Pike (42, from Yorkshire, UK) and Jeff (50), from Alta Alpina cycling club, persuaded me to do a little "triathlon training" at the weekend. They are both training for The Big Kahuna Half Ironman in Santa Clara in September and I'm getting tempted to try it too.
Pike piked me up at 6am and we arrived at Donner for about 7.30. I managed to sign up for the event after some wheeler dealing. After a bit of last minute peanut butter bagel munching, sipping water and general faffing with our stuff, we headed down to the water front. Pike and Jeff decided the water seemed pretty warm, and sure enough, near the edge of the lake it seemed ok. I was staying with the wetsuit idea though and even added vaseline to my little arms in case they got cold too.
As we waited we had some banter and chat with a girl called Stephane and her brother. She was particularly thin and thought that if she was doing it without a wetsuit, so should I. My resolve was solid. It was about my 4th swim in 8 months and I wasn't fit enough - I needed all the bounancy I could get. Stephane was making a bit of a fuss about things but we secretly thought she was a really got swimmer and would blitz us. Even Jeff seemed nervous, despite his thoughts of doing the whole thing in 55 minutes (Jeff, it turns out, it quite a swimmer).
After some standing around, applying vaseline to bare skin and chatting, the time came to start. Some race instructions were mumbled from somewhere (I must be getting old) and then something sounded and everyone ran into the water. I followed, lemming like, into the cold abyss.
For a pool swimmer, there is something not quite right about jumping head first into a cold lake amongst a lot of people thrashing about hither and thither. My first thoughts were 'race' and 'crawl' and then 'breathe'. Pretty soon my thoughts became, 'breathe', and I found myself doing so at every stroke in some kind of panic.
Pretty soon I was unable to get my head in the water at all and was having a pretty tough time. I kept trying but each time I came up gasping again and could only do breast stroke with my head up. After a few minutes of this I heard Stephane telling me to calm down, swim breast stroke and relax. She said, "you are probably a really good swimmer". Right about then I was ready to completely quit. I just could not calm down and could not make myself swim. Stephane said, "how about a little backstroke?" and we both did a little, facing the large morning sun. A bit more panicy head-up breast stroke, a bit more chat, and then I tried crawl again. It still was not working and the rest of the field were getting away by now. I tried everything to calm down but was not in great shape. Stephane kept talking me through it and told me she was hyperventilating too, though she looked fine to me. Eventually, I managed some crawl. I looked back and saw Stephane still not able to do it yet. She said, "don't wait" and much as I thought I should, my friends were way ahead by now and I knew would be waiting - and Stephane would be ok with the kayaks.
So, finally under way I plodded on. Eventually I got into a rhythm of doing 100 strokes of freestyle and then 20 of breast stroke to have a look around. This is NOT the way to swim open water. Really you should do just a few strokes of crawl and one of them with your head up to steer yourself. I was a bit beyond all that and just stuck my head down and plodded. I'm not sure how far I swam but it was very probably somewhere between 3 and 3.5 miles.
On reflection, my pool grown crawl stroke is not great in open water. I normally look directly downwards as I swim, which makes it really hard to swim with others in open water, because you need to see where they are, and get a draft off them if you can.
My counting of strokes was what kept me going, each time reducing my breaststoke in between and once getting to 200 strokes. At times, my counting got a bit delirious and I found myself doing three strokes to one count but then was quite pleased with that because it felt as if I had done more for my 100 count.
From the start we were heading to an orange dot at the end of the late 2.7 miles away. After what seemed like forever, the dot seemed to grow a bit and then it started looking the shape of a finishing like on the beach. I guess I had been swimming an hour by then. I kept thinking, 'in another 100 strokes that finish line will look bigger', and it never did. It just sat there the same bloody size for quite a lot of sets of 100 strokes.
At one point I paused to look around me and realized I was in the middle of an enormous lake, pretty much on my own. There was what looked like a small stream of swimmers and kayak guides off to my left. I figured they had the best line and the shortest distance to the finish so I tried to head over that way. Unfortunately I never quite got there. After every 100 strokes I seemed to be over to the right too much. Such a long way though I decided to swim rather than think too much and hope the orange finish line shape would eventually begin to get bigger.
One time I came up for air only to see a heavily bearded guy laying on a surfboard looking at me. I guess he was 'support' but it was a little spooky to see someone floating just above the water like that. I couldnt help notice he had a Nalgene bottle full of water but I thought it was probably not for sharing with swimmers. I tried to ignore him and moved on. He seemed satisfied that I was not about to drown imminently and drifted on.
The whole swim was very tough but in open water swimming terms it is clearly a beautiful swim. The water is fresh and tastes clean (if a bit fishy) and the surface was pretty flat and the scenary awesome.
Eventually I could read the words 'Finish' on the orange flags and made a concerted effort to get there. Another 100 strokes and I thought I'd be almost there, then another, then another and then, at last, I could see sandy shallows and swam on until it was too shallow to swim. I dragged myself up onto the beach, jelly-legged, crossed the finish line, and prompty sat down.
After a couple of minutes I asked someone the time and they said 10:18. Oh DEAR, it had taken a long time, we left at 8:30. I couldn't see Pike or Jeff anywhere. I staggered up to get some food and water and saw the results posted. I saw Jeff had done 1:15, which was a relief - we were all slower than expected. Eventually I found them at the finish line and pretty soon we bumped into Stephane again, shivering uncontrollably as her husband wrapped dry clothes around her. I was glad to be able to express my thanks. She had a pretty tough swim, with 4 of the kayakers stopping to ask if she was ok, and despite that she was only a couple of minutes behind me!
Then us men went to catch the bus ready for the bike ride. At this point I wasnt entirely sure I could do the bike ride but was so glad to be out of the water I went along with it. On the bus ride back we got to see just how long Donner Lake really is. Wow.
Bike gear on and we rolled. We started at the other end of the lake than is the norm for the Donner Lake Triathlon but otherwise did the same course (just with the extra 6 miles). We climbed, and climbed and I began to marvel at how Pike and Jeff could push so hard up a climb after such a swim. They certainly dropped me but I wasn't completely hopeless. At one point Pike came up behind me having done "the roper dope" on Jeff. So Jeff is riding ahead to try and catch Pike and he's hidden somewhere and come up behind. They are both extremely strong but such messing about shows that they weren't without a sense of fun and were not taking it ultra seriously.
As I got to the top Pike and Jeff were waiting. I went to pull over too and Pike said, in his Yorkshire English accent, "no rest for the slow" and off we went. Eventually things flattened out a little and even descended a bit. Once I got to the front as we decended and really hit it. I must have been doing over 30 as Pike came past me shouting, "get on my wheel". So I did. His bike is quite a bit more aerodynamic than mine and he is extremely strong. We cruised together at around 40mph for quite some time. I even got past him to take a little turn at the front. Awesome fun.
Heading back isn't any breeze either and I was relieved to finally get to the top of the big descent. We rode down motorcycle style as some great speeds, though caution winning out to heriocs.
About a half mile from the car I heard a ticking sound and realized it was me. I'd picked up a staple in my tyre and as I pulled it out I realized that was that. Luckily the puncture was slow and let me get back on it.
As I arrived Jeff mentioned that, "the transition clock is ticking" and we changed into running gear and ate some more. Off we went. Jeff claimed to know the trail but in the end we went a bit further around the lake than planned, probably more than 7 miles. Jeff said that running wasn't his best thing but he still made good time and i couldn't stay with them, legs just too heavy. I walked up the hills and it took every bit of mental discipline to run at all. Finally hiting the flat tarmac 3 miles out I found a bit of a rhythm and managed to keep going.
Back at the car, Pike handed me a Red Bull - my first one ever I think. Ice cold and very welcome. Jeff just got back from a jump in the lake, which he heartily recommended. Then we headed back, a bit later than planned due to the slow English guy. I don't mind being slow as long as the others don't get shirty about it - Jeff and Pike just seemed pleased I showed up and joined in, which was pretty cool. I bought the coffee on the way back, small consolation for the slowness and small thanks for Pike's driving but generally, a jolly good day.
I believe I need to get a bit more training in!