Confidence part 2: watching the suck
Updated: Jun 24
This year, I'm working towards new goals and taking on my longest swim yet. You can read more about that here if you like. It's become an opportunity to document how I prepare myself for longer swims, and to share what I'm learning along the way in case my practices and experiences help others in their own swimming.
I've decided to tackle the subject of confidence this week, just ahead of my first swim of the season this coming Saturday. Tonight, let's talk about learning to deal with shit that sucks.
Another little secret: it took more than 6 years of marathon swimming for me to use the words "marathon swimmer" to confidently describe myself, and another 2 years to be able to use the word "athlete" in the same context. That's 8 years of struggling with my athletic identity, for a sport I absolutely love.
Why? I didn't grow up with confidence in myself, and that carried over into my adult life, no one's fault, I just always felt like somehow it was better for me to stay small and hide. The turning point started in 2018, even though it took several years afterwards for me to use those words with any genuine confidence.
In 2018, I attempted a double crossing of Massawippi (30km), but pulled myself at 20km because my back hurt and I had messed up my feeds and was feeling really sick. I didn't go into it well prepared, and that sucked, I had let myself down. I had to tell my kayaker I was making the call to exit, that sucked too, I felt like I had let him down. The crew boat picked me up to take me to the finish, I felt embarrassed and especially low when we passed by another swimmer who immediately stopped and shouted out to ask if I was hurt...she stopped her own swim to make sure I was ok...it was really touching. Fuck that sucked. I had a good cry back at the hotel.
That swim was a really good experience for me, I started taking my preparation more seriously, I was going to need to if i ever wanted to go longer. But as marathon swimmers we also HAVE to be ok with the notion we may not finish a swim, even when we do everything within our control to prepare. Mother nature might not let you pass, the boat might break down, your crew might get sick, whatever. You have to be able to go into a swim willing to give yourself over to the process and trust it will play out the way it's meant to. But that is really, really hard if you lack confidence in yourself to start with, and a big swim can feel like an insurmountable challenge, even when it's really not.
I learned a lot of important things from my Massawippi DNF, but the suck was brutal and really stayed with me for a long time too. I had to find a way to distance myself from it, let go of its hold over my athletic identity. I've talked before about the book The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion, by Simon Marshall. There's a chapter about building athletic identity, and an exercise called "Watching the Suck", it really helped.
In the exercise, you recreate the situation or negative experience in your mind, down to every detail you can remember - sights, sounds, smells. Then you hover over it, watching the situation play out from above, and try to pick out the thoughts and feelings that you, down there on the ground (or me in the water, as it were), are experiencing. Describe and label what you see, the thoughts and feelings you remember having, but always staying above, watching from a distance.
The exercise was a way for me to detach myself from that experience, by watching the suck play out all over again, and facing how it felt. But I get to leave my feelings down there, separating the real me from the situation. It doesn't own me, I own me.
And once I could really start to stand apart from it, it started to lose its power over me, and my confidence grew. I also learned some new swim terms:
DNF = did not finish
DNF = did nothing foolish
DNF = did nothing fatal
DNF = did not fuck up