Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Swim swam swum

Random unsubstantiated observations (to accompany randomly placed art):

The end of the end: The thought hit my wife and me simultaneously Saturday, as we left the rest area below Donner Lake, where I had just finished a swimming race (or vice versa): Our vacation was officially over.

Too good to be true: Bend, Oregon, is the city Disney™®© would have designed, could it find a way to package the place for 21st century mass consumption. All it lacks are admissions gates, which the Mickey Mouse media oligarchy could probably manage without trouble since drivers so dutifully drop their speed as they enter the city of 80,000 and change.

This small city straddling the great high desert and the edge of the Cascade Range has reclaimed itself. Once a timber town, anchored by lumber mills, now it exudes and exhorts tourism —  especially for the young and vigorous. Developers rescued two massive sawmills, keeping three soaring smokestacks and the shells of buildings, and turning them all into high-end shops and restaurants, and adding an amphitheater named for tire king Les Schwab (Bend homie) all under the name Old Mill District. Suck eggs, Sacramento, trying and failing so far to do the same with its railyards.

Bend has 15 craft breweries, three more around the region, and more to come. Look out, Portland.

Families float down the lazy Deschutes River in inner tubes and brand new chaise lounge rafty apparatuses right past the Old Mill District and into an immaculate old storybook neighborhood of lumber barons' manors.

Clean and cool logo!
We had to retrieve enough forgotten camping items in Bend to evolve from thoroughly annoyed to partially pleased at the myriad carefully landscaped and sculptured roundabouts in the western, mostly frivolous side of Bend. I wonder at the planning involved in building so many of them (a local called them keyholes); I mean, you can't have a business at any of the corners, because drivers wouldn't be able to turn out in time to reach it. Either a lot of corner properties had to be condemned and ripped out to make way for the roundabouts, or the roundabouts came first and the useless part of the city was build around it.

The utilitarian part of Bend (you know, with grocery shops, gas stations, drug stores) is beset with many lethargic traffic lights, mostly to temper any enthusiasm drivers might retain for the never-say-stop roundabouts.

The place smelled sharply like sweat when I was a kid — a permeating blend of incinerator smoke and pine and sawdust and plywood glue. Now it smells like money. 

I came, I swam, I was conquered: The excuse for vacation was a swim festival west of Bend at tidy little Elk Lake in the Deschutes National Forest, the South Sister mountain towering above. A friendly coalition of U.S. Masters swimming groups (Central Oregon Masters Aquatics, or COMA) sponsors three days of races, and they make out-of-town swimmers welcome. We just had to be part of it, even if — especially if — we didn't know what we were getting into.

At each lakeside campground on the northbound trip, I managed a swim and quickly huffed and puffed each time, barely able to finish what is relatively easy for me back home. The altitude was robbing me of strength and air, or I was just mired in one of those struggly periods I get into.

No sooner had we finally settled into a campsite at Elk Lake than I joined the 3,000-meter race on a Friday evening. Altitude and anxiety and wind and chop and a misguided attempt to talk myself out of giving up had me give up before I reached the first buoy, out of breath. The race director told me to try again in the next races and take it slow, since I come from 121 feet in altitude, and Elk Lake is 4,893 feet.

Skipping the 500-meter race the next day, I finished the 1,500 meters and felt OK, then Sunday slogged through the 5,000-meter race (about three miles) and labored through the end of the 1,000- meter race to end the festival.

Stopping frequently in the 5,000, I looked back on the course to discover the course had disappeared. With a quick glance to my left, I saw why: The rescue boat was already pulling the marker buoys, a rather blunt message that I was the last one on the course.

I stumbled through the finish line, the beneficiary of the swim festival tradition — loudly cheering on the last swimmer.

Iron Eyes Cody, we need you! The candy bar wrappers and sunburned cans of Oly tossed on the side of road of my generation have given way to flattened empty packets of Gu™®© along Century Avenue, the 100-mile mountain highway loop leading out of Bend. This is a place for serious bikers (the swimming event we went to encouraged volunteers to bicycle the 32 miles and 1,000 foot climb from Bend rather than fatten their carbon footprint).

Lost a part and found an inspiration: An elderly man joined me on the Elk Lake beach one morning in my search for the tiny cap that holds the air in my goofy looking inflatable orange swimmer's safety device. He isn't just any elderly man, and he's far, far from elderly. He's David Radcliff, 78, a retired high school teacher and administrator from Southern California, and now a master's swimmer living near Portland. What he didn't say — what I found out from others — is that he swam the 1,500 meter freestyle race in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. After taking 38 years off from swimming, he resumed in 1995 and now owns a multitude of world records for his age group.

At the swim festival at Elk Lake, Dave Radcliff swam the 1,500-meter race in 25 minutes and 11 seconds, 36th among all swimmers. In 1956, finishing fourth in his heat and unable to advance to the finals, he swam it in 19:09.6. I swam the 1,500 at Elk Lake in 32 minutes and 49 seconds, 104th overall.

(I need to discard the delusion that I'll improve by attrition, more likely to place in my age group the older I get: The 1,500 winner, at 20 minutes and 35 seconds, is 60 years old.)

Friendly and encouraging, Dave often asked how I was faring at the festival and reminded me to take the races slow and easy to account for the altitude. I took his advice too well.

Must-not-see TV: Vacation meant mercifully missing some of the Olympics. I have turned the games off in frustration, refusing NBC's manipulation. I won't stay up late nights while NBC reconstitutes the games into some sort of jingoistic, athletic American Idol, holding the show stopper until past 11 p.m. The network pads the show with the usual sob stories and rehashes of Olympics long past; here's an idea — just show the Olympics, just event after event in short-attention span rotation? Instead I watch at random and create my own visual smorgasbord — a little water polo, a bit of table tennis, a racing canoe heat — and don't worry about what I may be missing. I'll read about it if I have to.

Must-not-see TV II: San Francisco became the Bizarro Giants in our absence, falling apart in an L.A. Dodgers sweep and allowing the Dodgers to crawl back to the top of the division. The New York Mets stomped the Giants for two games out of three. The one who has usually bumbled, starter Tim Lincecum, became the lone bright spot in that horrid streak, beating the Mets.

Beating up on the lowly Colorado Rockies for some three-game sweep salve once we got back home, the Giants visit the Cardinals this week. The Cards gave the Giants rude welcome in the first game, beating San Francisco 8-2.

A conversation I'll never have: (Overheard): "Mr. Race Director, I'm not sure you got my time in that race. I think I got third for my age group."

Them that has, gets: Tell me again why professional basketball players should be participating in the Olympics. Or professional tennis players. Or professional anything. Medals must feel like a lifetime achievement award for them, or paperweights for their piles of money and accolades.

And why is beach volleyball in the Olympics? OK, I've complained enough.

Red highways: I can't remember if I can't remember, but a part of me recognizes the unique red cinder highways around Bend, built from the lava rock abundant in this land of ancient volcanoes. The color of dried blood, the roads still exist on the trailhead spurs and side roads off Century Avenue in the Cascades, but on the main highway itself, the red highway merely peeks out at the edges under at least two layers of plain old gray gravelly blacktop. After crews obliterated the red roads with black glop, a highway department spokesman said the red highways held no historic value. Okay …

• People of the Klamath, hear me: Do you use Klamath Lake for anything other than drinking and irrigating? It was a dead sea when we drove around it: not a single boat, not a creature stirring. Convinced the maps had to be wrong, we blew out half a day driving around the entire lake in search of camping: A few half-hearted tiny private campgrounds from a bygone century, advertising the standard $5 boat launch fee. One public campground carved out of marshy reeds, ideal for dumping bodies or making meth, but not for camping. That's it? Seriously?

• It does a body good: Determined not to quit the 5,000-meter race, I nonethless had to stop a lot in order to keep this promise to myself. The course was a 2,000-meter diamond for the first loop, then two 1,500-meter triangles to finish. I had gone about 2,300 meters when I took a long rest and looked behind me. The leaders of the pack were about to lap me. Think of it: In the time it took me to swim 2,300 meters, this bunch of churning swimmers had swum 3,700 meters and were on their last loop. The three who would eventually finish one-two-three — nearly an hour ahead of me — were drafting one another, a tight body length behind the other, their strokes matching exactly. They were wearing wetsuits in 67-degree water, but I didn't give them a hard time about it; I was too busy marveling at what well-developed human bodies and strong minds could accomplish.

Head down, trying not to think too much, I plodded on.

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