What I talk about when I talk about swimming…

Before there was Murakami, there was Carver – Raymond Carver that is. I can totally see how Murakami was heavily influenced by him. If you’ve ever read Murakami Haruki’s “What I talk about when I talk about running”, you’ll know that he borrowed that title from Raymond Carver’s collection of short stories called “What we talk about when we talk about love”. My favourite short story in the collection is “The Bath” which also appears in Murakami’s short story collection “Birthday Stories”. Bath…pool…water…swimming. Everything is connected. So you know that I love food and eating, and to look at me I am no athlete by any definition, but all this eating can take a toll on one’s physique. I try to maintain this balance by swimming. Funnily enough, all that swimming makes me wanna do, is eat more.

Lately, I’ve been swimming…a lot…sort of…trying to?… My summer goal for this year is to get back into some ocean swimming races. I used to do it (ir)regularly back in Sydney in my uni days. I had a couple that I liked to compete in, in particular the Bondi Cole Classic (from North Bondi to South Bondi beach and back – I believe this has now been moved to Steyne/Manly Beach) and also the Sydney Harbour swim. The Sydney Harbour Swim is the only sanctioned swim that allows participants to swim from the Sydney Opera House to Fort Denison and back right in Sydney Harbour. It’s pretty iconic. Ocean swimming as you guessed it, takes place in the ocean. It’s probably more accurate to describe it as Open Water swimming (that is, not a pool) – these Open Water swims are usually in oceans, harbours or even lakes. They involve swimming long distances usually between 1 to 5km. I have been swimming since the age of 5. I practically learnt to swim before I could even speak English (English being the second language I learnt).

As I kid in swim school from the age of 5 – I used to dread going to swimming lessons after school at Guildford Pool. Butterflies would literally swim in my stomach. I liked the pools, and I liked water but I hated swimming lessons! The teachers were old and really strict back in the 80s. As I grew older, I learnt to love swimming. It was something I had grown up with, and it was something that I didn’t totally suck at. As is typical in most Australian schools – swimming lessons at some point are compulsory. I remember compulsory swim lessons in Yr 5 and Yr 6, and when I got to high school – our school had its own pool, so again swimming was a part of the curriculum. In the junior years of high school I also kept up swim squad training, clocking up several km’s a week and then Saturday morning competition. The problem with all this swim training was that I was always ravenous as a teenager. I had an insatiable appetite (I still do). Swimming really stimulates the appetite. I wasn’t really that good a swimmer competition wise. I’m not really a fast swimmer – more an endurance swimmer. I am cursed with slow twitch fibres which means I will never be good at sprint sports or speed. Endurance is more my thing.

As I got older – Yr 10 onwards, I gave up all competitive sports (swimming and netball). It was the time to focus on studies, School Certificate and HSC etc, and also time to get a part time job after school and on the weekend – leaving little time for sports. That said, though, I still enjoyed swimming for leisure and would often swim on my own on a regular basis. I refused to give up swimming altogether. Later in uni, I got my AustSwim and Bronze Medallion qualifications etc, and become a pool lifeguard and qualified learn to swim instructor. I worked at various pools in the my local district. Every now and then I would compete in an ocean swim, or a team triathlon with my friends in which I naturally do the swim leg. Swimming is one the things I love I do and always try to make time for. When going on a holiday I will religiously pack my swimmers and goggles – just in case.

When I moved to Japan, one of the first things I did was suss out all my pool options. In Sapporo, as a uni exchange student it was the Konami Gym centre, in Namie it was Refure pool, in Hirafu it was the Alpen Hotel. I was even teaching swim classes during my summer in Hirafu. Pools are my little wells of life. Now in Tokyo, it is the local fitness chain centre I have joined. I love swimming. And the body loves swimming. It’s so good for you. It’s good for your breathing, it’s an all-body workout – your legs are moving, arms are moving, head and neck are moving. It’s a good aerobic exercise and whilst it’s not the best for strength (better off with weight training), it’s a decent resistance work out with your muscles working against the water it can be quite a body toner. And it’s no/low impact and stress on the body. I’ve never known anyone to have suffered from a swimming injury (unless of course you don’t know how to swim, in which case results in drowning). The water is cool, fresh and invigorating. Swimming is a great stress reliever too (although occasionally I am prone to pool rage – more on that later), and helps regulate your respiratory system. It’s also therapeutic and one of the best exercises you can do for physical rehab.

I used to be a volunteer swim teacher at the Children’s hospital in Sydney for the NSW Asthma Foundation. Swimming was deemed to be good therapy for kids with asthma. On Saturday mornings, at the kids hospital – asthmatic kids could receive breathing and swimming lessons from volunteers as part of their asthma management. Also good for knocking over a hangover too, although you don’t want to be too hungover. When I injured my arm snowboarding, I was off the ski slopes for a good few weeks. The pool was my saviour.

With swimming there’s options – you can freestyle, butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, sidestroke, or just walk in the pool. With jogging – you can either run or walk only. Furthermore, swimming can be enjoyed all year round because it can either be outdoors or indoors. As far as most sports go, it’s also a pretty cheap one to take up. A pair of togs, goggles, a cap (all of which won’t break the bank) and the couple of bucks for pool entry. Now sports like skiing, snowboarding etc require expensive gear and safety equipment. Every pool I’ve ever joined also offers membership or bulk coupons which give you a little bit of a discount or saving. Pool entry is what people would spend a cup of coffee on each day. It’s affordable. I think that those who do not have private health insurance should at least get a yearly gym membership. Both are investments in your health, especially in the day and age of rising obesity and health-related problems. If you can afford both, even better (luckily I do!). Why plan for the day when you suffer from cardiovascular disease when you could prevent it altogether with daily exercise.

Now, just a quick word on pool rage. This is the part where I vent a little. The “pool” experience in Japan can be somewhat frustrating at first. I have (reluctantly) learnt to deal with it. Here are some things that really get up my nostrils (thereby “irritate” me) about swimming and pools in Japan:

– no jewellery or accessories are allowed in the pool. This means no rings, earrings, necklaces or watches. You will be chased down by the pool attendant and be forced to remove them. If you can’t remove them, they make you tape it up. Believe me, I have seen Japanese men with wedding bands that can’t be removed from their finger so they have to cover it with tape. The tape is provided at the pool too. Occasionally when I have forgotten to remove my earrings, I’ve had to tape them up. How could they even see my earlobes when I’m swimming up and down the pool?? I’m actually pretty sure that one of the obasans that were slowing me down, dobbed me in. (Do people say “dobbed in” these days??? Wasn’t sure what to use in the alternative. Any suggestions?)

– the wearing of swimming caps is compulsory, but the crazy thing is, is that they don’t make waterproof caps in Japan (well I think they do, but they’re really hard to find). Swim caps in Japan are not made from latex or rubber or whatever is. They’re made of a nylon fabric. The whole point of the cap in Japan is to prevent hair getting in the pool, rather than to prevent your hair getting wet.

– everyone must swim in the “right” direction. Up the pool on your right, and down the pool on your left. I once went to this insane pool where you had to swim up in one lane, duck the rope and go down in the next lane. So one lane was for one direction, and the other lane for the other direction. Yeah, sure this meant that two swimmers could go side by side (swim abreast) in the one lane, but having to switch lanes to return in the opposite direction is crazy!!! That doesn’t make for very productive lap swimming when you have to stop at every end, and duck the lane to go back.

– showering/rinsing is mandatory prior to entering the pool. Valid for hygiene reasons (although I maintain chlorine is gonna kill any germs that are in pool). This isn’t something that is compulsory in Australia.Pools in Japan, have a shower walkway/doorway that you have to walk through in order to enter the pool. This means that towels cannot be brought into the pool area. because they’re ultimately gonna get wet when you go through that walkway. Leave them in your locker or shower room.

– overtaking of another swimmer is not allowed. At various pools, if I’ve ever overtaken a slow swimmer, I have always been chased down by the pool attendant. This countlessly means that I am stopped by slow swimmers. I am forced to walk or stop swimming. The majority of pools however usually have a slow and a fast lane, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s one lane fits all. This is even more frustrating because you’ll get backstrokers in amongst the freestylers! The pool I go to has only three lanes. One lane is a walking only lane. The Japanese love just walking up and down the pool. So much so that there is a lane dedicated to that. The other two lanes are swimming lanes, but if there happens to be an aqua class, all lanes swimmers are then lumped into one lane. And if you can’t overtake a slow swimmer, this is very painful, not to mention a disruption to my laps.

– Another thing I have noticed about a few pools in Japan (not all though) is that they are poorly designed with the locker/change rooms and the pool on separate floor levels. I’ve been to a few pools in Japan which involve a flight of stairs. I think that this is one of the most dangerous designs for a pool. Wet, slippery stairs. I mean really!!! It’s a real hazard for people to going up and down stairs that are wet and slippery. There should be a minimum amount of distance between a pool and the change room. The less distance, the less chance of injury. I mentioned earlier that swimming is one of the safest exercise you can do. This is the exception. I reckon more pool accidents happen outside the pool than in the pool (i.e. by running or walking on slippery surfaces).

Phew. What a vent. In fact, I think I need a swim in order to relieve some of that stress. And thus that nasty vicious cycle begins. I go swimming to relieve stress, only to get stressed at the pools, and then needing to swim to relieve that stress…. Ah, yes – there is so much to say about swimming (despite the above vent).

I love water. Drinking it, bathing in it, showering in it, floating in it, washing with it, swimming in it. Water is vital to my life. I’m an Earth sign (being a Taurus) and the earth needs water to survive. Water is the earth’s nourishment. I think that is where my attraction to water stems from. The innate astrological desire to be near water. I love going to the beach and some of my favourite destinations in the world or places that I have lived are either port/harbour cities, or are along the coast (eg Hamburg, Sydney, Namie, Yokohama, I’ve lived in island countries – Australia and Japan). My favourite animals are also water creatures, my favourite animal being a penguin. (I also like fish, and dolphins). Water is so freeing, cleansing, purifying. Swimming too is all of this – for the mind and body. Metaphorically, I am an island (the earth) with the need to be surrounded by water. Ocean swimming is also a lot more challenging than pool swimming. You can’t fear depth. (Pools in Japan are also really shallow – they are usually at a depth that can be walked i.e feet touch the ground, the whole length). The thing about ocean swimming is that it’s a lot more unpredictable than swimming in a pool, for obvious reasons. The main factors are current/tide, absence of swim lanes, a lot more backwash, and colder water temps.

My local pool in Tokyo is an indoor heated pool with a water temp of 31 degrees which is way too warm for my liking. It’s almost like a tepid bath. Ocean water is usually about 19 degrees. Swimming in cold water is a bit of a shock to the system and your body struggles that little bit more to move. The body’s muscles are lot more flexible when warm. Cold water temperatures are going to work against you. The current or tide too can either work for you or against you. I’ve been in some swims where the current is so strong, that no matter how hard or fast your arms and legs are going, you’re not moving anywhere, the current keeps pushing you back. This wears you out and slows you down. For example, I’ve swum a 1.6km swim in a harbour. My time for that swim was in the 40minutes. A pretty slow time for me, considering that in a pool in 40 minutes, I would have been able to rack up 2km. In the open water, there are no swim lanes, and your sense of direction is warped. It’s really hard to see where you are going and where you are headed, with only a bouy or two off in the distance over the waves. You could be swimming off an angle which adds metres to your actual distance swum, and then you struggle to get back on course. There’s no black line on the bottom of the ocean floor to direct you. Also there’s no pool walls to push and kick off from every 25 metres. In an ocean swim race, you’ve also got a lot of people which means that people are kind of swimming over the top off each other and it can get a little rough with arms and legs flying about, getting kicked, or elbowed. I’ve had my goggles kicked off my face before. A beach start, particularly at an Aussie beach, can also be quite tiring. You have to run from the sand into the beach and into oncoming waves. It can take a couple of minutes before you even get out pass all the waves to start stroke swimming. Ducking and jumping the waves is all part of an ocean swim.

Something else about ocean swimming which differs from a pool, is the water. Chlorine vs salt water. Salt water makes you that little bit more bouyant which is why sometimes you can actually swim a bit faster than you would in a pool. The downside, is that you surprisingly end up swallowing a lot of that salt water – what with all that splashing, and kicking from the other 100 people around you, you’re bound to get some of that in your mouth. By the end of the race, you’re pretty dehydrated. It’s not like jogging or walking, where you can have a bottle of water on you. Salty/sandy water can also give you a rash. I had never thought that you could get a rash from swimming. Learnt this the hard way in my very first ocean swim race. This is why Vaseline comes in handy. Apply to armpits, neck, and inner thighs before the race. There’s also a lot of marine life that you might encounter during an ocean swim. I’ve been in a few swims (in Oz) where you see lots of jellyfish. In my experience, they’re pretty harmless. You just swim right over the top of ‘em. In Oz too, there’s also the very real threat of sharks and bluebottles. I was stung once by a bluebottle as a kid. I was just entering the beach and had gotten knee-deep when one wrapped itself around my knee and stung me. I couldn’t walk for a week. I suffer really bad reactions from stings. (I am also allergic to bee stings). Not everyone will suffer the same reaction. Oh, the joys of ocean swimming. It can be kinda scary sometimes swimming out in that vast unknown liquid vacuum of an ocean. Yes, ocean swimming is a challenge – mentally and physically. I like ocean swim races because there’s a start, an end, a whole lot of time to think about things in between. It’s kind of funny and interesting how many random thoughts and ideas go through your head when you swim (whether in an ocean or pool). If you had a random group of test subjects who were told to swim continuously for 30 minutes and their brain was hooked to a machine that could read thoughts, I bet there’d be numerous random thoughts floating around. Swimming, interestingly enough, is also one of those activities that you have to do alone. Sure, you can go along to the pool with a friend, but the act of swimming is a solo one. You can’t swim with someone and chat to them as you would if you walking or jogging with a friend. You can’t really even listen to music. You swim with yourself, and against yourself. It is best enjoyed alone. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s one of the things I like swimming. Being in a little bubble in my own pool of thoughts without the need to converse with anyone or listen to external stimuli (no iPod, no phones, no tv, no sounds) for a 30 minutes a day). It’s my form of meditation almost. Of silent fluid movement.

This summer, I have decided to compete in at least 3 open water swim races in Japan. Hopefully I will end up doing 4 or 5 though – at a rate of one ocean swim per fortnight, which will take me into the next two months. To compete in one swim per week is a little strenuous on the body and social life. Coincidentally, the swims that I will be competing in are in different prefectures of Japan. This is great – I’m combining travel (weekend trips away with a spot of sightseeing) as well as a swim race (exercise and healthy competition is good for oneself). 3 swims. And 3 prefectures. At a minimum.

I was lucky enough to come across the Japan open water swim association websites which list all the ocean swim races around Japan. I’ve been obsessed with scouring these websites.

The first website is: Open Water Swim Japan (link here). This is my favourite one. It’s pretty and nice. It’s also the most comprehensive one in terms of all races throughout Japan. The Race Information tab lists all the open water swims for the year (the primary months being March to September, with the bulk of the swims in June and July).

The second website is: Open Water Japan. (Link here). This is the Japan International Open Water Swimming Association. The first website, will often refer you to this website. This website however does not list all the swims through Japan. To then enter the majority of the swims, you will be referred to this registration site: Sportsentry (link here). This website lists a whole bunch of sports and events, for which you can enter and compete in. It is not limited to swimming. Some private swims will have their own website and registration method.

For keen runners you’d probably be familiar with Runnet (link here). They also have a Swimnet website (link here) which overlaps with a lot of the information from the first two swim websites. Swimnet however also lists combined swim and run events if you’re into biathlons, and other swim races which are more pool-related rather than ocean swims. There’s a whole world of sports out there to participate in. It’s all about having a goal, and seeing it through to the end. Doesn’t matter if you’re first, second or last. If there’s one thing I believe in, it’s setting yourself challenges and goals regardless of your level or ability.

So far, I have officially registered for 2 swims, with a couple more pending. My first swim kicks off this weekend. It’s only an 800m ocean beach swim in Shizuoka prefecture. Starting off small and building my way up. This is the best way to do it. Don’t want to go out too hard too fast. This swim is the Atami Sun Beach race event. The race options here were pretty limited. The choice was either an 800m swim or a 3.2km swim – nothing in between. I’ve opted for the 800m, but will be ramping up the swim distances thereafter. I bought a new pair of swim goggles just a couple of weeks ago. First new pair in about 6 or 8 years. Made me realise how on earth I ever saw underwater with my old pair. Memo to self: replace goggles on a more regular basis.

I’ve done very limited training for this weekend’s race. I am confident that I can pull a decent time (not great, but decent) without a lot of training. I know that I can go the distance, but unsure of my timing. I would like to do it in under 15 minutes but it really depends on the conditions. Last weekend’s 17km hike was not a good idea a week before an ocean swim. Even four days after the hike, my muscles are still really sore and tight. I’m not in the best condition this week for my first ocean swim in about 5 years, let alone an ocean swim in Japan. My first real swim in a Japanese beach. Should be an interesting summer. Wow. When I talk about swimming, I can talk a lot.



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