Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Far away and so close

I can actually see the finish gate! This is going to be a breeze …
The first I'd been to Donner Lake, the storied Sierra lake near where the Donner-Reed Party camped, was when I swam its length, 2.7 miles, Saturday.

It was the 31st Annual Donner Lake Open Water Swim. I met a swimmer there who had competed in 26 of them. This was one down for me, more to go, I hope.

Neither the distance nor the water temperature (warm, for me) scared me — not even the more-than-a-mile-high altitude (strangely), because I held to the Underachievers' Code of Adequacy, to wit:

1. Be thou not last.

2. Be thou not one of the swimmers that the police boat will pluck out of the water if you're still in the race after two hours and 30 minutes, or if you haven't reached halfway down the lake in an hour and 15 minutes.

Though I achieved both tenets, they gave me much to think about along the long swim, such as:

How can I keep from being last? I imagine the last swimmer gets more attention for that fact than he/she really wants. More than I'd want, certainly. I don't want to be last. How can I keep from being last?

What is half of the length of the lake? How will I know I'm there, short of a police boat lifting me out of the water?

Can I really swim this before two hours and 30 minutes pass? What if I'm a coupla hundred yards from the finish; will the police boat really pull me out of the water and shuttle me to shore? That would really ramp up the unwanted attention factor — hundreds of people on the shoreline, many of them having finished the swim, watching as the police boat putt-putts you from within shouting distance to dry land. It'd be like a Monty Python sketch.
Race officials denied moving the finish gate farther back
during the race …

Eventually, I finished in one hour, 36 minutes and 24 seconds. I keep changing in the standings, according to the online posted results, between 199th and 200th overall, out of 230 swimmers. I was 13th in my 45-49 age group (out of 13; that number keeps changing as I revisit the results; the oldest swimmer, 71, finished more than 20 minutes faster than me). I swam at a pace of 35 minutes, 42 seconds per mile, which is the first I've seen that statistic provided in a race.

(The fastest swam this in 54 minutes — faster than it took my wife to walk from start to finish; I hope the last swimmer didn't notice that race officials had already dismantled and packed away the race clock before she reached shore.)

In the end, I swam as fast as I expected; I had swum a 2.4 mile race earlier in the summer in about the same time (maybe I improved my time, but I also ran back onto shore during that race after the first 1.2 mile lap to fetch a different pair of goggles because my brand-new ones flopped uselessly on my face, and ran back in to finish).

But it was long enough in the water to think thoughts. In addition to the above, I wondered:

Why didn't a T-shirt come with the entry fee? It's a really nice shirt, designed by a swimmer/artist/cellist named Deborah Brudvig, but I had to pass, saving the pennies here and there. I had plenty of time to estimate the fees generated by the race, and what they might pay for.

Where is everybody? I stopped a couple of times (halfway?) to see one swimmer waaaaaaay over to my left, another waaaaaay to the right. Why were they so far to the side of me? I saw a few dark shapes in the shimmering water behind me, the remnants of the few (about 30) slower swimmers. I was not last, at least not to that point.

Why is the water so dark green here? Lake Natoma is more of a kelly green. San Francisco Bay in June was a translucent jade. I was color swatching as I swam. The sun at my back cast my shadow deep into the water before me; hundreds of sunlight shafts danced around my shape like an aura.

Where is the damn finish line? I saw it so clearly in the mountain air, 2.7 miles away, before the swim began. Then I hit the water and the more I swam, the farther away the finish line drifted, as did the peak I used as a landmark to guide me. At one point, the bright orange finish gate disappeared. My friend Jim Morrill predicted as much: "The swim's gonna feel like forever, like you're never going to finish."

How can anyone swim farther than this? Jim Morrill, who talked me into this swim long ago and proposed way back then of us swimming from the finish to the start early in the morning, and then joining the race back to the finish, 5.4 miles total. (The Facts of Life got in the way and he couldn't make it to the swim at all, much less swimming a round trip; I'm sure he was chewing through his goggles when he realized he couldn't go.) I swam 4.8 miles from far behind him in Natoma, but as I swam Saturday, I couldn't process swimming any farther than I was going.

Another swim friend, Brad Schindler, later this month will attempt a solo crossing of Lake Tahoe, 22 miles, to be begun at midnight. As I write, 61-year-old Diana Nyad is two days into a 103-mile swim from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Fla. It would be the longest continuous swim by a human.

(I just learned this morning Nyad made it nearly halfway through her swim before calling it off because of hazardous conditions. But still, nearly 50 miles of open ocean  …)

Just so hard to imagine swimming so far.

The constant question — the yang (more of a yammer, really) to my almost constant yin of mindful swimming — was, why am I so slow, really?

I'm following faithfully the technique I've learned over the last three years, or at least I think I am, and I'm continually adjusting and reassessing, when I'm not thinking other thoughts.

Theoretically, I'm not swimming any differently than Sun Yang, the Chinese swimmer who at the end of July set a new world record in the 1,500 meter freestyle at the world championships, breaking a 10-year mark. Terry Laughlin, developer of the Total Immersion technique I practice, hails Sun's performance as the new measure for swimming efficiency. For the first 1,250 meters, Sun used only 27 strokes per length (the jaws of experienced pool swimmers are supposed to drop here, because that is a phenomenally efficient stroke), 28 strokes per length for the next 200 meters, and 32 for the sprint in the final 50 meters. The highly efficient Grant Hackett, an Australian who held the record for 10 years, swam an average of 31 strokes over his record-setting race.

Laughlin says though he can't presume that Sun is using Total Immersion, his swim was a textbook demonstration of the technique he promotes.

I'm a tin Sun Yang; I'm swimming mindfully, methodically, trying to make sure each stroke is patient, catching as much water as possible, all the way to a quick flip of my wrist at the end. I'm making sure my hands enter the water as quietly as possible with each stroke, that my hips are high, and that my kick (which most people who've seen it regard as violent) is instead just enough to turn my hips over.

I'm doing all that, but I very quickly watch the pack of swimmers disappear ahead of me, and open the gap with aggression on the glassy water, which quickly turns to chop by the time I enter their weakening wake. It's a scene I'm getting used to. I don't blame anybody. My friend Kathy Morlan steamed the water to a personal best of 1:04 and change, and I think she should bottle and sell her secret.

I can do two things about this: Be content with swimming, realizing that very few people swim long distance, and I can do so and still be upright at the end, walking and talking without pain, with the pleasant memory of having slipped through wild water, over unknown depths. My wife prefers I think that way; she likes that I can do this at all.

For the most part, that's how I feel. As with the Fire Cracker swim, I felt I could go no faster, and if I tried, I would have floundered in the middle of the lake, out of whack and out of breath and energy. So I spent my time thinking thoughts and talking to myself about how I was doing.

Or I can figure out how to swim faster without loss of technique and sanity.

Leslie Thomas, who runs a wonderful coaching and expedition swim enterprise called swim-art.com out of San Francisco, happened to participate in the Donner Lake (and finished in 1:14 and change) and said her swim was rough until she finally settled into a groove. I found myself slipping in and out of at least eight different grooves, trying to hold onto one.

But comparison is impossible to avoid — it's literally staring me in the face, as I watch the mass of backsides receded to the finish line in front of me — and numbers are mesmerizing, if not intoxicating.

I should be able to swim faster, but maintain my technique. Maybe I can wring more out of my stroke, by turning over faster over the length of the swim.  I should be swimming sprints in the pool to build up my anaerobic tolerance; from what sprints I have swum before, I'm not anxious to continue: They hurt. Maybe I should leave it all in the water, and emerge at the end crawling up to shore, exhausted.

I don't know.

I was a lot more tired than I had expected, because when I swam with friends the next day at Lake Tahoe, I gasped for breath just swimming out to the buoy line to begin our practice. But I slowed, took a few deep breaths, and continued, getting one syrupy mile out of the morning before I swam back in.

I'll be back for Donner Lake's 32nd run, and I'll plan to swim it faster.


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