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Open Water

August 14, 2010

Four months after my rotator cuff surgery, my doctor saw me for a final check up. She had me perform manly feats of strength, like lifting up, pushing down, and extending my arms sideways against hers. She had me do stretches, reach for the sky and rotate each arm in wide circular motions. As I performed these majestic motions for her (and they did seem majestic after my arm had been strapped to my side for 3 months), she kept repeating the word “good,” but not with what I would call an abundance of enthusiasm. I told her she lacked conviction. Standing behind me with her hands on my shoulders she said, “you have the left shoulder of a very athletic 40 year old male (I was 50), and the right shoulder of 114 year old female, likely deceased.”

I made a quick move to strangle her with my right hand, but my arm didn’t get much past my waist, and she took it as a gesture to shake her hand. “You might want to try swimming in a month or two.  That’s a great way to get back in shape.” She let go of my hand, which fizzled weakly to my side, and she wished me luck.

When I hit the pool at the YMCA two months later, I felt invigorated. I was thrilled to be out of the weight room where I had spent untold days and hours pulling, lifting, and pushing massive 3, 5 and 7 pound weights. Having been a competitive swimmer from 3rd grade through high school, and a long- time surfer, I  confidently leapt into the lane marked “medium”(lanes are labeled for projected speed) and got ready to take the new shoulder out for a spin. I pushed off the wall with my arms outstretched, and took my first stroke, pulling hard with my right arm, which in essence was like rowing a boat with a piece of yarn.

Beneath the caps, reflective goggles, pursed lips, grunts, flared gills, and attempts to swim over you, lap swimmers are essentially congenial and compassionate.  But after several minutes of swimming in a small concentric circle, I tired of their grumbling (well, cursing) and retreated into the lane marked “float and bob,” which had the big fiberglass steps and steel railing in the shallow end. I waded in between an elderly woman who was lying on her back doing an inverted version of the breast stroke, loudly spouting out the word “unk” with every stroke, and an even more ancient Asian gentleman who was “swimming” in an almost vertical position, with off-white swim shorts that ballooned around his spindly legs like a small parachute. Each time he bobbed up for air, he took one wide stroke with his arms, then sank back down for several seconds, loudly blowing bubbles before bobbing back up again. As I stared, noting the striking similarity between my arm and his legs, I noticed that the rhythmic “unk, unk” and bubbling had stopped. Both Havisham and Dorian Gray had paused to look at me through the double barrels of their reflective goggles, with gazes that warned I had better not slow them down.

My pulse never quickens when I flip flop from the showers to the lap pool at the YMCA. Well, it quickens a bit if I have to run down the hall and knock a few people down in order to get into a lane before the last one is taken. But otherwise, in the 16 months and one triathlon since I first mixed it up in the geriatric lane, lap swimming has become routine, a tedious but essential requirement to keep me from drowning during the open water swims.

It’s not that I dread the workouts, but as they increase with intensity each week, I can’t exactly report a sense of euphoria as I contemplate the mind numbing “up and back” of racking up a couple thousand + yards. It’s all the more numbing since I can’t ever seem to remember what lap I am on.

I try. I focus intently from the first push off the wall.  “One….. One…… One…… One…… One…..” Turn. “Two….. This is lap two…..I’m on two….. Only 98 more. Two….. Two…… Two…..”

I even hold fingers up for myself under water sometimes, which gets problematic after the 10th lap. And then I get distracted by a strand of hair floating by, or an old, oddly disturbing band aid staring up at me from the bottom, and I think of how many unwashed people use the pool and remind myself to keep my mouth sealed tightly in between breaths. Or I suddenly remember I owe my brother a phone call, narrowly miss a collision with another swimmer in my lane, try to remember if I locked the car or not, or wonder how my Godson does this (swim workouts) two hours per session and sometimes twice a day.

And then, I couldn’t tell you if I was on lap 4 or 50.

A few nights ago I was drifting in and out of focus when I noticed a single ear plug float by and wondered if it was one of mine. And just like that, I had no idea if I had just finished lap 8 or lap 10, though I was reasonably sure I had two earplugs. Careful to get the full workout in, I deferred to the lower number. When I finished lap 20 (or maybe it was lap 22 or 24), I wasn’t sure if I had just completed my second set of 20 laps or my third. That happened to me again on the 4th (or maybe the 5th) set of 20. Since I had no accurate idea of what time I had started the workout, I am still not sure if I swam 100, 120, 140 or 331 ½ laps.

The open water swims, on the other hand, are an entirely different kettle of demonic fish. If I had to summarize the sensation in a single thought, it would be a combination of exhilaration and an always surprising dose of primordial terror. The collected, gentle, and focused little pool voice that repeats “what lap am I on?” is replaced by the perpetual frantic shriek in my head of “WHAT THE #%$#$^ WAS THAT?!?!”

Several weeks ago, the Tri club again added open water swims to the weekly workout, and I found myself with about 30 others at Rye beach, getting ready to embark on our first swim of the season. We were trading the monotonous “up and back” at the pool for the somewhat intimidating “out and back” to the green and red buoys, about 1.3 miles round trip. It was closing in on 7:00 PM, windless, breathtaking, with a few a few majestic clouds positioning themselves for a postcard perfect sunset. The Sound looked like a sheet of glass, but with the tide out and the temperature in the high eighties, it had the complex scent of dead mackerel, decomposing seaweed, and whatever makes the top layer of the sand at Rye beach gelatinous and dark brown.

After several minutes of good natured banter, warnings about jelly-fish, and technical reminders not to drown or get plowed under by a passing speed boat, we waded into the Sound. Whatever warm summer current was supposed to be here in July, was late, which explained why everyone else was wearing a wetsuit. We formed groups, counted heads, and I plunged into the murky green, shouting underwater as my upper body went into the earliest stage of hypothermia.

The combined sensations of the briskness of the water, the energy of the herd powering its way out, and the natural instinct of not being the last (and therefore the most likely to be eaten) swimmer in the pack, always works against the whole “take it slow…be calm…take it easy” mantra of swimming offshore. And given the near zero visibility of the water, the opening scenes of Jaws, Alien, Creature from the Black Lagoon, or the Republican Presidential Debates are more conducive to “calm” than staring wide eyed into that opaque green gloom.  In between breaths, I alternate from trying not to look, to keeping a tense vigil for bigfoot, the large fish, alien, corpse, piranha, disembodied hand, chainsaw, or anything else that might come roaring out of the murk and drag me gurgling into the abyss. I have actually shouted underwater (“arghblblblblblgh!!!”) and burst into short all-out sprints after seeing a silver flash or unexpectedly coming into contact with something solid on (or just beneath) the surface. Particularly unsettling on the first swim was the massive black shadow that periodically appeared beneath me, which I was greatly relieved to discover was my own, a function of the passing clouds and the setting sun.

There is no line on the bottom of the Sound (not that you could see it if there was), which always throws a major wrench into the whole navigation equation. So what starts as an intimate and friendly pod of swimmers gently kicking each other in the head and delicately stampeding over the weak, quickly dissipates into a very scattered group of zigzagging colored caps. Factor in a little wind, slight chop beyond the breakwater, different swim speeds, and a variety of course corrections, and after 5 minutes, there often isn’t a fellow swimmer within 50 yards of you. Sometimes, when you site on the green buoy and gaze around, you have the sudden disquieting sensation that you are the only person left on the swim. Something has eaten all the others, quietly picking them off one by one, while the rest of us swim on unaware.

From the breakwater on, the banter in my head degenerates into manic paranoia. That calm and soothing radio voice (“lap one, lap two, lap three or maybe that was four…”) morphs into some freakish and frenetic mutation of Gollum and Cybil. It shouts out every fatalistic possibility, no matter how unlikely or absurd, from being accidentally speared by an amateur diver, to getting taken out by a random meteor or lightening strike.

What was that little fish running from? … Mother of God, my breathing is labored. Is that and the small pain in my shoulder the warning signs of the onset of a massive heart attack?  I’ll sink like a rock, and I will never see my wife or kids again…. Didn’t the woman in Jaws get killed swimming to a buoy? ….Are our thoughts really capable of creating and attracting the very things we think of? If so, I am thinking about sharks, heart attacks, and sinking like a stone, at which point I anxiously and repeatedly tell myself (over and over again) to stop thinking about sharks, heart attacks and sinking like a stone.

Last week, I picked up my head to site on the buoy and saw no one.  In fact (given the dark blue tint of my goggles), I didn’t even see the buoy. Urging myself to think only positive thoughts, while simultaneously wondering what was dragging massive green channel markers and fellow swimmers to their watery graves, I had a sudden epiphany. Counting heads was a tragically flawed system. All it would really ever tell us after we regrouped at the buoys, was how many of us didn’t make it. If we reached the buoy and found there were 12 instead of 13, what exactly would anyone do?  If I went down, no one would know. With each person pounding his way to the next mark, scattered randomly over a ¼ mile stretch, the likelihood of someone actually hearing me shout, “my aorta has ruptured,” or “something is chewing on my arm,” would be just south of zero.

When I reached the buoy, I saw 4 caps clustered together, no doubt mourning the loss of the 8 others in our group. I joined the vigil and looked back toward the beach, which from the perspective of 5 inches above sea level suddenly seemed several nautical miles away. I could make out large trees and buildings, nothing else. The buoy must have sensed the distance and felt the isolation as well, because it seemed to be slowly moving toward shore, which was a mesmerizing optical illusion caused by the still outgoing current pushing us soundlessly toward Montauk and Western Europe.

We needed a bigger boat.

I floated on my back and looked up at the amazing light, the billowing clouds, and felt the exhilaration of being almost one with nature. Offsetting those thoughts were the seven or eight circling vultures, patiently and slowly spiraling down to us from the clouds.  One guy in our group, something “Cousteau”, saw me looking up and mentioned how those seagulls and fishermen love this time of evening, and how it’s perfect for fishing, “with all the big fish schooling toward the surface.” A marvelous thought if you were sitting with a rod and a Mojito on the stern of a 21 foot Boston Whaler, but when you were floating on the surface of the food chain, it kind of put the herd on edge. We had all finally made it to the equivalent of an offshore watering hole, calmly catching our breath and taking in the sunset, and Mr. Mutual of Omaha had to announce, “Hey, you know that big cats are nocturnal?”

We counted heads and moved on, ears, tails and dorsal fins twitching nervously.

There’s not much to the swim across the channel. Buoy to buoy is the shortest part of the loop, with the only issues generally being the fishing boats chumming for Great Whites further offshore, and the bar (as in “booze,” not “sand”) on the pier inside the breakwater. The bar caters to boaters who moor their vessels and are then ferried from ship to bar. Several drinks later, swaying as if they were in heavy seas, they are ferried back from shore to ship with a reminder to drive straight between the green and red buoys, and to hit as few of the migrating colored caps as possible.

I generally see far fewer things in the water during the swim back, which is primarily a function of the temporary blindness caused by sighting directly into the setting sun while straining to identify any familiar landmark on the beach. It’s also a function of tiring after all of the adrenaline rushes on the way out, the infestations of sea lice that invariably work their way into my swim shorts, and the basic exertion involved with swimming ¾’s of a mile into a steady 30 knot current.

Day 17. Still swimming. Rations and morale low. That last leg always seems to go on forever. I have the troubling sensation that I am swimming in place with the Donner Party. Each time I sight, the breakwater never seems to get closer, and the red buoy, handcrafted in Amity, Long Island, is never more than 20 yards off my stern.

Careful to hold my heart rate under a few hundred beats/min, I usually settle into a determined groove at that point. Gollum and Cybil are off the air. I concentrate on my stroke, sight less frequently, breath more often, and remind myself that in September, this same swim will be followed by a peppy 26 mile ride and a 6.2 mile run. So buck up.

When my fingers finally touched the bottom after that first swim, I stood and gradually made my way up the beach to join the water rabbits who had made landfall far enough ahead of the rest of us to be already showered, shaved, and sporting dinner jackets and a nice merlot. We counted heads as one by one, the last of us settled back onto dry land. Yet despite 1.3 miles (more for those who didn’t swim straight), chop, current, and things that go bump in the deep, not one person seemed even remotely tired. My shoulders were on fire, I could barely move my arms enough to signal for oxygen, and I felt the early signs of post traumatic stress settling in. Everyone else was chatting and strutting about as if they had done nothing more than taken a few laps in the wading pool at the JCC.   As a friend misted me down with apple cider vinegar to neutralize the jelly fish stings, I made a mental note to accelerate my workout routine and considered replacing the majority of my diet with a combination of growth hormones, steroids, and caffeine.

There is a certain magic to the Sound during the summer. I thought about that as I started to towel the vinegar off of my face. Unlike the nightly fog and brisk winds I grew up with on the California coast, these skies were clear, the air warm, still, and humid. I could see lights begin to shimmer in Long Island across the Sound, and fireflies flickered in the park behind the beach. I walked through the sand to my bike. There was a band playing behind Seaside Johnny’s with several people dancing on the upper deck and beach below.

I smelled like a dinner salad.  But that aside, the endorphins had kicked in. I felt amazing, pumped up and euphoric to have survived another ordeal at sea, in the fine company of a great and tenacious group of tireless and obviously fearless athletes.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Guay permalink
    August 14, 2010 11:44 am

    Great stuff. If only the references to JAWS and THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON weren’t true….

  2. Jeff Kirsh permalink
    August 29, 2010 6:20 am

    Ed,
    As I am sitting here still sore and sweating from my cold and damp run this morning, trying to cheat the calendar and be ready for the half-marathon fast approaching, your dark stories of physical training do nothing but demoralize me as I imagine all of the muggings, heart attacks, and bowel accidents that will no doubt befall me as I run (okay, jog) through the pristine parks of London. Thanks.
    Jeff

  3. February 11, 2011 9:55 pm

    Great stuff! Laughed till I cried, as usual with your wit and words! Gonna send Preston the link so he can once again bask in the bellylaughs of your charm.

    Ed, You have the most unusual perspective on life, stuffed with the cynical, edged with sheer joy! Thanks. Love reading your stuff. Kristi

  4. Carlene Messinger permalink
    January 15, 2016 11:29 am

    This is wonderful !! Your humor is brilliant and I can relate to all of this as I’m sure so many open water / pool swimmers do as well. I truly enjoyed reading this … Thank you !!

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