Monday, July 11, 2016

Good Pain, Open-Water Zen, and the Stupidest Idea Ever.

Everything hurts today. It's that good kind of hurt. The kind of overall pain that lets me know I pushed myself through something unusually difficult yesterday.

And that's because I did. Yesterday I did my longest-ever open-water swim. And it was my first solo open-water swim in Lake Erie. It wasn't completely "solo," but I'll explain in a moment.

If you read my previous blog, you know what I'm up against. I needed to do a swim before this weekend that was long enough to prove (to myself only) I could push through something longer than my last race at 4.4 miles. And I didn't want to swim that long in the pool because, frankly, when I'm in the pool for longer than 2.5 hours, I have been getting sick of the chlorine and the monotony of the lane-lines. I've never needed to train in open water for experience because, as I've said many times in this blog, I've always been at home in the open water.

But I WANT to swim in open water. My soul has been longing for it ever since I conquered the fear in La Jolla cove. And yesterday, I had several soul-affirming moments in the water, and I felt compelled to write something.

This weekend, I knew two things: (1) I wanted to swim in open water and (2) for at least as long as I've swam in the pool. But I had no idea WHERE to swim.

Don't laugh. Even though we have a Great Lake on our doorstep, the conditions in Lake Erie are not always conducive to swimming. On Saturday, I checked the USGS Ohio Nowcast to find that almost all the Lake Erie beaches within an hour drive of my house were considered "unsafe for swimming" due to high levels of bacterial contamination. This was not a good sign. I started looking for other swimming holes all over Northeast Ohio. I had all but resigned myself to swimming "laps" in one of a few small lakes south of where I live.

The dogs here like swimming
almost more than I do.
Then, another one of those miracles happened. Sunday morning, I checked the Lake Erie conditions again to find that several west-side beaches had been given the green light! And I was off, dragging my overly-obliging husband Jim with me just in case something happened (it was my first time doing this alone).

I decided to do several out-and-back swims in order to stop and get fuel and hydration regularly - and also to get an idea of how much and how often I needed to consume during a long-distance swim of more than two hours. The water was perfect temperature (maybe in the upper 70s F?) so I didn't need a wetsuit. I took along a orange New Wave Swim Buoy so I was visible to boaters and jet-skiers (first time using this) and could carry my phone and nutrition in it.

My goal was to swim at a pace I could maintain for three hours. I swam east along the shoreline - which I eventually realized was with the current - for just over a mile and then turned around and swam back to the beach. The first two miles were steady and I never felt taxed at all. The water was beautiful, the sky was blue, the sun was out, people were jet-skiing and speed-boating and what-not, and I was able to get into a rhythm and just forget about everything. It went by pretty fast. When I got back to the beach, I drank about 250 liquid calories (Carbo Pro mixed with SkratchLabs hydration). Jim confirmed that the Find-My-iPhone app was working and he could see where I was during the swim.

Somewhere between the boats and the shore.
For the next hour, I decided to set out in the opposite direction. Here's where I was no longer alone. As I started swimming out, I saw another orange buoy in my peripheral vision. I swam toward it thinking it might be fun to swim with somebody for a bit. Maybe he/she could help me, maybe I could help him/her. When we got closer, we stopped and discussed it. Although he had planned on swimming for 1.5 miles, I told him I was going 2 miles, and he decided to go with me - we set off.

I lost him in my sights about five minutes later and figured it wasn't meant to be. But after about 20 minutes, I stopped and looked around and realized he was still with me, only about 50 yards closer to shore. I smiled to myself at how far out I was and kept swimming. When my GPS said I had gone a mile, I stopped and looked around. I saw my fellow-swimmer's orange buoy and waved to him when he looked up. He swam over.

"That's about a mile," I said and we stopped to talk. We both bobbed away on our buoys and talked for about 10 minutes. About why we were out there - his name is Jeff, he was training for an Ironman and getting back into athletics after a divorce. We talked about our jobs. We talked about art (I am NOT making this up). Then we talked about swimming. He summed it up better than I could in one phrase: "Swimming gives you that zen feeling."

He was right. Zen. That's what it is. It's similar to the feeling you get from running. It's peaceful, reflective, and gives me a feeling of one-ness with the world. I find this to be especially true in the water. I met a woman on the beach yesterday who doesn't know how to swim but she also had this indescribable sense of wholeness near water. Maybe our souls have a deep connection to the place from whence they came. I don't know, but I feel something intensely spiritual when I'm in open water.

We turned around and swam back to the beach. The surf got a little rougher on the way back even though we were with the current. I had an easier time with it than Jeff did, but I waited for him when I got back. He was done, I was going back out. We said our goodbyes, but not before I found out he and I are connected through his sister's marriage to a good friend of mine. And thus, Cleveland continues to be the largest "small town" ever.

My GPS had me just over four miles in just over two hours. Jim helped me fuel up once more, let me know he was ok waiting yet another hour (he's a saint) - and I headed back out toward the east. I decided to swim until I hit five miles then turn around. My arms were starting to feel very heavy (especially right after the stops), and I had to work to stretch them out to take long strokes. But I never got the "I really want to stop" feeling like I did in Chesapeake Bay. I was happy, I was "in it," but I was tired.

I pushed through to five miles. And then decided to do the stupidest thing EVER. I can't even blame it on delirium or water-logged-brained-ness because I was totally conscious and aware of what I was doing.

I'm so NOT a selfie person, but I wanted a selfie. So I wrestled with my buoy to pull out my phone. I had to deflate it almost half-way just to get the phone dislodged. I didn't even know if it would work because the phone was in a plastic bag. I may be stupid, but not stupid enough to take my phone out of the plastic bag. I bobbled on my half-inflated buoy and took a picture.

Then it happened. As I was treading water, trying to open the buoy, I dropped my bagged-phone in the water.

My heart stopped as it sank downward out of sight.

Panic came in a split-second. All I can articulate are the instantaneous thoughts that went through my head. Oh my God! Jim is going to KILL ME! What was I THINKING? The buoy instructions clearly state "NEVER TAKE YOUR PHONE OUT WHILE SWIMMING." Oh my God! Can I dive down to the bottom to retrieve it?? How deep is this water anyway? How much will a new iPhone cost?? Oh my God! What have I done?!?!?

And just like that, my fingers miraculously caught the phone, and I pulled it out of the water.

Here it the photo, never to be repeated:

Relief swept over me. I turned toward the beach and swam back. Perhaps due to the adrenaline rush, I swam back much faster than I swam out. The whole time I thanked God for my quick reflexes and spent the rest of the zen moments wondering if I should tell Jim what happened.

When I finally crawled out of the water, my GPS said: 6 miles, 3 hours.

I was done. I felt good (for many reasons), but my arms were sore and my neck was badly chafed from my cap. But my pace was steady. And I have enough confidence to start the nine-mile swim, now only five days away.

Here's the Garmin plot of my course - apparently, I can't swim a straight line:

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