A Beautiful Day
The great Russian champion, Alexsandr Popov, is reported to have made the following comment.
The water is your friend. You don’t have to fight with water, just share the same spirit as the water, and it will help you move.
He knew something about swimming.
What follows is a post about my swim experience at Ironman Lake Placid 2012. Other posts will tackle the trip and the village, the bike, the run and other aspects of the experience. If you know about the course or don’t care about it, go ahead and skip down to The Good Stuff several paragraphs below.
The Plan & Execution
My plan was to start in the front, go hard for two minutes and then slow down to a steady effort and save energy for the run. On Friday, two days before the race, I swam one loop of the course extremely easy in 29:01. This told me that if I did okay with the melee, I could reach my goal time of 56 minutes.
The Technical Bits
The course is 2.4 miles through Mirror Lake. The in-water, mass start at 7:00 a.m. included some 2,592 competitors who followed the professional field by ten minutes. A rectangle, the course follows a golden cable that is suspended at least ten feet below the surface. It goes out from a peer about 1100 meters to a 90 degree left turn, approximately 10-15 meters to another 90 degree turn to the left and then back to shore. Swimmers exit the water, run approximately 10 meters and re-enter the water in the shallows on the perpendicular, short side of the course. After two laps, a run up a carpeted sidewalk and down a couple blocks to the Olympic Oval, puts everyone in the transition area preparing for the bike segment.
I started about halfway across the start line which is about 40-50 meters from the golden cable. I also started in the first row after getting to my position at 6:45. Above our heads were a row of flags and beneath us was another easily visible golden cable stretched from the peer to the shoreline.
My splits were 25:52 for the first 1.2 miles and 27:17 for the second resulting in a 53:09 split which was good enough for first in my age group (M 35-39) and 12th overall.
The Good Stuff
Professionals were allowed to enter the water first and at about 6:40, amateurs were allowed to wade out into the water. As I passed the inflatable arch and made my first steps into Mirror Lake, I became an official starter and could heard The Who singing, Who Are You over the sound system. It made me laugh; Pat and I had played his iPod all the way up to Lake Placid and it has a nice collection of The Who.
I had done some stretching on the beach, eaten a Roctane Gu at 6:40 and was across the lake doing some warm up drills as soon as possible. After watching the professionals take off, it was easy to sense with each passing minute the level of tension going up and the press of bodies moving in toward the start line. By the time the national anthem ended at about 6:55, fit was difficult to turn around to look at the shoreline without bumping people. All around, there were fluorescent green and pink caps. Ringing the lake’s edge was a solid ribbon of people waiting, watching and even cheering before we began.
I knew about when the cannon would fire because I had started my watch when it boomed across the lake for the professional start. With about 20 seconds to go, I adjusted my goggles for the last time and took a few deep breaths. And then, it began. It all began.
I’m told that right after the cannon sounded, the sound system started to blast out the U2 song, It’s a Beautiful Day. Bonus points to event organizers — the sky was clear, the air was warm and we in the water were beginning a day filled with poignant moments of self-discovery, generous support and, in my case, some sort of wonderful other-worldly swimming experience.
My race report gives a sense of how hard it is to explain the feelings and sensations during the swim. I’ve been swimming my whole life and the experience was that different from anything else. I squirted off the line according to plan. Immediately, I was clear of the people on either side of me. At 12-15 strokes I was at full speed — like a boat that has achieved a plane. By 20 meters, I looked to the right and saw nothing but clear, calm water all the way to the shore. I was ahead of everyone. I looked to the left and saw there was a line of bodies churning through the water as if it were a single sea monster. Slightly ahead of this charging line was a group of not more than a half a dozen swimmers and I was ahead of them by a body length too.
What the hell?
I was leading the field. It took a few moments for this thought to register. Granted, very few people would start a day-long event with a mad dash. Nonetheless, I was in front of some 2,600 people. This was crazy. Two images popped into my head. The first was of the heli-skiers I’ve seen who race down remote mountains just ahead of avalanches. The second was of the wake that pushes off of the bow of a boat. For an instant, I wondered if all the people behind me were somehow pushing me ahead and allowing me to surf their wake.
Soon I began to purposefully shift gears into a sustainable stroke that allowed for a crisp but not hurried turnover. I could feel my heart rate dropping and an ease come back into my lungs. It was at this point that the group of a half a dozen swimmers to my left swam past. I neither cared nor gave any thought to a chase. After about 700 meters, I began angling over toward the most direct line to the turn buoy until I was about 10 meters outside of the golden cord.
Shortly after the turn I began to pick off the professionals. My mind was going full tilt. I couldn’t really process the “leading the field” idea. I was trying to pick a line and settled between 5-10 meters off of the cord so that everyone would be on one side of me and almost no one would come up in front of me. I considered my form — high elbows, long finish with my thumbs going all the way down my body, full exhales, breathing easy every three strokes. Curiously, there were no signals to say that I had just worked hard or that I was in the middle of a fast pace. I didn’t think I was on too fast of a pace. My shoulders didn’t have any weight to them. Everything was calm. There was smoothness and all of the excitement and clamor from the cannon on the first leg had melted away into hyper alertness and ease.
As I came up to the end of the first loop, I was finishing with a group. I stood up to take a few paces through the water and didn’t even try to get past them. I looked around at the spectacle and heard my named announced. Passing under the arch again, I dove into the shallows. Entirely unplanned, I proceeded to dolphin a couple of times out the length of the peer by pushing off the bottom. Why? I don’t know really. I wasn’t thinking — but I have to believe it was some sort of call back to childhood. It was fun and free, no, it was blissful.
By the time I started the second loop, I was no longer swimming through the water. The lake had welcomed me and was giving me its energy. All I had to do was to enjoy, to embrace the fluid movement. Popov was speaking to me. The spirit was there and I was fortunate to have a few minutes where the gift was mine to enjoy.
Throughout the second loop I maintained my lane several meters off of the line. I was now regularly coming up on small groups of people. I swam the third segment almost entirely with another guy although I got him at the turn because he was caught in traffic. The calm stayed with me all the way to the finish. As I approached, the thought struck me that I ought to do a few strokes of butterfly. No one was next to me, if the camera was panned out to the water, there would be a chance that Dana and the kids would see it and know it was me. My arms sailed over the water as if pulled by invisible puppeteer strings. Several butterfly strokes, half a dozen freestyle strokes and I was out of the water.
The clarity was there. I could see individuals faces. Hear the huge exhales of the people turning for a second loop. I listened to my wetsuit stripper explain every step of what he was doing to the volunteer next to him. But as I ran a few meters up to a wetsuit stripper on the right, it was as if all of my muscles were bathed in testosterone. It was as if some basic core of my brain turned on and recognized that this was a competition. I was ready to roar. And in this way, with the clarity and relaxation of yoga master and the ice cool lethal aggression of a samurai, I finished the swim of my first Ironman.
The lake was wonderful; so clean as to suggest medicinal powers. The sky was blue and clear, hinting at heaven beyond. The air crackled with energy.
Thoreau once wrote, “None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.” Last Sunday I swam like a child; I was a child of enthusiasm and full of the spirit. It was a beautiful day.