Tomorrow I will swim around the island of Manhattan. It is 28.5 miles, and if I make it all the way around, it will be the furthest I have ever swum in one go. I am pretty excited about it. I have written about why I am drawn to this swim; I am inspired by the immigration of my family at the turn of the last century and the connection I feel to this island that I have called home for the last decade and that my dad called home from birth until the end of law school in 1963. How very profound, these thoughts. The funny thing is that in order to do this swim, I have spent hours upon hours over months and months doing one of the least profound things I can imagine: training in a chlorinated 25 yard pool. The swim I’ve been training for will start and end in a single day (I will have those 8-9 hours to to ponder my heritage, my adopted home, my father’s birthplace, my navel) but so far, swimming around Manhattan has turned out, ironically, to be a test of my ability to tolerate chlorine.
It never occurred to me, prior to applying for this swim (NYC Swim’s Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, also known as MIMS), that doing so was committing myself to a winter of pool swimming. I pictured myself training for open water in open water, as I had done for previous long swims. Had I given it much thought or spent any real time with a calendar, it would have been obvious: water temperatures in NYC stay cold— too cold for good, long training swims— up until the few weeks before the race. The race is in early June, and this year the temperatures at Brighton Beach (my training grounds) have remained cold longer than usual; Memorial Day weekend, just two weeks before the swim, we were still swimming in 52-53 degree waters.
And I don’t even like pools. That’s not true. I love pools, but like all good things, I love pools in moderation. For me, training for MIMS has felt a little like how I imagine being locked in a closet with a carton of cigarettes feels to a kid whose parents want to insure she will never become a smoker. No matter how nice those first few may feel, by the end of the carton she’s coming out of that closet gasping for breath and swearing off nicotine for life. And although that analogy may be a bit of a stretch (I’ve never even smoked a single cigarette) I have absolutely come out of this winter of pool swimming (chain swimming?) gasping for breath and more-or-less swearing off chlorine. I’m done. I’ve had it. I quit. (Okay, okay, maybe it wasn’t that bad. But it was kinda.)
It was not the monotony, or the stench of chlorine on my skin and hair that filled my classroom and inspired complaints from my high school freshmen students. Those were annoyances, easily dealt with, or at least endured. Here’s the problem: In attempting long pool swims, after about 90 minutes, I would find myself between sets at the end of the pool coughing, hacking, wheezing. I would check the pool deck to make sure I hadn’t coughed up a lung. People would look at me sideways, clearly chafed that I’d bring my flu virus to their pool. No really, I would say with my eyes, I’m not sick! And then I’d go on wheezing and hacking. No matter how physically fit and able I would feel, I found I could not swim when I could not breathe. And of course, the more I trained, the worse it got. There I was in January, with five months of training ahead of me, no open water warm enough to do it in, and every day increasingly less able to tolerate my chlorinated pool.
I reached out to other swimmers on the Marathon Swimmers Forum and asked for advice. It feels a bit like the exercise-induced asthma I experienced as a kid. Would an asthma inhaler do the trick? Was I allergic to chlorine? Was it my pool? Did anyone else have the same problem? I know of some marathon swimmers who log ridiculously long hours in pools. How did they do it?
I learned two important things. 1. I was not alone, and 2. pools are disgusting. Fortunately, some of the most off-putting feedback helped me more or less solve my problem of being unable to tolerate long pool swims. Without an asthma inhaler, which I was pretty sure I’d need, I was able to get through the winter training. (Spoiler alert: It involved doing my longer pool swims at a Manhattan YMCA that has two separate pools. The lap swim pool isn’t used for children and doesn’t cause me the same respiratory distress. Why would that be? The answer’s not pretty.)
Swimming Pools are Gross
With faith that chlorine kills germs, we swim in pools teaming with sweat, skin, hair, urine, mucous, and fecal matter (according to the CDC most people have some 0.16 grams of it on their bodies at any given time) and feel okay about it. That’s the idea, at least. Up until this winter, I just tried not to think too much about it. But then I needed to know more about my breathing problems, and started doing research… and some things you just can’t unknow.
Here’s how it works: Chlorine does its job of disinfecting the water by binding with proteins (sweat, urine, etc.). The by-products of this process, “chloramines,” are what create that chlorine smell we associate with pools. (A strong smell is a bad sign!) I’m no chemist, but I have found reference to the following substances released from chlorinated water: bromodichloromethane, chloroform, dibromochloromethane, and bromoform (collectively called trihalomethanes – THMs) and the very prevalent nitrogen trichloride (NCl3). Mmm, poison! These chlorine by-products accumulate right above the surface of the water, just exactly where swimmers suck in air. Pools with low ceilings, poor air circulation and high pool walls are likely to see the biggest build-up of these toxic by-products right at the surface of the water. Additionally, as should be logically evident, pools that are particularly loaded with human proteins will result in more chlorine by-products.
So, it turned out it wasn’t exactly the fact that my swims were getting longer that was the problem. The problem was that my weekend swims started to last past 9am, and by that time every Saturday morning, two lanes of the pool would be teaming with some 30 babies and their parents. Babies! And on the other side of the pool a lane opened up to “family swim.” Kids! Kids and Babies are excellent producers of proteins, what with their poor potty training and undoubtedly less-than-entirely-leak-proof swim diapers. This was liberating to understand in some ways (I could switch pools on the weekend and breathe through long workouts) and also totally disgusting. Having trouble breathing today? Oh that’s just all the urine and feces you’re swimming in.
Freestyle Breathing: Close Your Mouth!
Which brings me to my next topic: freestyle breathing. As a young competitive swimmer, I was taught to breath with half my mouth full of water. It is comfortable and efficient as you do not need to rotate your head very far out of the water to get a good breath of air. With a cheek full of water, you can still breathe freely then spit the water out as you are exhaling underwater. A quick Google Image search of “freestyle breathing” results in tons of images like the one here. It’s just how it’s done.
In March of 2011, I went to Malta and did my first ever long swim: 6 hours in the very salty, chilly Mediterranean Sea. Having never swum so far in open water, and having never experienced water quite that salty, I did not know any better than to swim as I had always swum, with water washing freely in and out of my mouth. After six hours of a mouth full of salt water, the entire inside of my mouth peeled off (have you ever experienced your tongue peeling? It’s gross) and what was worse, I also got about twenty canker sores that lasted the better part of a week. I was miserable. Ever since then, I have been practicing two things: keeping my mouth closed while I swim, and making sure my mouth completely clears the water before I take my breath.
Once I started researching chlorine, and better understanding what I was swimming in, I was glad to have established this practice, as I could no longer imagine happily letting all that water slosh around in my mouth.
MIMS After the Rains…
Which brings me to my next and final topic: MIMS tomorrow. It has been raining here in New York City ALL DAY LONG. It is raining right now, at 10:30pm, with MIMS just a few hours away. This is not good. Admittedly, I do not know a whole lot about our sewage systems, and there are those who tell me that a day of raining is no big deal so long as there isn’t some magic number of 2 inches in an hour (or something like that)… but there are others who insist that our sewage system is easily flooded, and with rains like today, untreated sewage is released into the waterways. I don’t know who is right. I don’t much care. I am glad to have been training to swim with my mouth closed and to breath with my head to the sky.
For all the folks who ask me if I’m crazy, who ask me why I would do this swim, and who suggest the water around NYC must be gross… I am sure this post only strengthens your doubts about my judgement. (My boyfriend’s grandfather, upon learning of my upcoming swim, stated quite simply, “That does not demonstrate good sense.”) The water around NYC is usually quite lovely (really, it is!), but tomorrow, I am keeping my water quality expectations low. That said, I am not deterred. I swam all winter in pools full of human proteins, what’s one day in the rivers?
Time for bed. MIMS in the morning…
Here’s a bunch of resources about chlorine and pool contamination: