When Coach Brad wrote Wednesday’s warm up on the board I inwardly cringed. Not that it was a bad warm up – just it was a warm up for someone who could swim better than I can. It comprised 10 x 50s on 0:50 swum in pairs of free, breast, free, 25 fly/25 back, and free. OK, the free wasn’t a problem, and the fly/back while a trifle fast for so early on was acceptable; but that breast. I have my problems with breaststroke. To give myself a minimal five second rest on 0:50 means a 0:45 fifty and that’s not far off my 100 meter personal ‘best’ pace. I suppose at another time I could have dealt with it but right now in my training my muscles ache all the time and I start every practice already tired – and that’s in spite of the fact I didn’t do any weight lifting this past week as it was a recovery week. Somehow my muscles don’t seem to realize they were supposed to have recovered by now. I’m sure we weren’t swimming this fast last year, but then we have some new, faster swimmers with us now in Doug, Dan and Damon; more than enough to encourage Coach to drop our intervals just a little closer to the ones real swimmers use. Anyways in I go trailing Damon, Ian, and Doug (who with his asthma didn’t appear too thrilled with this opening set either). The first two frees go alright despite my thinking along the way my idea of a warm up isn’t cranking out mid-thirty fifties, and then comes the breaststroke fifties. First one I accomplished at the intended pace; the second I swam a couple of seconds slower by concentrating on my glide but still needing to work perilously close to all out to do it. I hit the wall with three seconds to spare, figure #!%* it, might as well use the time to swim my next free that much slower, and went straight into the freestyle. I was starting to struggle now and by the sixth fifty the dreaded ‘tightness’ appeared around my chest. Now I’ve had years of experience dealing with my heart’s fibrillation problem, which first appeared when I ran middle distance competitively in my twenties. It’s just that the observable symptoms for an attack when running as opposed to swimming are very different, so the first time it occurred swimming I dismissed the problem as being out of shape and therefore badly out of breath. I didn’t realize at the time I wasn’t out of breath: I couldn’t breathe at all. No surprise my second attack occurred in the very next race, unfortunately this time in the middle of a 200 IM. That was impossible to ignore. The race was an absolute disaster and I finished swimming the free portion backstroke just so I could breathe whatever little I could. And then a few months later on I suffered yet another attack which caused me to abandon my first ever practice. After this I had pretty well identified the new telltales, the pain and discomfort being marvelous incentives to learn, and now knew what that ‘tightness’ meant: my heart was telling me in unmistakable terms, “BACK OFF!”. I figured, however, with the next two fifties featuring backstroke I could slow down and still keep to the interval with enough left over to handle the last two fifties. Hey, I’m a type-A male; we’re supposed to die from a heart attack. Besides Coach had pointed out a couple of weeks prior how I started bobbing when tired so I figured this would be a good way to concentrate on both my fly and back techniques while under race equivalent conditions. So I swam the next two fifties working on my butterfly’s undulation, timing my kick with my hands entering and leaving the water, and pulling all the way back to my hips; and in backstroke keeping my head steady while rotating around my axis, starting my catch earlier, and coordinating my hip slide with my six-beat kick. They went pretty well too, except that my last twenty five backstroke felt just like the last twenty five in one of my 200 back races. This gave me a little more than ten seconds rest before heading out on the set's final two reps.
Actually the symptoms of an attack are really rather benign. The atrial (upper) chambers of the heart go into fibrillation, fluttering at a rate of something close to 300 beats a minute, which stops the heart from circulating blood in anything close to an effective manner. This manifests itself (for me at least) in what feels like a bubble lodged in my windpipe – the reduced flow of blood to my lungs preventing any significant oxygen exchange and quite possibly interfering with their actual physical functioning. I stop being able to breath in any measurable way. I’m pretty sure it was holding my breath on the turn which set it off because when I came up afterwards I couldn’t take any air in, and two strokes and a second abortive attempt at breathing later swimming became secondary to breathing. That was pretty well it for the rest of the practice. I tried again after about ten minutes rest to finish out the practice but unsurprisingly had to abandon the attempt after just three hundred more meters. I’ve now had four episodes in a little more than a year which isn’t good. Before I started swimming I had only three experiences in my entire life, two when I ran competitively and the third several years later. There have been a couple of other times when an attack was impending but in those cases I merely stopped running at the first sign of trouble and quit for the day. Obviously I have to start doing the same for swimming. The trend is disturbing however – I’ll have to do something about this.
Of course the sprinters like Joe thought this practice was pretty cool.