Monday, May 9, 2016

SCAR 2016: Day 4, Victory Lap Rodeo

In the clearing stands a boxer,
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of every glove that laid him down
And cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame,
"I am leaving, I am leaving."
But the fighter still remains
--Simon & Garfunkel, The Boxer

If the Apache Lake Resort had room service, I'd have stayed in that lumpy, musty, heavenly bed all morning. But donger need food. I stuck my head in the warm shower, blew a quart of lake sediment out of my nose and drove 50 yards to the restaurant. I figured I'd earned it. I felt proud walking in. I was in the company of great swimmers and I belonged. I got an upward head nod from a young, ripped, body-shaven athletic type. "Nice swim, bra." Yesterday I was an invisible old geezer.

Today I'm an elder.


Triple Crown earner, World Open Water Swimming Association 'Man of the Year' nominee, 10-time MIMS finisher and fellow Texan Jamie Tout waved me over to join him and his wife, Tina. He wanted to talk swimming, since we're both, you know, from Texas. While they debated which "healthy start" breakfast entree to split, I ordered three off the right side of the menu: A Southwest Breakfast Burrito Supreme smothered in chili, sour cream and Cholula, biscuits 'n gravy, extra gluten, a side of crispy hash-browned potatoes, two pints of whole milk and a full pot of coffee, black. "A-ffirmative, ma'am. Read back is co-rrect." After half an hour of Jamie and me unpacking every detail of our Apache experiences, Tina interrupted to say, sounding much like my own beloved bride, "I swear y'all spend half a day swimmin', and the other half talkin' about swimmin'." 

"Indeed," I should have said, "and then I'm going to spend another day writing about it. And then a bunch of swimmers are going to spend hours reading about it and some of them will write me about it. And I will write them back. And it will entertain the hell out of all of us for years.  And do you know why? Because what we did yesterday was of greater value than the sum total accomplishments of the entire Kardashian family." Except for the one formerly known as Bruce Jenner. Perhaps.

I looked out the window. Apache Lake looked like an Orange County liquor store. No ripple in sight. Fickle wench.

Credit: Ellen Kemper
The final stage of SCAR is a night swim. So we had most of the day to lounge about, mix feeds, pack, and take the scenic route to Roosevelt Lake Marina. The scenic route is the only route. Twenty breathtaking miles of back-country, single-track dirt road switchbacks. Enough to intimidate a billy goat. But not a cow, apparently:

Even though it's only 20 miles, it takes over an hour. No one minds. It's a spectacular drive. And if you think I've overused the word spectacular, you haven't been to the Tonto National Forest. 

As I drove, I basked in the inevitability of my situation. I had a virtual lock on a top 10 finish in one of the most grueling weeks of marathon swimming in the world. I had managed to snatch open water glory out of thin air. All I had left was a measly 10K. Something I might do just to kill time on a Saturday morning. "Really just a formality," I thought, "like the final stage of the Tour de France." Conditions were perfect. The sun was shining and the air was warm and calm. And all I had to do was finish.

"What could possibly go wrong?"

The signs were right in front of me, I just didn't see them. Or blocked them. First, during the pre-race meeting, Kent was passing out the coveted "black caps" (the only ones to possess these rare gems are those who have successfully completed the daunting third stage of SCAR). He totally skipped me! As iiif! Luckily, the Kiwi had my back and hurled her recently emptied bottle of SanTan Devil's Ale at him. It sailed wide right. Kent ignored her until she picked up a full one. As Kent paid me the respect I deserved, I glanced at the Kiwi and realized she wasn't defending me. She was "preserving" me. Like an unblemished, fattened calf.  She had no intention of treating this like a victory lap. She had a 21 minute gap on me. She had nothing to worry about. This was about pain. She grinned at me and I shuddered like Apollo Creed watching Rocky cracking a rib rack at Paulie Penino's Shamrock Meats.

Next, fellow Wave 1 Top 10 candidate, Karen Charney and I got stuck in some bizarre boat loading eddy. We were literally one foot onto the first boat out of the marina when the Angry Pirate gave me a forearm shiver and announced, "Sorry, folks, boat's full. Moose out front should've told you that." Then through some combination of crowd flow, a narrow docks, eager swimmers and general confusion, we ended up standing on an empty dock staring at the exiting flotilla of stage 4 swimmers like two kids late for the school bus. We found some sad-looking life raft in the last slip with a threadbare "SCAR" flag hanging from a single rusty grommet but no captain. We sat down anyway. It started to rain. 

When we finally got underway, the skies darkened. The wind picked up and so did the waves. One crashed over the bow and nearly swept my gear bag overboard. I should have seen the signs. We all should have. They were obvious. Warning us. Laughing at us. Something bad was about to happen.

Last year I secretly made fun of the Type-A-types adorning their kayaks with all manner of illumination. But the joke ended up being on me, and I learned a lesson that night. This year I found 20-foot strings of battery-powered, waterproof LEDs on Amazon Prime for $7 each, delivered. I ordered 2. Enough to wrap our Kayak four times. When I flipped the switch, I felt the urge to sing "Joy to the World" like Clark Griswold. Ninja looked like he was riding the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. At least I think it was Ninja. My pupils narrowed to pinholes. Yes, people laughed at us. Before, anyway. Before the darkness. Before the rodeo. I guess they'd ignored the signs, too.

The weather misleadingly--deceptively--calmed down before the start. I felt strong and confident. Last year I was so tired and achy at the start of stage 4 that I had a very rational fear of drowning. Not tonight. When Kent called the start, I baby-step-shuffled down the ramp into the cold, black lake, partly to avoid slipping, partly to sandbag the Kiwi. I'd been faking all manner of injury and soreness all afternoon. I wanted her to think I was just going to mail it in. Run a prevent defense to preserve my top-10 SCAR finish. Hardly. My elbows felt so good I tested out my Superman catch stroke to see if they could handle the load. I expected to feel (or hear) ripping scar tissue as the tendons stretched out. But they held. Money. I came out of the bay at full-throttle. The water was smooth and I was strong. 

Kent purchased two sweet, large, yellow triangle buoys with the SCAR logo on them. They were supposed to mark the course. And they might have actually worked, except that he also rented yellow kayaks and filled them with very helpful and eager volunteers, several of whom apparently failed to grasp the significance of his clear instruction to, "pick up your swimmer AFTER the first buoy." Several paddled out onto the course, squarely between us and the buoys, to help show us the bright yellow buoys that would have been nearly impossible to miss if not for the bright yellow kayaks in the way. [Note: Don't confuse my occasionally dark humor and embellishment with hate. Got nothing but love for these guys!!]

I picked up the Ninja. He was maintaining proper hydration. He offered me a snort, but I decided to wait. I continued my hammerfest. At the 1-hour mark, I glanced at my watch: 3.85K. "What?!!  I don't even know people who can swim that fast." Strangely, I'd grown stronger with each stage. Just like last year. I didn't even feel tired.

"Where's that guy been all week?" asked Ninja during my next feed stop.

"I have no idea, but he's here tonight." And what a beautiful night it was! 


Minutes later the dark thing the signs were warning us about happened. Or exploded, rather. I've read several accounts on social media, but nothing I've seen adequately conveys just how profoundly the conditions deteriorated on Roosevelt Lake around sunset on April 30th. We went from moderate chop to F5 squall in under 90 seconds. The swells were so high I could, and did, completely lose sight of my kayaker 7 feet away. It was insane and chaotic. Rain blew horizontally like bird shot. And there was nothing that could be done. We had 45 swimmers and 45 kayakers out in the middle of the lake, miles from shore. It was all kayakers could do to simply stay upright, let alone offer any assistance to the swimmers. I would have been nervous in a pontoon boat.

But not in the water. In the water I found it both thrilling and comical. This was the perfect end to SCAR 2016. It was fascinating to hear several others describe it later as like "riding a bull," because that's exactly what I was thinking. This was a rodeo. A victory lap rodeo. I tightened my grip on the leather and rode that bull for all I was worth. And it was awesome. I was literally laughing out loud. Partly because of the irony and adventure of it, partly because I felt like a toddler playing in the sprinklers. 

I wasn't laughing when Ninja and I got separated. Not because I felt in danger. I was in swim heaven. He, on the other hand, was struggling valiantly against 4-foot waves crashing over his bow. I thought I might have to rescue HIM. I turned around and swam backward for 20 meters or so and yelled "YOU OK?" making the hand-signal to make sure he understood. He gave me an exaggerated nod in response, apparently fearful of losing grip on his paddle.

My second fear was for Kent. "He must be freaking out," I thought, "this is not the perfect ending for him." He was responsible for all of us and that couldn't have been fun. Not at all.  Then it occurred to me that there would be boats out looking for us and making decisions about who to pull and who to leave. We need to get our story straight. Any hesitation or apparent doubt might lead to a snap decision to pull us. I stopped and swam back to Shearin again, and yelled, "IF ANYONE ASKS YOU HOW YOUR SWIMMER IS DOING, YOU LOOK HIM RIGHT IN THE EYE AND SAY, 'ARE YOU KIDDING ME? THIS IS WHAT HE FREAKING LIVES FOR!' YOU GOT IT? I'M NOT GETTING OUT!" I wasn't lying. I love swimming in chaos. I could not have scripted a more perfect ending to the week. I rolled over and swam for my life, smiling ear-to-ear.

The squall peaked after maybe 15 minutes but did not dissipate nearly as rapidly as it arrived. We'd been blown so far off-course, that an unfamiliar land mass had come between us and the target bridge. And we had just minutes before the waning light faded to complete darkness. If we didn't get around the land mass quickly, we'd be swimming blind. No target lights to aim for. I took an exaggerated left line, into the wind, to bring the target light into range more quickly. Once we found it, I turned to Ninja and said, "let's get dialed back in now." And we did. My engine revved up quickly and I reconnected with the seemingly bottomless fuel tank. We were flying. 

I was thankful for the LED's on the kayak, as were all swimmers within about a mile radius. You could see their paltry lights converging in a neat row behind us, like jets on final into LAX. We were a beacon of hope to lost mariners. A lighthouse. Rudolf. Our boat was so bright, I could see it underwater. I think a couple of carp sidled up next to me.

Although the lake never really calmed, it wasn't hard to find a good rhythm. I felt good and I pushed hard. I began to wonder if perhaps I could hang 21 minutes on Team Kiwi after all. The thought inspired me to find another gear for the last hour. I cruised under the bridge and tagged the buoy line at 3:34. That's about 45 minutes longer than my normal 10K time, but pretty dang fast under the circumstances. My satisfaction was confirmed when I climbed into the boat and found Asha Allen still towelling off and Karen Charney touching the buoys shortly after me. Both of these women were swimming faster than me all week. There was no sign of the Kiwis. In fact, we were already leaving the finish line in our shuttle boat when the Kiwi's came in. I knew it had been at least 15 minutes, but 21? It would be close.

In the end, I didn't really care. I had survived another year. Under brutal, perfect conditions. In the top 10.

My 85-year-old father still runs a 10K just about every weekend. He always "wins" his age group--there's rarely a second place finisher. But he wears his medals as proudly as any Olympian. He likes to say, "Son, in the end, you don't have to be better than the other guy, just more stubborn." I guess the old man still has a morsel of wisdom or two left in him...

Monday, May 2, 2016

SCAR 2016: Day 3, Judgment Day

Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the wind turns the minutes to hours?
-- Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
-- William Shakespeare, Henry V

12:05 PM, feed stop 4, approximately mile 5 
"Ninja, hold up. I've gotta say this, before the wheels come off. You know how bad this is about to get."
We had been through this Apache hell together just a year ago. The grim forecast for today now appeared accurate. 
"We're headed to place of pain, bro. It will seem bigger than both of us. But it isn't.  The pain will end before the sun sets, but quitting will haunt us forever. These are the moments that define us, my brother. Right here, right now. You in?"
"You know I am," replied Ninja
"I need to you remind me of this if I start to falter."
There's something indescribable about an epic swim. A swim that forces you to question what you believe about yourself. Where adversity kicks you in the face. When the outcome is very much in doubt (and I don't mean just the finish line). I love what I feel in those moments. The struggle for control over the dark places in my mind. Exhilaration, doubt, despair. The tricks your mind plays on you and the tricks you play back. The physical, emotional and spiritual immersion into the fullness of life. It is in those moments when I feel most alive. And to have such a swim in one of the most beautiful venues in the world, is...


Apache Lake is the legendary third stage of the SCAR Swim. Not because it's the longest. Officially, it's 17 miles. To put that in perspective for my non-swimming readers, a 10K swim is considered equivalent to a marathon run and the minimum distance to be called a "marathon swim." 17 miles is nearly three times that (the English Channel is just 21 miles).

And it's not legendary just because it comes after back-to-back days of marathon swimming.

What makes Apache legendary is the wind. Unlike the other SCAR lakes, the middle 10 miles are fairly straight and cut through more of a steep valley than a canyon.  There is no protection from the wind.  In fact, the mountains on either side act like a funnel. Or a jackhammer. The prevailing winds in this area are WSW, which puts that wind right on your beak. All the talk at dinner last night was about how bad the conditions were in 2015 and how the forecast for this year compared to last year (yes, people actually had that data). It didn't look good. I retired to the bar to plot strategy with the Ninja.

It was cold and rainy at the start. I didn't stand around and talk like I normally would. I needed to get my head right. I found a secluded patch of grass between two boulders, laid down and put my headphones on. That's why there are no pics with this post.

As part of the strategy Ninja and I worked out, the first three miles (the protected section) would be about effortless, clean penetration. Long, gliding strokes with the profile of a javelin. Use nearly nothing in the easy 3 mile canyon leading to the open lake. Maintain feeds with military precision. Ninja set his watch 30 seconds before my 30 minute feed alarms so that when my feed alarm went off, I popped my head up immediately and a bottle was in the air. Perfection. Like a timing route in football. Team Kiwi was on the same pattern and, as usual we were always within spittin' distance (that's Texan for "meter," Kiwi). The smack talk was flyin' early and often.

As we approached the bend into the main lake, you could see it. You could hear it. We moved to phase two of the plan. Hug the left wall and punch the waves with purpose. Find the rhythm of the water. Kick. There were little notches perhaps 100 to 300 meters long every so often. We curved into each. The extra distance was a fair trade for the slightly flatter water.

It was after an hour of this that I gave the pep rally speech (above) right after dumping out my full goggles. Not water. Tears. I had been crying. Not crying. Wailing. Uncontrollably. And screaming underwater at a friend. Actually, former friend, who I will call by the fictional name "John" for reasons that will soon be apparent. John could not hear me. Not then. Not ever. Two days earlier, about the time I was diving into Saguaro Lake, my hunting buddy and father of two fine young boys, took his own life. We weren't terribly close, but I was within the blast radius of profound sadness.

With deserved apologies to those of you who understand more about this than I do and with complete recognition that it is more complicated than what I am about to say, as I wrestled with John's suicide in the cold darkness of Apache Lake, I thought about something I say to my children more frequently than they care to hear it: "Quitting begets quitting." I believe that. I also believe that overcoming adversity prepares us for adversity. Courage is a muscle that must be exercised. Emotional pain is like going to a gym for the heart. Each time you overcome is a building block. Developing healthy patterns with the small stuff develops the foundation to rely on for the real storms.

It was about then that all hell broke loose on Apache Lake and I realized, "I am in the gym now. I will make it through this darkness to prove to myself, once again, there is light in the end. And that I have the courage to endure. This will be monument of remembrance to add to the many others so that I might never inflict such profound suffering on the people who love me." Perhaps that won't be enough if I ever find myself on that unimaginable cliff. But it's all I've got.

I did not dedicate this swim to John. I dedicated it to my wife, my children and people I love and who love me. "I will do this for them." And then I wept for them. Epic swims send me to places like this. Places of clarity.

About that time, my feed alarm went off. I'm sure Ninja thought I'd lost my mind when I laid that unexpected, heavy speech on him behind bloodshot eyes. Especially when team Kiwi had already finished and was well underway.  It just seemed right, so I did.

As I resumed, realized, "wait, what is the Kiwi doing here? This is our secret spot!" No one else was hugging the left bank as far as I could tell. They were all on the right. Our's was the longest line possible, but Ninja and I knew from last year that the swimmers who took the left line fared considerably better than everyone else. We specifically vowed to keep this from the Kiwi! And there she was. I also noted that Kiwi had replaced her husband with a local ringer kayaker and SCAR veteran. She was young and cute. I figured she'd batted her eyes at him a few times and he'd given up the goods. "Judas!"

The next several hours were fairly uneventful. We battled wind, waves and cold. We remained disciplined in all things according to plan. Feed schedule, complete deference to Ninja for navigational judgment, solid, efficient stroke mechanics and streamlined body posture. You really can't afford to add any extra effort to a swim like this. It is worth the extra focus and energy to keep your mechanics solid. Ninja and I had worked out some hand signals to alert me if I fell into any of my typical bad habits. I don't think it ever became necessary. I was focused.

The Apache Lake Resort is more or less the half-way point, but thinking of it that way is misleading. Everest base camp is 17,500, well over half way to the summit. But no one would describe it as "half way to the top." But it is an encouraging landmark. It took FOREVER to get there. And the carnage had already begun. Boat after boat passed us with stacked kayaks and bundled-up swimmers. The shores were dotted with impromptu triage stations. I knew what was ahead, I felt a magnetic pull to the warm comfort of my hotel room. Even Ninja showed uncharacteristic signs of cracking, "Look, the Kiwi's are quitting. If they quit, what have we got left to prove?" He had a point. They were still on the south side of the lake, within meters of the resort. The water was rough there. No reason to be there unless, perhaps...  I tracked them for a while, hoping they did pull over and wondering how I would respond. They didn't. We didn't.

The second half was cold. I don't think it got colder (at least not until the sun slipped behind the canyon walls), more like my body just started surrendering to it. I couldn't feel my extremities. I started to feel sick. Even the smell of my feeds made me want to vomit. I forced food down as best I could. Most of it came right back out. I was also taking on tons of lake water, not unusual for me in rough water, depending on the direction of the wind. Even the lake water that found its way into my mouth made me gag. Eventually I got so cold I couldn't stop for feeds. I knew this would only make it worse, but when I pulled up even for a few seconds, I could feel my temperature drop and the shakes coming. So I kept moving. Racing against hypothermia. I saw SCAR veteran and all-around swim stud Steve Minaglia climbing out of the water less than two miles from the finish. I felt bad for him. We merged up again with the Kiwi, but after swimming together for half an hour, she dropped me like a bad habit. I didn't care. I just wanted the cold and pain to end.

I used stroke counting to distract myself from the cold. I kicked to bring up my temp as much as I could. I started to swim with my eyes closed, opening them only on my Ninja-side breaths (every 6th to 8th stroke). I don't know why. It just felt good. Then I started feeling sleepy. I stopped and warned Ninja of my temptation to doze off and to make sure I kept breathing.

Eventually, the finish line was in sight, or at least that's what Ninja said. My goggles were foggy and I was too cold to stop to clean them. I knew from last year, that still meant 20 minutes of swimming and I could tell it was getting dark and dark meant DNF. I increased my effort as much as possible, but I doubt the change would have been discernible to the human eye. Catch, pull, finish, glide, return.

Eventually, I touched the buoy. Finished. 9:44. But finishing didn't end the suffering. If you've ever been that cold for that long, you know it doesn't end for an hour or so. I had to keep fighting just to put on my fleece and heavy coat. I wished I had Ugs for my feet (note to self). That would have been heavenly.  As I shivered on the deck, Kent requested a status report from his radio. Devon Clifford was just around the bend. 20 minutes out. "Alright, we've got to shut it down after Devon," Kent said, reluctantly. He knew there were swimmers on the course, still pressing on. It was a hard call.

"How many finished?" I asked. Or at least attempted to ask. What came out was more like, "h-h-hw m-m-m-n fincht?


"How many?" I asked again

"How many finished?" asked Kent

I nodded.


What?! I started to feel warm again.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Apache Results Summary

I tried to write a full post, but I kept nodding off and having to delete a dozen scrolling pages of sssssssssssssssssss, I'll try to finish it in the morning. The official results aren't posted yet and there will be questions when they are, so I'll give you the gist of it:

First, the famous Apache winds were back. Haven't heard official measurements, but I'd definitely call them comparable to 2015. Perhaps not quite as bad (and my finish time supports that theory), but enough to reach the same scientific category: Quite Unpleasant to Terribly Unpleasant. 

Second, it was cold. I'd say the temp was the same as Canyon (63), but the time of exposure in Apache was about double Canyon (which had some temp-related DNFs, too). Plus it was steady. There were no "warm" patches (a relative term, to be clear) to boost spirits/core temp.

  • Smart money never never started. 3-4 took one look outside this morning and thought better of it (to be honest, I was tempted, but no one will ever confuse me with the smart money)
  • Of the 37(?) who did start, only 11 finished
  • Several (I believe 4) were forced out because they had become incoherent due to the effects of hypothermia (unable to communicate clearly or solve 1st grade math problems--although I'd like to know if they were Common Core math problems, as that might cast doubt on the diagnosis)
  • Several more (I believe 3) were pulled from the water after sunset (meaning they were in the water for over 10 hours)
  • The remainder white flagged (self-selected) for one or more of the above, including several within the first several miles
On a positive note, I finished! And, at the risk of getting flamed (perhaps deservedly) for celebrating the misfortunes of others, at least 2 of the DNFs were ranked in the top 10 before Apache, which means I may have managed to way out-perform my ability (unless having too fragile an ego is an "ability") and cracked the top 10.

[Spoiler alert] Speaking of fragile egos, Team Kiwi gave me a proper thrashing. I blame the local ringer (and SCAR veteran) they brought in to replace Garth in the kayak. Or perhaps it was the Smack Talk Rule (Texan for Karma).

Friday, April 29, 2016

SCAR 2016: Apache Pre-Race

It is cold and rainy at Apache Lake Marina. The weather geeks say forecast is worse than last year. Hard to separate science from hype. 

Gotta get my head right. 

SCAR 2016: Day 2 "Revenge of the Kiwi"

All of the lakes are spectacular, but Canyon is special. As you crest the steep hill that borders the west side of the canyon from which the lake draws its name, the view is breathtaking. I wanted to pull over at the scenic overlook for a picture, but I was 20 minutes late even after triggering the "speed limit exceed" warning message on my rented Audi which, comically, didn't kick in until I reached at 30 mph over the posted limit. As Teddy Roosevelt said,
"The Apache Trail combines the grandeur of the Alps, the glory of the Rockies, the magnificence of the Grand Canyon and then adds the indefinable something that none of the others have.  To me, this is the most beautiful panorama nature has created." 
The beauty lifted my spirits, which I needed after my Saguaro performance. When I arrived at the site, Kent was announcing "pay attention to the starting waves. There have been many changes." I checked the board, not so much to see if I was moved as to see who was removed and added to the second wave. My name was gone! I'd been downgraded to the slow heat! I supposed "right-graded" or exposed as a fraud might be more accurate.

Next I checked to see if my new rival, Katrina Price had also been moved (the smack talking started back in the parking lot--we arrived in said lot at the exact same time, of course). Yes! The challenge was still on!

The drive to the staging area was fabulous.

As was the staging area, itself.

Katrina and I posed for a picture in the tradition of boxers before a match. It was on like Donkey Kong.

We loaded up the pontoon boat and headed to the start. After the ridiculously cold water below the dam at Saguaro (which, by the way, was recorded by a kayaker with her own, unofficial thermometer at 54 degrees around 500 meters from the start. Stands to reason it was 2-3 degrees colder at the buoy line) we expected the worst. Apache is much deeper and the dam separating it from Canyon is at least 100 feet tall. The water comes from the bottom. As such, Canyon is historically the coldest of the lakes. And it was cloudy, breezy with rain possible. To my great surprise and delight, the water was MUCH "warmer" at the start.  Probably more like 60-62. Cold enough to get your attention, but not enough to significantly impair basic motor skills like yesterday.

This seemed to make all the difference once we got started. My stroke came easily. Plus, since we were in the first wave, it was more of a rolling start than the sprinting of the other waves. I felt effortless and fast. Much better than the day before. "Too bad," I thought, "the highly anticipated international grudge match was going to be a boring blow out." I figured I must have put 500 meters on her within the first 40 minutes or so. I felt dialed in and invincible. And groovy.

I eased up a bit and soaked in the beauty of my surroundings. There was a light chop, but enough to exaggerate my breathing roll enough that I could see the tops of the 200 ft bluffs towering overhead. The clouds were breaking slightly and the sunlight made discernible, defined rays that interacted magically with the jagged, rocky cliffs. As the clouds dissipated fully, underwater visibility increased nearly to that of Saguaro. I saw several tight schools of 1000's of minnows darting around in seemingly choreographed movements like you typically see in the ocean, but not generally in fresh water.

I didn't stop when my feed alarm went off at 40 minutes. I felt too good to stop. "I'll push on another 10 minutes," I thought. Perhaps I can hang another 50 meters on Team Kiwi and just end this now." But I got distracted singing Simon and Garfunkel's "Feelin Groovy" and before I knew it, I was at 1:15.  Oops!  I stopped and requested a bottle.I looked around and realized that I was actually "winning" at the moment.. This was a  fiction, of course, due to the staggered start. But to be winning SCAR stage, even if just for a somewhat contrived moment in time made this swim even more awesome! I really had to hold the bridle firmly to avoid getting swept up in the moment. "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast."

My excitement was short-lived, however, because a half-hour later I saw a kayaker pulling into my peripheral vision at a noticeably higher rate of speed. The second wave leader, no doubt. "Must be some speed merchant like Jamie Tout or Steven Minaglia." I tried to make out the kayaker. He had the same hat as the Garth Price. Wait, WHAT? I shot up straight in the water. "Team Kiwi!? Inconceivable!"

Not only was she hanging on with dialed-in-and-feeling-groovy Steve, but I quickly deduced the tactical brilliance of her move. She'd apparently been stalking me until the 1-mile straight away (the only straight part of the course) before pouncing. This neutralized the Ninja's superpowers like so much kryptonite. Without his navigational advantage, it be up to me, alone. Her warp-speed jump was designed to intimidate me, which it did. She got perhaps a 20 meter gap before I could respond, but I held her there for the mile. As we finally approached the right-hand bend, she left the door open so wide I didn't even need the ninja to spot it. I took an inside line and found myself right in her jet wash as we approached the rocky outcropping. I tried to avoid the draft (rules and all), but we are such "swim doppplegangers" (doppleswimmers??) we were completely connected. I moved left, she moved left. I moved right, she moved right. "Is she blocking me?"

I dug deep for 5-6 six hard strokes to pull even with her for a minute. Eye to eye. The apex was upon us, time to seize my advantage. Then, everything went to hell. Out of nowhere, motion to my right. Another swimmer managed to squeeze a tighter line in the 18-in gap between me and the jagged rocks! Bold and risky. I liked it. Then a hand hit my left thigh. It wasn't Katrina. Someone wedged between us. I eased up to avoid impact, only to find a third swimmer in my draft. And kayaks everywhere. Apparently, the third wave lead pack had caught the second wave lead pack and they were now overtaking the first wave leaders. A pack of perhaps 12 of us were fighting for the hole shot in the zig-zagiest part of the course. Chaos ensued. After getting sprayed out the back of the washing machine, Katrina was ahead of me.

Plus, the right turn brought a remarkable headwind. I immediately noticed the jockeying had affected my stroke enough to aggravate my elbows. The swim changed rather dramatically at this point. I still felt great, but I was falling. I let off a bit. We managed to swap places with team Kiwi several more times, mostly because of her tighter feed schedule and Ninja's tighter lines. At one point, she screamed something at me as I passed her, but it was in New Zealander so I didn't understand it. I decided to take my last feed at the 75% mark. But when I pulled up, Ninja tells me I've consumed all my liquid feeds except the water. I asked for the trail mix and threw back a mouthful. I was crunching my way through it when I turned to see where the Kiwis were. They were less than 10 meters and closing fast. I spewed the un-swallowed nuts into the water and got back underway. Too late. She passed me with a look of steely resolve so powerful I could see it through her mirrored lenses.

The last mile was BRUTAL. 20 MPH headwind and plenty of boat/jetski traffic, which they must be used to down there in Kiwiland.  She won pulling away. In fact, she probably erased my gap from yesterday and added a few minutes of her own. She waited for me in the water long enough that her breathing was normal when I arrived, giving her a distinct smack talk advantage. She rained unrequited blow after unrequited blow on my defenseless ego. Well played, Kiwi.  Well played.

Tomorrow is another day. But it is also the dreaded and feared Apache Lake. The widow-maker. Tensions are high throughout Apache Lake Resort. The disaster of '15 has reached legendary status. There are perhaps 6 or 8 of us here this year who participated in that nightmare. When one of us is identified, the first question is more often than not, "Did you finish Apache?" (which makes me glad I did!). I could hear bail out plans discussed at several dinner tables.

I've been formulating a few of my own. Got to get my head straight before tomorrow. Can't expect to finish El Diablo with a "Plan B" in play. All-in or fold.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

SCAR 2016: Day 1

Sorry to those who waited for this. I see many have pulled this up already looking for an update. Had to go play some $2-5 No-Limit Texas Hold 'em, since late night poker and multi-stage marathon swimming go together like . . .  Wait. Not at all.  At least my card play was better than my strokes today:

Sorry for the poor quality photo, but in the immortal words of Kenny Rogers:
"you never take selfies with your chip stack, when yer sittin at the table"

For those of you who can't wait, the official results are here (spoiler alert).

I woke up without my alarm at 4:00 a.m. The lights from the parking lot made it appear like I'd overslept and I couldn't get over the sudden adrenaline surge. So I took my time doing final prep work and headed out to the pre-race meeting at 6:30 "ish". The conditions looked perfect and spirits were high. I snapped a pic decked out in my SCAR swag. Did I mention that I finally answered the "why are you here?" question? For the swag! I saw Kent sporting Birdwell Beach Britches (the original "board shorts," circa 1975) at Swim the Suck. He said these would be part of SCAR 2016.

The finish line is the dam in in the background, left side.
But more importantly: check out the sweet SCAR beanie and embroidered Birdwells!
The staging area was at least 20 minutes away (at least half of the drive is no-wake), and another 20 to get the empty boats back, so it took probably an hour to get us all to the staging area. You can spot the first-timers pretty quickly: they're the ones nervously frittering about, slathering, packing, pacing as if the starting pistol is going off at any moment. But this is SCAR. We'll start when we start. Chill.

When we arrived at the staging area, I saw my kayaker, Steve "Ninja" Shearin, for the first time. Not the first time ever, just the first time for this trip. Ninja is doing double (triple) duty this year. In addition to kayaking for me, he's also in charge of all the kayaks and kayakers. He missed the pre-race dinner and meeting because he was camping out with the boats for loss prevention. Here's a shot of the staging area with the Ninja in the foreground:

The clown-faced photo bomber to Ninja's right is two-time SCAR competitor Stefan "the Dominator" Reinke. This was the last time I saw Stefan before the finish line (where his face paint looked EXACTLY the same)
Moments after this photo, we loaded up our pontoon boat and headed another 1.5 miles to the starting line. We arrived as Wave 1 was getting started. They looked strong! And they were supposed to be the slow group. Kent got us MUCH closer to the buoy line this year, but when he told us to get in, no one moved. It was amusing. I think everyone knew how cold the water would be and how long we'd be in it. I asked Kent, "If I cancel now, how much of my entry fee do I get back?"

"Not one dime, punk!" as he grabbed me be the ear and hurled me into the icy waters of Saguaro Lake. That's no hyperbole. Well, perhaps the punk and ear part. Not the cold part. It was as if I'd ventured out onto a frozen pond, clad only in my speedo and half a tub of Vaseline (because that's how I normally venture out onto frozen ponds), and the ice had cracked and I'd fallen in. I tried to start swimming as fast as I could to warm up. But I'd waited too long and was already partially frozen. I thrashed about like a drowning old man until I got to the buoy line, where I desperately tried to shimmy my greased-caked body all the way on top of a buoy to escape the torture. Like a cat in a bathtub. Just as I miraculously achieved my objective, Kent snarked: "Welcome to Arizona! Starting in 3, 2, 1: GO! Ugh!!

Wave 2 exploded off the line. I think everyone wanted to get warm quickly. I struggled to find my stroke. I could feel nothing except pain and the delirium of hyperventilation. I dropped back dead last within 100 meters. While Kent and his peeps held fast to the party line of "65 degrees," there was universal consensus among the experienced cold-water swimmers afterwords that the temperature was well into the 50's. In all honesty, it was the coldest experience I can ever recall, swimming or otherwise.

But the water was also crystal clear, making for some spectacular underwater beauty below us. Saguaro is a dammed up canyon. At times, you could see beautiful, undulating rock walls fading off into the abyss. In shallow areas, there were fish everywhere. And colorful, mossy rocks. The father we got from the dam, the warmer the water became. Eventually, it was quite bearable. Pleasant, even.

It took almost exactly 40 minutes to warm up enough to get my stroke in a rhythm. I know this because right as I got dialed in, my feed alarm went off. I ignored it. I felt good and I didn't want to stop and get cold & stiff again. I also noticed that New Zealander Katrina Price (together with her husband, Garth) was keeping perfect pace with me, stroke for stroke.  I knew this but she didn't, since I was behind her trying to catch up. But I could not gain a meter on this Kiwi. I noticed we were on about the same feed schedule, so I figured I'd stretch mine out a bit. After the first couple of hours, it seemed the only possible way to get ahead of her.

I felt surprisingly good for the first two hours. But around the three-hour mark, I got nauseous. It happens sometimes on long swims, not sure why. I switched to my new feed: trail mix. I've been experimenting with different mixes during my long pool swims. Works great in the pool, not so much in the open water. First, the chocolate melted a bit in the kayak, which clogged up the opening of the container a bit, making it hard to shake into my mouth while treading water. Second, a fragment of sunflower seed got lodged in the back of my throat. I spent 10 minutes trying to hack it up like a cat swimming in a cold bath with a fur ball.

It didn't solve the nausea. For about an hour, I stopped every 10 minutes or so, shoved fingers down my throat to try to remedy the situation. I couldn't manage a fully satisfying purge. I slogged on as best I could. Team Kiwi passed me and I was sure that battle was lost. I was also feeling the effects of my reduced training. I didn't have much left. And I knew we still had 2-3 miles ahead. Boat traffic (and wakes) picked up quite a bit. I began to question my ability to finish. I started counting strokes to distract myself. I added a reward at the end of each set of 100 well-executed strokes: 5 easy, stretched-out breast strokes. It worked. Breaking this down to just 100 strokes (instead of 3 more miles) improved my spirits immensely and my body responded. I started feeling better. I reeled in Team Kiwi and 2 or 3 others the last mile. One of them, triple-crown earner, Courtney Paulk, responded with undeniable authority. I don't suppose they "give away" the triple crown to just anyone.

We rounded the final corner and Kent's boat was right there in front of us. Oh the glorious sight! I high-fived Courtney for her dominant finish after touching the buoy and offered to kiss Ninja on the face, but he declined.

Although I definitely worked harder on this stage than last year, my time was a full 17 minutes slower!! And I felt more exhausted afterword. I fully expected to be 8 or 10 slots down on the finisher's list, and delightfully shocked to be dead middle of the pack in 21st place. Exactly where I was last year at this point.

Back at the picnic area, I heard from several veterans that they had to work harder this year and ended with slower times. Not sure what that's all about. The conditions weren't that bad. Perhaps it was the cold...

Good night!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

SCAR Swim 2016

Lights go out and I can't be saved
Tides I've tried to swim against
Have brought me down upon my knees
Oh I beg, I beg and plead
Coldplay, 2002

"Why are you here?"

I pondered this question as flight 542 passed over Lubbock en route to Phoenix. I would need an answer soon. In a few hours, I'd be sitting in the Banquet Ballroom at the Mesa Country Club with the other 50 or so swimmers from 6 countries and 16 states who made the cut for this year's SCAR Swim.  Perhaps "made the cut" makes it sound too impressive. We did have to apply and at least make up some sort of swimming pedigree of enough substance to convince Race Director Extraordinaire, Kent Nicholas, that we could endure the beating ahead.  But I'm pretty sure Kent is more concerned about attitude than ability.

Once we're all seated and served, Kent will have each of us stand up, introduce ourselves and answer one question:

"Why are you here?"

I know this because I was here last year, when the answer was easier. I had lots of reasons back then: Proof. Challenge. Redemption. Glory. I just had to chose one. I was trained, fit and prepared. I was terrified but I was confident. In hindsight, my answer last year should have been "Blissful ignorance." I don't have that luxury tonight. I know what's coming. Four back-to-back days of marathon swimming. 42 miles in all. 21 hours in 60-65 degree water, if all goes well.

And I'm not ready.

I injured my elbows last summer in an incident involving two teenage boys, a rope swing and an absent wife. Medial epicondylitis. I kept swimming for a month or so before realized I had a significant, acute physical problem. And then I kept on swimming because I have a significant, acute mental problem. I hoped it would just go away. It didn't. I've seen three orthopedists, two physical therapists, a holistic witch doctor and a laser-wielding dentist. No one could help. Or even agree.  One says ice, another says heat. One says stretch habitually, another says never. The only way I've found relief is to swim slowly and less frequently.  So I've done no speed/strength work, no weights and about 1/3rd of the training volume.

"Why are you here?"

"Why, indeed," I pondered as I hammered my $38/day SilverCar Audi A4 down the Red Mountain Freeway. Then I saw it: South Mill Street exit. The western border of the ASU campus. Not my exit. Not by half. But part of the journey, I decided, somewhat on a whim. I ignored the horn-honking and offensive gesturing (and sharp elbow pain) as I downshifted and pulled hard across three lanes of traffic. My college stomping grounds. "Might as well return just like I left," I chuckled to myself as I sheepishly waved at some red-faced college kid in my rear view mirror and hung a left Rio Salado. 

I steered toward Alpha Drive, the site of my former residence: the Arizona Beta Chapter House of the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity, designed by none other than fellow Brother in the Bond, ASU's own Frank Lloyd Wright. I was still a mile away when I realized something had gone terribly wrong. It was gone. All of it. "New Fraternity Row" as we called it back when Tom Cruise lip-synced Bob Seger in his underpants and the Fridge danced the Superbowl Shuffle, had been bulldozed to make way for the Miley Cyrus Center for Non Gender-Specific Native-American Gluten-Free Studies or some such other shiny nonsense destined to lure a generation of confused children astray as surely as fraternity row did ours. 

I stopped anyway. I wanted to remember--a tall order considering the circumstances under which most of those memories were formed. Or not formed. Remembering helps me appreciate how far I've come and the amazing grace that's brought me safe thus far. Buried in that rubble, or perhaps a nearby landfill, are the remains of a framed photograph composite of the pledge class of 1985. All 41 of us, ranked in order from left to right, top to bottom. While ranking criteria were vague (Grades? Brotherhood? Service? Popularity?) the results seemed about right.  Leaders top left, losers bottom right. If that composite were hanging today, you'd see my blonde mullet in space number 41. Dead last. I spent my last night as a student in the Maricopa County Jail and returned home with my 1.24 cumulative GPA. Those were the days... I stacked up a few rocks as an altar of remembrance (or a grave stone) and headed to Walmart for some last-minute shopping,

"Why am I here?"

I decided I'd just give some trite answer and hope for a couple of laughs like everyone else. The truth is, I'm not sure why I've come back. Perhaps I enjoy the stark contrast of this beautiful event juxtaposed against the haunting darkness of my wasted youth in this desert 30 years ago. Or perhaps it's a purging of sorts. A penance. A baptism. Or perhaps its just a reflection of who I am, today. 

I just returned from the dinner. Kent didn't ask the question. But its all good. It wasn't the giving of the answer that was important. It was the searching. I may not be able to finish SCAR this year, but I know I will fight to the end. Because that's who I am, today.

Mark Sheridan, SCAR 2015 finisher