Monday, January 12, 2009

I hope the pool's heated...

Last week I had my first pool session - only 8 months to go until the Penticton Ironman ( and I was thinking the time is right to get my rear in gear. Probably the time was last August to have had my head checked when I signed up for the race in the first place, but its too late for that as they've already processed my Visa. Tis the New Year and the time for all things foolish to be packed into one's life.

So, the Pacific Triathlon Club - a certified group of insane people joined together with the ultimate goal of swimming 3.8K, biking 182K, and topping it off with a 42.2K marathon all in one day - has organized these swims. The schedule lists the location as the UBC (Outdoor) Pool, from 7 - 8 pm, every Monday evening and again first thing Saturday mornings.

Now the word (Outdoor) is a little intimidating. And I wonder about the (brackets). Perhaps the organizers thought if they put the word in (brackets) you might not notice that they were trying to whisper (Outdoor).

This might not be so daunting except that it's January and its Vancouver and we've experienced record snowfall and most of it is still piled up. And as I was to discover, most of it is still piled up around the UBC (Outdoor) Pool.

I packed my gear as per the instructions: "Bring parka and flip flops for walk on pool deck". Nice. Bad enough to be thinking about the actual swim, but they're thinking that the conditions are so awful that even accessing the activity requires its own protective gear.

I fleetingly wonder if I should bring my wetsuit. Two possibilities - I show up with a wetsuit in tow and am immediately scorned by the organizers wondering about my faith in them - did I really think that they would make us swim in an unheated pool? But if it is heated, I will be labelled immediately by my swim-mates as total wimp requiring a wetsuit. Or, I show up to an unheated pool without a wetsuit and be categorized as a rookie novice - obviously incapable of preparing properly for a training swim much less a whole race. I'm wishing now that the instructions read "UBC (Outdoor)(but heated)(don't worry about bringing a wetsuit) Pool".

I arrive on deck avec parka and flip flops. At least I presume I still have flip flops on as my feet are calf deep in snow and have lost their feeling many drifts ago. I join the huddle, 5 minutes late, during the part of the orientation session where they talk about the importance of being on time for the practices. I'm not sure if the instructor is looking directly at me as she mentions this - my eyes are partially averted to avoid the driving rain/snow.

There is steam rising from the pool. My Physics 11 background has taught me that this likely means the pool is heated. I am grateful of this and also to note that no one else is wearing a wetsuit. I am, however, ungrateful to note that many of the men are only wearing Speedos, but at least this is a somewhat elite group and most of the bodies have survived the Christmas season somewhat better than mine has.

Once the lecture on timlieness is finished and we are about to dive into the pool, the instructor throws out an offhand apology. Apparently the recent power outage has resulted in some heating problems and the water is 10 degrees colder than it should be. I would turn around and exit immediately but my hands have frozen to the metal handrails of the ladder.

The "steam" eventually thaws out my fingers, and we're off! Gasping and spluttering in the dark through the frigid waves, towards the light at the end of the 50m lane beckoning us like flies to a zapper. It crosses my mind that a zapper would be a welcome addition to the pool as at least it would provide some heat. I'm convinced by now that the instructor has played a mean trick - there's simply no way that an increase of only 10 degrees would make this water tolerable.

Apparently I spent too much time wondering whether or not I should bring a wetsuit - distracting me from the much more important items such as a bathing cap and goggles. Usually a bathing cap helps to keep my hair back and off of my face, however my hair has frozen, just like a cap, to the top of my scalp. I didn't think this was much of a problem until one of the instructors notices this and tosses me an extra cap from the edge of the pool. I'm thinking a life jacket with a tow line back to the ladder would be more helpful, but I'm not in a position to negotiate. As I raise my hand to catch the cap, I feel like Jack from the movie Titanic as he slides down into the dark, icy ocean...

It's a little known fact, but bathing caps are made from the same manufacturers that process Saran Wrap. The plastic sticks to itself and is nearly impossible to open, especially when wet. With the cap finally on and my hair nearly pulled from it's roots, at least I now look 10 years younger as it suctions the skin on my cheeks towards its shriveled peak.

Surprisingly, this thin film of plastic makes me feel a few degrees warmer! I remind myself to bring actual Saran Wrap to the pool next time to see how that might help the rest of me.

One of the first drills has us swimming using only one arm. The purpose of this is not immediately apparent and means that I keep veering to the left and skinning my tightly strung cheek on the tiles. I make the most of the opportunity, however, by clutching my limp arm to my abdomen to try and retain more heat for some of my favoured organs. I figure the instructors must be trying to prepare us for all sorts of possibilities including the offchance that I have an arm amputated between now and August, in which case I will still be able to compete in the race. You can never be too prepared.

Now, I usually never swim with goggles. It might have something to do with learning to swim in a lake as a kid rather than in a pool. In a lake you don't have to worry about chlorine stinging your eyes and thus don't need to wear goggles. You do have to worry about water snakes, but with googles on you have a better chance of seeing them, so you're still better with your eyes blurry like nature intended.

Not so in the UBC (Outdoor) Pool. Notwithstanding that I'm sure I don't really want the Speedo water snakes to come into focus, my eyes start stinging like I'm sitting downwind of a bonfire. A few more laps and I'm convinced that the reason the pool's so cold is so that your eyelids feel anaesthetized before they melt off completely in the chemical cocktail. Now, my Biology 11 background has taught me that the reason you chlorinate a pool is to kill the bacteria. There are no bacteria in this pool. There are no life forms in this pool. Anyway none that should survive Darwin's evolutionary theory if survival instinct is part of the criteria.

60 grueling minutes later, the swim is finally over. It's amazing how "time flies when you're halfway numb." We slowly creak, blue-lipped and frosty, over to our towels. Which are now frozen into folded rectangles like stale fig newtons. As I flip and flop over the pool deck and enter the Aquatic Centre a thought crosses my mind.

Why on earth aren't we booked into the UBC (Indoor) Pool?

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