Monday, May 9, 2016

SCAR 2016: Day 4, Victory Lap Rodeo

In the clearing stands a boxer,
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of every glove that laid him down
And cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame,
"I am leaving, I am leaving."
But the fighter still remains
--Simon & Garfunkel, The Boxer

If the Apache Lake Resort had room service, I'd have stayed in that lumpy, musty, heavenly bed all morning. But donger need food. I stuck my head in the warm shower, blew a quart of lake sediment out of my nose and drove 50 yards to the restaurant. I figured I'd earned it. I felt proud walking in. I was in the company of great swimmers and I belonged. I got an upward head nod from a young, ripped, body-shaven athletic type. "Nice swim, bra." Yesterday I was an invisible old geezer.

Today I'm an elder.


Triple Crown earner, World Open Water Swimming Association 'Man of the Year' nominee, 10-time MIMS finisher and fellow Texan Jamie Tout waved me over to join him and his wife, Tina. He wanted to talk swimming, since we're both, you know, from Texas. While they debated which "healthy start" breakfast entree to split, I ordered three off the right side of the menu: A Southwest Breakfast Burrito Supreme smothered in chili, sour cream and Cholula, biscuits 'n gravy, extra gluten, a side of crispy hash-browned potatoes, two pints of whole milk and a full pot of coffee, black. "A-ffirmative, ma'am. Read back is co-rrect." After half an hour of Jamie and me unpacking every detail of our Apache experiences, Tina interrupted to say, sounding much like my own beloved bride, "I swear y'all spend half a day swimmin', and the other half talkin' about swimmin'." 

"Indeed," I should have said, "and then I'm going to spend another day writing about it. And then a bunch of swimmers are going to spend hours reading about it and some of them will write me about it. And I will write them back. And it will entertain the hell out of all of us for years.  And do you know why? Because what we did yesterday was of greater value than the sum total accomplishments of the entire Kardashian family." Except for the one formerly known as Bruce Jenner. Perhaps.

I looked out the window. Apache Lake looked like an Orange County liquor store. No ripple in sight. Fickle wench.

Credit: Ellen Kemper
The final stage of SCAR is a night swim. So we had most of the day to lounge about, mix feeds, pack, and take the scenic route to Roosevelt Lake Marina. The scenic route is the only route. Twenty breathtaking miles of back-country, single-track dirt road switchbacks. Enough to intimidate a billy goat. But not a cow, apparently:

Even though it's only 20 miles, it takes over an hour. No one minds. It's a spectacular drive. And if you think I've overused the word spectacular, you haven't been to the Tonto National Forest. 

As I drove, I basked in the inevitability of my situation. I had a virtual lock on a top 10 finish in one of the most grueling weeks of marathon swimming in the world. I had managed to snatch open water glory out of thin air. All I had left was a measly 10K. Something I might do just to kill time on a Saturday morning. "Really just a formality," I thought, "like the final stage of the Tour de France." Conditions were perfect. The sun was shining and the air was warm and calm. And all I had to do was finish.

"What could possibly go wrong?"

The signs were right in front of me, I just didn't see them. Or blocked them. First, during the pre-race meeting, Kent was passing out the coveted "black caps" (the only ones to possess these rare gems are those who have successfully completed the daunting third stage of SCAR). He totally skipped me! As iiif! Luckily, the Kiwi had my back and hurled her recently emptied bottle of SanTan Devil's Ale at him. It sailed wide right. Kent ignored her until she picked up a full one. As Kent paid me the respect I deserved, I glanced at the Kiwi and realized she wasn't defending me. She was "preserving" me. Like an unblemished, fattened calf.  She had no intention of treating this like a victory lap. She had a 21 minute gap on me. She had nothing to worry about. This was about pain. She grinned at me and I shuddered like Apollo Creed watching Rocky cracking a rib rack at Paulie Penino's Shamrock Meats.

Next, fellow Wave 1 Top 10 candidate, Karen Charney and I got stuck in some bizarre boat loading eddy. We were literally one foot onto the first boat out of the marina when the Angry Pirate gave me a forearm shiver and announced, "Sorry, folks, boat's full. Moose out front should've told you that." Then through some combination of crowd flow, a narrow docks, eager swimmers and general confusion, we ended up standing on an empty dock staring at the exiting flotilla of stage 4 swimmers like two kids late for the school bus. We found some sad-looking life raft in the last slip with a threadbare "SCAR" flag hanging from a single rusty grommet but no captain. We sat down anyway. It started to rain. 

When we finally got underway, the skies darkened. The wind picked up and so did the waves. One crashed over the bow and nearly swept my gear bag overboard. I should have seen the signs. We all should have. They were obvious. Warning us. Laughing at us. Something bad was about to happen.

Last year I secretly made fun of the Type-A-types adorning their kayaks with all manner of illumination. But the joke ended up being on me, and I learned a lesson that night. This year I found 20-foot strings of battery-powered, waterproof LEDs on Amazon Prime for $7 each, delivered. I ordered 2. Enough to wrap our Kayak four times. When I flipped the switch, I felt the urge to sing "Joy to the World" like Clark Griswold. Ninja looked like he was riding the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. At least I think it was Ninja. My pupils narrowed to pinholes. Yes, people laughed at us. Before, anyway. Before the darkness. Before the rodeo. I guess they'd ignored the signs, too.

The weather misleadingly--deceptively--calmed down before the start. I felt strong and confident. Last year I was so tired and achy at the start of stage 4 that I had a very rational fear of drowning. Not tonight. When Kent called the start, I baby-step-shuffled down the ramp into the cold, black lake, partly to avoid slipping, partly to sandbag the Kiwi. I'd been faking all manner of injury and soreness all afternoon. I wanted her to think I was just going to mail it in. Run a prevent defense to preserve my top-10 SCAR finish. Hardly. My elbows felt so good I tested out my Superman catch stroke to see if they could handle the load. I expected to feel (or hear) ripping scar tissue as the tendons stretched out. But they held. Money. I came out of the bay at full-throttle. The water was smooth and I was strong. 

Kent purchased two sweet, large, yellow triangle buoys with the SCAR logo on them. They were supposed to mark the course. And they might have actually worked, except that he also rented yellow kayaks and filled them with very helpful and eager volunteers, several of whom apparently failed to grasp the significance of his clear instruction to, "pick up your swimmer AFTER the first buoy." Several paddled out onto the course, squarely between us and the buoys, to help show us the bright yellow buoys that would have been nearly impossible to miss if not for the bright yellow kayaks in the way. [Note: Don't confuse my occasionally dark humor and embellishment with hate. Got nothing but love for these guys!!]

I picked up the Ninja. He was maintaining proper hydration. He offered me a snort, but I decided to wait. I continued my hammerfest. At the 1-hour mark, I glanced at my watch: 3.85K. "What?!!  I don't even know people who can swim that fast." Strangely, I'd grown stronger with each stage. Just like last year. I didn't even feel tired.

"Where's that guy been all week?" asked Ninja during my next feed stop.

"I have no idea, but he's here tonight." And what a beautiful night it was! 


Minutes later the dark thing the signs were warning us about happened. Or exploded, rather. I've read several accounts on social media, but nothing I've seen adequately conveys just how profoundly the conditions deteriorated on Roosevelt Lake around sunset on April 30th. We went from moderate chop to F5 squall in under 90 seconds. The swells were so high I could, and did, completely lose sight of my kayaker 7 feet away. It was insane and chaotic. Rain blew horizontally like bird shot. And there was nothing that could be done. We had 45 swimmers and 45 kayakers out in the middle of the lake, miles from shore. It was all kayakers could do to simply stay upright, let alone offer any assistance to the swimmers. I would have been nervous in a pontoon boat.

But not in the water. In the water I found it both thrilling and comical. This was the perfect end to SCAR 2016. It was fascinating to hear several others describe it later as like "riding a bull," because that's exactly what I was thinking. This was a rodeo. A victory lap rodeo. I tightened my grip on the leather and rode that bull for all I was worth. And it was awesome. I was literally laughing out loud. Partly because of the irony and adventure of it, partly because I felt like a toddler playing in the sprinklers. 

I wasn't laughing when Ninja and I got separated. Not because I felt in danger. I was in swim heaven. He, on the other hand, was struggling valiantly against 4-foot waves crashing over his bow. I thought I might have to rescue HIM. I turned around and swam backward for 20 meters or so and yelled "YOU OK?" making the hand-signal to make sure he understood. He gave me an exaggerated nod in response, apparently fearful of losing grip on his paddle.

My second fear was for Kent. "He must be freaking out," I thought, "this is not the perfect ending for him." He was responsible for all of us and that couldn't have been fun. Not at all.  Then it occurred to me that there would be boats out looking for us and making decisions about who to pull and who to leave. We need to get our story straight. Any hesitation or apparent doubt might lead to a snap decision to pull us. I stopped and swam back to Shearin again, and yelled, "IF ANYONE ASKS YOU HOW YOUR SWIMMER IS DOING, YOU LOOK HIM RIGHT IN THE EYE AND SAY, 'ARE YOU KIDDING ME? THIS IS WHAT HE FREAKING LIVES FOR!' YOU GOT IT? I'M NOT GETTING OUT!" I wasn't lying. I love swimming in chaos. I could not have scripted a more perfect ending to the week. I rolled over and swam for my life, smiling ear-to-ear.

The squall peaked after maybe 15 minutes but did not dissipate nearly as rapidly as it arrived. We'd been blown so far off-course, that an unfamiliar land mass had come between us and the target bridge. And we had just minutes before the waning light faded to complete darkness. If we didn't get around the land mass quickly, we'd be swimming blind. No target lights to aim for. I took an exaggerated left line, into the wind, to bring the target light into range more quickly. Once we found it, I turned to Ninja and said, "let's get dialed back in now." And we did. My engine revved up quickly and I reconnected with the seemingly bottomless fuel tank. We were flying. 

I was thankful for the LED's on the kayak, as were all swimmers within about a mile radius. You could see their paltry lights converging in a neat row behind us, like jets on final into LAX. We were a beacon of hope to lost mariners. A lighthouse. Rudolf. Our boat was so bright, I could see it underwater. I think a couple of carp sidled up next to me.

Although the lake never really calmed, it wasn't hard to find a good rhythm. I felt good and I pushed hard. I began to wonder if perhaps I could hang 21 minutes on Team Kiwi after all. The thought inspired me to find another gear for the last hour. I cruised under the bridge and tagged the buoy line at 3:34. That's about 45 minutes longer than my normal 10K time, but pretty dang fast under the circumstances. My satisfaction was confirmed when I climbed into the boat and found Asha Allen still towelling off and Karen Charney touching the buoys shortly after me. Both of these women were swimming faster than me all week. There was no sign of the Kiwis. In fact, we were already leaving the finish line in our shuttle boat when the Kiwi's came in. I knew it had been at least 15 minutes, but 21? It would be close.

In the end, I didn't really care. I had survived another year. Under brutal, perfect conditions. In the top 10.

My 85-year-old father still runs a 10K just about every weekend. He always "wins" his age group--there's rarely a second place finisher. But he wears his medals as proudly as any Olympian. He likes to say, "Son, in the end, you don't have to be better than the other guy, just more stubborn." I guess the old man still has a morsel of wisdom or two left in him...

Monday, May 2, 2016

SCAR 2016: Day 3, Judgment Day

Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the wind turns the minutes to hours?
-- Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
-- William Shakespeare, Henry V

12:05 PM, feed stop 4, approximately mile 5 
"Ninja, hold up. I've gotta say this, before the wheels come off. You know how bad this is about to get."
We had been through this Apache hell together just a year ago. The grim forecast for today now appeared accurate. 
"We're headed to place of pain, bro. It will seem bigger than both of us. But it isn't.  The pain will end before the sun sets, but quitting will haunt us forever. These are the moments that define us, my brother. Right here, right now. You in?"
"You know I am," replied Ninja
"I need to you remind me of this if I start to falter."
There's something indescribable about an epic swim. A swim that forces you to question what you believe about yourself. Where adversity kicks you in the face. When the outcome is very much in doubt (and I don't mean just the finish line). I love what I feel in those moments. The struggle for control over the dark places in my mind. Exhilaration, doubt, despair. The tricks your mind plays on you and the tricks you play back. The physical, emotional and spiritual immersion into the fullness of life. It is in those moments when I feel most alive. And to have such a swim in one of the most beautiful venues in the world, is...


Apache Lake is the legendary third stage of the SCAR Swim. Not because it's the longest. Officially, it's 17 miles. To put that in perspective for my non-swimming readers, a 10K swim is considered equivalent to a marathon run and the minimum distance to be called a "marathon swim." 17 miles is nearly three times that (the English Channel is just 21 miles).

And it's not legendary just because it comes after back-to-back days of marathon swimming.

What makes Apache legendary is the wind. Unlike the other SCAR lakes, the middle 10 miles are fairly straight and cut through more of a steep valley than a canyon.  There is no protection from the wind.  In fact, the mountains on either side act like a funnel. Or a jackhammer. The prevailing winds in this area are WSW, which puts that wind right on your beak. All the talk at dinner last night was about how bad the conditions were in 2015 and how the forecast for this year compared to last year (yes, people actually had that data). It didn't look good. I retired to the bar to plot strategy with the Ninja.

It was cold and rainy at the start. I didn't stand around and talk like I normally would. I needed to get my head right. I found a secluded patch of grass between two boulders, laid down and put my headphones on. That's why there are no pics with this post.

As part of the strategy Ninja and I worked out, the first three miles (the protected section) would be about effortless, clean penetration. Long, gliding strokes with the profile of a javelin. Use nearly nothing in the easy 3 mile canyon leading to the open lake. Maintain feeds with military precision. Ninja set his watch 30 seconds before my 30 minute feed alarms so that when my feed alarm went off, I popped my head up immediately and a bottle was in the air. Perfection. Like a timing route in football. Team Kiwi was on the same pattern and, as usual we were always within spittin' distance (that's Texan for "meter," Kiwi). The smack talk was flyin' early and often.

As we approached the bend into the main lake, you could see it. You could hear it. We moved to phase two of the plan. Hug the left wall and punch the waves with purpose. Find the rhythm of the water. Kick. There were little notches perhaps 100 to 300 meters long every so often. We curved into each. The extra distance was a fair trade for the slightly flatter water.

It was after an hour of this that I gave the pep rally speech (above) right after dumping out my full goggles. Not water. Tears. I had been crying. Not crying. Wailing. Uncontrollably. And screaming underwater at a friend. Actually, former friend, who I will call by the fictional name "John" for reasons that will soon be apparent. John could not hear me. Not then. Not ever. Two days earlier, about the time I was diving into Saguaro Lake, my hunting buddy and father of two fine young boys, took his own life. We weren't terribly close, but I was within the blast radius of profound sadness.

With deserved apologies to those of you who understand more about this than I do and with complete recognition that it is more complicated than what I am about to say, as I wrestled with John's suicide in the cold darkness of Apache Lake, I thought about something I say to my children more frequently than they care to hear it: "Quitting begets quitting." I believe that. I also believe that overcoming adversity prepares us for adversity. Courage is a muscle that must be exercised. Emotional pain is like going to a gym for the heart. Each time you overcome is a building block. Developing healthy patterns with the small stuff develops the foundation to rely on for the real storms.

It was about then that all hell broke loose on Apache Lake and I realized, "I am in the gym now. I will make it through this darkness to prove to myself, once again, there is light in the end. And that I have the courage to endure. This will be monument of remembrance to add to the many others so that I might never inflict such profound suffering on the people who love me." Perhaps that won't be enough if I ever find myself on that unimaginable cliff. But it's all I've got.

I did not dedicate this swim to John. I dedicated it to my wife, my children and people I love and who love me. "I will do this for them." And then I wept for them. Epic swims send me to places like this. Places of clarity.

About that time, my feed alarm went off. I'm sure Ninja thought I'd lost my mind when I laid that unexpected, heavy speech on him behind bloodshot eyes. Especially when team Kiwi had already finished and was well underway.  It just seemed right, so I did.

As I resumed, realized, "wait, what is the Kiwi doing here? This is our secret spot!" No one else was hugging the left bank as far as I could tell. They were all on the right. Our's was the longest line possible, but Ninja and I knew from last year that the swimmers who took the left line fared considerably better than everyone else. We specifically vowed to keep this from the Kiwi! And there she was. I also noted that Kiwi had replaced her husband with a local ringer kayaker and SCAR veteran. She was young and cute. I figured she'd batted her eyes at him a few times and he'd given up the goods. "Judas!"

The next several hours were fairly uneventful. We battled wind, waves and cold. We remained disciplined in all things according to plan. Feed schedule, complete deference to Ninja for navigational judgment, solid, efficient stroke mechanics and streamlined body posture. You really can't afford to add any extra effort to a swim like this. It is worth the extra focus and energy to keep your mechanics solid. Ninja and I had worked out some hand signals to alert me if I fell into any of my typical bad habits. I don't think it ever became necessary. I was focused.

The Apache Lake Resort is more or less the half-way point, but thinking of it that way is misleading. Everest base camp is 17,500, well over half way to the summit. But no one would describe it as "half way to the top." But it is an encouraging landmark. It took FOREVER to get there. And the carnage had already begun. Boat after boat passed us with stacked kayaks and bundled-up swimmers. The shores were dotted with impromptu triage stations. I knew what was ahead, I felt a magnetic pull to the warm comfort of my hotel room. Even Ninja showed uncharacteristic signs of cracking, "Look, the Kiwi's are quitting. If they quit, what have we got left to prove?" He had a point. They were still on the south side of the lake, within meters of the resort. The water was rough there. No reason to be there unless, perhaps...  I tracked them for a while, hoping they did pull over and wondering how I would respond. They didn't. We didn't.

The second half was cold. I don't think it got colder (at least not until the sun slipped behind the canyon walls), more like my body just started surrendering to it. I couldn't feel my extremities. I started to feel sick. Even the smell of my feeds made me want to vomit. I forced food down as best I could. Most of it came right back out. I was also taking on tons of lake water, not unusual for me in rough water, depending on the direction of the wind. Even the lake water that found its way into my mouth made me gag. Eventually I got so cold I couldn't stop for feeds. I knew this would only make it worse, but when I pulled up even for a few seconds, I could feel my temperature drop and the shakes coming. So I kept moving. Racing against hypothermia. I saw SCAR veteran and all-around swim stud Steve Minaglia climbing out of the water less than two miles from the finish. I felt bad for him. We merged up again with the Kiwi, but after swimming together for half an hour, she dropped me like a bad habit. I didn't care. I just wanted the cold and pain to end.

I used stroke counting to distract myself from the cold. I kicked to bring up my temp as much as I could. I started to swim with my eyes closed, opening them only on my Ninja-side breaths (every 6th to 8th stroke). I don't know why. It just felt good. Then I started feeling sleepy. I stopped and warned Ninja of my temptation to doze off and to make sure I kept breathing.

Eventually, the finish line was in sight, or at least that's what Ninja said. My goggles were foggy and I was too cold to stop to clean them. I knew from last year, that still meant 20 minutes of swimming and I could tell it was getting dark and dark meant DNF. I increased my effort as much as possible, but I doubt the change would have been discernible to the human eye. Catch, pull, finish, glide, return.

Eventually, I touched the buoy. Finished. 9:44. But finishing didn't end the suffering. If you've ever been that cold for that long, you know it doesn't end for an hour or so. I had to keep fighting just to put on my fleece and heavy coat. I wished I had Ugs for my feet (note to self). That would have been heavenly.  As I shivered on the deck, Kent requested a status report from his radio. Devon Clifford was just around the bend. 20 minutes out. "Alright, we've got to shut it down after Devon," Kent said, reluctantly. He knew there were swimmers on the course, still pressing on. It was a hard call.

"How many finished?" I asked. Or at least attempted to ask. What came out was more like, "h-h-hw m-m-m-n fincht?


"How many?" I asked again

"How many finished?" asked Kent

I nodded.


What?! I started to feel warm again.