Randall Beach: This man finds peace of mind in the water

Miles Hayden has “a passion for the water.”

From the moment he wakes up, at about 4 a.m. in his Branford apartment, he looks forward to getting over to Branford Point and plunging into Long Island Sound.

One swim a day is not enough, especially when the weather turns warmer. In the summertime, Hayden enjoys four or five daily dips.

Last Monday, May 1, he embarked on the fifth year of his streak, which last year reached a personal best of 185 consecutive days.

“I try to improve it every year,” he told me when we met last Wednesday afternoon. “This year, I’m going for 186 days, which will be Nov. 2. My ultimate goal is 200 days.”

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night can stop him.

“I like to inspire people,” Hayden said. “I tell them swimming is such great exercise, putting yourself out there in the fresh air and sunshine. And it’s free!”

He added, “I have a passion for the water. I feel better now at 63 than I did at 30.”

At that time of his life, he was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. “I smoked from age 11 to 36. Now I don’t smoke and I don’t drink.”

But he does drink water, lots of it.

“I don’t even drink soda,” he said. “All I drink is water.”

Hayden handed me an endorsement of swimming he had copied off a calendar: “Swimming is a great exercise for everyone. It recruits all the major muscle groups, including the shoulders, back, abdominals, legs and hips. And because water affords 12 times the resistance as air, it really helps to build strength, so you get both cardiovascular and strengthening workouts at the same time.”

Besides the physical benefits, Hayden said he has found swimming to be therapeutic, a way to replace bad habits with a good habit. “It helps with your mental health, your emotional health. It’s so good for your all-around being.”

And he noted, “We came from water.”

On that fateful day in July five years ago when this all got started, he discovered something about the water of Long Island Sound. He was trying to work out a physical problem.

“I used to do belly crunchers, 350 of them, every day. That’s when you lock your hands behind your back and squat. But I hurt my back. I was wondering how I could heal it and I thought of the salt water. So I floated in the water for a half-hour. My back felt great! I got out of the water and the pain was gone.”

Even though he had been living so close to the beach, “I hadn’t gone swimming since I was a teenager. So, at first, all I could do was 11 strokes. I was gasping for air. But I kept going back. After a while I said, ‘Wow, I swam every day for a month.’ That first year I swam 50 days in a row. The second year I did 145. The third year I did 158. Then 185.”

“I’m a creature of habit,” he told me, quite unnecessarily. “I have a routine I like to stand by.”

He showed me a log book he keeps of his swim days and the water temperatures. He gets that statistic from the weather page of the New Haven Register.

Hayden said he has noticed the temperature of Long Island Sound seems to be rising year-by-year. “I guess it’s global warming.” He did a preliminary swim last month, on April 17, when the water temperature reached 49 degrees.

Hayden tried indoor pools but he hated it. “I don’t like the chlorine. It burns my eyes. Plus, when I tried going inside, people were standing in the pool, talking! I was trying to do laps. ‘Watch out, I’m coming through.’ Well, that put the kabosh on that.”

“The pool is boring,” he said. “Long Island Sound is alive.”

Hayden added, “I think people spend too much time in gyms. You don’t need to work out in a gym. Get out in the open air!’

“People ask me, ‘How can you swim there? The water’s dirty.’ I say, ‘What are you talking about? Long Island Sound is a lot cleaner than pools. It’s good for your skin, good for your joints.’”

And if people start complaining about jellyfish, he will tell them: “I’ve only gotten stung twice and both times I was standing, not swimming. Usually, you won’t get stung if you’re swimming.”

When we got out of Hayden’s car to hit the beach, he began singing the praises of Parker Memorial Park, which abuts Branford Point. “Oh! It’s beautiful down here, isn’t it? It’s got everything, like a postcard setting. Cherry blossoms! Picnic tables!”

Yes, other people were out there, relaxing on the lawn and on the sand. We had been blessed with a warm day, even with a little sunshine.

He took off his pants, revealing his swimsuit underneath. He got a little self-conscious when he was asked to take off his shirt to pose for a photo to accompany this column. “I put on 30 pounds in the winter. After a month of swimming, those 30 pounds come off!”

Looking around, he said, “This is my home away from home. I’m probably the first person down here in the morning and one of the last to leave. I get up, have my coffee and a bowl of oatmeal, and come down.”

As Hayden approached the water, he announced, “Today, I’ll just do 50 strokes. That’s a half a lap. A hundred strokes is one lap. I’ve done as many as 2,100 strokes, 21 laps. This year, I’ll do 22.”

He swam in swift, precise strokes. After he emerged, he said, “I’m slow and steady, consistent. Who won that race, the rabbit or the turtle? Slow and steady wins the race. I’m the turtle.”

Hayden told me he has “a lot of faith” and believes God is with him in the water. “He brought me down to the water. Everything happens for a reason.”

He told me about a “miracle” that saved him when he was about 8 years old. He began by saying, “I almost drowned here.”

“Some bullies threw me into the water off the dock. I swallowed a lot of water; I should have drowned. I prayed to God, ‘Please help me.’ He gave me the idea to swim to the raft and find an air pocket underneath it, then climb up.”

And now, this is where he comes all the time, near the place he almost died. “When I come here, I’ve got peace of mind. I go to work in a good mood. I’m not stressed-out.”

He works the night shift as a custodian at a nursing home. He is divorced, with no kids, so he is free to carve out this schedule that revolves around the swims.

“I swam in the snow last November. I’ll swim in real downpours of rain. I just say, ‘God, come in the water with me. Get me through this.’”

How long will he keep this up? “I visualize being 100 and coming down here, doing 10 laps. Maybe I’m selling myself short; maybe I’ll do more. Age is a state of mind. It’s amazing what the human spirit can do.”

Contact Randall Beach at rbeach@nhregister.com or 203-680-9345.