Wednesday, July 6, 2011

… just keep swimming … just keep swimming …

Some two miles along the glassy cool water of Lake Natoma. Nancy shot this.
About a mile and a half into the swim race July 4, a feeling came so strong to me, as if the already cold lake had gone to ice: This could be bad.

I stopped to look upshore, past the first bend in the long, narrow, snaking lake, and saw none of the swimmers I had started with.

They had vanished in the distance, as I knew they would, but I held small hope they might be wading in wait, just beyond the point. Even in the first hundred yards, they opened a gap that widened without relent. Even in the first few strokes, as I watched a swimmer I had never met seem to take 10 feet of water with every stroke.

No harm was meant; they are extremely fast swimmers who could not do otherwise, whose speed became palpable by their absence the next four hours. It was their nature and ability to swim so fast, just as it seemed my nature to plod along, and wonder at their speed. I had no way of catching up to them; I was turning over my arms as fast as I thought a 4.8 mile race would merit, and I couldn't move them any faster.

The good news: I was going to eat something! The bad news: my
leg muscles would soon seize up, turning my limbs to useless logs.
This swim, I said to myself (I had so much time to converse, and a captive audience) answers so much, and yet irrigates the seeds of so many more questions. As all endeavors beyond one's reach, I suppose.

This could be bad.

But then the nose of my canoe slipped into my peripheral view, where my wife Nancy and friend Paul Vega sat, having agreed to spend the day with me. They carried packets of nutrition gel and bottles of Gatorade®™, and made me stop to eat on a schedule, and bade me keep going once I was fed.

Another strong feeling came to me at that moment: that I could not have kept going without their support. It would have been easy to tell myself I had swum a good long distance, and that it would be all right to scramble up the mine tailings on the shore of Lake Natoma and walk back to the start. But Nancy and Paul made it so I could keep going.

"Top 10 finisher," Paul said before the start, smiling and giving me a thumbs up. There were seven swimmers. I would also finish third in the "skin" division (no wetsuit). In the end, I finished in just a bit more than one-sixth of a calendar day — a full two hours behind the rest. Two hours!

Lake Natoma is man made; it follows the trunk of the American River, just below Folsom Lake, also man made, which floods the juncture of the three forks of the American River. Lake Natoma gives flood control officials more control of runoff from the Sierra, allowing them to draw, so I'm told, water from the bottom of Folsom to regulate how much cold water is released down the American as it flows more than 20 miles into the Sacramento River at Sacramento.

Natoma is cold throughout the year as a result. It's where I got used to low water temperatures to be ready for my Alcatraz swim.

Natoma also carries a current which varies depending on the volume of water released.

Jim gets ready to swim; Paul gets ready to save me. This is Nimbus Flat, at
the southwest end of Lake Natoma.
Joe Dowd decided we would swim upstream for the race, which he calls the Fire Cracker 8k (a similarly named running race takes place nearby), the least formal swimming race you could join; no entry fee; no waiver; no T shirt or swim cap; not even a race, really, just a bunch of crazies going for a swim. We go upstream, I am told, because a brewpub is right at the finish line, the old Rainbow Bridge linking civilization to the city of Folsom, where we can celebrate.

The most I had ever swum at once before this was 3.9 miles, three crossings of a cove at Folsom Lake. I hadn't been planning to, and was able to rest and eat something between crossings. The Fire Cracker 8K was one shot, start to finish, which I joined of my own free will. My swim buddy Jim Morrill encouraged me to jump in, and encouraged me that I could finish.

Watching the other swimmers move so swiftly beyond me, I realized I had to really like open water swimming for its own sake, or I couldn't do this. So began the long conversation with myself, the constant examination of what I was doing with my limbs, my breathing, how well or how poorly I was pushing the last bit of water with my hands past my hips, whether I was sighting on distant landmarks correctly.

Along the way I learned some things. Egrets by the dozens nest on that first bend of the lake, for example, in what appear to be cypress trees. They bloom like white gardenias in the tall foliage, and are protected in a sanctuary, far from trails. I wouldn't have known that without swimming past it and having Paul point it out.

Lake Natoma is extremely shallow in places, too shallow to swim sometimes, its bottom and sometimes its shore composed entirely of piles of round stones that miners pushed away in search of gold 150 years ago, and that water officials further pushed back to keep the channel open.

Below the water, the rocks glow ghostly green, coated with slippery detritus. I was happy to see them below me, to mark my movement.

Past the first bend, the distant landmarks seemed so distant, blanched in the rising heat. My calves and then my thighs began to cramp, crabbing my legs in bent poses that were difficult to extend or flex; then my ankles fused in flexion. I scrambled up the slippery riprap and stretched them, then kept going.

Stopping was a mixed blessing; even getting to the canoe to grab a gel and a sip required different muscles, which fought against the muscles I had been using and ignited more cramps, more stretching, more resolve to keep going.

I had been in so long that Jim, among the fast finishers, had arranged a ride back to the start to fetch his truck, which transported my canoe. He communicated by cell phone to my wife, and told him that he alone had swum to the finish; the rest got out at a beach called Negro Bar, about a third of a mile below Rainbow Bridge.

Paul was first to spot the beach, crowded with crowds under umbrellas for the holiday. We didn't know it was Negro Bar, but thought it was an isolated beach a mile downstream. My shoulders burning from the turning, I was relieved to hear we were close.

Then I realized why the other swimmers had gotten out at Negro Bar: The current was swift here and getting stronger, as the channel narrowed. What I laughingly lacked in speed, I decided, I could salvage in small part by finishing where I was supposed to.

Getting there was so hard, I was actually laughing into the water, watching the shadow of my body move just two or three inches at a stroke. I zigged and zagged, looking for pockets of calm water, and ended up walking over extremely shallow portions.

Paul shouted encouragement: "One stroke at a time!" I kept laughing. I had energy left to laugh. My daughter and her best friend got into the water to meet us, and I finally made it through a maze of granite boulders beneath the water, to an outcropping below the Rainbow Bridge, my knees and shins bloody from scraping them against rocks.

My shoulders screamed (they're not supposed to if I'm truly swimming the Total Immersion way; more mystery, awaiting an answer), my head felt like helium, my eye sockets felt bruised; what synapses were firing spent their time still wondering how the other swimmers finished in half the time. But I had finished; I had done something beyond what I thought I could do. I had gotten by with a little help from my friends, and only by their help.

One benefit from being so far behind the rest: I seemed to passing kayakers to be someone alone on a mission; they mouthed their admiration to Paul and Nancy as we passed by. I missed all this, of course, listening to the machinery rhythm of my breath bubbling into the water.

Paul, who always knows best what to say, said, "My advice...worry about your times or don't. Just have fun with it. You may not be a fast swimmer right now but you have made giant improvements. You may never be fast or maybe it's nearer to your future than you know."

The brewpub, it turns out, was closed for the holiday.

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