Monday, June 29, 2009

The Holy Grail

I raced another triathlon involving a river swim this past Sunday. As I mentioned in my "Endless Pool" blog, the James River is swollen this year. The triathlon featured in "Endless Pool" included a swim in the river, but when the first wave of young men largely failed to swim around the buoys, the swim was cancelled.

This past Sunday's race included a planned swim of 750 meters, consisting of 450 meters upstream, followed by about 300 meters downstream to an exit. (The exit dock was further upstream than the entrance dock.)

I wore a white cap, a symbol that I was racing in the fourth wave. The first wave were younger men, the second, older men, the third, younger women, and the fourth, older women and relay participants. We were supposed to start at 7 am, but the start was delayed. Soon, the race director announced that because of the strong current, the race would be shortened. We were to swim just a short distance up from the exit dock and then get out. The whole race would be only about 300 or 350 meters. The race director described this as a "gift." Someone who had done a practice swim remarked, "a gift! It will be really hard just to go that far."

I was afraid, but I was determined. You will recall that early on, I told you I had mastered the Superman float. I am completely comfortable in the pool, but I am as slow as Christmas. I have been working on getting fast. One thing I have done to improve my time is to purchase a Superman costume. You can see it in the photographs included in this blog. Don't I look fast?
Well, I had noticed that wearing the Superman Costume made me feel faster. Or at least it made me float better. But what would make me faster in the raging James River?

At the start of the swim, I had the advantage of seeing three waves go out before me. The young, yellow capped men got in and awaited the gun. Some were treading water, and they were swept swiftly downstream. They began to swim, deparately, even before the gun went off, just to maintain their positions. Bang! The older men got in and began their swim, and yellow and red caps mixed together, with many men unable to make any progress at all. Endless Pool!

My friend Steve (one of my "comfort" buddies from Endorphin Fitness open water swims) came out of the water before the ladies began, and said the current was too strong! My other two comfort buddies were Lenora, who was doing the bike segment of a relay on this day, and Holly, who was nearby. I looked at Holly and my other friends. Everyone seemed to have the same look of fear in her eyes that I felt in my heart.

The race director said, confusingly, "even if you don't finish the swim, you can still ride the bike and do the run." What did this mean? Should we not attempt the swim?

My husband Steve recently remarked that most of my training partners are in their 20s. Although this is not entirely fair, I realized when looking at my purple capped girlfriends that they are mostly in their 20s or 30s. To get a white head in this race, you had to be over 40. Susan Ann said to the group, "I guess I'm the only old lady with a white cap." I pointed to my head and said, "Let's stick together, old lady!"

Susan Ann began to panic as she watched people making no progress. Susan just finished a century ride, so she's been cycling non-stop and doing relatively little swimming of late. I said, "Listen I need this as much as you do. We're going to focus on getting to the first buoy. Just head for the first buoy."

"That's less than halfway through the race. What then?" she said.

I said, "we worry about that later. Just focus on the first buoy."

We watched the purple caps go off, and I said, "Susan, let's not get in till the gun goes off." And let's go off to the left here, near the shore, so we don't get swept down." Just before the gun, Susan Ann jumped in. I waited, and let the gun go off and allowed some space to emerge between me and the last swimmers. Then I jumped in, off the left hand side of the dock, and began swimming. I was starting at the very end of the pack. Every train needs a caboose. And today, in my Superman costume, I was the red caboose.

And the swim was hard. Fortunately, I naturally breath to my left, so every other stroke, I could see the shore. Essentially, I was trying to get farther and farther up the shore. It was a struggle! I began to calculate that I had to stroke about 40 times to get 10 yards. I tried to did deep and pull hard. Every once in a while, I would sight the orange buoy ahead. It took forever, but I got to the orange buoy. Yeah!

I kept going. Once I passed the orange buoy, the current seemed to get stronger. It took much more effort, and more strokes, to make any progress. I tried to remember to pull hard on each stroke. Now my target was a yellow buoy, and I would need to swim around it and then go to the shore. To see it, I looked up ahead just a bit, before breathing to my left. I was having trouble seeing the yellow turn buoy because there were so many caps of different colors in front of me, including the yellow caps of the young men. Why do they use caps the same color as the buoys? Was it the buoy, or just a boy in yellow?

I swam what felt like 7 minutes past a dock halfway between the start and exit docks, and then I looked up to see where I was going. I was tired, so I turned and did about 10 backstrokes. I turned back over, took a stroke, breathed, and noticed I was all the way back at the middle dock! Seven minutes of progress, GONE. poof.

I thought of the scene in Monty Python in the Holy Grail in which King Arthur rode his horse toward a castle. Every time he looked up, the castle was further away. After a few rounds of that, he just rides and suddenly is there. Powered by coconuts, if I recall correctly.

So I just hunkered down and swam, swam, swam, figuring at some point my head would hit the castle wall. I took it on faith that I was going more or less straight. It was exhausting. I saw a kayaker on my left as I breathed, and asked him if I could hang on and rest. You are allowed to hold onto a kayak as long as the kayaker does not make forward progress or otherwise help you. I held onto the nose of the kayak for about a minute, and said, breathlessly, to the kayaker, "I can't make any progress." He said, "everyone's having trouble; some people are having success with backstroke." I knew that wouldn't work for me, even though the backstroke was the one event for which I would get 5th place ribbons, instead of 6th place ribbons, when I was on the swim team at age 9. (There being only 6 possible ribbons to be awarded in each heat.)

But the rest on the kayak helped return my energy, and I got a good look at the turn bouy. As I sat there, I thought for a minute that I might not have the energy to bike or run, but then I reflected that I had ridden the bike course twice in the last month, and that I could come out any day and run through the trails. I decided then that maybe I wouldn't have energy to do anything but swim, but I wanted to finish the swim. So I took a deep breath, thanked the kayaker and took off as strongly as I could muster.

I practiced some of the drills that emphasize a strong pull--Superman is one. I was wearing the Superman costume, and I stroked like Superman. It seemed to help. Superman goes fast, it appears, because of hard work. It's not just the trick photography.

When I got to 25 yards of the turn buoy, I noticed a kayaker on the other side of the buoy. I looked up again, and the buoy was further than it had been. I stroked another 10 strokes and looked up and was even farther away from the buoy. Was the kayaker being a jerk, dragging the buoy upstream? Was he some sort of sadist turned loose on the triathlete community? Then I realized the current was just really strong; he and the buoy were staying still, but I was going backwards. So I really hunkered down and pulled like there was no tomorrow, like I was doing a sprint swim. I finally got to the buoy and grabbed it. The rope on it went taut and my arms were dead. I yanked on the buoy and tried to somersault over it. The kayaker, no doubt fearing I would take out the buoy, said. "You did it, you don't need to go around. It's too hard." I looked at him and wondered if he was telling me to pack it in. He said, "no, no, you are good. You did it! Swim to the dock." I muttered a thanks and swam toward the dock, trying to shoot upstream from it to account for the drift. But I did not sight enough, and when I looked up I was downstream from the dock. I swam back upstream toward the dock, but thankfully this was easier to do so much closer to the shore. I got to the ladder and realized the first run was at the surface of the water. I had no strength left to pull up my body. A volunteer gave me his arm and helped hoist me up. When I got out, I breathed deeply. The volunteers shouted, "don't run too fast, it's slippery." "Not an issue," I replied. I walked back to transition, catching my breath--I couldn't run for anything. And as I came through the trees, I heard the announcer on the PA system:

"And here comes number 404, our last swimmer out, Amy Williams." I thought, "what? The last swimmer?" I was sure there were people still out there after me. As I came into transition, they announced, "and here's the leader coming in from the bike!" Sure enough, the race leader came screaming to the chip mat at the same time I did. I stepped aside so I wouldn't break his pace. And then Michael Harlow of Endorphin Fitness came into transition too. I had to laugh--they were 18.8 miles ahead of me! The last swimmer. That was a bit deflating, but I had done it.

I entered transition, wiped off my feet, put on my helmet and shoes and slowly made my way out of transition with Ariel. The race leader and Michael Harlow were gone on their run.

As I mounted the bike and began, I realized that my shoulders were tight as a ball. I was so tired that I think I crawled along the bike course. Ariel sensed that I was in no shape to be bothered with her banter, so she was silent as we dragged along.

The bike course was an out and back, and it featured a humongous hill just before the turnaround. As I approached the big hill, I realized that I did not have the energy to cycle up. I would have fallen, I think. I didn't think I could take the pain and humiliation, so I opted for humiliation alone. I unclipped from my pedals and got off my bike and walked up the hill. At the turnaround, a volunteer said, "Good job, you are halfway done." I said, "I'm a lot further along than that if you count the swim!"

And this notion gave me some energy. I turned around and powered down the big hill.

WHEEE! shouted Ariel. Or maybe I was squealing for joy. Now it was getting fun. WHEEE!!! I noticed some bikes coming up the hill as I went down. The riders were all pushing the bikes up the hill. A couple of the bikes were mountain bikes, heavy, and impossible to get up such a large incline without pushing from the ground.

As I continued back to the transition, I passed an exhausted friend and a couple more mountain bikers. I got back to transition and started on the run. I enjoyed the run, because by then it really didn't matter what my time was, it was just a pretty run through the park. I believe it might have been the slowest I've done on a 5k, but it didn't really matter. I had done it!

At the finish, the volunteer who took my chip from me asked, "did you finish the swim?"

I was confused why she asked me this. "Yes," I replied. Why did she ask?

I found some friends and learned why she asked. Most of my friends did not finish the swim. Some got out almost immediately when they realized they were not making forward progress. One friend got to the exit dock and realized she had to swim a bit further, and just couldn't get there. Those last 25 meters had been the hardest. Holly (my other "comfort" buddy) wanted to finish, but when the time was almost up she was closer to the middle dock than the exit dock, so they told her she had to get out.

Suddenly my "last swimmer to finish" designation was not so lame. I had FINISHED. Nevermind that it took me 45 minutes and 46 seconds to swim 300 or so meters, a distance I can cover in the pool in less than 9 minutes. I am victorious! I am Superman! One further step toward a cure for cancer.

My time was as follows:

Swim 45:46
T1: 3:22
Bike: 1:17:17
T2: 2:23
Run: 37:38
Total Time: 2:46:24

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