Friday, April 5, 2013

The Long, the Short and the Dirty: Race Report on the 2013 Short Course Championships

Today was unlike any race experience I had before: I slept so soundly I hardly moved; I woke up with a smile wider than my face and the lyrics to the new Michael Franti song "I'm Alive (Life Sounds Like)" (a song about being "your strange self" with the chorus line, a lovely repeated line, in exultation that: "I'm Alive, I'm Alive, I'm Alive.") How alive I felt today. 

In this body. In this life.  And the rest. What can I say? Two PRs and a ribbon-- who would have thought? The DQ (alas, not a stop at the local Dairy Queen) hardly seems to matter now. But here's a breakdown of this amazing day. 

And in case you didn't catch it, I'm so happy to be alive.  


THE PRE-RACE RITUAL went without a hitch: I packed my "athletic bag" rather quickly (although I worried about the massive volume of nutrition I had on hand-- was I really going to eat all that? Luckily, I wouldn't have to.) I went through the checklist several times before leaving home to make sure I didn't forget anything. Swimsuit-- check (I was wearing-- wait? Was I? Double-check. Yes.); Cap + goggles-- check. Plus an extra of each in case of major equipment failure. Sandals + socks (this is a new level of fashion-faux pas for me; but I was NOT going to have frozen feet today)-- check. Three towels, sweats, IBUProfen in case something breaks, sunscreen, shampoo/conditioner and all the usual suspects of a shower-bag; cell phone, digital camera and the S.O., S.

The contents of my feed-bag: I probably wasn't going to get hungry today.

As I stepped out into the pre-race morning, I was slightly dismayed to find it gray and rainy. Darn. That meant being wet before, after and during my events. But then that Michael Franti song resounded in my head again and I thought: well, better rain than snow... or not swimming at all. 

I was excited to see what I could do in the pool today.

A new level of fashion-faux pas... and even (probably) an entirely new meaning to "wearing socks with sandals." Oh well.


Me with my favorite book-- the book that inspires me to be a writer, and that I aspire to: The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yukanvitch.

THE SODA AQUATIC CENTER was a mere five minutes from home. I stashed my bag in the room provided for the athletes and found my S.O. by the pool for a photo-shoot I'd asked his help with before. A friend of a friend is applying for a job with kickstarter and part of her application is a slide show of author's photos with their favorite books.  I knew right away that I wanted my picture-- dressed like a swimmer-- with Lidia Yuknavitch's The Chronology of Water which is, perhaps, one of the most beautiful, poetic and kick-ass books I've ever read that is-- as much as it is not-- about swimming. 

The Soda Aquatic Center: the blocks, the timing tents, the beginning and ending of every journey I had today. 

And you know-- as soon as all this craziness was over-- the memoir was put away and I was ready to warm up for the 1650 Free, the sun found its way through the clouds and the gray mist parted into the lovely color of morning. The water of the diving well-- where you would warm up before events-- was about the clearest blue I'd seen and just the right balance between crisp and luke warm.

In the diving tank, warming up. I'm not doing flip turns, but conserving breath and energy for the races, to come.

Time slipped away in those early laps-- easy laps-- effortless laps and the next thing I remember, I was standing by my starting block in lane 8 looking West to the other 7 bodies beside me realizing that my ambitious seed time of 23:00 might have been a bad idea. I didn't have a speed suit (not that, at this particular moment, it would have helped) and every other person in that heat had a sub-23 seed time.  

As would prove the theme of the day, I didn't have much time to think about it. ON THE BLOCKS someone said and I was there, goggles pressed to my face with all they had, my hands gripping the front and the toes on my right foot dangling over the front ledge while I stuck my hips high in the air so that my center of gravity was already lurching forward. 

Horn. Airborne. Consumed by pool. 

I kept my body drawn out, long and lean like a dart while I undulated forward, using the force of my dive as long as I could. When I broke the surface, something in my heart clicked and said: there's no fucking way you're coming in last today. 
And so began my 66-lap journey. 


Swimming the 1650 Free. I'm the one on the left, in lane 8, the "slow" lane.
THE 1650 FREE is an endurance race of sorts. Everyone I spoke to leading up to this meet told me to start conservative. To start slow, even.  I didn't do that.  I'm no great judge of pace in the world of the pool where what I see most of is the bottom and the tiled lines, passing back and forth. My teammate, Chris, who timed for me said that my pace began at 1:18 per hundred -- two seconds faster than my projected 1:20. 
And that would be the pace I'd hold, until the end when I managed to swim even faster. 

To me, swimming, the race felt something like this: the first 33 laps were a challenging, but manageable clip. When the numbers flicked to 35, though, I discovered I really wasn't feeling so great: my shoulders were starting to tingle and my breathing-- the steady 3 strokes then breathe-- which had before been as comfortable as a couch-- was now, well, not so comfortable. Around lap 41, I started to think that I really wanted to puke. It's not like I had to-- but maybe I wanted to as a sort of distraction from the back and forth... and the (now sad) fact I had over 20 laps to go.

Still in Lane 8, still swimming (66 laps is a long way!) 

To distract myself, I said: Just swim to fifty. Fifty laps is all you have to do. And then you can puke. 

But my fifty, the odd feeling in my stomach was joined by a burning in my shoulders, my legs, and the will I'd had not to come in last was chipping away to a hilarious compromise: just keep moving. Don't stop. And then you can puke when you're done. 

I was surprised to see 55, then soon, 60 on those turns and soon Chris was wagging the numbers up and down-- my signal to swim faster (that I had fallen off pace.) I could hear her-- not her words- but the sound of her voice and I knew she was yelling for me.  And I don't know, maybe I'm a very simple creature, but I thought: if she's going to yell for me, I can't just give up. So what if I'm the human piƱata today? No one can say I didn't try. 

61 to 63 to 65. The two red squares that signal the end of the race. I heard the bell and used those running legs to do what they once did best, skipping a breath here and there for the sake of speed. 

I finished in 21:41-- nearly a 2 minute personal record in the mile. No, I wasn't last. And-- thank God-- I didn't puke.  Chris later said she and another counter were impressed I held a six-beat kick for the entire mile. 


THE BEST NEWS OF THE DAY came when one of the Coaches informed me my relay team scratched since two of the four of us weren't around. I no longer had to worry about swimming a fast 200 yards which isn't really my focus anyway. I could focus on the event that's had me worried for weeks: the 400 IM. 

Looking back, I think the mistake was I didn't begin my warm-up early enough. On the schedule, check in was supposed to end for the 400 IM at noon. And the officials told that that would still be the case. I wasn't prepared, at 12:05 to be on the blocks. If I had, who knows? 

But life is not about what-ifs. Only what-ares.


I BEGAN MY WARM-UP FOR THE 400 IM with a warning from an official that I was not to dive from the side of the pool. I had wanted to check to see if my goggles would stay on (it's a big problem for me) and they did, but filled with water. After the official spoke to me, though, I somehow "forgot" to fix them (felt bad-- I'm not really the sort of person who breaks the rules and that old child-guilt surfaced) but, anyway, I continued with my warm up, working on those back-to-back turns that are really hard for me (I think it has something to do with not seeing where you're going.) 

So, after maybe ten minutes of working on my strokes, I got out, went to the locker room one last time to make sure all was in order and found Dr. Dave of the Diablo Cyclists there-- to cheer me on! He said he would be right back-- he had to grab something from the car-- and that's when I heard it: EVERYONE IN HEAT 2 FOR THE WOMENS 400 IM, ON THE BLOCKS. 

I wondered, for a dumb second: Wow, that sounds like my race. That's funny? And then I realized lane 3 was empty because-- DUH-- that was where I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE. 

So I threw my blanket down from around my shoulders and nearly climbed the blocks with my sandals on and my goggles off. Three seconds to start and all I could think was: get those mo-fos on your head!

On and down to grab the blocks with both hands and the horn and jumping and the plunge, the wet and then I thought: why are my eyes wet? Where on earth is the wall? 


MY GOGGLES DIDN'T WANT TO SWIM THE 400 IM WITH ME and tried to ditch me back at the start. I stopped, for a breath and looked around me: what on earth do you do in a race when your goggles fall off? I guess it's like life in that there always the two essential options: you deal with it and keep going or you don't and stop. 

So, I decided to keep going. At the wall, I put those goggles back on, turned and was determined to do my best in the fly to make up for lost time. Up and around, undulating my hips in the down, not too much knees, breathing every other stroke. I felt strong-- solid and the  4 laps went by faster than I thought it would. Too soon, I was on my back, looking up at blue sky and dreading each turn, not knowing if I'd get it right. I hit the lane line once, and my S.O., S. later described my backstroke as only slightly better than my ability to kayak: meaning it would be a miracle if I could ever move in a straight line.  But for me, it was a journey that ended three strokes after the flags when I'd look, turn and flip around and pop back up again for another 25-yards. 

Then came breast. Funny (for me) how much easier goals are to achieve when you can see them. I had a few bodies in front of me and I was going to do my best to catch them. Pull hard, glide straight and fast. And again. And again. And you know, I gained lost ground. 100 yards later, it was a flip-turn into free and I gave it all I had: arms and legs, breathing the least I could. Burning. Hard. Arms and legs and lungs and the whole of me. 

I told myself to push-- do it-- not coming in last. Not going to not-try. 

Give it my heart, my all: my life. I'm Alive. I'm Alive. I'm Alive.

Coming in fast. Ready to be done with the race.

I touched the wall. I'd come in 2nd in the heat with the unexpected time of 6:16. (My seed time for this event was 6:50 and I had only wanted to break seven minutes.) I left the water and S and Dr. Dave were there to congratulate me when one of many officials came up to me to tell me I had been disqualified

Is it just me or does this look like a traffic ticket of some sort? 

I thought it was for the goggle-drama and she handed me a yellow sheet that looks something like a traffic citation. "Your shoulders passed the plane on the back-to-breast transition," she said. And then, after a pause, she said: "Did you see your seed time?" and pointed to the 6:50 on a sheet pinned to the clipboard. I nodded in response. "And here is what you did, today," and pointed, again to the 6:16, written in pencil. "I'm so sorry," she said. 

The women who timed me said my butterfly was impressive. That I was strong. Maybe they were trying to make me feel better-- and maybe I needed it. I did feel like crap. I wouldn't earn more points for my team. And it's not like I hadn't tried--- or, worse, that I had tried to cheat. This was a new feeling of disappointment. 

When I spoke to the coaches, they only laughed. Now we know you can do it. And they said: now you will never do that again. 

I have to think about what really matters: I didn't cheat. I thought that was how you were supposed to transition from back to breast. And now that I know that's it's not-- I will work on that turn in practice and come back, try again. Do better, I hope.

More importantly, though: I swam a race I didn't know I could swim. And after I jumped in, I had an immediate disadvantage-- my GOGGLES FELL OFF. But I kept going and pulled myself from last to 2nd place in the heat. 

As I've said: there are always beginnings. And maybe today is mine: I'm not the best, but-- to borrow the words of my very first Cross Country coach-- you have a lot of heart. 

After all these years, I still do. 

I'm so thrilled I finished second in my age group in the 1650 free!

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