Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cable Swim

One thing that petrifies me about the Ironman 70.3 is the 1.2 mile swim in the Savannah River. To finish the overall race within the time limit, I need to complete the swim in less than an hour. After all this hard work training in my quest to help cure cancer, it would be humiliating to have my official Ironman 70.3 race result be "DNF," which stands for Did Not Finish. That sounds like shorthand for "After all this Work, She Quit," but it also can mean "She Did Not Finish in Time Because She's as Slow as Christmas!" I can swim 1.2 miles in a pool within the time limit, but this swim is in the river, where I might panic.

My TNT teammates Holly and Amanda were also worried about panic in the river, so we decided to sign up for a swimming race called a "cable swim." There were two options for the cable swim--one mile or two miles. I had never swum 2 miles all at once in my life. Neither had Holly or Amanda. So we signed up for the two-mile race.

We arrived at the lake the morning of the race and realized that we were triathletes--dabblers in swimming, cycling and running. Jacks of all trades, masters of none. And the others on that beach were Expert Swimmers. They swim for miles and miles every day and had spent years working as lifeguards. Everyone's legs were shaved, though half the crowd were men. Some wore what appeared to me to be wetsuits, but I was told they were fancy "speed swimsuits." You know, like they were in the Olympics.

We found my friend Elizabeth, who loves to swim, and I mentioned that I was nervous because I had never actually swum two miles. Holly and Amanda said they hadn't either.

"You mean in open water," she said. "You all certainly have swum two miles in a pool. That is just 144 laps."

"Last week I swam a mile continuously in a pool, and that is the longest swim I have done in my life," I replied.

"Oh," she said, quietly. And then, recovering her enthusiasm, brightly, "You will do fine! Good luck!"

About 96 people signed up for the two mile swim. The race director lined us up in accordance with our predicted swim times in groups of 10. The 10 speediest were in wave one. The next ten in wave two, and so on. Elizabeth was in the third or fourth wave, and somewhere in the middle was my friend Virginia, who had just finished the one-mile swim and was back for more fun. Holly, Amanda and I were in wave 10, along with a wrinkly man who appeared to be 95 years old and two women who remarked that they had failed to predict any time at all on their registration forms and thus were being punished by being placed at the end of the pack.

The swimmers started the race in the waves of ten, with ten seconds in between each wave. Someone had buried a 1/4 mile cable at the bottom of the lake, and a rope with floats on it was affixed. The race consisted of swimming down one side of the cable, back on the other side, to complete 1/2 mile, and then repeating that circle three more times, for two miles. After all the other waves were off, we started our race. I put my head down and concentrated on getting into a rhythm. The faster swimmers had already rounded the far end of the lake and were coming back on the other side of the cable. As I passed them, it felt like someone was going by on a jet ski--the once still lake kicked up a mighty wake. I made sure not to drink the spray created by the fast swimmers' kick. Before I rounded the end of the cable, those same speedy swimmers passed me! And then I felt like I was in Grand Central Station, and all of Manhattan was late for a train. Little groups of two and three swimmers would pass me, all in a knot, apparently vying amongst themselves for a coveted place in the race. After each knot passed, the waters would calm, and I could get back in my rhythm.

As I rounded the cable the second time, to complete the first mile, there was a loud cheer. Was this support for my effort so far? Then I realized that the winners were zooming past me to the finish! I had to chuckle as I started the second half of my race. Amanda had passed me somewhere along the way, and I could see her 100 yards or so ahead of me at each turn. Her cap had slipped up on her head and poofed above it, like a chef's cap. Holly was somewhere very close behind me. The other gals in our wave were long gone, and I couldn't spy Wrinkly Man anywhere.

As I began the last part of my third lap, I realized that my shoulders were very tired and were getting stiff. I decided I should slow my pace a little to shake out my shoulders. As I did so, my right calf cramped up. It was excruciating! I grabbed the rope atop the cable, and thankfully it held up. I hung onto it with my left hand as I used my right hand to massage my leg. The cramp subsided some, but not completely. Would I be able to finish the swim? I looked around and noticed a rescue boat. I was not in danger of drowning--if I wanted to do so I could flag down the boat and be dragged back to shore.

But I did not want a "DNF," especially one that meant "After all this Work, She Quit." So I began to swim again. I experimented with not kicking with my right leg versus kicking normally and kicking like an unbroken horse. Finally I found that if I kicked normally, but flexed my foot up toward my shin from time to time, I did fine. Not the most efficient kick, mind you, but at least I didn't have to stop. So I concentrated on pulling with my arms. And soon, I was finished with the third lap, and I decided to go for the final lap.

After rounding the far end of the cable for the final time, I noticed Holly, catching up to me. We swam side by side as we finished the last lap. At some point, I thought she was trying to draft off me and we collided. Finally, we came within 150 yards of the finish shoot, and simultaneously we began to sprint. I heard friends cheering as we crossed the finish line almost in tandem.

I did it. I finished in 1 hour and 35 minutes, as did Holly. Amanda finished in 1:29, and would have gone faster, but during her final sprint her chef's hat/swim cap fell off. Virginia beat all three of us, despite having swum three miles in total that day. And speedy Elizabeth finished in 55:41. I looked up Wrinkly Man and it turns out he's only 87 years old. He finished the swim in 1 hour and 19 minutes. Maybe if I keep swimming for another fourty years, I can beat his record! And at the end of September, swimming 1.2 miles in the Savannah River should be a piece of cake!