Archives for category: Health

We’re approaching the end of the year. Time I start taking stock of what’s happened over the past year and start thinking of goals for the next one. But first, a graph. The blue line is day-to-day weight, the red is a 30-day average. Each gray horizontal axis line is ten pounds. Each gray vertical axis line is six months.

Weightloss Timeline :: 2013-2015

I’ve lost another ten pounds since my March update. This brings the overall total to more than seventy pounds. More importantly, I’ve stabilized my weight. The 30-day average is nearly flat with only minor fluctuations. The variance is smaller than five pounds up or down.

I feel great.

For positive reinforcement I took advantage of some Father’s Day sales to pick up a new wardrobe. When the sales clerk asked me what I was looking for, I answered, “Make me look like Don Draper.”

Don Draper

This accomplished two things. First, I updated my wardrobe. Most of the dress clothes I owned were twenty years out of style. Second, I now have a tangible reinforcement point to stay on target with my health. The clothes are a constant reminder of where I should be. If I can no longer fit into them, I’m doing something wrong– undoing a great deal of hard work in the process.

Confidence. Style. Swagger.

I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, and this is a way to express it.

In other news, On Monday I hit my 2015 Go The Distance goal. On Sunday, I swam in the 3rd Annual Tri Right Masters Candy Cane Swim Meet and brought home some hardware.

  • 200 IM: 2:43 [First]
  • 50 Breast: 0:39 [First]
  • 50 Free: 0:30 [Third]
  • 200 Free: 2:26 [Second]

During the meet I met some swimmers from another Masters team in the city. They invited me to join them for practice. I may have found a new team. It could be the beginning of a great adventure.

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It’s been six months since I last wrote anything about my health. I wrote about starting a low-carb diet and the various techniques I’d developed in the first three months of that process. It’s time for an update. First, the numbers: I’ve lost forty-two pounds since mid-June 2014 when I started consciously eating low-carb. That’s eighteen additional pounds since my September update. I achieved that weight loss in early December.

And then winter came. And Christmas with its cookies and pies and delicious mashed potatos. And then the trip to New Orleans. I didn’t stick very closely to my plan through the latter half of December and all of January. So I added about eight pounds back over that period. When we got back from New Orleans I went back to the process that had worked before and the additional weight all melted off by the end of February. That’s what I expected would happen, and it did.

Before I spend another 150 words describing what has happened over the past two years, look at this graph. The blue line is day-to-day weight, the red is a 30-day average.

Weightloss Timeline :: 2013-2015

If I look back at where I was two years ago in early 2013 in the height of my “eat less; move more” days. Well, I’ve lost a total of sixty pounds since then. Before the New Orleans trip, I went clothes shopping. This is not something I do often, but friends and colleagues had commented– more than once– that my clothes were not fitting well. I took some Christmas money and purchased a new winter coat, some long-johns, some nice shirts and new jeans. That’s when my eyes were truly opened as to what was happening with me.

My first problem was that my winter coat was way too big. So big that it was not particularly good at keeping me warm. It had served me very well for over a decade of Chicago winters, so when I replaced it with something else, something smaller, I didn’t feel guilty. Then I could not find shirts that didn’t billow like sails luffing in the wind. I went to a number of stores, got myself measured, tried things on, and several times I just awkwardly, apologetically ended up walking out with nothing in hand.

This was after Christmas and all the clothing stores on State Street were having some fantastic sales on men’s clothes: deals like 75% off or “buy one shirt or suit, get two free”. I eventually started looking at sizes and styles I had not originally considered: men’s slim fit and trim fit shirts. They fit. I was shocked. I bought a bunch. Why not? They were on sale 75% off.

Then came the jeans. Again, I was astonished. I knew I needed a smaller size, because they were bunching up when I did up the belt. What I didn’t expect was to go from a Levis 42×30 in 2013 to a 34×30 in January for the exact same style. But that’s what happened. I tried on the 36x30s. And then, emboldened by my shirt success, pulled down a pair of 34s. Just to see.

They fit. They fit very well.

This wasn’t just water weight I was losing. This wasn’t a trick. I lost mass. I lost volume. I feel better than I have felt in a decade. I still have a little ways to go. I’d like to lose another eight to twelve pounds and go down one more size in jeans to a 32. I think that goal is very much within reach.

What has continued to be astonishing to me is this feeling that the change came about not through some particularly brutal reworking of my life. I haven’t obsessed about every little thing I’m consuming. I’ve been conscious of the carb count, and disciplined about getting regular strenuous exercise. I swam over 275 miles in 2014, even with the loss of my Masters team. I’m on track to do the same in 2015. I walk to and from work every day, and that gives me another thirty minutes of activity.

Whirl and I have discovered a large number of really delicious low-carb recipes, and we continue to add more on a regular basis. It’s been a wonderful change for me, something I’ve worked on– unsuccessfully– for more than a decade. And now, nine months in, I’m starting to really see the benefits.

Last week the New York Times ran an article entitled “A Call for a Low-Carb Diet That Embraces Fat” discussing the results of a new study by the National Institutes of Health about the health and weight-loss benefits of a low-carb diet. I’ve struggled with weight for most of my adult life. It took the trauma of my brain injury to even begin to convince me that my health was something worth protecting. Since that time, I’ve made a number of progressive steps toward improving my health. I organized my attempts upon a simple four-word mantra: “Eat less; move more.”

Many of those early steps are documented in this blog. I wrote about my attempts to manage stress, enter into a regular exercise routine and the various adventures in returning to swimming. I felt I was doing everything right, but had few sustainable results to show for it. The weight would come off for a while and then go right back on. As the years progressed, progress slowed. I felt trapped in a sort of rearguard action fighting just to maintain the status quo.

This spring, I started reading more items about diet. Over the years I’ve tried various attempts at calorie reduction and the success rate was pretty low– as I already mentioned. It worked for maintaining weight– I got quite good at not putting on additional weight. I just had a lot of trouble losing what I’d accumulated over the years through lethargy and indifference.

It was time to go on offense. I decided to radically change my diet, and started eating low-carb in mid-June. I’ve never tried a structured diet plan before. This is a first. I did a bit of reading to help me understand how this might work, and decided that it was worth giving a try. I didn’t really change the quantities I was eating or exercising. Instead I focused on the quality of what I was eating. Specifically, reduce the amount of carbohydrates in my diet and maintain a slight caloric deficit. It’s been twelve weeks since I started; I’ve lost twenty-five pounds. And the notches in my belt seem to suggest the bulk of the loss has been fat. I’m very pleased. I really think there’s something to this.

When the Times published their story, I shared a bit of my success using the prescribed method. Friends asked about my approach and suggested I write it down. Here goes. Here’s my general approach:

  • Daily Carbohydrate Intake: 50-100 grams
  • Daily Calorie Intake: 1800-2300 calories
  • Regular Exercise: 5 days/week

I found there is a lot of conflicting advice about low-carb diets– and diets in general. Rather than read all of that, I looked for some recurring themes and forged my own path as a compromise of various opinions. I’m privileged by the fact that I don’t have any dietary restrictions: I don’t have food allergies; I don’t have trouble with pork or dairy or peanuts or eggs. I can eat what I want.

I found the normal recommended daily allowance of carbohydrates for my age, weight, height and activity level is between 300-400 grams/day, depending on the source. I have set my target to be between 50-100 grams per day. I shoot for 50 grams/day and don’t get anxious if I go over. And I try very hard to remain under 100. I feel comfortable when I’m within that range. I get there by making four fundamental changes to my diet:

  1. Eliminate sugar: Sugar is carbs. Pure and simple. One gram of sugar is one gram of carbs. One cup of sugar is 200g of carbs. Going low-carb means it’s time to say goodbye to sugar. I found lots and lots and lots and lots of talk about how to accomplish this one. From the draconian “live without sweets, fatty!” to a multitude of sugar alternatives each with its defenders and detractors. I found so many conflicting opinions. Which ones are good for you, which ones are bad for you. Natural is better. Natural doesn’t reduce carbs. This one’s no good for baking. I read so many discussions about this I became overwhelmed. Eventually just decided on Splenda (sucralose). It’s been available in the US for over 15 years. You can bake with it– its heat stable to 450 degrees. It’s ubiquitous. I can find it anywhere. And it tastes good. Cook’s Illustrated found the desserts baked with Splenda were without “the artificial flavors that just about every other sugar substitute brings with it”. I’ve used it in a large number of recipes and it’s worked quite well as a straight substitute. The only drawback I’ve encountered with Splenda as a replacement for sugar is that it does not caramelize the way table sugar does. But that’s true of any sugar replacement. I can live with that.
  2. Cut back on bread: Bread accounted for a huge amount of my carb intake. One regular slice of bread– white or whole wheat– has about 12g of carbs. Two pieces of toast with breakfast alone equals half my daily carb budget. I found it very easy to remove bread.
  3. Cut back on pasta: Pasta accounted for another huge amount of my carb intake. One cup of spaghetti is 43g. This was a bit more challenging for me to accomplish, as I do love all forms of pasta. But I persevered. Eliminating pasta did lead to discovering the spaghetti squash which is kinda delicious and interesting to cook with. So there’s that.
  4. Replace/reduce wheat flour: Wheat flour is in so many recipes. It’s also a huge contributor to total carb intake. One cup of all-purpose flour is 95g of carbs. So, it’s useful to have some sort of method to cut back on that. Two “replacements” I’m experimenting with are almond flour and flaxseed meal. Neither one of these behaves exactly like traditional wheat flour, but we’ve found them to be useful (if somewhat imperfect) substitutes in a number of cases.

So why does low-carb work? My layman’s understanding of the process is that a low-carb diet deprives the body of it’s most preferred energy source, glucose. The body easily metabolizes carbohydrates into glucose. Glucose is stored in the blood, liver and muscles to provide quick easy energy for doing work– a process called glycolysis. Moreover, excess glucose is eventually converted and stored as fat. A lower carbohydrate intake translates to less glucose readily available. The body has to look for alternative sources of energy. A traditional calorie reduction diet works on the same principle, but with more of a scorched-earth mentality. Rather than selectively restricting the most preferred energy source, it restricts everything. Instead of taking in 2000 calories a day, maybe you take in 1200 and achieve some weight loss as a result. What a low-carb diet does is restrict the most preferred energy source– and the source that is going to be most readily stored as fat if it isn’t used under the idea that not all calories are created equally. Low-carb dieting forces the body to adapt. And being the adaptable system that it is, the body finds other sources, shifting metabolism into ketosis, the metabolic state where most of the body’s energy supply comes from ketone bodies in the blood created by metabolizing stored fat. That’s really the linchpin to the diet, right there: eating in such a way that your body starts to cannibalize the fat it has stored.

I avoid these seven foods, in order of importance:

  • Sugar: This includes soft drinks, fruit juices, agave, candy, ice cream and lots more
  • Gluten Grains: Wheat, oats, barley and rye. Including breads and pasta
  • Trans Fats: Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils
  • High Omega-6 Seed and Vegetable Oils: Corn, canola, cottonseed, soybean, sunflower, grapeseed and safflower oils
  • Artificial Sweeteners: Aspartame, Saccharin, Sucralose, Cyclamates and Acesulfame Potassium, if for no other reason than they act as appetite simulators causing you to unnecessarily eat more
  • Diet and Low-Fat Products: Many dairy products, cereals, crackers: these low-fat varieties often contain higher amounts of carbs than the full-fat varieties due to filler ingredients used to replace the fat
  • Highly Processed Foods

I base my diet on these foods:

  • Meat: Beef, turkey, lamb, pork, chicken
  • Fish: Salmon, halibut, tilapia, walleye, bass, trout
  • Eggs: Omega-3 enriched or pastured eggs are best
  • Vegetables: Spinach, tomato, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber, cabbage, brussels sprouts, carrots
  • Fruits: Apples, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, peaches, pears, blueberries, strawberries, cantaloupes
  • Nuts and Seeds: Almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, peanuts, sesame seeds
  • High-Fat Dairy: Cheese, butter, heavy cream, yogurt
  • Fats and Oils: Olive oil, butter, coconut oil, butter, lard, and cod liver oil
  • Tubers: Sweet potatoes, yams, potato, taro
  • Legumes: Lentils, black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas
  • Non-gluten grains: Quinoa, wild rice, brown rice, barley

This isn’t an exclusive list. I don’t mean to say I eat these things, and these things only. These are examples of the wide varieties of foods I have in my diet. I pay attention to how many carbs are in each serving and just try and keep the total in that 50-100 g/day range. And there really is a huge variety.

A note about net carbs: There’s a lot of discussion about what counts as a carb. Some foods the carbohydrate load is tied up in indigestible fiber so you don’t really metabolize the carbs. People argue that you should take the grams of carbs and subtract the grams of fiber to get the net carb intake, and use that value to manage your diet. I haven’t tried to figure that all out in detail, and tend to just work with the raw numbers. I’ve read other discussions about what’s really important to measure is not the carbs themselves but the glycemic index– a measure of the blood sugar the food converts into when metabolized. And still more discussion about not just the amount of blood sugar, but the rate at which it enters the blood stream. All of these minutia are important in one way or another, but I just found it too overwhelming to worry about. So I focused on the simple things with a rough guideline and wide margin for error.

A note about artificial sweeteners: Lots of people argue against artificial sweeteners altogether. They can wreck a diet plan even though on the surface they appear to be great. No carb load, make food taste good. But the negative effects I’ve witnessed tend to be more psychological. Sweets stimulate appetite. They make you think you’re hungry. So you eat more. When I cut way down on pop a couple years ago it helped a lot, because I didn’t feel the desire to snack quite so strongly or frequently.

A note about low fat foods: the argument against low fat food is that food marketed as low fat often has the fat replaced with higher-carb fillers. So, the idea is: just eat the full-fat variety in the first place and avoid the bait-and-switch.

A helpful cookbook: When Whirl learned I was giving this a try she found this cookbook, The Complete Low-Carb Cookbook by George Stella. We have prepared a number of these recipes and been quite impressed with them. So that’s helped.

As far as portion size, I haven’t really changed any of that. So whatever a portion was before the diet, I eat the same after the diet. If a serving portion was one chicken breast before going on the diet, then it’s one chicken breast afterwards. No change. Portion control has been a problem for me– I just like to eat. So I keep eating. And then I eat too much. I’d set out with the best intentions, but inevitably end up breaking my own rules about how much. The low-carb approach helps to curtail that. I no longer just go into the kitchen and grab a bag of tortilla chips, for example. (A cup of crushed tortilla chips is 46g of carbs. That’s my day’s allotment right there!) I’ve read that switching the metabolism over to ketosis can act as a appetite suppressant. I have not noticed a significant change in feeling hungry. I get hungry around the same times of the day as I did before, but I also feel satiated more quickly at mealtime. I find myself less prone to snack, as well. That may be partly an effect of the diet– the appetite suppressant quality I’ve seen mentioned. It may be partly procedural– I know that I’ll have to account for the carb intake for that snack and am reluctant to do so unnecessarily. It’s working and I want to stay on track.

I should talk a bit about meals. I haven’t eaten a lot for breakfast in a really long time (25+ years). Although with this diet, I have been eating a bit more for breakfast than I did in the past. I often fix eggs– omelettes, scrambled eggs. Sometimes some bacon or sausage. Since August I’ve been getting boxes of fresh Michigan blueberries at the farmer’s market down the street, and I’ll mix a half cup of those (9g) with a serving of Greek yogurt (8g) and a spoonful of Splenda. That’ll be a tasty breakfast and right on target for the daily carb budget.

Lunch— when I don’t spend my lunch hour at the pool– is often a salad (4-16g) or leftovers from dinner the night before.

Dinners have been a huge variety of things, each well within the 15-25g of carbs remaining in the day’s budget. Some examples: Asian turkey and lamb meatballs with sesame and spice broccoli, creamy chicken and sweet potato curry, sausage-stuffed spaghetti squash, white fish en papliotte with roasted brussels sprouts, or bratwurst with sweet potato cakes. There are a lot of low-carb recipes out there and we have not found it particularly onerous to adapt some of our other favorites. Sometimes all that is necessary is to just decide not to serve the bread alongside.

A quick aside about on chickpeas (garbanzo beans): Chickpeas are one of my favorite foods. At first look, they don’t appear to have a place in a low-carb diet (one cup of chickpeas has 161 grams of carbs). I include them because they are a great example that not even all carbs are created equally. Chickpeas are an excellent example of a food source containing slowly-digested carbohydrate and resistant starch. Essentially, this means that they contain starch (carbohydrates) that is converted to glucose only slowly, and starch that is not digested in the small intestine at all. This goes to the discussion about net carbs, glycemic index and glycemic load I was talking about earlier.

Drinks: No diet discussion would be complete without talking about drinks. It’s pretty easy to blow up a low-carb diet just on drinks.

I love coffee. While plain black coffee is perfect for a low-carb diet, the milk, sugar and syrups that are often added can be disastrous. For example a Starbucks grande latte has about 18-23g of carbs in it, depending on what kind of milk you include. Milk tends to have some of carbs in it (12 g/cup), and that value doesn’t vary much between whole, 2%, or skim. Perhaps counter-intuitively, cream has about half the amount of carbs that milk has by volume. Compare one cup 2% milk (11.7g) with one cup heavy cream (6.6g) and consider using cream instead of milk in your coffee.

Beer is another favorite drink. Beer is not particularly carb-friendly. A typical bottle of beer is between 10-13g. Check realbeer.com for a thorough index of the nutritional information for your favorite brew.

Soda pop is another potential land mine. Regular pop is sweetened with sugar. A regular can of pop has 35g of carbs– all sugar. Diet pop eliminates the carbs with sugar substitutes, so that’s a good thing. Be mindful about sugar substitutes as a potential appetite stimulant. The standby drinks are, unsurprisingly, water and tea (and black coffee). I’ve been a huge fan of carbonated mineral water for decades. It satisfies the craving for carbonation like pop does, and avoids the whole sugar and sugar substitute issue entirely.

And finally a few words about exercise. In 2007, I started exercising regularly for the first time in over ten years. I started out simply, going to the gym three times a week for cardio workouts. That expanded to four and five times a week. In late 2011 I rediscovered my love of swimming. Since then I’ve converted my exercise routine almost entirely to swimming five times a week for about 40 minutes each day and with one longer workout of an hour or more, once a week. I swim 2000 yards on the short days and between 2600-3000 yards on the long days. I use it as a break during an otherwise sedentary workday. It’s a way to disconnect, work out aggressions or frustrations. It gives me an uninterruptible block of time to think through plans or problems. It’s part of my daily routine and I feel it sorely when I miss it. I attribute much of the success of my diet to having this complementary exercise regimen already in place. Eat less; move more.

I’ve gone on for a while now and do want to come back to my original point. I like the low-carb approach because– despite all that I’ve said– this wasn’t such a difficult switch for me to make. In the Times article Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, is quoted as saying, “It shows that in a free-living setting, cutting your carbs helps you lose weight without focusing on calories. And that’s really important because someone can change what they eat more easily than trying to cut down on their calories.”

That’s the crux of it, right there. It’s not a no carb diet; it’s not a starvation diet. It’s about paying attention– just a little bit– to the type of foods you’re consuming. I know arguing from a position supported by a sample size of one is a dangerous thing to do. I don’t want this to be interpreted as an argument. Friends and family asked for some details of what I have been doing and I’ve simply taken some time to write down my personal approach and train of thought. I’m publishing it for two reasons, to help me remember what I did and why and because I hope my story helps others facing similar challenges.

Mackinac Island

In January I entered the Go The Distance fitness event with US Masters Swimming. Go The Distance is designed to provide motivation for regular workouts over the course of the calendar year. Sponsors provide small rewards for hitting particular milestones, but the object of the event is not so much a competition as it is a way to pay attention to a regular exercise routine. USMS designed it to aid swimmers with committing to a long-term goal and provides tools for helping to track progress over the course of a longer timeframe– certainly much longer than a given workout, or even a week or month. A year of swimming is a lot to keep track of. Today I reached my goal: Mackinac Island (333 miles away).

When I was setting this goal, I dissembled over just how far I felt comfortable swimming in 2012. I swam 215 miles in 2011– my first year back of semi-regular swimming– and only the last three months of that included any time with the Masters team. So for 2012, I played around with a total distance somewhere between what I knew I could do from the previous year and that magical “mile a day” total of 366 miles. In January of 2012, 366 miles seemed very far away. (If you’re wondering why I didn’t use 365 miles for my upper limit, I point out the fact that 2012 was a leap year. There was an extra day to swim this year, and consequently I argued a true “mile a day” total must account for that extra day.) 366 miles is over 70% further than what I had accomplished the year before.

I considered my the ramp-up approach in 2011. At the beginning of the year I was swimming three times a week for a total of 3000-4000 yards. By the time December came around I was swimming five times a week and averaging 11000-12000 yards in the same timeframe. I knew was not going to triple my yardage again in 2012. Initially I planned on a total of 500 km (311 miles) and after a few months, I realized that I was on pace to hit that goal sometime in mid-October, but would probably fall short of 366 miles by the end of the year. That’s when the idea hit me to set my goal distance to be identical to the distance of the Chicago Yacht Club’s Race to Mackinac: 333 statute miles (536 kilometers, 290 nautical miles).

And now, today, I have accomplished that goal.

Along the way I swam in three meets: Evanston Masters Meet, Illinois State Meet and Big Shoulders. I tried open water swimming for the first time in my life. I took my wetsuit with me to Lake Tahoe and swam in that 54° water. I missed at least a dozen workouts in September while I recovered from a serious bout of bronchitis. And I still hit my goal two weeks ahead of schedule. Most recently I’ve been promoted out of my lane with the Blue Dolphins; I’m now swimming with the “fast kids”. I’m the slowest of the fast kids, but I’m swimming with them.

What’s next?

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while now, you may have heard this story before. Here’s the short summary. Man is out and about doing something totally mundane– walking home from a friend’s house or ferrying garbage and laundry across a lake in a small boat at the end of a summer vacation– when he suddenly and violently strikes his head. He is rushed to the hospital and falls into a coma. Meanwhile, the wife, not present at the scene, rushes to her husband, and waits. Because that’s what you do when someone you love is in a coma. You wait. The patient either comes out of it or doesn’t. In our story, the man does eventually awaken from the coma. Although it’s straining credulity a little bit to say he is the same person as he was before.

This is the story of traumatic brain injury. It is what happened to Alan Forman in the summer of 1996. And it is what happened to me in the beginning of 2005. Where Is the Mango Princess? is a non-fiction account by humorist Cathy Crimmins. Alan is Crimmins’ husband. His head was run over by a speedboat while the family was on vacation in Canada. The book is an intimate account of the effects of traumatic brain injury, not only on the direct victim, but on her, their daughter and every aspect of their lives.

My friend, Princess, told me about the book when we were talking about her senior level physiology class she’s taking this quarter at Northwestern. Part of this class comprises a disease symposium. Students group up and research a given topic. She has chosen traumatic brain injury and using the Forman case to present for the symposium. I’m reading the book for more personal reasons. I have a strong personal interest in TBI. Whirl is concerned that it is causing me distress to read this book. I admit there are a peculiar number of similarities in the cases. The sections about recovery and therapy have been the most troublesome for me, bringing up echos of my own anger and sense of helplessness at the time. Crimmins writes with a voice that is at once deeply personal, gut-wrenching and often hilarious. I applaud her for that.

When I’m finished with this book, it will stand alongside My Stroke of Insight, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Brainlash and Your Miracle Brain as part of my ever-growing library about scrambled eggs.

In late June, I made the decision to compete in the Big Shoulders 5K open water race. The race wasn’t until the end of summer, and since summer had only just begun, the end of it was a long time to go. Far too long to get worked up about. We’re talking June, and the race wasn’t until the second weekend in September. I mean, when I was a kid one summer was the equivalent of seven years! Maybe even more. One summer was a lifetime.

Well, June became July. July became the trip to Lake Tahoe, and before I knew it I was two weeks out from the race and asking my lane mates, Stephanie and Bernice, if they might be interested in skipping the usual open water practice and swim a test run from Ohio Street Beach to Ladder 1 and back. I figured that would be a fair approximation the Big Shoulders 5K distance. So we did. And I finished it. And I didn’t drown. (Whirl was happy for that.) I swam my regular practices in the pool, finished the last couple open water swims of the year and kept a watchful eye on the weather.

I put together this map of several of the Ohio Street Beach swim courses.

  • 1 mile course from the beach to Oak Street and back (blue)
  • 50 m sprints between the half-mile mark and the first ladder (red)
  • 2.6 mile loop from the beach to Ladder 1 (blue)
  • 2.5 km loop course for Big Shoulders (green)

Since March, the weather has been unseasonably warm. That’s kept the lake at very comfortable temperatures: ranging between 74 and 83F. I quickly learned that at those temperatures no wetsuit is required. That’s a good thing, because despite my child bride’s generous birthday gift of a new suit, I find swimming in a wetsuit an unnatural experience. I also learned that it doesn’t take much to radically change the water temperature. A good storm can churn things up so that the temperature drops 10 degrees or more in a day. I’m comfortable at 74F. 64F, not so much.

So for the ten days leading up to the race, I kept checking the weather. Day after day, everyone was reporting the same thing. Tom Skilling gleefully described a lengthy series of pleasant, sunny 85-degree days. Right up until Saturday. Race day. Skilling predicted a dramatic cold front would sweep in the night before the race that would drop the air temperature almost thirty degrees, bring rain and a strong, cold wind out of the north. You know, ideal conditions for swimming in a Great Lake. “Oh well,” I said to myself. “Can’t do much to change the weather. Not much use in worrying about it.”

Against the Waves

Saturday morning came and part of the weather prediction was true. The air temperature had dropped dramatically, but the clouds failed to materialize. And while mom, Whirl and I rode the bus to the beach, I allowed the optimistic thought that maybe the wind wouldn’t appear either. When we got to the beach, I saw my mistake. The wind — now blowing about 10-15 mph out of the northwest — was bringing in 1-2 foot rollers right down the lakeshore along the last leg of the course. So, if nothing else, we had that going for us: we would be able to bodysurf our way into the finish. And the water was not as rough as I had swam in over the summer. Hell, it was significantly worse when we did the run to Ladder 1 two weeks earlier.

But the sun was out. The Ohio Street Bouy was reporting water temperature at 75F.

I Y W tI met up with my teammates from Chicago Blue Dolphins. We worked our way through registration, picked up our goodie bags, got marked up with our numbers, attached timing chips to our ankles and waited impatiently for the course talk. At some point we started stretching with Bernice’s “I Y W t” routine and Whirl was there with the camera to capture us in the act. Stretch your arms up straight like you’re forming the letter “I”. Then “Y”. Then “W” then finally a lower-case “t”. Accompanying the stretch with a silly grin is strongly encouraged.

Before long the lifeguards took to their rowboats and took positions around the course. The elite first wave took to the water for the start. I should note here that this year’s qualifying time for that first wave was 1:08:00. Nearly three miles-per-hour.

And just a few minutes later I made my way into the water out to the start. With a rather subdued electronic beep, we were off. And the first major difference between a pool start and an open water start became intimately familiar. Pool starts, each swimmer has their own lane. There’s no contention for water or air. No one kicks you in the face or the chest. You don’t smack anyone else across the skull and you reach forward. It’s very controlled and civilized. An open water mass start isn’t. It’s a blinding churn of arms and legs and murky water. And I just hoped that I would travel along with most everyone else in the general direction of that first marker without losing my goggles.

Wave 3

By the time I rounded that first marker, my wave had stretched out and I was cruising along without difficulty other than the second major difference between open water swimming and pool swimming. In the lake there are no lane lines to either side, no painted lines on the bottom. Nothing. Now I’d practiced this arcane art of “sighting” all summer in our open water practices but somewhere in the excitement of the moment, I seemed to have forgotten most of what I’d learned. I swam pretty wide on several of the legs. That’s one of the areas I can definitely improve upon for next time.

After the start, the remainder of the swim fell into a comfortable rhythm. I was passed by a few swimmers from the waves behind me, and I passed a few people in the waves ahead of me. My goal was to finish the race in 1:45:00, with a stretch goal of finishing in 1:30:00. Official results were posted online in the afternoon:

1:33:50Not Ryan Lochte calibre, but I am extremely pleased. A couple points of comparision: Adam Dawkins (0:59:25) was the overall winner, Barbara Richter (1:01:51) was top finisher for the women and second only behind Dawkins. Daniel Hamzik, 69, (1:25:24) was the oldest swimmer in the race to post a finishing time in the 5K, beating my time by eight minutes. John Le Bourgeois, 74, posted a 0:53:09 in the 2.5K race. Three 60-year old women finished the 5K, Laurie Tanimura (1:34:55) was the fastest in that division. In my division, Men 40-44, there were eight of us between 1:30 and 1:34. And across all divisions there were 55 swimmers in that time range. Which tells me while I’m not the fastest by a longshot, I’m right there in the middle of things. And that gives me a great boost of confidence and inspiration to try it again next year. It really was a blast.

I’d like to thank Whirl and my mom for coming out early in the morning to cheer me on and all my friends and family who gave their support over the summer. It was exciting challenge and I am really happy to have done it.

Thank you!

I spent Saturday and part of Sunday at the UIC Flames Natatorium for the ILMSA State Meet. I swam five events in total, three of them relays. If I discount my times from when I swam as a kid, I posted personal best times in both individual events. Two of my relay split times were consistent, and one was impossibly off (0:20.45), so I’m sure that’s not accurate.

  • Mixed 200 Medley Relay (Free) : 0:31.09
  • Men 200 Free (seed 2:36.00) : 2:29.39
  • Men 100 Breast (seed 1:32.00) : 1:23.58
  • Men 200 Free Relay (3rd) : N/A
  • Mixed 200 Free Relay (3rd) : 0:31.84

I had intended only to swim on Saturday after failing to meet the registration deadline for the 500 Free which ran on Sunday. Fitz, my coach, asked if I could sub for a leg of the Mixed 200 Free Relay, so I agreed to come back. I did a long warmup and cooldown around the race and turned Sunday into an abbreviated version of my weekend practice.

The Chicago Blue Dolphins entered 19 swimmers in the meet, and that was a huge difference between my experience in Evanston where I was the sole representative and here. The team hung out together between events, encouraged each other, posed for pictures and generally contributed to that spirit of camaraderie that had been missing the first time around.

Whirl came along and cheered me on. Spencer and Templar came out to spend the afternoon at the pool and cheer as well. Once again, my squad of loyal fans adopted my (much speedier) work colleague, Brent, and cheered for him, too. Brent was the sole representative for his team at the state meet.

I know I’ve got some work to be competitive in my age group, but I am seeing steady progress on my times. I dropped seven seconds from the time on 200 Free I posted in Evanston. I dropped nine seconds off my practice time-trial seed time on the 100 Breast. My 100 yard split in the 200 Free was only a second slower than my goal time for the year in that event and the entire time for the event was only three seconds off my goal pace for the year.

Before the meet on Sunday, I stopped by Niqui’s house to try on a used men’s wetsuit she is interested in getting rid of. As Doug Sohn — of Hot Doug’s — proudly states, “There are no two finer words in the English language than ‘encased meats’, my friend.” After 15-20 minutes of wrestling with the wetsuit I successfully transformed myself into an ostensibly buoyant encased meat. Or a penguin.

I went through all of the trials of the wetsuit as a prerequisite to attempting some open water swimming later this year. There are a couple of events on the horizon that I’m considering where a wetsuit could be useful besides just practicing in Lake Michigan, Lake Tahoe and Donner Lake this summer:

Now, get back in the pool!

I got to thinking about the 2012 Go the Distance event I signed up for at the beginning of the year. I mentioned it a while back. Since January I’ve been keeping track of my progress and most recently I’ve tweaked my goal a little bit. I was thinking about a way to visualize my progress beyond what I could see in a spreadsheet or a chart. That got me thinking about how far 500 kilometers really is. I started looking at maps, and it turns out the length of Lake Michigan is pretty close to that same distance.

A bit of research here and there and I found the course map for the Chicago Yacht Club’s Race to Mackinac. It is the oldest annual freshwater distance sailboat race in the world. 536 kilometers (333 statute miles, 289.4 nautical miles) from Chicago, starting just off Navy Pier, to Mackinac Island, Michigan. After I read that, I had my goal. I could swim to Mackinac. Not all at once, mind you, but over the course of a year, I could make it. Follow along.

At the end of each month, I am adding a checkpoint along the route. I am also marking when I hit certain recognized milestone achievements. My ultimate goal is to reach Mackinac Island by the end of the year.

If you’d like something a little more immediate, the ILMSA State Meet is next weekend: April 19-22. It will be held at the UIC Flames Natatorium in the Physical Education Building at UIC. This is the same location where I swim with my team. I’m excited to see how I do. Thursday and Friday are in the evening only: 1000 Free; I’m not attempting that this time around. I am swimming two individual events on Saturday:

  • Event 14: 200 Free
  • Event 18: 100 Breast

It’s highly likely my coach will place me in a relay as well, either the 200 Medley or the 200 Free. I toyed with the idea of swimming the 500 Free on Sunday, but by the time I got around to registering for the meet the 500 Free was already closed. Cheer my teammates and me on if you like. Should be quite a show with some very fast swimmers entered into the meet.

Reserve your seats, now! The ILMSA State Meet is two months away. I know this because the pool where I practice on Tuesday evenings, the UIC Flames Natatorium, has been reconfigured from the eight-lane 50 meter long course pool to an eight-lane 25 yard short course pool. Teammates have informed me this happens every year and the pool will remain in this configuration through April.

At first I thought that’s too bad, I’d really come to enjoy swimming in the long pool. Then I considered the upside. I’ll have the advantage of regularly swimming in the competition pool for several weeks before the big meet. I decided back in January to give the State Meet a shot. And to prepare myself, I swam three events in the Evanston Meet in late January. Despite a vicious case of nervousness, I managed to acquit myself without an overly undue amount of embarrassment. I swam three events and turned in three personal best times, beating my seed times in each event if we don’t count my DQ in the 100 Free due to a rolling start. I did say I was nervous, right? Anyway, here are my results from the Evanston Masters Swim Meet on January 22nd.

  • 100 Free : 1:12
  • 50 Breast : 0:39
  • 200 Free : 2:36

Whirl woke up with me at Oh God-thirty, came along and cheered me on. My friends Farmboy, Princess, Spencer and Templar came out to spend the morning at the pool and cheer as well. It felt great! Incidentally, my squad of loyal fans adopted my (much speedier) work colleague, Brent, and cheered for him, too.

The whole experience got me thinking about setting some actual goals for the upcoming year and see how close we come to hitting them. To that end, Niqui turned me on to the USMS program: Go The Distance.

Go the Distance is a self-directed program intended to encourage Masters swimmers to regularly exercise and track their progress. There is no time limit for the distance milestones, except that they must be achieved in the calendar year 2012. GTD is on the honor system– you track the distance you swim. […] When you achieve certain milestones, ranging from 50 miles through 1500 miles, you will be recognized on the U.S. Masters Swimming website and will receive special prizes from Nike Swim, our event title sponsor for the event.

Initially I wavered on a target distance. First I thought a mile a day. Since 2012 is a leap year, that would mean 366 miles. When I compared that goal to the yardage I turned in for 2011 (216 miles), I decided perhaps I should scale back a bit. — I settled on the distance of half a million meters. That translates to a little more than 310 miles but sounds so much more impressive. Right!?

So that’s one goal. Now I’m looking at my times and thinking of some others. I’d like to be able to compare where I am now to where I was at my peak at 18 or 19, I’m just not sure I have any of those times anywhere. I’ll have to look around. Anyway, that may not be terribly realistic at this stage, so I’ll focus on something that is more in line with my current performance. I’d love to drop my 500 Free time below seven minutes, shave a couple seconds off my 100 Free and see if I can get a competitive time in the 200 Free. As far as stroke events, I’m less certain, but faster is always better.

So let’s stretch it out a bit. Without further ado, here are some goal thoughts for 2012:

  • 100 Free : 1:08
  • 200 Free : 2:26
  • 500 Free : 6:55
  • 1000 Free : 14:20
  • 1500 Free : 21:30
  • 100 Back : 1:20
  • 50 Breast : 0:37
  • 100 Breast : 1:16
  • 200 IM : 2:34
  • One hour nonstop distance : 4100 yards
  • Total distance : 500000 meters

I’m not expecting to hit all (or even any) of these goals at the State Meet, but hopefully come December I will have achieved a few of them and pushed myself to set some new ones.

See you in the pool!

So it’s been a year of swimming regularly. I started thinking about it as something to do to augment my regular exercise and after a year I’ve found that swimming has not only taken over but I just sent in a registration form to compete in an honest-to-God swim meet. And not some little fuck-around meet, either. A big one. With blocks and timing pads and everything! It’s kind of a big deal.

As I was sealing up the envelope with my registration form inside I started asking myself how I got here. What changed? And what had I actually accomplished along the way. I’m not sure what exactly changed, other than enjoying it. It was fairly simple to alter the workout routine to substitute swimming for my typical cardio work. As I re-familiarized myself with the pool, I did it more and more, and the elliptical less and less. I started off swimming 1000 yards on my lunch hour, two or three times a week. Now I’m swimming five days a week, three days on my own and twice a week with a USMS team. I’m averaging 14000 yards a week– about five times what I started doing.

So there’s that. What’s more I started keeping track of things as the year progressed. I mean, it’s swimming. You go up the lane, you flip around and you come back down the lane. Up and back, up and back, up and back. It’s not the most exciting of exercises.

For several months I swam the same workout each time. I started with five 200 Free on whatever it took to do them. When I completed five of them, I congratulated myself, got out of the pool and walked around feeling virtuous the rest of the day. As I got stronger, my times dropped and I could complete the workout in less time. Eventually I added a sixth 200 Free, but by that time I was pretty bored.

So I watched the clock. I started playing games with myself. Can I do this 50 in less than a minute? Can I string a set of three 200 Free on the 4:00 together without completely gasping out? Can I catch that guy swimming a lane over? I think it was that last one that did it. Having those little imaginary races in my head with other people in the pool. They didn’t know they were racing me. Or maybe they did; I don’t know. Maybe they were doing the same thing to me. We never talked about it.

I started tinkering with my workout. I tried to remember the workouts from when I was a kid– that was fruitless. I turned to online to look for help, and initially that was only mildly helpful. Workouts are all over the place in terms of intensity, distance and goals. Triathlons have become popular forms of exercise and there are a number of suggestions for workouts as part of triathlon training. I looked at some of those and mixed things up a bit, but nothing really fit right. Eventually I discovered a website run by some Kiwis out of New Zealand that provided customized workouts. Swimplan asks you to enter some basic information about yourself, your swim ability and your facilities and then kicks out up to five workouts every day for you to choose from. By this point I was swimming regularly five days a week: three times during the workweek and twice on weekends. I signed up, punched in my basic numbers and waited to see what it would suggest. It kicked out at 2200 yard workout, nearly double what I had been swimming on a daily basis. But the workout was broken down into sections: warm up, build up, core and warm down. It had sets. It had intervals. It suggested appropriate rest and intensity levels. It was, essentially, a stand in coach.

And I ate it up. I took that first workout with me to the pool and was through it much faster than I had anticipated. And I felt great afterward. I thought I would be completely gassed after doubling my workout. I wasn’t. Over the next few months I refined my information, added time trial data. I bought some paddles and a pull bouy so I could drill with those. Swimplan supplies appropriate drills depending on what equipment you tell it you have.

Swimming was very much part of my daily routine. Whirl commented that if I went too many days without swimming, I would grow crabbier and irritable. Complete a workout and I would return to calm, cool and collected. Endorphins are amazing that way. I got to know a few of the regular swimmers at the pool, people I ran into every week. In more than a few conversations, it was suggested that I look into Masters swimming. In mid-October I followed up on those suggestions and I’ve been very happy about that decision ever since.

The end of the year has been plagued by some facilities problems with my regular lunchtime gym. The pool has been intermittently out of commission starting in November. So an added benefit of joining the team is that team practice has given me another outlet while the gym tries to fix their pool.

My highlight accomplishment has to have been the Hour of Power workout in late December. The workout was very simple: swim non-stop for an hour. They kept track of our distance and recorded our time at the end of every 50. I swam 3850 yards in an hour, approximately 2.2 miles. And what is more impressive is that I kept a much steadier pace than I could have hoped for.

Some accomplishments over the past year swimming:

  • Weight Loss : 43 pounds
  • Weight Loss : 6 inches off my waist
  • One hour nonstop distance : 3850 yards
  • 100 Free : 1:13
  • 200 Free : 2:41
  • 500 Free : 7:23
  • 1000 Free : 15:26
  • 100 Back : 1:35
  • 100 Breast : 1:36

I plan to use those results to build some goals for the next year. But before that, it’s off to the races!