Thursday, February 4, 2016

Water, Grass, and Grit

I'm back to pool swimming much to my dismay after my last post, but there aren't any open water opportunities in Cleveland in the winter. I've been logging as many days of swimming as possible while still working on my art and doing contract work in programming. I've also been running and biking (indoors) because old habits refuse to die. Frankly, sometimes, my mind just needs to get out and run. Fortunately, during my runs, I've been finding random natural things in the Cuyahoga Valley to use in printmaking. It must look silly to people driving by as I'm running along with handfuls of dry grass and twigs trying not to break them.

My playlist lately centers around one album: Turin Brakes new release called Lost Property. In fact, even when I don't want to run, this album gets me out the door with my headphones. Because it sounds so great with headphones.

As for my printmaking... I've been trying my hand at collagraphs. It started with printing things I found while running in the valley and then I decided to try printing water, or, more precisely, the effects of water. These are all artistic experiments at the moment. I glued my found natural objects to cardboard or matboard plates and made water patterns on plastic or primed cardboard plates using sand and carborundum grit (and water, obviously). I've had a little success - but each one is more of a learning experience than a finished piece. Now there are an infinite number of things I want to try using grit to hold ink and there doesn't seem to be enough time in a day. But, for kicks, here are my favorites of the collagraph prints I've done so far - they're all black and white proofs, but soon will be experimenting with color (I hope):








Thursday, January 14, 2016

First Step (Conquering a Fear)

Last Saturday, I decided to attempt my first real solo open water swim - from La Jolla Cove to La Jolla Shores in southern California.

It wasn't significant because of the distance. It was a mile - a distance I've swum many times in the past, in many bodies of water.

It wasn't significant because it was open water. I've swum many open water swims before - in triathlon races and in triathlon training.

It wasn't significant because it was in the ocean. I've swum in oceans all over - the atlantic coast, the gulf coast, the pacific coast, the Hawaii coast.

It wasn't significant because the water temperature was 57 degrees F. If you read my last blog post, you know I've swum in water more than 10 degrees colder.

It wasn't even significant because of the waves. I've survived swimming in chop so bad that other people drowned the same day.

No. It was significant for ONE reason. I wanted to conquer an irrational fear of swimming alone in the ocean and prove to myself that I would not have an irrational moment of panic.

You see, I grew up in the water. I may have swam before I could walk. My childhood friends called me a fish because I never got out of the pool. On summer days at ocean beaches, I would rebel when my parents dragged me out of the water to eat lunch, or rest, or (God forbid) go home. And I've never been afraid of open water. Well,... except for a little while after I saw Jaws at age 10. During that time, I wouldn't even put my feet in a wading pool lest there be sharks that were somehow transported there (and survived). In my defense, I was 10! And I was not allowed to see scary movies after that.

But, to get back to my story - it's true, swimming in open water, especially the ocean, was something that did not strike fear into my heart as it does many triathletes who stand on the beach in their first ocean swim triathlon. Many times at race starts, I've even found myself talking people through their fear of the ocean and the waves and everything that goes with it. Don't worry, have fun, dive through the waves not over them, try to swim with the swells, and capitalize on the current when you can. But mostly, HAVE FUN.

Because - that's what I always do when I get to swim in the ocean.

But to be fair, I've never really swum in the ocean - or open water for that matter - alone. By myself. I've always been with other people in races or in training groups. If I needed to swim alone, I would parallel the shoreline under the watchful eye of my parents or my husband.

The only time I remember being in open water completely alone, I had a bizarre experience. I was in Utah Lake during the ill-fated inaugural Ironman Utah in 2002. It was my first Ironman. A freak morning windstorm came up and blew swimmers all over the lake - and suddenly I found myself completely alone in the water. When I realized this, I was dumbstruck with panic for about half-a-second. That momentary lapse into fear has never completely left me. Mostly because it baffled me. Seriously, it made no sense whatsoever. I'm one of those people who feels more at ease in water than on land. I even dream about being able to breathe underwater. Why, then, was I so scared?

I've processed this so many times, it's burned into my brain. Was it the cold water? Was it the being alone? Was it the fact that my first Ironman would be a complete fail? What. Was. It? Even weirder, I recovered from it so quickly that the moment became a mere blip on the radar that day. However, lately there's a nagging feeling that somehow, that moment of time would eventually hold me back from the solo open water swimming that I'm hoping to do in the future.

I had to conquer it. Clear and simple. I chose to attempt that in La Jolla last Saturday.

The reason I was there was to meet up with my husband Jim on the tail end of his business trip to San Diego. Before the trip, I told him I wanted to swim in La Jolla Cove because it's a well-known open water training and racing location. So, we booked a the weekend at a hotel only a few miles away.

Saturday morning, I got up and went on a running reconnaissance mission, hoping to find some swimmers at the cove that day that might answer any questions I had. As luck would have it, there was a guy in a full wetsuit just finishing his swim when I got there. I asked him about the water and if he could tell me something about distances. Here's what he told me: the water was about 57 degrees F, lots of people swim in the cove and they swim all day long. He was surprised there were only a few there at the moment, but it could have been due to rough surf. Then he pointed to two tall cylindrical buoys to the left - he called them the A and B targets - and said they were about .25 miles and .45 miles respectively. To the right of them was a round buoy - also at .25 miles - and off in the distance was another stick-like buoy at .75 miles. The far beach past that buoy (La Jolla Shores) was a mile. Here are two photos that Jim took:

This is La Jolla Cove. If you enlarge the photo, you'll see two little
white buoys between the vertical centerline and the left edge of the photo.
Those are the .25 and .75 markers, and the beach is right above them in the
 distance, where the water meets land (to the left of the reddish structure).
Here's a view of La Jolla Cove from the other direction.
La Jolla Shores beach is behind the trees in the front.
My mind was instantly made up. I wanted to swim to the beach, point to point. I decided to run there and scout out a place for Jim to pick me up. On the way back, I saw a lifeguard/fire-rescue guy and asked him about safety. To summarize answers to my questions: it's the ocean, so (1) it's cold, (2) it's rough water and (3) yes, there are sharks "out there" - but there have been no shark attacks in La Jolla. I did a little googling on my phone and found out that in 2015, the beaches were closed after a kayaker had a close encounter with a hammerhead shark. I stopped reading. No Fear.

When I got back, I told Jim my plan. Surprisingly, he didn't even flinch. (I think he's beginning to accept how serious I am about this swimming thing, and, between you and me, I think he's being a saint about letting me drag him to pools and lakes and coves on our trips.) To save space in my luggage, I only packed my wetsuit top, but I wasn't sure I needed it. I saw a guy go in that morning with only a jammer-type suit. We prepped and then drove up to the cove.

The first thing I did was look for other swimmers for final advice. To my relief, there were three swimmers - members of the La Jolla Cove Swim Club - getting ready to swim. They confirmed what I had been told about the distances and the temperature. They also advised me to wear a wetsuit if I wasn't sure about the cold. Then they gave me a quick review of the dangers and told me how to get "out there" (you know, out past the waves without dying):

  • Know the stages of hypothermia. (got it - I told them I had been through those stages once in 2009)
  • Swim out towards the left so that you don't get caught up in the current and smashed to pieces on the rocks to the right.
  • Don't swim too far left because there's another set of rocks there. However, stay close to those.
  • If you have a neoprene cap, wear it. (I didn't. But I had two latex caps and was told to wear them both.)

I noticed they were all putting on swim fins. Did I need fins? The woman said "do you HAVE fins?" like it was a matter of life and death. I said no. They said some people can make it just fine without fins.

Like I needed something ELSE to worry about.

The two men were wearing full wetsuits. The woman was wearing what looked like a neoprene (or thick material) swimsuit and a neoprene cap. After a mental debate, I decided to wear my wetsuit top, only to avoid hypothermia because Jim would be waiting for me at the beach and I'd have no way to contact him if I was going into shock from the cold. I didn't want to ruin our vacation by being stubborn and doing something stupid just to prove a point. Besides, there will be plenty more opportunities for me to tempt hypothermic fate.

The last words I was told by one of the swimmers: "We're spoiled. Once you swim here, you'll never want to go back to pool swimming."

Making our way down to the cove - I'm in the yellow cap.
I walked down to the water with them, and just followed the first one out into the water. It was nothing short of amazing, and actually, surprisingly easy. The waves were not scary - they were fun! I didn't really feel much of a current pulling me to the right, and once I was out in the cove, all I noticed was how great the water felt and how sunny and blue the sky was. I said thanks and goodbye to my new friends and aimed for the beach.

The cold water was a non-issue. This still surprises me as I had once gone swimming in 56-degree water with a wetsuit in the Outer Banks, and I remember it being painfully cold. I expected 57 degrees to feel the same. It makes me wonder if (hope?) I'm starting to get more comfortable in cold water. I reached the .25-mile buoy and signaled to Jim that I was, indeed, good to go and would make my way to our meet-up on the beach.

And then I just swam. And it was good. And there was no panic. None. I even did some backstroke to appreciate the sky.

When I got closer to the beach, I swam into a group of kayakers and waved, and then started to feel the current and the waves pushing me ahead. I was disappointed it ended so soon, but it was time to body-surf my way in. Amusingly, surfing the waves was the only point that I got myself in trouble - I got caught up inside a wave and struggled for few seconds to reorient myself and come up to breathe. It would have been ironic if I made it all the way to the beach and then drowned in standing water.

Yippee!
When I finally stood up on the beach sand, I heard the following (very geeky) thing in my head:
"You've taken your first step into a larger world."
These are the words Obi-wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) speaks to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) following his first lesson in using the Force. It's true - I WILL have a hard time going back to a pool. I'm a salt water animal. My La Jolla swim was the closest to heaven I've ever felt.

Here's the video. I swear the waves on the way out didn't look as big to me as they do in the vid. (Again, I'm the one in the yellow cap.)


Friday, January 1, 2016

Art and Insanity: A Year Ends, Another Begins

2015 ended with some new art and five straight days of swimming (which might be a record for consecutive days of swimming since 1987). 2016 began with a moment of insanity.

The art: I finally got around to executing and printing two collagraphs that were planned sometime in November. The first one is a stalk of grass that I picked up on one of my runs in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Here are the print and the plate:

Winter Grass, (unsigned) collagraph print, December 2015

Un-inked plate for above print.

The second print is more of an experiment, or, perhaps, it's more of a conceptual piece. I want to print water, but that's impossible, so I tried to print water's effect on sand. I put an acrylic plate in a bin water and then added sand, swirled it around, removed the plate and let it dry. Once it was dry, I sprayed it with clear matte spray which sort of acted like an adhesive. I couldn't paint it with acrylic gloss medium because that would have disrupted the sand on the plate. I'm going to try some other methods on larger plates in the future. I think this could be something really awesome... eventually. Or maybe it's already awesome as a sort of conceptual dada piece. Well.. whatever, here are the print and the plate.

Sand and Water, (unsigned) collagraph print

Un-inked plate for above print

The insanity: a bike ride with my great friend Sam in 30 degrees with 20mph headwind followed by a "polar plunge" in Lake Erie. It's been quite balmy on the north coast this winter - not the frozen tundra of years past - so we have no right to complain. Here's the video.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Trial by Ice Water: December Swimming in London

I have several friends in England and find myself journeying there on a regular basis, especially around Christmastime when London streets are festive and brightly lit. This year, my husband Jim and I needed to use the airfare we banked when our trip to Sweden was canceled after my surgery. We chose to use it on a trip to the UK in December.

Besides experiencing the holiday season in London, the other reason for this trip was to see my favorite band, Turin Brakes, play in Liverpool December 4. It was also a reason to visit Liverpool - birthplace of the Beatles - a city we have never been to.

Before the trip, I had been swimming regularly. I didn't want to lose all my swimming fitness while in the UK, so I started researching potential swimming locations. During this research, I learned something I didn't know about British culture.

There are a lot of swimmers. Many of them swim year round. Outdoors.

If I really wanted to "make like a Brit" while in England, I would have to learn how to swim in cold water. How cold? All I knew was that I once saw people swimming without wetsuits in the Serpentine while I was running in Hyde Park in December. Having raced a triathlon there in 2013, I already knew the Serpentine could be frigid even in September. My research also taught me swimming in cold water required acclimating your body over time. Since proper acclimation was not possible, my swimming plans would need modification. I wanted to get a couple real workouts in, but I also wanted at least one attempt to swim in cold water. I would pack my wetsuit just in case I needed it. 

Another thing I learned was that England has recently undergone a sort-of outdoor pool-culture renaissance with the refurbishing of a large number of huge outdoor swimming pools, called "lidos." The "lido culture" was enormously popular in the 1930s, and many of the pools were updated before reopening in the 90s and 00s. Mostly popular in summer, some of the lidos are open all year. A select few of them are even heated. It would be nice - and my plan was - to experience both types while in the UK.

My goal (or hope), then, was to swim in five different locations on this trip. Before we left, I made a list of possibilities. Of course, as both a swimmer and a lover of the sport, I also included the pool built for the 2012 Summer Olympics, located in London's Olympic Park complex (after learning it is open to the public).

On to the trip.

Monday, 7 December was the first day we had no specific plans in London after arriving from Liverpool. After some thought, the location and time available made the Olympic pool the one to do first. It required no acclimation and Jim also viewed it as a tourist destination. We did laundry that afternoon and then headed to the Olympic Park.

The 2012 Olympics took place all over London, but the pool and the stadium complex were in one location, now called Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. When we arrived via the Underground, we were surrounded by shops and restaurants. Walking to the pool, we were surrounded by construction areas with billboards heralding a coming active residential and working community.

The pool building - the London Aquatics Centre - was expectedly grand - it was dark, but we tried to get some photos (below). The cost to swim was £5.20. Swimmers had their choice of the warm-up pool - 50m in length but split into 25m lap swimming - or the competition pool - 50m long by 25m wide by 3m deep, with ten lanes.

Which one would you choose?

The competition pool was quite busy, but not as busy as I expected. (The clerk at the entry DID say they get approximately 20,000 people weekly). There were five or six swimmers per lane with three occupied by a youth swim team and another reserved for a group. The first thing I noticed was the lanes were circle-swimming in the other direction - clockwise. Whoa! So it's not just driving on the left! But after closer inspection, I realized each lane was alternating direction: even lanes were swimming counter-clockwise (here, it's "anti-clockwise"), odd lanes - clockwise. There were marked "slow" lanes and unmarked (fast?) lanes. I wanted to circle-swim clockwise since I've never done that, and Jim told me to get in one of the faster lanes. So I jumped in lane 5 and started swimming. To my surprise, I was one of the faster swimmers in my lane - and in the pool. The swimmers around me were incredibly friendly and polite and slowed down or stopped to let me pass when necessary. It was one of the nicest, cleanest, and fastest pools I ever swam in.

I swam for about 40 minutes - about 2500 meters. I want to note that above the diving well at the far end of the pool were two huge digital pace clocks - not with numbers but with digital clock "hands" - it was all.. just.. so.. state of the art. When I jumped out, I told a fellow swimmer in lane 5 that I was visiting from the USA and would love to dive off the blocks just once. Another swimmer heard me and suggested I do it even thought it was against the rules - he said the lifeguards may yell at me but what's done would be done. They egged me on, so I climbed up on the block and instantly drew a whistle from the lifeguard. I pleaded my case but was denied. Thus endeth my quest for the Olympic starting blocks. (I was also told the pool has never been drained, and it's entirely possible that Michael Phelps' DNA is still floating around in it.)

Pool swim 1 accomplished. Afterwards, I was buzzing for the entire evening. Jim kept asking me what made this pool so great? I guess you'd have to be a swimmer to understand.

Here are a video and some photos that Jim took:




Check out the digital pace clocks!
In there is the warm-up pool, also 50 meters but set up for 25-meter lengths.
Check it!
Michael Phelps might have stood here too.



Diving well
London Aquatics Centre from the outside - looks wavy.
The Olympic stadium.
The next day - Tuesday, 8 December - I set my sights on a second pool. I didn't want Jim to have to spend our entire vacation on a swim search, so I found one near the day's planned events and carried my swim stuff with me. That day, we had a late-morning reservation for the Crime Museum Uncovered at the London Museum. It was a fascinating exhibit of crime history, noteworthy criminal cases, and the Metropolitan police, and by the time we got out, it was well after 2pm. We grabbed a late lunch and hurried to take photos at St. Paul's Cathedral before it got dark.

It was still early, and even though I still planned to swim, we were very close to a pub recommended to us in Liverpool - The Old Bank of England. The interior was beautiful and their menu looked amazing. But I promised myself only one pint, and then we made our way to one of the best-rated outdoor pools in London - the Oasis Sports Centre in Covent Garden. Jim could hang out and/or shop in Covent Garden while I was swimming.

The Oasis Sports Centre was about an eight-minute walk from the pub. It was cold and rainy, and the closer I got to it, the less I wanted to swim. The thing that kept me going was the knowledge that this pool was heated. The Oasis pool cost £5 to swim, and there are TWO pools - one inside and one out. Both were a good size with three lanes each.

I gathered my strength and walked outside in my swimsuit. The outdoor pool - 27.5 meters in length - was busy with four or five people per lane. I noticed swimmers were huddling down in the shallow end to stay warm. When I got in, I understood. It was warm water! I swam laps in the middle lane - they were also alternating circle-swim direction per lane. Again, I was one of the fastest people in the pool. I swam for about 40 minutes and found I was never conscious about the water or air temperature. About halfway through my swim, a new lifeguard came out and started shouting and moving people into different lanes. I got moved to the "fast lane."

Overall, the swimmers in Covent Garden were not nearly as aware of other swimmers' speeds as they were in the Olympic pool. One male swimmer with a horrible stroke refused to back off every time I tried to pass him. He would just clobber me until I could get in front of him. It seemed a bit rude, but everyone was speaking different languages in this pool, so maybe I was having a bit of a culture clash.

Getting out of the water was a shock. The air was in the 50s but it felt frigid - thank heavens for hot showers! I changed quickly, and before I left, I took a quick photo of the pool from inside the building (Note: the lifeguard yelled at me for taking this photo but no-one in it is recognizable.)

It doesn't look big, but this pool in Covent Garden is 27.5m in length.
Pool swim 2: done. My hands and feet took a while to warm up after getting chilled from the air after my swim. Jim and I ducked into several bookstores before I could feel my fingers again. I now started to question whether I really wanted to swim outdoors in an unheated pool.

Wednesday, 9 December, we planned to visit the British Library - a place Jim has been promising to take me ever since he went there a couple years ago on a business trip. Our good friends Andy and Caroline would also be arriving in London that day so we made plans to meet them at the Library at noon. Thus, I would have to swim that morning. And, it just so happens that there is a unique swimming location just up the street from the Library.

This next swim would be so much more than just a swim. It was an opportunity to be part of a living art installation. It's called King's Cross Pond Club, and it's a temporary man-made pond in the middle of a very busy construction zone. When I first googled "winter swimming in London," this place came up at the top of the list. As a location, a work of art, and a swimming destination, it didn't disappoint.

We arrived shortly after 10am, but no one had been swimming yet. I asked the ticket-taker/lifeguard if people really swim in December - he said they did. The cost was £3.50. The water temperature was 7 degrees C. I looked at Jim - he did the calculation in his head (one of his many talents): "45 degrees F." I looked at the lifeguard again: "Can I wear a wetsuit?" He said "Sure. I recommend it." He also said all I would need was a five-minute dip to get the "full effect."

(Whatever THAT meant.)

I paid my entry and went to the changing rooms. While putting my wetsuit on, I heard someone in the changing room next to me. The person was there for only a few seconds and then left. I yelled to Jim, waiting outside the door, "Is there someone else here?" Jim said "Yes, there's a guy." He changed pretty quickly, so I asked: "Is he wearing a wetsuit?" Jim said "No, he's just in swim trunks." Yikes! My first encounter with one of these crazy cold-water-loving English people. I thought about it for a second... and then remembered the lifeguard's recommendation to wear a wetsuit. I, for one, certainly wasn't going to question his expert opinion. That other guy wouldn't last more than a couple minutes.

At least five minutes had passed by the time I walked up to the pond. I even put on two swim caps to avoid head freeze (remembering how bad my face hurt when I swam in 56-degree Atlantic water). When I got up there, the crazy English guy was actually swimming - in 45-degree water without a wetsuit. He wasn't just in for a dip. He swam around and around and around... moving normally - you know, as though he WEREN'T actually submerged in icy water. Was I a complete wimp? I put my foot in. Yep, it was an ice bath. Wait, no it wasn't. It was MUCH COLDER than an ice bath. I rethought the wimp statement and climbed in.

The first thing I noticed - besides the unbelievable cold - was that this was THE cleanest, clearest water I've EVER swam in. Even now, I can still taste it. It was extraordinary. I swam around a little, not quite ready to put my head in (just a note: crazy-English-guy was not submerging his head either). I had to work up to it... and then I was able to swim for a bit. The pond is oval-shaped - 10m wide by 40m long - with plants on one side and a main swimming area. We asked a lot of questions, impressed with the lifeguard's knowledge of how it all works (more information online). The plants actually act as a filter for the pond, and there's a limit on the number of swimmers daily so that this small ecosystem continues to work. I imagine it will attract crowds next summer, and I really hope it becomes a permanent fixture. Despite the cold, this place is a treasure, and I'm unable to conjure up the words to fully describe how completely amazing it was to swim there. The water was so so SO beautiful.

The cold eventually started to get to me - my fingers and feet were not going to last long. I was determined to stay in at least as long as crazy-English-guy-without-a-wetsuit. I can say that after being in the water for a bit, my body didn't go into shock. In fact, I started to get used to it. It hurts for the first couple minutes and then everything starts to feel ok. Numb fingers and toes were the biggest issue for me and I lasted about 12 minutes - for the record, I'm saying I got out because we needed to get to the Library.

While changing, I saw another swimmer on her way to the pond - she wore swimming gloves and booties and a neoprene vest over a regular bathing suit. Now THAT was a SMART crazy-English-swimmer. Surely, I could have been in there for HOURS had it not been for my extremities. Anyway, Jim took some photos and video at King's Cross Pond Club. I highly recommend going there before it closes if you get the chance. Maybe wait until it warms up... like in February, perhaps?


The water was ridiculously clean and clear.

The plants are not only filters, they provide natural beauty to the installation.
From the observation deck.
Zoomed out to show the entire set-up
I like the striped motif on the temporary buildings too.

There it was: three swims in three days. We spent the rest of the day catching up with Andy and Caroline and visited the Natural History Museum. I didn't even TRY explaining to the bag inspector at the museum what I was doing with a wet wetsuit in my backpack.

Thursday would be difficult to get in a swim. We met Andy at the Imperial War Museum while Caroline had a work meeting, and by the time we said our goodbyes and saw them off on a train back to Exeter, both Jim and I were exhausted from being on our feet for so long for two days. We had plans to have dinner with another great friend - Sam - who lives in London (she writes a very interesting blog about London cemetery residents). Thus, my goal of five swims in five days came to an end. I wasn't too disappointed after a four pints and two pubs and great conversation with Sam.

But Friday morning, I was determined to do the one thing that would haunt me if I didn't do it: act like a proper Brit and swim outside in an unheated pool in December. I had to find the right place - something within walking distance from anywhere we needed to go that day. Friday had been set aside for shopping and the National Gallery. But my swim was first priority.

There were three places I had in mind, but only one of them would actually be feasible. The first was the Serpentine Lido in Hyde Park. It wasn't possible because I was not a member of the Serpentine Swim Club (and it took more than a morning to join). The second was the Tooting Bec Lido - the most historic (built in 1906) and second-largest (91m long by 30m wide) of the outdoor pools in the UK. Again, not possible - besides being over an hour away, in the winter it was only open to the South London Swim Club. The third was Parliament Hill Fields Lido on the outskirts of Hampstead Heath. Score! This one was possible - less than an hour away and I could swim for a measly £2.50.

Jim figured out how to get me there in 40 minutes: the Tube and a bus to Parliament Hill, then walk to the Lido. I packed my wetsuit but on the way, I told Jim I made a decision: "If just ONE person is not wearing a wetsuit, I'm going in without it." My fate was sealed, because... you KNOW there would be at least one crazy-English-swimmer. In fact, there were several. And yes, some were men in only Speedos.

Parliament Hill Fields has the true "Lido" experience. It's a huge outdoor pool surrounded by a concrete deck with a cafe. The lifeguard told us the pool is 61m long and 27m wide. This is what we saw when we arrived:

Chilly and rainy. Not really swimming weather - but this is England.
That's Celsius - pool temp in Fahrenheit was 48 degrees.
This experience would be one for the ages. In the change room, I met a girl who was donning a full wetsuit. She told me she swims for 30 minutes and just a week ago she switched to a wetsuit because she couldn't take the cold anymore. I put on my bathing suit (here they call them "swimming costumes") and walked outside to meet Jim on the deck. The air was chilly enough.

The lifeguards at Parliament Hill Lido were the friendliest of all - they were all smiles and gave me tips on how to get in the water. In a nutshell: "start at the shallow end and do it very gradually." They also told me not to overdo it since I had not acclimated yet. The lifeguards were dressed more for winter than for pool weather, and they stayed inside. They were definitely the smart ones, I noted, as I began to doubt my intelligence - or maybe my sanity - when I stepped into the water.

The water was ice-cold, but the pool was gorgeous and really clean and clear. It had a stainless steel liner with little perforations so you didn't slip. I got in up to my knees at the shallow end, and slowly walked towards the deep end. It hurt. Once I waded in up to my thighs, I had to wait for about a minute for the pain in my legs to go away. Then, I took the plunge.

I was in up to my neck for a split second before I lost my breath. It was like having the wind knocked out of me - like being punched in the chest. I remembered the same feeling when I jumped in the reservoir at Ironman St. George in 2011. That water had been in the high 50s - and I was wearing a wetsuit. This was MUCH colder. And there was no neoprene to save me. It took a bit of time, but I was finally able to swim - actually SWIM - for six laps before my fingers (yep, fingers again) had enough. I was actually getting used to it, and, surprisingly, my face didn't hurt this time. While getting out, I looked around. There were women and men in only bathing suits, some with neoprene gloves and booties, the girl in just a wetsuit, and an elderly lady with a full wetsuit, neoprene cap, gloves, and booties. All types. All crazy English swimmers. I loved them all. And I was one of them.

I swam. In London. Outdoors. In December. In an unheated pool. Without a wetsuit. Mission accomplished. Jim took a few photos and video at Parliament Hill Fields Lido.

It's hard to see, but that is me in the shallow end.
Yep, I'm swimming.
I can't talk because my lips are frozen.
I can only gesture. This means "I have NO feeling in my hands."

After my London swimming experience, I understand how people who swim in winter can do it. They swim year-round and slowly acclimate their bodies to colder and colder water. I like to believe they do it because they love swimming. But there may be some benefit to this cold-water life. I found this notice on the way into the locker/changing room at Parliament Hill Fields Lido:


Maybe the winter swimmers are not crazy after all. Maybe, just maybe, they're the smartest ones among us.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Soul Takes the Plunge

When Hurricane Patricia hit the west coast of Mexico,
San Jose del Cabo had amazing surf for two days.
I've been struggling with this post for a long LONG time. Not on paper, but in my head. Something happened in Mexico. And I can't shake it.

In a word: I changed.

I changed from the person I was into the person I keep wanting to be. I started to ask myself those deep soul-inquiring questions. Why? Why are you doing this?

I had no answer.

For the past several years, I've become a slave to Triathlon (capital T) and the Mdot. These are the Lifestyle Corporations that induce me to shell out enormous amounts of cash chasing something that is supposed to make me feel good about myself. Yet, the more I tried to be a Triathlete, the worse I felt about myself. And the more Triathlon friends I surrounded myself with, the more I started to hide from them.

It comes down to one "ism": "Comparison is the thief of joy."

All I've done is compare myself to others and I keep coming up at the bottom of the list. Never good enough. Never fast enough. Never cool enough. Never good-looking enough. Never having the best gear. The newest gadget. The fastest clothing. I was afraid to talk to any of the Triathlon people because I would seem like the "low-income ugly red-headed cousin who ran in cotton sweats." (Why this is bad, I have no clue, as I used to embrace that part of me, the part that was different and unique.)

But I kept trying - if I was faster, people would like me, right?

The problem is, I didn't like myself. I didn't like what I'd become. I resented the Lifestyle Corporations that existed only to take my money, and sell me overpriced races and stuff that would make me "faster" or look "cooler" and tout my accomplishments. Triathlon is all about gear and bodies (note, please don't hang me, Triathlon friends, I'm interpreting the 95%). I found myself in forums where people said things like "how many bikes is too many bikes?" walking around at races with too much skin on display (which, obviously, always looked better than mine), and being on a team where my cohorts say things to me like "going to Kona is great, but how does it help our sponsors?"

I spent a lot of time with my mouth agape at things Triathlon people said, a lot of time being disgusted with the commercialism of the whole thing, and a lot of time worrying that I would never measure up.

Most importantly, I forgot the Number One Fundamental Reason For Doing Something: because I enjoy it.

This past weekend, I watched a movie called "The End of the Tour." It's basically one long conversation between two men: acclaimed writer David Foster Wallace (one of the people I am apt to name when asked "If you could meet anyone, living or dead, who would it be?") and Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky. They spend five days together in 1996 during the last week of Wallace's book signing tour for Infinite Jest. It begins with Lipsky learning of Wallace's suicide in 2008. I don't know why this movie affected me so much, but it precipitated an almost four-day soul-defining time-out. It made me realize I have become a drone. I've defined myself by outside standards instead of inherent inner value. I've stopped caring about making a difference and started accepting failure. This has happened in life as well as sport.

I was reminded of a time when I never needed to race. I could go swimming or biking or (especially) running just because those things gave me myself. When I challenged myself with additional miles, I did it not because someone else was doing it, but because, simply, I wanted to challenge myself. Seriously, the reason I started distance-running in the first place had everything to do with self-help. It cleared my mind. It gave me peace. It just felt good. And I never told anyone I was doing it because I never cared what anyone thought about it. I even liked doing it alone.

Now, I read everyone's daily updates on Facebook and rate myself. I stopped doing sport for the pure joy of it and started doing it for external affirmation. Getting the medal became important. Winning was important. People would like me more if I won, right? I started (harshly) judging myself by everyone else's accomplishments. Daily. I would, and will, never measure up.

I've been fighting against this attitude my whole life - this hypocritical dichotomy. Deep down, I believe people have worth just because they exist, and I deeply value my friends because they're my friends, whether they have achievement medals or not. But, over the years, my OWN worth has stemmed from my school grades, my swim finishes, my track finishes, how prestigious my college was, how prestigious my job was, how much money I made, whether I was married, whether I had kids, how many marathons I did, how many Ironmans I did, and finally, the dream I've been chasing for a few years, whether I can finally make it back to Kona and have a good race there.

Why?

I've nothing to prove. Lately, it's not like everyone hasn't done an Ironman. I've become a drone to the Triathlon Lifestyle. To the Corporations who know how much money I (don't) make but will find a way to make me fork it over. I do it year in and year out, and nothing changes. They get richer and I'm still the same person I was. With more stuff. And less worth.

Something has to change. I have to change.

I was smiling during and after the rough IM Los Cabos swim.
I was sad it ended so quickly.
And now, I can say without doubt, that instead of learning nothing in Mexico (note: I started Ironman Los Cabos, I didn't finish), I learned everything in Mexico. I learned that I love Mexico. I love the food. I love the people. I love the landscape. I love the water. I LOVED the water. Not the drinking water. The ocean water. While I was out there fighting the chop in the 2.4-mile swim of Ironman Los Cabos, I was having the most fun I've had in a race. Ever. And now, I want to do that. For no reason but because it's fun, I feel challenged, and I want to.

I think I want to swim. In the ocean. Long. Distances.

Thus, I may have something new to write about. Let the adventure begin.

Here are some of our photos from Mexico.

First place we ate in San Jose del Cabo was a little hole-in-the-wall
called El Mesón del Ahorcado (The Hangman).
The tacos were to DIE for. Look at all the salsas!!

Cabo Pulmo National Park

Coastline of Cabo Pulmo National Park, we snorkeled here.

Again, with the food..
this was Mexican street corn, so so SO great
(I know, it's only a cup of corn scraped from the
cob with sour cream and queso blanco, but OMG, what more do you need?)
It's also coincidental to note that someone in Cabo San Lucas
compared my dress to a dorado (fish).

And here's a video I made of snorkeling at Cabo Pulmo 
(we somehow figured out how to rent equipment from the non-English-speaking Carlos who has a little shack on a tiny beach and lets you take "showers" with a hose - amazing reef right off his coast):


Friday, September 25, 2015

Chicago Reflections: 2015 ITU Standard-distance Age Group World Championship

Cloud Gate (Anish Kapoor)
The giant reflecting "bean" in Chicago's Millennium Park
I found out I was a runner when I was ten years old.

Throughout the years, running has been my go-to therapy for all that ailed me. It was the one sport I fully understood. I knew how to train. I knew how to race. And I knew how to get injured. When I switched to triathlon after my fifth stress fracture, I had a distinctive advantage as a fast runner. My race didn't start until I was off the bike. I rarely worried about getting passed on the bike because I knew I would be feeling good when the great cyclists were struggling to get to the finish line.

But that's all in the past - when I was young. And fast. For the last three years, I've been struggling with an injury that threatened to once and for all end my days of being a (good) runner. I've been told my hamstring tendon will never be 100%. And despite working like crazy on the bike, I can never keep up with the really fast women in my age group. I've gotten a little closer to them, but never close enough to put me within striking distance on the run. It doesn't help that I haven't looked forward to the run leg either. Coming off the bike has been akin to a funeral march and I've lost the killer instinct that made triathlon racing so enjoyable. I have been going through the motions hoping something - anything - would change.

And finally, this year, I entered a new age group, and things were on the verge of getting better. I was ready to train hard. All the painful and difficult therapy had finally begun to pay off, and my running became mostly pain-free. I started to enjoy running for the first time in three years, and my speed was slowly coming back. I was thrilled.

Then came my infection, surgery and down time - right at the beginning of racing season - and all my hopes for this new age group year evaporated. I damned myself as the disaster-magnet I was and wrestled with throwing in the towel on the whole year. Dropping out of several already-paid-for races, one of them the ITU Long Course World Championship, and the fear of throwing money away was weighing heavy on my shoulders - especially after giving up my full-time income for a career as an artist (read: no income). Stress got the best of me, and I suffered with insomnia and anxiety for many weeks.

By the end of July, my surgeon still hadn't given me the green light to get back in the pool, but I was still entered in the ITU Age Group Standard Distance Worlds in Chicago on September 19. I was panicking. I kept asking my husband Jim, "How am I going to race a World Championship in the shape I'm in?"

I secretly hoped he would say "drop out," but his answer? "Speed work."

I couldn't come up with a better idea, so I decided to suck it up and make my best attempt to speed up my 10K run with weekly short hard intervals in August. Time was running out and my expectations were low. Two weeks after I started swimming again, I raced the USAT Age Group Nationals in Milwaukee. The snail-like swim pace didn't bother me nearly as much as my run time. I couldn't get a single mile under seven minutes. It was embarrassing to know I once ran a marathon at 6:30 pace.

Although I had been working hard on the bike, I didn't hold out hope to ride with the "big girls" in Chicago. All I wished was to avoid losing time on the run, and at the very least, I knew I could speed up my swim time from Milwaukee's all-time-slowest. This had become a rescue mission. For my mental health, I needed to salvage something from this triathlon season and prove to myself I could still work hard and get results.

When I toed the line in Chicago last Saturday, I knew it would be an all-out effort. I would race with everything I had that day and be happy knowing I did as much work as I could with the hand I was dealt this year.

As usual, my legacy as the Disaster Magnet was on the horizon.

It started with rain and wind in Chicago that was bad enough to alter the races on Friday and move our bike check-in to race morning. My wake-up time and morning nutrition was already less-than-ideal because of a wave start at 12:20 pm. Now I would have to be up and in downtown Chicago for more than seven hours before my race. Ugh.

Race morning was beautiful.
The only thing that made race morning enjoyable was the ease in which we could get into transition and prep our stuff. On the way in, I was met by a smiling volunteer who I failed to recognize as our USAT Mideast Regional Vice-chair Mike Wendorf. I must have looked a little anxious and he said to me "Today, you ARE Gwen Jorgensen." (I would see him again at the finish line where he recognized me and gave me a huge hug. It's always amazing to connect and reconnect with people all over the world in this sport.)

After bike prep, I had to figure out how to spend the next several hours and plan my nutrition to avoid stomach issues during the race. Jim and I relaxed in the car, in the Team USA hotel lobby, wandering around the race site, watching start waves, and figuring out where to hang out between bathroom stops. It seemed like forever. Finally it was time to put on my wetsuit and make my way to the staging area.

Disaster number 2 came - yep - just in time for my start wave, age group women 50-54. We were herded into the start corral, given final instructions on the swim course, and marched toward the starting dock. Except..... WAIT! Something has gone wrong with the pontoon dock! We were herded backwards into the corral, and along came a forklift to fix it. No, I am NOT making this up. We waited, and waited, and waited... trying to laugh about baking in our wetsuits in the sun.

Then came the announcement - the dock was fully broken, and conditions were deemed unsafe to proceed to the start. There would be a modified swim. We waited some more. Then came another announcement. The swim had to be shortened to less than sprint distance. There were outcries. One woman even asked if we could swim further by getting in the water upstream of the start. The slow swimmers were ecstatic. And we waited again.

Disappointment set in. I wanted that 1500m swim. I needed as much help as I could get, and the longer the swim, the better it would be for me - I was born a distance swimmer. But there was nothing to be done. It would be a 700m swim.

See? I wasn't kidding about the forklift.
Waiting... waiting... and waiting.
We had to wait while officials prepped the altered swim course, and around 1:00 pm, about 40 minutes after our official start time, we were finally in the water. The start horn signaled a mad all-out sprint unlike any race I've ever done. The course followed the marina wall at the edge of Grant Park. I did the best I could with my one-speed distance stroke, but I knew I was well-behind the leaders. Jim said I started catching people in the final yards - probably because everyone else went out sprinting. Oh, how I wished we had the whole 1500m.

It was a long run to transition - almost 400m - and I got out of my wetsuit faster than usual and was on the bike course in about three minutes. I knew I had to go hard from the start - so that's what I did.

The 40K bike course was underwhelming for a world championship. There were four hairpin turns and much of the course was in the underground tunnels known as Lower Wacker Drive. Low light made it hard to see road hazards, but I still rode as hard as I could and played leap-fog with the same few women for most of the bike. My speed on the flats was 24-25mph - really fast for me - and surprisingly (to me), I managed to keep myself in the race on the bike. The bike course was slightly short, and the finish came quickly after one turn-around. There was such a frenzy at the dismount line that a woman in front of me went down hard with her bike. I stopped for second to make sure she was ok, then took off on another long run to transition. Transition was a bit slow when I struggled to rack my bike from the handlebars (usually not a problem), but my shoes went on quick, and I was about to find out the worth of a month of speed training.

On the bike course when it wasn't underground.
Except, NO! Instead of hitting the split button, I hit "stop" on my Garmin out of transition. I didn't realize it until mile 2 of the run because I was intent on running down all the women I was with on the bike course.

For the first time in three years, I felt good - really good - on the 10K run leg. That killer instinct came back and I just ran. I WAS Gwen Jorgensen. Once I restarted my Garmin, I was clocking well under a seven minute-per-mile pace - without any of the usual fatigue. I don't know how many women in my age group I ran down, but at the finish, I was only 11 seconds behind fourth place, and I heard the announcement for third.

So. Close. (If only I had another K. Or that 850m back in the swim.) But I wasn't going to lament this. Live and learn. My run was back.

I got that feeling... you know? That feeling you get when you're running well? Like you've broken through some kind of barrier. I had it the year I ran my first sub-2:50 marathon in Duluth, MN. I had it when I ran the eight-mile leg of Hood to Coast at a sub-6-minute pace. I had it the day I ran down the previous-year's champ to win the Quad Cities Marathon. I had it when I ran down all the age group leaders off the bike at the 2011 Ironman 70.3 World Championship. And I had it Saturday in Chicago. No, it wasn't my fastest 10K, but felt damn good not to be crawling my way through the fog of fatigue for the first time in a very long time.

The finish.
Imagine my surprise when I looked up the results to see my run leg at 45:45. How could that be? Was my Garmin wrong? I KNOW one of my miles was a 6:32 - and the last four were sub-7. Could I have run the first two over a minute slower? My elation turned to devastation. How could it feel so fast when I was running so slow?

I was in a daze. The walk back to transition to pick up my bike was now the funeral march. Jim was desperately searching for something to say - to cheer me up. I don't remember much until I heard the the question... Someone in transition.. asked.. "Was the run...... long?"

THAT'S IT!

Others had the GPS run distance of 6.7 miles. That would put my pace at... 6:49! Devastation turned back to elation. I couldn't wait to tell Jim! The drive home that night would be long, but it wouldn't be tough. My run was back. And next season looks a lot brighter.