Thursday, May 21, 2009

Endless Pool

You can buy something called an "Endless Pool" and put it in your backyard, or even your basement. It is essentially a treadmill for swimming: You crank it up, and stroke, stroke, stroke, but never get anywhere. If you get tired, you just stand up, grab your towel and go grab a beer. I've never tried swimming in one, but I've always been intrigued.

I wasn't thinking about Endless Pools when I planned my race season. One of the races that caught my eye was Rocketts Landing, a new race in downtown Richmond. It is an "Olympic Distance" triathlon, which means that the first part, the swim, is 1500 meters. This particular swim, according to the race website, would consist of swimming upstream 800 meters, rounding a small island, and swimming across and down current to an exit further upstream than the exit.

That all sounded fine in January, when I figured I'd have plenty of time in the lazy ole river before race day. Also, I figured it would be really good practice for my half ironman, which will include a swim of 1.2 miles, which equates to 1931 meters. If I can swim 1500 meters in Open Water in May, then surely I can swim 1931 meters in Open Water in September. This race would give me confidence, I figured. So I signed up.

And then it started raining. And raining. And raining, and raining. All this rain is great for the grass and flowers, but it has made the James River, which passes through Richmond and Rocketts Landing, fast and furious. I had signed up for a series of "practice swims" in the James River. I received one after another cancellation notices about these swims:

"We're sorry, the swim is cancelled because we fear for the safety of the swimmers, who might be swept away in the strong current."

"We're sorry, but we can't do the swim practice because there is a lot of floating debris and we fear one of the swimmers may be bonked on the head with a floating tree."

"We're sorry, we'd like to take you out on the river, but the law will not permit us to do so because the water level is so high."

Then someone got smart and read the law more carefully and discovered a loophole. Turns out, the law will permit you to swim when the river is high if you are wearing a "personal floatation device." We were offered the opportunity to buy such a device, and invited to come out for a swim last Wednesday, less than a week before Rocketts Landing. I was expecting water wings, and figured they might keep me afloat, so I ventured to the river. But when I arrived at the river's edge I was given a belt from which hung a rip cord. Apparently, the personal flotation device was to be deployed only if needed.

Twenty five brave soles donned our PFDs, now legally permitted to swim in the raging river. Permitted, perhaps, to be swept away or bonked on the head by floating debris. Coach Michael spoke to the group, announcing that we'd be divided into four groups. The first will swim very fast, VO2 max, the second will swim at threshhold speed, the third will simulate race speed around the buoys. Group assignments were given. I held my breath. "The fourth group," Michael said, "is what I call the 'Comfort Group.'" I raised my hand wildly, "Pick me!" "There are only three spots for this group," said Coach Michael, with a devious gleam in his eye. "If you want to join the Comfort Group, please meet by the tree." Four of us sprinted to the tree. Thankfully, he relented on the three-person cap, and we got ready to be "comfortable" with open water swimming. We got in and attempted to tread water for a moment. This was when the "sweeping away" occurred. We started upriver from the dock, and quickly found ourselves downriver. For the next half hour, though, Coach Michael patiently got us more comfortable with the raging river.

Then he suggested as a finale that we all swim around the buoy placed 50 meters from the shore. So, it was a swim of 100 meters, 1/15th of what I would attempt later that week. I remembered why I was doing all of this, and the struggles cancer patients go through, and I knew I had to do it. I went for it, and got caught in the current. I began to panic, and to hyperventilate. I turned over on my back to catch my breath, and was swept even further downstream. So then I began to swim back, quickly, and more panic and dizzyness set in. I could not see where I was going.

And then an angel appeared, in the form of Emily, on a kayak. I held on, and she talked to me soothingly, and rowed me to the shore, where I stood up and felt the cold mud ooze through my toes. Terra Firma. Well, sorta firma. And no head bonking.

I called it a day, and over the next few days stewed about the Sunday swim. And it rained. And rained. On Saturday, the clouds lifted, and I attended a seminar called "Tackling Your Fear of Open Water." It had to do with taking deep breaths, and envisioning victory. I saw Coach Steve and Coach Dave, both of whom coach me in swimming. They assured me that I could do the swim, though it would be hard. Coach Steve, who has been encouraging me to strengthen my "pull," said it would be important for me to focus on that strong pull throughout the swim, and said if I did that, I would be fine. My friend Lee White suggested that the entire Triathlon was really about getting through the first 800 meters of the swim. After that, it would be easy swimming to the shore, followed by a fabulous bike ride and run. The bike ride was the same length as the Duathlon Nationals, which I had completed three weeks before, but the Du Nationals bike course was much tougher, with more hills and turns. I began to relax and to believe in myself. "I can do this!"

The next morning, at 2:00 AM, thunder struck, and I looked out of the window to see a huge storm. By the time the alarm went off at 4:00 AM, though, it was merely sprinkling. I made my way to the race site, where I set up my transition area. I placed Ariel on the rack and put a towel down next to her. On the towel, I put my bike shoes, running shoes, socks, helmet, sunglasses and race belt, all of which I would need after the swim. I made my way to "body marking," where a woman wrote my race number on my arms and thighs and my age on my calf. I found Holly and we ventured down to the river to plan our swim strategy.

I looked at the river, and it hit me. This was an Endless Pool, except there was no opportunity to stand up and grab a beer! I shared this thought with Holly, who reminded me that after the swim, bike and run, we could have a beer. I took some deep breaths. After consulting with various swimming experts, including Coach Dave, we decided we'd have to swim toward the opposite shore and make our way up the edge of the river, where the current might be bearable.
The swimmers were divided into three waves. In the first wave, men under 40 would swim. Three minutes later, older men would start the swim. Finally, all ladies would start. The younger men were preparing to race, when an announcement was made. The swim was being changed because of the strong current. Instead of 1500 meters, including 800 meters upstream, the swim would consist of only 300 meters, basically going a little upstream, and then across the river, and back. People discussed new strategies. As the young men prepared to enter the water, the sky opened up and a deluge began. The men jumped in and began to swim. The river was an Endless Pool! A few strong swimmers rounded the buoys as required, but the vast majority were not strong enough to fight the river's current. Some grabbed onto kayaks, as I had done just a few days earlier. Others floated downstream, where they were rescued by a speedboat. The race director announced an end of the swim.

And just like that, the competition was a Duathlon. Instead of the swim, we would start with a two-mile run, and then do the 25 mile bike and 10K run as planned. Back at transition, everything was soaked. Fortunately, I had some extra socks, so I prepared for the race. Some people began to panic about the rain and how it would make the bike ride difficult. I had not thought of that. My friend Beth, who had planned to do the Duathlon at this race all along, told me she was leaving because she didn't want to ride in the rain. I sprayed my glasses with swim goggle de-fogger and resolved to go on.

As it turns out, it isn't easy riding a bike in a storm. And, ironically, Ariel does not like a Tempest. This particular tempest brought not only rain, but also howling winds, which buffeted Ariel back and forth on the road. I had to try mightily sometimes to keep from crossing the double yellow line (a two minute penalty) and to keep control of Ariel. I gripped her tightly. She greeted this treatment with stony silence. And there were no complaints when I took the downhills cautiously. The course included one huge downhill, followed immediately by a right hand turn. Normally you would want to fly down the hill to gain speed, but I feared a wipe out, so I proceeded at a granny's pace. Still, the volunteer at the corner urged me to slow down more. "Slick corner!" she shouted. I learned later than many of the faster cyclists wiped out at this corner. But I cautiously proceeded. All in all it was a great ride, but it was rather lonely because I was by myself with the exception of Ariel, who was quiet as a mouse.

After the bike was a 10K run, which included parts of the canal walk and flood wall-really a beautiful run, with some challenging steps and a big hill in the midst. My run time was a little slower than my recent 10Ks, as would be expected following the long bike. In the end, my total time for the race was 3 hours 18 minutes, and some seconds. Another step toward my ultimate goal of the Half Ironman, and toward the goal of helping to cure cancer!