I love that dirty water

Until this year, I didn’t realize how strongly I felt about NOT swimming in the Charles River. I knew it had been horribly polluted in the past and I knew (thanks to a friendly duck boat driver!) that in recent years it has gotten much cleaner. A certain kind of duck is back, meaning a certain kind of fish is back, meaning pollution levels are not where they used to be. Great! But still, it’s hard not to think of the Charles as kind of gross – it runs through a major city and has large, multi-laned roads on either side, but, maybe most importantly, the Standells’ “Dirty Water” is played frequently and sung along to enthusiastically throughout the bars, stadiums, and streets of the city. Since I first moved to the Boston area in 2004, I’ve been singing about that dirty water, meaning I’ve had 13 years of internalizing the fact that our river may be beloved, but it is best loved from a distance.

But then I found out about the annual Charles River One Mile Swim and quickly signed up. What better way to get over my lingering river issues?

The race is in its 9th year and is run by the Charles River Swimming Club, in cooperation with the Charles River Conservancy and the DCR. It starts by the Hatch Shell on the esplanade and the course is a clockwise diamond between the Harvard (Mass Ave) and Longfellow Bridges.

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On the morning of the swim my Support Crew (aka parents and bf) and I parked over by Boston Common and it was a short, easy walk to the start. Check in was quick and I had a lot of time to stand in the sun, catch up with friends, and go through varying stages of panic at my preparedness. You know, the usual.

At a few minutes to 8:00am I joined the first of two waves and walked down to the start dock.

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Please note the Fin to the right

 

We all jumped in and treaded water until someone shouted “Go!” and then we were off! Being a mass water start, it was a little chaotic for a few minutes, but I did my best not to kick or be kicked in the face and having succeeded at that, I’d call it a success.

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The first leg had us swimming towards the Mass Ave Bridge, and one of the coolest things was looking up to breathe and seeing the Prudential Center get closer and closer. I spent some time contemplating the general murkiness (the verdict: no worse than other bodies of water I’ve been in) and singing to myself (Selena Gomez’s It Ain’t Me, for the win). It stayed fairly crowded for the first leg, but after the first turn, things opened up a bit and it was smooth swimming to the next buoy. The third stretch was hard in that we were swimming right into the sun and it took me awhile to find the buoy. I was also a touch distracted by someone who inexplicably insisted on swimming right on top of me, even though by that point everyone was pretty spread out. Necessary to touch my foot every stroke? Not so much. As a result, I overshot the buoy a little bit, but managed to get myself back on track fairly quickly when I realized.

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The final stretch was the hardest for me. I found the water a little choppier in that stretch – just enough so that it was hard to fall into a natural rhythm. But by that point the dock was in sight, so I just kept on and tried not to swallow too much water. The dock had a giant sensor on the end, so I just had to hit it with the hand that had my timing chip and I was done! I climbed up the ladder back onto the dock and was engulfed by my family and friends. There was coffee and food available after as well as, most importantly, “I swam the Charles” stickers, which you can bet I will display proudly.

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In the end, I finished in 33:20, about a 1:55 pace – a bit slower than I wanted, but not far off and solidly middle of the pack – certainly not bad for the first open water swim of the season. I would absolutely swim this again. The water was cooler than most years (around 65) but I was fine without a wetsuit and the event was so well run – friendly volunteers, plenty of pre-race information, lots of safety provisions (water quality checks in the days leading up to the race, lifeguard, kayak and boat support on the day of, an organized post-race check in process and optional Mylar blankets), and excellent support from start to finish.

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Around this time last year I was on a SwimTrek vacation, and while I can’t say that the Charles River necessarily compares to the fjords of Montenegro (what does?), there’s something about open water swimming that I find so relaxing. The water is my happy place, and I am thrilled to have found that same vacation feeling so close to home and in such an unexpected place. Having been submerged and spent 30+ minutes in it, I can confirm, without question, that I truly love that dirty water, and am happy to call Boston my home.

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Swimming Saves Lives

I have always been a water person. Growing up an oblivious/imaginative kid in Rhode Island in the era of the Little Mermaid, my mom quickly realized that I needed to know how to keep myself afloat. I was never scared of the water, which in turn scared her immensely. According to her, the chances of me wandering in too deep without realizing were about equal to me waking up on any given morning, truly believing that I was a mermaid, and jumping in above my head without a second thought.

I was extremely lucky in that: 1. Neither of those things happened, and 2. That I had access, early and often, to lessons that took my love of the water and fashioned it into a working knowledge of water safety, a decent stroke, and a lifelong relationship with pools, ponds, lakes, oceans, and, most recently, fjords.

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Magnificent Montenegro

 

As I said, I know I was lucky. So many children, for so many reasons, don’t learn to swim and as a result, “according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than a third [of] adults in the United States can’t swim the length of a pool, which puts them at risk of being one of the 10 people who drown every day in the United States.” Those are some scary statistics.

I learned about The Swimming Saves Lives Foundation when I joined Masters swimming, and I was interested to learn that April is Adult Learn to Swim Month. Adults can sign up for free lessons with volunteer instructors and cover everything from the absolute basics of getting in the water to stroke improvement. I signed up to teach, read over the instructors’ guide, and last week I showed up at the pool for my first lesson.

I can’t say enough good things about the program. There were enough instructors that each lesson was one-on-one and I was paired with D. D was there with her sister and the two of them were a blast. We started laughing within the first few minutes and didn’t stop until they got out of the water. D let me know that there was no specific reason she hadn’t learned to swim; she just never had and as a result she wasn’t scared of the water exactly, but she was hesitant around it. Still, she jumped right in and an hour and a half later, D was swimming almost the entire length of the pool. While she hadn’t quite figured out the timing for breathing, she was well on her way.

I’ve taught swimming before, but always to children. I wasn’t sure what to expect with teaching an adult but what I loved was that it was more like a collaboration than a straight lesson. D and I spent the time throwing ideas back and forth, looking for different ways to explain things to each other, and keeping warm by bouncing around acting like total fools (and possibly singing…). Obviously, that approach wouldn’t work for everyone, but that’s what was so great about the one-on-one format; we were able to settle in to a dynamic that worked for us. My biggest concern was taking cues from D at the beginning to get a sense of how she would be most comfortable, and then we ran with it. In terms of the progress D made, I may have brought the experience, but she took everything I told her and put it all together and I couldn’t be happier with how it went.

I’m teaching two more evenings this month and I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts to share, about the program in general and the specific things that worked (or didn’t). One thing I can already say with certainty is that I would encourage anyone who’s thinking about learning to swim, or who would like to improve their stroke (whether for racing or recreation) to look into Swimming Saves Lives/Adult Learn to Swim programs near them. The benefits are innumerable, and the process itself is a blast.