Since this day was the longest, I tried to make some mental notes while I was swimming. This was also a great distraction from the cold.
I think around 2 hours in I still had numb hands and feet, my core was doing OK because I wasn’t shivering. However, I was still dealing with the numbness and to put it mildly, I was very cold. I remembered earlier in the day texting my mom and asking her to send “warm thoughts” my way… so I began to search wildly for those thoughts. I realized that the Saguaro cacti on the shoreline almost looked like people. I began to visualize all my friends and family there cheering me on. I focused my energy on really seeing that person in the cactus. I imagined they were literally cheering for me! I know it sounds strange, but when you are swimming for 7 hours with nothing to think about but the cold, the soreness, and how much farther you have to go, it’s nice to be distracted for a few minutes.
I don’t know if you’ll believe me, but by the time I had cycled through everybody I could possibly think of to make into a cacti, I felt my hands and feet again!
It is hard to describe the emotions and stages I encounter during a long swim like this, but they fluctuate immensely. In fact, there is really only one thing I know for certain when I head into a swim – I don’t know what is going to happen, but I do know I am going to finish. I have never had to pull myself from swim, and I have never had anyone else pull me from a swim. However, I know this is always a possibility, but for me, I can’t think it is before I start swimming. It messes with my mentality, and gives me a valid reason for not finishing. Strangely enough, the more I am challenged by cold, wind, chop, or a number of other unknown variables, the more I want to finish.
During Apache, I went through three stages of cold: hours 0-2 cold, hours 3-4 not cold, hours 5-7 cold. It was pleasant to hit the halfway point when I was feeling “not cold”, because I optimistically thought for awhile that I might not be cold again during the swim, I even felt a patch of water (it only lasted about 10 seconds) that I would have described as “bath water warm”. When I swim through patches like this I want to stop dead and not move again, but instead I realize that this will only last for a short time, make a mental note of that gloriously warm water, be thankful for it, and then prepare for a severe drop in temperature.
I was told once that, “a one degree drop in water temperature is comparable to a 10 degree drop in air temperature”, I have no idea if this is remotely true, but it helps to mentally understand what it is like to have a 5 degree drop during a swim. It is unpleasant, it has the potential to cripple you physically and mentally in a matter of minutes… especially if you were battling the cold already. I think one of the biggest factors that helped me conquer Apache this year, was my experience in the lake. I have made the mistake before of convincing myself that the water will warm up, that the distance will somehow not feel so far, or that the wind will stop and never come back. While these thoughts might help you get through a tough moment during a swim, they are unrealistic. The reality is, you have no idea what will happen. The alluring thing about this sport is that it is so unpredictable. The conditions change minute to minute. You have to be so flexible and open to whatever nature throws your way… The few things you have control over are: how you react to changing conditions and your nutrition. Pretty simple, right?
After I passed the Apache Marina which is just over halfway, I started to get cold again, there were no more cacti to distract me, so I started to count my strokes, which is another technique I have used to get through long swims. Normally, I count to 100 then I reward myself with a glance forward to see how much progress I have made. During Apache I knew I would only be disappointed if I looked up so often, so I changed 100 to 1,000… then 2,000… then 3,000… then 4,000. I thought it would be pretty cool if I could estimate the number of strokes I had to take to swim 17 miles. I wasn’t able to stay focused long enough to do this, I’ll keep it in mind for another day :-).
The last 4-5 miles of the swim was gorgeous. Two years ago I was battling cold and wind during this section, but today I had the pleasure of taking in the scenery and enjoying a beautiful glow on the canyon walls.
Then the last stage of the race, you all know this one: the “when will it end?!” stage. You start to question everything you thought you knew about the lake, the water, the temperature, where the “damn buoy line” (thanks Asha!) is. Then, you hear your kayaker tell you for the umpteenth time, “I think it’s just around that point there…” as he motions with his head toward what HAS to be the end of the lake. You somewhat pessimistically assume he must be wrong, again, and say “Okay!” as cheerfully as you can muster, “so this is the last feed then?”, drop your head, start your eternally rhythmic stroke and chug onward toward that. last. point.