This is the official story of a day that I will never forget, because of what I discovered about myself out in the middle of deep, cold Lake Pend Oreille in Sandpoint, Idaho.
It was a beautiful, sunshiny day in north Idaho. The lake was relatively calm and there wasn't a cloud to be found in the bright blue sky. It was the dawning of the day of the Long Bridge Swim, and I was going to be jumping into that lake to fulfill a challenge I had given myself back in February.
In February, I envisioned myself much thinner and fit by now. It seemed like a good goal to challenge myself with - swim the 1.76 miles along the Long Bridge from the south to the north shore of Lake Pend Oreille. Forget that I hadn't been in a lake since about 1981, and had more than 100 pounds to lose. As part of my very public quest to lose weight and get healthy, it seemed like a really good idea at the time.
Eventually I got into a pool and started swimming. But not a lot, not as much as I should have. Hardly at all, really. I intended to get out into the lake for some open water swimming practice, but just never made it happen. It didn't help that summer was delayed until mid-July and the lake water was frigid! Or that the thought of being seen in a bathing suit is paralyzing to me!
I was a bundle of stressed out nerves the week leading up to the swim. The old, long suppressed pattern of stress eating reared its ugly head. I got crabby, and then learned my husband had forgotten about the swim and made other plans! Say what! None of my family would be there for moral support, and I was discouraged and scared. The day before the race, my husband suggested that I cut myself some slack wait until next August to swim the Long Bridge.
My drunk monkey, who likes to sit on my shoulder and whisper self-limiting negative thoughts into my ear, was having a heyday. I spent a lot of effort smacking him down while wondering WHAT WAS I THINKING to have thought I could and should challenge myself to swim across Lake Pend Oreille? WHAT WAS I THINKING! Now it was do or die, hopefully not do AND die! I said I was going to do the swim so I was going to muster the courage and do the dang swim. I was going to find out what I was made out of!
In the months leading up to the swim, I couldn't round up a single person who would agree to do the swim with me! Not a one! Hearing my lament, my trainer, IronDave Dutro, volunteered to swim it with me. Wow, thanks Dave! That old drunk monkey was dancing on my head. Great, my swimming buddy is going to be an Ironman, an athletic competitor at the highest level. Swimming with me, a big marshmallow who hasn't chalked up 10 hours of pool time in preparation! Who am I kidding? WHAT WAS I THINKING? What's wrong with this picture?
Well, as I said, I was a bundle of nerves as the day approached. But I managed to stay the course that lead me to the shore of the lake on Saturday morning. Dave had a calming influence on me as we stood in line to sign in and I was fortunate to have him there with me. I succeeded in not throwing up but I was full of anxiety and self-doubt. As we waited to have our numbers written on our hands with a magic marker, the unspoken biggest fear I was fighting was the rapidly approaching moment in time when I would have no choice but to peel off my shirt and reveal my gigantic arms that haven't seen short sleeves since 1983! Seriously, I wish I was joking, but I'm not. I was able to stuff my legs into black spandex, but my big, bare arms were going to be exposed for the world to see. In my mind's eye, I saw the looks of horror in the crowd as small children fled my scary arms in terror!
We got signed in, and waited with about 700 other swimmers for the 16 school buses that would shuttle us to the starting point. We had been told to be sure to let the competitive high school and college athletes take the lead. No argument from me, we boarded one of the last buses and I decided that I would also be one of the last people in the water.
Just as we were about to pull out, the door opened to let one last tardy swimmer on. Dave recognized her as the Running Nun. She was cute, tanned, trim and smiling. As she walked up and took the seat in front of us, he said that if it's who he thinks it is, in her 80's she still competes in marathons! I dove for my camera and managed to get her picture as she turned to sit down. It's not everyday one is in the presence of an 80+ year old competitive athlete! Talk about inspiration!
We got to the starting beach and a new wave of anxiety washed over me. All the things I coulda, woulda, shoulda done better. Dave dropped his bag and said he was going to get into his wet suit. He had told me not to worry about a wet suit, and was quick to tell me now he was only wearing one for the buoyancy it would provide. I didn't doubt that for a minute. I am more than 40% fat and in no danger of sinking. Dave is probably somewhere around 0%. As he started slipping it on I scanned the horizon to see where would be the most out of sight, secluded location for me to peel off my shirt and sweat pants and quickly jump in the water before scaring too many small children with my massive arms.
There was no such place. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and started peeling. When I opened my eyes, there was my husband, Rick! He had rearranged his plans so that he could be there at the start to cheer me on! What a nice surprise! As I stood there, stuffed like a sausage into spandex and starting to hyperventilate, I saw the Running Nun, who is also apparently the Swimming Nun, standing there behind IronDave, struggling into her wet suit. I dug out my camera and asked Rick to take our picture. I zipped her into her wet suit and saw her name written on the tag - Sister Madonna Buder. I Googled her when I got home. Holy Moses! This perky little nun is not just the Running Nun and The Swimming Nun, she is an Ironman triathlete known as The IronNun!
When the majority of the swimmers had already entered the water and headed for the other side of the lake, it was time to face the music. IronDave, the IronNun and Marshmallow Janna made our way down the gravel path to the chilly, clear waters of deep dark Lake Pend Oreille. WHAT WAS I THINKING! In we plunged, and yes it was cold, but surprisingly, refreshingly so! It quickly became apparent that getting in a little training in open water would have been a really swell idea. It took me a few minutes to acclimate to the elements of a current and a choppy surface, and waves splashing water up my nose. But after just a few minutes, I was able to convince IronDave that I was perfectly fine, and I cut him loose to let his competitive juices flow. Off he shot like a torpedo in the water to chase down the masses of swimmers who had a head start on him.
Rick was able to snap a few photos of the start from the bridge. I swam along and found myself LOVING EVERY MINUTE OF IT! It was exhilarating! I was transported back to the glory days of my youth, running amok in the waters around Coeur d'Alene. Sanders Beach, playing in the middle of the lake on the log booms, those giant corrals of timbers traveling by water to the lumber mills that used to be found along the shores. City beach, Playland Pier, swimming out to the pilings in the Spokane River by the dike road. Cliff jumping into the lake on the back side of Tubbs Hill. I was a fish, I love the water! Why had I not been in the lake, in my element, for THIRTY YEARS? Indeed, why had I been settling for being a spectator instead of a participant in a fun and active life? Why? I realized then just how CRAZY that was!
The sights and sounds and senses of my time in the water were thrilling. As I made my way across, I could see the spectators on the bridge. They would call out encouraging affirmations. "You're doing GREAT!" "You're looking STRONG!" "Look how FAR you've come!" I couldn't help smile to think of the hours I've spent along the Ironman route the past few years, calling out encouragement to the triathletes as they passed. How funny it felt for ME to be on the receiving end! And I realized, there in the water, that the value of those words weren't the affirmations, but the care and concern of a stranger, putting themselves out to cheer the spirits and encourage the efforts of another soul. It was a big, audible hug, reaching out to me down in the water below, amazingly powerful in its effect.
Somewhere around halfway I had a startling realization. There was no longer any doubt, I COULD make it across the lake! I felt strong! I wasn't tired! I wasn't cold! I wasn't scared! I was powerful! I was in control! I was in the middle of deep, dark Lake Pend Oreille and I was in HEAVEN!
It was an unexpected euphoria and a moment I will never, ever forget!
Then came the cramps. Those darn cramps, in my feet and ankles of all places. I got them every time I had been in the pool, somewhere around 40 to 60 minutes into it. But I wasn't going to let some dumb cramps stop me now! I stopped, stretched out my feet and legs and waited for the spasms to subside. A kindly kayak spotter appeared from nowhere and I heard a cheerful voice ask, "How ya doing?"
"I'm doing well, thank you! Feeling strong, feeling happy, just working out a couple of cramps." We chatted a minute from a distance while I worked out the cramps and took off again. I hadn't got 10 yards when they were back, twisting my feet into spastic knots. Again I stopped, again a voice from a distance, "How ya doing?" I repeated my answer, chuckled a little, and worked the cramps out. It occurred to me that she wasn't asking if I was having trouble. Or if I needed help? Or if I was struggling. Whoever trained the spotters did a wonderful job. How ya doing? No planting a subliminal seed of doubt. No hint of a suggestion that there was trouble or I was struggling. Just a simple "How ya doing?" No planting of a morsel of negative energy. I like that! Off I went again, and again came the cramps. Now I was getting irritated.
As I stopped again and again to stretch my toes, I remembered I had been cautioned to "Keep moving" by IronDave. And according to Dory in Finding Nemo, I needed to "Just keep swimming!" My sister Ronna had posted that YouTube clip on my Facebook wall and it had spurred on a fun string of comments. Keep moving, Janna, keep swimming! I hadn't asked Dave what would happen if I stopped moving, I thought it better that I didn't know! I realized that if I flipped on my back to backstroke, the cramps would be slower to reappear. OK, that was good. I'm a strong backstroker and if I needed to, I would just finish the swim on my back. Nothing was going to get in the way of my reaching that finish line!
It wasn't long after that, that the calf spasms came, and my legs and feet were screaming with pain. I stopped to stretch and again, out of nowhere, the kindly kayak spotter appeared and asked "How ya doing?" I gave my same answer to her question, "Very well, thank you. Feeling strong, feeling happy. Just trying to work out these darn leg cramps." There were a few more repeats of this same scenario until I stopped dead in the water (figuratively, of course) to assess the situation. (If one uncharacteristicly utters a swear word in the middle of a lake with no one around to hear, is it still cussing?)
The period of time that followed this moment turned out to be an phenomenal
period of self discovery and a pivotal moment in my transformation.
I stood (figuratively, of course) quiet and still in the water to stretch and to think. Let's see. I feel good! I feel happy! I have smacked my drunk monkey into the depths of the lake with my positive mindset and I KNOW without a shadow of doubt I have the stamina and physical capacity to make it across the finish line! I realized that in spite of the remaining weight I have to lose, I am fit and healthy and strong! I have spent hours in the gym to get to this point and I have proven to myself that I am physically capable of so much more than I ever imagined.
I listened quietly to the sound of the water lapping against the pilings under the bridge. To the muffled sounds of other swimmers, and spotters, jet skis and spectators along the bridge. I needed a plan. I could swim a few yards, stop and stretch, repeat, and eventually get to the other shore. That's it, that's the plan. That's exactly what I'll do, because nothing is going to stop me from crossing that finish line. Off I went, and immediately was stopped by a horrific spasm.
Quitters never win, winners never quit. When the going gets tough, the tough get going! And then there's IronDave's personal tagline, No Excuses, Just Solutions! I couldn't, I wouldn't stop, I was going to get the rest of the way across the lake! But how, with my feet and legs contorting in spasms? Then, out of the blue came the most random thought.
"You are a Graceful Giraffe, start acting like one!"
Huh? I laughed out loud, out there in the middle of Lake Pend Oreille. Earlier in the year I had been privileged to attend Stefan Swanepoel's first presentation at the launching of his new best selling book, "Surviving Your Serengeti." I had tested out to be a Graceful Giraffe, and discovered the innate skills I possess and how to use them with the other beasts of my personal Serengetti, to survive and thrive. I am a graceful giraffe.
I took a long hard look at the distant shore from which I had plunged into the lake. I turned and looked toward the elusive finish line, off in the distance still, but closer than the one behind me. I was happy, PEACEFUL! Then came the rock star conversation in my head. I thought of the several times in the past couple weeks that someone had called me a rock star, and I had argued with them. Dave had said it to me in a text, and my reply to him outlined all the reasons I am NOT a rock star. Kevin had said it to me in the office, and again, I protested. And there were others. The best cheering section in life a person could ever hope for is found among my Facebook friends, often telling me on my wall that I'm a rock star. NO I'M NOT A ROCK STAR! I feel like a fraud. People think I'm a rock star but I'm not. I don't have this thing, this quest for fitness mastered. I have really good days, but I have really bad days, too. I have so far to go. I am SO not a rock star!
Those were the rock star thoughts that had been running through my head the past couple of weeks. Now, here I was, alone in the middle of the lake, racked with leg cramps and talking to myself. Blog posts I had written popped into my head, of conversations I had with myself in the early days of my quest, last fall. There was the Conversation With the Sunday Post Roast. The Conversation with a Hershey's Chocolate Bar.
Now I was talking to myself again, this time about what it would mean if I let the kindly kayak spotter take me out of the water.
Would it mean I was a quitter? Would it mean I was a failure? Would people be disappointed in me? Were the cramps an excuse when I could and should be able to find a solution? Would I be disapponted in myself?
NO! The answers to all of those questions was an unquestionable NO!
When I made that big goal and challenged myself last February, I was a winner! When I followed through and decided to do what I said I was going to do, I was a winner! When I peeled off my shirt and exposed my arms to the world, as irrational as that was, it was a huge victory! When I stepped in that lake and took off for the distant shore, SUCCESS!
There at that moment, just me and the lake,
as I accepted that I was not going to be swimming across the finish line, a champion was born!
I had conquered the lake. It hadn't stopped me from going after my goal with everything I had in me! I was in the middle of a lake that is a submarine base for heaven sakes, in spandex! Fit, healthy, happy and loving it. I wasn't one of those spectators on the bridge this time!
I had achieved my BOLD goal of being a PARTICIAPNT IN AN ACTIVE LIFESTYLE!
The LAST thing this quest was about was whether or not I swam across the finish line. It was ALL about whether or not I could, and would, beat back my fears and self-limiting beliefs, get in the lake and go for it with everything I had to give!
A new problem arose as I accepted, with the grace of a Giraffe that would make Stefen Swanepoel burst his buttons with pride, that I was not going to be swimming across the finish line. I needed to communicate that to the kindly kayak spotter without allowing a single negative word to cross my lips. The words "I can't make it," or "I tried but..." nor anything like that. I have worked too long and too hard to remove those beliefs, as well as the words that fuel them, from my vocabulary, my mind and my reality. But then, what words could I use to communicate what needed to be done? I noticed the kayaker was staying back, hadn't approached me with her friendly "How ya doing?" the entire time I had been there quietly talking to myself in a state of bliss that only a graceful champion knows.
I turned around towards the spotter, and her eyes were already on me, a smile on her face. She didn't ask the question this time. Gracefully accepting that some things are beyond my control, and that there was something valuable I would learn in this process, I swam over to her, reached up and took hold of the kayak. I returned her smile and simply said, "Uncle." With a nod of her head and a grin, she paddled towards a jet ski.
I got a real close look at the kayak as it towed me along, stretching my spastic leg against the side of it in search of relief. I realized that it would be a blast paddling around and exploring the lake in a kayak! I decided that before the summer is over, I will experience my first of many kayak adventures to come.
The nice man on the jet ski said he would take me over to a boat that was picking swimmers out of the water. He slowly pulled me along behind him, an aquatic version of the hooky bobbing antics of my youth. What fun! I wished he would have gone faster, and I wondered why I had never been on a jet ski before. I resolved that before the summer was over, I will be out on the lake behind the wheel of a jet ski! (Wait, do jet skis have wheels?)
Climbing into the boat proved to be a humorous challenge, with my feet and legs in spastic pain and very uncooperative. The boat crew was a bit impatient, I think they thought I was just fooling around. They told me I needed to hurry because they had a patient on board that needed medical attention. Every time I would attempt to put my foot on the step, it would contort uncontrollably, followed by a wicked spasm in my calf!
Eventually I managed to hobble aboard and found myself sitting next to "the patient." A darling, freckle faced girl of eleven or so. She was wrapped in a blanket, shivering uncontrollably, her teeth chattering wildly. Across from us sat two teenagers and a woman about my age who had also been plucked from the lake. I leaned closer to "the patient," as she was being referred to by the crew, and asked her if those were her people on the opposite bench. She smiled a mega watt smile and said that no, she didn't know them. She had been swimming with her dad, but she got real cold and he made her get on the boat. He was going to come with her, but she told him to keep swimming and finish. I slid up close to my little sister in spirit, wrapped my arms around her trembling little body and did my best to warm her as we headed to shore. I think she said her name was Alora, it was hard to understand her through the chattering. She couldn't stop smiling! That spunky little shivering girl with the blue lips entered the big cold lake, fearless and faithful, confident, and determined to swim 1.76 miles to the other side! Alora is a champion!
As we sat there snuggling on the boat, Alora and I made a pact. She would find a wet suit to wear, and I would figure out how to eliminate leg cramps, and we would meet again next August in the cold, deep water of Lake Pend Oreille, returning champions to once again conquer the lake and our self-limiting beliefs!
When I got home, I Googled Sister Madonna Buder. Holy Moses! I know that it is not simply a wonderful coincidence that she ended up in the seat in front of me, that she asked me to zip up her wet suit where I saw her name so I could go home and Google it. She was sent to that place at that time to inspire and motivate me to keep on keeping on! At her first Ironman, she didn't quite make the time limit. At her second Ironman, couldn't complete the course because of a wetsuit issue. But she stayed the course and eventually became known as the IronNun - and has completed 26 triathlons!
Oh, and one more thing. Remember that moment, the moment that I reached up and took hold of the kayak? The moment I smiled at the spotter somewhere in the middle of Lake Pend Oreille and simply said the word Uncle? That's the EXACT MOMENT IN TIME that I finally realized what so many of you had already known. I AM a rock star!
UPDATE: August 16, 2011 - Just ten days after the Long Bridge Swim I took my first spin in a Kayak, and it was every bit as much fun as I imagined it would be!
I paddled around Carlin Bay on beautiful Coeur d'Alene Lake. It was peaceful and pleasant. I was happy to find that underneath all that fluff in those big arms of mine were some pretty well developed muscles. I had no trouble at all doing all that paddling!
I spent a pleasant few hours exploring the waterfront homes, cabins, docks, log booms and beaches from the lake perspective. I am really looking forward to more lake explorations via kayak in the future. I learned there is a local kayaking club. That sounds like something I just may explore next summer!