Friday Night Racing

The pool temperature had been out of control for four weeks, only dropping below 30°C (86° F.). for four days out of thirty. It was difficult being constantly frustrated by excuses which had already long run their course, the problem having intermittently recurred since the pool fire six months ago. (Remember the pool fire?)

Casuals swimmers whine when the temp is below 29°C., like they are going to die of hypothermic shock. Real swimmers think 29° C. is at best a compromise.

I’d reduced my daily swim total by at least 25%, as it was difficult to swim more than three kilometres even slowly in the heat, and some days, like when the temperature reached 31.5°C. (88.7° F.), I didn’t even get in the water. Multiple days rest were taken, to the extent that rest became the norm. Any possibility of training for my fifth Champion of Champions swim was devastated. It was all I could do to show up occasionally, and then trudge through the treacle-ish water, feeling annoyed and incapable, my stroke suffering, my resolve destroyed. I can take quite a bit in the water, but nothing stops a swimmer like a pool that is always too hot. Except maybe not being open to being with.

I can now only swim at night, because early morning swimming is not something widely available in Ireland outside a few cities. The times I can  have changed over the years with various circumstances, sometimes early, lunchtime for years, early evening for more years, and now I am only able to swim at night during the only public session available, from 7:50pm after the Aqua Ladies finish, to 9:15pm, when the pool closes. Small town swimmer.

Over a long period, swimming at night is the most difficult thing. You can’t eat until later after swimming so you are hungry more than usual, (or you can eat before and the swimming become even more difficult), you are tired after the day and can’t push yourself. If you try sprinting, your elevated heart rate interferes with being able to fall sleep. In overheated water whatever speed I do have suffers, and neither can I concentrate on technique. Whatever I was doing piled up as garbage miles, the swimming version of not doing-very-much-of-value.

Some nights, after missing a previous night’s session I may be able to return with a bit more energy, and sometimes I could fight the overheated water a bit better. I’d start well, try to swim some proper intervals, but more often than not, the over-heated pool wore me down. Day followed day, and we were into a new record-breaking run of excessive water temperatures. It wore me down physically and mentally.
I swim. It’s a thing I do, nearly always. I don’t have to, indeed I’m not, great or fast, but I do have to be consistent. I do it because like all swimmers, it’s part of who I am, and today’s reason is tomorrow’s story, and next month’s hope and next year’s dreams.

And all of this over-heating happened in the constant and context of an ever-changing timetable, which looks predictable, but in reality is subject to daily change, without notification, and has been for eight years.

In fact, the biggest challenge in swimming for me has always been navigating and trying to swim consistently in a small town pool where hardly a person involved knows nor cares about timetable consistency, or professional pool management.


Usually on Fridays, immediately after the local age group club finished, I can start swimming 50 minutes earlier that the other weekday evenings, a small improvement. That is reflected in having a little more energy for the Friday session.The second Friday evening of the period, two weeks into the overheating spell, I waited on deck and watched the age groups leave. Their unwitting “coach” had pushed the kids so that they were all either pink or white with the exertion of having trained in an over-heated pool, the kids not having the confidence or experience to realise their coach was wrong. Coaches are always right after all, even when they are not, apparently. I guess it comes from being unquestionable because no-one you are in contact with has any idea.

I was going to swim the usual, three k minimum maybe make it to four k if the extra energy and earlier start allowed, mostly long sets of 600 or 800, since shorter sets were too hard in the heat. I settled into the warm-up 800, then went into repeat 600s, only focusing on my technique.

In the first 600 of the main set, alone in the single lane, I noticed someone on the other side of the lane divider looking like they were sprinting against me for a length. This happens a lot, young guys in their twenties want to race the “swimming guy”.

They are the football players, the triathletes, the GAA and rugby players. Often talking about how hard they are training, sometimes as much as four times a week! I smile to myself. In an ideal world I’d put them up against any twelve- to sixteen-year-old age-group girl swimmers, the fittest and most combative and competitive amateur athletes I’ve ever seen, who will eat the lunch of any football player, and then sweetly swap school gossip with their lane mates.

I never see the football players as they push off the wall and I usually don’t notice until half of a length is gone, inertia alone having allowed them to travel so far, and the lack of air not yet having caught up with their brains and arms.

They usually finish by standing up gasping two-thirds of the length along, or, with a phenomenal amount of flailing and splashing, reaching the wall half an arm-length in front of behind me, (as I don’t change pace to suit their game) and stand, victorious. They are content that they have proven they can swim as fast as me. None ever turn and swim back a second length. Just to be sure.

A swimming analogue pace clock, with the single hand almost pointing to 60 at the top.

“Go on the red top”

This time was different, in that the other swimmer was female. And she could swim.

I’m not a sprinter. I hate 100s, let alone 50 or 25 or 20. When I am swimming well, I forget to stop. Two hundreds as often as not become four hundreds, simply because I accidentally swim a couple of extra lengths and decide to keep going. I’ve accidentally swam mile sets that started out as 200s.

But hey, it’s good to let someone force you to up your rate. That’s how we get faster. We race. No quarter given. So I went up a notch. I touched the wall a hand-length or so before her, flipped and continued at the slightly higher rate for a couple of lengths before I saw she’d pulled up.

Shortly after, I settled back into another 600, only to find she appeared again soon, heading the opposite direction, stroking rapidly beside me. Another half-length, I flipped and thought I’d lost her. My flip is not a race flip. There’s no arc of legs, no big splash, no hard push off the wall, no dolphin kick. Instead I twist-turn off the wall, come out turning, glide out. It’s a flip honed in hundreds of thousands of repetitions, done to save my shoulders and minimise effort. It’s easy, and thanks to practice, fast, maybe the fastest thing I do. I wish my stroke, which I’ve practised more, was as efficient.

I came of the wall and wondered if I’d left her. I grabbed the merest peek back on my breath. Only to find that she was beside me. Wow, she’d come out of that turn fast. Shallow, or I’d have seen her, but still so fast.

We swam the length. I touched a hand in front again.

It happened three, maybe four more times more, always the same. I’d swim two to four hundred, then she’d race two lengths. Except now I’d check if she was lining up for the push off the wall. The heat was murder. High heart rate, blood pounding in my head.

I pulled up, laughing, because racing is the most fun, and introduced myself. Her name was Muireann. She was quiet, didn’t say much, but obviously also enjoying herself. I asked if next time she’d split the lane with me, she could take the faster lane-divider side, I’d take the wall.

I swam only a few lengths before she entered. I think she felt pressured to cut her rest interval short.
Go on the Red Top?“, I asked, looking at the pace clock on the far end, she nodded.
My right arm stretched out in front, the hand ticked forward, we pushed off.
She stayed with me the first length, but on the second she was wasn’t there as she’d been previously and I easily finished in front.
Maybe she wasn’t used to sharing the lane. Maybe the short rest got her. Maybe she’d sprinted too much and the lactic acid built up. Maybe it’s because I may not be that fast, but I’m a distance swimmer and hold consistency a long time.

More likely though it’s because Muireann is ten, maybe eleven years old. I think next year she’ll be in that twelve to sixteen age group. She’ll start racing me for more than two lengths.

Then I’m in real trouble.
I wonder if she’ll be there with her dad again some other Friday night? If she is, I’ll give her no quarter then, and I know she will give me no quarter.

I talked with her dad afterwards, explained about the over-heated pool problem for the club kids and actual swimmers like her and me, rather than the casual pool users, and how the parents should understand the difficulty and well, that swimmers shouldn’t have to endure that, especially kids. And said it wouldn’t be long before she was faster than me.

He is an ex-football player.

He has no idea.


7 thoughts on “Friday Night Racing

  1. Great post. Reminds me of my granddaughter – also 12 and already twice as fast as me, even doing butterfly. Two mornings a week she’s in the pool at 5 am until 7 am. Two other days after school and on Saturday. She was well pleased when someone commented on her “swimmer’s shoulders” – long may it last!


  2. Only taking about that very thing this morning. I love the Muireanns; they put manners on us all. I love the aqua ladies in their pool socks too, though perhaps not quite as much…
    +1 on the triathletes… they left their brains behind in the bike shop


  3. Great post. Get passed by Muireanns often…

    Had this same temp issue here at the embassy, and nothing changed until I sent the management an article by the pool chemical people on why the pool needs to be btwn certain temperatures. When they read about algae and bacterial growth, they immediately set the temp range down and put a lock on the thermometer box. Now the pool is a wonderfully cool temperature.

    I betcha if that football dad and other parents start to complain to the management about the health issues, you might get the change you’re looking for.


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