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In lightning learning

23 May 2022

When the wind blew and the rain flew on Saturday night knocking the power out to my Quebec City Airbnb, I didn't really think much about the implications on my swimming. I sent some blackout snapchats to keep my streaks alive with my siblings (a daily habit we started during the pandemic when we couldn't travel to see each other), flipped the light on my phone and read a book, then watched downloaded TV on my iPad. But, the power came back on for me before I went to bed and I thought nothing more of it.

With my 400 IM heat set to go off around 9:35-9:40am, I strolled into the University of Laval facility about an hour ahead so that I could "register my intent to break a National Record," check in for the 800 free and grab a warmup well in advance of race time. I had a big day on tap - 400 IM, 200 fly and the 800 free. It was going to be touch & go with my return flight if I'd be able to make the 800, but, with the way the meet had been running, the proximity of the airport (15 minutes drive) and local assuring me that security lines were non-existent, I thought I could swim all three events.

Imagine my shock when I emerged from the locker rooms, looked right to the competition pool to find it empty of people and the water level of the pool down significantly! I turned to my left, saw everyone crowded into the 8 lane x 50 meter "warmup" pool and happened to run into one of the few people I knew by name.

"Didn't you get the email about the power outage?" he asked.

"Uh, no ...," but then I quickly pulled it up:

I next went to the entry door to the warmup pool and saw the new posted timeline:

I admit that I was crestfallen. With my flight scheduled to depart at 3:05pm and my heat of the 800 scheduled to end at 2:59pm, there was no way I was getting that race in. I walked over to the Clerk of Course to scratch that event.

As I headed over though, I joined the spontaneous applause to congratulate the entire cadre of Swimming Canada officials, volunteers and University of Laval facility staff for the magic they were pulling off: to have switched an entire national championship event overnight from one 10 lane pool to another 8 lane pool, to kit that pool out with all the timing equipment, re-seed the event, re-arrange all of the on deck components was nothing short of a miracle. This cheer helped me put my minor "bummed-ness" about missing my 800 in its proper place (e.g., not at all important).

While at the Clerk of Course, I also had to fill in a card to alert the officials that I was going to attempt to break the National Record in the 400 IM. I actually hold the record from the end of March, when I took exactly 1 second off the prior record of 5:03.37. Still, it's a strangely public and intense practice to have to tell the officials that you're trying to do this. It adds some extra pressue, but what it really adds is extra stopwatches so they can 100% confirm your time!

My inner goal, though, was to get under 5:00. I last did that back in 2016, but was way under then (4:52.09). I wasn't thinking I could go that fast, but, after my strong 200 IM, I really felt that I was capable of splitting:

  • Fly - 1:08 to 1:09

  • Back - 1:15 to 1:16

  • Breast - 1:26 to 1:28

  • Free - 1:08 to 1:09

  • So, my expected range was 4:57 to 5:02 ... obviously hoping for the lower end

I do love this race far more than any other event. It's almost always painful, but today was a special brand of pain that crept up on me and whacked me hard.

  • My fly leg actually felt pretty solid, not quite easy speed, but with enough left in the tank that I thought to myself as I pushed off for backstroke, "Hmmm, maybe my 200 fly will be halfway decent." Unknown to me, I was out exactly on target at 1:08.5

  • In my 200 IM, my backstroke leg was the strongest relative to past performances, my stroke was feeling connected and so I decided to push this a little harder. That was probably a mistake because ..

  • When I came to my first breaststroke pullout ... well ... I couldn't. I pushed off, was desperate for air and came right up like a beginner age grouper. I also realized over the first 50 that I had propelled my backstroke with my legs, not a great strategy as the only good part of my breaststroke is my kick. The burn just built to a fire over that 100.

  • When I pushed off for my freestyle leg, I was in agony. Now, I'm not sure if my result would have been different had there been a clock that I could see, but, after the race I looked at the splits the timer had written down and I was exactly where I needed to be - 3:51.20. Most of the time I swim this event, my fly and free splits are very close; for example, my best time since I turned 50 was in 2017 where I went 5:02.05 and split the fly at 1:08.53 and the free at 1:08.91. All I needed to do was come home in 1:08.79 and I would have dipped under that magical 5:00 mark!

  • Alas, I did not. I crumbled, I bonked, I died, I hurt the hurt of a thousand 1000s (well, maybe that's an exaggeration).

  • I touched the wall at 5:02.33 ... utterly spent. And, while I did, in fact, break the National Record, dropping four one-hundreths of a second over a 400 is not entirely satisfying!

Fortunately, they had a planned break afterwards, so I could cool down before having almost two and a half hours before my 200 fly.

As the meet was already about 40 minutes behind the revised timeline, I was getting worried about being at the airport in time to make the one hour cut-off for checking my bag. I had come to Quebec on Thursday night after traveling for business Sunday through Thursday morning, so had a large bag that I couldn't carry on.

"No problem," I thought as I drove out to the airport around 11:30am. I had confirmed on the Air Canada website that I could check my bag as early as 4 hours ahead of flight time. Well, I could ... if there were any Air Canada employees around to receive my bag ... which there weren't. I waited around the airport until about 12:15pm and then went back to the pool, bag tagged but not checked.

By the time I got back to the pool, the logistics had changed again, with all of the midday relays being run in one course so that the second course could be used for continuous warmup and cooldown. I hung around for long enough to determine that there was no way I would be able to swim the 200 fly and make my flight.

Not the exact ending I wanted to the meet, but I still left with extreme gratitude to all of the volunteers who managed to pull this massive overnight switcharoo off.

What lessons did I learn from the weekend?

  • David Guthrie was right - rest is ever so important as we age. I swam fresher and better here than I did at the start of April thanks to his taper advice.

  • I need to build a better base - I was very happy with my 50 fly and 200s, but didn't quite have the endurance I needed to make for great 400s. If I think back to my best years as a Masters swimmer, both 2012 and 2016, I had focused heavily on the 800/1500 the year before, building up a massive aerobic base. I really wasn't able to do that in 2021 given all of the pandemic shutdowns of pools. As I look ahead to a summer principally of open water racing and then into next fall, I'll aim to do the same.

  • I need to race more to sharpen the saw, to hone my skills. I'm still not in the flow of racing: my turns were slow and sloppy, I went too deep on most of my starts and my feel for pacing was just not refined. I could never intuitively tell how fast I was going. When I've produced great times at the end of prior seasons, I've raced a lot leading up to the final meet. Provided the world remains on the "stay open" state we're in now, I am hoping that I can be racing something once or twice a month.

  • Finally, I should not "trip-chain" a big weekend of racing on the end of a business trip. I likely spent too much time on my legs during the conference I was at the earlier part of the week, and the multiple flights and drives likely did not set me up for prime performance.


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