In the final paragraph of last week’s post  I mentioned that I would swim the 1650y (1500m) freestyle in the New England Championships the next day. How did it go? Better than I imagined possible: When I hit the touch pad and saw a time of 23:10 displayed for my lane, I had to look twice to be sure. But disbelief quickly gave way to elation. Not over the time–but because of the incredibly life-affirming experience I’d  just had during those 1390 seconds. To explain why I need to back up a few weeks–or more accurately six months.

Last September I’d begun making plans–and setting goals–for the 2016 U.S. Masters Nationals, to be held Apr 28 to May 1 in Greensboro NC. I’d attended Nationals in 2006 and 2011, each time I ‘aged up’ into a new age group. I go to these meets to take the measure of how healthfully I’m aging–and compare my performance with those I’d had decades earlier since I first attended Masters Nationals in 1988 at age 37.

Several weeks later I learned that I had prostate cancer. At the time I knew little about the course the disease or treatment might take, or how either might affect my ability to train or my performance capacities. But I knew that–regardless of what times I might be able to swim–that continuing to think and act like an athlete in training for a challenging goal would probably be the strongest medicine, complementing whatever the medical pros might do for me.

I would simply keep my goals flexible to whatever my physical capacities–for months of training as much as several days of racing–would be. Which is completely in keeping with the Kaizen ethos I’ve embraced for over 20 years. Rather than concern myself–or be limited or burdened by–thoughts of what might happen in six months, I would focus on being the very best I could be this day . . .  this minute . . . this second.

During January as I waited for further tests to be completed–and for some form of treatment to commence–my sense of physical wellness deteriorate steadily. I woke up each day feeling ill and without energy. Yet I continued to swim with the energy available. Near the end of that month, on many days I had the energy to swim only 1500 yards or so, and my times got so slow, that eventually I stopped using the pace clock. It was better to focus purely on how good my stroke felt and ignore time.

And regardless of time, my stroke felt fantastic–every time, without fail. The most important effect of the intense sensory enjoyment was that I virtually always felt dramatically better after swimming than before. If I could have swum at 6 am I would have, but the local pool didn’t open for lap swim until noon.

As I related in my last post, The Defining Event of My Life, I swam in a Masters meet on Jan 23. Despite feeling quite ill that morning I anticipated that the meet environment, seeing friends, swimming (however I might) and the focus it all would engender was far better than staying home feeling poorly. Though my times were about the slowest of my life, it turned out to be the best meet of my life on pure quality of the overall experience.

In mid-February a close friend, TI Coach Lou Tharp (his remarkable success as coach of the West Point Triathlon Team–and the swim practices they did is recounted in his book The Overachiever’s Diary) told me he was thinking of making a day trip to Boston to swim the 1650 in the New England Masters Championship. I immediately replied that I’d join him for the trip and swim the same event.

Though the 1650 was my best race in college, I hadn’t swum it in 10 years and I needed to estimate a seed time. I’d swum 13:56 for 1000 yards–a pace of 1:25.6 per 100 yards–in the Jan 23 meet. I’d begun to feel noticeably better following my first treatment (a testosterone-blocking hormone shot) on Feb 4 and my training had improved as well. Though I would be swimming 65% farther than on Jan 23, I felt moderately optimistic that if I trained well over the next month, and swam an excellent race, I could maintain the same or slightly faster pace at the March 12 race. So I entered a seed time of 23:45, a pace of 1:25.0 per 100.

But I also had my eye eye on the Adirondack Masters 60-64 age group record of 23:20. It would be my last race in the age group and a wonderful swan song if I could break a record even with the constraints to training. I felt I could possibly approach it if I swam a perfect race. The challenge of trying to achieve that–the perfect race, not the time–got me more excited than I’d ever been for any previous meet or race.

Those thoughts brought an precedented level of purpose, focus–and fulfillment–to my training. I worked tirelessly at doing every little thing right, on every stroke of every repeat, trying to hold a pac elf 1:25/100 on repeats of 50 to 200 yards. I never swam hard. On the irregular and minimal training I’d done I could succeed only by remaining relaxed and controlled for as much of the race as possible. That goal focuses the mind dramatically more than simply going hard.

On race day, during warmup and pre-race visualization, I simply revisited and rehearsed the highest quality thoughts and sensations of ease and seamless fluency I’d experienced in training, seeking to ‘embed’ that consciousness so deep in my being that it would be impervious to anything that might occur during the race.

From the time the starting horn sounded, my attention was occupied by a powerfully immersive stream of consciousness about how I was swimming . I never gave a thought to my time or the record–only to the many subtle elements of stroke, turns, breathing and pacing I needed to execute at the highest possible level. In the last 300 yards or so I was dimly aware of an accumulating level of fatigue and physical stress. But my focus remained so strong that those sensations remained on the outmost margins of my mental radar. The overall experience was great.

As I said earlier, when I hit the touch pad and saw 23:10 displayed for my lane, I felt a moment of disbelief. But as soon as I was sure that it was for my lane, I felt almost indescribable happiness. Not about the time but at maintaining such unwavering focus for every one of those 1390 seconds. Though it was my slowest time ever for 1650, it was unquestionably the best race—and probably the best swim–of my life.

I knew I’d worked at my utmost capacity—body, mind, and spirit—every moment. And I knew it while doing it. It was such a great swim, that I’m even willing to say I believe no one else has ever had a better swim . . . with regard to maintaining focus in a challenging situation . Even “The Best Athlete in the World Right Now” Katie Ledecky while setting during her unprecedented run of world records. 

Having a serious illness unquestionably have impacted my physical capacities. But the other side of this experience is the remarkable gains I’ve made in mental strength through intensive meditation and visualization–and the more compelling motivation for TI practice over these past few months.  Both have been invaluable for what I must to do to prevail in my current challenge. Achieving the best swim–not just race–of my life last Saturday was simply the natural culmination.

I’ve begun preparing for Masters Nationals, where I’ll make my debut in the 65-69 age group, with great anticipation. I’m thrilled by how well my practices are going—and that I experience Flow in every one of them. I invite you to follow my preparation; I log every practice here.

May your laps be as happy as mine.