Return to Open Water

Yesterday was perfect. Mock-summer: green trees, blue sky, unhampered sunshine, and nothing blooming to the point of allergy. And since neither the Major MudBunny nor I had swum in open water in our wetsuits (I had not swum in the wetsuit at all; she had never swum in open water), we jumped at the chance to meet a few other triathletes at Hillsdale.

Open water! The Major hoped for open-water bearings before Sunday's KC Tri; I hoped I could hang on for the distance. We were both hoping to love it — she for the first time, me hoping my memory hadn't tricked me. I think we both got what we wanted.

We greeted The Major MudBunny's teammate Sean, who had finished his swim, and watched a couple other triathletes slice across the lake. The Major and I snaked into our wetsuits, waded in, and immediately started laughing. We'd expected needles of icy water; it was only cool, the sort of water you anticipate on a hot summer day. In fact, now I'm not at all concerned about this week's rain cooling the water at Longview Lake; with a sunny, warm week, I would have been more concerned that the race might not be wetsuit-legal. And I am going to need that wetsuit, it seems.

We swam out to the heavy, curving yellow pipe that separates the family swim beach from the jet skis and motorboats. The Major watched me while I ducked under to make sure I didn't bash my head on the pipe; I did the same for her. (Really, it's advisable to go over the pipe. My upper arms felt like ramen noodles, so I opted for the less awkward but riskier pass.)

Why do I love open water? Wow. Open water is intimate. Something happens between you and the water.

It feels like living silk wrapped on my skin. Senses uncoupled from the trivia of gravity, aware of the immense and detailed texture of water and air, a massively diluted atmosphere of earth and plant, lifting me. When I'm tired, there's nothing to cling to, and I have to find the swim in my body; I have to know what my arms and head and upper back and legs and core can do, all the small variations in how they can work together. I like to feel the wind chop and test the water. I like to roll against the water and feel it roll around me. I like the feeling of skimming over the planet, immersed in fresh nature, braiding my body into the weather system itself, sun and wind and the amazing soft water.

After open water, the pool is astringent and small and hard. Yet I'll go to the pool as the swim has its own rewards.

The Major swam ahead of me, long, even strokes, sighting beautifully away from the sun, straight on toward the tall buoys. My stroke was all over the place, not much stretch, not clicking. Still loved it. We'd pick a buoy and The Major would swim on, wait for me there. (No wonder she liked it so much; she's The Major MudBunny, and what's a lake but dramatically thinned-out mud.) We're not sure how far we swam. Maybe 850 meters? We hit some cold currents, and that's always interesting, feeling that ribbon of water wrap around your forearm.

And on the way back (swimmers be warned), we swam across a rock ledge covered by about a foot of water. This freaked me out enough that I grabbed a mouthful of lake and had to stop and tread. I couldn't see the rock, didn't know where my hand was going to hit it, didn't know where it would stop and the water drop away again, didn't know whether it would pop up below unexpectedly. But other triathlete swimmers had navigated it, so knew it could be done, no big deal. The moment simulated pretty well the fear-potential of swimming in a pack, not knowing where the kicking feet and flailing arms are around you. I pretended it was merely a chance to practice nerves of steel rather than a chance to smack the fine bones of my hand against a big rock.

The swim back to shore, toward the sun, felt atrociously long. My stroke fell apart and got fat against the water. I couldn't even see the marker pipe in the glare. Getting tired, was glad for the wetsuit and its buoyancy. The real test of swim endurance comes in a couple of weeks, minus the neoprene crutch, when open water season officially starts. I have no idea what to expect in Sunday's tri except that I need to focus on head position, body roll, relaxed stroke, and length, length, length.

I stopped to tread three or four times to make sure I was still pointed the right direction. Sometimes I was. The Major was posted at the yellow pipe with a dazzling smile. "This was perfect!"

We dolphined in over the sand, then set up transition areas on the grass above the beach and practiced running in, stripping the wetsuits, pulling on socks and shoes, troubleshooting helmet straps and shoe velcro. (I plan to sit on the floor like a two year old tonight and practice changing shoes.)

Then a recovery run in the mock-summer evening, followed by stretching and sitting around on the grass trading favorite yoga poses, laughing like a couple of high school kids, and gazing out at the beautiful open water where we had so recently submerged and left our doubts.