Alphabet Soup

by Amy White
February 26, 2002
(www.slowtwitch.com)

In this life, it’s important to keep learning new things. I think we can all agree about that. Helps keep the mind sharp and all that. Of course, in triathlon, unless you started training and racing at, oh, age eight, sometimes you can feel like you’re always trying something new. For example, if you came to the sport as a pure swimmer, imagine that first moment when somebody tells you, "OK, and now you fling your goggles off and get on your bike and pedal like mad." Excuse me?

But, as usual, I digress. Sort of. I did indeed come to this sport as someone whose primary sport was swimming. This is the sport I knew best how to do. You might even say I was almost good at it. That’s what happens when you start training and racing at, oh, age eight. Some things you just know how to do.

Like counting. So why did I feel like I needed to try a new way?

I count my laps by 25s. (Yes, I have never known the glory of swimming in a long-course pool.) So if, for example, I’m swimming a 200, I’ll count 25, 50, 75, 100 and so forth. But sometimes, in the haste of a workout, I will slip up. Then I rely on my watch, or the clock on deck, to tell me where I am because I know what my paces are. If I lose count but believe I’m at X place in an interval, the clock will tell me if I’m right.

In the fall, I started swimming with a new masters group. I like the coach a lot; he’s got a fantastic laugh. He’s given me some great pointers about my stroke and, after swimming for the last couple of years on my own, this is especially appreciated.

So one Saturday morning I wander in and the mainset is 1x1650. Fine, I tell myself, I’ll break it into blocks of 500s. So that's three 500s and a 150. I’ll take splits every 500 just for fun, and to keep my brain on track. Who can count to 1650, anyway?

(I might add at this point that if you were a youth swimmer and swam distance, as I did, you had a lap counter in races. Remember? You’d be racing along and you didn’t have to think about anything except forward motion because your best friend was flipping the numbers on the lap counter and holding it underwater. And when you got to your last lap, she would wave it around triumphally. But again I digress.)

So I launch myself into the 1650 and, oh, somewhere in the first 400s I lose myself. So as I take my split at what I hope the 500 mark should be (it was), I decide I’ll have to check in with myself every 250. Mid-splits.

Is this the mark of a failing mind? I don’t know. I finished with great consternation. That had not been easy. The actual work hadn’t been bad; it was the brain part that had reeked. So I look at the whiteboard and I notice that Ken, our coach, had written a few notes within the 1x1650. "1st 500 (A-T), moderate; 2nd 500 (A-T), hard…" and so forth.

So I say to Ken, "You know, that was fun, but damn if I can count those long sets."

"Try letters," he said. "See, A-T. Use letters of the alphabet. That’s what I tell the kids to do. Letters don’t repeat themselves like numbers do."

Aha! That makes perfect sense! I almost wanted to swim another long set to test it out there and then.

OK, not really.

But my opportunity came soon enough. One Friday the workout called for a 1x1500. That’s three times through of A-T. Are you with me? So I say, OK, I’ll try it.

Remember, I deal with words for a living. Letters should be easy. I can’t begin to tell you how wrong I was.

I start the 1500 and the internal (infernal?) dialogue begins: "OK, A." Somehow that's not enough to keep my attention. So the mind wanders: "Let's try animal names. OK, anteater. Aardvark." This amuses me as I head into my flip turn. "B. Bear. Beaver." Flip again. "C. Cow. Coyote." This is fun. I work my way through the letters, then begin to founder when I get to the middle, somewhere around the Ks. "K. Hm....OK, koala." Flip again. "M...monkey." All well and good, but I realize I have no idea which lap is odd, and which is even within the alphabet. I think I've missed the letter L and now I've got to try to reconstruct in my chlorine-addled brain what number might correspond with the letter L. (For lion, by the way. Which makes me think of former San Francisco Giant Andres Gallaraga, the Big Cat. See how this works? It's a slippery slope, I tell you!)

Somehow I finish that 500 when I'm supposed to.

Clearly, I'm better off with numbers. But I'm keen to try to think in a new way, and I still have another couple of 500s to play with. So I forge ahead, still trying the animal names. I successfully navigate the ABCs and work my way into the murky middle again. "I...ibex. Whew, just in time, have to flip again." Flip. "J...OK, jaguar. Shaguar. Austin Powers. Groovy baby, yeah!" Soon my brain is running amok and I'm flipping without thinking what letter is next. What comes after J? Oh, right. K. Koala. Got that one. Now, L. For some reason, lion is gone from my subconscious and out pops...lemur. Followed by M...monkey. Then I ponder species and sub-species. Was it "fair" for me to choose monkey after I'd chosen lemur? Shouldn't I have chosen another subspecies? Isn't a lemur a kind of monkey? No? A primate? Suddenly I'm lost again. I am completely at sea, no idea where I am in the 500. S? Could it be time for S already? Nearly! We're just passing R. How I was able to figure it, I don't know, but it's upon me already.

R for...what? Reindeer? OK, reindeer. Now I can see the finish, the T is coming and I'm so ready to get to the end of this stupid mental exercise. It's only shown me that my brain is a scary place when left to its own devices, and that I'm the sort of person who apparently can't remember the alphabet. Thirty-six years old and I'm failing at a common schoolroom exercise.

S. S for...for...oh well, no matter, here comes the flip for T. Hooray! Now, T for...T for...T for...Titus Andronicus!

What the hell? What happened to T for tiger?

I haven't even read that play, and good God, another 500 is upon me. No time to worry about the kind of mind that would dredge up, and then spit out, the name of one of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays in the middle of a swim set.

I'll spare you my attempt at working through the alphabet by the names of common household fruit because I got hung up at D and that was the end of that. (Don't talk to me about dulse...not a fruit. Don't mention damson plum, either. I couldn't get that far.)

You would be right to think that surely, by now, I have learned my lesson. You can't steer a loose brain, and mine apparently springs free when left to ponder the alphabet in a pool.

But you know, I'm all for expanding my horizons and trying new things. I'm going to keep at this because, if nothing else, it's providing me with endless hours of amusement at my own expense. It means I get to laugh at myself, and there's nothing healthier than that.

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