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Zoomed out

I’m no good at painting, and my drawing is representative at best. I lack the steady hand and focus of a sculptor. Sometime I wonder what, if I could play an instrument, beautiful sounds and rhythms I might create. I dream of being an artist, but I’ve only found one medium I understand well enough to make anything worthwhile.

As this past winter approached, I went looking for a fight. With a map open like many times before, I looked at my beach, then the downtown waterfront to the right. To the left, I looked at my past swims, circling islands with my mouse, eyes darting from bay to point to pass. Farther out now, it’s just blue ocean green land with Puget Sound weaving in between. City names are overlain, like small advertisements asking for my attention. Seattle: home. Tacoma: a promising playground to the south. Olympia: the bottom of the Sound. Olympia: a place I consider too far to drive to. Olympia: the place beyond which there is no more water. Seattle: home. Olympia. Seattle. Shit.

I was looking for a fight. Not just a physical challenge, I’ve been there before and won enough times. Not just a tricky tide to beat, that’s become child’s play. I wasn’t just after something difficult. It was the moment that I thought this swim was impossible that I knew I was stuck with it. The next nine months would be not just filled with the usual training and all the baggage that it brings me, but there would be a nagging dread that I’d picked a swim which first made me think “that’s impossible.”

I started training and kept it a secret for a month until I had the courage to look at a map again. Its 53 miles between the two. That’s more than two tide cycles, so at least twice I would have to face off against the tides, and pray that I’d be rewarded when it was my turn to move forward. I’d face cold water. I’d face jellyfish and kelp and at then at night I’d swim past the place my dad and I once chased after a pod of orcas. I’d have four ferry lanes, one shipping channel, and a busy harbor to cross. I’d swim north, into the prevailing wind for a full day. It terrified me then, and it terrifies me now.

On Saturday mornings, I swim to the lighthouse at my beach. I’m a few yards past the edge of Seattle, with a fresh-rain-and-pine-tree breeze snapping my attention to the present. From there, I can see two and a half hours south to the top of Vashon Island, where on Sunday I’ll pop out at the end of the ebb and slowly turn east swimming to where I now tread water. Turning around, I can see the finish line, another two hours east with the Space Needle marking the beach I’ll aim for from the spot where I now tread water. Sometimes I hate this swim for the fears it makes me face, but something about this view tells me I’m on the right path.

This swim has been carefully sculpted, patiently crafted, and lovingly built. I am an artist. Swimming is my medium. This is my performance.

Product Review – string

I’m finally doing it. Other athletes do it, now I’m doing it too. I’m writing my first product review.

Compulsory disclaimer: I’m not sponsored by either product, and I purchased both products at retail price with my own money. I’m also not sponsored by the places I purchased these products, but if Pacific Fabrics or the Mystic Seaport Museum store are interested in sponsoring me, I’m willing to listen. Same for anyone, really.

A few years back, I bought a colorful Speedo Polymesh training suit. That one got stolen, so I bought a second of the same suit right as it was being discontinued. Three years later, the seams started to rip. I had to do something. First, given the size of the holes in the drag suit, I replaced my disintegrating undersuit with a newer, sturdier suit. Eventually though I couldn’t hide it, the drag suit was at risk of total failure with all three seams in tatters. To the sewing chest!

But which thread to choose? It would have to be durable, able to hold up to the upcoming spring of half-assed pool training with an expanding waistline. Not to mention the water and chlorine exposure. Just any ol’ thread wouldn’t do. So I picked up the two best options I already had lying around.

The first product is bonded nylon hand stitching thread size 207 in olive drab. It was once used for stitching a boat cover together, and seems rugged. The bonded nylon is supposed to repel water and chemicals.

The second product is white waxed polyester thread. It is my go-to thread for whipping the ends of lines, or sewing just about anything boat related. If you’re ever looking for some nice string to be around, this is your guy. Reliable, dependable, and a bit sticky.

The trial was simple: sew the suit up with the two different threads, swim a bit, and see what happened.

It might have been six or nine months since the first sewing. All of the remaining original seams are now gone, so even if this trial was an all-around success, I’d be picking up a needle again today. But, all of the seams sewn with the bonded nylon are also in shambles. The pieces of nylon thread I pulled out are floppy and frayed, the protective bonding has come off and left me with some sad, wimpy green strings. The waxed thread, on the other hand, is hanging in there just fine.

I’ve cleaned up the seams and resewn everything with the waxed thread. There is still some bonded nylon stitching on one side which I reinforced with waxed thread. Now back to the pool to continue the test and see how the threads hold up with six to nine months of moderately-motivated swimming.

Waxed thread!

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Fig1. – Bonded nylon (top) and waxed polyester (bottom) threads

 

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Fig2. – Current state of a nylon-stitched seam

 

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Fig3. – Current state of a waxed-thread-stitched seam (right)

 

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Fig4. – New bonded nylon above removed nylon thread below

 

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Fig5. – Suit restitched and ready for action

 

2:30am

This was the third year in a row I attended the Suzie Dods 24-hour Relay Extravaganza in Aquatic Park. The event is both a fun way to meet other swimmers and to meet yourself. Like any true marathon swim, the hardest part is where the beginning, middle, and end are all out of sight. The hardest parts, and also the most educational. This happens around 2:30am.

9 February 2014, 2:30am

It could be worse. This is the second time I’ve swam a 24-hour relay. Last time I had only two other people on my team, this time I have five, or is it four? Someone dropped out, I think, but I’m too tired and sick to notice right now. Thankfully Sylvia lent me her air mattress on which to nap in the handball court, but my incubating illness is making it hard to sleep. Not that there’s time for sleep, there’s barely enough time between swims to warm up and snack since my teammates are only swimming a few minutes at a time in the heavy rain that’s fallen since I arrived. Just stepping outside is hard, not to mention getting in over and over and over again. But here I, go once more.

It is 2:30am, and I’m beginning to feel some regret. I’m glad I’ve stayed well-fed today, but why did I have to have so much beer with all those waffles? I’m wholesale regretting my decision to be so active through the morning and afternoon. When I should have been sitting and quietly resting, I chose to spend all day going out to restaurants or meeting up with friends for drinks, and now I’m worn out with a sore throat. During a phase of my life where I’m constantly moving — where I have no home and everything I own is boxed, packed in the back of my car parked back at the Seattle airport — during this, as I step back out into the rain, I’m regretting the acute effects of being in constant motion. When will I learn to take it easy?

To lift my spirits, I leave my suit behind on the next swim. It is fun and different, but strangely it just makes me feel so much worse, as if being physically exposed magnifies my present emotional exposure. A recently-ended relationship has me all sorts of confused and vulnerable, and I’ve replaced it with an unhealthy relationship with a pool. At this point, I knew only one direction to go, forward, but I’m putting my season at risk by continuing like this.

8 February 2015, 2:30am

We’ve walked back down from the hotel after a quick nap. We’re headed for a late-night shift as support kayakers before getting back in the water. Our swim shifts were back to back and we helped each other out with the hard parts, waking up, getting back in the water, having a dry towel at hand afterwards. The whole day has been about meeting the other swimmers and enjoying new friendships.

So now at 2:30am, I’m groggy but smiling. I’d done another few loops without a suit, but this time it was almost fun. The rain would hold off for a few more hours, and the giant Ghirardelli sign bounced off the little ripples. I’d taken the day a little slower: fewer waffles, no beer, and a bit more sitting around and chatting. At home, along those lines, I learned to reign in my training and haven’t built up to unsustainably long workouts just yet. As a result, I was having fun, or as much fun as one has at these early hours.

In the build-up to my Summer of Bert, tonight’s temperature and distance are perfect training partners. And it is new and exciting to have an actual partner here to make it that much more fun. I’m finding out what it means to be part of a community.

31 January 2016, 2:30am

The light west wind feels stronger than actually it is. I put on a swim cap for warmth while I await my turn; I’m shivering as I step in. Me, shivering! Since the week after I crossed the Strait, every body of water I’ve stepped in has felt colder than it should. I’m not quite ready for the next season just yet. The idea of swimming in a circle for an hour isn’t on my list of good ideas, and from my first leg this morning I’ve swum slowly with little-to-no purpose other than to survive an hour, chatting idly with whatever ear would stay above water with me. How many more laps of head-up breaststroke until my hour is up?

Thankfully, I’m not swimming at 2:30am this year, our rotation has left us both on land between 1 and 5am. We’re heading upstairs to the day room for a nap. A few more hours smooshed uncomfortably into armchairs built for reading the morning paper. We’re tired. We’re grumpy. We are irritated at the little things like not being able to charge a cell phone and the uncomfortable chairs. Through some self-awareness and self-control we push the tensions aside, make do with what we’ve got, and take a nap knowing we’ll feel better when we awake. Sometimes it isn’t about the swimming or the big picture. Right now it is just about looking after each other and getting a little rest.

The 2:30am at the relay has had a Groundhog Day prescience, like a microcosm of the season ahead. I see the story of my swim seasons perfectly reflected. So what are the tea leaves saying about this season.

 

What pool?

US Masters Swimming @mastersswimming just tweeted:

Seattle Seahawks quarterback @DangeRussWilson includes swimming in his training regimen. http://ow.ly/WCNaz  See you in the pool, Russel

What I find upsetting in that tweet is, after three years in Seattle, I’m still trying to figure out: What pool?

Another season is beginning and once again I’m looking for a pool. Two years ago, I looked around and came to the conclusion that no USMS team in Seattle was going to meet my training requirements. No two teams, for that matter. I tried BWAQ, the team in the really nice pool a half hour outside of town, but after two months of sitting in an added hour of rush hour traffic on my way from practice to work in Seattle, I gave up. I also tried HMST at the University of Washington, but I found there what I’d found at ORCA just a few months prior: a 90 minute swim in a crowded lane a few times a week doesn’t cut it. That isn’t serious training. There was no team for me.

And maybe that was the problem right there. In a city of 662,000, there is no Masters team. Let me clarify, there is one Masters “team,” Puget Sound Masters, but PSM is composed of 36 different workout groups, each with its own schedule, own pool, own payment system, and no connection to the other workout groups whatsoever. In 2015, the local LMSC had 1,686 registered swimmers, 1,348 (80%) of whom were part of PSM. With an enormous team like that, you’d think there’d be some leverage. But there is no PSM team.

Instead, what Seattle has is a disjointed hodge-podge of groups doing the best they can to each make it on their own. There are four viable workout groups at three locations (yes, two groups use the same pool) across the city each offering one workout per day with a total of 374 swimmers (the remainder of PSM swimmers are registered on teams outside of Seattle limits or unattached). Despite being on the same “team,” swimmers may not freely cross town to take advantage of a more convenient practice time with another workout group, and there are none of the benefits that come from having such a large membership. The workout groups don’t even share a website. In every way, they are individual teams.

To make it worse, the PSM landscape is set to change drastically in the next few years. The ageing UW pool (home of HMST, 85 swimmers) is rumored to be demolished in Spring or Summer of 2016 (though no official word is available), and the Juanita Aquatics Center (home of LWM, 83 swimmers) is slated for demolition in 2018 with no new pool in sight after 63% of voters rejected a ballot measure in 2015 that would have funded a replacement facility. The pools for 16% of the LMSC will disappear. Will the swimmers disappear with them?

Presently, Downtown Seattle has no pool that sustains a functional Masters program. Capitol Hill has two: one has two workout groups, the other has zero. Numerous athletic clubs and public pools in the area remain untapped by Masters, and unavailable to lap swimmers seeking some serious training. With no leverage, and no plan to band together, there will be no new training space.

Swimming in Seattle is in a crisis, or at best its in a stagnant state of neglect and disrepair with a further downturn coming soon.

So USMS,  it’s nice that Mr. Wilson has a place to swim in Seattle. I just wish I did, too.

Disclaimer: This past December, I applied for the open position as USMS CEO, but I don’t expect a call back.

Puget Sound Temperatures

Once or twice a month, the folks at King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks send a boat out onto Puget Sound, drop some instruments to the bottom, pull them back up, and then do this again somewhere else. A full description of CTD sampling methods is available at King County’s Marine Monitoring website. The data they collect from this sampling is publicly available and I’m sure is put to good use, but I’ve never come across any of it in a presentable format.

So with Excel and some free time, here is a snapshot of the around 370,000 data points at three locations taken over the past 15 years.

It looks like King County offers fifteen CTD locations, but since I don’t have all the time in the world, I only looked at the three I found most interesting (i.e. closest to Alki Beach). Stations LSEP01, LSNT01, and KSSK02 are shown below.

CTD-locations

The CTD data is recorded every half meter, both on the trip down to depth and the trip back to the surface. In addition to temperature and depth, King County records conductivity, dissolved oxygen, light transmission, and chlorophyll. But again, limited time, limited resources, so I’m only looking at temperature. A temperature profile over the past five months is shown below.

CTD-LSEP01-jul15todec15

At the surface, water cools and warms quickly while the temperature the bottom trails slowly behind. Temperatures at depth peaked this year in late August or early September. We’re now in the annual cooling-off period, with surface temperatures this week getting below 10C. Early March is when coldest temperatures are found at depth.

Because of the fickle nature of surface temperatures, let’g almost totally ignore them. Instead, lets give some emphasis to the stable, plodding temperatures down towards the bottom of the Puget Sound. What are they up to?

CTD-LSEP01-2000to2015

CTD-KSSK02-2000to2015

CTD-LSNT01-2000to2015At all three locations, 2015 has had the warmest maximum and minimum temperatures of the past fifteen years by around one degree C. No wonder swimming felt so nice.

For the record, the data goes back to 21 October 1998. Why did I stop at the beginning of 2000? Well, I just forgot to, and ran out of time. The data is there if you want to look at it. At LSEP01, it looked kind of like 2008.

So what does this mean? What will this year be like? I don’t know and I don’t know. If you compare December temperatures to the rest of the year, there isn’t much of a pattern. A warm or cold December seems to have little correlation to winter lows, and even less to the next summer’s high.

CTD-LSNT01-AvgDec

So what does the future hold? My guess is that the temperatures in March will be a smidge colder than last year’s, but I’m not a magician. We’ll just have to wait and see.


data from: King County Puget Sound Marine Monitoring http://green2.kingcounty.gov/marine/Monitoring

Inadequate

At the beginning of the season, at the start of an epic summer, I didn’t yet know where the journey would take me. I had goals in mind, but they paled in comparison with what I would be unexpectedly up against.

It was a big year, and there had been many big years before this. Behind me successes and failures were plenty, and surely many more of both lay on the road ahead. At present, I was up for any challenge, as I’d trained myself to be. Not just willing to face any challenge, but to succeed; there was nothing another swimmer could do that I could not do. I believed this.

To present, the season has gone as planned. I woke up in the mornings, went to work, then swam. Day after day after day. I completed one swim, then a harder one. I’d watched others do the same, letting their training and resolve and spirit meld with my own. Like I said, I was ready for anything.

Then there was this morning. It was grey outside, the kind of grey morning that could only be the Pacific Northwest or Scotland. For days now I’d been hearing about Craig Lenning’s calves. The others said they were as near to perfect as an Almost-God’s calves could be. It is known that swimmers have better calves than most and such a claim would be taken lightly in most company or if the comparison were made between Craig Lenning’s calves and a non-swimmer’s, but no, this talk came from a group of swimmers. In short, there was good reason for me to believe that Craig Lenning had fantastic calves.

I’d describe them for you myself, but at this time I’d never actually seen Craig Lenning’s calves, owing partly to the chilly weather that week that kept all of our legs covered most of the week and partly to my own lack of observation. If his calves were in fact as sublime as I’d heard, surely my eyes would have passed over them a time or two and been struck by their magnificence, but as this had not happened I was skeptical.

My skepticism was only heightened by my own hubris. While I consider my own calves to be merely adequate, I’ve heard some murmurs about them being more than adequate. My utilitarian calves are good for the usual things, running, jumping, and pushing off from sandy seafloors, and they actively keep me from wearing skinny jeans. We cohabitate peacefully, but I’ll admit once in a while their size and shape draw some attention.

When Craig Lenning’s calves came up in conversation again that damp morning, my reaction was again formed by my skepticism and hubris. But then the discussion of Craig Lenning’s amazing calves turned to my calves, and the room quickly came to the conclusion that my calves were not inconsequential, and they were presently in close proximity to Craig Lenning’s calves. To the room it was clear what was needed, they declared a competition must be held, a calf-off.

Aside from hearing about Craig Lenning’s calves, I’d also heard about Craig Lenning’s last calf competition. I’d heard it wasn’t even close. My memory now is a bit hazy on the details, I think the other man survived, although now I cannot be so sure. And soon it would be my turn. Two against two, and I wasn’t even scared. Not just because I hadn’t seen Craig Lenning’s calves, but because Craig Lenning is a swimmer, and I’d trained myself to be ready for anything, and to be able to do anything any other swimmer could do, and to succeed.

We stood in front of the fireplace, both wearing shorts, both facing the wall with a panel of judges behind us. In my imagination Craig Lenning’s stick legs look cold and feeble, but Craig Lenning’s calves are not sticks, they do not look feeble. The competition begins, and we are directed to flex our calves in various ways for thirty, forty-five seconds, an hour it feels like. My calves have never worked so hard at making the perfect angles and ridges, intentionally trying to draw the stares of everyone in the room. And then in was done.

A short pause to deliberate and then a unanimous decision. Craig Lenning’s calves have won, and my adequate calves and I are left to contemplate what we are really doing with our life. What have we been training for this season and all the preceding years if not to be able to defeat Craig Lenning’s calves? Was there anything left for us?

Crushed. This was supposed to be an epic summer, but it wasn’t.

Unassisted

This weekend, I’m going to complete an unassisted marathon swim. By unassisted, I mean I will use nothing to improve my speed, buoyancy, heat-retention, or navigation.

Well, unassisted except I’ll be swimming with the currents, so hopefully I’ll be assisted by them. But that’s it. And, of course there will be some assistance from the decades of observation and research that went into predicting those currents, not to mention the invention of the internet which made acquiring this knowledge possible, or at least made possible to acquire the books containing this knowledge, books which now sit tucked away in second-hand nautical book stores formerly unknown to me.

And I guess my speed will be assisted by the two decades of training I’ve done, and all the generational knowledge passed down to me by coaches and other swimmers on how to train a modern athlete. I’ll be swimming freestyle almost the entire time, which has only been around in the present form since 1902, giving me a speed advantage over those who lived before the twentieth century, so a bit of assistance there. And I can only do so much freestyle with the assistance of weekly physical therapy visits to keep my shoulders intact.

But otherwise, unassisted. Although I’ll be a bit more buoyant from the salt water, but surely that geologic processes don’t count as assistance, right? Oh, and there will be a little more buoyancy from the hundreds of donuts I’ve eaten this year which have increased my BMI a bit. So I guess I’ll be assisted by salt and donuts, too.

Actually, come to think of it, donuts will be assisting me in fighting off the cold. That extra bit of fat will certainly help me retain heat better than I would have otherwise. Also, I will be consuming food during my swim, which will allow me to generate body heat, so I’ll be assisted by the farmers and chemists behind maltodextrin, as well as the understanding of nutrition science as we have it in the present day, and the online retailer who sold and shipped all that powder.

And I should add, I’ll be assisted by my crew who will be throwing me food every half hour or so. They’ll also be guiding me, so I’ll be assisted by their eyes and voices, as well as their radar, GPS, and petroleum-powered engines. My crew will be on some combination of fiberglass, inflatable rubber, or plastic watercraft, so I’ll also be assisted by the advances in materials science we as a planet have made in the past few centuries. Thank you for your assistance, Industrial Revolution, thank you for making all these resulting synthetic materials possible. I’ll also be assisted by goggles to help my visual navigation. They, too, will be made of synthetic materials.

If I’m lucky, I’ll be assisted by the wind, warmed by the sun, sped by the tides, and buoyed by my friends who will be by my side the whole way.

But other than that, I’m going to do this swim “without artificial assistance to performance, other than the standard equipment of the sport” and without any “nonstandard performance-enhancing equipment, supportive contact with the swimmer, or other violation of the spirit of unassisted marathon swimming.” In other words, I’ll be unassisted.

Distance swimming

It was after dark on a Sunday evening in February when, still wet from another city’s downpour, I slowly walked up to the light rail station at SeaTac airport. This was not an unfamiliar experience, returning to town alone with just enough time to get some food, get some sleep, and get back to the office the next morning. Barely over one year earlier, I’d returned to this airport from some unglorious destination or another every few days. Here was a ritual I’d repeated countless times since moving to Seattle, and countless times in a life before that.

Thirty-two days later, I was driving back to the airport to pick up a guest when it occurred to me: this sixteen mile drive brought me farther from home than I’d been in the past thirty-two days. Farther by five miles! For the past month, I’d done the opposite of what I’d done for the past four and a half years, not travel.

For thirty-two days, I was never more than nine miles from home. Nine miles is the driving distance from home to my beach at Alki. In that period, I made the trip to Alki sixteen times, and swam a total of sixty-four kilometers (I still swim in kilometers). My morning commute is currently 2.9km. This means on any given weekend day, I swim farther than my total daily commute.

As I was pushing myself to go farther in the water, I was going nowhere on land. Instead of exploring the world with a plane ticket and a passport, I was exploring the world with a pair of goggles and a few happy hours. I was getting to know the bottom of the sea and my swim family better than ever before. I’d fallen into a routine that is one of the most stable I’ve ever had, and it leaves me feeling unbelievably comfortable.

I finally found a routine that allows me to swim the distances my mind and body and soul all crave, without travelling the distances all of those wholly rejected not so long ago.

Dream huge, start small: 2015

Sitting in nighttime rush hour traffic on my way to swim practice, a place I’ve not been in a while. It is something I’ve done a hundred times, slowly crawling up over the West Seattle Bridge as the sun sets straight ahead. Last year, at this exact time in fact, I was doing just this.

A year ago, my priorities were distance, and my training reflected my fear that I wouldn’t be able to swim far enough or fast enough. Consequently, on a night probably much like this, I was headed to the pool beneath the Bridge to swim a lonely four or five thousand yards in a dreary small space. Pushing myself in practice meant swimming farther and faster just as often as it meant fighting back morose thoughts and the occasional tear.

As I crested the bridge, the sunset opened up ahead in an unseasonably bright and cheery sky. The exit for the pool was just ahead on the right. My turn signal click-clacked away as I merged onto the ramp of the next exit, the exit for the beach.

I haven’t been to that pool since May, or any pool for that matter. The day I got out of that pool, wrapped myself in a towel and drove around the corner to the beach to finish my workout was a beautiful day. And the providence that bankrupted the gym thereafter and ended my monthly contract was divine. So as I drove over that bridge, heading to a dark cold workout in the Puget Sound, I chuckled quietly at my unenlightened self of last year.

My training plan for this season is simple: dream huge, start small. The dreaming is done, and it is huge. Also a little intimidating, but oh so exciting. And I’ve started, small.

Starting small is great, because means I can do all my week’s training out of a pool in open water. Starting small is necessary, because the water here is only in the high forties. Starting small is safe, because swimming has released its grip on my life and it will take a few moments to work it back into my schedule. Starting big, like last year, would be emotionally disastrous.

This year, my priorities are distance, and luckily my fear is only the cold. My training will keep me out of the pool, and can only progress as fast as my body and the water temperature will allow.

There are eighteen weeks until this season’s first swim.  Until then, the Bridge that’s now behind me will continue to bring me to a place I love, a place I want to be. This will be a long, cold, and challenging year, but only in the very best of ways. 2015.

On Course Goggles

Emailed 28 August 2014 11:26 PDT

Long Distance Committee
c/o Anna Lea M—–k
Membership Coordinator
US Masters Swimming

Anna Lea,

We all thought that this was the product of the future. We knew it would come, that it was only a matter of time, but we didn’t think that time would be so soon.

Leaving aside the beauty, joy, and majesty of this sport, open water swimming is a test. It pits swimmer against swimmer, swimmer against nature, and swimmer against self. USMS has embraced this challenge.

It is evident in the 2014 U.S. Masters Swimming Rule Book that challenge is inherent in open water swimming. The rules for Competitive and Solo Open Water Events (Art 303) break out wetsuits and rash guards into a separate category because they offer an advantage over those wearing a traditional swim suit. The rules prohibit any “device or substance to help…speed, pace, buoyancy, or endurance during a swim,” (Sect 303.3.7) because it would give an individual with a “competitive advantage” (Sect 303.7.2C.2) over those without. Similarly, the disqualifications section (Sect 303.9) specifically frowns on many other forms of assistance that do not follow in the spirit of competitive open water swimming.

A new product, soon to be available to swimmers, goes against the intent of current USMS rules. On Course Goggles (http://www.oncoursegoggles.com/) is about to release a new product that enables swimmers to have navigational assistance displayed right in their goggles. Sighting, their Facebook page claims, would only need to be done once for each straight leg of the swim. Such assistance is unquestionably a competitive advantage in open water swimming, allowing those with such a device to chose a straighter, shorter course than those without. That sounds like cheating to me.

As written, the Rule Book does not prohibit this type of assistance. It is in the best interest of your members to make necessary rule modifications and stem the flow of technological competitive advantages into open water swimming. I believe I speak for a large number of open water swimmers in making the following proposition:

Sections 303.7.2D and 303.7.3C

AS WRITTEN: Swimmers are not permitted to wear or use any device or substance to help their speed, pace, buoyancy, or endurance during a swim.

PROPOSED ADDITION: Swimmers are not permitted to wear or use any device or substance to help their speed, pace, buoyancy, **navigation**, or endurance during a swim.

This is merely a suggestion. There are, of course, alternative modifications to the rules that could be made to cover this and future advances in swimmer advantages. I leave it to your best judgement to decide the final course of action, but I am glad to help in any way I can.

If you need any more information, or would like to discuss this further, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Regards,
Andrew Malinak
USMS 07U87, Club PNA-HMST
a————-@g—-.–m
206——–6

Observing Elaine

This is the story of the mid-night gap in my observation log, the missing three hours of Elaine Howley’s 32.3 mile Pend Oreille swim on 30-31 July 2014.


The boat was running. The sky was blushing. Elaine was swimming. I was laughing.

It was dawn, or just about to be. I zipped my light sweater up to the top against the morning’s stiffening breeze. Wearing nothing else except a small wet swim suit, the sweater was both insufficient and more than enough. It could have been worse. The night could have been worse. But it wasn’t. Elaine was still swimming.

I looked down at her from where I sat, piloting a small grey boat alongside my swimmer. It was just the two of us for the moment. The kayaker, crew, and both big boats had all dropped back to regroup after the night’s events. As I watched Elaine swim, I thought I could see her looking back at me with every breath she took. I smiled at her, as if to say, glad that’s over. The smile grew into a laugh, uncontrollable. A laugh that was drowned out by the small two-stroke pushing me along, and the splash of Elaine’s unceasing arms pushing her along.


Three hours earlier, I stood on the top deck of our escort houseboat, snacking on Brie and olives and iced tea to ward off sleep. A sliver of new moon had left us shortly after sunset, and the stars above now gave just enough light to hint at the size of the mountains looming over us. Black silhouettes on a blacker background. The only other light came from our houseboat. Cozy and safe and bright. To shake off the sleep and give Elaine some company, at two hours past midnight I stuck a glowstick in my goggle straps and jumped off the bow to swim with her.

Night swimming isn’t bad once you’ve done it a few times. Getting used to the dark is easy. And good thing, because fifteen minutes after I joined Elaine, the lights on the houseboat flickered and died. Go on, yelled Eric, the organizer who put this swim together. Go on, it is just the generator, we’ll be back with you in a minute.

So we went on, Elaine between the kayak and me. We went on for ten or fifteen minutes this way, and I kept looking back at the house boat, watching its few remaining lights get smaller. When we stopped for the first time, we assessed our situation. Elaine had enough food to last for a while, and I’d been paying attention to the navigation and we all agreed on a course: hug the point up ahead, then we begin to cross the lake. So we went on.

When we stopped again, the houseboat was but a speck of light, discernible from the blinding stars overhead only by its position at the surface of the smooth lake. For a while now I’d been thinking of turning back to get the small grey dinghy tied up behind the houseboat, but it was too late. There was over a mile of pitch blackness between them and the three of us. Elaine told us she was very glad we were both with her. The kayaker said the same thing. I quietly pictured us huddled on shore, waiting to be rescued by some hikers in the morning.

I thought this would be a good time to share the punch line to a joke I’d told Elaine three hours prior. Something to lighten our dark situation. How many tickles does it take to make a squid laugh? was the joke. We went on.

We rounded the point on the east side of the lake and made a slight right turn. We picked our course by the mountains and navigation lights ahead, and we stuck to it. They’d know where to find us when they got the boat running again. I thought of the other joke I’d told to Elaine earlier that evening whose punchline was still waiting to be heard, although this joke would not be concluded just yet.What happens when a red ship hits a blue ship?  It would be bad form to talk about crews being marooned, given our present circumstances.

Looking back again, we saw what appeared to be a flashlight moving near the speck that was once a houseboat. Did they finally launch the dinghy? Yes, fifteen minutes later it arrived. We’d been without a boat for about an hour, about two miles.

Eric and the cameraman were in the dinghy, looking down at us. The engine died and I immediately climbed in. I was surprised to see these two, of all the people on our crew. Eric had told me only a few hours ago he didn’t know how to operate a boat, and the cameraman was just along for the ride. Did you bring me a towel? Or dry clothes? How about food for Elaine, a VHF radio, a cellphone, a big flashlight, her crew, or anything useful? Well, at least we had two headlamps and a boat that worked.

I grabbed the starter cord and pulled. Nothing. I’d started this boat a dozen times since the swim began and now, in the middle of the lake in the middle of the night, Elaine was once again swimming away from a broken boat. I tried everything I could think of, which isn’t a lot since I’m not a mechanic. Finally, as Eric’s headlamp swung across the motor, I figured it out. The white line in the water trailing behind the boat perfectly illustrated the importance of securing the painter.

My goggles were still sitting on my forehead. I slid them back on and flopped in the lake. A few minutes later, the bow line was unwrapped from the prop, and I was back in the boat with the motor running, begging Eric to keep the light out of my eyes so I could find Elaine in the dark.

Meanwhile, a call had been made from the houseboat to Bruce, a guy with another boat. He’d woken up, untied his boat, and now we could see him zipping down the lake in our general direction. Having no way to get his attention except two small headlamps, we watched him zip right by. As we followed Elaine, Bruce made his way to the houseboat, and then traced our route back to find us.

He’d brought me a sweater and a muffin, plus some more crew and spare food for Elaine. Still no phone or radio. I asked him to return to the houseboat and get everything – everything we’d need to finish the remaining ten-plus hours of the swim, then come back. In particular, I wanted him to bring my orange dry-bag with my phone and GPS inside. After all, I was here to observe, and my documentation was lacking at the moment. Plus, a phone and GPS would be really handy right now.

We settled into our routine. Elaine was swimming. Eric was talking. The cameraman was filming. I was reflecting.

When Bruce returned, about two-and-a-half hours after I first jumped in to swim that night, he brought news that the houseboat was running and on its way. A few minutes later, with the crew reassembling on the houseboat, I was free to sit quietly in the dinghy and observe Elaine swimming under the dusty-red sky. That’s when the laughter started.

It could have been worse. But it wasn’t. Elaine was still swimming.

Pend Oreille swim – observer log and data

On 31 July 2014, Elaine Howley walked ashore at the City Beach Park in Sandpoint, ID with a look or surprise behind the smile on her face. She’d just completed a 32.3 mile swim across Lake Pend Oreille, the first person to do so. There to greet her on the beach was the entire town of Sandpoint.

Elaine asked me to join her crew as the event’s official observer. Marathon swims are almost always done away from the eyes of spectators, so to ensure that rules are followed, that standards are upheld, and that claims are verifiable, marathon swims should have an independent observer along to provide credibility to incredible feats. I had no doubt that Elaine would make every effort to follow the rules she’d selected for herself. After all, we are co-authors of the Marathon Swimmers Federation rules she’d be following. On the boat before leaving dock, I sat the crew down to make sure they too understood the traditions and spirit of this sport, that Elaine would swim beach to beach without assistance from any of us other than navigation and provision of food.

They all said they understood. Done, I thought. This job was going to be a breeze.

Well, I managed to witness the whole swim. All 20 hours, 25 minutes, and 55 seconds of it. I’ll get into the details later, but keeping an eye on Elaine proved much harder than planned. For example, I swam with Elaine and the kayaker for an hour when the boat broke down and then piloted a RIB for two more hours while our captain was remounting solenoids to his engine compartment. In short, this was far more adventurous a swim than any I’ve been on, a distinction I give without even considering the fact that Elaine was in the water swimming 32.3 miles. The stories will come, but first let me finish doing my job.

Compiled in the below links are all the data I collected during Elaine’s swim. Observations every half hour (to the best of my ability given certain circumstances) that document the non-emotional side of things. They are presented here for posterity, and for your approval. If anyone feels that they are incorrect, they are encouraged to speak up to the community. But as they say in the business, Elaine is “squeaky clean.” Elaine *is* the spirit of marathon swimming.

PDF of the observer’s report, submitted 2 August 2014 to the marathon swimming community.

ZIP file of all available data, including .gpx, .kmz, .txt, .xlsx, and .jpg files. Just like that! You don’t even have to beg me or comb through my site to find them.

For any of you who look through the GPS files: the track followed my handheld GPS. The waypoints, marked down on the log were taken during my observations from a position very near Elaine’s. You’ll notice a three hour gap in observations and waypoints where the tracked speed drops to zero; this is when I was away from everything except my suit and goggles and Elaine and the night sky.

Pend Oreille swim – route

Tomorrow evening, Elaine Howley will embark on a 32.3 mile swim across the length of Lake Pend Oreille in northern Idaho. She will begin in the southwestern most part of Buttonhook Bay, Farragut Park and swim up to City Beach Park in Sandpoint. The swim will be done following the Marathon Swimming Federation standard rules for a solo swim.

This route poses an interesting challenge in declaring an official distance, since the shortest straight line between start and finish includes several mountains and a few train tracks. This route presented  here is best described as the “shortest swimmable route.” It takes into account the local terrain and turns its way across the lake using the shortest distance between multiple points. Distance from shore along the bends in the route vary between 25 and 150m.

Pend Oreille route

Precise start and end locations are yet to be determined, however deviations of up to 250m make no significant difference to the overall course length.

The Google Earth .kmz file is available for your use.

Just a number

“As a kid I always thought I would have swum the English Channel,” Dan says to Scott, but now he feels he’s “too old.” Luckily, Dan made this comment to the right person. “Without Scott’s encouragement, advice, and [assistance as] a training partner, I wouldn’t have even considered swimming the Channel,” says the present-day Dan.

It was back in 2003 when Dan said he was too old. Three years later, he swam around Manhattan. Two years after that, he swam the Catalina Channel. Then two days ago—eleven years after saying he was “too old” to swim the English Channel—Dan wrote this on the ceiling of the White Horse Pub in Dover…

Dan Robinson

Dan Robinson
7/21/14 11:59 E-F
Seattle, Wa, USA
Wichita Swim Club
68-78

It is written right above Scott’s name.

Scott Lautman—USA
7-4-2000 10:37.23 E-F

Dan is not too old. Congratulations Dan.

Take it too far

Here is how to train for a long swim:

Dream for as long as is necessary. Then settle on a goal. Goals don’t happen without dreams, and nothing happens without goals.

Now stop dreaming and focus. Focus on your goal the way you focus on your breathing, your stroke technique, or your counting of laps during a long pool set.

This swim is going to be hard. (You knew that, right?) Make your training harder. Train longer. Train faster. Train colder. Train farther. Train before dawn. Train through sunset, through dusk, and into the dark. Just you and the inky abyss.

Study everything. Study past successes and failures, both others’ and your own. Study the tides. Study the course. Study the coasts and the towns along them. Learn physics, biomechanics, nutrition, chemistry. Learn to stay organized. Read everything you can. Never read motivational posters; they are the worst. Don’t blindly trust the experts, check their assumptions. Become the expert, check your own assumptions.

Make mistakes and learn from them. Ignore the tides and get stuck in a current. Drink too much the night before. Skip breakfast. Lose goggles. Forget your suit. Now make those same mistakes again. Understand what part everything plays, and know what to do when mistakes inevitably happen.

Now make your training even harder. Make it too hard. Too long. Too fast. Too cold. Too far. You don’t know what any of those things are! Stop whining, shut up, and swim.

Make friends. Make contacts. Make whatever you need to succeed if it does not already exist. Lose friends. Lose contact with the outside world. Lose touch with reality as everyone else knows it. Make your own reality.

Swim all the time. Swim through Love. Swim through Loss. Swim through all the emotions that come in between. Never ask if swimming is the cause or the cure. It is probably both, but knowing that won’t help anything. Swim as your life crumbles around you. Swim while you rebuild it. Never stop swimming.

You knew this was going to be hard, right? Accept it. This will be lonely and alienating. Your only friends will be swimmers, and even they won’t understand you. This is a path that few have taken, or ever will. Don’t expect many companions. Treasure those who join you.

Happy endings are never guaranteed. Accept that things are not always in your control. Train yourself to appreciate small victories. Everything brings a chance to improve, to learn, to succeed. At best, your training will be adequate and your swim will seem easy. Don’t dwell on the other possibilities.

If this doesn’t work: make your training harder. This will not be easy. But you knew that, didn’t you.

The Lake

On Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, with less than a month to go before 8 Bridges, I was in the pool starting up a long workout. I’d gone for a long swim in the Puget Sound the day before, but with temperatures hovering around 51F, by “long swim” I mean just over 4k. Not nearly long enough. So I resigned myself to getting some much needed yardage in the pool on that dreary overcast Sunday.

But reverting to long pool swims at this time of year is difficult, having open water so close and accessible and relatively warm. Somewhere in the midst of the first kilometer I gave up. But around that same time I had a beautiful revelation. 8 Bridges is not a cold water swim, nor is it a salt water swim, so why wasn’t I training in Lake Washington? Pride and preference and lack of imagination.

The next afternoon, I headed over to Seward Park to try it out. And it worked! That day was my longest swim of the season, completing two laps of the 2.4 mile circumference peninsula. It felt so good to be able to get into that peaceful mental state where movement comes without thinking and there is no other reality besides the aqueous one all around.

That mental place is somewhere I haven’t been in a long time. The Puget Sound is beautiful, exhilarating, and downright fun, but swimming in the Sound can be dangerous if you go too far. Survival requires thought, and the Sound requires survival. In warm waters of the Lake, there was no fear of hypothermia, no need to figure out the tides and currents and if I’d make it back in time. There was only swimming: stroke after stroke after analyzed, critiqued, and perfected stroke.

With June Gloom yet to show up and a bright sun shining down on the Lake’s low-60 degree water for the two following weekends, there was no reason to hold back. The first weekend of June I swam three laps on Saturday with another two on Sunday. Then four laps and three the next weekend. This was new to me, back to back long swims, but this is what 8 Bridges is, times 7 (or times 6, or times 3.5, depending on your method of calculation). This is the training I needed, not a glorious swim with starfish or a dismal swim in a small pool.

I chose Seward Park because it provided short intervals across a dockless stretch of shoreline where figuring distance would be easy, and where friends could come and go with me as they pleased. In the five swims and fourteen laps, Steph joined for four, Dan and Melissa for three, Alison for two, and Dave for one. Their company was wonderful; it kept me on pace and helped me forget what a lonely, dull place is the back of Seward Park, and what a gross body of water are the shallows near the start and finish.

Yeah, the Lake isn’t the greatest of lakes. Pretty soon the water will be up in the 70s, and I’ve had enough of dodging boats in the anchorage of Andrew’s Bay, and more than  enough of the duck itch (swimmer’s itch) I’ve been scratching at for a few weeks now. It’ll be a while before I go back.

While I’m looking forward to my return to the clear, cool, life-filled waters of Alki Beach, I will miss being able to swim for hours and hours the way one can in warmer waters.

Oh and this: Please don’t feed the ducks!

Excelsior

“That looks fun,” I said to her as she returned to the wall.

The lady in the lane next to me was pushing a set of floaty dumbbells along the surface of the pool, and she had just spent the past four minutes or longer in shoulder deep water, feet on the bottom, face down, arms outstretched, spinning. And for the past four minutes or longer, I’d been watching her.

It was a ten past eight o’clock on a Tuesday night, and the last 100 yards of my 7,000 yard workout were eluding me. Somewhere over the past two hours, and past two weeks, I ended up on that downslope of the emotional rollercoaster. As I stood at the wall after a long, slow, tedious 6,900 yards with no desire to go any farther, something about this spinning lady entranced me.

What is was about her slow rotation, bright green cap, and uncustomary movements that caught and held my eye I cannot say. Spinning must have been for her either a workout, or something she really enjoyed doing, or both, because why else would she do it? Why was I doing what I was doing? Was it for any of those reasons?

“Well, you know,” she replied. Conversations with strangers are rarely begun by me, but watching her had really intrigued me. She added, “You must be more of a competitive swimmer.”

“Yeah,” I said in a tone that must have expressed what I was feeling right then about my own swimming, which was nothing positive.

“That’s alright.”

“It get’s old after a while,” I offered. Not the direction I meant to take the conversation. I just wanted to know about her spinning.

“Well, as long as you’re competing against yourself, always setting the bar higher, that’s what matter.” Normally, this would be that little nugget of wisdom you hang onto and cherish forever. But no, goddammit, I was clearly set on being a miserable human.

“Unless you set the bar too high.” She asked what was too high, and I told her how far I’d swum tonight.

It was the second time I’d thought about this during my workout. New York State’s motto is Excelsior, or Ever Upward. The sad truth about this is, it is impossible to go Ever Upward. Everything has limits. Read a Stephen Jay Gould book, he’ll tell you. And what are my limits? Sure I can go farther Upward, but do I want to? Is it a good idea? Is it safe?

“That’s a lot,” she replied. “Well, my workout is nineteen laps, but it usually stretches out to twenty-one.” Then, something unexpected. “Because at that point my suit usually starts to fall apart. It’s an old suit. Some things take priority, you know.”

We laughed. Thank you spinning lady in the bright green cap. You just cheered me up a little.

One hundred yards to go, and then there is a Cadbury Creme Egg waiting for me in the car.

Swim meet

Last weekend was beautiful. The sun chased away all of Seattle’s clouds and we had two days of warm spring air. And where was I? Well, in case you missed the title, I was at a swim meet.

Yes, a swim meet. At an indoor, 25 yard pool swimming back and forth. The rest of the Pacific Northwest was as shocked as you are.

Ever since joining a swim team or two, I’ve had people asking me when I’d sign up for a meet. The idea was immediately laughed at because I’m not really into racing. I find no thrill in competing against others and I don’t swim in meets enough to be able to race against myself, so what is the point? Maybe all this training has just worn me down, or maybe the idea of a justifiable taper week got to me, but a few days before the meet registration closed, I signed up for our LMSC championship at my old Tuesday-Thursday morning pool.

What really surprised everybody is that I did not just sign up for all the long distance events. No no, remember I don’t like racing? Instead, I picked a few events that I thought I could do well in and just signed up for those. Many of my workouts lately have been built around increasingly faster sets of one, two, and three hundreds of freestyle, so the 100 and 200 free were obvious choices. Then I also signed up for the 100 fly because I was once pretty good at that. And that is it. Just three events.

The meet was a blast. During my training for this summer’s big swims, I’ve found myself wondering how fast I could go if I tried, and I was excited from the start to have a chance to find out. As a kid, I lacked much of the focus racing requires and usually got too caught up in the social atmosphere of swim meets. Thanks to open water and the mental durability developed in the numerous lonely workouts I’ve gone through over the past five years, I was able to get in a solid warm up (my shoulders remind me of warm up’s importance at every workout nowadays) and to extricate myself from friends before my events for a few quiet minutes behind the block. Not to say I didn’t take full advantage of having so many swim friends in the same place at the same time. Work and play.

Naturally, having not swum a short course meet in 9 years, all my seed times were made up. I really had no idea how I would do. In all my events, my starts were pathetic. I may as well have just gotten off the block after the start, adjusted my goggles, and eased myself into the pool; they were bad. But after that, it felt perfect. They felt like that perfect day of training when you just want to go faster, your stroke feels smooth, you nail every turn, and you don’t want to stop for anything. I got totally high on that feeling. And my times weren’t bad either; way better than expected, and one life-time best.

As the meet ended, I was shocked at how sad I was that short course season is over – this was the final meet. Now that I know my times, I want to go faster. I want to go back to this meet and cheer for my teammates, count laps for the coach of another team, talk with the race director about how his workouts have been, say hello to former lane mates, plan summer swims with my open water friends, and get invited by the Coleman Pool director to use the pool for free this summer (only if I swim there from Alki). I want to join every team, and go to every event. I don’t always get along well with everyone, but with swimmers, I love them all!

Just a few weeks ago, swimming and me, we were heading into a rough patch in our relationship. But this meet turned that around. Swimming and I are in love again.

Priorities

When my doctor says I should watch my diet, do some extra tests, and monitor my blood pressure on a regular basis, I don’t disagree with her, but I also don’t do what she says. Health problems seem so far in the future. Plus, I workout regularly, so I must be pretty healthy.

When my dentist points to an x-ray and tells me I need to see a specialist because my jaw in in the process of falling off, I believe him because I can see and feel exactly what he means. But bones and teeth are a pretty abstract concept to me, and I have trouble seeing the urgency in getting things looked at that seem so durable.

But when my shoulder twinges midway through my workout on Thursday night, I am on the phone that night with multiple PTs looking for the next appointment. Not just the guy I usually see, but any recommendations I’ve gotten from friends recently. Because if one thing scares me more than getting hit by a boat, it is chronic shoulder problems. I’m sure I can swim without teeth, but I cannot swim without shoulders.

Fighting burnout, stoking the fire

Traditionally, as the end of the summer comes, the leaves, the temperatures, and my training all begin to fall. But not this year.

By time late September 2013 rolled around, I still had weekly open water swims of over 7k. The Puget Sound is beautiful, and all I wanted to do was swim in it. Sounds harmless. Then I went and joined a swim team. Then I joined a second swim team. By late October, there were weekdays opened with a 5:30am swim practice and closed with an open water swim in the darkness newly brought about by Daylight Savings Time. As the months got colder, I added post-swim trail runs with some training buddies, and would continue to push the 6k mark as the Sound dropped into the 40s late in November. This level of training had continued since May, and my real training was to start in January.

Or so I told myself.

What I’d forgotten, or overlooked, or ignored in those playful autumn months is how important is my annual break-up with swimming. And now here I am at the end of March fighting total burnout. While my workouts are meant to be getting longer, simply getting in the water is regularly a struggle, and I’ve even begun asking myself why I’m doing it at all– the most dangerous of questions. In fewer than three months, I’m to be swimming 120 miles down the Hudson. By then, I suspect swimming and I will, in the best scenario, not be on speaking terms. The chances of us still being friends by June seem remote. And this is a terrifying prospect considering we’re only at the beginning of the season!

Now it is too late to take three months off, and there is no way to go back. So it becomes a mental game.

Last Saturday I stepped onto the Golden Gardens beach, warm hands in the pockets of the parka protecting me from the pelting rain. As I approached the newly-made campfire, a few confused faces noticed the lack of swim bag and towels. Midway through my workout the night before, as I thought about what would come with the following morning, the cold, damp, shivering sandy wetness that accompanies most Seattle swims, I decided I’d remain warm and dry on the beach. Only if the sun came out and a compelling reason presented itself would I swim. I needed a day off, a mental health day.

So I waved my friends off as they left on their swim in the cold, rough water. Then followed them with cameras. Then discovered that when they reached their turn-around point they’d see a wall-full of anemone. A few minutes later, Lisa shouted up from the water below, the wall was covered in starfish. Melissa, Guila, and Maria all said the same.

Then the sun came out. I’m glad I keep my swim bag in the car. The starfish were gorgeous, as always.

Different strokes

Friday evening, in that brief period just after quitting time and just before the weekend begins, I attend my one organized swim practice of the week. Coach, team, the whole shebang. This week, it so happened we were given a set I’ve come to dread. It was a set that wasn’t all freestyle. Gulp.

In a past life, I was all about the IM and fancied myself a decent butterfly-er. Now, frequently pool-less, I am not and do not. But the four strokes still do have their time and place, which is something I need to remind myself every time I am encouraged to do different strokes at practice.

Here they are, in reverse IM order:

Freestyle: Specifically, front crawl. This is what one does when one wants to go someplace. Unless you are in absolutely no rush to get anywhere, or your name is Vicki or Sylvain, freestyle.

Breaststroke: aka breastroke. Want to see where your headed? Swimming through something nasty and don’t want your face in it? Just need to shake out those legs a bit? Then breaststroke is for you. If you’re at all like me, you certainly do not chose this stroke because you are trying to get somewhere quickly. It is best left for when trying to spot the next orange dot or silhouetted tree through foggy goggles.

Backstroke: The only acceptable time to swim on your back is when you are swimming under a bridge. At practice on Friday, after seventy-five yards of facing wrong-side-up, all I could think was; this set is stupid, no bridge is one hundred yards wide. As a bonus, admiring the skyward girders and trusses means you’ll miss those gloomy subaqueous shadows that reside beneath bridges.

Butterfly: Want to show off a little? Butterfly is a great way to do it. Yeah, I just swam 10k…and I can still do this!

Again today, I was subjected to an IM set. It was not hard and we never had to do more than twenty-five yards of any one stroke at a time. It gave me time to reflect. Maybe mixing it up every so often has its benefits, like getting my two arms back in sync while and working a few neglected muscles. But at what cost? Most of the time I’d rather just get through my workout and on to waffles.

Birthday swim

I have an embarrassing and…given the image I try to maintain…shameful secret. It needs to get out in the open so I can start the recovery process.

Here it is: as of a month ago, I had NEVER been skinny dipping.

Stop your judgment right there, mister. I’ve already said I’m not proud of this. Looking back at my life it is easy to see how it happened; trips to the beach were mostly family related, and every pool I’ve had access to frowns on that sort of behavior during lap swim. But this is no excuse. Add in sad fact that back in my early teens I lost the ability to do “just for fun” swimming, the idea of swimming in birthday attire never registered as sensible. But again, I’m through making excuses.

To further inhibit more recently contemplated attempts, the water at my local beach is super clear. Oh, and super cold. Super cold and super clear are not the conditions I want when I unexpectedly bumped into a fellow swimmer.

The good news is, this all ended a month ago. Thanks to the Suzie Dods 24-hour SERC-a-thon in San Francisco at the beginning of February, I found my first real opportunity. In brief, the SD24hSERCat1 was a 24-hour team relay held in Aquatic Park, San Francisco Bay, a sheltered cove sandwiched between Crissy Field and Fisherman’s Wharf occuring between 9am on 8 February and 9 February 2014. Unlike the Puget Sound, the Bay is turbid, with visibility just past the finger tips. It rained the whole time.

My first shift after sundown came around 8:30pm, at a time when the idea of again jumping in the 51 degree water still seemed like a fun idea. I’d just returned from having a drink with a few friends coincidentally visiting town that weekend, and rushed in to the South End Rowing Club to get ready for my turn in the water. Still debating whether or not this was a good idea, I put in my ear plugs, donned two swim caps, wrapped a towel around me to deck change, and part way through the process grabbed my goggles and walked out the door into the rain. When my teammate came ashore, I walked to the far side of the beach, about one hundred feet from where our rugged support team kept a vigilant watch despite the weather, tied my towel to the Dolphin Club dock, and dove in.

In my mind, it was subtle and stealthy. If it wasn’t, nobody has mentioned it to me yet.

Two loops of Aquatic Park, a mile and a half later, I came ashore, grabbed my towel, and headed to the sauna.

Here’s what I learned:

  • The cold takes over as it always does. As usual, there was nothing sexy about my first few minutes in the water – just the same old self-control and instinct-repression I’ve become so familiar with in Seattle.
  • After that, it is just swimming. I still dealt with the same mental issues as in every other swim that weekend, the same swimming-related issues, and the same personal issues that the sensory deprivation of swimming is so good at letting me dwell on. There wasn’t anything different.
  • When a kayaker shines a flashlight at you, consider using modesty.
  • People are usually too busy to notice what you’re doing. If you don’t make a big fuss, you’ll get away with a lot. (Turns out public nudity was banned in San Francisco a year prior to this event.)
  • If you are with the right group of people, no one really cares what you are wearing.

And now that I’m an experienced veteran at skinny dipping, did someone say Solstice Swim?

 


1 I don’t think we ever came up with an official title.

The benefit of being regular

On Saturdays, my typical morning routine is to swim off Alki Beach at 9:30am, followed by a warm-up period in Tully’s, followed by an additional drink or two at Celtic Swell one block over. It is planned, it is prescribed, it is predictable, it is other synonymous ‘P’ adjectives.

The benefits of being a regular at a commercial establishment are readily apparent. For example when I get my post-swim beverages, both hot and cold. Like anyone who frequents a café, pub, or otherwise, I can count on a friendly smile awaiting me when I walk in shivering, a welcome respite from the cold impersonality that trails the new guy in a big city. Being this type of regular also comes with a free drink every now and then, an added bonus.

But that type of regularity, the Regular Patron, is not the only type of regularity. A big part of my Saturday routine has been a practiced effort to make my routine a routine. To arrive at a given time and, more importantly, to finish swimming at a certain time. To establish one time each week when everyone knows there will be at least one other person swimming at the beach. Whereas the Regular Patron comes wanting, the Regular Swimmer comes to share.

One of the best things about CIBBOWS, the open-water swim group that calls home Grimaldo’s Chair at the end of Brighton 4th Street in Brooklyn, is their well-rehearsed predictability and dependability. Throughout the year, and especially in the summer and especially on Saturdays, a group of swimmers will be at the beach from around 9am on through the early evening. Without fail. There is no need to call ahead; you just know there is always someone there.

When I swam with CIBBOWS, I always intended to meet them at 10am for a swim. I wanted to be a Regular. The train ride from the Upper East Side was over 90 minutes and more often than not a late night or a hangover or both precluded me from arriving as planned. I was not the predictable one of the group for sure, often arriving around 1pm just as most people were packing up. But that was fine, I could depend on the rest of the group to hold down the tradition on which I depended; I’d just arrive when I could, do a short swim, and then eat everyone’s left-over snacks.

Upon arriving in Seattle, no such group existed. It wasn’t long before I found a small network of swimmers willing to join me in the always chilly waters and often inclement weather of the Pacific Northwest winter, but every meeting required a plan: time, place, directions, guest list, warm-up spot, transportation. Fun for us, but certainly not great for the part of me that wanted to sleep in an irresponsibly show up mid-afternoon, and not great for getting those unsure and unfamiliar to drop in.

It is now over a year later and we’ve grown. We’ve picked a time and place. Every Saturday, we say, someone will be at Alki Bathhouse at 9:30. An average swimmer will be in the water for a half-hour, and will then head to Tully’s to warm up, we say. And we advertise this. When someone asks, “Will you be cancelling this weekend because of [holiday/weather/Seahawks]?” we’re quick to remind everyone that Of Course we will be there at 9:30am, independent of time, temperature, and teams. We’re always there at 9:30am. Always. And this is working.

As of this weekend, we’ve expanded our formerly invite-only swim group to an ad-hoc, make-it-if-you-can group of eleven plus, shivering on the beach on Saturdays! Local residents have taken note of the unusually large numbers of regular swimmers in the water. Our fireside chats at Tully’s are taking over a larger and larger portion of the café. And this is only February!

The benefit of being the Regular Swimmer is that other people become regulars.

Now, my new goal is to meet someone at the beach who arrived for a swim at 1pm because she knew a group would still be there hanging out after their regular 9:30am swim. And maybe someday, I can be that person again.

What lies beyond the buoys

What they don’t understand,

those people who wander by while I’m undressing on a frosty morning,
or those people who watch me struggling to dress, shivering and covered in seaweed,
or those people who are my mother,

those people who ask:
Don’t you swim with a group?
Is the water too deep to touch bottom?
Do you get bored?
What if you get cold?

What they don’t understand, is

if you follow a path, you’ll end up where the path takes you;
if you hang with the pack, you’ll end up in the pack;
and if you find it unthinkable to swim at night by yourself right after eating in chilly water during a storm, you may just as well stay inside the buoys.

But there is a whole lot to see outside the guarded swim area, so maybe I should just let you look away while I quietly slip beneath the rope, where lies every place worth swimming to. Join me, or don’t.

The Ka Lae method for doing difficult things

[Originally published in Please Tap on the Glass at USMS Blogs on 24 June 2013.]

Years ago, I stood on the cliffs of Ka Lae looking south, out over the Pacific Ocean. Or rather, looking down at the Pacific Ocean. The rocky ledges at South Point, Hawai’i, are a great spot for cliff jumping if you can handle the rough, current-laden water below, and if you can work up the courage to send yourself flying off the edge of a cliff. Standing there at that point, I possessed at least one of the two.

As a swimmer (not even an open water swimmer, at the time), an expansive ocean, some big rollers, and unfathomably deep water didn’t scare me. Looking down, my thoughts were the same as they always are when I look at a body of water: “I want to swim in that.” I take this for granted, my absence of fear in swimming-related matters, my sense of invulnerability about the water. If there was any thought of perishing once I was in that water below, I wouldn’t be standing there with my toes curled over the edge, oh no.

So there I stood, toes curled over the edge, staring down at that clear blue water telling my legs to jump. 1, 2, 3, and…4.

1. 2. 3. Hmm.

Logically, there was nothing bad about this idea. No drowning to worry about. No rocks in the water to watch out for. No rocks on the cliff to avoid. And I’ve refined my cliff jumping skills since that first experience/injury at America’s Most Dangerous Water Park, so no worries there. Despite rationalizing the risk and assessing the cost (nearly zero) against the benefit (greater than zero), it wasn’t happening. Jumping off a giant cliff into a huge ocean was irrationally terrifying!

So I turned around and took a few steps away from the edge of the cliff. The equivalent of four big steps. Looking back at the cliff from my new vantage, the “down there” no longer visible, the fear of the fall subsided. It was just me, the wind, and the ocean on the horizon, and the thought of what I wanted to do. 1, 2, 3. That’s not me counting, that’s the sound of my bare feet pounding the sandstone ground, heading for the edge, too much momentum to stop. 4.

Over the next few years, I found myself doing the same thing in other places. Here’s a picture of me jumping into the cold, cold Hudson on Christmas Eve. Ah, here’s me jumping into the pool at 6:30am for the fourth day that week. It’s mostly pictures of me physically jumping. Oh, here’s one of my moving to London with just a duffel bag.

Somewhere along the way, I discovered metaphorical jumping. The rules are the same:

  1. Be sure jumping won’t kill you.
  2. Know how to swim.
  3. Full speed ahead.

Over the past few months, the planning of my Juan de Fuca swim would stall; knowing that certain parts would be hard, I’d push them aside and then days later pick up the phone and run at the challenge full speed ahead. That’s how I got my WA driver’s license: woke up one morning after stalling for months and went straight to the DMV before even having breakfast.

In chemistry, there’s the activation energy of a reaction. In physics, you’ve got your static coefficient of friction. Life just a bit of that, plus some selective blindness.

And if that doesn’t work, may I be there to give you a good shove?