We all have that one thing that we’ve always wanted to try to but for whatever reason we just haven’t. For me, that thing is surfing.
I grew up in the mountains of central Pennsylvania with a family that wasn’t big on beach vacations. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I started spending any time near the beach. And yet, the idea of surf lessons still seemed far off.
Then, on a recent trip to Myrtle Beach, my chance finally came — at age 37, I was finally about to check surfing off my bucket list. For having this on my list for so long, I still hadn’t even Googled how to surf. On the plus side, when we arrived on the beach for our morning lesson, I had zero expectations and was open to anything.
We were greeted by our surf instructors, Jack and Nick, who had laid out a variety of longboards on the beach for us. As we looked out at the ocean, Jack pointed out that there was some good ground swell from Hurricane Irma, which was approaching but still a couple days out. But, he pointed out, these are perfect wave conditions for learning to surf. One very important variable was in our favor — yay!
On the beach, Jack walked us through how to position ourselves on the board, paddle out and “pop up” from a belly-down position to standing on the board. Then we worked on refining our stance on the board — which foot goes in front, optimal distance between our feet, and how to find balance.
For people who’ve spent some time working out, the popping up maneuver should seem pretty familiar. I mean, look at this slow-mo video of me and tell that this doesn’t look like a cockeyed burpee.
Once we got that down, we headed out into the water with our instructors. We paddled through the breaking waves close to the beach and settled into a relatively calm pocket of flat water not too far off shore. Our instructors stood beside our boards as we hung out on top, waiting. And when a suitable wave approached, they would give us a push on the board toward the shore and tell us when to start paddling. When the moment was right, they’d tell us to pop up.
To my shock and surprise, on my very first wave I made it to my knees and rode the wave to shore. By my second run, I was up on my feet. From there on, I was on fire. I even caught one wave and rode it all the way into shore until I (literally) ran aground.
At this point, I was grateful for my fitness. It was exhausting to work your way through breaking waves, heave your body up onto the board, and then paddle out using only your upper body fighting the water every step of the way. If I was lucky, I’d get a minute to catch my breath before being pushed right back toward shore and popping back up onto my board. So much upper body and core work went into this process. But as tiring as it all was, I was drawn back out over and over again — totally hooked.
Despite all my success on lesson one, I don’t pretend to think I’m prepared to go beyond the safety of the breaking waves near the shoreline just yet. Everything I’ve read and heard since talks about how long and frustratingly slow the learning process is. But I do wonder — why did I wait so long to give this a shot?
Curious to try it for yourself?
Three Things You Should Know
1. Be prepared to be humbled. Surfing might look pretty, but the reality is that it’s far more difficult than it looks. I found that it was easy enough get up onto my knees out there but it took a ton more power (and courage) to get my feet on the board and then stand up. Wipeouts are inevitable — even for seasoned surfers. You’ll get tossed about by the waves and clobbered over the head with your board — it’s foam, you’ll live.
2. Wear the leash. If it’s not securely fastened, your board becomes a projectile. When you’re up on your board, the waves are trying to rip it out from under you. On a few occasions as I was going under mid-wipeout, I could feel my board being launched forward. The leash was only thing keeping me from losing my board and potentially taking someone out.
3. Start small. You begin by essentially learning to ride the whitewater, the smaller and more frequent breaking waves near the shore. This was plenty for me to deal with. What looks like a small wave from the beach looks massive as it approaches you in the water. Over time, as you get more experienced and build confidence, you’ll move farther out and away from shore.
A huge thanks to my friend Jennifer Mitchell for catching the awesome video of me!
What’s on your fitness bucket list? —Alison