I’ve just come across an article in the New Yorker magazine about running, entitled “What We Think About When We Run.” You’ll find it at http://www.newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/what-we-think-about-when-we-run.
In the article the author covers a study published earlier this year in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology by the sports psychologist Ashley Samson and three colleagues who clipped microphones onto ten distance runners and asked them to narrate their thought process during a run.
Afterward, the researchers transcribed those monologues, identified the thoughts they contained, and divvied them up into three categories: Pace and Distance, Pain and Discomfort, and Environment. Interestingly runners at first focused mainly on achieving a certain pace and distance in their run, but after that they simply commented on their pain and discomfort.
I wonder if we swimmers do the same thing. What would the researchers find if they could put microphones on swimmers in pools and record comments during a workout? In my experience at a pool, we moan and groan and then do the next set.
I also wonder if it is the same when we do long swims in a lake. I find that different. There is no clock on the wall in a lake, no coach yelling the next set, no turns to measure how far you’ve gone.
In fact most of the time when we finally stop during a long lake swim, at the end of an arm of the lake or half-way and we have to swim back, open water swimmers I’ve been with take time to look around and see where we are, even if we are just two heads a quarter-mile or more from the shore in all directions. It’s better to be there than on land.
The New Yorker author also comments on the emotions we bring with us as we train. She mentions Thomas Gardner and his book, Poverty Creek Journal, a semi-diary of a literature professor of Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Gardener ran the day after his brother died of a heart attack and ran with his grief alongside.
In 2007 Gardner ran the Boston Marathon, the same day a Virginia Tech undergraduate shot and killed thirty-two students and faculty and wounded seventeen others. On hearing the news of the slaughter after the race, Gardner says, “When I got up from my chair, the shock of my body still battered by the marathon surprised me. I’d forgotten Boston entirely.” And the next day Gardner went out for another run.
Another book on the thought process within running may be the fictional Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, by Alan Sillitoe. It does an exceptional job of capturing how the mind of a runner wanders and swerves and expands as the miles unfurl.
When we swim in a pool we may not have much time between walls for such cogitation, as we are thinking of pace, setting up for the next turn, and who is in front and behind us in circular swimming. Perhaps we need more than 100 yards to settle into thoughts other than swimming. It is perhaps only long swims, 500 plus, that allow for meditation or reflection.
What I am curious about is what we think about when we swim. Perhaps we need Thomas Gardners in our midst to record their swimming thoughts for a year. I keep an extensive swim journal so maybe I’m one of these. I hope there are others out there.
In the pool my brain is totally consumed with paces and intervals and trying to remember if I am on the 75 or the 125 of a 200. I try make the intervals and do the descends. In the lake I swim a bit, stop and look around, swim a bit more, look around more, kick lazily on my back so I can look around, then eventually just find a log to float on. Now we know why Ralph gets me in the open water swims, even though he was a coach when I was a kid!