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.