OPEN WATER…swim

Over the last year, my wife has developed an addiction to sport. Initially it was running, but we all know that’s just a gateway drug. Now it’s the hard stuff: swimming, biking…running, again. Triathlons, they call it on the street.

My hobbies are less pressing. Today I bought a used paperback science fiction book for a dollar and fifty cents. Later this afternoon, I will most likely doodle in a notebook instead of writing my thousand words of the day. Perhaps I will eat lunch.

Comparatively, Holly went on a four hour bike ride. Maybe she ran for an additional hour. I’m not even sure anymore.

Like any good addict wife, she wants to bring me along. We’ve started swimming together once a week. I go at a languid halfspeed while Holly continually laps me using only her arms. I did buy a pair of jammers, though. Completing unflattering. However, I will say this for swimming: it may be the most private workout you can achieve. No one can watch you contemplate a choice between the ten and twenty-five pound barbell (I really think the gym has permanently lost the fifteen and twenty pounders). In the pool, it’s only you. And your wife, who is smoking you.

On Memorial Day, Holly participated in an open water swim. I’ve ran 5k’s, obstacle courses and even a disastrous half-marathon with her before. We had been swimming together for several weeks at this point. Thus, when she asked me to compete with her, I saw it as the shortest, most painless opportunity to join Holly in her hobby before the distances got overly complicated. Woe to him who thinks such thoughts.

The swim was early that Monday morning at an under-used beach on our lake. There were perhaps one hundred participants, an even mix of high school swim teams, triathlon clubs, and Holly’s friends. A great, inflatable green gate had been erected at the water’s edge. Beyond that, four enormous buoys floated in a straight line, each 250 meters from the next. Holly would end up swimming to the furthest and back again, for 2000 meters. Some people that day did the same loop twice, for 4000. I swam halfway and turned around for a complete kilometer.

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The group that swam my length was released last. Even then, I tried to leave the green gate last, not out of trepidation but in an effort to set a slow pace, uninfluenced by other swimmers. I had swam more than a thousand meters before, but I realized that some things were different in open water. Little did I know.

First, the obvious – there are no walls. I could not take an easy breath every twenty-five yards and reset myself before pushing – really, with my lanky legs, rocketing – myself a quarter of the pool distance simply by kicking off the wall. Add this element to the dark, murky water (I have written elsewhere about my unhealthy, adolescent fear of dark water) and the fact that this water surges occasionally as if it were alive, and you have created a lethal scenario. After my first 200 meters, it ceased to be a competition and instead became survival.

I have never before participated in an athletic event that had the potential to kill me (unless you count the egg games – man that’s like three hyperlinks in this post). The lake was angry that day, my friends. By the time I reached the 500 meter turn-around, I had used all the swim strokes I knew and then created two more. I was asked three times by volunteer kayakers if I needed to grab ahold of their boats and rest a bit. I began to be passed by different color swim caps, indicating that the other distance racers were destined to finish before I.

I made it back to shore. I didn’t throw up. Instead, I thought about all the promises I had made to God, if He allowed me to live, and if I was going to fulfill them now that I was back on dry land. I waited for Holly, who was close behind, ready to comfort her.  Because, of course, she was bound to have a similar, shocking experience. However, she came out of the water laughing, raising the roof with her hands and hugging other competitors.

Afterwards, I got third place in my age division. There were only three of us. I still got a medal.

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