I Love the Smell of Chlorine in the Morning

The intention here is to distill the experience of swimming, which involves all five senses, into written word.  I don’t mean to describe the perfect stroke, or explain drills or workouts.  I want to explain swimming as best I can; it’s commonplace and yet complex.  Do you and I experience swimming the same way?  Does your stubbed toe feel the same to you as my stubbed toe feels to me?  Do you hear Beethoven’s Fifth, or see the Milky Way, or feel a cold shower or an orgasm or a headache, the same way I do?

I jump in, feet first, at the deep end of the community pool where I do most of my swim training.  This end has starting blocks perched at the ends of the six lanes.  The pool deck has cinder block walls (painted a shade of yellow that succeeds so completely in disappearing that I remembered it as light blue in the first draft of this article, then realized after yesterday’s swim that it is an utterly indescribable yellow and probably the true color of black holes) on three sides.  The fourth side is glass floor-length windows and sliding doors looking out onto a bare cement patio bordered by a six-foot picket fence with peeling brown paint.  Apartment buildings and spires of pine tree rise up beyond the fence.

The deck of the pool is a collage of small blue and white square tiles.  The far end of the pool, twenty-five meters away, is three and a half feet deep.  Everyone else I have ever seen at the pool–except for the high school swim team, who used the pool when their usual pool was out of order–pushes off, lands, and keeps their gear at the shallow end.  The lifeguards, wearing faded green t-shirts, work in twenty or thirty minutes shifts, circling the deck barefoot, carrying oblong red buoys.

There is a pace clock, off center, on the wall at the shallow end.  Centered on the wall over the deep end, where I land, is a larger pace clock with a four-point second hand, each point a different color (green, orange, blue, yellow).  This clock is much easier to use.  The first morning I swam at this pool, I was the first to arrive, and naturally (to me) I got in at the end with the better pace clock.

The pool deck, though fully enclosed, does not give off a mildewed or a strong chlorine smell.  The air on deck is normally eighty-seven degrees, and the water eighty-two (for reference, a normal hot tub temperature is one hundred and ten degrees).  Eighty-two is just cool enough to be refreshing at first but not cold, and is at the top end of the five-degree temperature range for Olympic racing.  The warm ambient temperature of eighty-seven means that my head and arms are never cold.  I didn’t swim competitively beyond the age of eight, and I never wore a swim cap and can’t get used to one.  I don’t enjoy cold weather or cold water, except for swimming in Aquatic Park in the San Francisco Bay.

Once I’m in the water, the chlorine levels are more apparent to both my senses of smell and taste.  The sounds are the rhythmic rush of water past my ears, and the chock … chock … chock of my inner right elbow splashing into the water–I have an entry with that arm that is plain noisy, and I can’t seem to correct it without throwing off two or three other elements of my stroke and slowing down.  About forty or so minutes into a session, the skin on the inside of that elbow stings.

The other sound is my breathing. The underwater exhale through my nose and mouth is a mild blast of small bubbles, and the inhale is a belly-deep pull of all available oxygen before my right hand passes my right ear, my left hip swivels back towards the ceiling, and my face rotates back down to look at the black line.  After the flip-turn and the push off the wall, a fine espuma of bubbles jets around my head as I twist towards the surface and the next breath.

The struggle to remain horizontal in the water is made easier the fast I go, but the faster I go, the less sustainable, of course, my swimming becomes.  My legs are much longer than my torso, and they sink if I don’t kick (my kick isn’t a strenuous or powerful one, just a six-beat flick keep myself centered and the legs afloat-ish) and concentrate on swimming “downhill” by pressing my chest into the water.  When I swim a long set at a tempo pace, say a 400, I’ll be breathing hard by the 200 mark and concentrating on not letting my form break down.  If it’s a set of multiple 100s, my lungs will start to burn by the 70m or so mark, and as early as the second flip-turn as I get deeper into the set.

My triceps stiffen up for the first thousand meters or so, and trick me into thinking they are sore, but they loosen up by the 1500m mark.  My shoulders, on the other hand, never seem stiff, but they fatigue around 3000+m, depending on the intensity of the workout, as do my forearm muscles.  When the forearms weaken, my fingers, which form the most leveraged parts of the stiff straight paddles extending from my elbows to the tips of my middle fingers, begin to spread.  The water that I should be pushing behind me begins to wash between my fingers, and my hands are like a rower’s oars with holes drilled in them.  That’s the death-knell of the workout, and it becomes much harder to make the same send-offs without a bump up in effort.

The hunger kicks in at fifty to sixty minutes.  Not some figurative hunger or a vision of a finish line, I mean angry, empty-stomach HUNGER.  I start swimming toward a sausage-egg-and-cheese biscuit, or a chocolate protein shake, or leftover stir-fry, or a sesame bagel with cream cheese and a cup of coffee, as I finish those last few sets.  Swimming makes me ravenous like no other activity does.

The workout is the cake.  The after-swim meal is the icing.  And the clean, summery, smell alerting others that I eat chlorine for breakfast is the chocolate sprinkles.


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