My race began...
when the morning fog still covered Lake George. I had signed myself up to swim a 5k, two laps around a narrow course marked out by buoys in the middle of the lake. My arms and legs were marked in Sharpie with my number, I had covered myself in sunscreen, and I had visited the bathroom no less than four times. All that was left to do, it seemed, was swim. I ran around the parking lot a few times to get my blood pumping, but I just couldn't shake my nerves.
I grew up swimming, but always in pools. I swam in high school on Sunday mornings before it was light out, before any of my friends were up. I swam in college, long enough to nearly miss dinner every night. I keep swimming now in a few different pools deep in the bowels of Manhattan where neither light nor cell phone service can reach. I swim back and forth over the same terrain, hundreds of times, until I know these pools so well I see them in my dreams. The way my bubbles create shadows on the white and blue tiles at the Pittsburgh JCC. That one lane at John Jay College that's missing the signature black cross on the wall so I'm always bumping into it.
I've swum so many miles in my life that I’ve lost count. 7500 miles, I’d guess, give or take, and growing every week. I've swum so many miles that I swim in my sleep. My mother tells me that I flail my arms and legs, moving them through some invisible water, when I nap on the couch over vacation. So why am I afraid of swimming what amounts to just a little over three miles?
We wade into the lake, and the water’s still cold, even after it’s had a whole summer to warm up. My feet go gush gush through the mud and grasses. The family friend I stayed with last night said there are eels in the lake, but he was joking. I think. I can barely see the green buoy that marks the farthest point we will swim to before looping back toward the start. After so much time repeating the same 25 yards of pool, I finally have to make it somewhere. Maybe that's what scares me the most.
About a year before this race, a friend pulled me away from the pool and down to Brighton Beach. At the very end of Brooklyn, it may just be the last place in the borough hipsters haven't colonized. It's populated by old Russian ladies in tiny bikinis who put their hands on their hips and stare out into the water, unashamed of their bodies. Men hold huge pieces of tin foil up to reflect the sun’s rays onto their bodies. There are no lanes. No stench of chlorine or subterranean mildew.
From that first day, I was hooked on open water swimming. I swam from the lifeguard’s chair, down past the amusements at Coney Island, on to the pier, and back again. My legs wobbled when I stood back up on land, and I had collected a green sea beard of little algae on my chin. I loved to stand on the beach and point at the pier, so far away it looked flimsy as a cat’s cradle, and announce: I swam there.
Out in the lake, the officials start to count down a minute from the start. I'm surrounded by the people who introduced me to this way of swimming. They're nothing like the catty, competitive girls I grew up swimming alongside. The open water swimmers who look slim and muscled might actually be slow. The gray-haired, pudgy ones might be fast. My friend John does Crossfit and you can see every muscle in his body, but I can beat him out at Brighton.
There was one woman out at the beach who seemed famous, as if everyone knew her, and I was proud that I could swim faster than her, too. Then I found out she swam around the entire island of Manhattan, 27 miles. She swims through the winter, too, to see how long her body can take the cold water. In open water swimming, being the fastest doesn't always mean you're the best.
The starting horn sounds, and we're off, swimming through the lake. People push and elbow each other as they try to get out ahead, and I try to stake out my own place among them. I can see straight down to the bottom of the lake, and when I turn my head to breathe, I can see the hills and trees. I tell myself to focus on these views rather than the swimmers around me or the miles out ahead.
I dreaded swim meets growing up. The sound of the horn and the competitive spirit in the air made me nauseous. Despite the swim practices I diligently attended five times a week and the weight lifting sessions twice a week and the weekly technique lesson, I still wasn't very fast. I just got too nervous. All my muscles would freeze up, and I would swim just the tiniest bit faster than I did at practice.
As soon as the competition spreads out across Lake George, I relax. There's an old man in a wetsuit who sticks with me, and we trade off taking the lead, breaking up the still water and creating a current to pull the other along. My body feels warm now, and it's starting to hurt a little, but I feel full of energy and excitement and I just keep going.
As I round the last buoy to start my second lap, I see a little school of fish flitting through the clear water. They're cheering me on. I don't even stop at the refuel station for water before setting off on the second half.
I can't remember the second lap. I must have felt blissful, my mind completely clear. No worries. Just one arm. And then the next.
In the final stretch, I start to race wetsuit guy, try to pull out ahead. It must be that competitive drive instilled in me by years of pool swimming kicking in. Then I remember that it doesn't matter. This race isn't about winning. It's about me and the lake, about spending time with myself and proving that I could swim the whole distance.
Soon I can't swim anymore. My hands scrape the bottom of the lake as I approach the finish, and I have to get up and clumsily run the final stretch to shore. I cross the finish line, and I feel euphoric, like I could just keep going. Now I could finally tell people that I had swum a 5k, a distance that almost anyone can easily imagine.
I came in third out of all the women there. I couldn't believe it. Third. After all those years of disappointing races, I had finally found my element. Not just water, but open water.
I keep going back, summer after summer. My goal for next summer? Swim the 10k.