Thursday, March 8, 2012

annus mirabilis

One year ago, I first fell headlong into the murky, unremitting, unforgiving, frigid embrace of the open water, and never got out.

Except for a really good reason — backpacking most of a spring week with my son — I have swum open water at least four days every week since February 20, 2011. I have managed to find a lake or two even while camping on vacation, not to mention a few points along the California coastline, and wondered when I would get back in a pool.

(In fact, I finally canceled my gym membership after a long absence from the pool. Not my best move, it turns out; more on that later.)

The milestone felt like a millstone as the months crept up to the anniversary. A feat I feared I'd never reach actually passed two weeks ago, and I've wrestled with getting around to writing about it, almost — almost! — letting it pass without notice.

But to have done so would have eventually burned a hole in my gut. So much has happened that I hadn't expected ever to happen, that I need to let it out. I've swum from Alcatraz Island, an event for which I planned even as I doubted I really would or could; I've swum, however briefly, in chilled 39-degree chop in crystal clear Lake Tahoe; I've swum well past the length of a pier at Avila Beach, a pier from which long ago as a teenager I looked out and wondered idly if anyone had swum that far out — and wondered why anyone would.

It turns out that one would swim that far just for the delight of waving to people standing high on the end of the pier, wondering why anyone would swim that far.

That's the real, selfish fun for me. I have managed all that time to swim without a wetsuit. Only a few people I know do likewise in the open water in these parts. It's amazing to me to be able to do it; though I don't wave my arms and make a big show when I emerge from the water, I enjoy when onlookers ask every question but, "Are you nuts?"

(Last February, a man walking his dog asked us, "Why?" with such fervor that he leapt into a mild rage, his hands shaking and balling up as he asked, "Really: Why?!" He wanted a rational answer other than, "Because it's fun." I think he felt responsible in case we turned to frozen fish sticks and he had to alert the authorities.) 

At once practical and medicinal, open water swimming has also served as catharsis, as most hobbies do in their ideal, creating a restorative outlet for much of my free time. As one prone to funks, I have found in the open water a forum in which to deal frankly with myself, and renew hope and set goals and reexamine what may be redeeming about me.

In so doing, I have come to know and befriend interesting people who share the love of open water swimming, but have introduced me to many different ways of regarding the world — whether as ridiculous spectacle to laugh about, or as a constant challenge to we human inhabitants, in mind and body. Besides, a grey cold day and choppy green water is best faced with at least one other fool.

They have encouraged me with words, and shown and shone by example.

Through facebook I have met more swimmers from around the country and all over the world, who have revealed that open water swimming is a joy shared globally. I remember being a kid and visiting my parents' longtime friends. Mr. Benjamin would show off his ham radio, and after patiently fussing with the controls, occasionally a voice would squeak and squall through the box, a voice from Norway or Nova Scotia, say. It was fun, but it was hit or miss.

Say what you will, good or bad, about social media, but one wonder it provides is the chance to correspond instantaneously with a swimmer in New South Wales who has just sent a photo of a neon blue and yellow Eastern fiddler ray he swam near, or with a world renowned open water swimmer who must train in a net in the ocean to save herself from lethal jellyfish and sharks.

I have also come to know a place. Two places. I swim at either end of the the long, snake-shaped Lake Natoma, that is really a section of river dammed above and below. Each day that I swim, I take in the usually still water and the dark forests, and note the changes that each day brings, subtle though they are. Early blossoms, say, or the ring of bright water signaling the presence of a river otter, or the sudden coke-bottle clarity of shoals of riprap.

I have watched the arc of the sun dip and rise and now dip again; I have noticed the work of the earth lost to me from inside my car and room and constraints of time. I catalog these passages in my head — a swim buddy and I have even begun gathering daily data — and have seen what a year does to these places. I'm looking forward to getting to know these quiet places better.

(Just an aside, but I'm upset at the mild winter. Last February, first fighting with the cold water, my skin turned bright pink and spongy, and the sting of the cold felt like knife points to my face. Now I'm used to it, and as the temperature dropped degree by degree over the fall and winter, I spent at least one swim in slight pain getting used to the new low level of cold. My arms and hands stung, and I visualized fins of blue flame shooting up my arms, pretending their heat was what really stung; my lips numbed and I couldn't close them to speak; a day later, I was used to the cold, and I was looking forward to facing the water at 46 degrees, the lowest the lake fell last year in the snow and rain. A feeble winter means less snow to melt into Folsom Lake, then to drain from the lake bottom into Lake Natoma, which means the water won't get that cold again this year. I'm so disappointed.) 

It has been, as I said, annus mirabilis, a wonderful year. Or maybe in a more nuanced translation, a year of wonders. Or maybe even as the poet John Dryden intended when he wrote under this title in 1667 after beplagued London burned: It could have been worse.

Now a new year of the open water stretches before me.


I wonder what the new wonder will be. Right now, I can barely see it for all the numbers. Like cutoff times for a 10k swim. Or consistent times for 100-yard sets. Or negative splits. Or hypoxic breathing. Numbers are not my friends.

This year I want to do the same, only moreso. I might join in fewer races, staying in some favorites just to see how I'll do compared to this year. Maybe I'll swim Alcatraz again, though that can be expensive.

Foremost is swimming at least one 10k race. One is scheduled for early June. I have done diddly about signing up. I have nudged the whole idea with a tentative toe, paralyzed by the idea of swimming that distance in the 3 1/2-hour limit.

I'm hung up on the idea of getting faster. I don't know how to do it, and stay true to the sometimes maligned Total Immersion technique that has gotten me this far, literally, without tearing up my body.

One way, according to conventional wisdom, is to use a swimming pool. So, having just canceled my membership, I now show up from time to time, pay a drop-in fee, and swim. I have proven to myself I can swim the 10k (6.2-mile) distance. I just can't do so within the time limit.

So I'm stuck, mentally anyway. I need to go back to the Total Immersion resources and find the refinements that will help me go faster. I need to research sets that will speed me up and make me stronger. I need to do more than swim, like strengthen my core through other exercise.

And I'll get to it. I will. Whatever keeps me in the open water.

But you know what? The open water is enough for me. I can't say it's freedom, because for me it's a struggle, enduring what are for me long distances. Some people call it wild swimming, and I love that term. It's an honest engagement, an endeavor of mitigated danger, mastery of which lay juuuuuust beyond my grasp.

On the far shore, where I'll always be headed.

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