16 January 2009

expectations of Magallanes

The miracle of aviation always brings me instinctively to the threshold of prayer. Still, after years of feeling religious all the way down a runway, I never get beyond that point without stopping and questioning this reaction.

I'm usually struck by the meaninglessness of particular words or actions that come to mind. Invoking one god or another, muttering this benediction or that, solemnly or otherwise-- these are all pretty pointless. They might make sense in attempts to relate the feeling of a momentous action, but trying to feel a connection to a greater being, for me, doesn't have much to do with religion. I can bismillah- and sh'ma my way across the strait, crossing myself between strokes, but it won't do a damn thing if the ocean changes, or if my mind or body fails me.

The control of my mind, on the other hand, is certainly my own, and if I choose to call on something or another within myself, or to generate some sort of vibe in my head and body, that's another story. In cold water, these things are so present, so urgent, that I prefer to leave it bare-bones, unnamed.

This reminds me of my first Hudson swim, which had me terrified and shaking for nearly two weeks beforehand. All for naught? I'm not sure whether I would have been as mentally prepared had I not gone through the fear. In the end, the swim was a wonderful, light experience from the minute I jumped in the water.

As for fear, this swim around, I've been so busy these past two weeks that I've barely had time to sleep, let alone think about anything. On Tuesday, Cristian called up to tell me about a katabatic wind current known as a williwaw.

The williwaw blows off Antarctic mountains, creating micro-hurricanes on the Strait. The pernicious wind gust apparently plucked a Mexican swimmer from the strait, 800 meters from her goal, and slammed her back down into the water, displacing the meniscii of her knees and cracking her lumbar into little bits.

This strange wind only happens in Magallanes and around the Aleutian Islands, off Alaska. It sounds almost supernatural. We are clearly headed into very wild territory, very unknown territory for swimmers.

Relaxing today in Santiago with Cristian's family, the reality of the swim grows and fills my mind. I've rarely been so focused in travelling; I can't wait until tomorrow to get down to Punta Arenas and see what we're really getting into.

Now that we have a small entourage, I'd like introduce them, briefly:

Anuradha Bhagwati and I went to Yale together, though we were barely even acquainted-- we played in the Symphony together. I spotted her on the beach at the CIBBOWS race, Grimaldo's Mile, in August, and we've been in touch since then. She'll be writing an article and has already proven herself an extremely thoughtful journalist over hours at the beach with Cris, Jonathan, Michael and myself.

Patricia Sener is a dear friend at this point, though I still remember her as we were introduced, four beers into a post-race party, singing karaoke in a wife-beater simply labeled CONEY ISLAND POLAR BEARS. We are fast friends, swim-buddies, team-mates. She is probably one of the only true open-water photographers, and will be bringing her considerable talent to our story, as well as looking out for us in the Strait and otherwise. And blogging: Salty Tales

Between these two intrepid journalists and our own documentation, verbal and photographic, this swim should be pretty well covered.

The New York Times sent a reporter to the beach with us on Wednesday-- that's yesterday, though it feels like last week-- to watch while we gave the 15 below coats a first run. He seemed a little underwhelmed. At least the story will be getting out. The coats are excellent, well-designed and warm-- much moreso after the swim than before. We only took a dip, just about ten minutes, but it was a nice one. the water was very clear, and the air was pretty nippy: around 22 degrees, minus windchill.

Thursday morning I held the newborn baby of dear friends-- Kabir. Standing by a picture window overlooking the snow-globe of the West Side, this little tiny sleeping head rolling about in my tricep, I wondered at the innocence, and the potential- a little person, with no knowledge of snow, or cold. Several hours later, a plane crash-landed in the Hudson, leaving 150 people inches from the chilly waters-- no doubt a terrifying experience. The world is a strange and many-colored adventure.

All of this brings me back to the basic notion I was trying to get at before: cold-water swimming will really straighten out your spiritual priorities pretty quick. It's just you out there. Even with training partners you love and trust, with no competition, and intense support for one another in and out of the water, it's still everyone for herself. You are in charge of your body and your mind. It's up to you not just to keep a tight watch on every physiological sensation; you must also be aware of how psychology affects that, and balance accordingly. Finding and keeping this balance is where the connection to a larger cause comes in: only in this case, the Great External is natural-- the ocean-- and the Deep Internal is right there, naked in the cold, accessible, unavoidable.

After the Manhattan Marathon swim this July, I recall a conversation with Cristian, something about channel-swimming. He leaned in, to impart yet another brilliant gem of open-water philosophy: you have to be very, very comfortable with yourself to do long swims. That definitely goes for cold as well.

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