For Some, the Race Most Sublime is That Which is Yet Uncontested

Paul Lundgren showed up in San Diego in 1987. “Pablo” to his friends, he’d dabbled in triathlon for a couple years and, like so many aspiring triathletes, was drawn to the sport’s fulcrum. He began swimming as a 10-year-old, and eventually worked his way to a sub-17 minute 1650yd.

While in high school Pablo once swam 10,000 yards in an hour and 52 minutes. He was the prototype grinder.

At the same time he ran cross country, and was a member of his state championship squad in Boise, Idaho. He ran PRs of 14:50 and 30:50 for 5k and 10k. He’s exactly what any ITU talent identifier would be looking for today.

He got the triathlon bug, quit college mid-stream, packed his goods and his girlfriend into his beater wagon and headed south—where he landed on my doorstep.

I’d been racing as a pro since the sport had a recognizable coterie of such—maybe 5 years—and had just opened a very early version of the triathlon-dedicated retail store.

Pablo would pick my brain for training advice and everything triathlon, so I invited him on training rides with Tim Sheeper and I. Tim and I were known for “introducing” newbies to San Diego triathlon training by taking them out for rides and spitting them off the back. I knew nothing about Pablo’s athletic background, and I figured: one ride and I would have this young fellow out of my hair. He rode well, and impressed Tim and I with his ability to suffer. We liked that and he became a regular on our rides.

Not long after we did a hard ride out to Escondido to run a 5k, and then planned another hard ride home. Tim and I thought we did well to run in the 16s, but Pablo shocked us both by running 14:58.

That was the moment it hit us: this guy is the real deal. A short time later, he showed up at our Carlsbad masters swim workout, and it was clear that this kid was headed to the top.

Pablo and his girlfriend parted ways. He moved in with me and became a steady training partner. He was flat broke, but had a lot of enthusiasm. I was so impressed by his workout abilities that I offered to bankroll a trip to the Texas Hill Country triathlon, a major race on the pro circuit at the time. I was so confident in his talent, I figured he was going to go in there, blow away the field, and pay me back in no time.

He took a bit of a spanking there, but I figured it was just a matter of time. We soldiered on through epic workouts. On one memorable ride, he broke his seat post 25 miles from home. I told him to wait there, get a bite to eat, and I'd come back to pick him up. He wouldn’t have any of it. He rode the next hour out of the saddle—on the flats, in his biggest gear—with the rest of us hanging onto his 40k one hour pace. That was Pablo: never get dropped, never quit.

Pablo was a world class trainer. On paper he was one of the most talented triathletes in the world. He could spend hours under anaerobic threshold, but could not recover from just a few minutes above it. We thought Ironman was going to be his distance, but he only managed a 9:17 in Hawaii, and he began to lose his enthusiasm.

By 1993 he began a career as a massage therapist, went to Hawaii to volunteer at the massage tent, then continued to work on many of his San Diego clients.

On the plane ride home from Kona, fate, karma, or just plain old lucky coincidence had him sitting next to a lovely young woman who was also returning home from the race. With triathlon in common and five uninterrupted hours Pablo began to fall in love. Living in Boise, he began a long distance romance with Chris Chorak, a successful San Francisco physical therapist. A few years later I was the best man at their wedding.

Meanwhile the fires that burned so hot just years earlier continued to smolder. Every February I would fly up to San Francisco and do my 600-mile, 5-day ride to San Diego. Pablo would join me for many of these, only to fall back into a pattern of lethargy and weight gain. Then he read a story about how salmon were no longer making it back to their spawning grounds on the ironically-named Salmon River.

In 1995 he pledged to swim 450 miles in 25 days down the Salmon River to bring awareness to this ecological catastrophe. Thus began his career of uniquely crafted marathon swims.

By this time, Pablo was the father of twin boys and running a wetsuit and clothing business. To prepare for the three-week adventure, he began to check off some of the standardized marathon swims. I remember his first 10-miler, as it was just a couple months after my heart surgery. I was his kayaker. The water was 54 degrees and I'm not sure who, between us, was worse off at the finish. But that day our symbiotic relationship began—him the engine, me the navigator.

Next up was the Southern California Catalina Island crossing, 21-miles, fickle currents, virtually the same distance as the English Channel. One thing you have to understand about these swimming adventures: unless you are Diana Nyad, with every resource available and big bank behind you, most channel swimmers have to pick a date and go no matter what. Crew, escort boats, officials, are just a few of the variables that must be locked down prior to your swim.

For a proper crossing there are no wetsuits or body suits, just a pair of jammers, goggles, and a swim cap.

We got a great start—11pm, which offers greater chance of less wind through the night—plus comfortable 69-degree water and calm seas. Four of us were to exchange kayak duties during the anticipated 9-hour crossing. But after two hours, the sea had other ideas, and I was the only kayaker that could keep the boat upright. Winds and swells increased as conditions deteriorated quickly. The image above is of that crossing. Pablo and I fought together for the next 6 hours, until sunrise and the ocean calmed.

Having timed the tides for a 9- to 10-hour crossing, we hit 10 hours with 600 meters to go. I timed the last 200 in 11 minutes, and he was swimming hard. But he finished it.

In the past few years Pablo swam on several relays that tried to break new ground: swimming the Farallon Islands to San Francisco, and a 140- mile attempt to cross the Sea of Cortez. Both efforts failed. Before the team neared any of the infamous Great White haunts, the The 51-degree water doomed the Farallon swim. The Sea of Cortez is the opposite. Quite toasty. Perfect water for jellyfish. Halfway across the team swam through a jellyfish infestation. Pablo weathered his stings, but a couple of the women on the team were sidelined with blisters and anaphylaxis.

After a year of reflecting on the Sea of Cortez crossing, Pablo came up a solo challenge that no team member could short circuit. Be the first to swim the Sea of Cortez solo. We got out the maps and plotted the shortest route, a 58-mile swim right in the middle.

A scout sent to recon the area returned with difficult news. The currents in that area often sink boats, and he saw an 8-foot standing wave several miles offshore when the tide was rushing out. The only workable course was a 78-mile route.

If it’s the little things that derail you, maybe it’s the little things that give you success. Pablo’s found a gel reputed to repel jellyfish. Rinsing with mouthwash every hour seems to avert tongue swelling. A recent 10-hour training swim in Kona—even on a cloudy day—showed Pablo that sunscreen on the back and legs is critical.

Right now he is doing back-to-back masters workouts of 4000 and 5000 meters, then spending another couple hours swimming 1:25 per 100 meters pace. Two weeks ago Pablo swam 12 hours in a 25-yard pool and covered over 25 miles, with what seemed to me relative ease.

There is a website containing the details for Pablo’s 78-mile Cortez crossing. The existing world record for longest unassisted swim is 63 miles. The swim is set for this June 9th.