Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Yet so far away

Yesterday — somehow, some way — I swam two lengths of my beloved Lake Natoma.

It is one giant leap for me, one small splash for swimmingkind.

And all so ludicrous not too long ago.

Not too long ago — really, just three months back — I would amaze myself with the occasional 2.4-mile swim to a little island called Texas Hill near the middle of the lake. A mammoth swim.

Each time, I would crawl out of the water like I was reenacting the evolution of land animals.

Once a year, on Independence Day, I'd swim the length of the lake, impossible without a support boat and three stops to eat and drink. I was jelly at the end.

Now, every seven to 10 days a small group of us, sometimes just two, swim the length of the lake, a bit more than 4 1/2 miles. No support boat, no fuel except what we ingest before jumping in.

Swim buddy Sarah, gifted with the superpower of suggestion, compelled David — our other conspirator — and me to swim longer more regularly. It was the right time; we had exhausted the shoulda couldas, worn ourselves out with a couple of years of talking about it. Time to act.

Now two miles seems short, and we curse our conflicting schedules for it.

Sarah's been bugging us for a while to swim two lengths. We joked and made up names for the out-of-reach route instead, as we had begun to name our other routes.

A month back, to prime the pump for the double, we swam the traditional length — boat dock at lower Natoma to dock at upper Natoma — then added a round trip up the narrow rocky canyon to the boundary of Folsom Prison, for a total distance of 7 1/2 miles.

Common sense follows that we'd build up stamina for the double. A couple of more times of the length plus the prison boundary, for example. Then downstream and back up to Willow Creek, an additional two miles or so, with a lot where we could park and drive back to the starting point; swim that a couple of times. Then the length and up to Texas Hill and back to Willow Creek once or twice.

But we lack common sense.

With half a day off, Sarah and I made plans for Monday's swim. Sarah stashed food under a bench at lower Natoma; I kept mine in the tow float "butt buoy" I tether to myself. We parked our cars at the upper end.

Should we keep one car at the lower lake, just in case? Sarah asked.

No, we decided. We were like Cortés, burning his ships on reaching the New World. Conquer or die.

Or we could get out and walk back along the paved trail, if we really needed.

Hopes nosing out doubts, we plied the route, knowing from previous swims where the reeds and plants had overgrown in the shallow water, ready to trap us if we weren't paying attention. We knew where to look for any rowers; we knew one side of Texas Hill is better than the other for smooth unfettered passage.

We knew the chop was just a bunch of bumpy water. Adjust, roll a little more to breathe, deal with it. We knew the distant landmarks would remain distant for longer than we wished, and to be patient. We kept each other in sight.

At the lower dock we stopped and got out, violating international swimming rules, ate our stash and wondered aloud about walking back. In our hearts, though, we knew we could finish this, even if our shoulders and backs balked. A long moment of stretching and back in we went.

The water felt silky, aches went away, replaced by new aches elsewhere. Upstream was our usual route, and we knew it well, knew not to get too excited at every turn.

Along the way I thought, "This is really something!"

Followed by a new thought: It's really nothing.

It's all relative, of course. On my favorite facebook®™ page, Did You Swim Today?, swimmers around the world celebrate someone's first mile, or first open water swim, or first swim ever.

We also celebrate the gargantuan swims, the famous channel crossings, this time of year happening with stunning frequency. At times last week, it seemed a caravan of swimmers was crossing the English Channel, one right after the other, in the water at the same time along the tide-driven reverse "S" route from England to France.

Our long Natoma swim wasn't even as long as the six-hour qualifying swims English Channel swimmers must endure.

Within the last week, several teams and soloists have crossed the English Channel, including the oldest ever — 73-year-old heart surgeon Otto Thaning of South Africa — and the youngest to have completed what's called the Triple Crown. In addition to the English Channel, 16-year-old Charlotte Samuels of New Jersey has also swum around Manhattan Island and the Catalina Channel off California.

A 70-year-old Australian, Cyril Baldock, swam the Channel last month, holding the title of oldest crosser for only a couple of weeks.

In July, a Massachusetts woman, Elaine Howley, became the first to swim the 34-mile length of Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho. A northern California woman, Patti Bauernfeind, last month became only the second to swim the 25 miles across Monterey Bay, followed shortly after by Kimberly Rutherford (see a great video of her Lake Tahoe ice mile with long-distance swimmer Scott Tapley).

In Southern California last week, Peter Hayden became the first swimmer to circumnavigate Anacapa Island in the Channel Islands chain. (Channel swimmer Lynn Kubasek takes you on the journey with her video documentation.) Hayden topped it off by swimming 12 miles into the mainland. Shortly after, Julian Rusinek also swam from Anacapa to the mainland, last year having been the first to swim from San Miguel to Santa Rosa islands.

(Editor's addendum for Sept. 10: Carol Schumacher Hayden swam from Anacapa to the mainland this day. She just happens to be married to Peter Hayden.)

A New Zealand woman named Kimberley Chambers, who lives and works in the Bay Area, last month became only the sixth swimmer to have completed the Ocean's Seven Challenge — The English Channel, Catalina Channel, Cook Strait of New Zealand, Molokai Channel in Hawaii, Tsugaru Channel in Japan, Strait of Gibraltar at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea, and the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland.

Just two months after finishing the 12-mile Tsugaru Strait, Kimberley capped her challenge with the North Channel, swimming through clots of poisonous lion's mane jellyfish. The constant stinging and exhausting swim briefly hospitalized her.

Kimberley writes eloquently and personally about her swims; I'm one of many waiting anxiously for her North Channel swim account.

Read also Jason Betley's blog, accounting his English Channel swim to raise money for the hospital that treated his son's brain tumor.

facebook®™ has enabled me to correspond with many of these stars of long-distance swimming.

I'm leaving out so many swims, only because we have so many to keep track of, including valiant but aborted long-distance attempts.

My Natoma swim only deepens my appreciation of theirs, magnifying the greatness of their feats.

Yet …

Now I'm wondering, and asking. Now I'm dreaming. Now a fire has begun burning about what if? All the swims I've swum this point seemed unreachable until I slowly reached them, after all. What could I reach in time? How far can we swim regularly when winter drops the water temperature? What else is possible?

Maybe. Just maybe.

In other news:

Ray Rice won't be play football in two weeks after all.

He may never play again in the NFL, now that video has surfaced showing him knock his fiancée — now his wife — unconscious with a punch that sent her sprawling against the wall of a casino elevator, a punch that appears to have driven her headfirst into a metal railing. The second punch he landed in that elevator.

A video that supposedly no on knew about. The Baltimore Ravens, Rice's employer until yesterday, and the NFL: We're surprised as anyone by this video!

Yeah, right.

Confronted with — or exposed by? — undeniable and appalling proof, the Ravens cut the contract of their star running back. The NFL, rather than suspending Rice for two games, suspended him indefinitely and required any team considering putting Rice on their roster to check with the NFL first.

Would any team consider it? I'm not surprised by much anymore.

The NFL looks extremely pathetic on this, with dim hope of being better without real reform and major changes in the league and the legal system that allowed this crime to go so lightly punished, until the truth emerged.

Rice's wife has criticized the NFL and the news media for her husband's consequences.

Is money the only thing that matters anymore?

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