Lake Water

The Placid and Frigid Waters of Rattlesnake Cove

After my open-water adventures in the post-tsunami Pacific went so swimmingly, I decided to enroll in a local, lake-swim clinic to get ready for my forthcoming triathlon. It was being held at Bartlett Lake – not too far from my house – and it was free, which has a special appeal since apparently triathlon is a sport that involves a fetish for investing heavily in precious technology.

After a night of wine and hot dogs at the Roosevelt Tavern, I arrived at 7:45 to check in for the 8 o’clock clinic … except that the clinic started at 7:30 and the actual swim was starting at

This sea lion carcass is an accurate representation of how I looked and felt in the wetsuit.

8… and I hadn’t even begun to wedge myself in to the (free) loaner wetsuit. The kind folks at Iron Gear Sports of Mesa were graciously offering demonstration wetsuits to us unsuspecting novices. Perhaps it was the wine and hot dogs… perhaps it was an incorrect fit (beggars can’t be choosers)… perhaps the Iron Gear folks needed a laugh, because I needed more than a shoehorn and stick of butter to inject myself into that rubber suit. It’s just like putting on a pair of jeans, they said. Yeah, just like putting a rubber-coated pair of your best high-school jeans on your 39-year-old, bacon-fueled body.

It was not unlike exercising in industrial-strength, full-body Spanx – except that instead of looking all buxom and curvaceous, I looked like a big black sausage.

Panicked as I saw my fellow lake-swimmers stroking away from the shore, I bounced down to the reassuringly named “Rattlesnake Cove.” I did not share that little tidbit with my Mom whose fear of snakes is only matched by my father’s fear of post-tsunami ocean-swimming. To my great surprise and discomfort, I learned that rattlesnakes can swim and do so when hunting for food, mates or refuge. Noted for future reference: I will not be back at Rattlesnake Cove when the water temperature is above 50 degrees.

Which is about what it was that Saturday morning. Coach Frank Sole of Sole Swim Solutions gave me the Cliff’s Notes version of the 30-minute swim clinic that I’d missed, while attempting to demonstrate proper thigh-insertion into the demonstration wetsuit.

“Don’t fight the suit,” advised Coach Frank. “You have enough Neoprene on that you could float from here to Antarctica. Just take your time and focus on your stroke. When you roll to breathe, look up at the sky for a moment of relaxation and peace. If you can swim 1,500 meters in a pool, this will be a piece of cake.”

“If you can swim in this ocean, a lake will be a piece of cake,” ocean-coach Brett had said.

If you can dodge a wrench…

“Now get out there and enjoy the water. You’ll be fine.”

Entering the water, I was unsure whether my breathing problems stemmed from the fact that there were ice chunks floating nearby or because my chest was being compressed in a vise-like grip of Neoprene. So I just decided to go for it, and I started paddling madly. It seemed like I was moving so fast, I was pushing waves in front of me. I was breathing out of both sides of my head, gasping against the Spanx compression garment, enjoying the blinding sunlight / moments of panicked relaxation, and knowing, just knowing, that when I finally decided to take a peek and see where I was (because Bret said I naturally swam pretty straight and could probably check my bearings every third or fourth breath), I just knew I’d be bearing down on the little kayak that was our turnaround point only 100 meters away.

Except that the little kayak was paddling away and  I was windmilling around like a crazy woman being chased by swimming snakes. I wasn’t even half a football field away from the shore. In fact, I think I’d only just passed the first-down marker.

Now if this weren’t Lent and I were cursing, I probably would have let go of a few F-bombs, but that would have required oxygen that hadn’t yet made it to my lungs. My hands and feet were no longer cold, but I couldn’t determine whether they were still attached to my body. Freestyling, breast-stroking, back-stroking, side-stroking… doggie paddling… I made it to the little kayak… in fact, I think I probably just floated the last four meters because the wind caught me the right way. I couldn’t tell if my arms were moving by that point.

“Great job! You’re doing fine! You take all the time you need before heading back to the shore.”

Thanks, Kayakers. I appreciate that. I might pull your scrawny ass outta that seat and commandeer your little boat on back to the beach if you keep moving away from me… and they WERE moving away from me. They moved a little farther from the shore on each successive lap to ensure we were getting a good workout. Thanks, assholes.

Even without their help, I can assure you I was getting a good workout – this was just my first lap and already, I’d burned off the hot dog and two glasses of wine; in fact, I think I’d burned off every hot dog I’d ever eaten and my body was now consuming itself just to get back to shore.

By the third lap, I felt comfortable – just like Brett and now Frank said I would, and honestly I didn’t think Brett was crazy anymore. During our ocean swim, he’d encouraged me to get in the water before the race and swim around to warm up. Kinda like those people I make fun of at 5K’s – you know the ones that run a 5K as a warm up for their race and then run another one afterward to cool down. The ones you want to kick in the shins.

Well, when it comes to open-water swimming in freezing temperatures, it is better to get acclimated to the water while there is still no danger of swimming snakes, and while you can still swim around without the fear of getting kicked in the head – an important safety tip issued by Frank, which we’ll revisit after I actually swim in a group. Because I’d arrived so late, I stayed about a half-lap behind everyone else – which wasn’t bad except that on a warmer day, it would have made me a more inviting target for hungry or horny snakes – they always go after the slow ones at the back of the pack, the ones that look like injured seals or wounded walruses… the ones that look like me, in a wetsuit.

At the free lake swim clinic, the people were all tremendously helpful and friendly… a little too friendly for that early on a Saturday morning, 30 miles from the nearest Starbucks and God-knows-how-far from the nearest locally owned coffee house (as I haven’t been to a Starbucks since October 2007). It was when they started peeling off their wetsuits and exposing their religious tattoos and talking about going on missions that I realized one of these peeps was not like the others. THANK GOD IT’S LENT because I didn’t drop any F-bombs in front of the devout Christian / Mormon triathlon club. I mean, they were SO nice and SO helpful – and they might not have all been Mormons or members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but the ones I was standing by were plastered in Jesus tats, and I realized that my Mardi Gras tattoo pretty much branded me as a heathen. Maybe they didn’t notice it, maybe they overlooked it – thank God they didn’t see it as a challenge – but they were still really nice, and might not have been so if my standard vocabulary had been in play, offering truth to the old proverb, God really does look after little children, fools, drunks and quite possibly, the United States of America.

Hey, at this point, I’d managed to fit myself into a wetsuit twice, ford the aftermath of a tsunami, swim 800 meters in a lake and avoid being eaten by snakes – someone was looking out for me.