Thursday, January 3, 2013

Year of maniacal thinking

Where to now?

In 2012 I was to have swum from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge — or vice versa, tide depending — and completed a 10k open-water race.

I didn't.

I did:
  • swim the length of my home water, Lake Natoma, finishing the 4.8 miles 30 minutes faster than my first attempt, the Independence Day before;
  • cross Donner Lake for the second time, though many minutes slower than the year before;
  • swim the Folsom Lake Open Water 2.4 mile for the second time, in about the same amount of time;
  • use the full moon for light in a midsummer swim with friends at Folsom Lake;
  • compete in several swims, including a three-mile race, at an alpine Oregon lake during a wonderful festival devoted to the sport;
  • swim at least four times a week in Lake Natoma, through change of season and quality of light, through the slow rise and gradually painful fall in temperature, in fluctuating current, in mirror flatness, in heavy wind-churned chop, in summer clarity and winter murk, in heavy downpour and fog-white loneliness and the congestion of swimmers and darting devil-may-care paddle craft. I swam it with friends on the last day of 2012, and the first of 2013.
I hold the last most dear.

Take away all the rest, in fact, and I'd manage. Deny me my regular swims in Lake Natoma, though, and I'd mourn.

Every swim there is just the same, yet so different. From the south end of the lake, our swims hug the south shore, around a tiny island named (supposedly and as yet inexplicably) for Edgar Rice Burroughs, a distance that creeps up in my mind to 1.5 miles (it's probably just 1.3). From the north end on Saturdays, we swim across the narrow lake and then "upstream" around the trestles of a bridge and back in a big rectangle, about 1.7 miles.

With each swim I struggle and triumph, at different stages, to different degrees, for different reasons and periods — temperature, technique, hazards, work left to do at the office, going through my head constantly. Each high and low follows a cycle, its onset and duration a surprise. I learn little from each, except to know that they will return, sometime, in some way.

Long weeks will pass, for example, in which endurance suddenly escapes me. I'll go along fine for a half mile, a mile, and then one day just 100 yards will be hard. I end up counting strokes then, resolving to go 50, then 70, then 100, and on and on, for days, until I can resume my old stamina.

Sometimes the cycles are external. The stalwarts with whom I have swum the last year, for example, like to get in and swim as soon as we reach the water's edge; fast swimmers, they're soon way ahead. The swimmer I teamed with before (and if he's reading now, he needs to get his wetsuited fanny back out to the lake!) likes to get used to the water before starting out, kind of wade for a bit, let the cold take hold, which is more my style.

Lately a disturbing cycle has rooted, of slight dread. Not of the swim itself — once I'm in, then the struggles and triumphs, the sting of cold water on my forearms, the accidental swallow of green water, are so familiar. It's the going to and getting in that I resist lately. I overthink it and hyperventilate; I dawdle with the preparations (heat the water for the Thermos®© and for the hot drink on the drive over, pack dry clothes in one bag for the car trunk, and swim gear in another bag in the car seat so burglars won't be tempted to break in), so rather than getting in early before the fast swimmers arrive, I barely give myself time to start with them.

I know that sometime — who knows when? — this too shall pass and I'll be eager to jump in again. Maybe in three weeks or so, when the water will be its coldest.

Yet another cycle has waned (they often overlap): Call it acceptance, or resignation, or satisfaction of my Lake Natoma swim. It's been more than enough for me. And yet

I'm curious again.

Last year began with big plans. Swim big, go farther, faster. I even attended a Bay Area workshop about swimming 10k races. Then I swam 10,000 yards in a pool just to see if I could finish within the time limit. I couldn't. I tried again; long before I could finish, an aquacize class had set up and moved my lane lines to one side of the pool while I was still swimming. The 10k race came and went without me, as did most of the other races I tried the year before.

I stuck to "destination" swims, mostly, so Donner's end-to-end course and mountainous beauty fit. So did the Oregon festival, even though the course was set by buoys, which somehow violate my notion of an open-water swim.

Something about the Oregon swims, maybe the high altitude, wore me down, making me tired for the Donner swim, and by that time all the fire I had stoked for big swims had died out.

I settled into the unsettled comfort of Lake Natoma, where I've been since. Out of the water, I read facebook accounts from swimmers around the world, their big plans for the new year. Ten miles here, 20 there, an English Channel crossing, a Catalina crossing, colder and colder water, much colder than ours. Amazing wild seascapes. More and bigger.

Now I'm thinking outside the pond. A 10k race doesn't appeal, but those iconic bridges still beckon. As does Alcatraz; I'd like to swim it again. To get a leaner, to get stronger. To think less and use what swim buddy Doug calls my "reptile brain." To swim outside my comfort zone.

Where to now?

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