Kingdom Swim: Part 2

We went run-trotting into the water.  It’s difficult to run in water.  It’s even more difficult to be surrounded by a whole bunch of other people doing the same thing.  But nobody bumped me or kicked me this year, which was nice and thoughtful on the part of those around me.

Once it got past our knees, people started going under.  This was a bit unsettling, reminiscent of war movies where suddenly shots start firing and people start dropping around you, and you start to wonder who will be next to go.  I’m not sure when I decided to go for it, but I was mildly afraid to be run over… or swum over.  At some point, I took a breath and plunged into the water.

OH GOD… it was COLD!

But the adrenaline overcame the sensation of the frigid water.  I could feel the churning of people around me and looking up ahead of me under the water – I could see feet.  It was kind of funny to see somebody else’s feet, I’m not going to lie.  It was not very far to that first buoy, and once we rounded it, there were the kayakers amassed like a small army.

I stuck my head up, looked around and spotted Natalie.  I swam a bit in the direction I was sure I had seen her, and poked my head up again.  This time I didn’t see her.  I went back under.  This repeated itself several times.  I’m not really sure what I was thinking… just that I had to find her mostly… and where had she gone… and holy cow there were a lot of people there.

I poked my head up and did some breast stroke so that I could look longer.  I heard my name from behind me and there she was!  I settled in beside her and we were off.

Now that I was safe and no longer bobbing about the lake feeling lost, I began to be aware of some things.  First, the water was cold.  But it wasn’t unbearably cold.  So I just decided that I would ignore it as best as I could.

The biggest worry was that darn clock.  I had to be off the lake by 3 pm.  I had to push myself.  I really had to push myself.  I was very conscious of my stroke.  I finished every pull with measured strength.  I thought through each entrance of my hand to the water and how I pulled back, but especially how I finished them.  When I get tired, or cold, or uncomfortable at all; my finish suffers.  And for those of you who don’t know, the finishing is the most important part of the stroke.  That’s where you get most of your propulsion.

I felt like I was going fast.  And it felt awkward.  Awkward to the point of discomfort.  I worried that I would be able to maintain this pace.  I thought to myself that if I pushed in the beginning, I could take it easy toward the end.   I just needed to keep it up.

Once we were past the 1st buoy, I began to use a technique to go faster.  I would speed up my strokes for a count of 25 to 50 and then settle back.  I had to change my breathing; I had to really focus on swimming.  Man, it was so cold.  The sky was overcast and looked foreboding.

When Natalie stopped me for water, she informed me that we had already passed one swimmer.  I was so excited!  I was not the slowest one!  I found out later, though, that she must have been having some trouble because she was pulled out of the water.  But I had to go faster.  I was losing sight of the 10 mile pack.

I immediately lost track of how many buoys there were.  I think because it was so cold, and I was focusing so much on my swim technique.  I kept up my 25 – 50 fast and then slow.  My toes went numb.  This is never a good sign for me.  But it’s not necessarily a bad sign either.  My toes are always the first thing to freeze.  I joked with myself that it was the silver nail polish (I don’t know why it was so funny to me at the time of being submerged, but it was).  My freezing toe-ness had nothing to do with the water temperature, whatever it was.

The sky stayed overcast.  Cloudy and gray and the air temperature was cold.  And just when I thought it couldn’t get any colder; we must have gone over a spring, and I literally gasped when I went to breathe.  I could tell that Natalie was concerned so I popped my head out of the water and informed her that it was just really, really cold right here.

I kept up with my fast swimming, my arms were not loosening up or feeling their normal relaxed pull.  I was frustrated with them and myself for being so slow.  The stress in my mind began to increase.  This is what I hated about swim team: I hated being so darn slow.  I hated being so bad at it.  I just hated it.  I can swim forever if you just wouldn’t rush me!

Natalie kept ahead of me, which was good for my pace because I felt like I was trying to keep up with her.  It was bad for my stress level because I felt like I wasn’t doing good enough.  I sang to myself an upbeat, positive song “Mr. Blue Sky” – I think that’s the name of it – to keep a better tempo with my swimming.  Plus, that song is all about sunshine – and the weather was not.  I told Yahweh that I was placing an order for some sunshine, if He would be so kind to give it whenever He deemed fit.

It did not fail, but there came the break when we stopped and Natalie said,

“I don’t think we’ll make it at this pace.”

“I promise I’m trying,” I said.  I can’t really tell you how I felt.  I just didn’t want to fail.

When I put my head back in the water, that was all I could think about.  What if I did fail?  What did that mean?  Should I never swim again?  Should I stop trying to swim the English Channel?  Because I’m slow?  I wanted to cry.  But I didn’t want my goggles to fill with tears, more than I wanted to cry.  Yes, folks, I had a pity party.  I really felt like death.  I really didn’t know what to do.  I was scared to disappoint people.  I was so scared to disappoint people.

“Yahweh,” I prayed.  “Please, please just be my energy-”

And I stopped myself in my prayer.  Or He stopped me.  And then I was angry at myself.  You know what?  No.  No, don’t be my energy.  That’s such a Charismatic, silly thing to pray for.  Don’t all of a sudden give me superhuman energy – I trained for this swim.  I am ready for this swim.  I made the choices.  We walked through this together.  I don’t need a miracle here and now in this.  I just need everything we’ve already done, all the preparation we’ve already made; I need that to come out now.  I need it now.  Help me access what You’ve already placed inside of me.  What We’ve already stored up together.  Because I am going to walk up on that beach.

I am going to walk up on that beach.

So now my focus changed to figuring out what more I could do to swim faster.  And I knew what it was and for a second I remembered exactly where I was on the lake – which was odd, because I hadn’t known where I was since we had started – but I knew that we were coming up on the longest stretch.  I thought that if I could just sustain and quicken my stroke while double-timing my kick, I would be okay to finish.  Normally, I kick in a 1-2, 1-2 pattern with my stroke, so I upped it to 1-2-3-4 pattern per stroke.

Like in music; cut time. I guess, if Lake Memphramagog had been a Symphony, this stretch was allegro in tempo.  And the sky was still cloudy and miserly.  But every once in a while the sun would sparkle through.  I kept up with my “Mr. Blue Sky” song, the drum beat I could hear was perfect for my kick.

I left off my pity party thoughts.  I left off my pity party prayers.  I concentrated on my stroke, on the rhythm of the song, and on thinking words of encouragement and life to myself.  I imagined walking up on that beach.  I told myself that even if the crowd was gone, and it was just my family; that would be okay.  I told myself that it didn’t change who I was.  It just didn’t change it at all.  And it did not change my goals – except maybe I need to find some way to swim faster.  I will walk up on that beach.

Natalie had given me a hand-crafted sterling silver necklace in the hotel room the night before Kingdom Swim.  It was so beautiful.  Words can’t really describe how much it meant to me.   On it, it said three things in Hebrew: Strength, Peace, and Daughter of Zion.  As I was swimming, I thought about that necklace waiting for me on shore.  I thought about putting it on.  I thought about the words and began to recite them to myself.

Strength for the distance. Peace for my mind.  Daughter of Zion for my constant, immutable, unshakeable condition.  That was all I needed; the three things that I already had.

We stopped again for water, and I popped my head up, panting with exertion.  I was so glad to hear that I was doing well.  I was doing so well, in fact, that we had caught up to the back of the ten mile pack.  (I had been overrun, before, by the group of 6 mile swimmers, much to my dismay.)  I was so glad!  I really felt like that sprint session was such a huge breakthrough for me.  If I could just keep up my pace through the end of this stretch, I should be pretty close to halfway.

But the water was resisting me, suddenly.  I couldn’t get back up to speed like I had.  I’m not sure if it was because the currents were different, or the wind shifted, or what… but it was suddenly very hard to keep my pace.  My legs were starting to knot and gnarl.   I stretched them out as best I could.  I couldn’t afford a real cramp.  I really couldn’t.  I decided to leave off the cut time kick for a while.  I settled back to my 25 count speed pulling.  I had caught up to other 10 milers.  That was reward enough.

As we rounded that buoy and started to head out across the lake, the wind picked up and the waves picked up.  I don’t know how high they were, but if one got between me and the kayak, Plucky definitely disappeared and Natalie looked like she was superwoman treading water from only the waist down.

A weird stitch developed in my side that just sort of ached in the background, and I supposed it was from turning the same way to breathe, see, and whatever, as I had all throughout the race.  I normally breathe to both sides to afford myself the diversity.  I want to be able to breathe to suit the conditions of the swim.  But after swimming so quickly and only breathing to one side, I think that was what caused the pain.

The waves and wind made it very, very hard to go fast.  During this part of the swim I was getting discouraged again.  It seemed that the waves were so very, very high.  But it seemed like I was drifting in a direction concurrent with them.  I was extremely disoriented.  I knew that time was slipping away from me again.  I wasn’t going fast enough.  I just wasn’t going fast enough.  And now I had some strange aches in my side and in my legs.

“You have not yet resisted to the point of bloodshed,” was my salvation from my whiney-ness.  I smiled to myself and briefly wondered how I would start bleeding during a swim.  But I did not dwell on it too much…  BECAUSE!!  DING DING DING!!!  Order up! One afternoon of Sunshine coming right up!  The sun began to break through those cloudy gray clouds!  Woo hoo!  That was delightfully nice.   I was certain that my sunscreen was long, long gone.  But it felt so good to be warmer!

We got across to the next buoy and paused again for water and food.  I think I was eating my third or fourth banana at this point.  I like bananas… but I don’t like to eat three or four of anything in the same 8 hour period.  Really.

Now we were going to head back down the lake.  I was supposed to switch sides and turn opposite to the way that I had been turning.  Normally, this was not a big deal.  I had trained for this.  We started out and the stitch in my side began to pulse and pound in anger at me.  I struggled with it.  I did not want to stop and breathe.  I didn’t want it to cramp up as it was threatening me.  But I didn’t want to swim on the other side of the kayak because the wind would push the kayak into me and that meant that Natalie would have to work harder.  And I mean sheesh, she was sitting on that darn, plastic seat all day, the least I could do was make it a little bit easier.

The pain grabbed my abdomen in a mad, angry fist and I popped my head out of the water and without preamble I exclaimed, “I can’t do this.”

Now, of course, what I meant was; I can’t swim on this side of the kayak.  What Natalie heard was “I can’t swim anymore”.  She told me later that she couldn’t even tell me everything she was thinking.  I had inadvertently dropped a bomb into her poor mind.  I was completely oblivious to anything except the fact that I was in pain, and I HAD to swim faster.

“Do you need a break?” She said.

I wondered how she knew I had a cramp, but I didn’t even dwell on it too much.  I was so concerned with that darn clock that I wasn’t really thinking about much else.

“No,” I said.  “I just need to swim on this side of the kayak.”

I don’t know if I actually apologized or not, but I did feel bad to make her battle the wind like that.  I didn’t mind dodging her, but I felt bad to make her work so hard.  It was only a few strokes and the pain reduced back to a stitch that just sort of pulsed.  I could stretch out my legs when they got bad, but my abdomen is where all of the muscles I need are… and they are not so easy to stretch.  As long as I could keep it from flaring, I could keep swimming.

At this point, or maybe a little before, I began to notice a change in Natalie, now, too.  She wasn’t ahead of me anymore, encouraging me to go faster.  That almost made me more scared and stressed than when the kayak was ahead of me and I had to catch up to her.  I kind of wondered if maybe she had given up on me getting done in time and was just letting me go at my pace.

So I kept up my 25 fast and then slow.  25 fast and then slow.  Sometimes I would count to 30.  Sometimes, I would count the same two numbers over and over again.  I would catch myself on the third or fourth repeat of “29… 30”, solely because of déjà vu.  Every time we came to a buoy, I wondered if it was the last buoy.  I wondered how close we were to running out of time.  I was going to walk up on that beach… I just had to walk up on that beach.

Just give it all you’ve got, I thought to myself.  Every last bit of energy.  You can crawl up on that beach.  That’s okay.  Just get there.

I knew when it was getting to be three o’clock.  I could feel it, after we stopped at 2.  I was so getting so upset.  I kept up my as fast as I could pace.  My breathing had naturally shifted to accommodate me.  I had retrained myself during the event.  I was still kicking, but my legs were still cramping up and I didn’t want to aggravate them too much.  I was getting so antsy.  I was afraid to stop to drink or eat anything; afraid that they would just say that that was it and I was done.  Time to get out.

I just have to walk up on that beach.  I could swim the whole course again, if you just wouldn’t rush me.  Please.  Please.  I’m going as fast as I can.

Natalie was totally interceding for me with our support boats.  She made some friends with a  fisherman and a nice couple, too.  I could see her talking and pointing and sometimes I thought she was trying to get my attention.  She was just rallying the troops to let me finish.  It was great.  By the time we were coming around the point, I think we had two or three support boats escorting us back in.

But see, I didn’t know this.  All I really saw or heard was just Natalie waving and talking.  And I didn’t know if she was trying to convince people to let me stay in the water, or if she was trying to tell me we had to get out.  I really didn’t know what was going on.  When you swim, you don’t hear, you don’t see, you don’t perceive anything except what is between your ears.  And that’s a tough spot to be, sometimes, if you get to be alone in there.

So I just had to trust her.  I just had to trust that the situation was all in hand.  Because my part, really, was just to swim.  It was not to convince people to let me stay and finish.  It was not to worry about what was going on on shore.  My part was to swim.  So I really just focused on swimming.

The waves began to push me in to shore, I was swimming with the current now.  This has it’s good and bad points, but at that point, the waves were a tremendous boost to my confidence and spirit.  I felt like every wave was some angel speeding me toward shore and I honed my stroke to make the most of every swell as it pushed me toward the final buoys.

I got confused again, and thought that the second to last buoy was the last buoy.  I was a little bummed when I poked my head out to see that I still wasn’t there yet.  But it was only ¼ mile away.  That last buoy.  ¼ mile.

And now I knew that I was going to finish.

“Chariots of Fire” started to play inside my mind.  Whatever I had left, I just pushed for it.  The felt like the longest minutes of my life.  I kept saying to myself not to look up.  Don’t look up.  Not yet, just keep going.  I could hear people screaming and shouting when I turned to breathe.  I was little confused by that, but I had to keep going.  I was going to walk up on that beach.  I was going to finish.

Then I saw Natalie smile.  I saw her waving.

Don’t look up yet.  Not yet.  I am so close.  Just keep going.

I couldn’t go much faster, but I could sure keep my strong, tempered, true pace.  And I kept it.  I kept it sharp and beautiful, methodical and musical.  And I wasn’t going to just walk up on that beach; I had already decided I would run.  I didn’t think the clock was running any more… we were way past 3 o’clock, but it didn’t matter… I was going to finish like it mattered.  Because it did matter.

I rounded the buoy and looked up toward shore.  I was supposed to finish in the flagged off chute area.  I looked around for it.  I couldn’t see it anywhere.

“Did they take down the chute?” I asked, worried.

Natalie nodded.  “Yeah.”

“What about the flamingos?”  I asked.  If I was going to run up on the beach I had to know where the line in the sand was that I was going to cross.

“There’s a flamingo right in front of you,” Natalie said.

They left me a flamingo!  I didn’t worry if it was Pinky or Philomena, I just sighted it and swam.  I swam as steady and fast as I could.  I could see the ground.  Then I could see it close to me.  I was sure it was soft and disgusting mush… and it would be hard to run in, but I just didn’t care.

I took a breath, and thought to myself that here goes nothing.  My last open water event, I could hardly walk afterward.  This time was different.

I pushed myself up out of the water.

The sight that filled my eyes was a beach full of people cheering and clapping.  There was my family and some dear, dear friends that I didn’t expect awaiting right on the shoreline.  The flamingo was there and I ran – or at least, I meant to – toward it with all that I could.  I did not expect to see such a crowd, or to hear them all shouting and applauding.  But I was so proud to run up on that beach past that flamingo to the sound of such holy mayhem.

A couple of women there were from the staff and they wrapped me in a black garbage bag.  I was confused by this… and wondered if they were doing it because I finished last.  But then I realized that it was black.  And it was warm.  And it was keeping me very, very warm.

A woman shook my hand and congratulated me.  She said that my stroke was very steady.  I thanked her.  A man congratulated me.  He said I was a stubborn young woman.  I told him that yes, yes I was.  I found out later that they were the two fastest swimmers of the 10 mile course.

I felt mobbed suddenly, the staff members handed me coconut milk and another plastic bag and a blanket.  It seemed all important to me as it was happening.  Why yes… actually I am very thirsty… and yes, I really am very, very cold… but in the back of my mind, I had thought that I would run up on shore, turn around, and run back to help Natalie.  But I was suddenly so confused and overwhelmed that I just stood there… feeling warm and drinking the coconut milk.

I hugged my family and friends and I realized that I had done something else different this time, too – I had ripped off my goggles as I crossed the finish line.  And I’m sure my eyes looked like I had been in a bar fight because of the tightness of my goggles and wearing them for so long.  I felt a little self-conscious as I hugged my family and friends, but then I decided that it is so totally cool to have bruises from goggles.

I hugged Natalie, when I finally found her!  I could not have had a more perfect protector, friend, and kayaker.  Everything got situated as the award ceremony continued.  I had earned the most pledges during the day; that and because I finished the 10 mile swim, I was allowed to pick any of the prizes I wanted.  A condition of the English Channel Training Camp in Ireland was the completion of the 10-mile course.

And I had completed it!  I even learned, just today, that I had an official recorded time of 7 hours, 43 minutes, and 27 seconds.  I was one of 13 women to complete the swim without a wetsuit.  And my brothers even cried man-tears.  I can’t tell you how incredibly awesome it was.  Words don’t do it justice.

The most important parts of this swim to me were the realization, now as I’m writing this, that quitting never entered my mind and the environmental conditions of the swim became secondary to my purpose.  I mean… they would have had to drag me from the water kicking and screaming, I think.  I went to swim 10 miles, and I was going to do it.  The environmental conditions – the clouds, cold, waves, course, etc. did not marry my stress and lead me to giving up.  They could have.  The formula was there for failure.  But my spirit, my character, the passion within me that made the choices to make it this far gave me the capacity to finish.  I had the Peace.  I had the Strength.  I am a Daughter of Zion.  I did earn that swim.  I worked for it and became my own miracle with Him.

Just to run up on that beach to the sound of that cheering crowd; that was worth every hour, every mile, every day I went to the gym.  Every single moment.  There was glory in that, and such gratitude for who I am, who I have become and who I am becoming.

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