Middle Age is that perplexing time of life when we hear two voices calling us, one saying, ‘Why not?’ and the other, ‘Why bother?’
Sydney J. Harris
I asked the smartest person I know to give me three good reasons why I should not enter the Cap2K Open Water Swim (www.Cap2K.com) again this year. This friend amazes me every time I ask her something like this, instantly cutting right to the heart of the issue, which may not have had much to do with my actual question. But I am a wiser man in middle age than in my youth, and the reasonableness and maturity of her response simply reminded me that I am not as smart as her, and so I entered the race.
It took a lot of crazy organizational skills for me to do the race this year because of my screwed-up job, but I had trained a lot and was physically ready. Mentally, I was terrified of getting as cold as I had gotten in the race last year, which was a refreshing thought because I do not recall being scared of anything in a long time. I mentioned this to another smart person I know, Mike the ex-surfer guy I see in the weight room every morning (“John, Mike, Tom, Catherine and her Husband“). Mike asked “what’s the worst that can happen?” My response was that I could die from severe hypothermia, while Mike answered his own question reasonably enough with “you’d get out of the water.” Mike does not know me well enough to understand that once I started the swim I would never get out before the finish, so that makes two times I’ve asked people more reasonable, mature, and intelligent than me for advice and disregarded it. I really need to stop that.
Race morning I got to work early, totally wired and ready to make the day happen like Tom Cruise Mission Impossible clockwork. Got everything set up, made sure the guys that were there were ready for the day, then jumped in the mini-van to make it to the starting area in time for the pre-race briefing. My workplace is on a pretty busy street, and as I pulled out into traffic I was right on schedule and determined to make it happen. Ahead, the first light turned red, my brain instantly said “red light/stop,” and I smoothly braked to a halt. After several seconds I realized I was still about 150 yards from the stoplight, and decided I’d had enough coffee for the morning.
This is the third consecutive Cap2K I’ve competed in (“Swimming with my Prostate“). I can’t say it has gotten any easier, but the familiarity is comforting. I know what’s going to happen, know I just have to survive the first 5 minutes or so of the start, and know I’ll be glad when it’s over. I don’t know swimmers as a social group all that well, but this is a really great group of people. The Cap2K is also a fundraising event in support of prostate cancer research, and my involvement and new awareness of the overwhelming abundance of men and their families affected by prostate cancer has profoundly changed the way I look at people. So many of these guys at the race are survivors, there with their families cheering them on. I wouldn’t call it inspiring–more a realization that life can be difficult, but people find a way to go on and find happiness.
As in most of my events, the race itself is anticlimactic compared to the training, preparation and organization required to get there. I had intended to swim out to the start line as a warm up this year, but at the last second realized that every year I arrive at the finish pretty much unable to swim another 10 feet, so why add an additional 350 yards at the beginning? “There’s no reward for that extra work,” said another traveller on the shuttle Barge of Shame out to the start. As usual, the start is a struggle no matter how carefully you position yourself. This part of the river is bordered by sheer cliffs on the southern bank, and just when I started to lose control amid the flailing arms and legs, I looked up to my right during a breath and saw two hawks soaring smoothly along the updrafts. Don’t know why that should calm me, but the image stuck and I was alright after that. There was a pretty big crowd this year, and it seemed like everyone was pulling to the left as I tried to pass them on their left. Everyone. I finally suspected that perhaps it was me who was pulling to the right, and things went better after that correction. About two-thirds through the race I realized I had fairly open water in front of me, which either meant I was toward the front of the pack, way in the back, or totally lost. I won’t know until later, because I just had time to finish the race, walk the two + miles back to my car, and return to my stupid job. Missed the post race picnic, which I don’t normally care about too much before the race but miss greatly afterward when I realize what great people I’ve just been around. I’m not social, just sentimental I suppose.
I’ll probably go through all this again next year. I’m pretty proud to have jumped up one age group this year, and it’s always nice when young college girls say stuff like “I wish my granddad was in shape like you, sir.” This swim always reminds me that life is a struggle, that it is supposed to be that way. You can hate your job and quit it, or fight to make it bearable, but you can’t just hate it and continue to let it suck. You could let the years inevitably march on, give up and say “what’s the point?” and let them fall away as though they somehow were not as valuable as those of your youth. But that’s the amazing thing about being alive: even when really bad things happen, you always have choices about how you will live your life, right up to the end, I suppose.
In Benjamin Button, a movie made for people bothered by getting old and full of stealable quotes, Captain Mike said “You can be as mad as a mad dog at the way things went. You could swear, curse the fates, but when it comes to the end, you have to let go.”
But only at the end.
You make so many good points. My favorite is the realization that you were veering right and it wasn’t the other swimmers veering left. Letting go of pride comes with age and wisdom and prostate exams.
I liked your comment on out-living the competition. It reminds me of ‘If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by” (Sun Tzu). The coincidence is uncanny between your thoughts and mine leading up to and passing my wildland firefighter fitness test a week later and after a knee replacement. The questioning of purpose is always there when many peers have moved on and accepted senility. The cups and accolades from cute millenniums are nice but I think it’s more giving the middle finger to society’s dictates on how to act your age.
Dude, thank you so much for making me re-read that one. “Life is a struggle; it is supposed to be that way.” All the best.