If you are a swimmer, you may immediately understand what I’m talking about when I tell you that being forced to swim the 200yd freestyle in competition was an important early lesson in the temporality of human suffering. (In the sense that, yes, this is awful, but, you know, this too shall pass.)
If you’re not a swimmer, or have never swum competitively, let me break this down for you.
Sprinters swim as fast as they can for the whole race.
That means for a 50yd sprint, two lengths of a 25yd pool, as fast as you can. (One breath at the 5yd mark before the flip turn, one breath at the 5yd mark after the flip turn. That is all the air you get. To prepare, swimmers practice with breath control sets.)
For a 100yd sprint, that’s four lengths of the same pool, again, swimming your little tush off, but probably an extra breath per lane in there.
The 200yd race, though, that’s eight (hellish, in my view) lengths of the pool, again, as fast as you possibly can. You’re going to need to breathe a little more often for this one, or you will die. That being said, even with the extra air, your lungs are probably burning and your quads will feel like jelly by the time you’re done. At least that’s how it always seemed to go for me.
So what does this have to do with the rest of my life?
I will tell you.
For all this unpleasantness, this discomfort and physical pain, this strenuous oh-my-fucking-god-I-want-to-die exertion, at my absolute slowest, this awful experience of the long-ass (not really) 200yd sprint still took up less than two-and-a-half minutes of my entire life.
Yup. Only two-and-a-half minutes. Well, less than that. Two minutes and fifteen seconds. Two minutes and seven seconds. The latter was probably my best time. The 200 was not my event.
So. There’s this horrible thing that I can’t get out of. It’s staring me down. I do it, and it hurts. And then, it’s over. There seems to be an important life lesson in here somewhere. Call it the 2:30 Rule.
I swear, sports has prepared me for everything from weathering some of the effects of mental illness to enduring some of the pitfalls of novel writing. (Finding the gumption to sit down and do it, being big in the latter case.)
Some of these resulting experiences in suffering, specifically those resulting from mental illness, have been a lot harsher and a lot more enduring than swimming some stupid race, but I don’t think it’s an untrue thing to say that the discipline that entered my life with competitive sports, or that remains in my current daily athletic practice, has played a role in weathering some of the losses in perspective I’ve experienced over the years. And it’s definitely playing a role in maintaining balance.
So. Sports can’t cure mental illness.
But everyone has their things they look to, for sanity, for perspective, for staying alive, and this is one of mine.