Lake Un-Pleasant

It was a swimming start - on a white-capped, godforsaken lake.

Easing into the 62-degree water of Lake Un-Pleasant at the Phoenix Triathlon, my resolve waffled.

It’s cold. It’s cold. It’s cold. It’s cold. It’s cold. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be here.

Had I not been the swimmer for Team Chicken and Waffles and Grits, I would have chickened out right then and there – carrying my not-so-badass out of Lake Not-So-Pleasant, peeling off my wetsuit, wrapping myself in a warm towel, sitting in the car and thinking about what I’d done (with the heater cranked up full blast). Instead, with my two teammates, Jason “Waffles” Robert and Ross “Grits” Loftin, encouraging me from the shore, I grimly accepted my fate.

Come to think of it, they weren’t so much shouting their encouragement as they were proclaiming their relief that they weren’t in my bare feet, treading through the wind-driven white-caps of this godforsaken lake. I would like to say that it was sheer grit and determination that propelled me forward when they fired the starting gun, but actually it was more guilt than grit. I couldn’t let my teammates down… but neither could I feel my head, hands or feet.

The 62-degree waves rolled in, smacking me in the face, reminding me how grateful I was to have taken my post-tusnami ocean swim lesson. The course was a triangle of 1,000 fun-filled meters – a² + b² = c². With this in mind, I charted my race strategy: Rather than flail around in a panic (as is my custom), I would swim out slowly and purposefully, gutting my way upstream into the waves. Once I reached the turn buoy, I would put my head down and swim across the course in earnest – counting my strokes to calibrate my distance, checking my bearing every 5 or so breaths, picking up steam as I tried to make it non-stop to the next turn. Then, with the wind (and waves) at my back, I would put the proverbial hammer down, heading for home (and that warm fluffy towel, dry change of clothes and accommodating car heater).

Swimming into the waves, I windmilled around like Wile E. Coyote spinning his heels above a chasm of cliffhanging doom, my strokes lopped off on the crests and falling long on the troughs. Gulping green water with every upstream breath, I figured I was succeeding in Part 1 of my strategy: I was slow, and it was gutting. Outbound, the main pack had left me in their watery wake within about 10 strokes of the start. It was me, two ladies and an old guy fighting amongst ourselves for “not last place.” A safety-kayak paddled alongside me:

“Are you in distress?”

Apparently in a triathlon, when a competitor ceases to make forward progress, they are allowed to hang on to the safety kayaks. I put my head back down and tried to show forward progress on the slow-mo instant replay so I could challenge the ruling on the field. The turn buoy was only a football field ahead, after all, and then I’d be able to manage these maddening waves. It’s not that the waves were huge – those, I knew how to handle by swimming under them – it’s that they were relentless, 1-foot, 62-degree nuisances that were completely out of synch with their surroundings… I was in a lake, for chrissakes. Manmade lakes don’t have a current. Maybe Lake Michigan or Lake Erie, but Lake Pleasant? Suffice it to say, I was going to have a word with the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names about the exact moment of insobriety that they arrived at this sobriquet.

My complaining carried me to the turn buoy in second-to-last place – the two ladies having surged forward, but this would be my moment, not my Waterloo. Without having to charge through the crashing waves, I felt smooth and swift in the water. Swim across and pick up steam!

“Check your bearing! Check your bearing!”

Another ever-so-helpful safety kayak berthed next to me. I popped my head up and saw… the boat launch, the swim-finish line, the end of the race, could it be I’d already passed the second turn buoy?

“Look to your right – to your right! You’re pulling left. The buoy’s over there.”

The whole swim across and pick up steam concept? Not so much with the waves rolling through your body, pushing you sideways back toward the rocky shore. My plans dashed upon those rocks, I would spend the next 15 minutes of my life trying to answer vector equations in my head.

“Check your bearing! Check your bearing! You’re looking strong; you’re just pulling left!”

I was going to pull his left leg out of that kayak and paddle it back to the shore myself, but that would have required too much energy. Instead, I zagged back toward the center of the lake and started zigging anew. Having swum two times farther than I needed to make it to the second turn-buoy, I saw only one pink swim cap treading water between me and the finish line. Either the other lady had ignited the jet pack concealed in her ass-cavity, or I’d managed to pass her during my drunk-test hopscotch across the lake. Well, that or she’d drowned. Either way, I could see the finish line, the waves were at my back and fourth-from-last place was mine for the taking. It was time to put the hammer down and head back to shore – my misery would soon be over!

“Check your bearing! Check your bearing!”

Are you kidding me? With the wind at my back, I was still swimming off course, but this time it wasn’t the waves – it was the wake from the marina, saturated in bass boat exhaust. Gulping carbon monoxide on every third stroke, I was beginning to think the missing swimmer had been overcome from huffing Evinrude fumes, but I was still making forward progress. Not only did I not want to finish last, I did not want to die.

“You can catch her! You can do it!”

“Dude! Shut up! What if she hears you and starts going faster!?!”

If he protested, I didn’t hear him – I could actually see the bottom of the lake – about 10 feet down. To my left was the dock where the starter stood. To my right, a line of boats backing down the ramp. Now my hands were scraping the concrete launch, touchdown! I stood up, and stumbled up the ramp… the race volunteers scurried toward me to unzip my wetsuit.

“No! No! I’m on a relay! I’ll do it later! Gotta get to the bike!”

I jammed my feet in my flip flops and bounded up the boat ramp, then kicked my flip flops off and toe-jammed up the side walk, then gasping at every last ounce of my lungs, I hopped over the grassy, gravelly area: “Ouch! Ow! Ouch! Oh! Oooh! Ouch! Ow! Ow!” then hurdled the curb and ran barefoot across the parking lot to Jason – sweet “Waffles” – waiting for my tag!

Waffles had a lot of ground to cover to make up for my swim.

When we set forth on this little adventure, Team Chicken and Waffles and Grits had visions of a podium finish. There were only four relays enlisted in this competition with trophies for the Top 3. Swimming like the Chicken I am, I had come out of the water in 34 minutes, 21.3 seconds – 14 minutes slower than the first relay swimmer and a full 5 minutes behind the third one. Though Waffles cranked a second-best bike at 58:20.6 – even passing people going 35 miles an hour uphill – he couldn’t make up for my undoing, nor could Grits, who brought home the bacon, running the 5K in 30 minutes flat.

Our aggregate time of 2:02:42 just missed the podium – but Team Chicken and Waffles and Grits did have a Top 5 finish – and really, it didn’t matter when they gave us our commemorative beer glasses for finishing the race, as Ross wisely observed: “You can’t drink beer out of a medal.”

And you can’t measure fun with a trophy.

That said, I did swim faster than seven other people across the same distance (including three men that started 5 minutes ahead of the ladies and relays) – and I improved my 1,000-meter time by two full minutes. Granted, I can still run a 5K faster than I can swim a 1K – hell, I can run uphill barefoot in a wetsuit faster than I can swim in one – but I am making forward progress. If Lake Unpleasant taught me anything it was this: Thank God for that E.coli contamination scare in Tempe Town Lake that forced the cancellation of what was to have been my maiden 1,500-meter voyage at the Marquee Triathlon one week earlier. The unpleasant truth is that I wasn’t prepared to swim 1,500 meters, and I needed to get back into the pool and lay down more distance – especially with just two weeks remaining until my next 1,500-meter adventure with the Badd@ss Bitche$ at the Rio Salado Triathlon on May 7.