Monday, June 13, 2016

Swimming in the Canyons


When I told friends and family that I was going on a swim vacation in Arizona I received a number of different reactions. Some thought I was going to swim in different pools every day. Others, when they heard I was going to Lake Powell, wondered if I was renting a big houseboat and planned to party. Neither was true, thankfully, for while I did go to Arizona and Lake Powell, it was on an organized swim adventure, one that I will never forget,

Captain Martin Strel
Back in February during a snowstorm I searched for "swim vacation". One of the first hits I got was for Strel Swimming Adventures, an outfit which mostly operates in Europe but has one trip in the U.S. at Lake Powell. If the name Strel sounds familiar to you open water swimming nerds, yes, it's the same Martin Strel who swam the Amazon, Mississippi, and Yangtze rivers. He founded SSA with his son Borut. His daughter Nina Strel was our guide on this trip along with her father. They were both amazing and we were treated like royalty.

Swimmers are a special breed. While we come from different backgrounds and cultures, there is a shared language in our swim histories and love of the water that connects us immediately. And so it was on this trip. The group - six swimmers and three guides, was made up of an Olympic medalist (UK) from Switzerland, the Captain of a fire house in Rochester, NY, a fashion designer from NYC, a  community leader from San Diego, a researcher/educational leader from Montreal (by way of Scotland) and me. The trip was led by Nina Strel, with Captain Martin and expert kayaker/assistant Janet. The trip was relatively short - three days on the water - but those three days were packed.
Nina leading the hike

The itinerary for each day went pretty much like this: Get up, eat breakfast at the hotel, head to the marina, board the boat. Set out to the first swim of the day (60-75 minutes), lunch, hike, second swim of day, back to hotel, dinner in Page, AZ. Repeat. The accommodations were great, but the lunches out on the lake each day were exceptional. Everything was fresh and healthy. Martin even hand-squeezed his special grapefruit juice from fruit in his yard.

Lake Powell was simply beautiful. I admit I had an image in my head of houseboats, and while there were some at the marina, once we got out onto the lake, it was as if we had entered another world. The canyons were deep and vast, the water clear blue, and we spent most of the first day with our mouths open in awe. Lake Powell is huge - it spans Utah and Arizona, and is actually a reservoir created by damming the Colorado River. There are dozens of canyons off of the main channel, and each day we ventured into a different canyon.

On day two we traveled to the Rainbow Bridge, one of
Rainbow Bridge
the world's largess natural bridges, now part of the National Park Service, though the Navajo and other Native American tribes consider it a sacred site. We hiked up and were fascinated by the history and magic of the bridge. We also swam deep into the canyons on day 2 which proved to be my favorite day. Each day was different but equally stunning. I took several videos but even they can't capture how special this place was.
For those of you who seek a trip where you can get some distance in, you can do so on this trip and will likely find someone who is your speed. Our group was comprised of strong swimmers, even those who were new to open water swimming. The water was clear, clean, and the perfect temperature (high 60s, low 70s). Although I received some unfortunate news about my rotator cuff as I embarked on my trip, that did not stop me from thoroughly enjoying myself. It is amazing how much ground you can cover with fins and one arm! In fact, I saw the injury as a blessing in disguise. It helped me slow down (literally and figuratively) and enjoy the beauty of the place without worrying about how much distance I was getting in.

I strongly recommend Strel Swimming Adventures to all of my swim friends. We were treated so well and the entire adventure was memorable. Once I heal, my next trip is to Europe!

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Finding my Spirit Animal?

I arrived in Arizona for my swim vacation a day early so that I could see the magnificent Grand Canyon. It certainly did not disappoint, as it nearly took my breath away with its beauty. While I have heard it said a dozen times, it is true that you simply cannot capture the Canyon in pictures, though I certainly tried.

It turns out that my experience in the Canyon took my breath away in a literal sense as well. For those of you who have not visited the South Rim, there is a visitor center when you enter the park. When I arrived on Wednesday afternoon there were several large female elks wandering around amidst the tourists, who were busy taking photos. It was a funny scene but one that left me with a feeling that the elk were a peaceful bunch. How wrong I was, as I came face to face with an elk and narrowly escaped being one of those stories you see in the last 10 minutes of the nightly news.

On Thursday morning I decided to get up early and go for a run along the South Rim of the Canyon. I arrived early, before 6am, to find it mostly uncrowded but for the day hikers who were heading into the Canyon. It was beautiful, cool, and I had a view that can simply never be replicated on my trail runs back home. As I was nearing the end of my run, I decided to take the Green Trail back to the visitor's center.

The Green Trail runs parallel to the road but through the woods. As I was nearing the center, I saw something out of my left eye, and turned to see a large elk running through the woods just ahead of me. I stopped, motioning for it to cross the path, for clearly elk understand sign language. We stood there looking at each other, and for a moment I thought "oh, this is a sweet moment, perhaps this elk is my spirit animal!"  As I took a step forward, so did the elk. We then stood there frozen for a minute. I realized that this sweet spirit animal of mine was not going to budge. I then turned around and started to slowly move away, then started to run back from whence I came. The elk began to run after me, and I yelled and ducked behind a tree. Now for those who think I am embellishing this story, let me assure you that I am not. So the elk is standing about 10 yards in front of the tree, with me behind the tree. The road was about 20 yards to my right, and I quickly assessed that there were two other trees between me and the road. I stood there breathing shallowly, and made my move to the next tree. The elk followed, even closer this time, and the thing was fast and did not look happy. At this point I begin to think I am in deep crap, as the tree wasn't that big but the elk was.

From across the street I see a shuttle bus, whose driver must have seen what was going on. He yelled "we've got a runner!" and I wasn't sure if he was talking about me or the elk, but he pulled his bus up on the road and said to me "you have to run for it". There was about a two foot lip up to the road, so I sprinted from the tree, elk in close pursuit, jumped over the edge of the woods and in front of the bus, who then moved it to block the elk. I sprinted like I was Usain Bolt across the parking lot to the visitor center. I wish I had my Garmin on and could record this run as it would definitely be a PR. Someone asked me later why I didn't jump on the bus, for which I had no answer other than to say when you think a huge elk is chasing you you don't want to wait for a bus door to open.

After splashing water on my face, I came out of the restroom and a man was standing there. I had to share this with someone so I said "you won't believe what just happened" and he asked me if I was the woman in the woods being chased by the elk. Apparently his wife (who by now had joined us) and he were behind me on the Green Trail and saw it all go down. We learned later that this was a mama elk who was understandably protecting her baby. No matter, it was a bit scary. As I was explaining this all later that night to my brother Dan he suggested that maybe the elk IS my spirit animal, helping me to run fast, away from my fears. It sounds nice, but I am not buying it!

Image result for female elk
This is pretty much the look she was giving me.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Au Revoir, coach Jacki!

Dustin, Josh, Katie, Bob, Jacki: five decades of swimmers!
Our MIT Masters friend, teammate, and sometimes-coach Jacki Hirsty packed her bags and moved to sunny California to pursue outdoor swimming and winters other than in New England. We're all going to miss her! For those who don't know her, Jacki is a swimming phenom, holding numerous national records, owner hundreds of top-ten times, and all-American honors.

Jacki teaches us that swimming is a lifestyle, something one commits to, and a sport that you can continue to improve in as you age. This is not lost on many of us who swim with her, or - more realistically - in her wake. Last year a group of us (see photo to the right) realized that five of us representing different decades could swim together. In what other sport does this happen? It's also a good reminder that swimming is a meritocracy - it doesn't matter what job you hold on land, what your age is, if you swam in college or not - all that matters is that you can hold the interval and set that particular day. I'm sure this is probably the case for other sports, but swimmers are a different breed, in my opinion.

To those who Jacki will coach in California - you are truly lucky! However, don't ask her to do an open water swim. She only follows the little black line.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Kingdom Swim

The 2015 Kingdom Swim is in the books, and what a fun swim weekend it was! The event took place at Lake Memphremagog (say that three times!) in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. It truly was a stunning setting for a race. The event offers several distances - 15 miles (across the border to Canada), 10 miles, 6 miles, 3 miles, and 1 mile. A distance for everyone. The race director, Phil White, was an incredible host and thought of everything, from pre-race details, to a tour of the lake on a ferry, to all of the logistics around race courses and kayakers. If you are looking for a destination swim, I highly recommend that you visit Newport, VT next year.

The events started on Friday with a cruise of the lake to scout out the courses. I planned to do the 3 mile course, so it was pretty easy to determine where the buoys were and where we needed to go. The longer courses were more difficult, hence the need for a kayak escort. Even on the boat we got turned around, and although we were dry, high enough up to see all the buoys, and had a little map in hand, we got confused.

On Saturday morning the fog was dense. So dense that the 15 mile "border busters" had to wait around for several hours until it was safe enough to launch, so many of them started with a nutrition deficit. We went off late, but only by 90 minutes, and by the time the other races started it was sunny, clear, and near perfect swim conditions (see photo on right!). I was set up with a local kayaker named Rick, and he was awesome. Part of the fun of the race was trying to find your kayaker. As I rounded the first buoy I looked up to see 30 kayaks and had a hard time picking out Rick. I eventually found him and we settled into a nice rhythm. Prior to starting the race I didn't really think I needed a kayak for 3 miles. I realized quickly that I needed a kayak, as I would have been swimming the 6 mile course if  Rick was not there there. I swam 3 miles (which was like a sprint when others are swimming 6, 10 and 15!) so we were done early and got to hang out on the beach and watch all the other racers come in. I was happy with my swim and plan to return next year to try the 6 mile event.

New England Masters had a huge group participating in all four of the big races, so it was fun to track people. What a great group of people to hang around with - supportive, positive, fun. This is one swim to add to your list of destination swims!
Rick my trusty yakker!
kayakers deploying

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Swimming Still Wins

As I was lying on the physical therapy table this week I was telling my PT Andrew about my weekend, and how I went on a nice long trail run. He looked at me funny and said "you just told me you went on a trail swim". This came on the heels of me overhearing another patient mentioning his wetsuit and asking "what race are you doing?" when he was just heading up to go surf in NH. So, it's come to this. After over a month out of the water, I have become obsessed with getting back in the water. However, given that I try to make lemonade out of lemons, I decided to do a pro/pro list to see what I have gained in this time off. As you can see from the list, there are lots of benefits, but with apologies to Andrew and my massage therapist Morgan, I would trade all of the right hand column for the opportunity to text about how hard the workout was. I am not quite at the point where I want to add chlorine to my shower, but that might be an illogical next step.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Now THIS is how you age up!


Peter Phildius turns 85 today, but instead of celebrating with his wife in Florida this weekend, he competed at the New England Masters SCY championships at Harvard. Pete's journey to age group champ is an interesting one. He didn't swim competitively until age 68, when he "trashed his back running marathons and triathlons."  He got a coach and started 2-a-day swim practices. By 70, he was third in the country in the breaststroke. As he aged up he met a lot of amazing people through swimming. Meanwhile, clearly seeing his potential, four of his grandkids recently challenged him to become a certified lifeguard, which he did. So, Pete now works the early shift at the Longfellow Club, rising at 3:30am to open the pool. I won't complain about morning practices ever again!

Pete also learned the dark side of aging up. A successful businessman, Pete found discrimination, not continued challenge, in his work world. Channeling his energy, he started an initiative to help people age gracefully and combat the obstacles of age discrimination.  Sadly, his close friend and partner in this effort died suddenly in December, and the loss is profound for Pete.

Yet Pete doesn't want admiration for his athletic accomplishments, he wants to win. He knows exactly how many people were in his former age group (500 in 80-84) and how many are in his new age group (150). He likes his odds in this new AG. This guy is a stud. I hope we will see a time where people like Pete are the rule, not the exception. Happy 85, Pete!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Swimming Through (and with) the Decades

As I made my way to the pool on Saturday for a cram session to prepare for the upcoming NEM meet, it dawned on me: I would be swimming that morning with a twenty-something, a thirty-something, a forty-something (moi), a fifty-something, and a sixty-something master's swimmer. As I arrived on deck I mentioned this to the fifty-something, who said he thought about the exact same thing on his way in. I am hard pressed to think about any other competitive sport where there is a forty-year difference between the youngest and the oldest and we are all doing the same workout on the same intervals. But it happens in the pool, and it speaks to the uniqueness of master's swimming. I have written before that master's is a meritocracy - what you do for work, how much money you make, or how old you are doesn't matter when you get into the pool, but how you swim does. The exception, of course, is that the people who make a lot of money buy those fancy technical suits, but notwithstanding that, it's about equal. I will say that age and experience did come into play late in the workout. The sixty-something began to crush everyone, as is usually the case.

300 swim
2 x 75 drill/swim
2 x 75 kick/swim
2 x 75 descend
300 on 4:20
300 on 4:10
300 on 4:00
200 on 3:00
200 on 2:50
200 on 2:40
100 on 1:30
100 on 1:25
100 fast
400 pull
4 x 75
2 x 50