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...


  1. Awesome swimming and great narrative. See you there next year again hopefully.

  2. Yee haw!

  3. I read this with tears of laughter and hopeful camaraderie- I swam 4.5K at Canyon this morning. Brilliantly vivid recap of pure Love for it. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Stephen, I think the international aspace station could see that boat. Great Read and wicked sense of humour - for an American. I too might think about coming back over next year as Audra has a score to settle with Apache.

    Thanks for the breakdown and a huge congrats to you and the Ninja.

    Stay well my friend and keep that zest for life going

    chat soon

    The pod of hippos