May Twenty One.
Two thousand eleven.
It’s eight in the evening. I’m tired, but I can’t sleep. My eyes stay open even underneath the closed lids, and I think fleetingly about tomorrow. I’m tucked into my warm bed, lying flat against the bed covers, staring up at the ceiling. Words and ideas dance across my vision, a small dagger of anxiety sitting in the bottom of my stomach. The tension of fear pulls on my body, spreading into my calf muscles and lower back. I feel the tightness in my upper shoulders and I try to force myself to breathe slowly and relax. I turn over and roll out of bed, standing slowly. I bend in half, stretching my legs and my arms, loosening up the tight places. A few minutes and my breathing is steady, but my mind is still rolling. I’m excited and terrified for tomorrow.
It started as a normal day. From the outside, just another Saturday. I worked with a client all morning and spent the afternoon in a park, reading books. Nothing special. I tinkered in the apartment, spent some time writing, folded my laundry.
As with any big event, nervous anticipation builds in a slow crescendo through the day. I avoid dwelling in it, for I know if I unlock the excitement too early I’ll never be able to settle down again. Instead, I focus as much of my energy as I can muster on the droll, regular, routine tasks. I clean laundry. I fold clothes. I pack my bag for the next day and walk through all of the items I’ll need for the big swim:
Wetsuit. Swimsuit, 6 water bottles. Food for feeding. Towel. Wellies. Socks. Jacket for after the swim. Spare goggles. Food for before the race. Caffeine. Salt Tabs. Body Glide. Warm Cap. Regular Caps. Back up swim suit. Change of clothes for afterwards. Small bag with essential items – cell phone, keys, wallet.
It’s all in the preparation.
This week, I gave up alcohol and began extensive stretching and pulling on my body to limber up my joints. The last two days – these 48 hours – plays itself in my physical being very significantly, so what I do and don’t do is critical. I’m not the kind of person to wake up on a whim and do a big event; I am cautious, careful, and I really like being prepared. Drinking alcohol is gone; food becomes more important; green is my friend; sleep is paramount. My body must perform.
Now, today, Saturday afternoon, the bags are packed and my room is a chaotic mess. I’m sitting, gripping the ground tightly in an effort to put my mind at ease. The frenzy of mental race preparation sets in. I finish stretching and I pull out my sleeping bag – my go-to comfort and security blanket, and I crawl inside the sleeping bag and tuck it under the sheets in my double bed. I pull the sheets over me above the sleeping bag and pull a hat on. Bathing in the warmth of the small cocoon, covered from head to toe, I rest peacefully in my bed and quell my nerves with pragmatic thoughts about being well-prepared.
This is a swim I’ve never done before; four times longer than my last solo race in the bay. Alcatraz, the famed race and notoriously treacherous swim, is only 1.5 miles in the bay water. In relative terms, it’s not that difficult for experienced swimmers – it’s a 1.5 mile swim or about 30-45 minutes of open water swimming.
Bridge to Bridge, from the Bay Bridge Pylons to the mouth of the golden gate, is 6 miles – four times the distance of an Alcatraz swim. If the tides would allow it, it would be an out and back swim to Alcatraz – twice.
4:30 AM. The alarm sets off quietly – a soft chirping noise in my ear, and I lift up out of bed and stand tall. I open my shoulders to the morning air and touch my toes. The yoga mat, still on the floor from the night before, calls me to crawl into an early downward-dog for a morning hello to my body. My legs pull tightly at my calves and I breathe out. I stand up. My body feels the first roll of excitement and nervousness.
Can I do this? Can I really do this? I’m terrified and scared. I doubt myself at every turn, and doing things I’ve never done is just as hard as it ever was. Part of me hopes that Neal will call and tell me he can’t make it, that the swim is off, that I don’t have to do it. I worry that the swim will hurt my shoulders, that my feet will cramp, and that mostly, my mind will give up before it’s over and tell me to quit. I don’t want to fail. Worry rolls through my body and I breathe again, stretching.
My mind is a mental battlefield, and I bring up other points in an early morning counterargument to my mental self. I don’t think I really want to do this, my mind starts. You are a strong swimmer, I reply to that thought.
You are what your mind thinks about; there is nothing more powerful than the psyche.
You enjoy doing this; this is a normal flutter, take it in stride. What you think and what you do defines you. Remember, you’re always scared in the beginning of something new. I take each of these complaints and accept them, write them down on the paper space in my mind, and then I softly, subtly, repeatedly, rebut them. You will do the best you can. Firmly, I take a stance in my mind and with each added thought, I build a new construct in my mind. You’re not there yet, but each time you do this you do end up enjoying it. I do? No I don’t! my terror replies. Yes, you do. Keep going. Things will change, just you watch. Over time, I think I begin to believe it, too.
4:45 AM. I strip my soft pajamas off of my body; the first cold awakening that reminds me of the swim ahead; I begin to don the attire of an open water swimmer. I pull on the under suit, naked in the cold San Francisco apartment, and pull my wetsuit from the rail. The rubber and I battle for a few minutes as I peel it slowly across my skin, adjusting and negotiating its position until it sits right on my legs, calves, and hips. The 2mm and 3mm rubber wetsuit provides a barrier across my entire body, making me warmer, more buoyant, and faster in the water. I’ve swum without the wetsuit before, but not for 2 or more hours. Today, I’ll do the swim with a wetsuit.
5:00 AM. I boil coffee and fry an egg. 2.5 hours before take off. Perfect time to have a last bit of protein. The food will keep my body warmer, and burn right at the time I need it to burn. I have carbs packed away for 30 minutes before and during the race as well. Conventional wisdom suggests different food preparations, but twenty years of training and paying attention to my body, and I’ve learned what works. While I can get away with eating many things, I’ve learned to tune my mind to the subtle nuances of feedings. In the mornings, my body craves protein in egg-sized amounts. If not eggs, I usually have almonds, peanut butter, or some cold turkey early in the morning. Without it, my body leaps from sugar high to sugar low and loses the steady consistency of slow-burning fuel.
5:15AM. My bags are packed. I carry them one by one down the stairs, stomping so loudly I’m sure my roommate is awake as well. I cringe as the door slams, afraid I’m being a terrible roommate. In the din of the porch, I drop my bags, steeping down to the streets of San Francisco. Two late night partiers smoke in the early light of the morning outside, their amber ashes glowing softly in the light. I wait against the curb, stretching again, folding myself in half to encourage my legs to stay limber and loose.
The streets are empty and quiet, lines of parked cars marching up the hill on either side of the street, as immobile as their owners, equally asleep within their respective apartments. At the bottom of the hill, a black convertible turns up the street, its engine whirring softly as it crescendos in acceleration and then slows outside of my house. Neal rolls down the window, smiling. You ready to swim?
I grin. Excitement bubbles at the gates of mind.
Yup. Let’s do this.
to be continued…
This summer, I’ve been writing a short collection of thoughts on swimming and the time I spend in the pool and in the open water. This is an excerpt from the book. Have any comments, thoughts, suggestions or reactions? I’d LOVE to hear them – leave them in the notes below! To stay updated on future posts, sign up for updates here. Part 2 of this swim, and other stories, coming soon.