air temp: 46°
water temp: 58°
I don't care if it IS San Diego... whose idea of fun was this?
OK, so I had known about the Polar Bear Swim for about a month, ever since my loving husband had me sign up to do it, and had even gone to the pool a few times since January to make sure I was good with a 500-yd swim. I can swim a mile without too much effort, so I didn't give a 500-yd swim much thought. I knew it would be cold, so I brought my wetsuit.
But I ignored two cardinal rules of racing:
1. Know the course and the conditions, and practice both before the event.
2. Never use untried or unfamiliar equipment the day of the event.
I didn't realize I was breaking these rules, because 1) I had done this specific swim before without any problem... just not in 58° water. OK, so I, um, I did it in June. Yeah. Then, 2) I've used the wetsuit many times before... just not in the past, um, two and a half years. Yeah. I haven't done a cold ocean swim in probably two and a half years.
Strategy: Wing it.
I don't suggest this as a strategy for an event, especially in open water. Most especially fifty-eight degree water.
Thursday began grey and overcast with signs of rain, but hey, I had a great attitude, and that's got to count for something, right? I figured the cold and rain would discourage lesser mortals from the event, thereby increasing my chances of doing well. This is the kind of twisted logic and hubris that leads to one's very sudden and certain demise.
My husband Steve is all smiles. He has evolved into me, in the days when I didn't know enough to be afraid. He used to shake his head and scoff when I would do things like the 4-mile Midnight Run in Central Park on New Year's Eve. Now he signs up for Polar Bear swims in February and convinces me I should join in the fun...
Out at Point Loma, the air temperature is about 46°. Light rain sprinkles us occasionally as we swimsuit-clad nutjobs await the signal to line up on the beach. I've pulled on my wetsuit, taking a moment to show off the winter remnants of my summer cyclist tan.
I struggle to pull on the wetsuit, and feel like I haven't got it on properly. I figure it's an awkward piece of equipment anyway, and that it will be fine once I'm in the water. This is my second mistake. My first, of course, was assuming I could just come out and do a difficult open water swim with no practice ahead of time. I wade into the water to get the initial acclimation out of the way, but I should have spent more time in the cold water to let my heart adjust and slow down. Instead, standing in the waist-deep water, I squirt warm water from a water bottle into my wetsuit and warm my chest and back. My clever plan of keeping myself warmer will soon backfire once the race begins and the surface warmth wears off, leaving me cold throughout and breathless in the frigid water.
(Pic above: The far buoy is just to the left of the white ship. No, not the big red thing, the little bitty red speck between the itty bitty white speck and the ship. Yes, that one.)
Back on the beach, we are given last minute instructions, we make sure we know where the buoys are, then the countdown begins and we are off! I run into the water, going as deep as I can before diving in. I probably take only 15 or 20 strokes before I realize I am completely breathless. The water has taken my breath away, shot my heart rate up, and as I try to relax and breathe deeply, I feel my wetsuit pressing against the soft part of my throat at the top of my collar. I had not noticed it standing on the shore, but it is oppressive now. I feel like it's cutting off my air supply, choking me, and now I'm fighting my equipment along with the water temperature and the water itself.
I roll onto my back and gasp for air, take several deep breaths, roll back onto my stomach, put my face into the cold dark water, and pull with my arms in strong strokes. I try to remember my form, not to panic - as I've been taught, but I simply can't get enough oxygen. I roll back onto my back and attempt slow controlled breaths as I flutter kick my feet for propulsion. I'm only to the first buoy, and have about 400 more yards to go.
In this manner of taking a few crawl strokes, then flipping onto my back and gasping for air, I go another 150 yards, and am almost to the outermost buoy. I tug on my wetsuit, trying to find a way to keep it from pressing on my windpipe, but it's too tight. I try to hold the wetsuit collar away from my throat with one arm while pulling (making an arm stroke) forward in the water with the other. I finally come around the outermost buoy, spot the shore, take a ragged, panting breath, and spot one of the lifeguards, Tracee, on a raft. I head towards her, hoping to hold on to her raft while I attempt to adjust the wetsuit.
I call to her, and she maneuvers the raft towards me, then helps me unzip my wetsuit from the back. It does little to give any real relief, but optimistically I think things will improve as I go. I grasp her raft for a few more seconds, taking several deep breaths of air before leaving her to make my way towards the shore. It's only another 250 yards, I tell myself. I could do that in my sleep. Well, almost.
I tug on my wetsuit with one arm, pulling the collar away from my throat, while taking four pulls in the water with the other arm, then flip onto my back and flutter kick, roll onto my stomach and take a few crawl strokes, flip onto my back, then repeat the process. I gasp for air. The shore seems to get no closer. I look for Tracee, "Hey! I need you again." She paddles towards me and extends a flotation device, which I eagerly take , pulling myself towards her raft for a few breaths. She asks me if I want her to take me in.
My heart breaks. I've never quit a race or had to be pulled out of the water, but right now, I have my doubts. I would be able to breathe. I wouldn't have to fight anymore. I could rest.
I take a deep breath. "No," I tell her. "I think I can make it. Thanks, though," and push away from the raft. As she falls behind me, I glance up suddenly and catch her eye, "Don't leave me," I tell her, "I might need you." "I'm right here," she tells me reassuringly.
I continue my struggle towards shore, tugging on my wetsuit with one hand, pulling the water with the other in a modified sidestroke, flipping onto my back to breathe, attempting a modified crawl, gasping for air, on and on. As I near the third and final buoy, I hear people on the shore yelling. Since I'm probably the only one left in the water, I can only assume they are calling encouragement to me. Then I hear my husband Steve speaking to me closeby. He's finished his race, dried off, warmed up, then looked around and realized I wasn't back yet. So he has re-entered the frigid water to swim out to me and stay with me back to shore. I'm humbled. I hear him encouraging me, telling me to bear to one direction or another. I feel I am still far from shore when he tells me, "Laura, you can stand up now."
I put my feet down and feel the sand. I stand up to walk out of the water, and collapse to my knees. I'm dizzy and light headed, and can't stand on my own. "Wetsuit," I mumble, still gasping for air. "Get your wetsuit off?" Steve asks me. "Yeah," I mutter as I tug at it. He helps me get the wetsuit over my shoulders. I can breathe. I'm on my feet now, and walking somewhat unsteadily towards the steps. Another man appears on my right and takes my arm to help me walk. Anyone who knows me would see that I'm completely exhausted when I make no protest at all, but let them help me walk. I feel a jacket thrown over my shoulders as I am led away from the water. As I reach the steps, a paramedic appears in front of me. I weakly wave him away from me, mumbling, "S'OK. I don't need you," which elicits laughs from the crowd of people gathered around.
I am led up the steps to a picnic table, where I plop down and stare into space. I hear my husband tell me I need to get the wetsuit off so I can warm up. I don't feel cold, though. One of the men who has helped me to the bench asks if I would like coffee or hot chocolate. I want neither, but tell him hot chocolate, and while it is very chocolaty, it's not very hot, and my body tells me I need salt, not sugar. A minute later, Annie, a cycling friend of mine and co-incidentally Tracee's mom, sees me holding the hot chocolate, staring into space, and asks me if I would like some soup instead. Yes, I would. She brings me a small cup of clam chowder, which I finish quickly. Steve reminds me again to get out of the wetsuit, and I realize that I am somewhat unresponsive and staring into space. Perhaps mild shock. I should go get warm. I stand and pull off the rest of the wetsuit, leaving it in a heap on the bench, pick up my gym bag and make my way to the showers in the gym.
As I stand under the warm water, I begin to weep. Perhaps it's a female stress thing, perhaps it's a post-traumatic stress thing, or perhaps it's a really-glad-it's-over thing. When I crossed the finish line at the Wildflower Half-Ironman in 2003, I collapsed in heaving sobs into the arms of one of my trainers. I was totally spent, and simply had nothing left. I'm close to that right now. Before I leave Point Loma, I make a point to find Tracee, hug her and stroke her head affectionately, and thank her for being out there.
Later that afternoon I remember the events of the morning, and realize that I have had a small glimpse into the world of a drowning man. I see his fight, his will to continue, his tenacity and refusal to give up, how he calms himself to keep from panicking. But one can only struggle for so long before being overcome, one's strength gone, one's will to continue no longer enough to sustain the struggle. Letting go and giving up the fight becomes the only option, and in that moment you do, I think, forgive yourself for not continuing the fight. Once again I am overcome with emotion and I weep for the drowning man, hoping he knows that he fought a good fight and to be proud of his effort, hoping his family knows that he fought a good fight.
I don't know where these cathartic moments come from, but they seize me suddenly and give me an appreciation for otherwise intangible and unknowable experiences. When it happens, I just try to write it all down.
Post-race assessment: I would do this race again, but not without serious, cold, open-water wetsuit training swims.
Many thanks go out to lovely Tracee, who stayed with me during my struggle back to shore.