two more days to go. I dragged myself up and out to 6 am Masters. Normal people would consider this decrepit state grounds for a rest day, but something beautiful happens when you show up like a sack of damaged goods for a Masters workout. You no longer care about keeping up with anyone. I swam at the back of my lane and had two more flashes of brilliance. Despite my focus on form, I was continuing to do two things incorrectly: I was pushing the fly too hard and too fast, and had my eyes on the end of the pool, begging the wall to move closer, instead of on the bottom of the pool where they should be. Instead of embracing the discomfort of the fly I was trying to get it over with as quickly as possible, and I was pinching a nerve in my neck by looking straight ahead when I took a breath. Being too tired to care about keeping up with anyone, I realized that if I just swam ridiculously slowly I could swim pretty much indefinitely. The Brute Squad strategy evolved yet again: Form was huge, but mental focus was key. I could not let the amazing performances of my mermaid swim buddies push me. The way to handle it was to block it all out and swim even more slowly than I thought would be possible. I would make it my goal to finish in last place.
The pains in my shoulders and mid back felt better once I kept my eyes down. I went from the pool straight home for Advil, self-treatment that evening when the day was done, and a good night’s sleep.
Day 7: I have realized over the past few years the amazing, rejuvenating power of rest. It was Saturday morning, I had slept 10 hours and awakened feeling like a new woman. My brain wanted to rush back to the pool and practice my discoveries from the previous day just a little, just to make sure I had it down but my heart told me to let it go and take a full physical and mental break from the pool. This had been one crazy week. It is physically impossible to properly train for something like the Brute Squad in eight days, and I knew that recovery from overtraining to minimize fatigue tomorrow would help me way more than more practice at this point. I was nervous but excited about the next day.
Day 8: You can train and you can plan and rest and eat properly for an event, but as I tell clients, you have to be ready for things to not go as planned because frequently, they don’t, and you have to figure out how to just roll with it. That’s more than half the fun of racing and eventing. I woke up exhausted after being up for hours in the middle of the night with a vomiting child, and found that now I wasn’t feeling so great myself. I made my usual pre-race smoothie and choked it down. I was completely calm, no longer nervous and felt that everything was completely out of my hands. My family takes priority over everything else in my life. I would not bail on the event last minute. I would go and handle it, and I would not make a single excuse about being up half the night. And that was when I made the final revision to my event plan.
When I am running up the steepest, most rugged mountain trails, particularly in the blazing heat or the cold, sometimes I feel as though there isn’t enough oxygen in the world for me and all my legs want to do is quit. I have learned over time to slow it way down and never look at the top of the trail, which is a recipe for discouragement because it goes up and up forever. I look to the sides of the trail and just run from tree to tree. If that’s too far, I look just ahead of me at the path and run rock to rock, and if still too far apart I run from fallen leaf to leaf. And I talk myself through it the entire time. “Next tree…good! Now the birch on the right…good…now the big rock on the left…now that red leaf in front of me.” Suddenly, I am at the top. And this strategy was also how I would complete the Brute Squad. I would swim up the mountain.
Good sport Nat had agreed to get up early and come help time the event, along with her friend, CB’s swimmer teenage daughter. She was an immense support for me with her swim meet experience, patiently talking me through a pool warmup and telling me to keep my shoulders warm. I’m sure I was an embarrassing mom because I even looked like a slacker swimmer in my training suit and XTerra cap while CB, MH and CN looked like a svelte and professional swim team in black tech suits and matching pink swim caps. Fifteen seconds before the event started, I felt a small amount of fear kick in, and for the first time ever, the roles reversed and I turned around and looked at Nat for comfort. She read my eyes and said, “You’ll be fine, Mom, just don’t DQ.”
So I pushed off the wall and I swam up the mountain, one stroke at a time, one breath at a time, not aiming to swim the Brute Squad, or the 200 fly, or the 400 IM. I swam length by length. Nat stood up at the end of the 200 fly to let me know that the first event was over and that I should go straight into the 400 IM. I kept plugging along, one stroke at a time and one breath at a time, and when I reached the end of the 100 fly portion of the 400 IM, I lifted my eyes briefly during the turn from fly to backstroke to look at our gorgeous girls timing the event. This moment was the highlight of the Brute Squad for me. I will forever have a snapshot of Nat’s face in my mind—a huge grin of complete disbelief that I pulled off a 300 fly legally. And I was never in my swimming experience so happy to be swimming a 400 IM!
From that moment forward, the Brute Squad was pure joy. I relaxed and stretched out, and it felt great. I mixed a few lengths of backstroke and “6 kick switch” drill into the 1650 free, just to give my shoulders a break. I was enjoying myself so much that I accidentally swam an extra 50 meters, somehow not seeing the rubber squid Nat dropped in the water to signal my last lap. I stopped when CB, who had finished ages before I did, dove after me and grabbed my ankle. I stopped, the realization hit me that I had officially completed the Brute Squad, incredible euphoria rolled over me, and I ripped off my swim cap and goggles and screamed in hysterical happiness, falling into the hug of my swim buddies! My time was 50:07, not brilliant but very close to the time of 50 minutes I had predicted I would swim, and I was 100 percent happy with it.
What happened after that is a beautiful, cloudy memory. I left the pool for the locker room and showers and several gymgoers who had watched the event from the gym, lobby and pool deck stopped me to say congratulations and ask questions about the event. We four swimmers plus the two teenagers had a Brute Squad celebration breakfast at a local bakery. Then it was over and time to go back to life. Nat and I brought breakfast back home to Gabby and Matthew, Mark went to a football game, and the kids and I spent the rest of the day working on school projects, making dinner, and getting ready for the week. Life was immediately back to normal after eight days, and within hours the Brute Squad swim seemed like a dream.
But it really had happened, and it reinforced to me that we really do have the power to make what seems impossible happen. In the future, if I feel discouraged, exhausted, fearful due to what seems like an insurmountable mountain in front of me, I just need to remember to swim up the mountain. One stroke at a time, one breath at a time, eyes down and focus.
In embracing and accepting the pain, you grow, and in taming your nerves, you conquer fear. Anything really worth doing is hard and uncomfortable, and you can do it. Never give up!
Today, four days after the Brute Squad swim, I went back to the weight room for the first time in a month, a month in which I broke my cardinal rule to never, never forsake your strengthening regimen for other forms of exercise, particularly if you are age 40 and over! I knew what I was getting myself into when I chose five trail and road races, the virtual swim, and the Brute Squad over the weight room, and I accept the consequences. It was a rough re-entry, I felt like a wimp, and it reiterated to me that after all the hard work I do to build up strength at my age, it’s a bad decision to let it go. I will say, however, that I rocked flys with free weights, pull ups, and any and all challenging abdominal exercises–all butterfly training-related! It’s proof enough for me that fly stroke is a fly form of strength training. I’m going to stick with it.
–Kathleen Doehla, M.S. P.T.