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

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