September 7, 2009

open water

swimmers emerge

dudes, I am a superstar. this morning, with no prior training, I leapt into the Columbia River from the tail end of a sternwheeler, and swam a mile to the Oregon shore. a few things about this swim:

because I have done no swimming whatsoever in the last year, with the exception of a long chatty paddle through the warm Pacific waters off the coast of Oahu, I opted to rent a wetsuit. the water today was a balmy 71 degrees, but I wanted the wetsuit primarily because a good one will help you stay afloat. floating is good. sinking is bad. the average water depth in Hood River is 60 feet. no thanks.

an unintended side effect of the wetsuit was looking like Mystique. observe:





hard to tell the difference between us, I know.

no, but seriously, I really lucked out in the gear department. Cristina let me borrow a real swim suit (as opposed to the 2349 bikinis in my collection). the wetsuit fit perfectly and worked so well -- I didn't notice the extra buoyancy until I tried to swim completely underwater and discovered I couldn't keep my legs below the surface. and even my $12 goggles were PERFECT -- stayed on my face during the 7' jump from the boat, never leaked, and never fogged. freaking amazing.

flailing about
so, here's the thing: I am a pretty good swimmer in the sense that, you know, I can mostly keep myself afloat. I have strong legs and a good survival instinct. at the ocean, I can hold my own in the waves. I used to be a lifeguard, although frankly I swam more as a kid than I ever did as a lifeguard. but I did pass the lifeguard test (also with no training).

however, I am not a pretty swimmer. technique has never been a focal point. as a young child I was terrified of getting my head wet, and flunked a level in swim classes three times before they finally let me move on. I never got farther in swimming lessons than learning to keep myself afloat. I taught myself how to dive, and I nearly made my college roommate choke to death in the pool one afternoon when I showed off my butterfly. even the lifeguard laughed.

when you're swimming a mile, it turns out technique is kind of helpful. like, for not drowning. I did fine but boy, it would have been nice if I could have performed a stroke other than the breaststroke for more than 4 or 5 arm rotations. I have a pretty strong backstroke, but when you're in the water with 500 other swimmers and umpteen boats, and when you're actually aiming for a point offshore with no guidepost but a cloud formation, the backstroke is really not encouraged.

so I just resigned myself to flailing along in various strokes -- and by strokes, I mean poor imitations thereof -- for an entire mile. the thing I found especially humorous about the whole situation was that a number of people made assumptions about my swimming ability based solely on looks. "I bet you could swim this in ten minutes," one bystander said to me. another asked me the average temperature of the water, as if I were the kind of person to know. (I did know, actually). I kept the truth to myself: dudes, I am a runner. I am not a swimmer. watch me flail.

one mile
a mile.

one mile is really freaking far.

crossing the columbia
hey, I did it. I didn't need to pull up a paddleboard and rest; I didn't even need to take a nap afterward. I may even escape without soreness. it turns out that swimming a mile is hard, but doable. the triathlon may be in my future now. I've long thought -- as most do, I think -- that the swim would be the scariest of the three events, in part because it's my weakest and in part because, unlike running and biking, if you get tired you can't stop. but I realized today that there's also a certain saving grace in that. regardless of being tired, you have to just keep swimming. as a coworker mentioned in his pep talk to me last week, I am familiar with the task of pushing myself through that awful fatigue. it's easier to do that in a swim because you have no choice. sure, the boats could haul you out, but wouldn't you just rather keep swimming?

I called my mom on my drive back to reassure her that I yet lived. "do you think you'll do it again?" she asked. I told her about the woman in front of me at check-in, who, when asked by the swim volunteer if she was excited, replied, "no way!" and then, when asked why she was participating, replied simply, "it's tradition!" the cross-channel swim celebrated its 67th year this year, and most people on the boat seemed to be returning swimmers. would I do it again? yes. I'm way proud of myself and thrilled to have done it. and, after two years, I'm happy to be finally crossing it off the list.

still alive

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