1999 New Year's Swim: 99x 100

Why swim 99 times?

by John Nurre

Well of course the year has clicked over to '99, but that's just the number. The swim is bigger than that. The swim is a workout of truly once-a-year proportions. All through the year when people comment that swimmers are crazy to get up at 5 in the morning... that's nothing. This is crazy. Crazy like standing on a deck that's well below freezing because getting in risks swimming an extra few yards. Every single turn of the shoulder sockets has to count today. 99 swims. Only this and nothing more. 99 to go. Only this workout starts from a dive. In we go, five seconds apart. The swims are exhilarating at first, exciting. We're below our normal cruise, in some cases way below. There's a little discussion on how to structure the workout. The emphasis is on long-term survival. Four years ago we tried for speed and form and stroke work. We won't make that mistake again. Today is a long easy grind: nine moderate freestyle and the tenth of back, breast, and free to reset the shoulders. Easy so far. 10 down. It's amazing how fast monotony sets in. We have six people in the lane and we're resting about twenty seconds, but there's little talking. I remember counting three, four five, six. Now I'm working out the math so I can use the clock for the rest of workout. One minute thirty for one, so three minutes for two. Ten every fifteen minutes. We started right at 6:30. So counting should be easy. Only problem is that the minute hand is always about three minutes behind where I'm sure it should be. There goes number 17. My father was born in 1917. That's the first milestone of the ninety-nine. They're things to think about. It takes the mind off the next two hours. 20 down. The pace has slowed down slightly. We've found a good balance between resting on the wall and resting on the swims. At least I have. Paul's out like a bandit. Evan is close behind him. Then come Julia (I aimlessly wonder if she's wearing wild nail polish again, but keep forgetting to check), Alan and me and Al. I'm starting to settle into a pace that should get me through the whole thing. Paul is planning on swimming half of it and he's really showing it, coming off the walls like a torpedo. Normally I try to mimic him. But today I'm going for distance and he's going for speed. I'll let him go. There goes number 26. My mother was born in 1926. Another milestone passed. I'm feeling pretty good. I might do all right. Of course there's 71 to go. Now 70. Now 69. 30 down. We've swum about as far as a normal workout. I'm still feeling pretty fresh. I've had a couple of twinges here and there, but change my stroke a little bit and stretch out on the tenth of each set. Backstroke is good for that. 33 down: that's another milestone, one third. The sun is up and light bursts through the trees at the East end of the pool, flashing through the frosty green leaves. It's so nice to see the sun this time of year. It's still cold on deck, I know. Mike is being a real sport about this. True to Mo's tradition... standing on the deck and calling out "ready go" over and over. He'll yell ninety-nine times just for the lane leaders, and if you consider the people leaving five and ten and fifteen and twenty seconds back, he's doing a once-a-year yelling extravaganza. I hear his voice through mist that seems to be getting thicker. Thanks, Mike. Ready go.

40 down.

That's an hour gone. Julia's climbed out. My times have slowed down. Another second or two, but I'm still getting 12 or 15 seconds of rest. Just enough time to recharge the lungs, if I don't waste oxygen on talking. So much for the social sport. It's all thinking now. I'm glad I got up early and ate this morning. Soup and cottage cheese. I'm crazy to swim they say, and I'm crazy to eat that way, but it's an athlete's breakfast. Hot liquid, some protein, a little fat, and a little carbo. Something in my stomach to start the day. This is a bad workout to start on an empty stomach. Forty-five done. 1945 was the end of W.W.II. It seems like modern history now: color pictures of my parents, familiar presidents, "The Wizard of Oz." Of course I'm not all that young. This is Masters swimming, after all. Is this getting to me? Nine steady swims, and one with backstroke to reset the shoulders, then repeat. Here it comes, halfway done. 50 down.

Paul's gone and Evan has his slot at leading the lane. Alan is starting to drag a little. I'm feeling a little guilty as I've been right on his toes drafting for half the workout. He asks if I'd like to see some open water and I move up. I figure I can pull him for maybe twenty and then draft off him again if I start falling apart. The crowd is starting to thin out, but I rarely see anyone walking on deck. Of course it's still forty degrees Out there so no one would dawdle, and I'm spending 75 out of every 90 seconds with my head in the water watching a black line go by. There's Mike's voice again, "Ready go." Here come 59. I was born in 59. That seems like really modern history, the part of the century I've lived through. But I realize I'm just about forty now. We still have a long way to go. 60 down.

Evan's gone. I'm leading the lane. It's usually a great honor, but today the battle has been attrition and so it's not quite the same thing. We're in that part of the swim that really sets it apart from every other workout. We've been doing the same simple set for over an hour and a half: nine moderate, one with some backstroke to relax. It's like climbing an endless set of stairs, or driving down a perfectly straight road at night. It's not too hard, not too easy. The water's really comfortable. I'm making tiny adjustments to my stroke. The black line goes back and forth. I must be drunk on endorphins. I feel like I'm barely pushing. The sun is now fully up and glaring down the pool from over the far corner. With the sun on it, the mist seems twice as thick and the clock almost disappears. It's like swimming in a feather pillow, and the visual isolation from my friend the clock adds to the sensation. 70 down.

I'm pretty much ready to stop now, thank you. Al swam a set of I.M.s and left. Now it's Alan and me. It's odd, but my perception seems more acute. I am stuck by an image, looking up at countless water bottles standing on the deck in the lapping mist. The image frames the workout for me: the number of bottles showing the respect people had for this distance, the mist and the sun of a cold January morning, the bright colors of the bottle caps jumping out against the fog's slow movement behind them. Only time for a five second mental snap shot, of course. Nine steady swims and one easy one. I remember calling into the mist, "How many?" and hearing Mike's reply without hesitation, "seventy four." It's hard to see the minute hand to make my own calculations, and when I can see the clock it seems to be three or six minutes behind where I'm sure it should be. 80 down.

This is feeling close. Less than a workout's yardage to go. Alan looks healthier than when he offered me the lead, but he's not ready to lead again. I'm feeling pretty good with the end in sight, and my times are actually dropping a bit as I look forward to the end. 83 down. In 1983 I graduated and got my first real job, and a real life and real furniture and started swimming Masters. But I'm too tired to concentrate on those details. Swimming takes slow steady thinking right now. I've been leading for 45 minutes and although I could count the laps on a single hand I'm surprised I haven't miscounted yet. I'm feeling good, but I'm feeling out of it. Nine steady and one to relax. 90 down.

I could be thinking of history, but this is the part of the workout where I take the luxury of counting down. I can't think "forty-five to go" after 54, but now it's time to count in negative numbers. The pool is still half full, and there are lanes that don't seem to have emptied out at all. Those guys are having way too much fun. Julie has moved up into our lane to finish the workout (iron woman). I'm past smelling for doughnuts as we often do in mid-workout. I'm looking forward to a big lunch and a lazy afternoon, maybe a nap... or two. And still Mike's voice calls out. Three to go. Two to go. Last one. Good push-offs on the turns: it helps the stoke count and there's still no reason to turn the shoulder sockets any more than needed. The hands go through their well-practiced routine. One more turn, one last length. The final touch, and a bizarre peacefulness. There are voices whooping from across the pool. A swimmer's New Year.

99 down.