Like most Portlanders, I like to do stupid shit occasionally. So, last night I did some stupid shit.
I joined about 20 triathletes at six o'clock to swim a mile in the Willamette, in advance of the Freshwater Trust Portland Triathlon on August 23. I've been training in the pool for the last three months, and whoopie for me, I can comfortably swim a mile in around 35 minutes—so I was expecting the Willamette swim to be a breeze:
I don't think I'd do it again in a hurry.
This was my first "open water" swim, and I was trying to decide whether to sign up for the sprint or the Olympic version of the race in three weeks. Now having done last night's mile in just under an hour, I think I've decided I'd prefer to do my first triathlon swim in a reservoir or a lake next month. Or at least, on a body of water that's not quite so terrifying.
Race organizer Jeff Henderson handed out orange swimming hats yesterday and breezily swam the mile in board shorts. I figured I was a little inexperienced when I saw the other folks on the dock—most of them were pretty ripped, and many had wetsuits on. I was doing it in a speedo with a rash vest, but Henderson seemed to think that would be fine, so I just figured the rest of them were pussies, scared of the cold, and plunged right in. I'm from England. I've swum in the Channel.
It wasn't so cold, but the rash vest constricted around my chest the minute I got in the water, and so I encountered my first struggle with swimming in the Willamette: inability to breathe out of anxiety. It was a feeling that I've not had while swimming before, I think my body's way of telling me not to be such an idiot and get out. It passed after a few minutes and I started freestyle towards the Hawthorne Bridge, but by this point, almost all the others were passing it, and I was left behind. I could see a couple of other swimmers about fifty yards to my left and right, but through foggy goggles the feeling of loneliness and, yes, the possibility of drowning, seemed pretty intense. This was when I should have trusted my instincts and turned back. I kept going.
The Willamette water is gray and it tastes disgusting. This was hardly a surprise, but for some reason I'd figured before doing it that, hey, if 20 other people think it's a good idea, it can't be that bad. No. Those 20 others just got over it, I guess. It IS disgusting. I'd put my head down and swim 50 strokes before looking up, for the sake of getting somewhere, and each time I looked up I spat, hoping I wasn't ingesting too much water. It tasted strongly industrial, like rotten metal.
I only retched a few times.
I tried talking myself down—"this is going alright, you're a good eighth of the way round, Davis," but the thoughts of "what if you choke, what if you drown, what if a body floats up and snags you?" were louder. Much louder. With forty feet of gray, impenetrable water beneath me I found myself longing for the blue tiled bottom of a friendly pool. And to think, I had been steeling myself against this for a good few days.
Rounding the Morrison bridge, I was 200 yards behind everyone else and incapable of rational thought. "You thought this would be easier than it is," I remember thinking, fairly repeatedly, for a good ten minutes, in between simple cuss words and, somewhat to my surprise that Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz had made such a strong impression on my subconscious for moments just like this, "the horror." With very little irony or humor to it.
Coming back up towards the Hawthorne bridge I encountered the current, which pushed me back half a stroke for every stroke I took. No time for panicky breathers, any more. I had to push for home with all the energy I had left. The moment required a weird kind of grit, survival dictating no option but to continue despite hating the experience. As I pushed on I began to realize I was angry with myself for getting in in the first place. And angrier still that I'd persisted despite my initial doubts. This was the Willamette river, at half past six on a Thursday. It seemed like too mundane a place and manner to die.
When I got back to the dock, one of the friendlier triathletes—who had not already got on his ten speed for a 20 mile ride home (yeah...thanks for the fraternal concern, c**ts!)—told me he'd freaked out and quit after 200 yards on his first open water swim. I felt better. Others shared their anxiety of swimming in the open water too and I felt less stupid, even telling Henderson I'll probably be back next Thursday for another go. But I was too shaken up to feel any sense of pride, and I spent the rest of the night in a moody state of self-criticism. "Idiot," was the commonest thought. "You're an idiot. Idiot."
After sleeping fitfully on it, with some dreams involving gray water and miles of dead polluted kelp that whispered the word "cancer," I now think I'll give it at least another year before I swim in the Willamette again. I saw an ad for the Portland Spirit on TV this morning and muttered, "I swam past that last night," in a voice that reminded me of some educational videos an ex-girlfriend once showed me on post traumatic stress disorder. This morning, another experienced triathlete told me you'd have to be nuts to swim the Willamette without a wetsuit on. "What if you have a panic attack?" he asked. "The wetsuit keeps you afloat so you don't drown," he said. Those had been my thoughts last night, exactly, but I had put them aside and listened instead to fucking crazy Jeff Henderson in his board shorts.
I hope you don't die in the race this year, Henderson!
If like me until this morning, you're an idiot, and still want to be part of this ridiculous event, I can recommend emailing crazy J.H for more information, or going straight to the website to sign up. But you'd be an idiot. Did I mention your obvious idiocy? Idiot. Good.