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Swimming Outside the Comfort Zone

By J.P. McFarland

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done.

— Ulysses. Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Step outside your comfort zone.

Is that sound advice?

No. It’s not sound advice, ever, under any circumstances. And to be clear: it’s not just wrong, it’s counter-evolutionary.

The species by design has been uncomfortable since the day we climbed down from the trees and learned to balance on two wobbly legs. We’ve spent the last few millennia trying to get in the comfort zone. And it’s hard work. (Close to impossible, really — especially for me with my lumpy mattress.)

We’re programmed, in Tennyson’s words, “to hoard, and sleep, and feed.” That’s our default state — on our backs with a full belly — and it’s pretty much the ideal. (And forget about colonizing Mars. From an anthropological perspective, cheese fondue is and always will be the pinnacle of human achievement.)

Anyone can make themselves uncomfortable. Go camping in the rain. Sneak into the wolf den at the local zoo. Hold your breath. Or better yet, if you’re at a party with passed hors d’oeuvres, pop one of those molten Italian rice balls into your mouth.

Sure, we can learn from discomfort, but what’s the lesson? What can we hope to understand from contracting diarrhea in Valencia or breaking an elbow at circus camp? It’s this: Why go out at all? Why look for trouble when you can lie in bed with a bowl of ice cream and watch cartoons?

It all seems pretty obvious now.


I was sitting on the dock, staring out at what people were calling the “Doritos.” These were the triangular yellow and orange inflatables used as marker buoys for the swim portion of the triathlon.

“The course looks different.” A woman pointed at an orange Dorito outlined against a bank of dark clouds.

Her friend nodded. “They shortened it this year. Because of the currents.”

Shortened it? It looked plenty long to me. And I hadn’t heard anything about currents. Just tidal surges. But maybe that was the same thing.

I thought of the Cowardly Lion chewing on his tail. Yes, actually, there is one other thing: Talk me out of it.

I joined a group of novice racers by the boat ramp. We were gathered around the safety instructor, hoping to hear tips about not getting kicked in the face, or how to manage the waves and high winds Hurricane Dorian was generating along the coast.

Someone raised his hand: “What kind of creatures are in the water here?” (Cue the nervous laughter.)

The instructor shook her head and addressed the group: “Sea creatures are not your problem, people. Not one shark bite in ten years. No jelly fish, either. Or crocodiles.” (More nervous laughter.)

Then she grew serious. “Listen up for a second.”

She told us how a swimmer once had been pulled a half-mile or so off course by the tide. (“Swept out to sea,” someone translated in a whisper.) The year before, a man had suffered a ‘medical emergency’.

We nodded solemnly, but one questioner wasn’t satisfied with the euphemism. “What kind of emergency, exactly?”

“Well.” The instructor frowned. “He — I mean, he didn’t die right here. He was alive when they pulled him out of the water.”

The group went silent.

“So if you appear disoriented,” she continued, “we’ll ask you to turn over onto your back and tell us your name. In case you’re having . . . an event.” She smiled. “Anything else?”

More silence.

I thought of the Cowardly Lion chewing on his tail. Yes, actually, there is one other thing: Talk me out of it.


I’d given up marathons when I turned forty.

I used to love running long distances, but I’d heard an orthopedic surgeon explain how every marathoner she knew was crippled by the time they were seventy. And so I put my running shoes away and started using a rowing machine. My back gave out, so I switched to a stationary bike. That made my ass hurt, so I took up fly fishing.

Then my niece suggested a triathlon. Less wear and tear, she said. Lots of fun. 

What the hell, I figured. Maybe it was time to step outside my comfort zone.

But triathlons, as I learned, were pretty complicated events. You had to swim, then bike, then run. And they had pages of instructions, and buoys and traffic cones, and sequencing notes reminding you about your goggles, your colored swim cap, your timing chip, your bike, your helmet, your extra goggles, your wetsuit, and so on. And after all that preparation, there were still ten or twenty ways to be penalized or disqualified out on the course. (See, e.g., USTA Rule 5.10h(2).)

I’m absent-minded enough under the best of circumstances, and stress only makes it worse. Still, I thought I’d be okay so long as I had a decent checklist and plenty of time to go through it.

The bigger challenge would be this: I’d need to learn how to swim.

 What the hell, I figured. Maybe it was time to step outside my comfort zone.


We were assigned colored swim caps, with each wave starting five minutes apart. Red was for the elites. By the time they got to my group —Male, Fifty and Over — the good colors were all used up. We wore pond-scum green.

At T-minus ten minutes, we were waiting to get into the ocean, chatting about how we’d come to be there on the boat ramp, steeling ourselves to wade into 63-degree water on the day a hurricane barely missed the shores of Maine. I was standing next to a young woman in a purple cap (Relay).

“I have this friend,” she said. “Sometimes we drink too much and challenge each other to do stupid things.”

“You signed up for this on a drunken bet?” I was impressed. “But you’ve trained, right?”

 “Not really, no.” She laughed. “I’ll do the breast stroke and get by. How about you?”

How about me?

“Drunken bet” was a really good explanation, but that was taken. Maybe this: that it’s better to shine in use than rust unburnished. But that seemed too pretentious for a guy wearing a green bathing cap. And besides, how likely was it they still taught Tennyson in college? And what did they teach? I had no idea.

“I’m sixty,” I told her.


Treading water in the ocean five minutes before the start of my green-cap wave, I found myself surrounded by a bunch of old men.

My heart rate began to slow, and I felt my anxiety slip away. After all, I reasoned, how hard could this swim be when most of these guys probably had knee replacements and pacemakers? Sure, they moved around pretty well in the water, but so did hippos and elephants.

I paddled toward the front, wanting to be sure the oldsters wouldn’t hamper my start. Someone spoke as I went past: “The competition is always tough. Doesn’t matter the age.”

A few of the others voiced their agreement.

An odd feeling came over me. A familiar feeling. It was the feeling I’d had in school when I hadn’t studied for a test. The feeling I’d had two months into my first marriage.

And now I looked around more closely, and I saw how they were old and wrinkly, yes, but wrinkly in a fit kind of way. Some were thin and wiry and others were barrel-chested with thick necks. A few had tattoos featuring birds and nautical compasses and crossed cannons. Navy tattoos.

The wind picked up just then, and it started to rain.


One guy saw me watching as he fiddled with a small plastic device. “You put it up inside your swimming cap.” He handed it to me. “Listen,” he said, and I held it to my ear and heard it pinging away.

“What’s it for?”

 “Tempo. To keep me on pace.”

“And it works?”

“Sure, it does. I’ve used it in maybe forty races.”

“You’ve done forty of these?”

He nodded and grinned and I saw he was missing a tooth. “Forty-three.” He pointed at the swimmer next to him. “Tony’s done fifty-one.”

“Fifty,” Tony corrected. And then for some reason he raised his hand and touched a finger to his flattened nose. “This is fifty-one.”

An odd feeling came over me. A familiar feeling.

It was the feeling I’d had in school when I hadn’t studied for a test. The feeling I’d had two months into my first marriage. Or when they’d wheeled me all drugged up into the O.R. and the doctor squinted at my chart and asked: You sure you want a spinal for this?

It was the feeling generated by really bad decision-making. It was the feeling that arrived at the point when the rationalizations fell away and the dumb mistakes became blindingly apparent, and the unavoidable consequences of all that willful ignorance came crashing in through the door like angry drunks at the wrong party.

It was, as the Bible says, time to reap the whirlwind.


“That two-mile swim outside Portland. You know it?”

I shook my head.

“How about that five-miler? Down in Rhode Island.”

I shook my head.

Others chimed in about their own ocean experiences: the routine Channel crossings and the like, and then — the same as in the movies when the airplane door is opened and the troopers are getting ready to jump out—someone turned to me and asked: “How about you? How many is this for you?”

“For me?” I held up a finger. “For me, this would be one.”

The chatter stopped. Swimmers began consulting their watches and adjusting their goggles.

A stinging tendril of stomach acid made its way up the back of my throat. And not just because Don’t Stop Believin’ was playing over the loudspeakers.


I thought of the scene in Gladiator where the rookie combatant is shivering and alone just before entering the arena. Urine flows down his leg and spatters onto the dirt, and later, when the gate swings open, someone pushes him through and he’s used as a shield and hacked to bits in the first twenty seconds of the fight.

(The instructor had told us: “It’s okay to pee in your wetsuits, guys. Everybody does it. It’s not like anyone’s gonna know.” (More nervous laughter.) At the time this had seemed like an odd thing to say. Personal and gratuitous. I didn’t, after all, need a stranger’s permission to urinate. And it’s not as if it would have been a volitional act in any event.)

I started moving to the back of the group. And then the whistle blew and we were off in a frenzy of slashing elbows and churning water.


Five minutes later I was swimming alone. Five minutes after that, another group of swimmers — the Relays — swept over me.

The buoys, I told myself. Just focus on the buoys.

I raised my head and saw a blur of purple caps disappearing into the waves. But no Dorito. No nothing. Just the ocean and the clouds and a dark, distant shape that might have been the shoreline.

Then I remembered something I’d left off the checklist: my contact lenses. And just like that, my bladder began to empty. Not that anyone would ever know.


Art work by Ayn Hanna

About the Writer

J.P. McFarland has long been a believer in the power of negativity and feels that people shouldn’t be afraid to listen to their inner “no” voice. For example, he suspects children would talk less if their parents were more willing to say “No, that’s wrong,” or “No one cares about your stupid opinion.” In addition, well-timed words of discouragement might have prevented the development of many useless inventions (e.g., the space shuttle, foam pillows, mayonnaise, etc.). If invited, he would lecture on this topic or write a scholarly article. He currently is working on a self-help book entitled “Your Silence is Golden.”


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Allison Lane
3 years ago

Best bio ever.

3 years ago

I really enjoyed this, very funny.