Easter seals.

I was in the ocean this morning, choosing to ignore the surf advisory warning and the strong wind cautions. Couldn’t tell you why. I like living; a lot. Though I enjoy being the Iron Pirate I truly have no interest in dying a salty, spluttering death clutching for air as some swell slaps me down or lurking creature drags me under. I accept we have to earn our monikers, but I prefer plunder and sea chanteys to the Iron Maiden or keelhauling. I suspect most pirates do. (At least, the old ones. Modern pirates also have to watch out for Navy S.E.A.L. snipers.)

People think seals are cute. Nope. They’re hideous creatures with black eyes of malice, blowing snot rockets of derision. The only thing that warms the heart when staring into their dark, unfeeling eyes is knowing that one day that bastard will be torn apart by a whale or shark. In the moment I made eye contact with this particular sea dog, while getting bitch slapped by the ocean, I realized that if I could see a seal, it was possible that there were creatures that eat seals nearby. This is good motivation to turn over the arms faster.

Normally there are four or five of us who swim on Wednesdays. We’ll meet at the Ocean Park lot and groggily get into our wetsuits while cracking jokes, mostly at Jim “Lube Job” Lubinski’s expense, which is just about the only way we can feel better about his spanking us so mercilessly at all three events. Lube Job uses Pam spray on his wetsuit to facilitate a rapid exit. He’s converted Coach Brian, too, who just admitted to running out of Pam when making his breakfast until he realized he had an extra can in his gym bag. I used to just have foodie friends. Now my worlds have truly converged.

This morning it was just me and Michael, though Brian did show up to say hello and offer up the Pam story above. Michael is a new friend, he’s read my blog, which mean that when we went for a ride together a few weeks ago I didn’t have any stories to tell he hadn’t already read. It’s inevitable that he would show up on this blog. If this were a self-reflexive Charlie Kaufman screenplay, or Terminator franchise installment Michael will either now cease to exist or turn into a machine and kill me.

It’s probably the latter. He’s really fast in the water – so fast that even though he acknowledged that the water was pretty rough he was also doing the backstroke. We’d regroup in the ocean, laugh about how rough it was, then dive back in for more aquatic abuse. In about 20 seconds he’d put 100 meters on me and I’d give up trying to sight the end of the Santa Monica pier and instead just look for his cap. It’s not like I could draft off him, he’s too fast. I figured as long as I kept him in sight I was doing okay.

I felt like a toy boat. The tiny ship was tossed. If not for the courage of the fearless crew, the minnow would be lost. But there are always lessons to be learned, or lessons that are galvanized on a day like today.

1) Fighting the ocean is foolish – stay calm. Going stiff preparing for a big wave is going to flip me over. Going loose and floating at the surface will let the wave pass under, as if I were just debris. I am debris. I am flotsam and jetsam, not sturm und drang. There’s a reason jellyfish and seaweed thrive – they are amorphous noodles that allow the powerful energy around them to do the work.

2) Don’t be discouraged by a perceived lack of distance traveled. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been swimming forever just to stay in one place. If I’m sighting an object in the far distance to keep a straight line the parallel markers at shore will tick by slowly but surely. I use the two big condos as my parallel guide and sight the end of the Santa Monica pier. Those condos are at tower 28 and the end point of the swim is around tower 26, which means by the time I am even with the second condo I’m almost done. It takes a hell of a lot longer to swim that distance north than it took to walk it south.

3) Know the difference between working outside my comfort zone and being unsafe. This morning wasn’t overtly dangerous, but I’ve been swimming in the ocean for over a year and have had a few bad surf days. Michael is a very experienced swimmer. Even still, there will eventually be a day when the surf is too much and it simply isn’t safe to swim. It’s best to know this before pulling on the wetsuit. This morning we saw a group from Team in Training suit up, walk down to the water, and then come back dry. Smart move on their part. After 50 minutes of swimming a distance that Michael can usually bang out in 30 min or less (he has a career in nautical pizza delivery), and I can do in about 40, we decided to bag it and head to shore. It wasn’t worth struggling to make it to the buoy. Swimming while exhausted is one thing when it’s on a race course with lifeguards and boats nearby; quite another when it’s just two of us carving our names on the crazy tree.

4) See challenges as opportunities. Training in harsh conditions does fortify the body and mind for race days that have bad conditions. The Malibu course is unpredictable. In 2007 the surf was so rough that athletes were allowed to pass on the swim and move to the bike without disqualification. At the Boise 70.3 in 2008 I saw swimmers pulled from the water unused to the strong wind blowing whitecaps in their face. I assumed these were mid-west and northern Triathletes used to swimming in lakes, not in conditions that more resembled an ocean. Later in the day it rained, which some people were not comfortable riding through. If I take on these conditions during training it will pay off one day at a race when I pull out of a skid, or blow mocking snot rockets at a swimmer as I slice by like a seal.

Next week the LA Tri Club Ocean Speed Circuit starts up again and I’m leaning towards no doing it this year. Instead, my TNS teammates will pick a different day and continue with our 1 mile swim. I’ll start bricking these swims with runs, just like last year, but I feel like I’m not fast enough to make the speed circuit work as a “track workout” and since my goal this year is a full Ironman I ought to be focusing on long distances in open water. Who knows – maybe I’ll start getting up at 5am every day like Lube Job and just do both.

Normally I would end a post like this with a quip meant to bring it around full circle: remarking that Jim “Lube Job” Lubinski is part seal. But seeing as how he won his age group at the Super Frog 70.3 a few weeks ago beating actual Navy S.E.A.L.s, he pretty much killed that joke.


7 responses to “Easter seals.

  1. He killed it with a well placed sniper rifle round.

  2. Speaking of passions converging, Stephen Hunter, Pulitzer Prizing winning film critic for the Washington Post, ret., and fictional historian of Sniper lore since he started writing a bunch of novels featuring Bob Swagger, former sniper, wrote this love letter:

  3. My first blog comment!
    Not sure that I qualify as a “really fast in the water.” Maybe “faster in the water than on land,” but not objectively”fast” as a swimmer anymore. Until you reach the elite level, we are all dilettantes at all 3 sports. Serious runners, cyclists and swimmers kick the crap out of us middle of the pack age-groupers.

    But Max underestimates himself — not many swimmers could complete the +/- mile in the surf we found on Wednesday. Swells 5 feet high, 200 meters out, are enough to freak ANYONE out. Surviving that is harder, mentally, than an IRONMAN swim. If Max had said, at basically any point “this is nuts, let’s swim to the shore,” I would have. He didn’t.

    Time does not matter in this case. The knowledge that you can beat the worst conditions that So Cal offers does.

  4. Hi, Thanks for article. Everytime like to read you.
    Thank you

  5. Max comes from a line of people who either don’t know the meaning of cut your losses and quit (or who are too stupid to cut their losses and quit.) In any case, I’d like to think the line represents an optimistic streak that keeps on saying “it can’t get any worse than this… so if I just hang in I can finish it.” There Max, I said it: “you’re an incurable optimist.”

  6. Most inspiring line from this post: “Training in harsh conditions does fortify the body and mind for race days that have bad conditions. ” Yes, yes, triple yes. This is why everyone – in sports or in the military – will train under stupidly harsh conditions. That way, when you actually have to perform in only somewhat harsh conditions, you don’t beat yourself mentally by focusing on the conditions.

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