Monday, September 11, 2017

Swimming through Smoke

Every year, a group of friends and I go away for Labor Day. And every year I try to get my friend D somewhere cool to swim with me.

This year we were in Stevenson, WA in the beautiful Columbia River Gorge.


We had a 6+ bedroom house high on a hill overlooking the river. It was a perfect place for a weekend getaway with a group of families.

About 5pm on Saturday afternoon, my spouse woke me up from a nap and suggested I look out the window.


There was a giant column of smoke from the hillside across the way.  By the time the sun had set, we could see the fire from our porch.


We were able to see individual trees go up in flames. The media was reporting that there were approximately 150 hikers trapped on a trail above the fire. We worried about them as we marveled at the power of the fire.

Sunday we woke up to smokey air quality and heat.  No one really wanted to go outside. It was hard to breath and ash was falling from the sky.  We spent most of the day inside, playing board games and reading.

Monday, as we were packing up, I was feeling sad about not having had a swim adventure. So I convinced D to go down and dip in the Columbia River with me. It looked like it was snowing on the way down to the river; there was that much ash falling from the sky.



That's D with the SUN above his head.  That's how smokey it was.

The water felt refreshing, as it was still early enough in the day for the air to not feel awful. We swam upstream for about 25 minutes. We got to a point where we basically were on a treadmill, swimming with almost no progress.  So we turned around and headed back.  I'm glad I got my swim in, even if it wasn't the greatest ever.  I'll have memories of the ash that day.

On the way out of town, I stopped and took this photo.  It accurately portrays the air quality that day.


The good news is that all of the hikers were safely evacuated.  The bad news is that a lot of a beautiful wildlife refuge has been destroyed.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Park to Park 2017

I've been doing Park to Park for years.  It was the first big goal open water swim I did when I was getting into swimming.  And it is a staple in my summer calendar. The course is fun, straight across Lake Washington, from one city park to another. I do the "classic" one way course.



Last year, the conditions were awful.  Worse waves then I typically see in Puget Sound.  My time was long- 1:14 for the 1.4 ish miles of the swim.

This year I didn't think much about the swim. I joined at the last moment possible. I didn't do any special training other than skipping the long swim I usually do the day before.

I joined up with some of my friends from the Notorious Alki Swimmers.  I love these folks.  They are strong, powerful, funny, smart people. I'm always excited to see them and am so glad they have become friends.


My goal for this swim was pretty much "fun and finish."  I have been working on my freestyle (crawl) and thought I'd try to add more free into the swim.  To achieve that goal, I was wearing my motion sickness wrist bands.


The swim was chip timed. This is also new in the last few years. It means they KNOW that everyone who entered the water also got out.  It also means we get to take a "prison chic" photo. (that's me with the aqua sock on!)



The swim has moved to a mass start in recent years, away from the wave start in the past, with slow waves going first.  The advantage of this is that slower swimmers don't have the constant experience of being passed by faster swimmers, and the mental head-game that brings. The downside is that it means that the mass start is chaotic, and one has to try to seed themselves appropriately.

 The mass start looks like this:




A challenge for me at the start can be going out too fast and therefore loosing breath control, hyperventilating and having to work hard to calm down. As I've become more experienced at these events I've gotten better at seeding myself, and at knowing I need to swim my own event. Sometimes a warm up that helps to get over the cold shock can help, but this time I decided the water was warm enough to not need that.  I was right.

I started near the rear, figuring I could avoid the "washing machine" feeling at the beginning, and that passing people later would feel good. I started out with free, and quickly realized that was a mistake. I needed to warm up and get a rhythm in breast, then could switch over. Part of how I knew it was a mistake is that I couldn't focus on anything except swimming. I wasn't able to sing a song, or work on bi-lateral breathing. I was just swimming, and expending a lot of energy. So I switched back to breast for a while.

The course had large numbered buoys to show the way. They started at 5 and worked their way down to 1, so you always had a sense of where you were.  I actually found this a bit annoying. It took away some of the challenge of an OWS. I like having to pay attention and sight.


Once I got my rhythm, I tried to increase my percent of free. I set a goal of doing only free from buoy 4 to buoy 3.  During this time I did watch a rescue, so did a few strokes of breast for that.  There was a swimmer hanging onto a kayak.  The kayaker had their paddle up in the air to signal for a boat. The paddle boarder nearby also raised her paddle. But for some reason the boat didn't come.  So the paddle boarder went and got the motor boat. Which, once they got the boat's attention, came quickly and got the swimmer out of the water. I was a bit distressed by how long it took, however.

I did make it to buoy 3 with only free-- except for the time to watch and make sure the other swimmer was safe. It is very hard to tread water and take a selfie when you want a specific background, but some how I was able to commemorate the occasion.


The buoys counted down pretty quickly. My shoulder got a bit tired of the free, so I switched back and forth with more regularity after that one long push.  I never got to the "I need to finish now" point. I felt strong.  The finish came up pretty quickly.  I was still surrounded by swimmers. I never got that "i'm alone on the course" feeling.


They used a bright light (seen in the photo above) to make finding the finish easier.  It helped, but again, took some of the fun out of the adventure.

After the swim I met back up with my friends and we all compared notes. Everyone had a great time, and was happy. The food was OK, bagels etc and the Greek yogurt folks were there giving out some AMAZING yogurt! I got the bus back to the cars, and chatted with a friend the whole way. 

When I got home, I checked my time. 1:07. A whole 7 minutes faster than last  year!! That's about 13% faster!


Monday, August 28, 2017

Proud to know them

One of the amazing things about the folks I swim with every weekend, the Notorious Alki Swimmers, is the diversity of skill sets and interests among us.


And yet we all love swimming in the Sound.

Three of these swimmers earned the title "Notorious" in the past week with amazing feats of endurance swimming. I am so proud to know them.

First, Melissa. Melissa swam the English Channel.  Yes. That is right.  She did this:


That's 41 MILES of swimming, in just under 17 hours. Seriously, that is a distance most people don't want to DRIVE. And she did it all, according to Channel Rules, with just a swimsuit, cap, and goggles, and with no forward motion help from her escort boat.

I watched her progress on her on-line tracker the whole way, and was cheering for her at every step.  Go read her blog post, she can describe it better than I can.  But let's just say she rocks.

Then there is Jerome and Lauren.  Jerome and Lauren swam 10.5 miles from Bremmerton to West Seattle. Jerome is the first man to complete this historic route, created by Amy Hiland in 1959. Only three women, other than Amy (and including Lauren) have completed this swim.

I was delighted to be at Alki for the end of Jerome and Lauren's swim.



And here's the thing about all three of these superstars.  They are kind, down-to-earth folks.  They support all the other swimmers and don't let their super powers go to their heads.  I'm really honored and proud to know all three of them.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Change of Stroke

I'm a breast-stroker.  I get seasick easily, and breaststroke lets me look at a fixed point in the distance every stroke. That keeps me stable and less sick. I typically like to sit in the front seat of a car and near a window on a boat for the same reason.

During Swim Defiance, my kayaker commented that I was a lot faster when I'd do freestyle instead of breaststroke. So I've been trying to add some additional free into each workout.

This weekend, during my usual Alki swim, I decided to add in a significant amount of free. There is a group of swimmers I start with as we do head-up breaststroke and get used to the water. Then they switch over to free and leave me in the dust.

This week I was able to keep up with them with comfort.  On the way back the boat wakes picked up so I had to switch back to breast.  It makes me think if I could switch strokes more permanently, I could potentially be a more solid middle of the pack swimmer.

The plan is to work on sea-sickness prevention!


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Seal!

July found me back out on the Hood Canal for work.  This time around my cohort knew I wanted to swim and all came prepared to support me.  And by prepared, I mean ready to buy drinks at the bar and watch that I didn't drown.

So swim I did.

The beach that I used last summer, attached to the retreat center, was closed, as the stairs collapsed.  So they suggested I go down the road to Alderbrook, a swank hotel and spa, and use their beach (and their fire pit, and bar!) This is the gang, on the shore, watching me.



The first night there, the gang was happy to watch the sunset, watch me swim, and have some s'mores.  The water was perfect!  Clear. Warm compared to Alki, and calm.

See how clear it is:

I swam out about a quarter of a mile. Enjoying the light as it changed, and looking at the scenery.  I've been told that one of these houses belongs to Bill Gates.



On the way back I noticed this sign on the dock. When I came back two days later there was a seaplane there!



When I got back to shore, the folks watching me swim mentioned that I'd been followed by a seal.  I was oblivious to this creature, just feet from me. When they told me that, I did turn around, and sure enough, there was a delightful creature. I talked to him for a few minutes, then got out. One of the women on shore had caught a video of him and me together, and sent it along. It is magical! I feel so lucky to have gotten this close to a seal!

video



Friday, July 7, 2017

What does place matter?

When I signed up for Swim Defiance 3k I knew the race capped at 300 people. I didn't realize that only 36 people would sign up, show up, and finish.

I'm a solid back of the pack swimmer. When I swim Park to Park or Green Lake there are always people behind me at the end. But with a challenging event, when I found out the smallness of the field, I realized I would likely be DFL.  The D is for Dead.  The L is for Last. You can infer the F.

I've been DFL in foot races before. I did a 7 mile trail race with 37 runners.  It was a two loop race, and I finished my first loop just before the fastest runner crossed the line.


That didn't bother me. I'd seen a red fox on the trail, which was really cool. And I knew in a field that small I'd be the last.

Another time I was last was at a 5k run in honor of a priest who was recovering from cancer.  He ran the race also. He was the penultimate finisher. I didn't feel like I could sprint to beat him at the end. It just wasn't right.

So when I found out how small the field would be for the swim, I got anxious. Would they pull me from the race because I was so slow, even though I knew I'd make the cut off (this had happened to me before)? Would people be taking down the finish line before I was done? Would I be embarrassed as everyone had already gone home when I finished?

In the end, I decided to go, knowing full well I'd likely be last.  And I was.  And it was all ok. I was ahead of everyone at home on the sofa that morning! I placed in the non-wetsuit division, which gained me major bad-ass points, just for doing it without a wetsuit. I like to joke that I got to enjoy myself longer than anyone else. The truth is, it was still a huge accomplishment.  I'm still proud of what I did. And ultimately, the only race I'm in is the one against myself. My mental battle with endurance sports. My mental race against societal norms around weight and body issues. And my own sense of self doubt.  I swim because I love my body, and that means I won the race!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Swim Defiance 3k

This is probably the hardest athletic endeavor I've ever undertaken.  And I have to say I kicked its butt!!

The Swim Defiance is a 5k and 3k swim in Puget Sound. The 3k swimmers (of which I was one) take the Ferry from Tacoma to Vashon Island, then swim back.


I've actively trained for this event since I posted in late March about training. My predicted time was 90 to 100 minutes. My longest swim in cold water had been 60 minutes, so I was a little worried about the prolonged exposure and ordered some core warmers to help with after the event.

I drove down to Tacoma with my friend B, and we met up with a bunch of other Notorious Alki Swimmers.  On our drive down we talked about how there was no shame in raising your hand for a boat to pull you out if needed. It was far more important to be safe than anything else. As a solo swimmer, I have a rule that if I'm trying to decide between two choices I pick the safer one.


The safety briefing had way too much talk with silly jokes and not a lot of content. One potentially useful thing the MC did say, was that the current was strong from East to West so the 5k swimmers should sight to the east to drift toward the  west for the turn around.

I was pretty nervous and hyped up about the start, and became a total ditz. I couldn't keep track of what I needed when. Where I should put what.  I even went back to the car at one point, explicitly to put my glasses in the car. Then forgot!! Yeah, stress makes me a ditz.

We watched the 5k swimmers start.  There were 21 of them, all wearing wet suits! The swim buoys were required for this event. A great choice to help the safety staff see everyone on the course.


After they departed, we headed for the bus to the ferry.  The ride was probably only about 5 minutes. Short enough to not have to worry about motion sickness. We walked on the ferry for the short ride across the water.



As the ferry was docking, I looked over and saw an eagle on the start beach.


Good omen!  We all disembarked and went down to the beach. Short time to shed extra layers and get a headcount, then we were in the water.  The race officiant said we should wade out to waist deep. However, the tide was out, so after walking out 20 yards, he said "That's enough". We waited for the ferry to depart, then started.

The water was warmer than Alki. I predicted I'd be the last finisher, so I focused on pacing my entry so I didn't hyperventilate. I was able to calmly enter and start swimming.  I stayed with the pack in sight for a while, then eventually drifted into my own space. The other shore looked so far away! The tiny gold arch the finish.



I swam and just tried to find a groove. The start had tons of jellyfish. Beautiful little moon jellies. At first I tried to dodge them. But in time I realized there was no way that was possible. I might have gotten stung, but those jelly's stings don't hurt too much, so I ignored it and went on.

One of the strange things about this event is that I had absolutely no sense of time while I was out there.  I knew I'd predicted 90 minutes. I knew the cut off was 120 minutes.  There were times that I was SURE I wasn't going to make the cut off, other times when I thought I'd blow my prediction out of the water.  Perhaps that had to do with the current.

The current... the race MC was wrong about which way it was pushing. Just, simply, wrong.  It was a strong eastward current, pushing us back to the ferry route.  There was a strong westward current for about the last 200 yards of the course.  Otherwise, east all the way.

This created a problem.  With the start so close to the ferry terminal, and the current pushing us east, everyone ended up in the ferry lane.  Not good.  At one point, I thought I was the most westerly swimmer, and I saw the ferry, instead of going to my left to the terminal, turn and cross in front of the swimmers, and through the course. He then proceeded to cross the channel on my right.  I looked over my right shoulder, and sure enough, I had drifted east enough that the ferry terminal was now behind me on the right.

No one wants to be the ferry captain who kills 35 swimmers.So I'm glad he went around us. However, that was the first inkling I had that things were not as they should be on the water. (more about that in a separate safety post).

One of my swim friends, H, was a kayaker and had agreed to keep an eye on me. As the pack moved ahead, she found me and kept with me. I strongly believe her guidance kept me on a straighter trajectory than most.


Somewhere in the middle of the swim I started doing math.  Trying to figure out, if I was swimming at a 30 degree angle because of the current, what was the distance I'd actually swim?  What if it was a 45 degree angle?  I decided I couldn't do the math in my head while swimming. In fact, it was hard work to even figure out what the math problem would look like.

At one point I thought about how I'd describe the swim to others when I was done. The best I could come up with was "breathe, bubbles, breathe, bubbles, breathe, bubbles."  Guess that isn't too exciting.

I decided to sing. My favorite song from Come From Away. The song, Me and the Sky, is a good swim anthem for me.  There are many ways that I feel like swimming and flying are the same. This song is about a woman's love of flight. However, she was a pilot on September 11, 2001 so the last verse of the song is about how "the one thing I love more than anything is used as the bomb."  For some reason, after completing one time through the whole song, this last verse got stuck in my head.  I sang it alone about 14 more times before deciding it wasn't a great swim song, and turning it off.

At times I felt a little cold, and then just picked up the pace.  At times I would try to do freestyle instead of breaststroke, and would feel motion sick. I looked behind me to see how far I'd come. And continued to sight on the far away arch as it inched slowly closer.

As I got closer to shore the moon jellies came back. They are so beautiful. I love watching them.  Then I could see the ground below the water.  And so I tried to get to the finish.  I was being swept west, with the finish to my east. A man on shore said if I came in closer I could fight the current more easily.  I came in and was about 20 yards from the finish arch.  So I just stood up and walked there!! Finish time was 94 min on my watch and 96 for the official clock.


I was, in fact, the last finisher. However, I was also third in the non-wetsuit division!!  So I got a little trophy.

My friend B was second in the non-wetsuit division. So she got a plate!!


I got out of my wet clothes and used my core warmers as soon as I could. I never got the real shivers. I was able to maintain motor skills and articulation abilities. All around good signs of no hypothermia.

Friends who swam with GPS trackers on estimated about 2.2-2.4 miles for their swims. And the trajectories all looked something like this, red is swimmer, yellow is ferry path:



I feel accomplished. I am proud that I was able to finish in the time I predicted. I love that I could be last and third in my division! I loved getting to know the fabulous NAS folks even better. I appreciated the support and friendship of all involved, especially my kayaker, H.


Overall, it was a meaningful experience for me. It is always fabulous to accomplish something you are not sure you can do.