On Saturday morning, Kim and I met Amanda here, at Cherry Beach, this summer’s primary training spot. It was a perfect day for a swim, but we didn’t. We were road tripping to Welland for the thing we have been working so hard towards all season: the Masters Swimming Ontario and Swim Ontario’s Open Water Provincial Championships 10 km race. We were supposed to take it easy, which wasn’t hard since is was also Mel’s 50th birthday on Saturday. Mel invited all of us to Tina’s new place in St. Catharines to help her celebrate.
I was born in St. Kitts, and when I’m there, we try to stop in and see my Aunt Rene who celebrated her 92nd birthday in February, though she’d probably be hopping mad if she knew I announced that fact in a blog. So the three of us had a visit with Rene, who was keen to hear about the swim and wished us luck. She used to enjoy swimming in the sea near Chatham, Kent, which just proves what I’ve always said about Rene; she’s way tougher than me.
Mel’s party was well underway when we arrived at her place a few hours later. Tina and Jodi put out an amazing all-local spread that included smelts, perch, and Niagara produce. Lori, Jackie and her partner Ann rounded out the group. After noshing, we all headed out for a unique birthday event: Roller derby.
I would never have described Mel, the ultra runner, as fragile or delicate, until I saw her happily sandwiched between two champion roller babes. They could crush her like a bug. Way to go, Mel. Needless to say, I had to behave myself and couldn’t have quite as much fun as the birthday girl clearly did. But I did get to drink a couple of beer and relax, with every need I could possibly have taken care of by Tina, a.k.a. hostess of the year.
Amanda and I tried not to think too much about the swim, but that was impossible. I did manage to get some sleep, but Amanda was too keyed up to get any. So early on the morning of August 19, we woke up to freshly brewed coffee, a continental spread courtesy of super-hostess, and a set of nerves so wrangled that I’m surprised the nervous energy vibrating between the two of us didn’t wake up the whole house. We set off with Kim to the race.
As this was also the site of the FINA world junior open water championships, the event was more official than anything I’ve taken part in before. All athletes had to have
ID badges and pass through security to enter the starting area. There was even a tent marked “Doping.” It was a little intimidating. After getting inked (I was number 77) and fitted with our timing devices, we listened to the pre-race instructions, when I learned that I could not wear my watch. That threw me. Okay, it more than threw me. I was in a panic.
My goal was four hours, but I feared it might take me 4:15, and the race cutoff time was 4:30. Without my watch, how would I know if I was going to make it or not? What if I got pulled? How awful would that be? These were my troubling thoughts as we made our way to the starting gate.
The atmosphere on the dock where only 19 swimmers were getting ready for the 10 km was tense to say the least. Nobody knew what time it was, not even the security detail watching over us. Predictably, I was stricken with a sudden urge to pee, but didn’t go to the loo for fear of missing the start time. It was a good call, because suddenly we were told to get into the water and had our hands on the dock waiting for the air horn. In the end, we barely had a second to get ourselves together. I just managed to turn to my left and squeak out a ‘good luck’ to Amanda before the horn sounded.
The route was a circuit – specifically, four loops of 2.5 km. I couldn’t clearly make out the orange buoys from one end to the other. Psychologically, that’s a bit difficult. For the first half loop, I just tried to do what I usually do – stay to the right of Amanda’s wake and find a rhythm. This time, I had Adele in my head and thankfully not Frere Jacques, which Mel gleefully tried to insert as an ear-worm the night before. Amanda pulled ahead of me, as I knew she would, by the last third of the first half loop. Then I knew I was on my own. At least, I thought I was on my own.
In my mind, I looked forward to the halfway mark that would come after two loops, or 5 km. To date, that’s the longest race I have ever swum, so if I wanted to bail after that point, I rationalized, then no harm no foul. Also, I knew then I could pause at the feeding dock and try to down some Gatorade. Historically, food always works as motivation for me – even gels and Gatorade, apparently. And maybe, just maybe by then, I could relax enough to finally pee because I still had to go, quite desperately. It took a long time, but at the halfway point, I was actually feeling pretty good. I had to concentrate so much first on finding the dock and grabbing the Gatorade from the volunteer without touching her or the dock (which would mean disqualification) then on actually getting the Gatorade into me by flipping onto my back and being an otter for a few seconds, that there was no time at all to relax let alone unclench. (Read bladder still full). I didn’t realize that Kim was there filming it. She was there the whole time, walking beside me up and down the embankment, for the entire race. I was never alone, not even for a second.
After a few pulls of Gatorade, I was gone, striking out for the end of lap two to do it all over again. The sugar rush didn’t last long. Working towards 2.5 loops was hard. By then, I’d been lapped by the fastest 10 k-ers, and had been swamped a few times by the speedy 5 km racers who hit the water half an hour after us. I was feeling old and slow and wondering if I’d even make the cutoff time when I rounded the far end buoys marking the end of 2.5 laps. Then I saw them.
Right there, at the far end of the course, in a screaming yellow canoe, floating amidst all the officials and lifeguards and uptight FINA types were, from bow to stern, Lori, Mel and Tina. I couldn’t believe that they managed to sweet-talk their way onto the course, but they did. I was the only one with a cheering flotilla. As I swam
that long length back to the feeding station to end lap three and start the last leg, they paddled with me. Although I couldn’t see them for most of the last lap because they were to my right, I certainly felt them there. Kim also gave me a huge pick-me-up at the feeding dock as I was finishing lap three. She told me my time was good, that I was under three hours at that point. That was a huge relief because I had no idea how I was doing. After three, I knew I’d make it. There was no question. And Kim filmed my finish. Here it is. 10 km finish
Amanda’s time was fantastic: 3:29, making her first in our age category. And I was 19 minutes behind her, at 3:48:08.5, coming in second. My first objective once I crossed the finish line, realized my legs would work, dragged myself up the ladder, out of the water and into the arms of my support team? Find a bathroom.
After the race, Jodi took us to a great spot overlooking the harbour in Port Colborne, where I inhaled two pints and a cheeseburger and after some prompting from Lori, what felt like gallons of water. At lunch, we even discussed possible future swims.
I didn’t realize it, but with an official 10 km race under our belts, it opens the door to a whole new world. We are now qualified to enter races like swim around Key West: a 25 km marathon swim in stinking hot weather with sea life to contend with – you know – jelly fish, sharks. Sounds like fun. Sitting there with our cheering section and the birthday girl, both Amanda and I were also thinking about some other swimmers.
When we began our race, 62-year-old Diana Nyad was already in the water, in what could be a 60-hour swim and her fourth attempt to swim without a shark cage from Cuba to Florida. She’s still swimming as I type this. It’s day 3. And when we started our race, 14-year old Annaleise Carr had been in the water for about 15 hours of what would eventually take her 27. Last night just before 9 p.m., she became the youngest to swim across the traditional 52-km crossing of Lake Ontario. I can’t even describe my admiration for them.
Thanks to Kim, Tina, Lori, Mel and Jodi for making our swim truly memorable. No matter what happens on our next adventure, I can never lose with these wonderful women in my corner. Lucky, lucky me.