Counting strokes

“What am I doing here?” That’s thought one. It’s 58 degrees on Sunday afternoon, and I’m swimming alone in Lake Austin. Nobody else is on the water. No kayakers. No wakeboarders. No other stupid swimmers.


“How long before I go hypothermic?” That’s thought two. Sure, I’m wearing a wet suit, but it’s leaking, and the water, which comes from the bottom of Lake Travis just upstream, is so cold it gives me an instant headache. I’m pretty sure my feet are numb, too.  

“That’s it. I’m swimming back, putting on a parka, and turning the heat on full blast in the car.” That’s thought three.

To keep going, I count strokes, using them as miniature goals. I see if I can get to 10, and when I do, I do 10 more. My stop watch marks another milestone I set; if I’m shaking after seven minutes, I’m returning to land.

Five minutes in, my body does warm up. My mind drifts, and I’m thinking about sighting, scanning the rocks below for fish, and wondering what lurks beneath in the green water. Alligators? Cotton mouths? Dead bodies?

I go back to counting. I’d rather not think about what’s in the water.

I turn around around a third of mile from where I started. I’m still counting strokes, pulling my head just above the water every fifteenth one to look for boats and land. My breathing grows deeper, and I settle into the swim. I feel stronger and stronger as the dock comes into view, and my workout comes to an end.

When I stand up in the knee-deep water, my balance is off, and I stumble like a drunk out of the lake. I’m not as warm as I thought I was. My hands are compressed and shaking, and I’m having difficulty tying my shoe laces.

But I feel really good. Electric. Focused. Unstoppable.

And that’s the payoff for the pain. That transient buzz of power and immunity at the finish. It’s the real reason I’m out here—not to train for a triathlon, not to get fit, but for that high.  

Now if I could just tie those dumb laces.


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