I was often asked by interviewers whether the long torturous hours swimming in the ocean were tougher on the body or the mind. My answer was: It starts with the body. If those shoulders are not trained, if the whole body (swimming, along with cross country skiing, are the two activities that require every muscle in the body to work, every stroke) has not undergone countless hours of repetition out there, mind over matter is not going to save the day. But, once the body has been put through its rigors over many months, once a 12-hour continuous swim in the ocean is not a particularly tough challenge, that highly trained body goes into its natural work mode and now it’s the mind that needs to find its true grit to get you all the way to the other shore.
Unlike other tough endurance activities, such as climbing or trekking or running or cycling, where different hardships become the issues the athlete is forced to overcome, sensory deprivation is the challenge faced by the extreme long-distance swimmer. Your ears are covered with a tight cap, in an effort to keep from losing heat from the head. Your vision is hampered by only making a sightline to one side as you breathe, in my case 53 times per minute, toward either a boat or the shore or a line of buoys. In that brief turn of the head, you try to catch sight of something that allows you to swim in a direct line toward your goal.
With hearing and sight severely curtailed, you rather quickly retreat into the interior of your mind. You simply cannot keep up with concrete thinking. The left lobe of the brain gives way to the right lobe. You are close to a dream state, random thinking about the state of the universe crisscrossing your mind, random memories of different stages of your life flashing across your brain.
In order to keep my mind organized, keep me, best as I could, focused on what I was doing, where I was, what my goal was out there, I developed long algorithms of numbers to count.
With each entry of the left hand, for instance, I might count up to 10,000 in English, then in German, then in Spanish, then in French. And when I got to 10,000 in French, I would then count backward from 10,000 to 0 in French, then in Spanish, then in German, then finish in English.
I certainly have not been the athlete walker as I was the swimmer. And as a walker, I can rely on the sky and the trees and interesting historic architecture. My mind is not as isolated, with no sensory input whatsoever, as while swimming. But I certainly admit to hurt feet, low energy level, exasperation in feeling the minutes are passing at a glacial pace. That’s when I harken back to my swimming tricks. I count the steps, left foot only, that it will take to reach that red barn up ahead. In English. Once at the barn, I pick another landmark up ahead and count in German till I get there. And so on, in Spanish and in French. Sure enough, I get through a couple of hours, focused on my counting, and I am perhaps in a better state of mind to forge on.
The same thing with singing. Out in the ocean, I had a playlist of 85 songs. Everything from Janis Joplin and Elton John to simple tunes, when I was fatigued to the point of a confused mind, such as the Beverly Hillbillies Theme Song. (“Come listen to the story ‘bout a man named Jed, a poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed….”
The hours passed more quickly if I was hearing Elton John’s voice (no headphones allowed in the sport so I was just singing in my own mind) singing “Daniel is traveling tonight on a plane….”. And I might sing that same song to myself literally hundreds of times, with a goal of not losing count. I might sing “Daniel”, first note to last, five hundred times.
Well, to get through some tough miles of walking, I now also sing to myself. I still don’t use headphones. I guess old habits die hard. And I enjoy singing songs that somehow have a walking theme to them. There are the military marching cadence songs (“I don’t know but I’ve been told, streets of Atlanta paved with gold….”). Then I put a different city into each verse (“streets of Bogota, streets of Cairo, etc, paved with gold, and see how many cities of the world I can go through for a couple of hours.
One of my favorite go-to’s is Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line”. My feet fall right into cadence:
I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds
Because you’re mine, I walk the line.
Works for me every time.
I love going all out with the Four Seasons and their falsettos in “Walk Like a Man”.
He said Walk Like a Man
Talk like a man
Walk like a man my son
No woman’s worth
Crawling on the earth
So walk like a man my son
Oooo wee ooooh wee ooh weee ooooh
Walk, walk, walk, walk
That one makes me happy and after a few choruses, my feet just aren’t hurting so much.
Then there’s “Walk Like an Egyptian”. So many more. But the one that always brings me out of a funk on a hard day on the road is Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking”.
When you build to that last line, you are soaring, your sore feet no longer a focus.
One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you
So here I am these days more a walker than a swimmer. But it seems those same tricks of counting and singing are again helping me get through the occasional tough miles. How about you? Do you count or sing when the road looms long in front of you?