Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Almost There

You can find yourself in deep, cold waters. Your face and hands are long ago numb, and your arms feel heavy. The tide pulls you sideways, and shore seems far away.

When the waves bounce you, you can sometimes see your home. Not your house. Your city. From the grey Embarcadero buildings to the red television tower you see the sourdough city melt into pointillist dots. There are splotches of green for parks, and you can make out the mission style roof of Fort Point. It is early morning, and the stillness of San Francisco contrasts against the Bay's anger.

Somewhere ahead is the ferry that had brought you to next to Alcatraz. Earlier, you walked barefoot with the rest of your pack of swimmers over cobblestones along Fisherman’s Wharf to get to the Blue and Gold pier. Two homeless guys, perhaps sober but still hungry, looked at this parade of neoprene as it wandered by Hooters. The girls there don’t wear anything as anatomically revealing as your wetsuit and still get much better tips. You tried your best not to look at your fellow well toned competition, but are left with the small hope that you will float far better than they will.

You boarded the boat and took a seat next to a grey haired husband and wife team from Seattle with shoulders the size of Mount Rainer. They casually mention how they swim in the much colder Washington waters. At the table across the aisle, a daughter with her swim cap already on twitched next to her father who stared out the window. There was a snack bar towards the stern, but no one bought anything. Finally the ship stopped, the doors opened, and the crowd started chanting “Go, go, go …” Pair by pair the swimmers launched out into bay and dipped well below the wake of the ferry. That was a half hour ago.

Your head is underwater again. You blow bubbles out your mouth even though your Russian swim instructor had barked at you to breath through your nose. You don’t understand most of what he says anyway, but he is at the YMCA every morning at 5:45 with a crew cut and red lifeguard shirt to shout at whomever paid the twenty-dollar masters fee “grab beach ball.” His daughter is sometimes there in the faster lane. You hope she can translate, but she is already starting her second set of pulling for one hundred yards. Beach balls will remain a mystery.

The Russian lets you wear fins so that you can keep up with the rest of the class. You are a genius with a kickboard for no particular reason. Everyone should get one athletic gift in life – like the tall, thin kid with bad acne and Motley Crue t-shirt from summer camp who was a master at foosball. He owned the machine in the Rec Center and only stopped to munch on the microwave bake bean burritos. You hope that for the Beijing Olympics they will have foosball as an exhibition sport and you will see him still thin but with better skin taking on the best from Australia. Everybody you knew growing up was going to be famous. You haven’t heard from most of them since.

You take a breath on the other side.

Swimming is repetition. Three strokes for each breath. Eighteen strokes for a length. Two lengths for a lap. Thirty-two laps for a mile. After a while you lose count. Perhaps it is lack of the oxygen or maybe you have your stroke number confused with your lap count, but you find yourself in a mathematical uncertainty, an aquatic déjà vu of thinking that you have already done this lap. It feels like the one you just did and the one you know you will do, but it lacks the formality of a name. Am I on twenty-one or twenty-two? You can check your watch to for the amount of time you have been swimming and estimate how many laps you should have done. But this requires math and you don't have enough oxygen for that.

This numeric uncertainty follows you. You used to laugh off still writing checks with the prior year in February, but there are times now when you forget your own age. You get used to using phrases like mid thirties. You have migrated from a specific to a demographic – a slightly less influential range but with more disposable income. Singers now wear things that you would not dare to try and everyone on American Idol looks too young. You realize that if you were on Survivor that you have crossed over from the young person camp to the "tag along" tribe and that your only hope for them to keep you around is your superior fishing skills because you learned how to swim from the crew cut Russian.

You have friends now who are been divorced and others have been to cardiologists. That belief that somehow you weren't going to make the same mistakes as your parents, that your love was different in way that they could never understand, that there wasn't going to be those compromises of keeping a job to make a mortgage - these things all have slowly faded like the soccer intramural runner up shirt that you won in college and you realize that your parents must have thrown out their own mementos from that time long ago.

Years blur. What happened in 1998? Did we know about Monica then? Had you started working at a start up or had you left one with a mound of empty options? Who got married that year? Did you have a summer vacation? Did you listen to Hansen? Are they now too old for American Idol?

You don't smell the ocean as much as you taste it. The salt water drains around your teeth and pushes against your tongue. It is a siren's kiss - sloppy and urgent. The restorative mocha after the swim will taste exceptionally sweet, and you hope that it will come soon.

In the fall there is a race called Swim of the Centurions that is run by a smallish leathery Chilean man named Pedro. He is of the sea, having been one of the first to do this swim a hundred times. Sometimes he goes out and back from the shore and every Thursday he holds a swim clinic. Swimming is repetition.

But it is also about diving in. You must take risks. Little gambles check to see if you are alive. You buy a lottery ticket when you get a bus pass in the hopes that there a few magic numbers that could change everything. You sometimes dare to get the mocha without non-fat milk. Life sometimes needs the cream.

When asked for advice about entering the chilly bay for the first time, Pedro will tell you in a slight accent "Just go for it." While it might just be a variation on a shoe company logo, you need to hear it. You can't always just wade into the water and hope that somehow it going to turn pleasant and warm. The water stings the blood vessels in your feet for five minutes and then you will feel nothing.

Forget about blowing bubbles. Forget about insurance companies. Forget about the sharks. Forget about worrying if you were invited to the right birthday party. Forget about the runoff of the dirt of the city into the bay. Forget about a writing assignment that isn't really working. Forget about the people from Seattle, the crew cut Russian, and Pedro.

Just go for it.

The shore is getting closer. One of the guides in a kayak comes over to you and suggests that you aim a little to the right. You see patches of splashes ahead. Small groups of swimmers are drafting off of each other and the opening into your landing harbor, Aquatic Park, is visible up ahead.

Swimming from Alcatraz is the easiest hard thing you can do. Marathons are much harder. Relationships are harder. Figuring out what your boss actually wants you to do is harder. But you will get a t-shirt if you finish Alcatraz and maybe that can replace the one from college.

It is hard enough that your friends will think you are nuts except for the ones who also do triathlons. Your family will wonder why you can't take up something a little safer like bowling. Tourists will come up to you afterwards and ask questions like "Isn't it really cold?"

“Yes,” you will tell them. “It is.”

You think you are close enough that you can stand and you drop your legs into the nothingness. You can see the race clock ahead and hear the announcer slowly call off the contestants as they stride onto the sand. You are past the last section of moored boats and the buoys that mark the swim area. You are almost there.

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

Sometimes it does rain even on weekends...

A strange thing about triathlons is that they lack narrative and theme of pure running. They are neither the four-line poem of a mile or the epic journey of a marathon (which in my mind is far tougher). I want to write about them but don't have an easy slant.

Doing them (and granted I only have two medals) I break them down into little pieces - a swim scrum, a few buoys, some hills on the bike, watching older guys and then younger women pass, and then a run/walk. It is a disjointed mix in which none of the stuff in the first act really affects the third. Most of the time I wind up paying attention to my heart rate and how many minutes I have until snack time. Like the fish at the Steinhart aquarium I need to feed every half hour.

Maybe the weather is where to begin. Wildflower was more about foreshadowing. You know that it might be a tough day when the car parked next to you is from a guy who was just voted off of surivor ). I had heard that wildflower was supposed to be the Woodstock of triathlons. And while the crazed hippies were replaces with crazed tri geeks, we did have Woodstock's rain and mud.

It rained most of Friday. That night I huddled in my Charlie Brown tent and listened to scattered squalls pound the walls. My important tri stuff was wrapped in Ziploc bags while the rest of my clothes absorbed water from a small hole in the tent that I did not cover. The low for the race was lying in the dark unable to sleep and wondering how much it was going to hurt - like a kid the night before the dentist.

The rain kept coming even as we trudged down the hill to set up our transition areas.

I don't know if the lake was choppy, because I really could not see it. Rumors started to flow around that they were going to change the course and they did. They decided to make the run hillier. Rather than have an Arch-Rock-like climb on trails we were going to do a Divasdero-street(where my parents live) uphill on concrete. Twice. We would be required to walk our bikes over steel bridge at mile forty and the race was going to go forward.

In fairness it was more of a California rain than a southern drenching. If you squinted you could gaze far enough to see the bikers ahead, but the flowers and the mountains were blurred. There were patches of dryness but these occurred more in the open flats than the white knuckled descents.

It was also windy. And then got hot in the run. I think I might be the only person dumb enough to have finished Wildflower in a turtleneck.

As stupid as the day got there was never really a moment of quitting. Sure I was going to walk up beach hill, but I was going to run after that. When you have waited over a year to do something you damn well want to make sure it gets done. I never really had the moment of despair that I got when I hit the wall at mile 18 of the Honolulu Marathon or the fifth hill of the Top Hat Classic. It was a slow, steady whittling like a boxer who is aware how many more rounds he has to go and knows how many teeth he has left. Take a few punches. Keep shuffling the feet.

Also, I knew that I wasn't having the toughest weekend. The night before we had our kick off party catered with low budget meatless pasta and salad driven in from Salinas. The coaches spoke and then a couple of honorees, cancer survivors doing the triathlon, gave talks. It is inspirational to hear someone has come back from chemo and is strong enough to do what you were about to do. A guy missing an arm passed me on the run. A blind women would do the Olympic course. In the scheme of things I travel through life blessed.

After the second honoree talked, the coordinator introduced "And now Oleg."


He is a tall fellow with a Clydesdale build. He is jolly, enthusiastic, has the sweetest wife, and used to work at Mellon before I arrived. I have had to actually clean up some of his spreadsheets. From time to time he joins the work crew at Aquatic Park, but has yet to come close to be able to swim as fast as his wife. He can run faster than she and they had both come down for the Olympic distance tri.


I had done water running with him on Tuesday as my last taper workout. (I am still a complete nut the weeks leading up to a distance event and I have tried to buy the person working next to me many burritos to apologize).


The day before he had felt a bump on his neck and went to the doctors to check it out. He found out he has a lymphoma but the biopsy has not specified the exact kind. Obviously unable to do the race, he had come down to support us and would wind up running the entire 10k with his wife who finished her event in a haze. She could have dehydrated through tears.

He has named his tumor Jerry and told us all he plans to get rid of Jerry as soon as possible. Standing in front of three hundred people and telling "yesterday I learned that I had cancer" is tougher than any rain on any bike. On any day.

I did talk to my boss and he asked about how you assist someone in this state. I only know the part of how to feel helpless during your senior year at boarding school when my brother was in 8th grade with ALL. His approach was getting a Nintendo and watching Divorce Court. He referred to the probabilistic approach of which treatment he would receive to as the big spin. Dark humor can help with the healing. There were plenty of dark moments without humor, but I don't want to talk about them now.

I know Oleg will keep his wit and I hope he knows that he will have a lot of us cheering for him. I will buy him beers next year when he completes the course (and help as I can in the meantime).

Yes, it did rain during wildflower. I had it easy.