Monday, September 03, 2007

The ideal situation

A short and addictive book about marathon swimming: Diana Nyad's Other Shores. What a great book! I read it in one sitting. She's got a wonderfully brash, almost arrogant voice--and apologizes for it in a rather Victor-Frankenstein-like Promethean author's note.

It's full of good things, anyway--I very much liked the chapter on training--I will give the flavor of its wonderful intensity and really near-insanity (marathon swimming is a crazy thing!) with a few extracts. This woman did some serious swims, including a continuous 102.5-mile swim from the island of Bimini to the coast of Florida; here's the Wikipedia bio...

Here's a bit on what happens inside your head when you do a marathon swim:
For me, it's so easy to drift light-years away from the conscious world that it often becomes dangerous. Just as a tennis player's swing becomes automatic, my stroke has become automatic. From the first stroke to the last, I never have to think "make the hand entry directly over the shoulder, keep the elbows up, finish the stroke at the thigh, recover with the elbows high." If I'm completely cut off from any outside communication, if I don't have to think about swimming technique, if I'm not capable of focusing on any concrete subject (such as money) for more than thirty seconds, then how is my mind going to occupy itself? Left with such freedom, as on an acid trip [ED. this memoir was published in 1978...], the mind does not restrict itself. Unlike an acid trip, there is no danger of drug abuse to the body and there would seemingly be no reason to stop the mind from going just as far as it wanted. The ideal situation, if letting the mind go were the sole interest, would be to swim for forty hours at a good pace with no athletic objective, no one to beat, no record to break, no record to establish. It would be a much greater mind trip than floating in the deprivation tank, self-hypnosis or meditation. I have done all three; the mind will take a longer and richer voyage during a long swim. On the other hand, it seems so impractical to train like a bastard for years to be able to swim nonstop in open water for forty hours so that you can have a wild mind trip. I have compromised by setting athletic goals for myself while still being able to take the mind trip; the compromise is that I've had to come up with some technique to control the mind expansion so that I won't go too far away and render myself incapable of continuing to swim.
(I must confess that I spent at least half an hour wondering if I was by now too old to become a good enough swimmer that I could swim across the English Channel--but I think it is not practical in any case, it might just about technically be possible but there are other things the energy will be better spent on... like let's just say, to be honest, that this week marks the beginning of a three-year quest to do an Ironman race, if it is humanly possible I am going to complete one of those in late summer 2010!!! Or possibly 2009 if I get impatient and do a lot of bike-riding in the meantime...)

And here was one of my other favorite passages, part of the build-up to the Cuba swim for which this book seems to have been kind of a publicity splash (oh, this is a delightful passage, I defy you to read it and not want to order yourself a used copy from Amazon!):
The Florida Strait is an area where sharks are prevalent; many fins are sighted every day of the year by fishermen, servicemen, pleasure craft and even aircraft. With Jaws and the current media hype over sharks, I am frequently asked if there is really any scientifically based reason to fear shark attacks while swimming a long distance; my answer is that sharks were a little-understood source of danger with a significant history of human attacks long before they were a media hype and I'm not willing to be the guinea pig in retesting the already-disproved theory that, if left alone, sharks will leave you alone. A few years ago when I went to swim off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia I was told upon arrival that I would have to swim in a cage that would be towed behind a power craft. I was unbearably cocky in those days and said that I had no intention of swimming in a cage, thanks just the same. The next day I was on a short training swim, not far from shore, and I spotted fins at every glance. I decided I might try the cage after all. It was constructed out of wire road mesh in the shape of a room twenty feet long by fifteen feet wide by ten feet deep, and was supported by styrofoam flotation devices at the corners. I suppose I was grateful for the cage because that particular swim couldn't have been done without it; sharks bumped the sides and the front continually. Their sight is so poor that they probably brush by the splashing swimmer to smell it and to touch it with their skin perceptors. But on the other hand . . . The cage was necessary, but it was also ridiculous. It was so confining that I had to stop every ten or twenty strokes, especially after I became tired and disoriented, to position myself back in the middle. I completed the swim in 24 hours, 13 minutes; without the cage--that is, without the sharks--I would have finished closer to 18 hours. Also, I broke three fingers of my right hand at the eleventh hour when I came up unawares on the front of the cage and took a full hard stroke into the road mesh instead of air. The broken fingers made the remaining hours of the swim extremely uncomfortable.

I love it...


  1. Everybody needs goals; even stupid goals. ;-)

  2. I remember her swims, but am I the only one who finds it quite funny that her name is Nyad? Is it a case of function following form?

  3. Open water, marathon swimmers can find the latest news of their sport at