I stood at the edge of the Koret pool, loosened my limbs, and adjusted my goggles. The 25 yards of clear, chlorinated water stretching before me promised to be my home for the next five hours. Behind me stood a yellow plastic sandwich board sporting black, bold, block letters proclaiming “LANE CLOSED.” My feet straddled an array of BPA-free water bottles enriched with 60 grams of maltodextrin powder apiece. They were accompanied by a couple of bottles of plain water. On a chair next to me rested a cotton duck bag bearing the blue Dolphin Club logo and a commemoration of the 1993 Crissy Field swim. A video camera nestled inside the bag for Coach Val to use periodically to record the evolution of my stroke mechanics throughout the five hours. It was 6:15a when I dove into the lane.
On every stroke, I chanted to myself and concentrated on form. “One—smooth recovery. One—lead hand stretching for far wall. One—lead hand passing down the body centerline.” This continued until I reached the starting point, performed an open turn to maintain an aerobic state and then thought, “Two—swimming through the tunnel. Two—toes click to ensure a streamlined body. Two—smooth entry into the water with the new lead hand.” Eventually, this became “Thirty-two—trailing hand almost catches the lead hand. Thirty-two—bubbles from lead hand streaming not too far on side of head. Thirty-two—it’s been a half hour; time to feed.”
I paused at the end of the pool, snatched a maltodextrin feed bottle and forced myself to drink half in less than 30 seconds. Half a bottle provided over 100 calories of complex carbohydrates to fuel the engine. Even so, the literature talks about a bonking effect at the five or six hour mark as the carbohydrate replenishment loses pace to the rate of energy consumption. At this point the body looks for new sources of fuel and begins to cannibalize the muscle tissue. All reports indicate that this is a very painful, discomforting, and demoralizing experience. All reports also indicate that enduring this phenomenon is a critical component to training the mind to complete an English Channel crossing. I was curious to see if five hours were enough to trigger such an episode. I was also curious to see how my body reacted to the forced feedings. Either way, it promised to be interesting.
From time to time, Coach Val showed up at poolside to give me a thumbs-up. His encouragement helped to reinforce my hope that the new stroke he had taught to me was becoming fully ingrained in my psyche. At 8:00a, I could see Coach talking to Patrick McBride and showing him how to use the video recorder. Coach works a split shift and he was leaving. He returns to the pool at 6:00p to supervise the evening Masters workouts. Mr. McBride is a Koret lifeguard and a ten-year member of the South End Rowing Club. We had met one another in the shower some weeks ago. We talked about people we knew in common at the two Bay swimming clubs and compared notes on local swimmers’ exploits. Mr. McBride had volunteered to continue the periodic recordings to document my form for later review.
At the two and a half hour mark, I forced myself to chug another half bottle of feeding liquid and set off again. By now, I’d passed 100 laps and was chanting, “Sixty-one—push the water to the back of the lane. Sixty-one—check the bubbles from the lead hand.” Then, “CLUNK!” The overhead lamps flickered. Then, “CLUNK, CLUNK!” The lamps went out. After a few more strokes, my eyes began to adjust to the ambient light that streamed in from the glassed-in catwalk at ground level far above our heads. I’d never been in the Koret pool past 8:00a, so my initial reaction was that this might be a normal occurrence. Continuing to swim, I could glance up and see swimsuit-clad figures beginning to accumulate at the darkened edges of the pool. Perhaps this was some sort of temporary power outage and the lights would come back on again in a few minutes. I kept swimming. I was determined to reach my five hour goal.
I was swimming next to the bulk-head which provided a walkway across the middle of the pool. Mr. McBride's shadowy figure appeared on the bulk-head above me and I could tell that he was saying something, but I couldn’t make it out with the earplugs blocking the sound. I kept swimming. When I returned to the starting end of the pool, an ominous, dark oblong confronted my outstretched hand and I instinctively recoiled and stopped. Patrick was holding a kickboard down in the water to get my attention. He said, “We’ve lost power. You have to get out of the pool.” I got out.
The power was completely gone. The usually thrumming pool pump was deathly silent. The cacophony of splashing echoes had disappeared and the entire tableau was hushed. The pool surface was mirror-calm and illuminated with ghostly hues from the trickle of surface sunlight. It was a colossal, man-made, underground grotto in a tranquil state that very few people ever experience. In retrospect, it was fantastic. It was a veritable aquatic cathedral. At the time, though, I was bummed.
The pool supervisor announced that power seemed to be off through half the campus. Later, I learned that PG&E had toppled a power pole, depriving several square blocks of electricity. This was not going to be fixed soon. I gently asked Mr. McBride, “What prevents us from swimming in the available light?” He replied, “The pump is out and in the dark, the lifeguards can’t see into the bottom of the pool.” He was right, of course. The deep end of the pool was farthest from the remaining light source and shrouded in dark shadows. A person could easily lie unnoticed at the bottom for a long time. I thought for a moment about asking for an exception, but realized that would be the supervisor’s call and he was slightly frantic with the emergency demands on his time. I also realized that if the roles were reversed, I’d absolutely refuse. So, I headed for the showers.
Fortunately, the water was still hot. The emergency lights provided enough illumination to shower, shave, and dress. On the way out, a troop of firefighters descended the staircase carrying various implements of destruction. Apparently, with the power gone, people were stuck in the elevator and the fire department was coming to the rescue.
Emerging into the sunlight, I was disoriented and dazed. I had had it firmly in my mind to swim until 11:15 and was suddenly cast adrift. Exiting the parking lot, I was unsure what direction to take. After heading east for a couple of blocks, I decided to go to the Dolphin Club. I had conference calls scheduled for the afternoon beginning at 1p, but that would still give me time for a one hour dip in the Cove.
When I reached the beach, Fast Eddie was coming out. He had just finished a two hour Bay swim. Although he was shivering slightly, he stopped to chat. We both agreed that 60 or 62 degrees was no problem, but 54 degrees was on the chilly side. He gathered up his swim material and headed into the South End clubhouse. I waded in from the beach and swam the two-mile “Maylander” course that Ralph Wenzel had taught me. When I came back, Eddie had tied his swimming leash to the South End dock and was stroking in place between the club piers. Apparently, he had warmed up and gone back for more.
The rest of the day, I was discombobulated. I hadn’t completed my five hour swim. On the other hand, I had swum for over three and a half hours. Lindsay and I sipped martinis on the balcony overlooking the back yard that evening. Spring had sprung and the warm evening sun was drenching us. We agreed that the training was still on track. She offered the advice, “Stuff happens. You may as well get used to it, because stuff is likely to happen in the Channel, too.”
1 year ago