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Pelicans in the Desert and Other Hard-to-Believe True Facts

November 17, 2012 by Katie

It's true.  We sometimes see pelicans in Arizona.  I think they get lost on their way to Mexico.  Pelicans are unmistakable:  The beak, the wing span, the classic expression on their pelican faces, the dive-bombing.  But it's so unexpected that most people assume they're seeing something else.

Unbelievable True Fact #2

I have three wetsuits in my car right now.  Between the 3 of them, I've logged about 30 minutes worth of wetsuit swimming this month.  Bringing my lifetime total to 30 minutes.  Have I lost my nerve for cold water swimming?  No...

Unbelievable True Fact #3

I'm doing the swim portion of a relay for Ironman Arizona tomorrow. 

As you may know, there's no such thing as a relay for an IRONMAN.  That's 99.9% true.  But tomorrow, I'll be in the .1%.  There are 3 relay teams signed up for Ironman Arizona.  Because the bike course goes thru the Salt River Indian Community, the Salt River Tri Team gets 3 relay entries.  One of their swimmers injured her shoulder and asked me to take her place. 

Even though I know can swim 2.4 miles in 62°F, I'm wearing the wetsuit because I've always been curious to see what my time would be on an Ironman swim.  Also, I want to feel comfortable at the start and finish. 

I've done test runs with each of the 3 wetsuits.  The first one was way too big and felt like a diaper.  I lasted about 5 minutes with it before I took it off.  The second one fit okay, but it chafed my neck on an easy 1,000-yard swim. 

So I rented Wetsuit Number 3 from the good folks at Triple Sports.  (I love those guys.)  I went down to Tempe Town Lake today for the practice swim and put on the latest wetsuit.  Which took forever.  To participate in the practice swim, you had to have your Ironman Athlete Wristband (check!) and your timing chip (oops!).  My husband was nice enough to drive down with the chip.  I walked a few blocks, in the wetsuit, to the corner of Rio Salado and Mill so that he could hand it to me without having to park.

The wetsuit wasn't so great for strolling around on dry land.  I was looking forward to cooling off in the 62°F water.  Even so, my bare arms and feet were pretty cold when I got in.  For a moment, I was glad to have the wetsuit.  After that, I warmed up and started noticing the collar pressing on my neck.  And the heavy feel of the neoprene against my skin.  Yuck.  By then, my bare arms were warm.  I knew that the rest of my body would be too, even without the wetsuit.

After I swam around for a little while, I got out, took off the wetsuit, and jumped back in.  That felt terrific.  I seriously considered going naked for the race.  I'm sure I'm paying  too high a price for feeling comfortable at the start and shaving 2-5 minutes off my time, but I'm sticking with my original plan.  I'll let you know how it goes.

This is my team at the check-in!

Awesome dog I met at the check-in.  The backpack on the right is my Official Ironman Swag.

What do you think about the wetsuit?  Would you shrink wrap yourself and risk tearing up your neck just to swim a little faster and avoid that "HOLY CRAP!" moment at the start?

Note: I've shut down comments on my blog because I can't handle the spam attacks.  I'm working on a solution.  In the meantime, I'd love to hear from you.  Tweet me or Facebook me

Splash & No Dash

November 10, 2012 by Katie

A new friend I met at Swim the Suck posted on the Marathon Swimmer's Forum that "WaterGirl does not blog often enough.  Shorter, more frequent posts are better".  So here you go, Zane. 

Last week, the local lakes were at 70°F.  The week before, they were at 74°F.  This morning, they were at 66°F.  The air temp was 54°F with 18 mph winds. 

This was the last Splash & Dash (or, in my case, Splash) of the season.  Those races are usually The Most Fun Ever.

This morning, I wasn't feeling it.  In the desert, 54 and windy feels cold.  (Evaporative cooling, look it up.  It's not just a dry heat.  It's a dry cold.)  And I have a busy, busy weekend.  A 3K open water race in the morning, 4 events at a pool meet this afternoon, and 2 events at the same meet tomorrow (including the 1500m). 

I got in at the last minute and took my sweet, wimpy time getting in.  I actually had to beg a friend to stand next to me while I put my head in.  (Thanks, Emily.)  I ended up being way too far back when the gun went off.  Suddenly, it was 3-2-1-Bang-What?-Expletive-Swim.

Little known fact:  Starting too far back is a good way to get kicked hard.  Unless you're slower than 15 minutes per km, start further ahead than you think you should.  It also helps to know when the race is about to start.  I got a nice solid kick in the goggle.  No black eye, though.

I did not want to be there.  For the first 3 loops (out of 4), I considered getting out.  I wasn't cold, but I was uncomfortable. 

How I thought the race was going:

First three loops:  Your basic blue collar effort.  I just swam.  Sometimes I thought my form was good (that means nothing), but I wasn't racing.  I didn't try to pass anyone.  I didn't try to swim fast.  When I saw a buoy, I made a deal with myself to swim towards it instead of getting out.  (I did speed up to pass the girl who kicked me in the eye.)

Last Loop:  I really kicked it up.  I tried and succeeded at passing everyone I could see.  I switched from a 2-beat kick to a 6-beat kick.  I felt warmer.  The water actually felt good to me at that point.  Still not comfortable, but enjoyable. 

I gave an all-out effort.  It felt hard, but I had plenty of gas for it.

How it was actually going:

My husband said my first 3 750m loops were under 15:00.  Pretty good for me.  The last loop was 18 minutes.   I guess the 6-beat kick wasn't working for me.  Or something. 

I finished in about 1+05 for the 3K.  My slowest open water race in the past 2 years.  Two weeks ago, I swam a 4K in 1+16.  And I'd been swimming great since then!  Who knows.

Shivering getting in. 

That's me in the green cap (and bare skin).

All told, I had fun.

Note: I've shut down comments on my blog because I can't handle the spam attacks.  I'm working on a solution.  In the meantime, I'd love to hear from you.  Tweet me or Facebook me.  How are you doing as the temperatures drop?

What's Next After Swim the Suck?

November 8, 2012 by Katie

That's the first thing everyone asks me.  Do you need a hand getting out of the water?  What are you going to do next?

Going into Swim the Suck, I had big plans for "What to do Next."  And the plan was [drum roll please]:  Find a new Masters team.

I'd been swimming with a tri group for about 3 years.  I loved the coach, and I loved the people I swam with.  I knew I needed to move on, but it was hard to leave.

That tri group was a pretty good fit for me three years ago.  I would have been completely intimidated to swim with the big Masters team that practices at my local pool.  At first, even the tri group was scary.  But these things put me at ease:

  • We only swam freestyle.  I am not a bad breaststroker, but people have gone blind watching my butterfly.  Or, God forbid, my backstroke.
  • Everyone in that group was an adult-onset swimmer, just like me.  From Day 1, I was in the middle of the pack.
  • The coach was a TI Coach, and our practices included a lot of drill work.  I had learned to swim freestyle using the TI DVD, and I was comfortable with that approach.

I made a lot of progress swimming with that group and taking one-on-one lessons with the coach.  But it was time for a change.  As I improved, I got to be one of the fastest people on that team.  On most days, I was the fastest person who showed up for practice. 

As much as I love Triathletes (I really and truly do), I needed a community of Swimmers.  I belong in the slow lane of a big team of Swimmers. 

  • I want to do all the strokes.
  • I want to do some pool competitions.  [Sidebar:  I actually got involved in Open Water Swimming because I was too embarrassed to compete in the pool.]
  • When I compete, in the pool or in open water, I want my teammates to be there.  Of the bazillion or so races I've done in 2012, there have only been 2 where I saw a friend from Masters.
  • I want to get faster.  To do that, I need some better swimmers to push me.

So I had two options in mind.

The obvious choice was the big team that practices at my local pool.  But I was drawn to another team that practices 40 minutes from my house. 

I gave myself 2 weeks of lollygagging after Swim the Suck, and then I tried out both teams.  They were both great, but the 40-minutes-away-at-5:45-in-the-morning team was the clear choice.  I knew a lot of the people there (including The Nicest and Most Famous Open Water Swimmer in Arizona).  That team even has a link to this site on their website.  Everyone I met welcomed me.  It wasn't intimidating at all. 

They have a bunch of different coaches, and they're all amazing.  Even though there are a lot of people there, I've gotten some individual help at every practice. I've even swam a few lengths of backstroke, sharing a laneWithout hurting anyone.  So I'm a Narwhal!  (And I get up at 4am.)

I do have some big events planned for 2013.  More on that another day.

Note: I've shut down comments on my blog because I can't handle the spam attacks.  I'm working on a solution.  In the meantime, I'd love to hear from you.  Tweet me or Facebook me.  What do you have planned for 2013?  Do you have any stories about joining a new Masters team? 

Spammers Win

November 7, 2012 by Katie

You heard it right.  The Spammers have beaten me.  Yes, I'm talking about the same people who think the WaterGirl might have a problem with erectile dysfunction.  Or that my readers might be in the market for knock-off Uggs.  (Ug!)  Those people (bots?) have outsmarted me.

This site is written in Drupal.  There are plenty of great things about Drupal, but it's difficult to maintain.  The anti-spam options aren't great.

In fact, my spam filter thinks that all comments are spam.  Even my comments.  So I have to sort thru the spam filter every day to find the real comments.  But I recently started getting about 100 spam comments per hour.  Way to many to sort thru.

So I'll be switching over to WordPress.  In the meantime, I'm turning off comments on the blog.  I'd still love to hear from you, though.  Tweet me or Facebook me to keep in touch.

Race Report - Swim the Suck - Part 2 (Where I actually talk about the race)

October 17, 2012 by Katie

After a few discouraging months of training, everything came together on race day.   I Swam the Suck with flying colors.  The race was a breeze compared to the training. 

As I've mentioned before, the Tennessee River is a dam-controlled river.  On any given day, there may be a fast current or no current at all.  So, the 10-mile race course might feel like 7 miles, or it may feel like 10.

More Insight than you may Want into the Inner Workings of my Mind

I was secretly hoping for a light current or no current for Swim the Suck

If you saw the graphs in my last post, that will sound crazy.  After all, 15 out of my last 19 long swims would have been too slow to make the cut-off without a major boost from the current.

But in my heart, and in my gut, and in my bones, I knew I could do it.  A deep, important part of me wanted to prove it.

If that doesn't raise doubts about my sanity, how about this:  Remember that graph?  I think almost everything on it is an anomaly.  Most people, if they know anything about swimming (or math), think the fast swims are the anomaly.  After all, there are so few of them, they must be a mistake.

It gets crazier:  I don't just think the bad swims are an anomaly.  I think the mediocre ones are too. 

I believe that 33 minutes per mile is my natural, easy, "forever" open water pace.  If I'm slower than that under normal conditions, something has gone horribly wrong.  And I believe that nice little 1500m from 10/6/11 is me at my truest, best swimming self.

I believe that I'm (maybe) starting to understand how to summon my inner good swimmer. 

I've always known that swimming my best makes me feel like a creature.  I'm all instinct, emotion, and sensation.  But maybe it's the other way around:  Feeling like a creature makes me swim my best.  Feeling not thinking might be the way to get there.

So back to the race report.

The Night Before

We had planned to get into Chattanooga on Thursday evening.  That would have given us 24 hours before the pre-race dinner to relax, mix feeds, and explore Chattanooga.  Maybe even take a dip in the river.

Nope!  We spent Thursday night stranded in Dallas, thanks to American Airlines.  We got to Chattanooga with just enough time to hit Steak 'n Shake (yum!) and Target, rush back to the hotel to mix feeds, and head to the pre-race dinner.

I got to meet several people I "knew" from the online community of marathon swimmers.  Including 10K Marathon Swimmer, Iron Mike, who already felt like an old friend. 

Karah Nazor-Friberg, the race director, and her entire family hosted a lovely dinner.  The vibe was warm and welcoming.  Penny Palfrey and Martin Strel both gave great talks.

Karah announced we would have an average of 10,000 cfs of current per hour during the race.  That would be the weakest current in the 3-year history of Swim the Suck (33,000 cfs in 2010 and 15,000 in 2011).  I was happy to hear that.

She told us the water temperature would be about 75°F.  Perfect for me.  According to the website, a swimmer should expect 70°F for that event.  I can definitely handle 70°F, but I would have been tired of it by the end of the swim.

When we got back to the hotel, I had a nice message from my lane mate from Masters.  He and I had done a 3-mile swim together back in August.  My goal was to feel the same way Swimming the Suck that I felt swimming with him on that day.  Relaxed and energized at the same time.  With my animal brain switched on and my human brain switched off.  At an easy, 33-minute mile pace.  His message said he had a good feeling about my race, and he knew I could do it.  That was exactly what my inner sea creature needed to hear.

Morning of the Race

The race didn't start until 9:30, but the kayakers needed to be at the start between 8-8:30.  Since we didn't know where we were going, we left the hotel at 6:30.

Getting ready in the hotel room, I started shivering after putting on my sunscreen and drinking a cold bottle of water.  It was in the high 50s and raining outside.

When we got to the start, Rob, my kayaker/husband/love of my life, started helping to unload kayaks. I stayed in the car with the heat on.  Eventually, the sun came up, the rain stopped, and  it warmed up a few degrees.  I could get out and socialize.  My top priority, as always.

Karah announced that we'd be getting even less current than we'd expected:  13,000 cfs 30 minutes before the race start, and 6,000 per hour after that.  For a five-hour finisher, that would be an average of 8,438 cfs per hour.  Just over half the amount of current from last year.

I have to admit, that scared me.

I'm in the 2nd row, 3rd from the left, adjusting my goggles.

The Race

The kayakers got in the water before the race start and paddled a few 100 yards downstream.  They were supposed to wait until the pack of swimmers thinned out a little and then find their swimmer.  Rob got an Angry Birds cap especially for the occasion to make it easier for me to spot him.

I hung back a little at the start, trying to find him.  Once we found each other,  I concentrated on feeling the way I feel when I'm swimming well.  Not what I do to swim well.  (Who knows what that is, BTW.)  I felt happy to be swimming next to Rob in the kayak and seeing his handsome face whenever I took a breath. 

There was a stand-up paddleboarder next to Rob.  I thought that a.) she was a lifeguard and b.) that meant I was the last swimmer.  She was actually paddling for another swimmer a few yards behind me. 

As I got into my rhythm, I started looking for swimmers and kayakers ahead of me.  I tried to see if I could pass anyone without increasing my effort.  Just stretch out my body a little further to reach them.  I passed a few people that way.

The first three hours were easy.  Sometimes I imagined swimming with my friend.  Sometimes I concentrated on a lengthening sensation of pushing down with my armpit.  I smiled at my husband whenever I caught his eye. 

At one point, Rob told me I'd been swimming against a current for about 10 minutes.  I don't know how that could happen, but he said I was swimming normally without making any forward progress. 

After about 3 hours and 15 minutes, Rob told me we were at the halfway point.  This was not good news.  3:15+3:15 = 6:30.  The cut-off was 6 hours.  Even with the current assist we had at the beginning of the race, I was on pace to miss the cut-off by 30 minutes.  With the slow current for the rest of the race, I might be close to 7 hours.

I didn't like hearing this at all.  I thought I was swimming really well.  (That happens a lot, BTW.)  I started to notice my achy shoulder and my tight swim cap.  But at that point, there was nothing I could do.  I was going to keep swimming until they pulled me.  Whether or not it was fun.

I could see a pack of swimmers ahead of me.  I'd been trying to catch up to them for awhile.  I started to concentrate really hard on catching them.  I even switched to a 6-beat kick.  (I always use a 2-beat kick unless I'm freezing.)  Instead of relying on Rob for navigation, I started sighting on the kayak ahead of us.  I thought that if I caught up to that pack, the race organizers would let me finish no matter how far I was past the cut-off.

I love racing.  As soon as I went on the hunt for that pack, I went back to having fun.  Pretty soon, I passed the last two swimmers in that group. 

Suddenly, one of the other kayakers spotted the finish line and pointed it out to Rob.  What?!  We weren't expecting to see the finish for another 90 minutes.  I hauled the rest of the way--maybe 1.5 miles.  I ended up finishing in 5+01.21.

So I guess we weren't at the halfway point when we thought we were...

I estimate that the current gave us an 11% advantage.  I did beaucoup analysis to come up with that number, but I won't post it here.  (You're welcome.)  That means we ended up swimming just under 9 miles.  If that's true, I swam it in just under 33 minutes per mile, plus 5 minutes in feed stops.  Exactly where I thought I should be.

Rob and me at the finish.  I like this picture because you can see how much he loves me.

On the left:  I'm high-fiving the guy in the water, not helping him up.  On the right:  Can you see the marks from my goggles?  Those really hurt after 5 hours.

Once we finished, we headed over to The Pot House for a post-race party and awards ceremony.  And maybe the best meal I've ever eaten.  Instead of medals, the swimmers and kayakers got to choose a piece of original art.  I chose this coffee mug.

A Few Things I'd Like to Say in Case You're Thinking about Signing Up Next Year

Mainly:  Go for it!


  • They let everyone finish.  The last swimmer was a 70-year-old woman who came in at 6+45.  Kudos to Karah and Phillip for that. And a bazillion kudos to the 70-year-old woman for finishing!
  • The support during the race was excellent.  Motorboats were constantly coming around to see if anyone needed help.  They had extra kayakers in case any of the pilots needed a break.  
  • Karah and her family are the best.  Everything about the event was relaxed, welcoming and helpful. 
  • There were 75 swimmers registered for the race.  That was perfect.  Small enough to meet almost everyone, but big enough for it to feel like a race.  I expected the swimmers to be spread out pretty thinly across the 10-mile course.  It turns out, I could always spot at least one other swimmer. 

Event photos courtesy of Phyllis Williams.

Race Report - Swim the Suck - Part I

October 12, 2012 by Katie

Hello, dear readers!  It's been awhile.  I've had a bad attitude about swimming for the past few months.  I didn't want to junk up the Internets with my ranting.

My sunny disposition and I are back.  My Big Event, Swim the Suck, was last weekend.  A 10-mile swim thru the beautiful Tennessee River Gorge.  It went great.  I can't wait to tell you about it. 

But first, a few words about what I would have whined blogged about these last few months.

I had wanted to Swim the Suck ever since the first time I heard about it in 2010.  At the time, I was too slow to make the cut-off.  The Tennessee River is a dam-controlled river.  On any given day, there might be a strong current assist, or no current at all.  To make the 6-hour cut-off on a day without any current, I would have to maintain a 34:24/mile (1:57/100 yards) pace or better.  That assumes 6 minutes of feeding and peeing.  (Feeding is fast.  Peeing is slow.  Sorry for mentioning that, Mom.)

By the end of 2011, I was confident I could do it.  My open water times were inconsistent, but my pool times were steadily improving.  I expected to keep improving in 2012.

And then it started to get ugly... 

Starting in February, I did a long, continuous swim every week.  They built gradually from 3,000 yards to 10 miles.  Five of those were races or organized events.  Those were fun.  The rest, I swam by myself.  Those were not fun.  And they were not fast.

What?  How could this be happening? 

  • Not for lack of effort.  Some of the worst performances were all-out efforts.  I wore a heart-rate monitor to verify that. 
  • Not stroke rate.  I wore a tempo trainer for some of the worst performances, set between 1.0 and 0.85 (60-70 strokes per minute). 
  • Not fitness.
  • Not fatigue.  When the planets aligned properly, I could still swim fast.  More on that later.

The Explanation (Maybe)

Before I started training for Swim the Suck, I was swimming about 8 hours per week.  I was swimming with other people 3-4 of those hours.  I love swimming with other people. When there's a swimmer next to me who is about my speed, I swim easier, happier and faster.

During the peak of Swim the Suck training, I was swimming 10-11 hours per week.  No problem.  But the 3-4 hours I had been swimming with a buddy dropped to 0-2 hours.  For several reasons:  I was usually doing a different set than the rest of my Masters team; my regular training partners had different training goals this year; people left town for the summer or stopped coming to Masters, etc.  I felt lonely and miserable.

I seemed to hit a new low every week.  The problem had to be with my technique, since it wasn't effort, fitness or stroke rate.  But I never knew what I was doing wrong.  I asked my coach to watch me a few times.  She pointed out a few problems (not reaching far enough, crossing over).  Those were problems I'd never had before.  So I'd concentrate on those things while I swam.  It helped, but only a little and only sometimes.

The main thing she noticed was that I looked more relaxed when I was swimming well.  But trying to relax didn't work.  At all.  

How It Came Together (Permanently, I hope, but probably not)

In the month before Swim the Suck, a few things happened:

  1. I got to go to my cousin's wedding in Maine.  I hadn't planned on going because I felt that it was a choice between the wedding and Swim the Suck.  As my training dragged on, I got really unhappy with my decision.  At the last minute, my brother bought tickets for my husband and me with his airline miles.  (He's a peach.)  I was beyond happy.
  2. My beloved aunt suddenly became ill and died.  I was a complete wreck.  I took a last minute trip to St. Louis to see her in hospice.
  3. My mom's birthday was a few days before Swim the Suck.  During every miserable training swim, I thought about how much I would rather spend my mom's birthday with her than in the Tennessee River.  Since I was in St. Louis anyway to see my aunt, I got to take her out for an early birthday dinner.

In other words, my emotions were off the charts.  In every direction.  Like my swim speed, come to think of it. 

Right after I found out about my aunt's diagnosis, I had an awful Masters practice.  The first part of the main set was 5x200.  My lane mate left after the 2nd 200.  The pool was hot, and there was something wrong with the filter.  The water tasted and looked gross.  I was devestated about the thought of losing my aunt.  I was actually crying in my goggles.  I got a PR on the 4th 200.

A week later, I was sharing a lane with another favorite training partner.  He was doing a different set than I was.  The pool was hot and gross again, and I was pissed off about a few things.  I got a PR on the 6th 200.

And then the last Masters practice before Swim the Suck was great.  Both of  my favorite training partners were there for the entire practice.  Everything I did was golden.  My warmups and cooldowns were as fast as my bad-day sprints.  Swimming with those guys always makes me happy, and feeling happy makes me swim well.  Nothing new about that.

In that moment, I realized that any emotion makes me a better swimmer.  Fear, anger, and happiness all get me out of my head and into my body.  Into my heart.  For me, swimming well is about feeling, not thinking.  Like an animal or a little kid.  Swimming-wise, the only difference between joy and "negative" emotions is that I don't try to fix joy.  I always have tried to talk myself down from anger, calm my fears, or HTFU through sadness or disappointment.  It turns out, I'm better off softening up than hardening up.

Next up:  When the big day finally came, everything went great.

Night Swim at Roosevelt Lake - Part 1

June 28, 2012 by Katie

Marathon swimming is an extreme sport.  Extreme training.  Extreme tiredness.  And extreme fun.  This year, my training has edged out some of the little things I enjoy.  But the fun things I do get to do are amazing.

For example, a 10K night swim at Roosevelt Lake with glow sticks. 

This swim was the finale of the S.C.A.R. swim challenge, organized by Kent Nicholas.  The first three events were dam-to-dam swims across Saguaro, Canyon, and Apache lakes.  There's only one dam on Roosevelt Lake, so Kent mapped out a 10K course.

The S.C.A.R. events started out as a small group of really good swimmers.  My husband, Rob, and I crewed for the Canyon Lake stage.  It was a thrill to be involved.  Kent included me on the e-mails for all of the events.  When I read the description for the Roosevelt swim, my heart started racing.

CHALLENGE #4: The last reservoir in the Arizona S.C.A.R. Swim Challenge is Roosevelt Lake. Both the reservoir and the masonry dam that created it, Roosevelt Dam, were named for U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt who dedicated the dam himself in March 1911. The lake is home to a variety of game fish including crappie, carp, Sunfish, flathead, channel catfish, smallmouth bass and largemouth bass. The 7 mile sunset swim would begin at the eastern end of the lake and continue to the Roosevelt Dam. Glowsticks will be used.

I immediately offered to crew, but Kent invited me to swim.  I'm much slower than those guys.  The logistics of a long point-to-point swim get complicated when the pack thins out.  But Kent insisted that I was welcome to swim.  No need to ask me twice!

On the afternoon of Monday, June 11th, Rob and I packed up the car and headed out to Roosevelt Lake.  Roosevelt Lake is 45 miles due east of my house (in a suburb of the 5th-largest city in the United States).  Any guess as to how long it takes to cover those 45 miles?

View Larger Map

It's a 2-hour, 95-mile drive.  I'm always amazed at the ruggedness of Arizona once you get a few miles out of town.  We have some serious mountains in this state, and you have to go around them.  To get to Roosevelt Lake, you go 45 miles north on AZ 87.  The temperature drops 10 degrees as you climb out of the Sonoran Desert. Finally, you take a sharp right onto AZ188 and head south, back down into the desert.  You get back those 10 degrees you lost heading north.

That ride north on AZ87 is a beautiful drive thru pristine national forest land.  Lots of hairpin curves and steep drop-offs.  Except for the road itself, there's no evidence of civilization. 

Well, there's one bit of evidence[I hope you enjoy this part.  My spam filters will have to work overtime once I post it.]  After thirty minutes in the middle of nowhere, you come to a humongous strip joint.  The sign outside is larger than life.  What?  Where would the dancers even live?  Do they have a camp on the edge of the mountain? 

It turns out that what I saw is not a strip joint.  It's the town of Sunflower, Arizona.  The sign is just a billboard for an establishment 50 miles north of there.  I guess the town leaders thought the billboard had more panache than a little green "Welcome to Sunflower, AZ.  Population 14" sign.

Here's a satellite image of the town.  You can understand my confusion.

View Larger Map

We arrived at the lake in plenty of time to relax and get ready for the swim. 

Next up:  The swim!

Now I'm a Marathon Swimmer

May 24, 2012 by Katie

Yep, it's true.  I'm officially a marathon swimmer.  Twice over, in fact.  Better yet, I can remember why I'm doing this.

Back in February, I started training for Swim the Suck, a 10-mile swim down the Tennessee River.  In April, I found out about the Narwhal Overboard 6-Lake Swim Challenge:  Six 10-mile swims in Phoenix-area lakes in the month of May.  If I'd known about these sooner, I would have started training earlier to be ready in time.  But according to my training plan, my long swims during that time would only range from 4.5 to 5.4 miles.  Luckily, I had the option to swim partial distances.

Canyon Lake - May 13, 2012

According to my training plan, I was supposed to swim 5 miles on May 13th.  As the day got closer, I grew to hate the idea of stopping at the 5-mile mark.  There were plenty of people who swam 10-mile challenges who've trained less than I have.  I wanted to swim 7.5 miles at this event and 10 miles at the next one.

I told my coach I wanted to swim "more than 5 miles", but I didn't give her a number.  She said it was okay.  So I planned to go ahead with swimming 7.5 miles.  It didn't happen quite that way.

There were a lot of "firsts" on this swim.  It was the first time I swam with a kayak escort, and the first time I swam out into the open lake. 

I didn't see the course map until a few minutes before we started, and I didn't quite understand it.  My husband was kayaking for me.  It was his job to navigate, and my job to follow him.  But we were both a little confused, so I was trying to "help" at first. (Delightful, I know.)

After about 20 minutes, we got to a section of the course where the route was perfectly obvious.  I relaxed and started to enjoy the swim.  In fact, I started to really enjoy the swim.  Canyon Lake is unbelievably beautiful.  As the name implies, the course took us through a narrow canyon.  Every time I breathed, I could see the canyon walls and my husband in the kayak.  I loved having him with me.  As long as he was there, it felt like I could swim forever.  I never got lonely, my mind never wandered, and I never went to any dark places.

The water was was 68°F (20°C) at the start with colder spots at the mouth of the canyon and around the dam.  That's 6-10 degrees cooler than the other lakes in the area.  I felt pretty comfortable, but I threw in a vigorous kick every few strokes to stay warm.  Until the sun came out, my hands were stiff.  I could bend my fingers, but they felt crunchy.

The swimming part was going really well, but feeding and navigation slowed us down.  Fluid intake was  fast, but fluid output  was slow.  And we kept stopping to talk about where we were supposed to turn around.  The 10-mile swimmers were way ahead of us, and they were planning to go about a mile further into the canyon than we were.  Eventually, they turned around and caught up with us.  The support boat escorted us across the canyon, and we started swimming back.  We ended up turning at exactly the point we intended.

Phew!  Once again, we could just follow the shore without thinking or talking about the course.  Boat traffic had gotten heavy by then, and the wake felt violent, crashing against one canyon wall and then the other.  Usually wake doesn't bother me.  I just relax into it.  This time it felt like a challenge.  Not unpleasant, but I was definitely fighting it.

When we reached the mouth of the canyon, neither one of us knew where to go.  Boat traffic was heavy in every direction, and we didn't think we could cross safely, even with the kayak.  Unfortunately, we were in a cold spot while we were trying to make a decision.  There was a part of me that knew what to do, but another part of me that didn't want to do it.  We should have swam along the shore to the dam and crossed at the dam.  But I thought that if I went that way, I'd end up having to swim too far to get back.  I didn't remember the dam being part of the course, so I was afraid the boat wouldn't look for us there.

I got out and sat on a rock until the boat came back for us.  Not the best decision I could have made, but I can live with it.  (These landmarks are marked on the map above.)

Mouth of the canyon.

When the boat came back, they escorted us across the channel and stayed with us until we reached a protected area.  This part of the swim felt like any vanilla training swim.  My neck and shoulders were a little sore, but I wasn't tired.  I felt self-conscious about being so far behind, but I could have kept swimming forever.

By the time we reached the finish, I'd swum 6.5 miles in just under 5 hours.   A mile short of my goal, and slower than I would have thought possible. 

But overall, I'd call it an unmitigated success.  I had fun the whole time, and my husband and I learned a lot about how to do an escorted swim.  Also, this was about the same water temperature and the same amount of time I'm expecting for Swim the Suck.  It's good to know I can handle it.

Views from the road to Canyon Lake

Saguaro Lake - May 19, 2012

This was one of the best days of my life so far.

I told my coach I planned to swim the entire 10 miles, but she said no.  I was not happy about it, but I trust her judgment.  I think she was worried about me getting injured or being to tired to handle my training for the next few weeks.  She said I could do 12,000 yards which I rounded up to 7 miles. 

This time, I saw the course map a day in advance.  It was a straight out-and-back with no need to cross the lake.  I mapped out the 7-mile turnaround point, and I could picture the spot exactly. 

The water was 74°F (23°C)with cold pockets as low as 71°F.  It felt perfectly comfortable, neither hot nor cold.  Like my natural habitat.

Things went smoothly, right from the start.  My husband and I had figured out a few hand signals and rules of the "road".  He led, I followed.  Feeds were much faster.  And I mastered the art of fluid output. 

Warning:  I was raised better than this, but I'm going to give some details about Open Water Peeing.  Just in case anyone out there needs to know how to do it.  I tried to start peeing as soon as I took my feed bottle.  I chugged my feed, handed the bottle back to my husband, and continued swimming while peeing.  The trick is to swim really slow and keep my legs relaxed.  Doing it this way took almost a minute off each stop.  [Big apology to my more genteel readers.  My mom, in particular.]

According to my Garmin and reports from the other swimmers, the wake was intense.  Much worse than it was at Canyon Lake.  It never gave me a moment of grief.  I felt it lift me up and put me back down.  I can see from the Garmin that the wake slowed me down, but I had fun riding the waves.

My husband pointed out a bald eagle perched on a cliff.  After awhile, he took flight, and I could spot him while I was breathing.

Shortly after we turned around, our dear friend, Pete, paddled up to us.  His swimmer had gotten out at the 5-mile mark, so Pete kayaked back to the finish with us.  He made good company for my husband, and I was happy to have him with us.  (The picture on the right is me at the turn.  I didn't think freshwater marathon swimmers experienced bloating, but my face definitely looks puffy.)

When I saw the landmark that signed one mile to the finish, my heart sank.  I never wanted the swim to end. 

I ended up swimming 7.8 miles in 4 hours and 37 minutes.  (We swam into a few coves that we meant to skip.  Hence the extra .8 miles.)  Twelve minutes worth of stops including 4 minutes for a photo op.  I'd like to hold a 30-minute mile pace on these, but this was good enough to make the cutoff for Swim the Suck without any current assist.

           Saguaro Lake shoreline.

Words cannot express what a wonderful experience this was or how grateful I was to be able to do it. The natural beauty, the cool water, the friends, my kayaker/love of my life, a healthy body that can swim well enough to enjoy all this...It's amazing to think it can all fit into one lifetime.

My dad, who's been gone for seven years, would have loved to hear about this new hobby of mine.  He was a good swimmer.  I'm not sure how he learned, growing up in St. Louis during the depression.  I remember him saying that he had to take several buses to get to a pool in thoe days.  Despite all that, he could swim all the strokes quite nicely.  

What Do You Blog About When You Have a Bad Attitude?

April 25, 2012 by Katie

Personally, I try to keep my mouth shut.  So in the past 13 weeks, I've only posted once about my Swim the Suck training.

In case you're new to the blog, I'm training for a 10-mile swim, Swim the Suck, this October.  Why would I want to swim 10 miles?  Open water swimming is fun.  The longer the swim, the more fun (I was thinking). 

I feel embarrassed when I get a bad attitude about my training.  I'm in it for the love of the game.  No one is forcing me to do this.  In fact, it's expensive in terms of time and money.  I should be am grateful that I have the resources to do it.

But, MAN!  The past 13 weeks have been tough.  Before my official training started, I was swimming 21,000 yards per week.  By week 12, I was swimming 30,000 yards per week, including lots of drills and slow technique work.  Plus 3-4 yoga classes per week. 

I felt tired all the time, but I didn't realize it.  I was so used to being tired, it seemed normal.  What I noticed was feeling rushed, lazy and ungrateful.  My intervals were getting faster, but my long swims were getting slower.  I raced a 7K and posted my slowest times in the past 18 months.  And I wasn't enjoying the long swims.  (What?!)  I had "What am I doing with my life?" nightmares.

The worst part was that I didn't understand why I was feeling that way--I didn't feel any more tired after a workout than I did before it.  It was just a slow, sneaky buildup of fatigue.

I'm in the second phase of my training now--lower volume, higher intensity.  The high intensity workouts are fun, and the lower volume means I have more time to lollygag.  (I love me some lollygagging.)  I feel like a happy, grateful, positive, WaterGirl again.  I even enjoyed my 4.5 mile swim over the weekend. 

This too shall pass.  In a few more weeks, my yardage will go back up again.  Maybe I'll handle it more gracefully next time.  Maybe not.  Either way, I'm staying in the game.

Maybe in the end, I'll know enough to write a post about "What I learned Training for Swim the Suck and Why it Was or Wasn't Worth It."  Not today.  Today I'm just grateful to be enjoying the journey.

What about you?  Does your training ever get the best of you?  How do you handle it?

Bartlett Lake Water Levels

April 18, 2012 by Katie

Before I came to Arizona, I pictured it like the Sahara Desert.  Gold sand dunes.  Gold rocks.  Not a plant or a drop of water in sight. 

The Sonoran Desert is nothing like that.  The prevailing color is green.  Everything blooms.  The rocks and mountains are red, purple, yellow, orange and brown.  The trees don't look like "regular" trees, but they're pretty, and there are a lot of them.

There's one exception:  Bartlett Lake is so low, it's starting to remind me of the Sahara Desert. These are Jon Ford's pictures from March 23, 2012.

Current Status

The water level is starting to rise.  It's higher now than it was in March.  I've heard that SRP has stopped releasing water from the Bartlett Dam.  Visually, it looks just a little lower than it was in November of 2011.

You can check the current water levels here.

What about Swimming?

Bartlett is still great for swimming.  In fact, the swimming situation hasn't changed much at all.

  Start to First Buoy Buoy Line (One Way) Total Distance (One Way)
Spring 2011 225 Yards 341 Yards 566 Yards
Fall 2011 234 Yards 322 Yards 556 Yards
Spring 2012 192 Yards 334 Yards 526 Yards


Background on Bartlett Reservoir

Bartlett Reservoir is part of the Verde River system.  Sullivan Lake, near Prescott, AZ, is the source of the Verde River.  It's a man-made lake fed by rain and snow melt from Big Chino Wash and Williamson Valley Wash. 

It flows for about 125 miles until it reaches Horseshoe Reservoir.  The water flows from the Horseshoe Dam into Bartlett Reservoir.  When it passes the the Bartlett Dam, the water returns to the Verde River.  From there, it runs free for about 15 miles until it reaches the Salt River.

Most of the land in the Verde River system is national forest land.  The water in Horseshoe and Bartlett reservoirs is managed by SRP.  That system (along with the Colorado River and Salt River) provides drinking water and hydroelectric power for the Phoenix metropolitan area.

In a normal year, water levels in Bartlett Reservoir can fluctuate wildly.  Horseshoe Reservoir usually fills up in the Spring.  As the summer heats up, evaporation becomes a problem because it's so shallow.  When that happens, Horseshoe is emptied into Bartlett, and Bartlett water levels  rise.

As water is released thru the Bartlett Dam, the levels drop.

View Verde River System in a larger map

How Did It Get This Low?

In Fall/Winter of 2010, Bartlett Reservoir was drained to facilitate repairs to the dam.  At the time, everyone I spoke to expected it to fill back up to normal levels by Spring.  That didn't happen.  The water level rose slightly in the Spring of 2011.  And then it dropped steadily for the rest of 2011 and early 2012. 

I've never found a definitive answer on why Bartlett Reservoir dropped so low.  A dry winter in 2010/211 is part  of the story, but I think there's more to it.  For whatever reason, most of the water that found its way into Bartlett Reservoir during that time was allowed to pass downstream.

During that same time, the lakes in the Salt River system (Canyon and Sagauro at least) stayed at normal levels.

Pics from 2010-2011

Here's what Bartlett Lake looked like in August of 2010.  The vegetation came right down to the water level

And then in August of 2011:

Have you heard any official news about the water levels?  If you know more than I do, please speak up!

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