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What I Learned From Born to Run During 2-Mile Copacabana Swim

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What is the absolute worst way to try swimming two-plus miles from one end of Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro down to the other, actually making landfall at Leme Beach? That would be thrashing your lower body around in the water with big, frantic kicks, like someone hoping to scare off a great white.

Yet that is exactly what an alarming number of the swimmers at the annual Travessia dos Fortes Swim in Rio -- the largest mass ocean swim of its kind in South America -- did on Sunday, instead of just taking easy, smooth strokes and gliding through the water, which is what I was at least trying to do.

(Here is what the start looked like as part of USA Today's photo gallery of the "Day in Sports" for Sunday, April 3.)

OK, it was alarming to me -- doing my first swim of this kind, not counting the Run-Swim-Run in Santa Cruz, California, many years ago.

To me, the only point in doing things like crazy open water swims or half-marathons and marathons is to have it all be free and easy, almost relaxing. That does not mean one has to be slow, exactly. Last month at the New York Half Marathon I started the event on a crisp, beautiful Manhattan morning shoulder to shoulder with the Wolverine of "X Men" fame, that is, Hugh Jackman (who was self-mocking and charming and friendly in a low key way with everyone in the vicinity and was running for charity, too). I, a dude who got into the running thing a couple years back at age 46, have to admit I took some pleasure in smoking the Wolverine in the New York Half, finishing in a not-that-slow 1:47:55, well ahead of the Wolverine, who finished in 2:05.52.

Back in New York last month, where the undulating ups and downs of a lap and a half around Central Park were something new for someone used to training in flat Berlin, and again on Sunday in the churning water out in front of Rio's famous Copacabana Beach, I reminded myself of what a lazy person I am and how that has worked for me: Too lazy, that is, to slack off, but also too lazy to run or swim in that rough, jerky way of people trying to prove something.

Even before I read Chris McDougall's I-can't-recommend-this-book-enthusiastically-enough Born to Run last December, I had for the previous year been approaching outdoor exertion with the idea that I never wanted to push myself. I saw it more as being pulled along by the fun of the thing.

To fans of Born to Run, this will make sense - and if it all sounds like claptrap, like some kind of way-too-California-everything-is-beautiful nonsense, then I would say: Read the book! Now! Or very soon!

McDougall was tired of having sore feet all the time. He started off on a quest to learn how the Tarahumara of Mexico's Copper Canyon area could run so far, so fast, and have so damn much fun doing it. I had the weird feeling reading the book that it was a book springing out of just what I had been exploring on my own the previous year.

Not too much is more boring than hearing of others' fitness pursuits -- especially when those others are in their forties and beyond -- but the fitness part of this is only a part: The real point is about doing what you love in a way that makes all that boring hamster-on-a-treadmill, pushing-yourself stuff just fade away, evaporate, vanish, really.

I was never a runner, beyond a little burn-off-the-hangover type stuff in college and one go-out-too-hard-and-try-to-hang-on 10k in my mid-twenties. Then on a dare of sorts with my good buddy Pete Danko, I ended up training for the Berlin Marathon in a few months and actually finishing the thing.

I can't give Born to Run credit for that. I had not read the book yet. But the same message in the book was what had enabled me to dispense with all the voices inside saying "You can't do this" and "Hah! Hah! What an idiot you are even to try this!" and most of all "OW! That hurts!" Learning to ignore these internal voices is something that can make anyone and everyone enjoy their lives more.

I wish McDougall would consent to bringing little groups together for weeklong pursuits of the Tarahumara Way, which is to look for a tranquility and calm and ease and fun in running - or whatever - not in some showy, look-at-me way, but with the grin and cackling laugh of a five-year-old running after a cat to go pull on its tail.

Back to Rio and the big swim this weekend: I had only flown down from New York less than forty-eight hours earlier and my friend Andi took a look out his balcony at the rain and clouds over Copacabana Beach and said, "You can always do it next year!" I was not officially registered for the event, since they had closed out registration at two thousand entries -- after two hours, that is! So it would have been easy to bag it.

Instead, I went with the Tarahumara Way, which to me means doing it not because I felt like I should or I would regret not doing it, but because I wanted to give my body that experience that day, the sensation of being part of a swarm of bodies in the ocean, all making their way together across one of the more spectacularly beautiful oceanfront settings you'll ever see. I did it for fun and it WAS fun.

I have bought Born to Run to give to several family members already and will keep giving it to people: It is a book about living, a book about breaking out of pointless old patterns, but above all a book about joy and freshness. Chris, if you want to come swim the Travessia dos Fortes next year with me, you know where to find me.