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."   


video

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.

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