I cringed as I unpacked my swimming gear last evening at the gym–swim cap, goggles, ear plus, towel–but I had forgotten my stopwatch.

Ugh, this is going to be the lonnnnnngest-feeling workout, ever! I groaned to myself. I usually wear the watch to keep track of my time; I’ll do freestyle for 10 to 12 minutes, then bust out some kickboard/freestyle intervals, and then at the 30-minute mark finish off with a few laps of just arm work. The watch keeps me on target, especially because the wall clocks are too small to see from the pool.

When I’m wearing the watch, my first glance is usually at the 6-minute mark (4 minutes until I can do the kickboard!). Then again at 8.5 (almost there!). I’ll glance down again around 10 minutes, but then I’ll tell myself, Eh, just go till 12 before starting the kickboard. So, in essence, a good deal of my workout is spent peering down at the watch, being disappointed about how little I’ve swam, and continuing until I hit the appropriate number.

But last night, with my wrist naked, I jumped into the water and began my freestyle warm-up. The water felt great on my skin, having come from a roasting 82-degree office building. The late-day sun was streaming into the windows, making the water look like fire when I came up for air. The only other person in the pool was a woman in the lane next to me, whose steady laps created a rhythmic whoosh-whoosh-whoosh that matched mine.

What I dream of every time I go to the gym: An empty pool.

When I finally stopped long enough to squint over at the wall clock, I couldn’t believe my goggled eyes. 12 minutes! I had gotten in the water at 6:10, and it was now 6:22. How did that happen? Why did I not get antsy at the 6-minute mark? Or 8 minutes? How did I swim that long and steady without feeling the urge to check my time?

I started my kickboard intervals at that point, rotating between one out-and-back with the board and three laps of freestyle in between. Out and back. Out and back. I kept going until I felt slightly fatigued, at which point the clock told me I had been swimming for 30 minutes. This blew my mind, because I still had energy to continue. And I did; I did a few more laps of freestyle and then my standard concluding laps of just arms. I had been swimming for a total of 35 minutes and probably looked at the clock only 4 times, as opposed to the 25 times I normally check my watch.

Here I was concerned that not having my watch was going to drag out my workout, but in fact the opposite held true. Unbound by numbers, I relied on my body’s intuition and natural energy reserve to carry me through. I’m not going to lie–sometimes swimming can be dreadfully boring, and having come from a hot office after a long day at work with no emergency afternoon caffeine in my system, I was certain I was going to want to bail out after 15 minutes. But I did my complete workout–and then some–and felt strong the entire time.

Can numbers be a nuisance? Of course! It’s fitting that just the other day I listened to this Radiolab podcast about ultra-runnner Diane Van Deren, who, due to severe epilepsy, had part of her brain removed. It was the temporal lobe that was taken out, the part that makes sense of time and space. Not only can Diane not read a map (it looks like nothing but random lines and shapes to her), but the concept of time–minutes, hours, days–in the grand scheme of things makes no sense to her. So part of the reason she is able to do (and complete) these insane endurance events (we’re talking days of running) is because the sentence “I have been running for 200 hours in the Yukon” means the same as “I have been running for 2 hours in the Yukon.” Numbers are just numbers to Diane, and they aren’t associated with “good,” “bad,” “hellish,” or “WHY AM I STILL RUNNING?” (Talk about the Zen Buddhism concept of non-judgment!)

I keep track of my total swim time because I like to make sure I’ve gotten in enough of a workout to benefit my heart, lungs, and muscles, but having that watch can clearly slow me down, so to speak. One thing I have stopped doing is keeping track of my laps. I used to hit the “new lap” button every time I hit the wall; go till I hit 40, 45, 50, whatever I thought was “right” that day; and go home and calculate my yards and mileage. I did that until the numbers became distressing, when I was more concerned about the total laps I was going to pound out rather than the quality of my strokes and kicks. Now that I don’t worry about laps or yards, I focus more on making sure I have the proper form, that my core is stable, and that my breath is steady and even.

It’s probably a good thing I realized this when I did, because I came home and noticed that my stopwatch’s battery is dying. Could it be the universe’s way of telling me to ditch the digits? 🙂

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