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ARTICLE: Open Water Swimming at Walden Pond
written by: Regina O'Toole
posted: 09/23/2005

Almost every Friday morning at 6AM, from April to October I drive to Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts to train for the swim leg of my triathlon competitions. My triathlon teammates, along with many other New England swimmers and triathletes, gather together along the old gray stone wall at Walden. We spread out our bags and empty them of wetsuits, BodyGlide, goggles, and caps and talk a while as we take in our surroundings: a half mile long pond centered in Thoreau's woods, a small sandy beach, and best of all, quietness, except for our own chatter. The pond, a pale greenish brown, is flat and still. And the quietness, though noticeable, is always framed by the sound of light breezes, birds, frogs, and other wildlife. Swimming a mile or two in this majestic water is an ideal place to improve our stroke. We test our body positioning, our sighting skills, the comfort of our wetsuits, and our endurance in the open water.

At the start of our training season, on cold days, the chatter lasts longer as a way to prolong our entry into the frigid pond. We moan about the cold and we gingerly put our toes in and wonder aloud how long we can actually swim for. We question ourselves for getting out of bed for this. What makes us get in? Bravado? I think our wish for a challenge and the exhilaration we feel drives us. Water temperatures often surpass 80 degrees in the summer, but for our early season swims in April 55 degrees isn't uncommon. In the colder months, my body never warms up quite enough to relax in the water. My fingers and toes are too stiff to pull and kick like I do in a pool, and my jaw too rigid to talk with the other swimmers when we reach the far side of the pond. Somehow though, in the colder months, swimming at Walden seems better than the warmth of my bed. Is it the satisfaction I feel once I've exited the cold water? Or is it the camaraderie of friends that await me over hot coffee and breakfast? Ah, breakfast. At Helenís Cafť in Concord Center, Sandy, our ever-attentive waitress, sees us piling in and quickly puts several cups of coffee on our table. We sit together to warm up, look at our cold pink hands, talk about our training progress, eat, and laugh.

When summer arrives and the weather is warm, I'm eager to get up in the morning and get to the pond, see teammates, suit up, and swim. There is no stripe to follow on the bottom of Walden, just trees surrounding me acting as my guide. I sight the shape formed by the tallest trees against the horizon to find my way across the length of the pond. As I swim, I can see little rays of light passing though the surface into the water below. And sometimes Iíve glimpsed a turtle or fish underneath me.

Walden is my chance to simply enjoy my surroundings. I can stretch out my stroke and get into a rhythm that I can't find when there are walls every 25 meters. The open water makes me feel like there is so much more to swimming than just doing lap after lap in a pool. With no walls around me, I listen to the noise of the other swimmers gliding by me and find joy in the laughs we share as we rest at the far side of the pond. And as I swim back to the small sandy beach of Walden, through the mist I watch the sun rise into the sky. Itís my perfect way to train, before the traffic starts, before I go to work, before I even eat breakfast. This is early morning swimming for me at Walden Pond, Thoreauís stomping ground and my favorite place to greet the day.