Every summer the open water swimming season peppers the calendar, and for years I have shriggged it off with complete apathy. Hell, I'm accustomed to many, many years of competitive swimming in the pool. Why would I want to jump in a large body of cold water where I can not see the three feet in front of me, let alone the bottom? Warm chlorinated water; lane lines; starting blocks; a black line along the bottom; walls no more than 50-meters away – that's my idea of competitive swimming. I always had a pretty adamant stance against leaving the pool.
Last year I must have had a stroke or something, because I agreed to swim a short race (one mile) in a small lake. It did not kill me, and I actually won an award, which always helps pique my interest. I'm hesitant to say that it was actually fun, but it was pleasant enough for me to consider trying it again. The screaming muscle pain in my forearms and back following the race was close to convincing me to never do it again, but fortunately I subscribe to the "no pain, no gain" mantra. What's a little soreness if there's a sense of accomplishment that comes with it?
This year I made a conscious decision to take a few more dips into the open water to test my resolve and see if a level of enjoyment could be sustained. I participated in three different events and loved every minute of them. Sure, the waters were colder than I usually like, and my body had to end a bit of punishment it's not accredited to (plus, there's shrinkage), but the thrill generated by the competition convinced me that adding open water swims to my racing repertoire is a definite must.
After seeing how well I had adapted to this new venue, my coach pointed out an unwritten rule for those who opt to compete outside the pool: the Trans Tahoe Relay is a rite of passage everyone must go through before really considering themselves an open water swimmer . She actually posed it as a challenge, and I was not about to let her think I was a lame wuss who's unwilling to brave some extreme elements. Phooey!
The Trans Tahoe Relay is an 11.5-mile trek across Lake Tahoe, starting on the Nevada side and finishing on the California shore. Six-man teams enter the race (although some crazy souls walked the distance solo), with each participant swimming a half-hour shift first, followed by a 15-minute swim, and subsequent 10-minute swims until reaching the finish. Teams are responsible for bringing their own boat to follow the swimmer and provide a transport for supplies and those waiting their turn in the drink. No wetsuits are allowed in the frigid water, which usually falls on either side of 60-degrees this time of year. We were blessed with perfect weather conditions, including reliably calm water at an acceptable temperature. Last year the weather gods were not so kind, as the swimmers had to deal with windy, overcast conditions and choppy water. This fact did not go unmentioned by the veterans who thought the newbies (me) had it too easy.
Race day began at 5:00 am with a small breakfast and an injection of caffeine. Lucky for us, one of our teammates owns a sweet pad about 15 minutes from the lake, so we were afford some creature comforts before heading out. The morning air was a crisp, but the clear, blue sky indicated that we were going to be in for a quick warm-up. The residence and boat were on the finish line side of the lake, so we had to load up the boat and make our way to the other side. The rookie boat driver in me clumsily maneuvered out of port and revved it across the lake, skipping across the glassy water (words can not aptly describe how fun that was).
The starting area was pure insanity. Leadoff swimmers begin on the beach and swim out to a myriad of team boats trying to find their own, while the boats search the waters for their man (or woman). Most boats adorn something distinguishing to facilitate the spotting, but this does not necessarily mean this process goes smoothly. We were fortunately to find our guy pretty quickly and headed out across the lake, though others had a more difficult time making their way through the chaos. Initial problems (and perhaps panic for the swimmers) are very understandable, as they have to power their way way through the pack and swim among the boats, trying not to get hit by them or swim into the propellers, while trying to find their team. I had heard nightmare stories about being the first swimmer in the water, so I was pretty adamant about passing the buck and taking the second leg of the race. Call me what you like, but I was not about to risk my life in the first ten minutes of a very long race. Maybe I'll suck it up and find the balls to be morearing another time.
When it was my turn to enter the water, the butterflies in my tummy were ferociously circulating in anticipation of the colder-than-I would-prefer water and the arduous task of flailing in it for half an hour. Upon jumping in, my body was completely covered in goose bumps, and I could feel my testicles retreating for higher ground (the aforementioned shrinkage at work). I was careful to not start off too fast, in fear of burning out quick and really suffering before the task at hand was completed. After my efforts to stay calm at the beginning, my lungs began to tire and gasp as they attempted to adjust to the mountainous elevation (in the vicinity of 6,200 feet). About ten minutes in to it, I began to get comfortable and was able to kick it up a notch and see what kind of pace I could sustain the rest of the way. I forged ahead as fast as my little body could go, constantly breathing to my left in order to keep an eye on our boat (for some reason I got a sense of safety knowing exactly where my teams were). I'm not going to lie and say this was a piece of cake, as I was pretty wiped out towards the end of my time in the water, and I was more than happy when I was given the signal to climb back on board.
While working my way through the lake, my eyes darted about, taking in the surroundings amidst dark blue water so deep that the hue suddenly slips into the shiny blackness that houses the bottom. It was amazing to see beams of sunlight reflecting off the lake floor and shining back upward, appearing like searchlights piercing through the nighttime sky. The phenomenon captured my attention a few too many times, which rendered in me straying off course due to my lack of concentration. It can be really hard for the simpleminded (like me) to stay focused in open water swimsuits, especially if the clarity allows you to gaze around.
Once I was back on the boat I turned down the opportunity to drive and opted to roost up at the front and enjoy the warm morning sun. This was pure bliss – on a boat in the middle of Lake Tahoe on a flawless summer day. The weather may have been perfect as I lounged about, but the downtime between my swims began to drag on after awhile. Occasional glances back in the direction of the starting area offered up a sight of many, many boats in the distance. To counteract the boredom, I daydreamed that we had escaped from the shore and the pack of boats was trying to chase us down. I watched them and relished in the fact that they were not catching up to us (I know, I watch too much TV). In the opposite direction, the race leaders appeared as white flecks along the horizon, so there was really no point in playing make-believe with them.
Through the duration of our jaunt across the lake, we encountered a few other competitors as we passed them (or vise versa in some cases). As the boats got close to one another by, it was fun to engage in mindless banter (and a little smack talk) with the others. For the last half of the race, we had the unfortunate honor of being close to the only naked boat in the race (apparently there is at least one of them every year). I say it was unfortunate because they were all guys – flabby, older men to be exact. Is it too much to ask that the team going sans clothing would have a few female hotties?
The teams in each division were distinguished by the color of their swim caps, which were issued before the race. Our division was wearing light blue caps, so we were constantly on the lookout for our competition. We had two groups ahead in our crosshairs, one of which was within striking distance as we approached the finish line. Our final swimmer practiced the fading competitor, as she sprinted for the beach with about three minutes to go. It was quite exhilarating to cap-off a four-hour race (3 hours and 57 minutes, to be exact) with a dash for the finish – at least, it was exhilarating to watch.
In the end, we finished 12th overall (out of 98) and third in our division. We only needed ten shifts in the water (two of our teams only had to swim once), which I thought was pretty impressive for a group of mostly-first timers. I'm very happy that I can check the Trans Tahoe relay off my to-do list, but I'm thinking this may be my only time doing it. I think I want to keep the fantastic conditions in my memories of this race, and not taint that with possible crappy weather in subsequent years.
Who am I kidding? I'll be back again.