La Muerta Pequeña

Wednesday 05/05/10

On May 5, 1862, a seriously out-manned and out-gunned Mexican army soundly defeated the French army at the Battle of Puebla.  While not much celebrated in Mexico, the fifth of May is a big deal in the United States. Accentuating this irony in 2005, the U.S. Congress ordered the President of the United States to observe Cinco de Mayo with appropriate ceremonies and activities. Decades before Congress got into the act, Bill Horgos, a member of some notoriety of first the Dolphin and then the South End clubs, suggested a swimming tribute to the fifth of May. He designed and promoted the aptly named “Five Coves of Death” swim.

The swim begins at the clubs’ beach in Aquatic Park. The clockwise option will take the swimmer to the Flag and then to the Goal Posts. Nothing much death-defying about that. From here, though, the course threads under the length of the Muni Pier, a thin, barnacle and starfish-encrusted pathway between concrete and creosote posts. It continues under the Roundhouse and past the jagged pilings out to the Opening. The swimmer then navigates the surging current squishing in and out through the thin gap at the Jacuzzi. From here, the course takes the swimmer behind the Balclutha, swimming over and under scratchy, barely submerged lines and hoses draped from boat to shore. Swimming behind the Thayer presents a similar and slightly more confining challenge. Emerging from behind the Thayer, the swimmer has a short distance to reach the South End pier. Downing a shot of tequila at the pier completes one “Cove of Death.”

I’d always considered this swim well beyond my meager means and more than a little wacky. Upon deciding to train for the English Chanel, though, I made a mental list of previously unimaginable swims that I wanted to tackle and this one ranked in the top (ahem) five. This year, the South End is hosting two swims—one at 5am and one at 5pm. Ralph Wenzel and I choose 5am.

From home, I zip across the sleeping city a little after 4am and find the coveted four hour parking places across the street from the clubs completely empty. A few South End members are filtering down the street, flickering into and out of the light cast by the streetlamps. Inside the South End clubhouse, I pick my way quietly past a person sleeping on a cot and grope up a flight of well-worn stairs and through the dark passage connecting the two clubs. The electronic doors of the Dolphin Club don’t open until 5am, but Lou Marcelli has left the connecting doorway unlocked for us. Once inside the Dolphin Club, I can turn on a few lights without disturbing anyone and gain access to my locker. I pad to the sauna to hang up my towel and look out the window to see Ralph’s truck parked next to my Mini Cooper.

A few minutes later, Ralph and I meet on the beach. The sun has yet to hint at its existence and the few city lights cast sparkles on the inky stretch of water before us. A couple of South End swimmers, yipping from the cold, splash into the dark cove and turn left at the Dolphin pier. Ralph and I decide to leave the deathly coves to the likes of Mr. Horgos and agree to swim our normal large loops sans tequila. At 53 degrees, the water temperature is challenging enough.

We immediately lose track of one another in the pitch black. Fearing a collision with a buoy, I take a wide track to the left. Our paths rejoin at the Flag and we turn toward the Goal Posts in tandem. Breathing on the right side, I can see the ebony sky resting on a band of persian blue that is starting to lift above the horizon of the Oakland hills. By the time we reach the Repair, the persian blue has risen and is seamlessly blending with a band of indigo below. In the completely cloudless sky, the shades of blue continue to push back the black and shed imperceptibly lighter layers beneath until the yellow ball of the sun first peeks above the hills and pierces a band of cornflower blue. By this time, we’re at the Flag again.

When we reach the Opening the second time, the first doubts begin to creep into my mind. I’m cold and uncomfortable. My lower back is starting to ache. These thoughts are insidious. They seep into the crevices of my psyche leaving a corrosive trail of negativism. I forget to search for that tunnel door. Instead, I start rationalizing. “You swam a fairly long distance this weekend.” “You were completely knackered after that sprintathon from Fort Mason on Monday.” “Yesterday was a long, tough, interval workout in the pool and you were fagged out all day.” “Tomorrow will be another tough interval workout in the pool.” “You always intended this five coves thing as a lark.” “Keep your eye on the prize—the real swim is the English Channel.”

When we reach the Opening for the third time, I tell Ralph this is my last loop. He cheerfully accepts my decision and says that he’s going to keep going for a bit. At the South End pier, I have a final, short debate with myself about continuing. My lower back has ceased squeaking and has launched into a full-throated squawk. I know I’m going to regret it, but I turn toward the beach.

When I get to the Dolphin showers, some people notice that the yellow light on my goggle strap is still flashing. By now, it’s been sunlight for over an hour and they are incredulous that I’ve been in the water since well before dawn. I tell them about my abbreviated five coves and that Ralph is still out there. They shake their heads in disbelief and make note of the remarkably chilly water.

After I warm up and dress, I go down to meet Ralph at the beach. He wades out of the water with a hypothermic hunch and a “thrill of victory” grin. He has completed five coves. Later in the day, he will come back to swim five more coves at 5pm. I think there may be an English Channel in this man’s future.

I don’t remember ever failing to complete a swim to which I’d committed. Even in the most difficult times of my champion Polar Bear year, I could gut out a three mile swim in 47 degree water if that was my goal. This defeat deals a sting that I don’t want to experience again. In honor of the Five Coves of Death, I’ll call it “la muerta pequeña.” On the other hand, it may just be another tool I can put in my bag for that day I’m desperately trying to clear a path to the trap door in my mind that opens to yet another second wind.

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