A Romp in the Lake

A view of office spaces on the south bank of Tempe Town Lake.The lake, on varying occasions, is opened up for swimming. Photo by Aaron Rop

A view of office spaces on the south bank of Tempe Town Lake.The lake, on varying occasions, is opened up for swimming.
Photo by Aaron Rop

It’s just after 6:15 a.m. on Nov. 13 at Tempe Beach Park. The sun’s barely up. I’m looking at Tempe Town Lake while more people arrive at the 2013 Ironman Arizona Mayor’s Media Challenge. I’m here representing The Arizona Republic and the charity Valley of the Sun Dog Rescue. The winner of this race, which is 1/100th of a full-distance Ironman Arizona, gets $1,000 donated to the charity of their choice. Members of the media are eligible to compete and race against each other as well as the Mayor and any members of the City Council.

The Ironman Arizona began in 2005.  Nearly 3,000 athletes complete a 2.4 mile swim in Tempe Town Lake, followed by 112-mile bike course through the Sonoran Desert and finish with a 26.2-mile run around Tempe Town Lake and Papago Park, it says on Ironman’s website.

During the Ironman Arizona, as well as other races of varying distances, and the media event that I’m participating in today, the lake is briefly open for swimming.

I expect the water to be cold. The image of my twin brother, paler than white and almost blue, running out Tempe Town Lake while racing in the 2011 Ironman Arizona, keeps running through my mind. As my dad said, my brother “looked like death just came out of the water.”

Then I think about my lack of goggles. After talking with professional triathlete Kristi Johnson a couple of months ago, I’m slightly worried for my eyes.

She told me she was one of several people treated for severe retina burns and damage to her eyes after participating in a 2006 race, which her doctor attributed to chemicals used to treat the water. (Amalfi had told me the chemicals aren’t harmful, and they’ve rarely had to use them before race events. But I can’t help but worry because Johnson told me she couldn’t see for several days and was in agony.)

There are people in wet-suits. I’m in shorts I got from Ross and a plain grey shirt.

Out of the 14 competitors, I recognize Eric Mungenast, a reporter for The East Valley Tribune. I know he does marathons and runs all the time, something I haven’t done since school started, but I think I do have an edge on him because I ride my bike close to 60 miles a week between my internship at The Republic and school.

“Just remember, don’t swallow the water,” says Eric.

Minutes pass. We look down at the water, but no one has gotten in yet. I’m on the last step wearing my brother’s Vibram Five-Finger shoes. My feet are in the water and it’s cold.

Once I get in I realize it’s freezing. And it seems that the cold water compelled a guy to finish before the race even starts. He’s already about to pass around the man standing on the paddle board, who we are supposed to circle around for this 24-yard swim. I’m about to shout that the leader is cheating, but I shouldn’t take this too seriously. I’m not even wearing a wet-suit.

I’m swimming. It’s cloudy, and the lake is a dark-brown color.

The person in front of me splashes me in the face and I end up taking a gulp full of water before I can second-guess myself. Eric, the East Valley Tribune reporter, was right, I shouldn’t have swallowed it.

Bree Bielenberg, a local triathlete, once told me she frequently gets stomach and side cramps after the swim portion of her races in Tempe Town Lake. She told me she becomes bloated and has piercing pain in her stomach, but found a remedy after a friend suggested she take a shot of vinegar mixed with apple cider after exiting the water.

After I leave the water, my stomach feels like someone squeezed it from the inside.

After burping a couple of times and drinking water when I get back to my apartment, my stomach feels better.

And I’m glad I was one of the few people that got to swim in Tempe Town Lake.

Reach the writer at arop1@asu.edu