I have a whackjob theory that is in no way supported by science: Everybody has their One True Sport. It is the physical activity that gives you an endorphin rush. It's the one that makes you feel wholly integrated, body and mind, and once you're done with it, you're simultaneously calmed and energized and the world makes sense for about 20 minutes.
My One True Sport is swimming. I was never considered a good swimmer on swim team, but that was because most swimming events are not all that long and I am built for distance. My idea of a good warm-up is 400 yards. If you ever need someone to swim a negative split over a mile or two? I'm your lady.
I tried from high school on to make running my One True Sport. Running has so much to recommend it: It's highly portable; it's an efficient way to improve cardio and burn calories; it's solitary; it's the kind of physical activity where you can get into a pleasing rhythm, which is conductive to slipping into the zone or meditating or whatever.
(I do a lot of thinking in the pool, mostly because I can just slide into a smooth rhythm and live in it for a thousand yards or so. It is a great way to start the day. The mornings I don't swim are the mornings I feel as if the inside of my head is an unmade bed.)
Oh, how I tried to make running the One True Sport. I made early-morning running dates with friends. I had my dad the former cross-country star run with me. I met friends after work for quick two-mile loops. I did 5Ks. I did 10Ks. In 1999, I signed up for my first marathon and ran the USMC Marathon in Washington, D.C. I pounded treadmills and read Runner's World and packed my running shoes on every trip I went on. I made mixed tapes, then I made MP3 mixes. I quit for a while, then I signed up for another marathon and ran it in 2004.
I first tried to make running my One True Sport in 1984. I ran my last race in 2004.
Not once in twenty years of trying did I feel a single endorphin rush. I always felt leaden, hot, sticky, clumsy. If I felt anything after any run ever, it was relief that it was over and pride that I had stuck to it.
In 2009, on impulse, I signed up for my first open-water race. It was nothing big, just half a mile. I had never done a mass open-water swim, I had never gotten any coaching, I had no idea how to start. I finished in the top third of the entire field my first time out, and I may have actually levitated out of the water on the strength of the incredible, full-body buzz I had going. Everything, from the moment I drafted on someone's horrible too-fast flutter kick to my own strong finish, had come together in a poem of syncopation. I was utterly in each moment. I had achieved flow.
"I'm going to be spending the rest of our marriage in a rowboat, spotting you as you swim larger and larger bodies of water," Phil said as I floated over to him on the finish. "Yep," I said. "I need to do that again. Do you think they'll let me do that again? Like, right now? The lake is still there."
But then we had a surprise baby who didn't sleep for 27 months straight, and in the middle of that we sold and bought some houses, and it wasn't until last fall that I had the mental and emotional resources to say, This is important to me. I'm going to make the time to swim, because I need to feel like myself again.
This year's swimming is for next year's racing.
But here's the pisser of it. I hated running, but I loved race days. I love the energy and all the human greyhounds in their tiny shorts and their race bibs. I love the end of the race with the tents and the milling people and the virtuous buzz of having pushed yourself hard before 9 a.m. in the morning. I loved collecting the t-shirts.
I loved the experience of running the USMC Marathon both times. I loved the spectators who cheered for people by name. I loved the rituals before the race -- picking up your bib and your chip, getting up that morning and walking through the silent streets of Ballston to be at the Metro when it opened, feeling the race start as a series of ripples through the crowd. I loved the part after the race where I was elated and exhausted, and everyone around me was smiling as much as I was.
Let's face it: You can't really line the middle of a lake (or bay, or ocean) with cheering spectators. My sample size is one race, but it was not nearly so much fun, before or after the race, as a 5K.
I have a lot of girlfriends who run, and every time I see their race photos on Facebook, I feel a little pang. I'm happy for them and proud of them. But I'm envious. If I could find a way to swim alongside them, I would.