Swimming at 8000 Feet

Embassy Addis is by far the biggest post I’ve worked at so far, by a factor of ten. Sometimes I miss the small-post mentality – the bureaucracy seems to be easier to navigate when everyone knows everyone else – but the big-post amenities are hard to beat.

The most obvious perk is the commissary, which is like our own private 7-11 right here in Ethiopia. If you need Oreos or Cheerios or andouille sausage or cheddar cheese or most kinds of edible Americana, they’ve got it. (No Slurpees though.) They also do dry-cleaning and take reservations for the lakeside campsite a few hours out of town. A tailor, barber, framer, and masseuse stop by weekly to take commissions.

And then there’s the fitness infrastructure. We have a walking/jogging track, tennis and basketball courts, and a well-equipped gym. You can take yoga, pilates, and zumba classes on your lunch break, and the Marines put fitness masochists through an hour of productive pain once a week. It’s all quite impressive, though perhaps not the fanciest in town: I hear the Brits have horses and a private golf course. But for me the best thing is the lap-length swimming pool, not too heavy on the chlorine and usually deserted so I can have the whole place to myself. Not to mention the perfect sunny 80 degree afternoons to swim in.

It’s been probably ten years since I swam regularly, and getting back into the habit has been rough. The first time back, dragging myself slowly, awkwardly, through a mere 1000 yards was deeply humbling. It must have taken me an hour and my entire body ached the next day. It’s been a couple months now and things are getting better, but it’s still slow going. And the altitude does not help. After almost six months in Addis I’m acclimated to the thinner air in normal walking-around life (more or less – I think I’ll always be more at home at sea level), but as soon as I get in the pool and start breathing on a pattern instead of as needed I’m gasping for air again. I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it, but until I do I’m breaking up my swim sets with lots of kicking.

High-altitude training is the latest greatest thing for elite swimmers, which is why the U.S. Olympic team trains not in Florida or Hawaii but in Colorado Springs. The Australian swim team even had a fancy system installed to mimic high-altitude conditions to train for the London Olympics. And here I have this peak conditioning environment right outside my office! An elite athlete is something I will never ever be, but at least this gives me an excuse to pretend.