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The Alpine Events

Island Life

We recently missed the opening ceremonies for this edition of the Summer Olympic Games™. In truth, even if we hadn’t been up in the Cascade Lakes area outside of Bend, Oregon, relatively far away from a television screen, I probably would have found some other reason to miss them as well. The whole need for an entertainment spectacle concocted to attract viewership to a given event, in this case that being the gathering together of many, if not most, of the world’s greatest athletes for the purpose of challenging one another in common disciplines to prove who on a certain day is better than the rest, is entirely lost on me on one level- the one that contains my belief that the Summer Olympic Games™ should be about the athletes, not some contrived lighting and dance and pyrotechnic pageant.

As it was, we were not out in the middle of relative nowhere just to escape Summer Olympic Games™ madness, but instead were very much somewhere to participate in an athletic event with its own share of self-importance among a small group of aquatics aficionados. I use the term participate loosely here in my case as it was Wendy’s intention to swim all five events over the three days of racing while I had planned on floating around in my kayak during each race as a part of the safety support group of watchers. One could argue that this is also a form of participation and one would probably be correct. I just see it as a way of seeing the races while being somewhat useful, as well as having something to do as the racers paddle far away and back in a snowmelt filled turquoise jewel just south of South Sister and west of Mt. Bachelor.

Because of travel uncertainties that resulted in the lateness of our arrival at Elk Lake Friday evening, my kayak remained on the roof of the truck for the first event- the 3000 meter swim. Wendy scrambled to get registered with five minutes to spare before closing. With the wind stirring up a bit of a chop out of the northwest and the water temperature a less than balmy sixty six degrees, Wendy opted for the wetsuit as the racing garb of choice. Most of the other racers did as well. While in some quarters there is a stigma attached to wrapping one’s body in neoprene in order to race, staying safe from the dangers of hypothermia generally trumps all factors one troubles oneself with when deciding what to race in. Staying warm in the cold water is a good thing, and more times than not the thermal protection the wetsuit provides is more than worth the time penalties sometimes imposed on wetsuit wearers. These time corrections, in this case your final time plus ten percent, are there to offset the benefits the suit provides in buoyancy and streamlining. In spite of our frantic arrival and a lack of a warm up swim, Wendy surprised herself with a personal best time, and we trundled off to the other side of the lake to set up a tent for a night’s rest.

Clear and crisp are the best words to describe the morning we woke up to. Another pair of words- light frost- described the coating we found on all elevated surfaces outside the tent. As both this day’s races were shorter than the first evening’s, the frosted wetsuit and frozen bathing suit were not a problem as Wendy had planned to just wear her other, dry swimsuit for the 500 and 1500 meter races. The light mist on the lake lifted as we paddled over glass-like water and covered short distance around a point to the race beach. After a safety meeting I took up a stationary position along a 250 meter yellow rope with bright orange buoys attached and watched from the kayak as swimmers went by at ten second intervals. There were no incidents through this event and after the last swimmer cleared the finish banner we waited for the 1500 to start. This time, instead of staying in one place, we were to slowly spread out over the triangular course in order to watch over all the racers. As the other kayakers drifted ahead I had my eyes on two swimmers who were slowly being left behind, so I stopped paddling and waited. As the lead group rounded the first turn buoy and headed east along the bottom of the triangle my lone swimmer forged onward at what seemed to be an agonizingly slow pace. What made things worse was the head wind that had picked up, making forward progress for this person even more strained and difficult.

As we rounded the first buoy the lead swimmers were already hitting the finish line at the beach. Having stopped to get his bearings, I asked my swimmer if he was alright. His response was a blank stare and a resumption of his efforts. I had noted that he did have earplugs on, so I wasn’t concerned with his lack of response. I have seen people adversely affected by cold water before. My first open water swim was a mile in fifty six degree water and all of us were without wetsuits. The last swimmer that day finished after 45 minutes of swimming and he was blue and incoherent. From my kayak on this course however I saw no indication of cold in the swimmer I was watching- just stubborn determination in spite of what appeared to be a mostly complete absence of technique required to move one forward at a reasonable rate. There were a few heart palpitating moments when he submerged completely below the surface, but he always rallied and soldiered onward. These moments were nothing like the time the year before when I had also been safety kayaking here. I had briefly looked away from the swimmers I had been following only to look back and see bubbles coming from the deep. I counted the swimmers and it seemed to be the right number, but as my stomach leaped to my throat I sprinted forward to the spot where the bubbles were surfacing and saw a body form a number of feet below. The bubbles continued and continued and I finally realized it was someone with scuba gear who had come unannounced to the course to take underwater pictures. There was, however, no panic like those moments for this race, or for the rest of this weekend for that matter.

After we finally reached the beached I landed my kayak and headed for the port-o-potties as I had been out on the water for almost two hours. Along the way I was stopped and thanked for my kayaking services by a compatriot of the swimmer I had been watching. I learned that my charge had been a person of note- that he had competed in and won his age group at the Kona Ironman Triathlon competition for the last twenty two years and that he was planning on heading back there this year to see what he could do now that he was 82. Obviously, the warmer waters of Hawaii are more to his liking.

As it was, the cooler waters of Elk Lake suited Wendy just fine, as she logged a number of personal bests in the longer races and notched a second place in her age group for the five race series. After two years of watching, I’ve been thinking that maybe next year I may just have to get in and get wet again. As I write this I am missing my noon time swim, which isn’t the best of training precedents, since the distance to the finish of any race, especially the long ones, is measured in days and months of training as well as in minutes and hours at the event, regardless of whether it’s at the Summer Olympic Games™ or at a Central Oregon Masters race in the shadow of a volcano.