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Open Water Swimming "Mentality" and DNFs

A few years ago, I invested so much of my time into training for a jam-packed racing season. I was swimming 3-4 hours each day after work, running at lunch time, and lifting with a friend before work. By some miracle, I didn't get sick through the winter or spring, so I had 6 months of this intense training, plus even more on weekends. I was so committed and dedicated to racing that my mindset was all about being in the top of the finisher list. I tied my success in each swim to my ranking against the other competitors.

I had two incredibly impactful swim events: SCAR and Swim With A Mission. At SCAR, I did not finish the 3rd leg of the multi-day stage race because of extreme weather (only 4 out of 40 swimmers finished that year) and I took my DNF personally. In my mind, I had tied my 25-30 hours per week of training directly to finishing and placing at my events, so the Apache DNF correlated to not having trained enough, and not being good enough to compete.

Similarly, the following year, I fundraised to compete in the 10k in New Hampshire's Swim With a Mission event, and received approval from the race director to attempt to double the course. The course was an out and back on a straight buoy line, so the plan was to finish the first 10k, grab my personal kayaker and depart for the second 10k escorted on the course, but without any other participants. An anonymous donor contributed $500 during my fundraising push specifically to me because I had advertised that I was doing a 20k during the 10k event, so I was really motivated to complete that promise.

As my kayaker and I were heading out for the second 10k, we saw that the safety boats were pulling the buoys as the final 10k swimmer lapped them, effectively moving the course that I was actively attempting to double. I hadn't set up my watch to track the mileage, given the fixed buoy course, so I had no idea where to swim to and when to turn around. Another safety boat had come up to us and was very confused about what we were doing back in the water, and apparently, no one had been told there was going to be a swimmer attempting a double. The boaters were uncomfortable allowing us to stay on the course they were attempting to sweep and clean up, so I was asked to stop my 10k attempt and return to shore immediately.

After starting my return to shore, I felt really awkward passing 5k and 10k participants that were still on the course, the last of the event swimmers. I found out that I had placed first in the 10k, with only 1 relay team outpacing me by 5 minutes. As I was taking photos with the other event winners, someone came up to me and said "You only got first place because the competition didn't show up this year." That was a major reality check for me.

With these two events, I felt helpless; I felt that even if I won an event, it was because the faster swimmers hadn't raced in those same events. If I didn't finish, it was because I couldn't control the environment and that I didn't train hard enough.

I regret experiencing these fantastic events with this mindset. When telling one of my friends about my experience with the DNF at SCAR, she reminded me that I was so lucky to have been chosen to swim at SCAR that year, to have had the vacation time and finances to attend the event, and that I had finished 3 out of the 4 event days. I just couldn't see past the DNF.

Over time, I've come to view open water swimming as "doing your own thing" - some people do cold immersion, so they don't measure their accomplishments in distance, but in degrees and duration. Other swimmers don't have the time or pool access to be able to train the way I did. Open water swimming, even if in an event with many competitors, isn't necessarily a race for the fastest times. It's whatever you set your goal to be.

I met a swimmer who had a goal of simply getting to the halfway mark in a 5k. "Anything past halfway would be the cherry on top!" she told me. She wanted to see how far past 2.5k she could accomplish, but she was totally accepting that she might not be able to complete the swim. I know another swimmer who can swim for hours and hours, but swims at a much slower pace. He prefers to go out on swims where he's able to enjoy the experience of long-duration swimming, knowing he's going to be the slowest of any pack he swims with.

I'm working on adapting the "make your own adventure" mindset to my own adventures. Due to burn out from training, moving across the country, and establishing new routines, I haven't done a lot of swimming. I'm working on finding a good answer when people ask me, "What are you training for?" There are days (currently, months) when I'm not able to actively swim due to injuries or illness, and I'm learning how to not beat myself up about not training to the same standards as I had done during my competitive years. I'm learning how to enjoy each swim for the swimming experience, rather than checking off a swim on a training checklist or to hit a cumulative yardage goal. I believe that encouraging the "it's your own swim adventure" mentality helps the inclusiveness of open water swimming as a whole, as it invites a wider variety of training buddies and explorers that I get to have different experiences with.

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