Winter swimming and today's workout.

Young Ben. Nikon 50mm f1:1.2. On a warmer day.

It was windy and cold this morning in Austin. Oh, the northerners won't think so but 34 degrees, air laden with moisture and a snapping wind all add up to the Texas version of a cold, cold day. Especially so for outside swimming. The truly hardy swimmers in our town get to Barton Springs Pool in the early morning, before the eighth mile long, spring fed pool is officially open, that way they never have to pay an entrance fee to the city. The masters swimmers who still want to push the envelope of high performance and relive the glory of their Olympic or near-Olympic years get up earlier still and head over to the UT Swim Center to be lovingly tortured with long sets, short intervals and high expectations by coach, Whitney Hedgepeth (one gold, two silvers....). 

But those of us who have transcended our need to swim so hard and so fast that the rest of the day is consumed with yawning, napping and recovery stretches head to the finest masters program in the entire world. It exists at the Western Hills Athletic Club (aka: The Rollingwood Pool), nestled in the heart of Austin's two most affluent and desirable neighborhoods, Rollingwood and Westlake Hills. The pool is the heart of the club. It's a 25 yard pool situated on a slight rise, surrounded by majestic live oaks and shielded from view by a grand hedge that fences in the property. The pool is outdoors and we swim there all 52 weeks of the year. In the summer the water is chilled and refreshing. In the winter the water is heated to a consistent 80 degrees and the pool is covered at night with insulating covers to efficiently maintain its thermal bounty.  Yeah, there are tennis courts and basketball courts but those are only there for the people who can't swim...

It's the holidays and I'm taking time off from work and obsessive exercise. I bailed on the 7:00 am practice this morning when I heard the wind slapping the branches around, and besides, it was still dark then. But some hardy band of my swimmers made it to the workout, took the covers off the pool and did their yards under the watchful eyes of coach Dale.  It was no warmer when I showed up at 8:15 and headed toward the new locker rooms to change into my Speedo Jammer. I grabbed my fins (in case we needed them for kicking drills), my hand paddles and buoy (for pulling sets; my fave) my swim cap (black with pink butterflies on the side) and my low profile goggles. I moved quickly up the stairs and across the deck, pausing to grab a kick board from the bin next to the digital time clock at the south end of the pool. No one wasted time hanging on the deck or procrastinating about getting in. It was far too cold and windy to spend time equivocating...

I jumped into lane three with two guys who are both named, Mike. One is a life long competitive swimmer (and finance professor) the other is a well regarded younger triathlete who is also an electrical engineer. Our warm up was something like this: Swim 400, Pull 400, Kick 200 yards. We put our heads down and got to work. The swimmers are distributed through the lanes by their repeat times. The fastest people are in lanes 6 and 7. The slowest in lanes 1 and 2. But every day is different and the mix changes based on who is in attendance. Some days (when I am motivated) I might swim in lane 4 or even lane 5 but no matter how groggy or tired I am I try never to drop below lane 3. Today, at the end of a string of long and hard workouts the slower pace was just right for me. Kind of a celebratory last go for a good year. The warm up was 1,000 yards.

The next set was 15 x 100 yards, freestyle. As usual there was a pattern. Go the first three on a tight-ish interval (maybe 1:25) then drop five seconds from the interval on the next three (maybe 1:20) then come back to the first interval for the next three (1:25) then drop ten seconds from the interval for the next three (maybe 1:15) and then go back to the original interval of the last set of three. There are no rest intervals between the sets, you just go straight through. It's a fun, tough way to crank about a little less than a mile and keep a brisk pace. 1500 yards.

The next set was 15 x 50 yards with a different pattern but also on a tight-ish interval like 50 seconds per 50 yards. If you swim them fast you get more rest between each one but the higher degree of effort will make you appreciate every second on the wall. The pattern was kick/stroke/freestyle. That translates to a 50 kick with a board, a 50 of a stroke other than freestyle (we alternated butterfly and backstroke) and then a 50 freestyle. You repeat that pattern five times for a total of 750 yards.

At the end of the workout we did a set that was all about breath control. The entire set was designed to discourage negative thinking about oxygen deprivation. We did 15 x 25 yard sprints on a tight (25 second) interval. What makes this set hard is that on the first 25 yard sprint you get to take three breaths, on the second 25 you get two breaths and on the third 25 yarder you get one or zero breaths (depending on your ability).  There's another 325 yards. Then we warm down; usually something like a 200 yard easy swim----gives you a chance to cool down and work on your technique and your flip turns. While not a long distance work out we sure kept moving, had little time for chatting and were pretty tired by the end. Total=  3575 yards, a bit more than two miles and change in an hour.  I like the Saturday and Sunday workout where we get to go from 1.5 hours. You just get more done.

I stuck around to get some coaching on my butterfly stroke (watch out Michael Phelps :-)). No matter how nice you think your stroke must be it's always nice to have a learned set of eyes appraise it regularly. Sure enough I was coming a bit high out of the water and not getting my head down quick enough after my breath. Something to correct in the new year. 

The hardest part of the workout on a brisk day like today is getting out and making the minute long hike back to the locker rooms and the hot showers. My feet were thoroughly cold when I stepped over the threshold into the warmth of the new bathhouse. How can life be anything but wonderful when you start each day out like this? I've got to write a note reminding myself to pay our club dues for the year before the 15th of January. Wouldn't want to mess up the delicate balance of life.

A thank you! to Fred for reminding me that I haven't written nearly enough about swimming this year.

Ben during his swim team tenure.

A work photo of a zero edge pool in Westlake Hills.

Emily at the pool.

Off season swimwear.

Masters swimmers don't use ladders. If you can't pull yourself out of the pool without 
using your knees or a ladder you might as well give it up.

Summer at Barton Springs where the water is always 68 degrees. 

Start them swimming young and they'll get fast.

Mixing Photography and swimming on assignment.

Perfect head, arm and body position for freestyle.
Don't forget the body roll! Critical for speed.

One of the most fun pools I ever swam laps in, 
The Prince Ranier Commemorative Pool in the bay 
at Monte Carlo. 50 meters of straight up fun.
Personal yacht parked just outside, optional.

You might want to consider making a New Year's resolution to stay in great 
physical shape this year. It sure helps when you are carrying heavy photo
gear around all day. Keeping the waist line in check is an asset.
This is a visual business, after all.


Dave Jenkins said...

Better you than me.

Fred said...


That's more like it!

Boy there are a lot more opportunities to swim in Austin than there are here near the Arctic Circle :-). We have to break the ice before we can get in the water....and that is inside! Of course the conditions are better than in the old days. I started swimming before water was invented. Doing flip turns in the sand is harder than it looks.
Happy New Year to you, Belinda, Ben, and Studio Dog.

Anonymous said...


Amen to physical fitness. Good for mind,body and soul also good- weight training keeps muscle as we age. Like brain matter can't afford to loose either. Good work.Keep it up in the new year.

Rick Baumhauer said...

Read your account of your swim, had to lie down and take a nap before commenting :)

Regarding the last photo: being a racing fan, I have a strong visual map of Monte Carlo, and I was having difficulty making sense of the background in relation to the pool. Noticing that all of the lane numbers are backwards restored my faith in my own sanity!

Happiest of New Years to you, Kirk - yours is one of the few blogs that I never skim, there's just too much good stuff that I don't want to miss. I still believe that you should have been one of the first users of the E-M5 (as I was), but if you had been, you'd probably have sold them off long ago and moved on to something more esoteric.