A little over a year ago, I took on my first real life coaching client, Neil. When he first contacted me in 2019, he intended to swim around Key West in 2020 and wanted help in achieving that goal. Apparently, I’m a bad influence, because just a few months later he had decided he really wanted to swim the English Channel. He booked a slot for 2021 and suddenly we were discussing if a warm salt water swim around Key West in 2020 was the best target swim to get ready for the Channel in 2021. I sent him a list of swims that I thought offered some benefits as a test swim leading up to the Channel.
On that list was a 12.3 mile/19.7 km swim from Anacapa Island back to mainland California.
The Anacapa Channel offers water temps similar to THE Channel, generally involves a couple of hours of night swimming, and it’s salt water (something we’re strongly lacking here in Colorado). In my mind, it’s a perfect fit for someone training for the Channel or looking toward longer ocean swims. It’s long enough to help you practice feeds, long enough to know what English Channel water temps feel like, to give you salt mouth and chafing, and to see if your crew gets sea sick. But, it’s also convenient and easy to get to, and not terribly expensive. It was my first choice for Neil as a trial run, and I was delighted when he picked it (without too much interference on my end).
When 2020 started, I had no plans for any swims. But, then as 2020 really warmed up and started doing it’s thing, I realized I needed a goal or target. When June rolled around and I found that I could consistently train again, though not as much as I would normally like, I started looking for some swims that might be able to happen even with COVID restrictions.
The Catalina Channel Swimming Federation cancelled their swims for 2020, but the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association was still moving forward with their swims, with some restrictions and limitations. I’d been talking to Neil about Anacapa for about 8 months at this point and the idea occurred to me that it seemed like a really fun swim for me, too. So, I emailed Dawn Brooks who pilots the Elka Lynn, who was also taking Neil on his swim, and asked if she had another spot in September to take me, too. She had a spot two days after Neil, so I snagged it.
First up, I had the Lake Tahoe length on the agenda. Tahoe was a last minute trip thanks to COVID cancelling other plans. To get ready for Tahoe in August, I built up my distance and base, always with Anacapa in the back of my mind.
I suppose I should pause here for a moment and say this: I mostly never focus on records or trying to swim something fast. I enjoy the peace of just enjoying the water in my own time. I’ve always been a middle of the road swimmer when it comes to speed. I spent many a swim practice in college going last in a lane and being run over by the faster guys. I’m fully aware that there are lots and lots of swimmers faster than I am. Even in a marathon swim race, I’m able to focus on my own swim and own pace. If I win, neat, but that is rarely the focus. I enjoy a good competition as much as the next person, but generally, that’s never my goal.
Also, as I’ve focused on longer and longer swims the last several years, I’ve let go of a lot of my speed. Last summer, training for the English Channel, was especially hard for me. Coming off of my cancer treatments and with my tissue expander in place under my pec muscle, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t hit intervals in the pool that I’d been able to do in 2017, prior to my cancer diagnosis. I struggled a lot with the lack of speed mentally and questioned my ability to swim the Four Way because of it. As last summer went on, I had to gradually let go of my speed expectations and focus instead on my strength and endurance. I can’t tell you how many times I told myself, “You might not ever be as fast as you used to be, but you can still be just as strong!” When I swam the English Channel last summer, I was really at peace with my speed and my abilities moving on. I might not ever be as fast as I was, but I proved to myself I could be just as strong.
But, then in November 2019, I had my final breast reconstruction surgery. We replaced that hard, awful expander with a real breast implant. The real implant is a lot softer and moves a little more naturally. I regained a lot of shoulder mobility that I thought I had lost. As I eased back into training in January and February, following the surgery, I noticed something was happening- I was getting faster. By the time COVID hit, I was actually giddy with my progress in the pool. Even though I was still pretty out of shape, I was hitting intervals I hadn’t seen in a few years. I was incredibly happy and optimistic about the future.
And then COVID. Like most of you, I went a few months without a pool. Fortunately, we were able to swim open water here and there starting in April. I ran. Hiked a lot. Did exercises in my driveway. I did everything I could to hold onto my fitness and mental sanity. In mid-June, pools started to open up again. When I did my first pool workout in nearly 3 months, I was shocked: I hadn’t lost much of my speed.
As I was training in the pool and lakes for Tahoe- my times kept dropping. My strength was coming back and so was my speed. I haven’t been so excited to be fast in so long. Pretty much since 2013, I’ve focused on long swims and it’s been a long time since I had the opportunity to focus on something short and fast. 2020 gave me that opportunity and Anacapa provided a location to test myself and see what I could do over a sprint distance. It’s a totally different type of fun to sprint, and I gotta say- I’m into it.
So, the plan became: Build the base to swim Tahoe, then use the month in between to really focus on speed work. I had looked up the records for Anacapa- the existing female record of 5:28 by Karina Garcia seemed tough, but within my ability, as long as the weather, currents and tides cooperated. (The men’s record of 4:38, set by Jim McConica, is blazing fast and unless there was a push from a current and a really helpful tailwind, I knew that was probably outside of my speed range, even at my very best.)
As soon as I got home from Tahoe, I changed my typical training, focusing on shorter swims with more intensity, some speed work, and some kicking. I had a friend write me workouts to get me out of my own head, to add some variety, and help push me into a focus on intensity instead of volume. I preach this to others, but I’m not always so great about doing it myself. One time, he had me do 10 x 100 @ 2:00 all out. Unheard of. I almost revolted and refused. Such a waste of time to sit on the wall and just rest! But, a few friends ganged up on me and convinced me that this was a smart move, so I relented and gave in. I knew they were right. Guys, 10 x 100 all out is hard. I nearly got a cramp and I don’t recall the last time I got my heart rate so high.
In addition to the pool workouts, we started in the lake doing one lap easy and then sprinting all out on the way back. I had a pod of guys who are my speed and faster and they really pushed me out of my comfort zone. I might be faster in a 20k, but they can all beat me in a 10k. I learned that sprinting and swimming hard takes a lot more of my focus than just a long hard grind. I learned to try and maintain my kick over a longer period of time. At times it was frustrating, but it was also fun. As September moved on, and water temps dropped, a few of the guys put on wetsuits. They’d give me a head start and then chase me down across the lake. I’m not used to being chased, so this added a fun dynamic to a workout. They all knew my target and I can’t even express how grateful I am to everyone for pitching in and helping me work toward a goal. I’ve said before that the Colorado Open Water Swimming community is the best- but in case you missed it, we’re awesome.
The one month between Tahoe and Anacapa went by in a flash and before I knew it, Neil was tapering for his swim and I was winding down a little.
Neil was set to swim early Monday morning, Sept 21. My swim was set to start early Wednesday morning, on the 23rd. I flew out after work on Monday, after watching Neil’s dot all morning. He had a fantastic swim- 6 hours and 20 minutes, under our target of 7 hours. He had great conditions and I was crossing my fingers I’d get the same.
I traveled alone- enlisting the help of local kayaker extraordinaire, Neil Van Der Byl for help. Neil is an experienced kayaker, plus his wife, Grace, is a phenomenally talented swimmer herself, so I was confident he could handle me without adding a second crew member.
Neil was set to meet me on Tuesday evening, so I had all day Tuesday to rest and relax. I met swimmer Neil and his crew for breakfast to hear all about his swim, and then spent the rest of the day laying on my back in my hotel room, napping and waiting for kayaker Neil to arrive. He got there around dinner time and we had a sandwich picnic on the hotel balcony and then went to bed around 8 pm.
I’m a terrible sleeper in general, especially before a big swim. The day leading up to my English Channel swim, where we had a midnight start, I desperately tried to sleep, and didn’t manage it. I was not optimistic that I’d be able to fall asleep at 8 pm. But, when the alarms went off in the middle of the night, I was shocked to realize I’d managed to sleep for 3-4 hours.
We met our pilot, Dawn, and SBCSA observer Dave Van Mouwerik at 1 am at the marina. We loaded up our minimal supplies, signed the waivers, read the rules and headed out to Anacapa, right on schedule. I laid down, wrapped up in my parka, for a nap.
The plan was to start my swim around 4:30 am. However, when Dawn came down around 5, and we weren’t there yet, I asked what was up. She said we were just off the island, but the fog was so thick she couldn’t even see the water from the steering wheel. She was hoping it would clear, but until it did, we had to wait. At that point, I figured my goal of swimming fast was gone- we weren’t timed with the tides right any longer, so nothing to do but sit and wait, and hope that the fog would clear so I would actually be able to swim.
Luckily, around 6, as the sun came up, the fog vanished. Anacapa came into view first, and then a few miles off, we could see Gina, the oil rig. Dawn exclaimed, “I can see Gina! Thank God, let’s go!” (Or something like that.) So, I got my suit on, Neil got his kayak ready, and Dawn painted her customary black and white stripes on my right arm and leg. Dawn believes the paint looks like a sea snake, which deters predators above and below. Never one to balk at a tradition, I’d been looking forward to earning my stripes for months.
Finally, time to swim!
I jumped off the boat into the clear water, just off the island. Neil was waiting for me in the kayak and Dawn flashed a light on the point I needed to touch to start my swim. It was still fairly dark and I had my daytime/darker goggles on. I found swimming the 25 meters in the near dark, through the kelp beds to be one of the most terrifying minutes of my life. I’m only partly kidding. 🙂 But, I found the spot, touched the rock and we were off.
Neil really is a fabulous kayaker, so we got into our groove really easily, even though he’d never kayaked for me before. He has a cool kayak with pedals, so I could stay really close to him, without worrying about getting hit by an oar. They positioned me in-between Neil in the kayak and the main boat with Dawn and Dave. Normally, I hate this configuration because I have a tendency to take hard left turns, but Neil prefers this so he can see me and the boat all in one line. The kayaker wins in this setting, so I didn’t argue. Because Neil was able to hold such a steady straight line and I was comfortable staying close, this was a non-issue this time around. I focused on Neil; he focused on me and the boat. And I didn’t get yelled at for trying to get run over by the Elka Lynn.
Also because Neil was able to stay close, he was able to put my feed bottles right into my hand. This sped things up for me. He’d hand me the bottle while I was swimming, I’d chug, drop the bottle (attached to a rope) and start swimming. The observer, Dave, reported that I was averaging feeds under 10 seconds. Yeah!
One of the things I’d worked on the last month was a fast start. I take forever to warm up. Swimming hard actually hurts me more in the first 90 minutes than it does after 2 hours. We knew if I wanted to have a chance to break this record, I’d have to be out fast and hard. During one 2.5 hour lake training session, Jim got in with me and literally made me sprint for the first hour to keep up with him. I was cursing at him under water and just trying to hang the best I could. By the time we got to the last half an hour of our swim, Jim was lagging and I was able to sprint away from him over the last 1000 meters. We finished within one of my fastest 5 laps at the Pond, ever. Afterward, he told me that I’d proved his point: Even if I go out harder than I want, I can still hang onto it at the end. I knew he was right, so I went into this swim with confidence that I could take it out hard and still hang on through the finish.
As I came off the island, I was pushing hard. Trying to stay loose, make sure nothing hurt, but still trying to set a hard pace. At the 1 hour mark, during my feed, Neil was giving me my stats: stroke rate, distance traveled, etc. Hmm. Not great news. I knew I was swimming hard- thinking about all the guys back home urging me to go out fast. At the 90 minute mark, the same, with the additional news: You’ve got a current coming at you at your 2 o’clock. You’re only going 2 miles an hour, you need to hit 1 mile in under half an hour if you want to get this record. At the 2 hour mark, I was told: That was better, but you need to be 27 minutes/mile if you want any chance to catch up to the record. At the 3 hour mark: You’re definitely out of the current and catching back up. The kicking is helping. Stroke rate is still 77. We flew by Gina- I couldn’t remember how far out she was- but I barely paid her any attention. Neil assured me I was on pace, the currents were behaving for the time being and if I kept working, I was still on pace. At the 4:30 mark, exactly what I was hoping to hear: If you feel strong, this is your last feed. You have to keep kicking hard to get there- it’s going to be close.
I remember thinking at that point that I hoped he was lying to me- that we were a little closer than he was telling me. I was making an effort to not look ahead, but at this point, with less than an hour to go, I popped my head up to see what I could see. The shore looked REALLY far away- and I then believed Neil that it was really going to be close, within minutes. So, I put my head down and powered on.
I have a really good internal clock that tells me when my 30 minute feed is supposed to come. So, I knew, roughly, when we’d gone another 30 minutes. I poked my head up again and, with relief, saw a lot more sandy beach than I’d seen 30 minutes prior. I still wasn’t sure how far we had to go, so I put my head back down and powered on. Moments later, I realized that it was getting shallow. Swimmer Neil had warned me about this the day before: It gets shallow and you’re still a long way out. So, I didn’t get too excited, but couldn’t help smiling. At this point, I knew the record was mine. Right after that, I started seeing the pier and then Dawn in the main boat dropped back, then the water rapidly became more and more shallow, and then I could stand. I “ran” out onto the beach, where a few local swimmers had come to greet me.
5:07.10. We had done it!
Neil and I chatted with the folks who came to greet me for a few moments and then back into the water to the boat, where I floated a few minutes to cool off some.
My crew reported that the water was between 61 and 66 (16.1-18.8C) the whole way- I can report I was hot most of the swim. I only peed twice, which was not ideal. I saw nothing in the water, except one jelly fish way far below. Because we had planned a 4:30 am start, I didn’t even pack zinc/Desitin for sunscreen, so I came out with a pretty decent cap tan. I made no efforts against salt mouth, and my tongue managed to get pretty swollen in just 5 hours. My swim suit chafed along my back, where I didn’t hit it with lanolin prior to the swim. Rookie mistake – I know better. My arms were sore, and places in my core were also sore the next day. Clearly I was working in ways I don’t normally.
But mostly, I had lots of fun. It was fun to swim fast for a change. It was fun to only swim for 5 hours. I can’t tell you how many people asked if I was doing a double Anacapa or something longer. But, seriously, I love a good 12 miler. A 10k is still a little on the short side for me to really enjoy, but that 20k mark is just so much fun.
I didn’t get to savor the swim too much- we went from the boat, to a quick shower at the hotel, then straight to the airport, and home. I only took Tuesday and Wednesday off of work and then it was right back to the regular routine.
It was such a beautiful stretch of water. I can assure you, I’ll be back. I was happy to finish off my California Triple Crown (Catalina, Tahoe, and one of the Santa Barbara Channel Islands). I also really do recommend this swim as a great lead up to the English Channel.
This was my last planned swim- nothing on the calendar- so, I am feeling a little sad that summer is over with no plans for next summer made just yet. I’m feeling a little anxious about what COVID might do here over the winter. But, this was a beautiful swim to add to the mess that is 2020, so I am extremely grateful for the SBCSA and Dawn Brooks for allowing swimmers the opportunity to swim this summer.
Here is Dave’s quick recap from the swim, if you’re interested:
You can learn more about swimming the Anacapa Channel and the other islands that make up the Santa Barbara Channel Islands here: https://santabarbarachannelswim.org.
For information on how to swim from Catalina Island, you can go here: https://swimcatalina.org