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

Monday, April 25, 2016

SCAR Swim Map

Here is a map with various SCAR swim logistics.  It includes the locations of parking lots, pre-swim meetings, staging areas, hotels, dining, etc as well as swim start/finish locations, sight lines and various tips & suggestions.