by Zac Unger
At the end of 2016 I got an email from US Masters, and I opened it and read it, because I am a complete tool. The pitch was for their free Fitness Logging program, which they call the FLOG. (Digital hygiene pro-tip: don’t Google “masters flogging” from your work computer.) The idea is to record your daily yardage, set personal goals, engage in friendly competition, and emerge at year’s end as a better all-around human being for having used their software. How could I say no?
You know that blissfully clear-headed feeling of oneness and tranquility that often comes in the middle of a solid workout? Well, if you’ve ever wanted to replace that with scrabbling acquisitiveness and a relentless focus on spreadsheets, then flogging is for you! No more daydreaming or working on good technique for us floggers; now it’s all about basic math. If I swim 200 extra yards every day, 17 days a month, ten months out of the year…how much closer will I be to the arbitrary and pointless goal I set for myself back in January? That’s athletic bliss, people.
But the real joy of flogging is in the competition with your teammates. Checking the database in March, I found that I was neck and neck with Steve Washburn. Or, to be precise, he was always exactly one mile ahead of me, no matter how much I swam. I’d swim a double…and so would he. I’d do an open water race and then hit a Saturday afternoon rec swim just for good measure and he’d still be a mile ahead. I would log on to the website two, three, ten times a day to chart his progress and no matter what, he was always a mile ahead. One thing soon became clear: Steve Washburn was obsessed with me.
I imagined Washburn logging in late at night, poring over the stats. In my mind he was using an oil lamp. And also the internet, which was weird, but the lamp made him more Scrooge-like so I went with it. I could see him plotting his day, rubbing his hands together. How else could he stay so perfectly one mile ahead of me? Take a vacation for once, why don’t you? Steve Washburn is a man without a heart.
I should probably pause here to mention that I don’t know who Steve Washburn is. I mean, I know he’s not Lynn Yamashita or Leo Lozano, but after that it gets fuzzy. He’s one of several Mayflower-descended men I see on deck occasionally, middle-aged swim gods dead set on out-virtuing me in the very pools where I learned to swim. Puritan scolds. (Speaking of the Mayflower, is their some reason why all our younger swimmers are named after 17th-century professions? With Hunter and Taylor and Tanner it’s like Colonial Williamsburg over here in the 1:25.)
Months passed and Washburn’s fixation on me only deepened. Yet I was determined to rise to the challenge. Every six a.m. main set became a test of my will to win; every 150 kick that I replaced with a 200 swim was a moral victory. It wasn’t easy. Vacations felt grimmer and grimmer due to days away from the pool. So many trips destroyed by Washburn’s fanatical need to best me. So many holidays ruined by me shaking my fist at whoever’s idea it was to celebrate joy and happiness by closing the damned pool on Thanksgiving.
But enough about Steve Washburn; let’s talk about me. As the year progressed, my quest became a popular groundswell. My children cheered me on and my wife helpfully vowed to leave me if I lost the battle. Each morning my tiny son—angelic, dewy-eyed, heart full of hope!—would emerge from the bedroom in slippered feet and ask “how many yards did that bastard Washburn put on the board last night?” The FLOG was our everything; it was what brought us together and what made us a family. We strategized; we plotted; we rejected our worst impulses. For example, a crueler man than I am might purposefully fail to log his yards for few days, allow his competitor to feel himself gaining an advantage and then record ten thousand yards all at once just to crush Steve Washburn’s spirit. But those of you who know my kindness and open heart know that that is not the sort of thing I would ever do two or three times each and every month.
In early September Washburn vaulted ahead of me by a full ten miles and I was despondent. “You have two things going for you,” my teenaged daughter pointed out. “First, he might not even know you guys are competing. And second, even if he does, he’s probably not insecure enough to care if he wins.”
“Thank you for your opinion,” I said, and then I kicked her out of the family. Because I am totally not insecure. Nonetheless, she was on to something and I redoubled my efforts. It was also easier to focus more time on swimming with one less child to worry about. I gradually reeled Washburn back in and by early December I had taken the lead. All was right with the world.
As you can imagine, I can’t recommend the pure unadulterated joy of the FLOG highly enough. It pains me to think of all the people swimming diligently but living the untallied life. Just look at Scott Adams, for example, an empty, drifting shell of a man. So many yards and so little to show for it. You can see the toll in his dead eyes and sour demeanor, his looming spectral presence on deck. It’s not too late for you, Scott. Let me lift your burden. Come FLOG.
On New Year’s day I brought my remaining family together and told them the news. I had won. I had beaten Washburn. They were quiet, deeply affected. I told them not to be gratuitous in their jubilation, not to scorn the vanquished Steve Washburn. Steve Washburn is one hell of a fighter, a formidable adversary. He has the heart of champion. If not the actual winning numbers of a champion like me. Because in the end it doesn’t matter who wins. (I won.) And it doesn’t matter who loses. (Washburn lost.) All that matters is that you push each other to be better. (But just so it’s absolutely clear, I won and Washburn lost even though he’s a brutally competitive cyborg and I’m a happy-go-lucky bon vivant for whom this entire exercise was just a bit of whimsy, not something I pursued monomaniacally, to the detriment of family, friends, and career.)
My kids took a moment to absorb the news. “Dearest Father,” they finally said, in unison. “Now we realize that we actually love you. All it took was your clear victory in a narcissistic, isolating, societally useless pursuit for us to discover that you’re not a monster.” And that, my friends, is the gift of flogging. And also of beating Steve Washburn, who I totally beat.