The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Swimmer

I could tell right away my companions had me pegged as a dilettante the other day when I tried putting on my wetsuit while we prepared for a morning swim off Noank.

"Uhh, Steve, I think it's inside-out," said my old buddy, Spyros "Spy" Barres.

"Of course," I chuckled. "I was just testing the fit."

After peeling off neoprene I started jamming my feet into the snug-fitting garment.

"Now it's backwards," said Mary Georgetti.

"Right," I replied, pulling my feet out and starting again. "How do you guys get this damn thing on? I feel like I need the Jaws of Life."

"Maybe the triathlon isn't your sport," suggested Pam Dolan.

Mary and Pam, both of Mystic, are competitive swimmers and triathletes. Spy, also of Mystic, is one of the region's top runners who dabbles in numerous other sports and adventures.

I'm not exactly a fish out of water, but tend to gravitate toward running, hiking and kayaking. I hadn't swum more than a few yards in the past year before our workout, but had decided I'd better get in a little training if I intended to follow through with an event planned in a few weeks: a swim from Groton Long Point to Fishers Island.

Spy and I accomplished that feat a few years ago, more of less on a lark.

It's not an overwhelmingly arduous undertaking, about 3 miles, though tides, currents and jellyfish can ratchet up the difficulty.

He and the others have been swimming regularly in preparation; I've had scheduling conflicts that kept me out of the water before last week.

Anyway, once I got my wetsuit and goggles on we hit the water off Noank's town dock, near the mouth of the Mystic River. Our goal: swim to a tiny islet off Ram Island and back again, a distance of about 1.5 miles, allowing for some meandering around moored boats.

Whenever I run, hike, bike or paddle with friends I'm accustomed to carrying on conversations, telling jokes, discussing politics, reliving past adventures and planning new ones. Swimming, of course, eliminates all that.

Compounding my isolation was the fact that my goggles instantly fogged up. My three companions disappeared. Within seconds I felt as if I were attempting a solo crossing of the English Channel.

I periodically switched from a crawl stroke to a breaststroke so I could raise my head out of the water and adjust my course. I wound up zigzagging crazily in the direction of Ram Island, though for much of the time I couldn't be entirely certain where I was heading.

Finally, after about 40 minutes Pam and Mary appeared in front of me. They had spotted me and helped guide me to the islet.

All things considered, I hadn't done too badly, and the ache in my right shoulder, which had been a little tender at the start, had mostly diminished.

When I tried standing up in the sand off Ram Island I felt momentarily like a drunken sailor and nearly toppled over. Even with all the kayaking I do it takes me a while to get my sea legs.

No matter; it was time to swim back.

Pam set the course: "Aim for that green buoy, then the blue sailboat, then the church steeple."

Right. Once again, I plunged into a void and felt totally disoriented.

Forty minutes later I spotted three swimming caps bobbing ahead of me. The trio was treading water just before the river channel we had to cross to get back to the town dock.

"Thanks for waiting," I spluttered. "Better to get across together."

Luckily, boat traffic was light and we made it unscathed.

Happily, I managed to remove my wetsuit without falling on my face, and felt refreshed enough later to go on a 10-mile hike.

I've been back in the water a few times since then and am starting to feel more comfortable, and even for a few strokes felt in "the zone," that near-meditative state in which your body shifts to autopilot and your mind drifts. I hope I can achieve that during the Fishers Island swim went in a few weeks. I'll let you know how we make out. At this point, though, I don't think Michael Phelps has to worry about any of his records being broken any time soon.

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