On Being a Runner
One thing I haven’t done in a long time but used to enjoy a lot is scuba diving. I got into scuba diving through the influence of my Uncle George on my mom’s side. He’s the one who had twin girls at the age of 76 and is now 83 or so. He also had lesser accomplishments…like creating the first font that was readable by both humans and computers (which now appears on the bottom of every check made disclosing the routing number and account number). I think George got a bit of his Great Uncle whom he resembled, Orville Wright. I was going to meet him in Cozumel last December for a diving trip but I felt like my ankle wasn’t up to it. Chris and I got certified as scuba divers when I was about a Junior in High School I’d say and we would frequently take dives with my Uncle in Florida (when he’d visit us on Christmas or Spring break) or in California where he lives.
Diving isn’t for everyone. In fact I’ve found very few takers over the years. Strapping on the tank and mask is a very confining, claustrophobic feeling. The breathing mechanism is difficult. Some people just can’t seem to sink no matter how much weight they put on. And at least at first it runs afoul of your sense of survival. It’s scary. The deeper you go the darker it gets and the farther you are from your comfort zone of breathable air and open spaces. The deeper you go the greater the pressure of the water around you exhausts you. The deeper you go, however, the more unique things you see and experience.
One of the main barriers in learning to dive is learning to breath underwater. It goes against all nature and is initially very uncomfortable. I really had a hard time letting go of *thinking* about breathing.
George, a former professor at Berkeley, is a really accomplished diver and a published, award-winning underwater photographer. When I first started diving with him in Florida we would do rather shallow reefs, like say four fathoms (about 24 feet) down. He would frequently tell us of how much there was to see at the deeper reefs, things that could only be seen there. I really wanted to do these deeper reefs so George kind of helped me along until I was at the point where I was going to try a depth of over 90 feet. Chris dropped out due to his propensity for sea-sickness. This is the point where diving gets pretty dangerous. If something goes wrong you’re past the point where you can reach the top on one breath and proceeding more quickly to the surface will give you the bends, which of course can kill you. You also have to descend very slowly. So I was plenty nervous.
This all occurred during a five week trip to Florida sometime when I was in college. We worked on some 60 foot dives and George weighed me down with extra lead weights so I would sink better. We practiced until he thought I was ready. The first time down to this deeper reef I couldn’t believe what I saw; colorful fish that I could hardly believe were real swimming in giant schools, some sharks, swaying live coral, bright pink furry anemones, a manta ray that rippled up from the sand below, fish that glowed with electricity, and things and colors that I simply can’t describe. The trouble was that I couldn’t stay down for any length of time. The pressure at this depth is palpable. You can feel it against your body and really feel it in your ears which just plain hurt. But the pressure wasn’t my biggest problem though. The problem was that I was so scared that I was breathing at three times my normal rate and would expire a tank so fast I’d have to head for the top before really being able to take in what I had gone down to see.
George told me to relax but I just couldn’t. We did the same dive like four times and every time I had to head for the surface in a disappointingly short time. It was a disappointment for him, but more so for me because not only did I want to stay down and see what there was to be seen (and someday go to the 120 foot deep shipwreck that George had told me about) but I felt like at the same time I was letting him down. Adding to the problem of course was the fact that the more I concentrated on my breathing, well, the more I concentrated on my breathing! I’d be fixated on the breathing part.
George had an idea. We took the same dive again and I was surprised to see him loading two extra tanks into the boat. He brought a second tank of air down by loading it up with lead weights and we left it right at our lead line. My first tank went as usual but when we noticed the supply getting low we headed back to the second tank. I switched to that tank and we explored the reef. That second tank was the trick I needed. By virtue of being there just a little longer I finally did the unthinkable and stopped thinking about my breathing. I finally let go enough to see what I had come to see despite the pressure of the water and despite the fear generated by the distance from my comfort zone.
After a few more dives of that depth I had forgotten all about the external pressure, forgotten all about the distance from the surface and could breathe without thinking about it. It was then that I could see with clarity the beauty all around me; a beauty that I had to endure the pressure of depth to experience. I also noticed that shallower dives were now child’s play. The pressure at those depths, once challenging, now seemed almost nonexistent.
I realized that sometimes I’m so fixated on one thing, so influenced by external pressure, that I fail to open my eyes to the good all around me. I’m concentrating only on breathing and by doing so limiting the time I can breathe. Sometimes when I feel the pressure all around, see the familiar darkness closing in, I remind myself why I came; to experience what couldn’t be found anywhere else… and then I’m not thinking about breathing anymore.
By Clay Konnor