Monday, May 18, 2015

SCAR Swim: Epilogue

It has been a little more than a week since I toweled off the last of the Salt River from my shivering frame. I'm not sure if the significance of completing SCAR just hasn't set in yet, or if, like most of life's mountains, it looks smaller in the rear-view mirror than it did through the windshield. Dozens of people have asked how it feels to have accomplished this feat. It's hard to answer that. I suppose I feel... content. Pleased for the new relationships, memories, and beauty I experienced. And further convinced that the limitations we place on ourselves are arbitrary; based more in fear and cultural expectations than in reality. I was terrified of this swim. Terrified. I barely slept the 4 or 5 days before. But in the end, it wasn't terrifying. It just was

Here are some thoughts/lessons learned:
  1. People are awesome. Liz Fry swam a DOUBLE. Every day. She started at the finish line, swam to the start, turned and swam to the finish. She has found access to the dark recesses of her mind that I wouldn't even know where to look for in my own. Cole Gindhart, a 23-year-old upstart who'd never even swam more than a 20K before SCAR, called his shot back in January (admitted he was "going to try and win" on the MSF forum), and then delivered. Also, while he quietly disputed he finished second on stage 1, he didn't complain or ask Kent to count the hanging chads. Instead, he put on his big-boy pants (and goofy hat) and proved his point in the water, a trait I'd like to impart to my own children. Way to go, kid. And Shearin, my ninja Kayaker, who endured a 21-hour beating on my behalf. I recently heard (but have not verified) that only 1/3rd of the kayakers finished the stage. I never doubted Shearin was going to finish. Not for a second. I later heard he'd been training to make sure he was in good enough shape!! Seriously? Who does that?! People who are awesome, that's who.
  2. The mind is more important than the body. I was talking to a fellow swimmer before Stage 4 that had surprised me by not finishing Stage 3. I asked him what happened. "I didn't feel that good at the start, so I thought I'd see how I felt at the Marina. If I felt like I couldn't make it, I'd get out there." Mystery solved. This was a fit, capable dude. But IMHO, if you consider options, I think your odds of finishing something like SCAR drop precipitously. You can't entertain any outcome other than the finish line or negotiate with the quitting voice. I'd have quit otherwise. I'm a quitter by nature. I think deep down, we all are. You've got to play without a safety net on this. No Plan B.
  3. Training. My training was adequate, but not ideal. My standard, almost-never-miss, weekly volume is 15K (100% master's interval workouts). From January through April, I upped my baseline to 20-25K, just by adding 1-2K at the beginning and/or end of masters and added weights/dry-land 3X per week (always right before swimming).  I also added long swims on the weekends (started with one 10K in January, then added 2-3 K per week). I started stacking back-to-back long swims in March.  In April I did several 3-day in a row long swims (50K in one 3-day weekend).  Total volume in final weeks was 50K, 50K, 50K, 30K, 60K, 60K, 70K, 30K. Approximately half of my long swims (10K or longer) were up-and-down ladder stuff (e.g., 1K, 2K, 3K, 4K, 3K, 2K, 1K) because I like ladders. The rest were straight swims with 30 second feeds every 45 minutes. What I wish I'd done: (1) Lots of rough, cold open water. 100% of my training was in the pool (too busy/lazy to drive out to a decent lake). (2) More race-pace long interval sets (1K/2K). I trained plenty for surviving. Not enough for performing well.
  4. Expectations vs. Reality. SCAR was both easier and harder than expected. The overall toll this sort of back-to-back mileage took out of me was worse than expected (worst problems: tendons in hands, wrists and forearms).  It wasn't that I expected it to be easier. I just had no frame of reference for it. Nothing to compare it to. On the other hand, enduring it was easier. Most of the time, anyway. Not sure if it was the distracting beauty; the camaraderie and greatness of the other swimmers; the positive examples and attitudes of everyone (especially my kayaker) or some combination of all. But 80% of my time in the water, I felt mostly pleasure. The other 20% was hell.
  5. There's a recovery period. I tried to go back to the pool last Thursday (5 days after SCAR). Big mistake. I felt up to my normal master's workout before it started, but by the end of warm-up, I knew I wasn't ready. Sharp pains in shoulders, triceps, lats, forearms, wrists and hands. I finished the workout, but I had to grab the wall during a few sets and the afternoon was totally shot. Even though it was a pretty average workout, I was nodding off at work. I went back today. Much better. Pretty normal, in fact. 
  6. Mortals can do this. I'm no marathon swimming stud. I'm just an old dude who likes to swim. I frequently hear/read people say things like, "I'm not ready this year, but I would love to do this race someday." You definitely need a pretty solid OW background for this, but assuming you have that, you're ready. Sign up and train.
  7. Leadership, administration and support. I've already said this, but I can't say it enough. Fantastic group of hardworking people pulling this off. From the owners who let us trample our greasy bodies all over their boats, to the kayak haulers out before sunrise and in after sunset, the amount of effort, planning and sacrifice that went into this was impressive. That starts with Kent, the reluctant director of this event who, as far as I can tell, doesn't undertake this heroic effort for money or fame, but for the love of our sport and our community. God bless you, brother. You altered my trajectory.
The last few hours of Apache, I probably vowed a hundred times, "I will never do this again." Now, I'm not so sure...

Thursday, May 14, 2015

SCAR: Day 4

Following the 17-mile Apache beat down, I drove 3 hours to my in-law's house in Peoria to spend the night with my family.  I fell into bed long after midnight, still sporting a faded white layer of zinc oxide. In the morning I felt old; shoulders capable only of suspending my arms, not of actually moving them. I ambled into the kitchen on bulging, petrified calves like a carny stilt-walker and executed a controlled fall into an open chair.  I scarfed down two plate-sized Belgian waffles and all unclaimed scraps from the plates of my family. Mostly unclaimed, anyway.

I remained in that chair all morning, reading the paper, connecting with my wife and kids and blogging about the previous day's adventure, believing all the while that our pre-race meeting for the Stage 4 night swim was at 3:30. At noon, my wife pestered me into checking. Oops. Meeting was at 2:00! And I was 2 hours away from Roosevelt Marina! My wet gear was still in the trunk, along with my feed bottles of sticky, day-old maltodextrin and cold Spaghetti-Os, both of which were probably mixed with 50% lake water, given the challenges of eating in yesterday's conditions.

My initial reaction was, "Hmmm. Perhaps it's too late. There's no way I can swim today, anyway. Why bother? Do I really want to get back into that cold water, at night, just to see if am capable of another 6.5 miles?" My wife shook me back to the inevitability of my situation.  "Steve! What are you doing! You've got to go!" Ugh. I grabbed a spare bottle and haphazardly tossed in a few random spoons of unflavored maltodextrin (and an extra scoop of caffeine) and hobbled out the door to the car, still wearing the same clothes I'd donned right after climbing out of the water the previous evening.  "At least I've already got my sunscreen on," I thought, as I asked Siri for directions.

A half-hour later, I was headed out of Mesa on Highway 87 into the badlands of Tonto National Forest. I knew from past experience that this was a desolate stretch where signs of civilization would be rare.  I glanced at my gas gauge as the last Mesa service station faded in my rear view mirror: "Distance To Empty: 60 miles."  

"No problemo," I thought, "Has to be a station before then."  I sought a second opinion from Siri: Tonto Basin, a mere 50 miles.  "10 miles to spare. I can make that. Besides, Siri's always leaving things out."  I noted the mileage on the odometer. Within 10 miles, it was apparent that the DTE figure was not dropping at a 1-to-1 ratio with the odometer. 40 miles from Tonto Basin, DTE was 44. I wasn't going to make it. I turned off the air conditioning, and put the car in neutral on the eastern slopes of the Superstition Mountains. 

When I got to DTE 10 miles (20 miles from Tonto Basin), it was time for some serious option inventory. I called my resourceful Ninja kayaker, Sinsei Shearin. No signal. "I'll hitchhike," I thought, as I began looking for a safe place to ditch.  I was at DTE: 2 miles when the RPM gauge started to flicker and I felt the engine of my rented Ford Taurus misfire. Just then, a blue sign appeared.  Next to the knife and fork symbolizing restaurant ahead was the unmistakable silhouette of a gas pump. Boo-ya.

I arrived late for the meeting, just in time to load up on the boats and head to the staging area. I was in Kent's boat and he drove us to the finish so we could watch Liz Fry hit the water for her fourth and final double. Remarkable feat. It gave me a chance to check out the finishing stretch under the suspension bridge and right up to the edge of the Roosevelt Dam. It was helpful to drive from the finish, directly to the start. Kent pointed out the lights we would need to rely on for navigation on the way in. Going straight to the bright lights of the bridge would lead us into one of those creepy stump forests exposed by the drought. Fortunately, the Ninja listened carefully and avoided the fate of several, less attentive teams.

At the start, I tried to figure out how I could possibly avoid sinking straight to the bottom. I had nothing. Not even inspiration. The dropping temperature of the desert air was already noticeable as the first wave (somewhat reluctantly, I thought) waded back into the cold, choppy water and swam off into the setting sun. "I'll just treat this as a victory lap. Hang back and survive." While I can crank out a 2:45 pool 10k on an average day, this was a lake and about as far from an average day as the Roosevelt Dam was from the concrete boat ramp on which I stood, questioning why I ever signed up for this God-forsaken swim in the first place.

I looked to Shearin for inspiration, but found none.  "Four hours," I said.

"Five," said Shearin, without hesitation or doubt.

After 17-and-a-half hours of shared suffering, I instantly understood the rich, caddie wisdom of his single word. As usual, the Ninja was right. I'd been underestimating the amount of remaining swimming time all week, which had led to premature depletion of fuel, both physical and emotional. He knew I couldn't possibly take 5 hours, he was just setting me up for success.

When Kent called the start, I stayed behind so as to avoid my sinking body creating a hazardous obstacle for the others before I settled in at the back of the pack, two body lengths behind a swimmer with a suitable pace.  Not so much to draft, but to enjoy the warmth of the churned up water. It was a little trick I'd learned over the past couple of days. The water seemed a few degrees warmer behind other swimmers, caused, I suppose, by the mixing the sun-warmed top layer of the water with the cooler layers below. A few degrees may not seem like much, but to a starving beggar, every stale crumb tastes sweet.

The swim started as expected. Slow and difficult. But about 15 minutes in, as we rounded the final turn into the open lake, I realized I felt pretty good. Maybe even strong. The water was a little rough, but unlike the random chop of Apache, it had a rhythm to it. A rolling undulation that fit my stroke easily. I found my groove and started testing my engine. I felt great. Best I'd felt all week. The harder I pushed, the better I felt.

My feed alarm chimed and I signaled to Shearin for a bottle. He tossed it and said, "You're flyin, dude." I took a few swigs and tossed it back. "Hey, Ninja. You remember that crap about me liking swimming better than racing?"

"Yep," he grinned.

"Well forget all that. Let's git some!"

I rolled over and shifted straight into fourth. Nothing hurt. My arms and shoulders felt like inanimate mechanical extensions, prepared to accept any demands placed upon them. All I needed was a purpose. A carrot. I recalled the swimmer with the closest time to me, with a daunting 15-minute lead, was Roger Finch, a hardened South African veteran of thousands of OW miles and a handful of legendary great white shark encounters to justify his swagger. Not likely the sort of chap to surrender 15 minutes to me in a measly 10K, especially with my incredibly slow first kilometer, but I needed a goal and felt capable of greatness. So it was on.

I was in a groove and never felt even the temptation to relent.  Over the next 2 hours, I carved up half the field, slowing only to feed (didn't skip any, I suppose I do learn lessons from time to time) and to avoid phantom obstacles. This wasn't just my first night OW race, it was my first night OW swim. It was like swimming with a blindfold; a dream-distorted game of Marco Polo and I was "it." I imagined imminent collisions with swimmers and kayaks and stopped frequently to strain in the darkness or ask the Ninja if the coast was clear.  Also, I'd adorned the kayak with only a few light sticks. Mistake. I should have lit that thing up like a Christmas tree.  It was harder to see than I thought, especially during the 15 minutes on either side of sunset. Luckily, Shearin had an LED lantern hanging around his neck. It illuminated his body, arms and paddle. 

Like every other stage, Kent played tricks with the finish line. The farther we swam, the farther he moved the dam (do they teach this in Race Director School?) Unlike every other stage, however, tonight it didn't matter. "Go ahead and move it, you heartless bastard! I can do this all night!"

As I swam under the bridge an hour later, I couldn't quite make out my objective. Not wanting to squander any swim cred I might have gained with my SCAR showing by crashing headfirst into the boat and floundering about like some noob, I stopped to map out my finishing approach to open water swimming glory. As I strained in the darkness, a blue light streaked by on my left. Another swimmer! I followed quickly, but it was too late. I was out-touched by mere seconds. My goggles were too fogged to see who it was, so I called out in the darkness, "who is that?"

"Bond. James Bond," but not quite in the high-brow British accent of the famous secret agent.  It was the similar, but rounder, South African accent of none other than my carrot, Roger Finch. But I felt no sting of defeat. Only the immutable sense of contentment one often experiences at the end of a worthy endeavor and a welling pride of acceptance into the small fraternity of brave swimmers who had ventured down this desert trail of agony before me. And the cold. "Where's that dang ladder?!!"   

Despite what felt like an heroic effort, I'd managed to place exactly where I'd started: 21st. More importantly, I'd achieved both my stated goal (complete all 4 stages), and my secret one (finish in the top half).  42 people started and I managed 21st.  

Saturday, May 9, 2015

SCAR: Day 3 The Reckoning

As I pulled into the Apache Lake Resort, our residence for the final two nights, it was hard to see past the angry waters of the lake.  Frothy chop churned up the water and bending desert shrubs lined the shore.  Before checking in, I pulled up the forecast for the next 24-hours.  The west wind was expected to remain steady, dropping to 8-9 mph overnight, then ticking back up to 17, gusting to who knows.  Then it occurred to me, "I doubt the forecast accounts for the wind tunnel effect of the canyon walls."  

But I wasn't terribly concerned, Kent said we would adjust the start location based on the wind forecast.  This will actually help!  We might just be able to surf this one.  

We gathered in the hotel restaurant for breakfast at 6:00 the next morning.  Kent looked a bit more serious than his normal, laid-back self.  He announced we would be starting on the east side, swimming directly into to the teeth of the wind. "What??!!"  If he explained why, I didn't hear it.  My brain was rebooting.  [System Error: Unexpected Input].  The next thing I remember was Kent saying: "Everyone must wear a brightly colored cap today.  If you don't have one, I can supply one.  We need to be able to see you.  If your kayaker cannot keep up with you, you will be pulled from the water.  Sorry, it's just going to be too dangerous out there today to allow you to continue."

"He's expecting trouble," I thought. And that's what we got.

It started on the way to the staging area. Our rental pontoon boat lost it's prop in the middle of the lake. We were adrift for 20 minutes until Kent could muster a couple of his volunteer boats to rescue us.

At the Apache Staging Area, in blissful ignorance

The staging area was, as usual, spectacular.  A respite of beauty to distract us from the task ahead.  We all knew it would be tough, but no one talked about it.  Kent started the waves more compressed than normal.  Maybe 10 minutes apart.  Perhaps on account of the pre-race delays.  Or perhaps he knew that, even though it was 9:30 in the morning, we would be racing the sun.

I started slow. Real slow. And stayed slow. I managed to not race. Ever. I made this day about finishing. Nothing more. Nothing less. Me vs. 17 miles of angry water. It was a fateful decision.

It also led to a discovery about myself: I am an open-water swimmer. Not an open-water racer. I think for me, racing steals the joy of the experience. Not racing released me to immerse myself into the experience.  There were no other racers, just the dark, pea-green water. No waves, only hands, gripping the water and pushing it past, one stroke at a time.     

The first third of the swim snaked thought a steep canyon. The water was relatively calm. The trouble started when the canyon gave way to open lake. It was a stark contrast. Navigation became a challenge. Even the kayaks, struggling to maintain heading, were an unreliable source of directional information. The recovery phase of the stroke was often intercepted by waves, and finding reliable purchase on the catch phase was unpredictable. I imagine those fortunate enough to train in the ocean are laughing as they read this, just as they were when they passed me in the angry waters of Apache Lake. 

I am a rhythmic swimmer by nature. My success on long swims depends on my ability to find the right rhythm; to get into the groove of the swim. I have learned the hard way that I can't find it by looking. It has to happen organically. If I just let go and remain patient, it takes about 20-40 minutes of swimming before I feel it. There's never any doubt whether I'm in the groove or not. Something clicks and I start to move without effort and my mind enters a meditative state somewhere between awake and asleep. 

Once we left the relative tranquility of the canyon, there was no rhythm to be found. I was mentally lost. No autopilot meditative cruise today. Every stroke was more of a question than an answer. Needed breaths were arbitrarily replaced with silty water and a burning throat. Gag. Cough. Wretch.    

I was initially frustrated with Kent's decision to start us on the east side of the lake. But then it occurred to me, "What does SCAR have to do with taking the easy way out? Didn't we sign up to be challenged? Kent has delivered it." I was at once not only satisfied with the decision, but convinced there was never really a choice.  Perhaps when Kent said "we'll adjust the start based upon the wind," my optimism led to the wrong assumption about the adjustment he intended.  Perhaps all along he meant he we were doing the hard way.

I adapted my stroke and learned to make friends with the water, rather than fight it; viewing this as a game rather than allowing it to frustrate me. "I'm going to be here a long time, might as well enjoy it." I made jokes with Shearin during feeds.  

The first section of the open lake was a 2 mile straight, at the end of which I knew we would turn 40 degrees to the right. "Surely," I thought, "the wind will dissipate around the corner. At a minimum, it won't be on our nose and we can find shelter on the windward shore." I soldiered on in reliance on this expectation.  

As we turned the corner (approximately 10 miles into the swim), I stopped to asses the situation. I was immediately slapped in the face with loose spray coming off the tops of white-capped chop and the sound of buffeting wind. Right on our nose. It wasn't better. It was worse. Much worse. I looked at Shearin, laughed maniacally, and shouted, "THIS IS GOING TO THIN THE HEARD, BROTHER!" Right here. This spot will crush souls.

I tried to talk strategy with Shearin, but he couldn't hold position long enough to hear me in the wind. Finally I yelled, "THE OTHER SIDE!" He shook his head in disagreement. I figured he didn't understand my intention to find some protection, so I set off anyway. Every time I looked at him, I could see he was opposed to my decision and growing frustrated with me. I pushed on. "He'll understand when we get there."

I should have trusted him. Same conditions. No protection. I added at least a quarter mile chasing that mirage. He knew these waters. I didn't. But that didn't stop me from chasing more mirages. I probably added at least a mile in these fruitless endeavors before I apologized to Shearin and agreed to let him do all of the navigating. Shearin's the ninja. I, the glasshoppa.

At one point, I saw a notch in a bluff. I headed to it. Shearin and I could talk and regroup. We found two kayaker's in there, shivering. They had abandoned the race, but their heroic swimmers continued on. They would be without food or water for the final 3 hours.

Of course, hydration was not a problem. I was taking on so much water in failed attempts to breathe that I had to stop to relieve myself every 20 minutes or so.  I rarely have to do this more than once every 2-3 hours.  I probably took on 3 gallons over the course of the day (and a couple hundred calories from moss and random lake creatures. "Bonus!").

I don't remember much about the last 3 hours, except pain. My right arm was completely numb. Not the "tingly" numb. The "what-is-this-strange-cold-arm-in-my-bed" numb. At least that part didn't hurt. I couldn't tell if my hand was in good position or all gnarled up in a ball. I kept reaching down with my other hand, just to make sure. I also remember the cold. It was hard to feed through my chattering teeth. It was hard to talk to Shearin. I quit trying to listen.

I was having to constantly fight the urge to quit. Indeed, these urges persisted even to within 1,000 meters of the finish. But I kept reminding myself, "If you quit now, you might as well have quit 7 miles back with everyone else. All of this effort and pain for nothing."   

At last, as the sun dropped behind the canyon walls, I could faintly make out the target dam through my now-opaque-and-I-don't-care-anymore goggles. Nine hours and 38 minutes in the water. Two and a half more than expected. I was so cold, I couldn't enjoy the satisfaction. Walking straight, or at all, was more than I could handle. I sat down, or fell, and Kent graciously draped me with survival blankets, towels and parkas. He rubbed my back vigorously. It wasn't until an hour later, after sitting in my rental car with the heat blasting for 30 minutes, that I stopped shivering.

Only 24 of the original 42 swimmers remain in the hunt for all 4 stages. Frankly, I would have been part of the massive Apache DNF ranks had I really known what the final 7 miles were going to do to me back when I rounded that soul-crushing corner at mile 10.

I had no reserve in the tank after Apache, in fact, I fear I my muscles are in serious glycogen debt. I normally don't kick more than what is necessary for buoyancy, but yesterday required kicking.  My unconditioned leg muscles are tight and sore. I'm going to start tonight's 10K finishing stage, but I am unsure exactly how I might finish it. I'll have to improvise.

In closing, a word about the SCAR volunteers and, especially, Kent and his bride and my boss kayaker, Shearin. They worked tirelessly and thanklessly until late in the night, overcoming, with grace and kindness, obstacle after obstacle. They are the heroes that make this one of the top OWS events in the country.

Friday, May 8, 2015


Finished!  Too tired to post. Brutal day. Swimming into white caps last 9 miles. At one point, made no apparent progress between 2 feed stops. Swimmers were dropping everywhere. Saw two kayakers beach, unable to continue.  Swimmers soldiered on like superheroes! I suspect 25-50% DNF. That would have included me, had I appreciated how bad it was going get. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

SCAR: Day 2

Conquered the Canyon.  Like the first day, we all shuttled to a beautiful sandy beach staging area.  It wasn't so much the beach that was beautiful, but the surroundings.

Canyon walls from the boat ride to the staging area

At the staging beach

The swim was a battle, mostly of my own doing, as usual.  While sitting in the FREEZING water (so cold that for the first 30 seconds I was hyperventilating) waiting for the start, I decided if I felt good, I was going to let the horses run. You might be asking, "Why would you make such a rash and stupid decision to totally change your game plan 10 seconds before the start, while sitting in water so cold your brain hardly even works?"  Because I'm stupid like that. 

But that was just the beginning of the bad decisions.

Like the day before, I started slow.  Most of the second wave was ahead of me within the first 100 meters or so.  My stroke caught its rhythm within a mile.  And once I felt dialed in, I put the pedal down, reeling in the first and second wave swimmers one at a time for the next hour and a half.  After my first two feeds (40-minute feed schedule), I felt fantastic.  Then I got to thinking (or not thinking, as it were), "If I keep this pace up, I might finish this stage in 3.5 hours.  That's just 90 minutes away.  Why should I stop to eat?  It won't even digest by then."  So as I finished my third feed at the 2-hour mark, I told Shearin, "I'm done eating.  You can just stow my bottles."  I rolled over and got back at it.

Shearin was kayaking like a BOSS!  He predicted it would be tough to distinguish optimal lines through the maze of 200 foot bluffs that give Canyon Lake its name, so he brought binoculars.  He had us dialed in!  We passed one swimmer (who was faster than me) three times just by his perfect navigation.  After the third time, I noticed her pace dropped dramatically. I stopped, pulled up and told him, "I think you broke her with your ninja skills."  Every time I breathed on his side and caught him staring through his binoculars, it elevated my spirits and pushed me harder.  "If he's gonna work that hard, so am I."

On the other hand, another kayaker crashed into me TWICE.  The first time she actually ran over me from behind. Then maybe an hour later, I crashed into her broadside, head first.  She had gotten sideways, perpendicular to me while her swimmer and I were in a drag race.  Neither crash was that big of a deal.  I wasn't angry.  She was a volunteer, after all.  God bless her for being out here.  Without her, there would be no S.C.A.R.  But I did tell Shearin to go whack the other swimmer on the head, just to level the field. 
About an hour after I'd decided to quit eating, I regretted it.  I felt sluggish and tired and started desperately scouring the canyon walls at every bend, yearning for the canyon to subside into the open lake and the target dam. By the 3:15 mark, it was quite clear I wasn't going to be wrapping up in a warm towel anytime soon.  And the lake conditions had deteriorated considerably.  The narrow canyon was a freeway of boat traffic and, once again, we were finishing directly into a headwind.  I was quite tired and the conditions exacerbated the situation.  

I don't think I bonked in the clinical sense, but maybe in the emotional one.  I checked behind me to see if anyone was close.  Nope.  I eased way back and limped in to the finish line.

I managed to pull off a 3:54, shaving 6 minutes from the previous day on a stage where most added time.  Moved up 3 slots to 19th overall.

The wrist help up pretty well.  But I have a weird, sharp pain in my right forearm.  Not sure what that's all about. Ice seems to help.  

Tomorrow is Apache.  El Diablo.  Famous for the winds and the 17 miles of swimming (I can hear the wind outside as I type this).  I had dinner tonight with a very accomplished OW swimmer who dropped out of this stage last year after a 9 hour struggle.  It will separate the men from the boys.  Hope I'm the former.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

SCAR: Day 1

Suguaro complete.  I earned my "S" in S.C.A.R. vernacular.  Around 6:00 a.m. (Kent is awesomely laid back about schedules/regulations) we gathered at the marina adjacent to the dam where we would later finish and got all greased up, staged feeds, checked gear etc.  Kent assigned me to the middle wave (based upon my very average speed).  So took some pictures and chilled for 30 minutes.

At the pre-race staging area

And here is Martin Strel.  If you don't know of the "Big River Man", his 22,000 miles of big river swims include: the entire length of the Mississippi (2,200 miles in 68 days), the Yangtze (2,400 miles in 54 days) and the Amazon (3,600 miles in 66 days).  One of the most remarkable and fascinating people I've ever known.
When it was our turn, we took a ferry to the start, 9(?) miles away.  My 500 HP "ferry" boat is in the background of the above picture.  I think we made it to the start in under 5 minutes.


We were dropped on a beach about 1.5 miles from the start, where Kent took us by pontoon boat to the dam. Actually, boats aren't allowed close to the dam, so we had to swim the last 500 meters.  Which was actually nice, because the water was quite cold (low 60s) and this little warm-up helped get over the shock.

Once we were all in place, Kent signaled the start.  I intentionally waited a couple of seconds to avoid the rush, started my stopwatch and got underway.  My apprehension of the event was gone immediately.  We were swimming. I was home.  The water was calm, clear and cold.  Within 15 minutes, my brain started playing some Steve Miller and I fell into a perfect, three-beat rhythm.  I knew it would be an epic day. 

Meanwhile, my Kayaker, Steve Shearin, had stayed back at the beach to wait for me.  He saw the first wave swim by, and thought it was my wave.  After the last swimmer passed, he thought he'd missed me.  So he jumped in his kayak and furiously paddled to the front of the first wave, checking every swimmer.  Then he had to paddle all the way back to find me.

My watch alarm was set to go off every 40 minutes to remind me to feed.  But at the first alarm, there was no sign of Shearin.  I swam another 10 minutes before we found each other.  It was not problem, I'd used the other kayaks for navigation and 10 minutes late on feeding was no big deal.  I stopped and ate while Shearin regaled me with his misadventures.  I told him I felt awesome, and I did.

I resisted the urge to indulge my apparent potential.  There would be time enough for that.  I just kept repeating, "slow is smooth, smooth is fast."  I jockeyed with a gal throughout first 6 miles (I later learned it was Sharon Ottman from Arizona).  We traded places probably 6-8 times, depending on who was feeding and when.

Shearin was awesome at navigation.  We passed 5 or 6 swimmers just by taking a superior line.  By the third feed, I was starting to cramp in my left lower leg, so I requested my trusty pickle juice from Shearin.  As he scoured my bag I realized I'd left the pickle juice in the fridge back at the hotel.  Ouch!  I soldiered on, dragging my motionless left foot like an anchor, toes locked straight down.  I had to constantly correct my course to account for the left rudder.  It subsided after maybe 10 minutes.

The GPS feature on my watch stopped working at some point during the swim.  Everyone else seemed to have a similar problem.  Apparently the high canyon walls interfered with satellite reception.  So I had to try to remember what the map looked like to guess at my progress.  It had been a couple of weeks since I studied it, so I only recognized the occasional landmark and even then, I couldn't remember what I had associated with them.  Then I saw "the rock" (a large boulder rising 30 feet out of the water.  "Aha!  I remember that!  1 mile to go."  (Or so I thought.)  "It's go time!"  I slowly stoked the coals.

800 meters later, we turned the corner and headed out of the canyon and into the big lake.  It was impossible to judge distances, but within 20 minutes, it was abundantly clear that I had mistaken the significance of "the rock." Turns out, that was the three-quarter mark.  2+ miles from the finish!  Ouch.  Plus, the wind picked up significantly outside of the protected canyon, so it was quite a bit harder going.  I started to get fatigued, which I promised myself I wouldn't do.  So I throttled back.  Two people passed me in the final mile, including Sharon.  I reminded myself of how much swimming was yet to come, and cruised in to the finish.

Finish time: 4:00:25.  Perfect.  Currently in 22nd out of 42. Official Results Here

Wrist held up fine during the race, but hurts now.  I've got ice on it.  We'll see.

Time to get some sleep...

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

S.C.A.R. 2015

On May 6, 2015, I, along with 40-ish other open water swimmers from all over the world (nearly all of whom are more worthy of this event than I), will embark on a 4-day 40-ish mile journey the length of a chain of lakes created by dams along the Salt River, just east of Mesa, Arizona.  The event is known as "S.C.A.R.," an acronym for the four lakes we will navigate, dam to dam: Suguaro, Canyon, Apache and Roosevelt.

Race Director, Phoenix attorney Kent Nicholas, started this event four years ago while using these four lakes to train for his English Channel crossing.  The event has exploded in popularity in a short period of time, likely a result of the bold, but manageable distances, the spectacular and inaccessible beauty of the venues and the legendary names in the OWS community who've taken on this beast.  And then there's Kent's fun-loving hospitality (did I mention there's a band and beer at the pre-race social?)

Because these lakes are surrounded by the high canyon walls and rugged desert mountains of the Tonto National Forrest, it is difficult to get swimmers to the starts (in the early years, swimmers DNFed from injuries sustained climbing down the steep canyon to get to the start).  So each day will start with a boat ride from the finish to the start.  As a first this year, swimmers will start in three waves, based on expected pace (slowest to fastest), in order to encourage more finish-line camaraderie.  After even a casual review of the intimidating resumes of the other swimmers, I imagine I'll be in the first wave (my own resume would safely fit inside a fortune cookie).

Day 1: Suguaro Lake, officially listed as 9.5 miles (according to the river authority).  Based on the finish times of previous years and swim reports I've read (and my own, tedious, Google Earth clicking), it seems that the distances are overstated by the river authority.  Plus, we start and finish at the safety buoy lines at each end of the lakes, which extend out some distance from the dams themselves.  I estimate the actual swim distance for Suguaro is around 8 miles.

Day 2: Canyon Lake, officially listed as 9 miles.  This is a spectacularly beautiful lake.  Visually, it's more like a narrow river snaking through towering rock walls on either side.  The actual distance appeared to be around 8.5 miles when I measured it back in January, but when I measured it last week, it was MUCH shorter.  It appears the river authority moved the buoy line about a half-mile down-lake.  (Confession: the excitement of this little discovery put a grin on my face for days!)  Actual swim distance appears to be around 7.5 miles.

Day 3: Apache.  The Beast.  Officially listed as 17.5 miles.  While that’s whipping enough, rumor has it the hard part of Apache isn’t the distance.  It’s the wind.  So much so that the difference in median finish times from one year to the next can be measured in hoursFreaking hours.  On the bright side, I clicked out the actual swim distance at less than 15 miles for the straight swimmer.

Day 4: Roosevelt.  Official distance is 10k (6.2 miles).  A relative cake-walk.  But here’s the rub: it’s a night swim.  Uncharted waters for me--not including an unplanned midnight evasion of two spotlight-wielding Texas Parks and Wildlife Rangers following an illegal cliff jump a decade ago (remember that one Ross?  Tripp?).  Official distance seems about right: 6.2 miles.  Oddly, though, the times from past years are way too long for a 10K.  Perhaps the darkness slows you down.  Or perhaps it’s the swelling.

While I'm a veteran of decades of open water swimming, this event is well-beyond my past experience.  To say I'm terrified would be an understatement. I’ve done these distances, but not back to back.  Not even in the same month.  10 miles is an event for me.  With a week of rest on either side.  After my last 10 mile race, I couldn’t move my left shoulder for 3 days.

And then there’s this whole “race” business.  99% of my OWS is solo.  Only me.  And my drag-behind feed bag.  And an objective, known only to me and subject to change at any time.  I’m relatively new to organized events.  Kent says, “S.C.A.R. isn’t a race.”  Cha-a.  If there’s two Speedos in the water, it’s a race.  I tried that “not a race” idea at Swim the Suck last October.  “Take it easy.  Just swim to finish.  Feel the force, Luke.”  By the time the starting pistol report echoed from the walls of the Tennessee River Valley, it was on like Donkey Kong.  Swim plan, swim schlam.  So that’s probably my biggest obstacle.  My own ego. 

Second, I’ve developed a persistent case of tendonitis in my left wrist.  My ortho said it’s not treatable with an injection or PT.  I fashioned a wrist brace out of some DIY carbon fiber, some old wetsuit scraps and a stretch of bungee.  Pool testing indicated a loss of about 4 seconds per 100 meters, so I’m not going to use it unless the pain requires it.

But if I respect my limitations and my wrist holds up, this should be an epic week!

Here is a link to the official website:  The daily results should be posted there each night.  I'll do my best to update this blog.