That wise old soul Eleanor Roosevelt famously preached about the psychological benefits of doing one thing each day that terrifies you.
I doubt very much she was talking about Googling “Donald Trump’s Worst Hair Days” or stepping on the scales right after the summer holidays.
No, she was referring to the many positive rewards that can be ours for the taking … if only we are brave enough to push outside of our comfort zones.
Which is how I found myself last Saturday morning, on the wrong side of forty – and of Spetses – about to attempt my first-ever open-sea crossing.
When a group of close friends from Athens began lobbying me back in August to join their team bid for the popular 3km swim event at the annual Spetses Mini Marathon, I was a swinging voter.
Growing up in Australia, I’d been a textbook water baby. I’d competed regularly in regional swimming championships and clocked up countless joyful hours in our swimming pool and in the surf (with the pruny fingers and red eyes to prove it). I’ll never forget the heady freedom of swimming in the ocean. Feeling preternaturally alive and alert and utterly in the moment; while simultaneously transported to another dream-like existence.
But somewhere along the way, I’d grown squeamish about the Big Blue. Perhaps thanks to the Great Blue Bottle Attack of 1989. I walked into a giant nest of blue bottles in the surf outside our beach house on the Gold Coast, and ended up with over 160 individual painful stings all over my arms and legs (that’s Australia for you!). At any rate, as with so many of our childhood passions, I let my love of sea swimming slide. Settled instead into an unchanging routine of weekly gym workouts, yoga classes and hikes. When I swam in the sea, it was merely a “dip in, dip out affair” for the purposes of cooling off.
I considered myself reasonably fit. But I was stuck in an exercise rut. Even so, the Path to Self-Improvement is paved with Good Excuses. “I don’t like cold water”, I told my friends. “I’ll never make it. The longest I’ve ever swum non-stop is about 1km.”
“My freestyle is rubbish these days. I’ll have to do breast-stroke and you’ll all leave me for dead.”
“There’s been an oil spill. How can we possibly train for the race now?”
My biggest and most valid fear though was the debilitating pain I now get in the nerve endings in the fingers of my right hand anytime I encounter hot or cold water (legacy of decades of writing).
In the end, it was the powerful lure of reclaiming that special lost part of my childhood self that spoke loudest.
So I brought myself a pair of “yia yia gloves” from Intersport– those oh-so-stylish wetsuit material mittens – to deal with the nerve pains. And said yes.
Which brings me back to last Saturday and me standing with my fellow members of “Team Glide” on the shores of Kosta, near Porto Heli, at a few minutes before 11am, nervously sizing up the island of Spetses from across the clear expanse of water.
At least the weather gods are on our side. Last year, conditions were so vile and choppy, organisers almost had to call it all off. But this year, the weather is swim-perfect: unseasonably warm with calm, still waters.
Behind us – making both an inspiring and intimidating presence – is Spetses Swim veteran and ex-Hollywood legend Bo Derek, still looking ravishingly fit at age 60 in her purple rash vest.
Along with Bo, there are hundreds of serious looking contenders – all kitted out, stretched out and seemingly poised for glory. Personally, all I want to achieve is to actually make it to the other side.
So, before I let you in on how I did, here are some Life Lessons that I learned from the Spetses Swim:
The Human Competitive Streak is not a Pretty Thing
So, you think Athens drivers are bad? Try launching yourself simultaneously along with 500 fellow swimmers from the narrow shores of Kosta beach. Every man for himself has never been truer. I’m sad to say there was some quite unsporting behavior on display. For the first quarter of the race, dozens of competitors meandered across my path or deliberately ploughed right into me. Without so much as a by your leave; let alone an apologetic wave. Many people I spoke to afterwards had the same experience. One of my team-mates actually had someone grab her by the ankle from behind and yank her back in the water! Later on, it all became much more enjoyable and less stressful as the frantic field of swimmers spread out and I was able to find my own “happy place”.
Everyone’s Scared of Something
For some of my team-mates, it was the threat of cramps or chaffing. For others, it was goggle failure, being churned about by the mob (see above!), or a primeval terror of The Deep. Our fears may be different. But it’s reassuring to realize that all of us have them!
Perspective is Everything (aka: Things aren’t Always what they Seem)
It had all looked like a bit of a doddle from the shores of Kosta. But just like that eternal water mirage in the desert, that damned port of Dapia just never seemed to get any closer, no matter how far I swam!
You’ve Always Got More To Give
There were times when I felt so leaden and mentally-drained that my self-belief took a nose-dive. I’d never swum this far before in my life! At these moments, you’ve just got to give yourself a stern talking to and be your own personal cheerleader. I also made myself imagine how amazing it would feel when I finally set foot on dry land on the other side. We’ve all got powerful reserves of will and physical strength to draw on when we need them. As I got closer, I could hear the party music and cheering of crowds waiting on the beach and that was hugely motivating.
Mindfulness Does Matter
When the mad scrum of swimmers and their anti-social behaviours threatened my mojo, I made use of my yoga techniques. I concentrated instead on my breathing; on how pleasant the water temperature was; and on really taking in my stunning surroundings to acknowledge how special this experience was. It really helped block out everything but my own journey.
An Experience Shared is an Experience Squared
I’ve always been more of a soloist when it comes to exercise. Solitary hikes and gym workouts. But for the first time, I experienced the exponential enjoyment that comes with sharing a challenging new experience with a team. It made everything that much more fun and meaningful (especially the after-party!).
The Power of “No Turning Back”
Even when I got tired and felt myself really wanting to turn around to check how far I’d come… I resisted. If it wasn’t as far as I thought, I knew it would sabotage my resolve and stamina. So I grit my teeth and focused instead on the goal in front of me.
Run your own Race …
I’d been anxious about feeling conspicuous (not to mention slow) not doing the more acceptable front crawl. But on the day, people were swimming with snorkels, with flippers, and all manner of props. One old guy was reclining on his back and just kicking his legs like he was in the bathtub. I stuck to my breaststroke – and threw in some freestyle occasionally when I needed to get a motor on. But I very quickly stopped worrying about what everyone else was doing and just got on with my “own thing”, which is a pretty good life metaphor.
… But Sometimes Your Friends Know You Better than You Know Yourself
Thank you Team Glide for getting me back in the water after all these years! It was just the life lift I needed.
And finally …
Confronting your Fears Feels Awesome
Coming out of that water at the other end and feeling that rush of achievement that comes with surpassing your expectations is one of life’s most powerful and addictive highs. I completed the crossing in 1 hour and 10 minutes (beating lovely Bo, actually!). And I’ve got no intention of hanging up my yia yia gloves anytime soon. Today I just signed up for the XTERRA Vouliagmeni Challenge in a few weeks’ time!
Insider Weekly, October 11, 2017.