Water Logged

I took my first swim class last night. Well, not my first ever. I’ve had lessons in the past, you know. Most recently I took swimming lessons at the Stewart Park pool in 1967, with my brother and this kid named Joey who must have always had a fever because whenever I swam through an area he was just in, the water was much warmer.

No, this wasn’t my first swim lesson. Just the first one with the new leg. Which will take some getting used to. I had a bit of trouble setting it to the fully extended setting in order to best swim. And once there, I had further trouble getting it go back to the walking setting. But I suppose this will get easier in time. And this wasn’t my first time in water with this leg. I did make splishy-splashy with my kids in a pool down in Florida last month. Where I promptly ripped off one of the toes.

But I got in the water and I swam. No, I didn’t. Yes, I got in the water. No, I didn’t swim. Not yet.

I learned to breathe. I learned to kick. I kicked a lot. I spent a lot of time kicking. With my arms out in front of me at first, then with my arms pressed down with my elbows in my ribs. I don’t get very far with just my kicks. I don’t know if that’s because of my leg, because of how I kick, or if no one goes very far with just kicks. I pretty much had my head in the water all the time. And I learned to make myself lean. In both senses of the word. I kicked, and I rolled, and I flipped, and I breathed. And not a single stroke was stroked.

Welcome to the world of Total Immersion swimming.

I first heard about TI* at the top of a mountain, of all places. Specifically, on top of Mt. Washington (I know, I know…I’ll tell that part soon. Promise.) by a triathlete who suggested that, should I ever want to consider doing a tri, it might be the way to do the swimming part. I assured him that I would never do one, but thanks for the information.

According to the website: “TI teaches you to swim with the effortless grace of fish by becoming one with the water. TI emphasizes the same patient precision and refinement taught by martial arts masters. We start with simple skills and movements and progress by small, easily-mastered steps. Our students thrive on the attention to detail and the logical sequence of progressive skills.”

So, I started at the bottom. Well, not the bottom. I always floated to the top. Karen–the instructor–started showing us the basics: hand position in the water, how to properly kick, how to exhale under water, how to align our head and shoulders.

It’s a lot coordinated physical movement. This is not my strong suit. I’m great when it comes to the whole left leg/right leg thing with cycling. One’s going down while the other goes up. Pretty simple. Anything past that gets to be a challenge. If I put my left hand in and take my left hand out, it’s an accomplishment. Shaking it all about is a bonus.

It’s kind of humbling to admit stuff like this. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never been big on acknowledging my limitations. If I couldn’t do something well, I just didn’t do it. As a result, I’ve spent a lot of my life on the couch in front of the TV. I can channel-surf like a boss, yo.

But this doesn’t bother me. Again I was surprised at my reaction to the class. I think I was the worst swimmer of the group. Or maybe that was just my impression. I really didn’t pay much attention to anyone else. I just concentrated on my form, and accomplishing the simple tasks set out by the instructor, done in the order she gave them. How to kick. How to position my head, my arms. When to breathe in, and when to breathe out (hint: one of them you don’t do underwater).

I made mistakes, but I think I’m learning. Karen did a bunch of correcting of what I was doing, but she also let me know when I was doing it right. At one point, while she was working with one of the others in the class, the rest of us were hanging out at one end of the pool. One of my classmates looked at me and said “Well, it looks like you’re going to be the teacher’s pet!”

I laughed. “I certainly hope not!” I replied.

So I’ve got work to do. I’m guessing the mental part of the swimming is going to be more difficult than the physical part for a while. But that’s okay. I need to keep reminding myself that it’s been more than three decades since I’ve really done any swimming. I’m going to learn at the pace I learn, and swim at the pace I swim. Eventually I know I’ll be faster. I have no clue how fast I’ll end up, but I don’t care. The only person I’m competing against is myself, and since I’m off the couch, I’m in the lead.


*Far simpler than spelling it out.



Last weekend I took my Mom and my kids to Florida. It was, essentially, Mom’s last trip down there. It was draining–both physically and mentally. I’m glad I did it, but it was as draining as my last trip, if not more so. I’ll try to write about it some time, but I make no promises. It was very painful and sad, and I’m not sure I’ll have the patience to write about it, and this really isn’t the venue for it, anyway.

This week I finally got my running leg. It’s freakin’ awesome. And it’s also a little bit…I don’t know how to put it. Maybe ‘uncomfortable’ is the right word. Not physically uncomfortable, but psychologically so. Every other leg I’ve ever had has looked more or less like a normal leg. Even my swimming leg (which I did manage to use for a few laps down in Florida–and promptly ripped the big toe off of it. Maybe I do need to write a little bit about the trip after all) with its adjustable ankle is nevertheless leg shaped. This leg is not. When I’m wearing it it’s quite obvious I’m an amputee. And while I’m comfortable writing about it, and talking about it with my friends (and occasionally with strangers), I confess to a bit of awkwardness in living it.

It won’t stop me from getting up and doing some running with it, but it’s something I’ll have to work through to do it.

So now I have all my hardware, and I have an oversized wheeled gym bag that fits both legs quite nicely, so I’ll be able to carry them with me to whatever event I’ll be going to next. I’ve joked around a bit that I’m like a golfer with a bag of clubs, but I think the more accurate analogy is a bowler with a bag of balls that he uses for different lanes.

And the training’s about to start. A week from Monday I’ll start my swimming lessons, and I’m also signed up for a seven week training program with physical therapy students from a local college as part of their Orthotics and Prosthetics course, so we’ll be helping each other out. Apparently there will be other amputee athletes there as well, which is cool. I’ve never met any others, so this will be a first for me.

And what’s really interesting right now is how little I’m dreading this. Every time I’ve start a new project like this I have had a sense of dread. That’s not the case here. I’m actually looking forward to these events. I wish they would start sooner. Is this how most people feel?

I could get used to this.

Fixin’ to Get Ready

When I lived in North Carolina, I had a roommate who would use that phrase. Whenever we were going out, he’d ask me “you fixin’ to get ready?”

As a northerner, this use of the word ‘fix’ was new to me. It meant ‘prepare’ rather than ‘repair.’  Which, to my way of thinking, meant the question was rather silly. “You getting ready to get ready?” was redundant. You prepared, then you acted.

As a word guy, I always felt superior when I discovered redundancies. Did you enter your PIN number in the ATM machine? Then you’re impenetrably dense. Even well-established words weren’t out of my target range. One of my favorites was ‘overwhelm.’ To ‘whelm’ means to submerge completely. How can you be more submerged than completely submerged?

..and then, of course, I found out the hard way that it is, indeed possible to be overwhelmed. And I also found out that it’s possible to astonish. ‘Astonish’ is the antonym of overwhelm. Trust me. I’m a word guy.

And I was astonished to discover that it is important to be fixin’ to get ready.

That’s pretty much all I did, training-wise, for the better part of two years. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d never been one for personal awareness. What I thought I was doing was training. I thought I would get on my bike and ride for a while, then in August I’d ride my bike up a mountain, everyone would go “ooo!” and that would be it.

I don’t know if ‘arrogance’ and ‘ignorance’ are synonyms, but they should be.

Sometime in the early spring of 2009, I changed my goal of riding up Mt. Washington from 2009 to 2010. And then in 2010, I did it again, to 2011. It was more difficult than I had anticipated.

But I kept it up. Which surprised me a little. At one time, it would have surprised me a lot. In fact, it would have astonished me. But times change. I wasn’t just talking about this adventure in some abstract way. I was doing what I could to change myself. I rode my bike all spring, summer, and fall. And when winter came,  I bought a trainer, and rode my bike in the basement. 4 or 5 days a week, staring at the cat’s litter box, trying to disappear into my headphones.

Then spring came again, and I got the bike I wanted–the one with a low gear the size of a frisbee, and continued riding outdoors. I put 2,000 miles on that bike that summer. I thought I was training.

Then one day in February of 2011, out of the blue, I realized that if I was ever going to put Mt. Washington behind me, I would have to more than commit to climb it. I would need to actually climb it. You know–put myself on the bike, and put my bike on the mountain, and pedal ’til I reached the top. In other words, do what I said I was going to do.

So I went online to check to see when they would begin registering for the ride. Even though it’s incredibly steep, there are about a thousand or so people who want to ride their bikes up this mountain each year, but only 600 positions available. It’s not unusual for registration to close the day after it opens, so I wanted to make sure I knew when it would open. I was pretty sure it was some time in May.

Turns out the registration wasn’t in May. It opened at 9:00 the next day. And it would cost me $350 to register.

I was astonished. Not only at the freakish timing, but also that I had the $350 to spend. And I got scared. This was it. If I filled out the form and sent in the money, I would be honest-to-God committing to this event. I would literally be putting my money where my mouth was.

And I did it. The next morning I filled in the forms, transferred the money electronically, and giggled. Yes, giggled.

And it was then that I realized for the past two years, I wasn’t actually training for the ride. What I was doing was getting myself into good enough shape to really start training.

I was preparing to prepare.

The time for fixin’ to get ready had passed. It was time to really get ready.

I had to train. Oh, boy.

Sunday, May 10

Today’s ride: 1:04:42 Distance: 13.1 miles Average 84RPM

I rode the route for the upcoming bike race today. I wanted to see if I could actually do the ride before I signed up for it and spend money on the event. I made it through four laps–halfway. I might have made it all the way but for two things. I’ll get to those in a minute. The reason the RPM was so low was partially because of all the time I spent not pedaling because even at the highest gear, pedaling wouldn’t make me go faster than gravity was pulling me.

It was tough. I’m not going to lie. I made the first lap–3.3 miles–in 15:40. The route starts out on a rather winding incline that didn’t seem all that steep when I started, but it wasn’t long before I was in my lowest gear. I was still going 90RPM, but I was only going 6 miles an hour. My thighs weren’t very happy with me. The first third of the route is almost all uphill. The second third runs along the top of a ridge with a mixture of up and down. The third part starts by going down Railroad Mills road, which has a posted warning sign that says going over 25 mph is hazardous. I was going 35 for most of it. The route ends with another drop that rolls me right past where I started.

My second lap was 16:20. My thighs were openly discussing seceding from the rest of my body. My eyes were watering–any sort of wind in them causes that, so the mild breeze that was blowing made them water while I rode uphill, and the high speeds going down made them water even more. I was trying to time my laps, and to do that, I needed to take one hand off my handlebar, and push the ‘lap’ button on my GPS/trainer. Not a fun thing to do while moving along mostly blind at 30 miles an hour. I thought about stopping. I also thought about continuing. I figured I’d think about quitting while I took the next lap.

Third lap was 16:45. Halfway up the  Fishers Road hill, my lungs wanted to second my thighs motion for secession, but they didn’t have the wind to do it. At least I was keeping my pace at 90–or close to it–for most of the ride. I was starting to despair. These hills weren’t anything compared to Mount Washington. How the hell was I going to make it up that hill?

By making it up these hills, for a start. I kept going, even though my legs were hurting, my lungs felt like they were bleeding, my hands were numb, and worst of all, I couldn’t drink. One of the things I haven’t been able to master is drinking from my water bottle while I’m riding. I can’t do it while I’m riding on level ground, and I sure as hell couldn’t do it while either pumping do get up a hill, or holding on to go down. I’ve been told that I should have a drink of water every fifteen minutes. That would be approximately once a lap, but there really didn’t seem to be a place to do it.

And I was losing a lot of water. I was sweating pretty heavily. It was the sweat that did me in. At least partially. Over most of my body, the sweat would either be absorbed by the clothing surrounding it, or evaporate in the breeze. For the part that was inside my prosthesis, though–it’s a different story.

I wear a fairly high-tech leg. Actually, it’s not a leg, if you read the literature. What I’m wearing is the Otto Bock Harmony System. I could wait while you read the literature, or simply tell you that what it really is, in a nutshell, is an inverted plumber’s helper with a foot stuck on the handle. Not so high-tech when it gets ‘splained like that, but really, that’s what it is. The part that attaches to my leg (known as the ‘residual limb’) is the suction cup, only this one is made of a high-tech thermoplastic that was painstakingly molded to the exact shape of my limb. The cool, high-tech part is that there’s a pump built into the leg that sucks the air out every time I take a step. This keeps the vacuum seal going, so much so that it’s pretty much impossible to pull my prosthesis off. I could hang upside down by the thing, just from the suction.

Well, I could do it for a while.

The thing is, if I don’t step on the leg, after a while it loses suction. And even pumping along at 90RPM, there isn’t as much suction as there would be putting my weight on it. And then there’s the sweat. Next analogy: remember those suction-cup darts that we used to shoot from those guns? Remember how if you licked them, they stayed on the wall longer, but if they got too wet, they wouldn’t stick at all? Well, inside the thermoplastic, there’s no place for the sweat to go. Some of it seeps up and out the top of the prosthesis, but most of it just sloshes around in there, and eventually, I lose suction entirely.

I was just about there on the fourth lap. I had made it to the mostly downhill part, but I was certain I would not be able to climb a fifth time. I was certain that I would come completely out of the thing if I tried. The only thing I could do would be to stop, take off the leg, and drain it. It’s not something I wanted to do, but I really had no choice.

So I got to the bottom of the hill, pulled off to the side, and sat down on a bench. I took my leg off, drained the sweat out of it (quite a lot), and put it back on, then stood  up to get back on my bike.

My hamstring said: “No you don’t.”

My hamstring said: “We’re stopping now.”

My hamstring said: “You can go ahead and use any of those cutesy political similes you want, laughing boy, but we’re not going anywhere.”

Incredible. My hamstrings were fine for all four laps. Not a complaint from them, until we stopped. And they weren’t going to do anything. I hobbled around in pain for about five minutes, working them out enough to get my bike back into the car and me into the driver’s seat. There was no way I was going to be able to get back on the bike today. I wonder if I’ll be able to do it tomorrow.

So now, I’m in a bit of a conundrum. I’m certain that I would be able to ride all eight laps without stopping, but if I had to stop to adjust my leg (I would categorize that as highly probable), I wouldn’t be able to continue. Plus, I’m not at all certain that they would even let me finish the ride if it was going to take me upwards of two hours to complete. I’ll write the event director to find out.

Right now, I’ve got a lot more questions than I have answers.