This week, I am sharing a four-part series on turning and being 40. This is the fourth and final essay.
On my 40th birthday, I jumped into the clear, 50 meter pool and effortlessly careened my way towards the other end. A clear sky opened up and the glowing sun warmed by back as I plowed through the water. My mind was lucid with only positive thoughts and energy as the endorphin-burst pushed me ahead. Riding on the euphoria, a decision I had waivered on for the last month, was clarified. Yes, I would register in the race to swim across Lake Taupo the following weekend. But while I had previously thought my comfort level would be limited to the 2 km swim, I suddenly knew I had the confidence, fitness, and mental strength to swim the longest distance of 4.2 km.
In preparation for the swim, I had been training a couple times a week for the past six months. As the summer rolled around, I pushed myself to swim 4-5 days a week and longer distances each time. A couple of weeks before my 40th and still doubtful of my ability to swim the long-haul, I realized I would have to try and swim a non-stop distance of at least 2 km in the pool to gauge whether I could indeed sustain myself for at least that distance. I realized my apprehension and fears of even the practice swim and the eventual lake swim race were mirrored by my anxiety of turning 40. The swim training, the imminent lake race and my approach to 40 were all looming countdowns of distance and time in my head.
A 2 km swim in a 50 meter pool is 40 lengths, and so it’s no surprise that I counted each length I swam on that practice swim as a year in my life. Sometimes I counted forward, sometimes I counted back. The first few lengths were easy enough and then I tried to transition into a pace for the next 1.5 km. I would be lying if I said I didn’t struggle during most of the swim, especially as other younger, fitter swimmers came into my lane and passed me several times. There were other interruptions along the way. My arms started to ache as if heavy bricks were strapped to them. Around 36 lengths, I had to switch lanes and begrudgingly finished the last four lengths. At the completion of the swim, I felt drained, skeptical and uncertain. These fleeting feelings of doubt did not help the positive mindset I was also trying to channel for my upcoming milestone 40th.
So how did the pendulum swing from the gutted feeling of deflation I experienced during the last weeks of my 30s to the confidence, mental readiness, and inner peace I experienced on my 40th birthday? I can’t put my finger on anything that just seemed to click. Experience has shown me in recent years that it’s pointless to worry about certain things out of my own control. Things like turning 40 or being the best swimmer in the pool or lake swim. Experience has also shown me that the factors in my control usually do prepare me for big personal feats and endeavors. Just like I was uncertain about how 40 would be, the big 4.2 km swim across the lake would be an unknown, uncertain, abstract feat until I actually experienced it. All my previous 39 years had allowed me to succeed, fail, dabble, experiment, prove, sustain, and be prepared for 40. Life would continue on after 40 with more trials and tribulations, moments of joy, disappointments, contradictions and daily hubbub. Similarly, my decades of swimming, endurance building, and physical travel through countless swimming pools, lakes, rivers, and seas all over the world had proven that the 4.2 km Taupo swim I had built up to epic proportions in my head would be another “swim in the lake”. Like my decision to embrace 40, I decided the lake swim would be about the experience itself, and I would embrace and savor it as well.
A gentle, dawning glow permeated through the sunrise as I stood on the shore of Acacia Bay looking out across Lake Taupo. My companions were friendly strangers- fellow swimmers who assisted me with my wet suit and settling my nerves with pre-race chit chat. With the announcement of the start of the race, I took a step aside, away from the rush of the crowd into the lake. As I descended into the water, a calmness settled within me. Pointed towards Sandfly Hill, my focal point on the opposite side of the lake, I glided through the water like I had always done thousands of times before. There were brightly colored buoys and boats set as markers along the way, but I didn’t have any sense of how much distance I had covered. When I reached roughly the middle of the lake, I stopped. Treading water, I looked behind me to the ant-sized cars and houses on the distant shore I had started from and then to the vastness of the lake around me. Kayakers and other swimmers were roughly 30-50 meters away from me, but essentially I was all alone. Through the wispy, delicate clouds of the morning sky, the sun began to poke through, beckoning me home to the shore ahead of me. Then, for those few moments, my mind let go of my worries, anxieties, and looming responsibilities and I just decided to be. I enveloped those moments, took a deep breathe, and resubmerged my head in the water to continue my swim.
Let me just say that when I turned 40 (long ago) I was frankly depressed. What a silly landmark, one of many arbitrary ones, in our strange culture. Uncle Mark