Your whole life, you wake up every morning in your body. It’s your own to build and train and you have the freedom to flex it to your needs. You take for granted that it will be there to convey you through life. You spend time learning to be comfortable in your own skin and to accept your body for its strengths and flaws. You learn to love it for what it is: Yours.
And then you get a cancer diagnosis.
All of a sudden, your body is no longer your own. Any confidence you had in your body is shattered. Your body has betrayed you. It’s owned by disease, chemicals and doctors.
Cancer ravages your body and robs you of your peace of mind.
Even when the treatments have ended, even when the doctors have told you that there is no evidence of disease, cancer still rules your subconscious.
No matter how far out from treatment you are, there is always a little pea-sized nugget reminding you that every ache or pain, every tiny cough or headache could signal your worst nightmare: Cancer has returned. You try to push it aside, putting your hope in the science and doctors that said you’re cured. You live life to the best of your ability, relearning how to exist within a body that suddenly feels like a stranger’s. You push forward, always with the knowledge that if you live long enough, there’s a good chance you’ll have to face the cancer demon again.
You pray that day isn’t tomorrow. Or the next day.
Slowly, you rebuild hope. You rebuild trust. You put one foot in front of the other, from one day to the next, striving to be better and stronger than the day before, always existing alone within a body that betrayed you.
Then you get abnormal test results.
They could mean nothing- a fluke, a hormonal response, a false positive, an indication of something benign.
Or they could mean everything.
And that precarious, tentative hope and trust in the body who betrayed you comes crashing down.
I had some abnormal lab results a month ago- and the only thing to do was wait a month and re-test. It’s been a very, very long month of waiting, trying to stay positive and distracting myself with swimming and dogs. Thank you to the very few people we shared this with, who helped us carry this terror for a month. We didn’t want to tell very many people in case it turned out to be nothing, and it was a scary wait.
Wednesday, I went in for a repeat test and after a very long two days of more waiting, the results came back good. The last two days have been puke-inducingly tediously hard to get through, but to wake up to positive lab results this morning was glorious. It’s a beautiful day. I apologize for the delayed emails, lack of follow up, and sometimes prickly responses. It’s been so hard to focus on anything other than breathing; and I’m so glad to have put this behind us, for now, with the very horrible reminder that cancer never really is truly “behind us”.
But, when in doubt, go to Cabo, swim with the whales and ride the camels.
I only spent about nine months in medically induced menopause, caused by chemo. At age 35, I was borderline for chemo to cause permanent menopause, and my oncologist was fabulous in talking through what that meant with me and Ryan. I know some women are not that fortunate and are shocked to learn, too late, what chemo can do to their reproductive organs.
Going into menopause at age 35 comes with a whole host of health risks such as increased risks of osteoporosis, dementia, Parkinson’s, mood disorders and more. Our chance to have kids was suddenly taken away, seemingly overnight.
During cancer treatments, I suffered from horrific hot flashes and night sweats. It was especially awful during radiation where I was being burned alive from the outside, while simultaneously roasting on the inside. Sex was uninteresting and painful as my estrogen essentially disappeared overnight.
When my periods returned, I actually cried. I think Ryan did, too, to be honest. We were hopeful that some of the uncomfortable symptoms would improve and I could feel a little more “normal.”
And for a while, I did feel “normal”. I still had occasional hot flashes and night sweats, but for the most part, things seemed to be functioning well. It gave me some peace of mind that every year I got back normal hormone function, that I would lower my risk for osteoporosis, among other things. In 2020-2021, we spent months trying to get pregnant with no luck. I had my hormones and ovary function tested with an OBGYN and while things were still working, the results weren’t optimistic that I had much time left. Then, I did get pregnant, which resulted in a traumatic ectopic pregnancy. I think Ryan and I were both shell-shocked and heartsick from the results, plunging us both back into the “Sarah could have died” cycle of trauma.
It was not a good place to be in.
And then, a few months later, things started to get weird for me. I was having a whole host of medical issues that were unrelated to cancer, at least on the surface. Bladder issues. Weight gain. Sleeping issues. Periods becoming heavy and extra painful. Hair loss.
Two years ago, I started talking to every doctor I encountered about my symptoms. I had a feeling it was a hormonal change, but it felt like every doctor I spoke to looked at each symptom in a silo.
For example, after nearly a year of painful, recurrent UTIs, where I eventually cried in the doctor’s office and begged for help, after being lectured, repeatedly, about proper hygiene, I was finally referred to a urologist who performed a bladder scope. She told me my bladder issues were likely the of result internal scarring from radiation. Official diagnosis: interstitial cystitis. Nothing to be done except manage symptoms. No real discussions on how changing hormones can cause UTIs and bladder issues. I was instructed to stay away from spicy foods and take a blue pill when things flared up.
At every primary care appointment, I complained about new sleep issues and growing fatigue. I was lectured on practicing good sleep hygiene (which I already do) and told to take melatonin (which I already do). I was told to exercise MORE to combat weight gain and was lectured on a “healthy” diet.
With my oncologist’s NP, I discussed my increasing hot flashes and night sweats, fatigue and weight gain. I shared the bladder issues. She suggested I had sleep apnea. Then asked if I was depressed and if I wanted to start taking anti-depressants.
Time and time again, I was made to feel that my symptoms were somehow my fault.
Sleep better. Eat better. Exercise more. Quit gaining weight.
Yes, two years ago, things were rough- we were still in the middle of COVID. My original oncologist moved to Arizona. I was miserable in my job. Ryan was miserable in his job. I was stressed. I was maybe a little depressed (wasn’t the whole world?). So, I brushed aside my intuition and tried to do as I was told. I changed jobs. Ryan changed jobs. I focused on swim goals. Lost some weight.
But, I was still struggling. A year ago, I was back in the oncologist office, back with my PCP, still visiting the urologist. I was still complaining about the same issues. And still getting the same replies.
“No, I am NOT depressed- I am just so tired all the time it sometimes feels like depression,” I remember saying last year in the oncology office.
Still, no REAL solutions were offered to me, and particularly at the oncologist’s office, while it was never said directly, it was implied, “What’s the big deal about hot flashes and fatigue. At least you don’t have cancer.”
I’ve run into this so many times both during and post-treatment: As a young survivor, it very much feels like my unique needs are not considered.
I am only 40. I am active with big dreams and a lot of life left to live.
The average age of a breast cancer diagnosis is 62. Those women have already, most likely, gone through menopause. Blasting their ovaries with chemo doesn’t do exactly what it did to mine. Their needs are different.
Yet, over and over again, I feel as though I’m lumped into the same category with a 60-year-old. First, it was my PT during treatments who told me I was harming my heart by swimming through chemo and then was shocked when I rocked the treadmill stress test two days after finishing chemo. Most recently, my annual mammogram was denied by my insurance because they only allow for one screening mammogram prior to the age of 40. Mammograms are the best way to check for a reoccurrence, and my insurance company denied it because I was too young; saying if there was family history of BC, they would have covered it. My oncology office refused to recode or back me up. Apparently, a personal history of triple negative BC didn’t matter. After nine months of appeals, I was forced to pay out of pocket for a mammogram, for basic health care, because I was under 40.
I know menopause is not widely understood or researched well. But, I knew I was going through it. Doctors dismissed me, minimalized my concerns, encouraged me to take meds that mask symptoms instead of treating or discussing the real issues. NPs were afraid to give me solid answers because of the possible hormonal implications. It’s been rage-inducingly frustrating.
Two years ago things were rough; a year ago they were worse; and about 6 months ago I really started to struggle.
I lost all motivation. I don’t want to swim. I’m moody, grumpy, depressed; extra prickly. I can feel the hormones raging, like constantly suffering from PMS. I can see the changes in my body. Recently, I started sobbing when Ryan made a joke about how I can’t seem to keep plants alive, a common joke over here. I never feel rested. I’m good at pushing through, catching myself feeling irrational, and doing my best to show up. But, man, some days it is so hard to mask what I am feeling internally. God bless Ryan for hanging in there with me. I know I’m difficult (more so than usual, anyway).
I’ve talked to every medical professional I have about what is going on for two years and no one said “You’re going through menopause.”
Internet research lead me to that conclusion, but I couldn’t figure out why no one was telling this to me and offering solutions. It’s so common in young breast cancer survivors.
And then a friend recommended “Next Level: Your Guide to Kicking Ass, Feeling Great, and Crushing Goals Through Menopause and Beyond” by Dr. Stacy Sims.
I nearly cried reading some of the chapters.
I was not alone. I had answers. I had possible solutions. There WAS hope.
I’ve since changed oncologists and had a heart to heart with my primary care doctor. I went to appointments armed with questions from this book. My new oncologist SAW me and HEARD me. He told me some things I could do, safely.
It’s only been a couple of weeks since we’ve made some changes, so the verdict is still out on where this journey is taking me; however, I’m optimistic that I now have a doctor who will listen and hopefully I can see changes and results sooner rather than later.
It shouldn’t have taken two years of suffering to get to this point. No matter who you are; male or female, young or old, cancer survivor or healthy: Please, advocate for yourselves. Don’t dismiss your intuition. Find people who care.
And read this book. Seriously. It may not have all of the answers or be right for everyone, but for me, it at least gave me a starting point to feel empowered with my health care team and validated that I am not, in fact, insane.
I want to keep swimming, for years and years to come- and feel good while doing it.
My journey to the North Channel goes all the way back to 2011, when my good friend Craig Lenning became the first American to complete this swim. He was the 12th person to make it across the North Channel (his was the 16th swim, since legends Kevin Murphy and Alison Streeter had already racked up a few swims each by the time Craig arrived).
Back in the day, we didn’t have fancy GPS trackers to watch our friends travel across oceans, so we relied on spotty Facebook updates from Craig’s captain.
I cried when the video of his finish was posted: A flashing light in the middle of the night on a cliff wall in Scotland, then the bullhorn signaling Craig’s arrival. Truly an historic swim.
But when Craig came home, the stories he told were horrifying. Freezing cold water. Tricky currents that made him swim in place for hours. Thousands of giant lion’s mane jellyfish, some the size of cars, that thrashed his arms and legs. He remembers the buzzing pain of his skin for days afterward, as he sweated out their toxins. To this day, he shudders when he talks about his experience.
Craig is not one for exaggeration, so his stories were enough to swear me off the North Channel, indefinitely.
Over the years, however, I’ve followed more and more swimmers in their journeys across the North Irish Sea.
Since Craig’s swim, Caroline Block has become the Queen of the North Channel, amassing more crossings and hours in the North Channel than anyone else. She loves the beauty of the water there and keeps going back, year after year. I’ve talked to her about her experiences and she always says she finds the cold and the jellyfish manageable.
Another friend, Darren Miller, swam the Channel in 2013. His experience was similar to Caroline’s- barely any stings and he speaks of the water as almost mystical.
But, still, I’ve heard the horror stories of swimmers becoming delusional as they approach the finish, many hospitalized and permanently injured from the jellyfish toxins. Swimmers have been hypothermic, pulled from the water mid-swim. Stung in intimate places. And though I’ve never asked, I’m certain the failure rate across the North Channel far exceeds the success rate.
Needless to say, this is a potentially dangerous swim. And for years and years, I’ve wanted no part of it.
However, as I’ve been slowly (and un-purposefully) knocking off the Ocean’s Seven swims, I began to realize that at some point, I was going to have to tackle the North Channel. (I have completed Catalina, Molokai, the Cook Strait, and the English Channel, with a genuine desire to do Gibraltar and Tsugaru. At the end of the day, I know there’s no way I’d just skip the North Channel.)
Just as I was starting to wrap my mind around this inevitability, Jacqueline with Infinity Channel Swimming reached out. Her timing was pretty incredible- I’m still not sure how she knew I’d been thinking about it. But, in a delightfully manipulative message, she told me it was her dream to have me come to swim the North Channel, and she offered her support should I decide I wanted to attempt it. I initially put her off, but kept coming back to the idea, and her persuasive message.
The North Channel was in my head, Jaqueline and Infinity had an opportunity, and I eventually broke down and said: Yes, I’ll come.
The first available slot was an early season slot, July 3-9, 2022.
“Don’t you have anything later in the summer, like August or September, when it’s warmer?”, I remember asking.
“Definitely not”, was the reply. I guess luck and dream boards would only get me so far.
I chewed on the undesirability of an early July slot for a week or so, before finally committing. Colder water meant fewer jellyfish, right?
And so, the training began in earnest. I swam Monterey Bay last fall as a test swim for both the cold and the jellyfish. I swam the water down at Chatfield until it froze, ending my open water season in December with an ice mile. I went to San Francisco in February, where and Amy and Greg Gubser took me on a six-hour tour of San Francisco Bay in 51-52 (11-12C) degree water. I survived that swim relatively unscathed, which was a huge confidence boost. In March, when the Gravel Pond was still partially covered with ice, I was in for short swims, gradually increasing time in the water as temperatures slowly rose. As summer heated up the Pond, I drove to high altitude every weekend, in search of colder and colder water.
I don’t love the cold water the way some of my peers do. I definitely don’t thrive in it or seek it out or gleefully leap in on cold, blustery days. But, as I trained, I remembered: I CAN do this. I may not love it, but I AM capable.
And in addition to chasing cold water, I put my head down and trained hard and fast with Fast Mike. Starting in January, I began building yardage in earnest, averaging over 40km/week by March and finishing with six weeks straight at 60km. If I was going to be freezing and lashed by jellyfish, I told myself, at least I’d be strong and fast to get it over with faster. Leading up to this swim, I’ve been swimming faster than I have in years.
If I was going to do this swim, I was going to be as prepared as humanly possible.
And every single time someone asked me if I was considering a double, I laughed. Anyone around me over the last year knows how absolutely terrified I have been of this swim.
Could I manage the cold?
Could I handle the jellyfish?
Amy and Caroline talked me off the ledge more than once.
One time across the North Channel would be absolutely plenty.
My mom, Ryan and I arrived in Belfast about five days before my window opened, hoping to acclimatize and calm my nerves before the actual swim. When we arrived on a Tuesday afternoon, with rain pouring down, I knew I’d done the work. But as any of us who have ever attempted a Channel swim knows, being prepared means nothing if the ocean decides to spit you back out.
We booked a delightful Airbnb in the small town of Donaghadee (which I am happy to report I can now say correctly, after two weeks of trying). Donaghadee is just down the coast from Bangor, where Infinity leaves from, but is the starting site of most North Channel swims. Walking around the little harbor, you can see tributes to the North Channel and Tom Blower, the first person to complete the swim. And every day, a group of skins swimmers, The Chunky Dunkers, meet at high tide to swim. Amy had connected me to their leader, Martin Strain, so on Wednesday, we made our way down to the slip for our first introduction to the group and to the North Channel.
Martin and his Dunkers welcomed me with open arms. As Martin pointed out the 1km swim route around the Harbor- swim out past the buoy, to the harbor wall, then straight across to Pier 36 and Kelly’s steps, then back to the slip- I have to admit I was nervous.
“What’s the temperature?”, I asked. I’d been avoiding that question for weeks, but now that I was finally here, I felt like it was time to know.
“Oh, it’s warm. About 14 today”, Martin informed me cheerfully.
“And what about….out there….”, I asked, gesturing to the Channel beyond the harbor walls.
“Oh, probably a little colder, around 12”, he told me.
“And what about the jellies?”
“We haven’t seen any in the harbor yet this year.”
Ok, good news all around. So, I strapped on my green tow float and walked down the slip, with the last of the Dunkers.
“It’s warm, it’s warm, it’s warm”, I told myself as I neared the water. Then, as my toes hit the water, “it’s not warm. It’s not warm. It’s not warm.”
As I stood there with my toes barely touching the water, Andrew Keay walked up and joined me. Andrew is an Australian swimmer, who was also in Donaghadee to meet the Dunkers and to wait for his turn to swim the Channel.
“It’s not too cold today!”, he informed me cheerfully, as I was dying inside.
Fortunately, Andrew also likes to stand for a while before getting in, so we waded in slowly, discussing our chances in the Channel and learning a little about each other. We bonded instantly.
Eventually, to the leers of the returning Chunky Dunkers, Andrew and I took off for an hour-long swim.
I blasted through the first 1km loop quickly.
“It’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok” I kept telling myself. And it was. After about a loop and a half, over by Kelly’s steps, I pulled up to wait for Andrew to catch up. And then we started chatting and treading water, marinating, if you will. We gently floated back to the slip, laughing and talking for the last 30 minutes of our swim, only putting our faces in to swim back as we realized it was raining and we felt bad for our people, standing on shore waiting for us.
As we walked out of the water, Ryan, my mom and Andrew’s partner Ranu were laughing at us. They’d become friends just as fast as Andrew and I had.
And so we got into a routine for the next few days: Meet the Chunky Dunkers for a swim, explore the town, and then I would work in the afternoon.
On Friday, Andrew and I met up with Jacqueline at the Bangor marina, and I got to meet her for the first time. She greeted me with a big hug and walked us back to see the Infinity boats and let us explore the marina’s facilities.
Infinity has a few boats and multiple pilots, and as Jacqueline explained, they would assign boats and pilots as we got closer to our swim starts. Head Pilot, Padraig Mallon, would send us daily updates at 6 pm to let us know what the weather forecast looked like.
And then as the group of us were sitting in Anantya, laughing and discussing our upcoming swims, Andrew said it. Something like, “….and of course if Sarah wants to do a double, you’ll just let her turn around.”
And as if they’d planned it, Jacqueline smiled, “That’s always a possibility.”
It was a quick interaction. I laughed it off. No way in HELL was I interested in swimming a double North Channel. Hard pass. That water was cold enough and I hadn’t come face to face with a jellyfish yet.
I lasted less than 24 hours.
The next morning, I was laying awake in bed with Ryan and I asked him, “So….. if I wanted to do a double, what would you think?”
Ryan, being used to me by now, affirmed that if I really wanted to do it and we thought it was safe to do so, he’d actually think it was quite fun.
And so I stewed on it.
The weather was not cooperating, so I had plenty of time to think about it.
Maybe. If the weather was perfect. If I could get across in under 12 hours. If I didn’t get stung too much. Maybe. Less than 1% chance. But maybe.
As our second week wore on, with no break from the weather, Andrew and Ranu took a trip to Dublin and Galway. Ryan, mom and I visited the Giant’s Causeway and then took the long way from Northern Ireland to Cork via the Cliffs of Moher to visit friends attending Ned Denison’s Cork Distance week. Our good friend Elaine was there and she had an Airbnb with a few extra beds, so we happily spent a few days down south, before heading back to Donaghadee on Thursday, hoping for a Friday or Saturday swim.
As the days wore on, I was still thinking about the double. Not speaking it to anyone. Just thinking.
Padraig was in touch daily, like clockwork. He was suggesting a small window looked good on Friday, but possibly Saturday, though the last possible day we could all swim was looking best: Sunday.
“If we can’t swim until Sunday, there’s no chance for a double,” I told him on Wednesday, officially voicing my thoughts on the topic.
He told me he’d keep that in mind as the week went on.
On Thursday, he let me know the weather wasn’t playing nice and he felt like a double was going to be impossible. In his gut, he said, it wasn’t the right window to try. I was not disappointed and did not press it.
On Friday, we agreed to meet up to discuss our options. And as we were sitting in the Salty Dog across the street from the Bangor marina, drinking tea and coffee, all of a sudden were making an entirely new swim plan, based on the near-certainty of a double attempt. I know Jacqueline had nothing to do with it. Nothing at all.
Initially, when I pictured a double, I had envisioned that I would start at the same time as Andrew and the other swimmers, and then if it was good, I’d just flip and come back. But, with the weather situation and our flights home, that wasn’t an option.
As Padraig looked at his weather apps and the tides, he saw our opportunity immerge. It would involve a bit of a gamble with the weather, but, it looked like we could start in Scotland on Saturday evening, then swim to Ireland, land when the boys would be taking off, and then have perfect weather for the return trip to Scotland on Sunday.
“I’ll give us 13 hours to get over there. You can’t be slower than 13 hours, but no problem if you’re faster.”
The only concern was the wind. Padraig was worried we’d get to Scotland and the wind would be blowing and gusting too hard to swim safely, but it was our only chance to sneak one in, given our parameters. He wanted to go home and look at it more before we committed, but two hours later, Jacqueline texted:
Here we go….
Day SATURDAY (2 Way) Meet time 1600 hours Start time 1800 hours Vessel ANANTYA Skipper Padraig Infinity Crew Milo ILDSA Ruth and Cara Swimmer Crew Jacqueline, Ryan, Becky
Oh boy. Ready or not.
It felt like I had picked my fate and now all that was left was to play it out and see how it turned out. We’d forced a plan: Would that result in failure? Or would Padraig’s brilliance pay off and give me a chance at the impossible?
I slept surprisingly well Friday night and even managed to nap the next day. In the packing, I realized I’d forgotten my bag of Desitin, Lanolin, gloves and my mouthwash bottle. So, despite a frantic walk to the pharmacy Saturday morning for supplies, everything was going smoothly.
We loaded Anantya quickly on Saturday evening at just past four and motored over to Scotland without incident. It was choppy and windy, but Padraig was happy with the conditions. It wasn’t ideal, but I’ve definitely swum in worse. Besides, choppy waters keep the jellies down.
Padraig pulled me up to Scotland and pointed me to a cliff ledge a few hundred meters away from the boat. I took one look at the waves crashing against the cliff and asked for a better start point. He scanned the shore and found me a tiny sliver of sand to start from.
Mom and I got me greased up, and just after 6 pm, I slid off the back of the boat, and swam toward Scotland.
Whew. Cold. But ok.
I waded out of the water, then quickly raised my arms up over my head and walked right back in and started to swim toward Ireland.
Almost immediately, I started seeing dozens and dozens of jellyfish, floating a few feet below me in the clear blue-green waters. Visibility was great so I could easily dodge suspect stingy things, but the water was choppy, making it hard to get into a good rhythm.
I quickly lost track of time. The night is short that far north, making it feel like I was swimming in a perpetual twilight. At some point we switched my day goggles to a clear pair with my trusty blue light on the back. Immediately, my goggles fogged and try as I might, I could not get them to unfog. My vision would be blurry for the duration.
At one point, I noticed it was near full dark, so I asked what time it was: 11:45 pm.
Jacqueline had said the sun would come up by 3:30, so as the last of the daylight left, I prepared myself for a mere three hours of pitch blackness.
So far, I’d managed to avoid most jellyfish, only hitting a couple of small ones here and there, but in the dark, I was terrified of what would lurk below.
I was also fighting a bit of nausea and was worried about getting sick overnight. My last few ocean swims had been major puke fests and I wasn’t looking forward to another night of freezing and puking, with my new jellyfish buddies.
However, just as the sun set, the wind died down, sooner than Padraig had predicted, and instead of getting sicker as the night went on, I started to feel better. I was sketched out by the currently unseen jellyfish, but happy to not be sick or feeling too terribly cold.
It was intensely scary, but also, somehow, manageable.
I could feel the water pushing me in the right direction. I wasn’t puking. I wasn’t getting horribly stung.
It was ok.
At one point in the night, Ryan yelled down some really great news: “You are swimming really fast, maybe on track for a record!” I scoffed at him- the record is like nine hours and I’d been predicting an 11-13 hour swim, so I brushed him off. About 30 seconds after this news, I put my left elbow straight into my first lion’s mane. Ouch. And a few minutes later, I nailed a second one. Oof.
So, when an hour or so later at another feed stop, Ryan told me that the tide had turned against me a little and that I could back off the pace if I wanted since I was now off the record pace, I was neither surprised or disappointed.
“Don’t worry though, you’re still swimming really, really fast”, he assured me.
I knew the choice in that moment: Push for a record or save energy for a double. I still hadn’t decided what I wanted to do. Part of me wanted to push hard, for an excuse not to turn. But, while I still hadn’t committed mentally to a double, I backed off.
“Save your energy,” I told myself.
I purposely don’t count feeds or try to pay attention to time, so when I started to see a faint lightening of the sky an hour or so later, I knew we were close to 3 am. I was doing the math and knew that if Ryan was right and I was swimming well, I could expect to be landing in Northern Ireland here pretty soon.
It was getting close to decision time.
When we started the swim, I had pictured making the turn in Ireland in full daylight, around 6 am, with a better sense of how I might feel from a cold perspective and a good idea of the impending weather. But, it was still night, and dark, and the idea of turning around to do it again seemed very unappealing. I was hitting a few more jellyfish now in the calmer waters, but at least when the sun came up, I’d be able to see them. Still, I was tired from 9 hours of swimming and the prospect of turning to do it all over again was daunting. It seemed like every 5 minutes, I changed my mind. I’d go through a smooth period and start to feel confident, then I’d hit a jellyfish or a cold patch and do a total 180 on my decision.
And then, before I knew it, Milo turned on a spot light. I could see a sheer cliff up ahead and, in the illumination, hundreds upon hundreds of jellyfish. Some were harmless moon jellies, but suddenly I was seeing more and more massive lion’s mane. Milo would find one in my path and wave the spotlight on it so I could avoid a direct hit.
My nerves were frazzled and my adrenaline was pumping at an all time high. Padraig gave me direction at my last feed to swim to the cliff and touch it, then turn around and swim back to the boat. There would be no beach to walk onto. Just as well, since I knew I’d never start swimming again if I had the chance to get out of the water.
I slowly, slowly picked my way toward the cliff, dodging jellyfish, heart racing. The water was calm, so I wasn’t afraid of a rock bashing, but the swarms of jellyfish had me near tears. I touched the coast of Ireland with one finger and turned and swam as fast as I could back to the boat.
Lap one was complete.
And I did not want to continue. Yet, I also didn’t want to quit. I was completely, and utterly, indecisive.
I was tired, but I’d just finished lap one in ten hours and four minutes, shockingly fast. During my brief break at the boat, Ryan fed me some soupy oatmeal and the team encouraged me to keep going. Padraig told me that the weather for the rest of the day was calm, so the return journey would be flat water, in the day time. They could see I did not want to swim, but no one asked me if I wanted to get out. Ryan is experienced in hard turns and while he didn’t force me or manipulate me, he did handle me perfectly.
If I got out now, I reasoned, that would have meant I swam the North Channel the hard way, braving the pitch black for no reason at all.
And then, Elaine’s words came to me from my English Channel Four Way: We don’t make decisions in the dark.
While it was slightly light at 4 am, it was still, technically, night time.
Might as well turn around and see what happened on the way back. There wasn’t anything saying I couldn’t get out later if I wanted to.
So with heavy arms and major doubts, I put my goggles back on and turned, back toward Scotland.
The daylight didn’t provide quite the relief I had hoped. With the light, I could see the lion’s manes, now on the surface. My entire crew lined the side of Anantya, Milo with a whistle at the ready. And for the most part, they were able to guide me around the biggest road blocks. I still managed a few direct hits, but nothing crazy. Frazzled, I could see giants floating beside me, living up to the lore.
As I swam, I was mainly feeling less than enthused. At a feed stop not too far into the return trip, I asked how long I’d been swimming back for.
Jacqueline’s reply: 3.5 hours.
“I dunno guys, I’m not feeling all that great.”
Ryan, always calm, “What can I do for you?”
“I’m not sure anything will help.”
“How about we try some warm feeds- that might make a difference”, Ryan said.
“I dunno. Sure. I guess.”
“Let’s just give it another half an hour and see how you feel.”
I spent the next 30 minutes writing my Facebook post about how I gave it my all, but at the end of the day, I felt like it was the best choice to get out (which is totally fine, btw). I was shivering as I swam, had received dozens of stings, and really felt like being warm and dry. I’d spent nearly 15 hours in the North Channel and felt like I’d proven my worth more than enough. I was at peace with quitting. I had nothing to prove.
Yet, I still couldn’t find the words, “I want to get out now.”
So, I did another warm feed, still questioning if I should keep going. I knew I was on the edge of hypothermia and exhaustion. Padraig came out and reassured me that they had my back- which I took to mean that I could swim myself silly and he or Milo would be happy to jump in and rescue me in a second if I needed it. It was oddly comforting.
About an hour later, with two rounds of warm feeds in me, Padraig poked his head out again, “Hey, your speed is back up! Whatever you did is working! Keep up the good work!”
And, somewhat shockingly, I realized, I DID feel better. I was still cold and tired, but I wasn’t shaking as much. My grumpy patch had faded and I was swimming relatively comfortably again.
And Ryan with the reassurance, again, “I know you don’t feel great, but you’re still swimming like 3 miles an hour. You’re really close to halfway back already.”
That seemed too good to be true, so I shot back, “Yeah, but the Sea giveth, and the Sea taketh away.” Just because I was flying high on a tide at the moment did not mean that I’d be flying with the current the entire way back to Scotland, though an 8 or 9 hour lap two sounded highly appealing, if entirely unrealistic.
I never get too upset or too excited on a swim- so while my crew was encouraging about speed and the time it would take to finish, I kept in mind that it could always change. Keep it neutral, is my motto.
So, when after an afternoon of plugging away consistently, seeing Scotland looming closer and closer, when the coast suddenly STOPPED getting closer, I wasn’t overly upset at the news from Padraig:
We were stuck in a current. I’d been there about an hour already and they were hopeful it would break soon, but they weren’t sure exactly when. But, once it broke, we’d be able to slip into Scotland no problem.
I spent the next hour trapped on a treadmill. I could tell I was so close to Scotland, but no amount of effort moved it any closer. So, I went on autopilot. The water had warmed up a touch and the sun came out, pushing the jellyfish lower in the water. For the first time in the entire swim, I was content. I knew we were going to make it. I was happy to just swim.
I spent 30 minutes, begging the ocean, in my head, with all my might, “Please break, please break, please break.”
And then Padraig was yelling: The tide broke! Swim into Scotland!
The tide had changed, mostly, yet the final two miles were taking forever. Still, I could see progress. Yes, I was breaking all the rules and looking ahead every so often. I needed the reassurance. At a feed stop, I looked ahead and then up at Ryan and Jacqueline: The coast was SO CLOSE.
“Is this my last feed?”
Jacqueline grinned, “Yes, it’s your last one.”
And I put my face down and swam for shore. A few minutes later, I could feel the water pushing against me again.
“NOOOOO,” I screamed (in my head). So, I picked up my pace and started begging the ocean again, “Please let me through, please let me through.” What I thought would take half an hour took closer to an hour, yet, inch by inch, I arrived in Scotland.
At one point, I could tell the water was getting more and more shallow, though I was still fairly far off the coast. But, then, all of a sudden, I could see the bottom of a very sandy, friendly beach.
Anantya dropped back, leaving me to the final few hundred meters to shore. I swam in farther than I needed before dropping my feet to the ground, standing up for the first time in nearly a day.
Slowly, wobbly, I waded my way out of the North Channel.
Lap 1 had taken 10 hours and 4 minutes.
Lap 2 had taken 11 hours and 42 minutes.
Total time in the North Channel: 21 hours, 46 minutes and 58 seconds
And the first ever two-way North Channel was done.
I’m not gonna lie. The jellyfish stings after I got out were horrifically painful and I spent about 8 hours in a panic about how terrible my flight home the next day was going to be. However, after several scalding hot showers, some Claritin, some Pepcid, and some Benadryl, the burns and weeping were manageable. By the time my flight left the next day, I was somewhat itchy, but 99% comfortable. Truly, I’d take the stings over again for the chance to finish this swim.
With a few days and a few thousand miles between me and the North Channel, I can honestly look back and say: I am grateful for this swim and what it taught me.
I have spent nearly a decade being terrified of this this swim, that ocean, these jellyfish. And now, having put it behind me, I can truly appreciate the beauty.
I experienced all of the worst that Craig did- the stings, the cold, the currents. But, I also experienced the beauty that Caroline sees. The stunningly clear water, filled with living creatures. The striking landscape of both Northern Ireland and Scotland. The warmth and friendliness of the people. It is a special place and I understand why people want to swim it. And it’s a reminder to always respect the ocean.
Every marathon swim is a team effort, and this one felt even more so. I wasn’t convinced I had it in me to do this swim. I hadn’t even really thought about it until a week before we did it. I hadn’t packed enough CarboPro, so I had to lessen my feeds to make sure I had enough for a 24-hour swim. Seriously, if the swim had gone over 24 hours, it would have been cookies and M&Ms until the finish.
Yet, it seems everyone else around me believed in me, more than I believed in myself.
Since I announced I was going to the North Channel, the first question everyone has asked, “For a double?” I couldn’t even conceive of it.
Yet, sitting on a boat, with family and new friends, joking about something I hadn’t even dreamed of, it suddenly seemed possible and within my grasp.
“We love a good adventure,” Jacqueline had said.
And, then, when the weather wasn’t ideal, Padraig worked hard to think outside the box and create a swim plan from nothing, at the last minute.
In the blink of an eye, everything seemed to come together, for one special moment (eerr… one special day) in the North Irish Sea.
Swims like this take magic, and we certainly found our share of magic.
I should probably have started with my thanks, but here we are, the best for last.
To my new friends the Chunky Dunkers and Martin: Thanks for making the North Irish Sea as warm as humanly possible and letting me share a part of your history.
To Andrew and Ranu, my new Australian friends: Thanks for keeping me company and sane while we waited together. You’re both swim family now, whether you like it or not. I couldn’t have been more thrilled to share the water with you, Andrew, and to have had a chance to cheer you along.
To Cara and Ruth: Thank you for the cheers and songs and jellyfish guidance. I can’t remember which one of you assured me that the moon jellies I was seeing wouldn’t hurt me, but thank you for your calm in a moment of panic. I’m so glad you were both there.
To Milo: God bless your whistle and reassurance in the worst of the jellyfish.
To my momma, who begged her way onto the boat in such a persistent way I could never say no to: I love that you’re willing to be sick to come and help me achieve my goals. There is no better cheerleader on the planet and no one can give me an emotional boost the way you do. I’m so glad you want to be a part of these adventures, even if they require peeing in a bucket.
To Padraig: You are one of the finest pilots I’ve ever worked with (and there have been some good ones). It’s so much easier to swim knowing the person at the helm has everything under control and believes in you, too.
To Ryan, who puts up with FAR more than any man should have to, in the pursuit of my dreams and goals: Thank you for being by my side every step of the way. For letting me do another ice mile (when I’d said never again), all for the cold training. For driving me all over Colorado this last month to find cold water. For saying “yes” when I asked if he thought I could do it. For always knowing what I need and what to say to me during a swim to keep me going. For the warm feeds and the Advil when I don’t ask. For being nervous and scared and putting his fears aside to let me swim. I love you and know I couldn’t do this without you on the boat.
And, finally, to Jacqueline: No part of this swim would have ever happened without you. It was such a joy to meet you and to have you cheering and encouraging me every stroke of the way. I think this swim was more for you than for me in a lot of ways, so I hope I did you proud. It was an honor to swim with you and Infinity. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for this swim.
I have two reasons for this: First, I genuinely respect and value all people, regardless of beliefs, whether you agree with me or not. I think knowing and caring about people of differing opinions and backgrounds and ways of thinking is what adds color to our lives and helps us to grow as humans. I believe it’s important to be open to another’s way of life and to understand their perspective. You never know what you might learn when you really see and hear people, without judgment, and how that can change your life.
Second, I think we all come to the water to find peace and comfort and I prefer to provide joy and strength to those around me, to the best of my ability. The water isn’t a place for politics or religion or discrimination; we’re all the same when we’re floating, free in the water, grinning up at the sky above and the fish below. I don’t believe it’s my place to blast you with my personal beliefs.
But sometimes, something is so black and white or right and wrong that I can’t bite my tongue. Today is one of those days. My friends know I am vocally outspoken about things I care about, and as a woman, how could I not care about what happened in our country today?
I’ve had a few months to think about this, since we already knew that the Supreme Court was set to overturn Roe v Wade (and Planned Parenthood v Casey). I feel strongly that in this instance it is important to make my stance known.
Once upon a time, I likely would have celebrated today’s court decision. I grew up in a conservative town in Texas, where we put crosses on the church lawn to represent murdered babies and where they showed us pictures of aborted fetuses in jars in Sunday school. My 5th grade math teacher told us Bill Clinton was a baby murderer.
But, I’ve grown. I’ve lived some life. I’ve seen, firsthand, what a right to choose can do for people. I’ve seen forced pregnancies ruin lives. I’ve also seen people choose life and have watched beautiful babies grow up into amazing humans.
And I don’t believe I have any right to make that decision for anyone. I’m not living their life and I don’t know what they can and can’t bear, emotionally or physically. And our politicians shouldn’t have the right to decide that, either.
I have two very personal stories to share.
First, over a decade ago and several jobs ago, I had an employee who was having attendance issues. She was a great worker, who everyone enjoyed, but she was frequently late and was racking up the call-offs. Her manager was frustrated and as I was in HR at the time, I set up a meeting with the employee. As I always did, I framed the meeting asking questions, basically saying: “Help me to understand why you’re having attendance issues. Tell me how I can help you.” I’m not sure that’s how she expected the conversation to go (HR people have a bad rap, after all), so after tentatively testing me out, she opened up to me and shared her story.
She was a young, married, Christian mother of five children. Her husband was an abusive alcoholic. She was doing her very best, but he was of no help getting her children ready for the day and off to school/daycare so she could come to work. She was basically working a minimum wage job, providing for the bulk of her family’s income. She feared for the well-being of herself and her children if she left her husband. She both wanted and needed to work, but had no support at home to make it happen. She knew her attendance was an issue and was debating just quitting.
As we chatted, she began to sob. She’d just found out she was pregnant again, not by her choice, and she had no idea how she’d be able to support another child and continue to work. She was scared.
First, I gave her the contact info for our company’s free counseling services, which she could access confidentially. And then we talked about what her options were. Yes, she’d like to have an abortion, but she didn’t know how to start. Among other things, she was afraid of losing her job for taking time off work for the procedure. I gave her the phone number for her local Planned Parenthood, and cried with her when I assured her we would support her in whatever choice she made, however I could.
I was holding her hand when, a few days later, she called to make an appointment.
I helped her arrange for approved leave from work, so she could have time to recover. She had enough to worry about without stressing about work, too. I can’t describe the look of relief she had, knowing she’d found some support. I could see the exhaustion and sadness on her face.
I am proud I was able to help a woman who desperately needed assistance in understanding her options and to assure her that there were people who cared about her and her well-being. I’ve lost touch with her over the years, but I hope she knows I think of her often and pray that she is safe and well.
If we lived in Texas, I wouldn’t have been able to help her. My heart aches to think about the women who no longer will get the help, care, and love they deserve when battling through the unthinkable.
My second story.
As I’ve shared openly, a little over a year ago, I suffered an ectopic pregnancy. This was a pregnancy we most definitely wanted and to have it end abruptly and traumatically was heartbreaking and life-changing. I’m not sure I have fully recovered from it just yet.
After lots of rounds of blood work and ultrasounds to confirm what we already knew, I made the decision with my doctors and Ryan to terminate the pregnancy through the use of methotrexate. Officially, I had a medically-induced abortion. Had we not caught it and been able to treat it, I would have ended up with internal bleeding and a dangerous, emergency surgery that would have resulted in the loss of an ovary and potentially the inability to conceive in the future.
Ectopic pregnancies are not viable- to have let the pregnancy continue naturally, without intervention, would have put my life at risk. This is science.
I could have died without the intervention of my medical team.
And yet, there are laws on the books in some states that would outlaw the procedure I had done. Politicians don’t understand what an ectopic pregnancy is, mistakenly thinking that my “baby” could have been removed from my ovary, where it had incorrectly implanted, and placed safely into my uterus. Trust me, if that was an option, I would have done it. But, it doesn’t work that way.
Overturning Roe v Wade takes the decisions for situations like this away from us, our partners and our doctors, and puts the power into the hands of politicians who can’t possibly understand the nuances of pregnancy and loss while they sit in fancy rooms and debate other peoples’ morals, legislating the complicated miracle that is pregnancy.
The people making these laws will never suffer the consequences of them.
Overturning Roe v Wade is a danger to all of us- from the low-income women who have no support to those of us who have the knowledge and privilege to make use of our medical teams. There are now laws going into effect all over the country that will make it dangerous, confusing and complicated for women to receive the medical treatment and support they need. My heart is breaking for the people in states who need and want abortions and who no longer have options or means to obtain one.
For 50 years, we’ve had a right to choose what happens to our bodies and to make those choices with our loved ones and medical teams. That right is now obliterated.
I’m grateful to live in a state that still protects my rights, but this new ruling is forcing many people in other states back decades. And what’s to stop a change in leadership in other states from doing the same?
We live in a country with access to quality medical care, and now, many people will not be allowed to access that care.
I’m scared to see the consequences of this decision.
I am heartbroken. I am outraged. I am not surprised.
And I’m writing today to urge all of you to please, please vote. Call your representatives in Congress, locally and nationally, and express your outrage. Vote for people who will protect women and our right to choose. Vote for people who won’t overturn our right to contraception (see Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion). Vote for people who will protect the Human Rights of not only women, but our LGBTQ+ friends and family, whose rights are also being questioned. Vote for people with good intentions. If the Supreme Court won’t protect us, we need people in other places of power who will help.
Do not stay silent.
And if anyone needs someone to hold your hand, cry with you, and help you figure out options, I am here for you. I love you.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of decades.
Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, I thought I was doing my part: I ran in the Denver Race for the Cure pretty regularly for several years (even organizing large groups a few times through work), donned pink attire at work events, and blasted things on social media like “Save the Tatas” or reminders to do your self exams. One year at a Race for the Cure event, my friend and I stayed to watch the post-run celebration, where survivors were recognized in groups by their number of years post cancer. I remember crying alongside my friend at the emotion of all of the women who had been impacted, and cheering wildly with the crowd for the ones who been cancer-free for 10 years and on up.
But even then, breast cancer awareness was a remote, abstract idea- something to promote, cheerfully raise money for, and assume would never happen to me. I could do an event once a year and rock the fun t-shirt and feel like I was making a difference.
And I’m not saying that any of that is bad or that it didn’t matter, because it certainly helped. However, from the lens of a survivor, it’s just different now.
I found my lump in October 2017, at the height of Breast Cancer awareness month. Not because I was doing a monthly self-exam like I should or because “I ❤ Boobies”, but because it happened to be in a really obvious place and I simply brushed up against it. It didn’t hurt, but when it didn’t go away after a few days, I knew something was wrong. My PCP took the issue seriously, despite my young age and no family history, and got me the care I needed. I was lucky.
I finished my cancer treatment at the end of August 2018. That October was my first experience of “Pinktober” from a different perspective. I was still tired from treatment, definitely depressed, and not ready to face the trauma of what had just happened to me. The constant messages from well-meaning people congratulating me on my survivorship hurt. I was still struggling with my new body and trying to come to terms with the fact that while treatment was over, I now had to learn to live again. It’s a hard transition. Just because treatment is over doesn’t mean you’re done dealing with it. Not even close.
In October 2019, I was just coming off my Four Way English Channel swim. Good Morning America, with Strahan, Sara and Keke had me on to kick off their Breast Cancer Awareness month. The studio was filled with pink and the girls were decked out in pink attire. It was huge honor to be on the show, but underneath the whirlwind of fun and excitement, it was just… hard. I couldn’t quite figure out why, I just knew that I was “supposed” to be celebrating and helping to raise awareness, but my heart wasn’t there.
It wasn’t until last year, 2020, two full years out of treatment, that I think I was finally far enough removed to truly understand: My perspective had switched and October has truly taken on a different feel for me. It no longer feels like a celebration to raise awareness, but instead, this huge burden to shoulder.
As a survivor, people look to you to put on a brave face, to be the voice saying “look what happens when treatment works!” They expect a positive, grateful attitude, with a fierce battle cry, “Stop the war on my rack!”
I always want to lend my voice to breast cancer awareness- it’s a huge issue that impacts thousands of women. The American Cancer Society estimates that over 280,000 women will be newly diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021. It’s the second most common type of cancer among women (behind skin cancer) and the second mostly deadly cancer in women (behind lung cancer). Clearly, more research is needed. One in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, and those numbers are on the rise. We need help.
I want my voice heard. But, I want it heard year-round, not just in October, when it’s my “designated time.” And no longer are the cries to “Save Second Base” funny and cute. They are a painful reminder that we didn’t save second base for me, except for an artificially recreated breast that causes me pain and discomfort daily.
The pink washing is hard to handle. It’s all cute and girly and fluffy, with reminders to “fight like a girl”. I’m not that girly, cancer is dark, and I have moved away from battle-like language when it comes to cancer diagnoses and treatment (that’s another rant for another day). And guess what, men get breast cancer, too.
Breast cancer isn’t a month-long event for me. It’s a year-long, every minute of every day ordeal that often leaves me sad and frustrated, even now. Seen me swim lately? That fake breast is still altering my shoulder muscles and is so tight I can’t make my normal arm motion, causing me to slap at the water, which is starting to create a good amount of shoulder pain. (We’re working on fixing this, but it’s going to take some work!) I get cramps in my ribs after a long swim session. I have mild lymphedema, so shirts fit differently on my right side than on my left. I’m limited in bras and tops and dresses that I want to wear- so many things are now are either uncomfortable or make me feel awkward and self-conscious.
And I don’t like to complain: That’s all mild compared to what other women go through.
Breast cancer treatment is traumatic. It’s long, seemingly never-ending, and full of painful discomfort. For me, it was five months of chemo, two major surgeries with extended recovery time, and five weeks of radiation. And months of physical and emotional recovery after that. Treatment takes your hair. It takes your breasts. It changes nearly every aspect of your body, on the inside and out. For many younger patients, it takes or severely impacts our ability to have children. It’s a brutal monster- and no matter who you are or how positive you try to be, it will break you.
Breast cancer is not cute. It’s not a funny, clever slogan. It’s my everyday life. And it makes me sick when I think about others going through any of the things I had to go through. It’s not fair to any of us. No one deserves it.
So while I am always appreciative of awareness and fundraising for something that is deeply personal, it’s still hard to face October. It’s hard to see the smiles and pink confetti over something that caused me so many tears and so much pain. It’s triggering to see photos of other survivors and their scars. It’s hard to be recognized as a survivor, when thousands of women, especially minorities and those in underserved communities, are still dying or dealing with metastatic breast cancer at higher rates. It’s hard to have a whole month that is constantly reminding me that my cancer could return, or could still impact my mother, my aunts, my sisters, my friends.
I struggle every day with my cancer diagnosis and October’s cries to “save a life, grope your wife” ring shallow and frustrating. Breast cancer patients and survivors need your love every month. We need your donations to research all year long.
Yes, please go on with your Breast Cancer Awareness celebrations and t-shirts and pink boas. We need that and I AM grateful. But, as much as we need your help, it hurts some of us, too. Please don’t be offended if I don’t take part in your races or celebrations, if I back off, or skip liking your Facebook posts and Instagram stories. It’s a hard journey and we all handle it differently.
Just know, I love and appreciate your support in October, but I’ll be here in November, still praying for a cure.
I was just about two hours into my swim across Monterey Bay, and the conditions were perfect, with a positive forecast for the rest of the night. I was feeling strong and optimistic that I’d be able to finish off a swim that has intimidated me for years. A stray thought floated through my mind, “I wonder what this swim will teach me?”
This Monterey Bay swim is a 25-mile route that goes across the mouth of Monterey Bay, just south of San Francisco. It’s generally swum from the North to the South, starting at Twin Lakes Sate Beach in Santa Cruz and finishing at San Carlos Beach in Monterey Harbor. It’s only been swum a handful of times- I was aiming to be the 10th person when I set out- and it’s on the MSF Toughest Thirteen list. It’s known for being cold, with water temperatures well below 60F/15C, and for being filled will all types of wildlife- sharks, whales, and jellyfish.
The first time I’d heard of this swim was when Amy Gubser made a successful crossing in 2017. All I knew at that time was that very few had made the crossing, and they were all cold-water tough women. Amy was the fourth person to complete the swim, following Cindy Cleveland who pioneered the route in 1980, then Patti Bauernfeind and Kim Rutherford (who did it South to North!) in 2014.
I didn’t give the swim much more thought after Amy’s crossing until Robin Rose crewed my Round Trip Angel Island swim in June of 2019. She suggested the swim to me and I was intrigued, initially thinking it might be a good training swim for the Four Way. But, with conflicts between my training schedule and pilot’s schedules, I put it aside. Between now and 2019, Joe and John Zematitis, Catherine Breed, Sarah Roberts and Brad Schindler all made their way across the Bay, adding to the body of knowledge around the swim and reinforcing the assumption: This is a beast of a swim.
I didn’t start off 2021 with any swims planned, beyond END-WET in June, where I was scheduled as the guest speaker/swimmer. The opportunity to swim the Molokai/Kaiwi Channel in Hawaii fell into my lap in February. I’d planned to kayak SCAR for a friend in April, but when he cancelled, I decided to swim it myself. But that schedule left me with nothing to plan for past June. I was scheduled to crew two Lake Tahoe crossings in August and an English Channel in early September, but there wasn’t anything really big planned for me. While I still had Monterey on my mind, the concerns over jellyfish and cold water deterred me. However, the second Robin heard I was considering it again, she kept poking at me to commit. Robin’s efforts, combined with constant nudging from Fast Mike, eventually made me relent and reach out to get a date scheduled. Because my August and September travel was nuts, we had a small window to fit it in. Fortunately, the Monterey Bay Swimming Association had some availability just after my two weeks in Austria/England and just before a scheduled work trip to San Antonio.
And so the plan was made. I told Ryan we were going, bought some plane tickets and started training.
I upped my yardage and dusted off the ice bath tub (which had been retired since I needed it for Loch Ness training in 2015). I hadn’t done much cold water acclimatization this spring- our lakes don’t open until April and at that time, I was focused on SCAR. After SCAR, I was sick for most of May and focused on getting ready for END-WET. And by June, things really start to heat up. Have I mentioned I hate ice baths? I’m not 100% sure they help much, but the coldest water I had access to in Colorado in July and August was a small lake at 10,800 feet about an hour away. But even then, it was just barely sitting at about 58-60F/14-15C and I could only get there once a week. Ice baths would have to do.
When I took off for Austria on August 30, I was three weeks away from my planned swim start. I don’t recommend international travel as an ideal taper regime, but I was resolved to do the best I could, finding swimming time in the hotel pool in Austria to go along with the beautiful lake Worthersee, and then some longer sessions in Dover Harbor and Folkstone when I arrived in England. After a fun two weeks away, I landed back home on a Saturday night, exactly one week until we left again for California. I was jet lagged and stiff. My first few swims back home were a little rough. But, I did a hard, high intensity shake out swim with Mike on Tuesday and felt better for it.
On Saturday afternoon, we flew to San Francisco. We stayed Saturday night in the city, meeting up with a few friends on Sunday for a quick dip in Aquatic Park. I’ve only ever really swum there in the winter and was shocked at how pleasant the swimming was. Slightly colder than the salt water of Dover, but with the sun shining off the sky scrapers and the Ghirardelli sign, it was glorious. Sunday afternoon, I begged Ryan to play tourist with me, so we went to visit the Golden Gate Bridge before driving down Highway 1 toward Santa Cruz.
Robin set us up at her family’s beach house and we slept very soundly on Sunday night. I woke up Monday at 7 am to start work. I worked all day Monday and signed off at around 4 pm, just in time for a quick nap before the swim. Ryan and Robin were amazing getting groceries and supplies for the swim while I worked/relaxed/hydrated.
The plan was to meet around 7 pm, load the boat, grease up, and then start the swim at 8 pm. We’d originally planned to do the swim on Sunday night, but the weather forecast delayed us by a night. Monday night’s forecast was positive and the vibe loading up and during the pre-swim prep was very positive. I was hoping for a 12-13 hour swim, but was prepared for longer, because, you know, the ocean is boss.
We met at the marina behind the Crows Nest restaurant in Santa Cruz, where a few members of the Monterey Bay Swimming Association came to say hello and see me off. We also met our pilot, Greg, for the first time. As official observer, Robin read the swim rules, and then, just as it was getting dark, it was time to get ready. I had Ryan put a ton of Safe Sea sunscreen all over me. I’d never used it before, but they claim to help repel jellyfish stings, so I figured it would be worth a try. Optimistically, I had Ryan put Desitin on my back, only in the spots I couldn’t reach. With an 8 pm start and a goal time of 13ish hours, I was hopeful I wouldn’t need a full body covering of Desitin (I do hate the stuff). I told the crew that if we were going to finish much after 11 am to stop me and I’d finish the Desitin job from the water to cover my face and arms if needed. We finished with a healthy coat of lanolin in my chafing hot spots: under my arms and along my swim suit straps.
I was nervous, but was as ready as I was going to get.
Kim Rutherford and Scott Tapley then walked me (in my swim suit, cap, goggles, and flip flops) from the marina to the beach starting point. Ryan, Robin, Evan Morrison (as 2nd observer), and Greg took the boat out and around and waited for me offshore.
It was fairly dark at this point and we attracted a small crowd as I made final preparations to swim. My boat was floating a little off shore and the full moon was rising. The surf was mild and the wind was fairly calm. I gave my goggles a dip in the ocean and lick to prevent fogging, and let Scott know I was ready. He radioed the boat and I took off into the night.
Surprisingly, the water felt warm; much warmer than expected. I guessed it was right at 60F or just a touch above. Good news. However, almost immediately, my goggles blurred and I had a hard time finding the boat in the waves. I felt my heart rate rise a little, but a few quick strokes of breaststroke to clear my goggles and get my bearings and I was fine. I hit a few small pieces of kelp in the darkness and felt my heart rate jump again. But it was short-lived and soon enough I met the boat. As I swam up to them, I picked up my head to make sure they were all good and set to swim. When they replied back positively and clearly, I realized I’d forgotten to put in my ear plugs. Oops. I decided to let it go- it IS nice to hear everyone without shouting.
I fell in line next to the boat: The boat on my right, the rising moon just ahead to my left. It was a full moon and it was so bright I could see the boat very clearly. I was immediately grateful for the brightness and comfort of the moon. Several times through the night, I told the moon I loved her.
I always do my first feed at one hour. And the first hour always takes forever. Eventually, in what was probably the longest hour of my life, Ryan threw out my first feed bottle.
And right away, I knew we were going to have some trouble. I sipped my feed, cautiously: It didn’t taste good and I could tell I was somewhat nauseous already. Not a good sign.
At an hour and a half, I asked how my pace was and was told I was doing great. I was still feeling nauseous, but it was minimal, so I took a small amount of my feed and kept up the pace, hopeful things would settle soon.
I still said nothing and kept swimming. My arms felt strong, I wasn’t cold, and so far no jellyfish were coming out to play. The conditions were ideal- very little wind and minimal swells, with that huge moon shining down. I focused on breathing to the right, to see the boat, and to the left, to see the shoreline, counting all the things that were going well, ignoring the growing nausea.
At around hour 2, I could see huge moon jellyfish floating underneath me, glowing in the moonlight. I’d been given a quick tutorial in the types of jellyfish I’d expect to see: Moon jellies and ones that looked like broken egg yolks likely wouldn’t sting. The sea nettles, however, I was told, were nasty and I should avoid them if possible. After snuggling up with a few giant jellyfish that didn’t hurt anything, I knew what the moon jellies looked/felt like and they didn’t scare me.
I did take three jellyfish stings at about 3 hours into the swim, pretty close together in time- I didn’t see or feel them, other than the blast of pain, so I have no idea what they were. Fortunately, something in my combo of Safe Sea and the Claritin/Pepcid cocktail I’d been taking kept the stings from hurting too much. They lit me up for about 2 minutes, and then I didn’t think about them (until I got out of the water and saw the raw marks). Because the pain was manageable, I actually started to feel more confident. The jellyfish had been my biggest fear going into the swim, and I’d managed 3 stings just fine so far- so my worries subsided a little.
Three hours into the swim I was feeling optimistic. Conditions were great, I wasn’t especially cold, and the jellies weren’t too troublesome. As long as I could push down the nausea, we were going to have an amazing swim.
I knew that the wind was predicted to pick up overnight and that it was going in the opposite direction of the current/swells, which was likely to make some tall waves, especially as we swam over the Soquel Canyon. I’d hoped to start strong, then be able to back off if things got rough in the middle, then pick it up at the end for a strong finish time.
I also knew the temperature must be dropping because Ryan kept asking me if I wanted a warm feed. I was resolved to hold out on the warm stuff as long as possible, knowing I’d need a boost around 3 am like I always do. After the 3rd or 4th request, I snapped up at him, “I’ll ask for it when I’m ready for it.” I felt bad at the direct communication- but apparently the boat crew thought it was hilarious.
Around midnight the nausea was just getting worse and I was facing the realization that we were in for a rough, rough night. I held off on vomiting as long as I could. Sometimes, you know a good puke will make you feel better, so you just let it go and feel better. But, this felt like Molokai all over- and I knew as soon as I started to puke, I was going to puke until the sun came up.
Vomiting on swims is a fairly new experience for me, but fortunately I’ve learned a lot in a short amount of time. In both Molokai and the Four Way, I threw up pretty consistently for about 6 hours. Molokai was a little better than the English Channel- I was able to go about an hour between vomit sessions overnight. But in both cases, as soon as the sun came up, I was able to throw down some M&Ms and my regular feeds and then get back on top of nutrition and hydration rather quickly.
Monterey proved to be an entirely different animal.
The waves picked up as we approached 1 am- And they were choppy monsters, not friendly rollers. The waves were coming from the west, while the wind pushed out from the east, creating 6 foot peaks in the waves. The wind built until it felt like it was blowing sustained 10-15 miles an hour most of the night. That meant I could no longer breathe to my left to see the shoreline/horizon without getting a face full of water and risking swallowing salt water. I had to resolve to breathing to my preferred right, but all I could see was the boat being tossed around like a toy in the waves. I was concerned the boat captain would declare the conditions too rough to continue (please, please, please, please!), but every 30 minutes, my feeds kept coming down.
By the time we hit midnight, I could tell my arms were getting a little more tired than I’d like and I knew a puke-fest was imminent. I had originally asked for a dose of Advil at hour 5 (1 am), but knew as soon as I tasted it I’d puke, so I pre-emptively refused it. I’d have to do without on this swim.
I made it until about 1 am until I puked the first time. And, as predicted, I didn’t feel better. I asked for a warm feed next- if I wasn’t going to drink it, maybe I could at least hold it in my hands and pretend it was warming me up? And from then on out, every 30 minutes I would throw up. Generally, I would sip straight warm water, throw it up, start swimming while I was still choking and dry heaving, feel ok for about 15 minutes, then start to feel sick knowing the next feed was coming. I was tempted to skip feeds and refuse everything, but I knew I had to at least keep trying to get something down. According to the observer log, I had a few long, sustained puke sessions around 3:30 and 4:00 am, where it was impossible to believe I had anything left to puke up. When things go wrong, I purposely try to lose track of time and just go into the pain cave so I can mentally block it all out. At some point, I remember asking for the time, thinking it was still like 2 or 3 am, and was relieved it was already just after 4 am.
“Two more hours until daylight. I can do this for 2 more hours,” I told myself, before heading back into my cave.
As 6 am approached, the sun was starting to rise and I could tell the wind was dying down a touch. But, I was still really, really sick. Ryan was offering me my favorite M&Ms, but I kept saying “no, not yet.”
At 7 am, we tried a hot chocolate feed. I’d never tried that on a swim before, but it sounded good and I knew we had some. I took a few, careful sips, and for the first time in 6 hours I didn’t vomit immediately. The calorie intake was minimal, but at least it was something. We did it again at 7:30 and I bravely took a bigger gulp. And immediately it came back up. At 8, we put my daytime goggles on and I took another hot chocolate feed. It stayed down.
With the sun, I was starting to feel better and was making an effort to pick up my pace. Confidently, I asked for warm water and some Chewy Chips Ahoy cookies (which I always have on hand for every swim, because delicious!) on my next feed. I managed to sip hot water and chew 2 cookies. I still felt sick, but thankfully, they stayed down- my first true calories in nearly 8 hours. Unfortunately, I puked on my next feed.
Eventually, I quit asking for things and whatever Ryan sent down, I’d try. Small sips of hot chocolate here and there, some water next- anything to keep from puking. By the time we got to 10 am, I was feeling much better and could see land to my left. I knew we had to swim down the coast a touch before reaching the landing spot, but couldn’t remember how far it was. I was refusing to ask, just focusing on the task at hand: Try to drink something, move arms in circles, don’t puke.
I should admit some disappointment here. I had been promised a beautiful swim in really fun water. I’d been looking forward to sunrise so I could really see some things. In Molokai, off the coast of Oahu, I was treated to hundreds of fish swimming below me, birds soaring above and beautiful, clear water. All during the night, I could tell the water was clear- I could see things floating by in the moonlight. But, with the dawn, all I could see was brown, murky water, and endless, calm rolling waves. I nailed a few more moon jellyfish and saw something swimming below me that was apparently a sea lion who popped up a few meters behind me. But otherwise, there was nothing except brown sea water and my crew bobbing along next to me. They assured me I was picking up the pace in the improved conditions and that we were getting there, but I knew we still had a ways to go.
At 10 or 10:30ish, I finally gave in and asked for the distance. I was told we had about 2.4 nautical miles left. I laughed to myself: In normal times, I could probably bust out 2.4 miles in under an hour. “How long will it take me now?” I wondered, trying to guess. I told myself it was going to take 2 hours, prepping for the worst.
At 11, I asked for a regular Carbo Pro/Nuun feed at half strength. I managed to get it down ok, and then was shockingly told it was my last feed. I had no real idea what time it was and didn’t hardly believe we were that close, but hey, they wouldn’t lie to me. I had to make a work call at 1 pm, and judging by the location of the sun, I knew it wasn’t that late, so I was happy to soak in the last 30 minutes of a miserable swim.
And sure enough, before long, there was the sea wall. Patti Bauernfeind (the 2nd person to complete this swim!) came to meet me a little way off the shore to guide me in. She gave me some directions for swimming in safely and avoiding the kelp. Fortunately, the surf was pretty mild and we waded up onto the beach together.
15 hours, 39 minutes.
We landed just after 11:30 am, nearly 2-3 hours longer than I had hoped. Though, I had packed 21 hours’ worth of feeds to be safe, so I was prepared for longer. And a finish is a finish!
I was told on this swim, you either get wind or jellyfish. I definitely got the wind. Sorta wish I’d had the jellies instead.
There was a handful of folks there to cheer me in, which is always nice. I showed off my very swollen salt tongue- I’d been so sick, I hadn’t had the energy to try and use my mouthwash after the first couple of hours. And the minty smell wasn’t helping the nausea anyway. Kim Rutherford was there with a towel and my flip flops. After a few minutes of chit chat and regaining my land legs, she bustled me off to the shower, where she fed it a lot of quarters and let me stand under the delightfully warm, non-salty water. She scrubbed the Desitin off my back with Dawn dish soap and we chatted, trading war stories about the brutality of this swim.
When I emerged from the shower for a team photo, I already felt pretty well recovered. Greg told me later that he was shocked at my quick recovery, from how sick I was in the water to being totally fine now that we were back on land. Lisa Amorao and her dog Prim were on hand and presented me with the most delicious sandwich of my life. After puking for the entire night and most of the morning, it was glorious to taste real, solid food, and to not feel sick while eating it.
Kim loaded me and Ryan into her truck, me in the backseat. I had that work call to take at 1 pm, so about halfway back to Santa Cruz, I was on the phone with my team. When we got back to Robin’s beach house, I took a real shower to wash my hair and cozied up with my laptop. Ryan took a nap while I worked until about 5:30 pm. We went for dinner as a thick fog rolled in. I ate heartily, including a delicious chocolate mousse pie (I had some calories to replace!!!), and we went to bed. I’d been awake for 36 hours, with nearly 16 of them swimming, and bed had never been so glorious.
A few stray thoughts for you.
Even though this was a miserable swim, lots of things went right:
-The Safe Sea and medication combo works! I feel a lot tougher when it comes to jellyfish after this swim. I’ve been stung a few times now, with no major allergic reaction. I know not all jellies are created equal, but I’m definitely confronting my fears where these evil monsters are concerned.
-My boat pilot was rock solid. He doesn’t want the recognition and doesn’t necessarily want to take more swimmers, but I still gotta say something. He was amazing. And I’m pretty sure he and Ryan are going to be buddies. I’m grateful he didn’t want to head back in the rough conditions and that he was down for the adventure. He didn’t flinch at my puke fest and trusted Ryan was taking care of me.
-Water temps were 56-57 all night, a little warmer at the start and finish. Despite being sick and not taking in any calories, I never felt uncomfortably cold. I warmed up really quickly at the end, so the cold was a non-factor this time. This also gives me some confidence for other cold water, jellyfish laden seas in the future.
And what did I learn?
A lot went wrong on my end. It’s not exactly ideal to puke everything up for 8 hours+. I packed 21 hours of feeds. When I got home, I had 12 hours remaining. Ryan said he wasted at least 4 hours worth of feeds (I only took one feed out of my last bag, one of the bottles came open in the waves so we dumped it, etc). Mathematically, that means I consumed my regular feeds for only 4-5 hours of a 15.5 hour swim. Combine that with a few sips of hot chocolate and 3 chips ahoy cookies, well, that’s not a lot of calories going in. Hydration was also poor. And that’s not healthy. Clearly night-time swimming and nausea is something I’m going to have to address, after dealing with it on my third straight night swim. This is a new problem for me, and I have to take it seriously if I want to continue long, overnight, wavy swims. I have a few theories, and I see some wavy ocean night swims in my training future.
This was decidedly the most not-fun I’ve ever had on a swim. Sure, I’ve done things that were harder, from a distance and time perspective. I’ve swum in rougher conditions and been in more pain. I’ve been colder. But, I’ve never been quite so miserable. It was a decidedly a Type 3 Fun adventure. My core was sore for days afterward from being sick for so long, so frequently. My tongue was raw and two weeks out my jellyfish stings are still itchy.
However, during the struggle, I was always able to stay aloof from my predicament: I was comfortable acknowledging that I was sick, but knew my arms and shoulders were still spinning around just fine. (There was no discernable drop in stroke rate through the night, even though my speed was dropping due to more frequent stops and poor conditions.) I was sick, but I wasn’t cold. I was miserable, but I was still fine. And I just kept swimming, from one feed and vomit session to the next, without any real desire to quit. Didn’t even cross my mind, if I’m being honest. I kept thinking, “I’m not great, but I’m ok.” And carried on swimming.
Through all of that, I found myself wondering: What makes some people willing to push through the pain and discomfort, when others would just (wisely) throw in the towel? In the absence of real medical issues (i.e. hypothermia, SIPE), is this ability to take a thrashing and still continue a genetic trait or is it something that can be learned? I honestly don’t know the answer, but if you’ve made it this far, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
I don’t normally repeat swims, SCAR, Tahoe and the English Channel being exceptions, but there’s something about the mighty Red River of the North that keeps calling me back. I was invited as the guest swimmer in 2015, then came back for Lake Powell training swims in 2016, where I notoriously swam the river on Friday before the race on my own, then with the event the following day. I was slated to swim END-WET last year and to appear as the guest speaker for 2020. However, as we know, all things came to a screeching halt and the 2020 event was cancelled. I made sure to keep the 2021 dates open and have been excited for this race for well over a year now. I seriously can’t seem to stay away, and by the numbers of people who have done this race multiple times, I know I’m not alone.
The swim follows 36 miles of the Red River as it flows north, creating the border between North Dakota and Minnesota, not too far south of Canada. The event starts in Belmont Park, south of Grand Forks and winds its way north until you finish in town. It’s scenic, with lots of wildlife for kayakers to enjoy. For swimmers, you’re treated to 1-inch visibility in the clean, but turbid, muddy water. Depending on the flow of the river in the year you swim, you can be shoved along at 4 mph, or plod along at your flat-water swimming pace.
In case you were wondering, END-WET stands for Extreme North Dakota- Watersports Endurance Test, and it’s part of a series of races hosted by ENDracing, which features adventure racing events as well as running, biking, and triathlon races. (https://endracing.com/) They’re a super cool organization and if you’re inclined toward land-based events, I highly recommend anything they host. They aim to keep costs down: END-WET only costs $200-$400, depending on if you need a kayaker and when you register. $400 for a major marathon swim is cheap, folks! And all of the volunteers and race organizers are truly wonderful humans.
This year, I was fortunate enough to talk my swim wife, D’Arcy into swimming the race with me, so we assembled a CROWS (Colorado Represents Open Water- my local swim group) team to accompany us. John Hughes volunteered to kayak for me, while Lynn Acton agreed to support D’Arcy. We brought along John’s wife, Cindy, to provide ground support and as our own personal chef. (Have you had her cookies? They’re amazing.)
We flew out of Denver on Thursday evening- after about 5 hours of flight delays. We picked up our rental car just after midnight and drove the hour and 15 minutes from the airport in Fargo to our AirBnB in Grand Forks, staying alert for deer crossing the highway.
On Friday, D’Arcy and I had to work, so we focused on our laptops and minor last minute prep while Cindy cooked us an amazing brunch of biscuits and gravy and did a grocery store run for us.
Friday evening, I had the honor of giving a brief presentation at the pre-swim dinner, which I think went well. I got some laughs, I saw D’Arcy trying not to cry, and no one walked out on me in the middle of it. I’ll take that as a win! I always love pre-race dinners, where you can meet some fellow swimmers and their kayakers. It was a similar dinner back in 2007, before my first 10k, that really inspired me to get into longer swims, so I never underestimate who I might get to meet and who might be dreaming of big swims.
Saturday morning was race day and it started with a 3:30 am wake up call. If you know me, you know that I hate 3 am with a fiery passion. The hours between 3 am and 5 am are made for nothing other than sleeping (or swimming or reading a really good book, but only if you’ve already been awake). So, when alarms go off at 3:30, I’m not the happiest of humans. But, Cindy was bustling in the kitchen, scrambling me some eggs, so I grunted, rolled out of bed, added water to my 9 water bottles, which I’d filled with CarboPro (www.carbopro.com), a whey protein powder, and Nuun (https://nuunlife.com/) the night before. We left the house at 4 am for the 35-minute drive to the start of the race. D’Arcy was looking like she might vomit, so I helped the situation by finding awful music on the radio and singing along. If she could withstand THAT before the sun even came up, she could do ANYTHING!
We arrived at Belmont Park just as daylight was starting to break through. The kayaks hadn’t arrived yet, so we waited patiently, shuffling gear from the car to the staging area near the boat ramp. The air temps were chilly- in the upper 40s and steam was coming off the river. Hotter in than out! It was also my first good look at the river. As expected, the water levels were extremely low this year and the current wasn’t moving at the 4 mph pace I’d had when I first raced in 2015. I mentally prepared for a long, hot, slog back to town.
In due time, the kayaks arrived, Cindy helped smear Desitin and lanolin on my back and D’Arcy’s. We loaded up the kayaks. John got stuck with a two-person kayak, which had me worried since he was also recovering from a knee replacement surgery about 5.5 weeks ago. I knew the larger kayak would be tough to navigate, but he put on a brave face and didn’t complain for one second.
Right at 5:30 am, the race directors lined us up, checked us in, and gave us the final countdown. There were 18 swimmers starting the race and as we got the “go” command, one guy ran in full steam and sprinted ahead. The rest of us waded in more tentatively. We had been warned that there was a mud pile right off the boat ramp. Just as we were in deep enough to think it was safe to start swimming, suddenly there was a mound of mud to climb up and over. The last thing I heard before putting my face in the chocolate milk water was D’Arcy yelling, “Saaaaaaaaaaraaaaaaaaaaaaaah, why are we doing this?!” (She has since told me she might think twice about following me into muddy rivers in the future. HA.)
And we were off! The kayakers had been instructed to enter the water after the swimmers started, so I settled in, knowing John would catch up to me eventually. Not in a rush, we had all day ahead of us, I swam easily, taking in the scenery, hazy in the early morning light. Before too long, I’d pulled away from the majority of the pack, just with Seth the Sprinter ahead of me. I could tell after a few minutes that he wasn’t gunning it, so I figured I’d take my time running him down.
I swam happily along for about 45 minutes when John showed up in the kayak. I could tell he was enjoying the paddle so far- it wasn’t hot yet and the river was giving us a gentle push. For the next few hours, I swam alongside Seth. I felt bad because he was generally on my left side and I tend to crash into things on my left. The river would be wide and I’d think we were far apart, then it would narrow and all of a sudden, I’d look over and be on top of his kayaker. At one point, I yelled out an apology for ping ponging down the river so much. No one seemed annoyed with me, so I swam happily along.
Then, about 3 or so hours into the race, I saw Marian coming up behind me. My instinctual competitive nature kicked in and something along the lines of “Thou shall not pass” went through my mind, and all of a sudden we were in a race. No offense to Seth, who ended up finishing in a very strong 3rd, but I could tell he was swimming harder than he should at the start. I knew he’d fade, so I wasn’t concerned. But, when Marian pulled into my range of vision, I could tell she wasn’t going anywhere. I hadn’t intended to race this one, but as soon as I saw Marian glide into view, something clicked and my vision narrowed. John held out a feed for me, but he was a little behind me, so I let it go until he could catch up.
“Sorry,” I said once he caught up to me and tossed me my feed. “I didn’t want to swim back to you.”
And then an hour later at a feed stop, I said “Sorry, John. We weren’t in a race before, but we are now.” He grinned down at me, “Yeah, I figured that part out.”
We hit the Thompson Street Bridge at just past 5 hours. The bridge is right at about the 15-mile mark and it’s the first sign of civilization. From previous races, this was my first real sign as to how slow the river was moving. I’d been watching for it for about an hour and was relieved to see it come into view. But, 5 hours in… not a good sign. I had a feed right before the bridge and expressed as much to John, while stealing a peek back at Marian- probably still hanging less than a minute back. Yup, she wasn’t going anywhere.
The middle section of the race is always a long slog, after the bridge. The river widens some, which means the current slows down and you start to get more headwind. It was deeper now, which meant it felt maybe a degree or so cooler, but still hot by my standards. Despite the slightly cooler water, the air temps were creeping up and I was getting hot. However, I was feeling really strong- stronger than I have in a long time. (Remember, I barfed my way across Molokai in February and was sick from a miscarriage during SCAR in April.) I hadn’t trained well between SCAR and ENDWET as I was recovering mentally and emotionally from the events around SCAR, so as I was cruising down the river, I was really happy to be feeling as strong as I did. At one point, John asked “Do you feel as good as you look?” I smiled back up at him, “Yup, I sure do.”
I’d lost count of feed bottles and time somewhere before the bridge, so wasn’t sure exactly where I was- each bottle has 3 feeds, which means I finish a bottle every 1.5 hours. As I finished a bottle about an hour after the bridge, by my bottle count, I thought it was 1 pm, but when I looked for the sun, it wasn’t all the way overhead yet, so I assumed it was closer to 11:30 instead. Afraid to ask for the time just yet, I went through anther bottle (i.e. I waited another hour and a half) before asking the time. John confirmed my fears: It was only just now 1:15 pm.
Also, around this time somewhere, I started to be aware of the mile markers along the side of the river. I hadn’t seen any all morning, but I accidentally saw #17 out of the corner of my eye (the numbers count down- so 17 miles to go). I hoped it was a 12, but when #15 appeared an hour later, I knew I was really in for it. #13 an hour later confirmed there really was no current in the river. I was consistently hitting 2 miles an hour, according to the signs, my flat-water swimming pace.
And then, things started to hurt. I’d been hoping to swim without Advil, but the mile markers told me I better get some into my system pronto or else I was going to be in trouble. I asked for some Advil in my feed at 8.5 hours, which helped significantly, but the damage was done. My left shoulder and elbow started to ache, and it never quite went away after that. And with the pain, I started doing the math in my head. Two miles per hour, I was at mile 9- I still had 4.5 hours to go, at least. And, it seemed, around every bend we were pushing into a stiff headwind, threatening to push me and John backward.
I normally don’t like to know the distance, but I was hot, sore, and tired. The mile markers were a welcome distraction. I feed every half hour, and I have an uncanny ability to know exactly when 30 minutes is coming. So, every 25 minutes after a feed, I’d start looking for a number. They were ticking down, steady and consistently, but not nearly as fast as I wanted. Fortunately, after the last chance pull out at mile 8ish, you start coming into town. I couldn’t see Marian behind me any more, lost in the bends of the river, so I relaxed a little. I was also starting to see people and dogs along shore, enjoying a beautiful Saturday evening. The banks were steep, with huge, beautiful trees hanging overhead. We also started to see more boats out fishing. I was shocked to notice that every single boat that went by slowed down to a crawl, with no wake, as soon as they saw us approaching. I’m used to boats buzzing by and getting swamped by huge waves, but these boaters were considerate and offered words of encouragement or questions to John as we went by.
I was happy to see the pedestrian bridge, just outside of town. Then more bridges kept coming. Almost there. There’s a spot just about a mile from the finish where another river joins the Red and it was delightfully cold. My left shoulder and elbow were throbbing with sharp pain, so I stopped in the cold for a minute and swam some breaststroke before making the final push to the end.
The end to this race is very anticlimactic. No buoy to hit or ramp to race out of. I saw race director Don and Cindy on the dock that signified the finish, but with the glare of the sun, I couldn’t quite tell where to stop. They had to flag me down. Done. Whew.
There is a new kayak lift in the dock, different from 2015’s race were we all crawled out through knee deep mud. So, we slid John in his kayak onto the ramp and they lifted him up. He was so stiff from 13 hours of sitting in a hard kayak without a seat, with a bum knee, that it took a few helping hands to help him out of the kayak. They hauled the kayak out of the way and just as Marian came into sight, only about 6 minutes back. I used the kayak lift to crawl out and we cheered Marian in.
Cindy helped scrape some of the Desitin off my back and John caught his breath and we waited for D’Arcy to arrive. She had only been about half an hour back at the last chance pull out, so we knew she’d show up shortly. While we waited, I changed into my Desitin t-shirt and shorts, chatted with Marian and chugged a lot of water. Definitely dehydrated from that one!
Seth arrived about half an hour after me, then D’Arcy cruised in about 5 minutes later, a smile on her face and her mouth running. She was fine, but proclaimed that was the hardest thing she’d ever done in her life. She’s got another big swim coming up in August, so we’ll see which one she thinks is worse once we get through August!
Once we got D’Arcy out, she was feeling a little woozy, so we sat her in a chair with some water, cookies, chips and a Coke. Seth was also recovering, so it was fun to visit with him and some of the race organizers. Once D started feeling better, we got her dressed, bustled off to a quick shower at the campgrounds and then to a much-deserved dinner at The Blue Moose. It was about 10 pm by the time we left dinner and we all needed showers, so we went home, showered and went to bed for some much-deserved sleep.
We woke up the next morning sore and tired, but ready to get home. We had some time to kill, so we went to breakfast then drove to Fargo and visited a brewery before heading to the airport and the flight home. Nothing better than relaxing on the plane after a very successful weekend of swimming.
Until next time, North Dakota! You know I’ll be back!
Two Sundays ago, I had a positive pregnancy test. Well, three positive tests, to be exact. This was something Ryan and I have been trying for, so the two pink lines filled me with equal parts joy and terror. But just a few days later, before we could really start to get used to the idea that we were going to be parents, I started bleeding and cramping. After a few more days, I had come to terms that even if I had been pregnant on Sunday, by Friday I no longer was.
I always assumed I’d grow up, get married and have babies. I never questioned that order of events until, when I was married to my first husband, we got to the “have babies” part of life and I balked. He and I had talked about starting a family, but when the moment came, I realized I wasn’t ready. Thus far, I’d followed every life step in the right order, as mandated by my religious, Texas upbringing: Graduate high school, go to college, go to grad school because I hadn’t found a husband yet, find a husband, get married. When I got married at 25, I was two babies behind my little sister and “behind” most of my high school pals.
However, not long after I was married, I was walking my dogs around our suburban neighborhood. The sidewalks were filled with moms pushing babies in strollers, happily chatting and laughing. Kids were playing in backyards. The sun was out and the birds were singing. It was a perfect spring day, straight out of a storybook. And I stopped in my tracks with a gut-wrenching realization: I don’t want this.
For 26 years, I’d followed every rule and completed every step toward creating a life most people would love, yet I had somehow instead created a life I hated. I felt trapped and pinned in, and I knew adding kids to the mix was a recipe for disaster. This realization was life-changing, and ultimately lead to my divorce (among other things- I don’t want to oversimplify a complicated relationship with a good person).
Most people don’t know this, but I signed up to swim the Catalina Channel solely as a way to cope with my divorce. I’d done the Horsetooth 10k a few times and had been thinking about going longer, but my divorce was truly the catalyst that made me pull the trigger. I saw it as a way to change my focus from something negative into something positive, to give me something to do physically, and to prove that I wasn’t too old for adventure. I changed jobs, moved towns and set out to create a life that I wanted, whatever that might look like.
Not too soon after my divorce was finalized, I started dating Ryan. We’d been co-workers and when he found out I was single, he immediately asked me out. Our first date was exactly 11 years ago (on May 11) and in Ryan, I found someone who didn’t feel constrained by the rules and expectations by which I’d felt imprisoned. From the get-go, he was supportive of my swimming and together we built a life around camping, fishing, swimming, and travel. For the first time in my life, I started to feel not only happy, but also content. Life is never perfect, but for the first time, I felt in control. Ryan and I were intensely happy with our life choices. And somewhere in there, when the subject of marriage and kids came up, we decided that we didn’t want kids.
And the last 11 years have been amazing. I’ve done and seen things I never even imagined possible when I said goodbye to my old life. I’ve traveled, swam, made amazing friends, and done extraordinary things. With Ryan next to me, I have never felt so loved. He makes me feel like anything could be possible, and however grumbly he gets, he’s there to make my dreams happen. We really are the best team and my life has turned into exactly what I never even knew I wanted.
When I pause and look around, I see a life I love, filled with swim adventures, dogs, and happiness. How could I possibly want more?
However, starting in about 2016-ish, I realized I really might want kids someday. It started as a little niggle and I started to bring it up to Ryan in quiet moments as something, far, far in the future that I might want, even though we’d agreed otherwise. I knew I was going back on our agreement, so I didn’t push too hard. Besides, we still had Lake Powell and then Lake Champlain to swim, and of course that big English Channel Four Way. In my mind, I always thought after the English Channel swim was over, we’d start a family. Ryan wasn’t entirely on board, but I figured a few years of lead time would get him ready when I was ready to take a swimming break.
And then I got cancer. There are many horrific things that come along with cancer treatment. For me, the loss of my ability to choose what happened to me and my body was at the top of the list. In between all of the initial appointments and scans and pokes that come with a cancer diagnosis, we were told to go talk to a fertility doctor. It was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. Because chemo needed to happen first in my treatment plan, we literally had hours to decide if we wanted to move forward with fertility treatments to preserve eggs for future IVF use. We walked out of the appointment, me in tears and Ryan stunned into silence, realizing two things. First, we likely had some pre-existing fertility issues that would need to be addressed at some point if we wanted a family. Second, neither of us were ready emotionally to postpone chemo for added trauma to my body, for a family we hadn’t even decided we really wanted. And so we decided to skip fertility treatments.
When I shared this with my oncologist, she suggested that we add a Zoladex shot into my treatment plan. Because I had triple negative breast cancer, there were studies that showed the hormonal treatment could simultaneously increase my body’s response to chemo, but also potentially help protect my ovaries from the harsh effects of high powered drugs. So, once a month during chemo, I’d go in and have a nurse insert a small pellet under my skin, just below my belly button. We didn’t know if it would work, but when my periods resumed in September 2018, about two weeks after radiation ended and after nine months of medically induced menopause suffering, I cried. I’ll never forget calling Ryan with the news, and the sound of relief and joy in his voice when he realized why I was crying tears of happiness. Not only would the horrific hot flashes hopefully stop, for the first time in months, I felt the hope of possibility for a family.
We still had the English Channel Four Way to focus on, in addition to being told not to try for a baby for 18 months after chemo, so Ryan and I moved forward, focusing on swimming and not really discussing my dreams for a family. But, after the swim was done- I was ready to start seriously talking about it. But, Ryan still wasn’t. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but when it did come up, he expressed wanting some down time to just regroup and enjoy each other again, without big swims or cancer weighing us down. We really had been through a lot, so I understood his desires to pause a second before jumping into the next really big thing. And so I let it go for a while longer.
And then COVID happened. I was struggling with happiness in my job, and during a pandemic, we didn’t want to bring a new person into the mix when our financial future was unknown. We were lucky to be stable during COVID, but always with the fear that something terrible could happen when we weren’t looking.
But after a big heart to heart in October, I finally got from Ryan what I needed to hear: We could try. After a false positive test in early December (one positive test, followed by four negative ones), which was likely caused by my pre-menopausal status (thanks, chemo), I went to the doctor to get a checkup and have some bloodwork run. The results were not encouraging, but did indicate a baby was possible. Ryan and I agreed that we didn’t want to pursue IVF/fertility treatments, so would keep trying naturally to see what would happen next.
All of this probably comes as a surprise to many of our family and friends. We agreed early on that we didn’t want to share this part of our journey with anyone. Both of our families have told us for years that they wish we’d start a family. After adamantly not wanting kids for years, then not knowing if it was possible after cancer, we didn’t want the pressure of getting anyone’s hopes up, only to have to share in the disappointment if it never happened. I’ve cried so many hopeful tears these last few months- imaging telling my mom we were having a baby, picturing myself picking out baby clothes for myself instead of for nieces and nephews, fantasizing about a messy house full of noise and love. So many dreams, all held so close inside my own heart that I’ve been too terrified share with anyone besides Ryan.
But the events of the past two weeks have made me want to open up and share this part of our story. I’ve talked so openly about my cancer treatments. I share about my swimming freely. But why do we not talk about fertility challenges, miscarriages, and loss? I’ve heard from a few close friends this past week, “We went through something similar.” Yet even in years of friendship, it never came up. I certainly don’t blame or fault anyone for staying quiet. It’s so deeply personal and emotional, and especially after successful pregnancies I can understand wanting to move forward. But, if their pain is even half of the pain I’ve felt, why aren’t we talking about this more?
The positive pregnancy test came hours before I was due to get on a plane and fly to Arizona to swim SCAR: A four-day, approximately 40-mile stage race swim challenge that is held in four lakes outside of Phoenix along the Salt River. I was a little apprehensive about leaving Ryan home alone, but he told me to go and have fun- life was changing soon, so might as well have some adventure while I still could.
Everything was fine on Monday, but on Tuesday I started to have some bleeding. Thinking it was normal spotting, I wasn’t worried. I swam a great first day across Saguaro lake on Wednesday, finishing 2nd overall and first for the women. I was only 7 minutes slower than my time in 2013 and was overjoyed. I’m eight years older, lived through cancer and am now pregnant- those 7 minutes were nothing. I felt great.
However, by day two, Canyon Lake, I was bleeding more heavily and in more pain. I felt bloated and had cramps like nothing I could describe. Thinking it was maybe something I ate, I made it my mission to just finish the swim. I swam easy, enjoyed the scenery and tried to focus on what was happening around me and not what was happening on the inside.
After Canyon, my abdomen was so sore it hurt to walk. We did the long drive from Canyon around to the very remote Apache Lake. I didn’t feel like eating dinner and in the absence of TV, internet, or texting, we went to bed at 8:30 pm in preparation for a 5 am wakeup call the next morning. The cramps were severe and after waking up a few times on Thursday night to lots of bleeding, by Friday morning, I had finally grasped what was happening- and it wasn’t good.
Prepping feeds on Friday morning for a 13ish mile swim of Apache, I was dizzy and nauseous. I took some pain meds for the first time, hoping they’d give me enough relief to be able to swim. After eating a bagel and taking things really slow- I finally felt up to getting ready to swim. I could still barely walk, but swimming is 100% easier than walking, so I was ready to go.
I felt a million times better during Friday’s swim in Apache. The cramping had subsided somewhat with the pain meds and I had a glorious swim. I loved the 52-degree water at the start and enjoyed the tailwind, sunny skies and fighter jets that buzzed overhead at about the halfway mark. I was able to hammer the last hour of the swim, just for fun, and came in at the finish just about a minute slower than I had in 2013.
Friday night, I felt ok, but by Saturday, I was again in pain. Walking hurt and all I wanted to do was curl up into a ball and sleep. There was still a 10k in Roosevelt Lake to swim, so I focused on hydrating and conserving energy for the evening swim, and not the dizziness and nausea I was feeling. (Yes, in retrospect, I realize how dumb all this was- I should have gone home.) At the start, everyone in my wave took off like we were swimming the 50 free. Not in the mood to fight for it, I held back and focused on enjoying the swim. I love a good rowdy swim when I know it’s short, and Roosevelt started off nice and rough with a glorious headwind. However, as the sun started to set, the wind calmed. We were treated to a beautiful sunset with perfectly calm, warm water. I knew I had about a 15-minute overall lead on the 2nd place woman, so as long as she wasn’t 15 minutes ahead of me in the 10k, I knew the coveted SCAR belt buckle was mine. While I didn’t feel great, I still managed to enjoy the swim and the evening. I finished second for the 10k, but first overall across all four stages for the women (and 2nd behind my good friend Fast Mike). I worked hard for that belt buckle!
I flew home the next day, feeling really tired and beat up, but not overly uncomfortable. I assumed the worst was behind me, but at the urging of a friend, I made a doctor’s appointment to get checked out. He assured me that I had likely had a miscarriage, but what had happened didn’t seem normal.
I went in on Tuesday afternoon and had an ultrasound. At about 6 weeks, she didn’t see any tissue in my uterus, which she should have been able to find. Other than a lot of fluid on my pelvis, there was nothing to be seen. It seemed to confirm what I already knew. However, she wasn’t able to see my ovaries clearly. She tried an abdominal ultrasound with no luck, so she sent me across the hall for a second ultrasound with the fancy machines. After about 20 minutes of digging and poking, I was told I could get up. The doctor came back in and let me know she could see a mass on my right ovary, which was either a cyst from pregnancy or a sign of an ectopic pregnancy. She didn’t think it was ectopic but she wanted to do some bloodwork, then have me come back on Thursday to repeat both the ultrasound and bloodwork to look for any trends.
When Tuesday’s blood work came back, my HCG pregnancy hormone was high. Too high. She still wasn’t especially worried about an ectopic pregnancy, but the fluid present on my abdomen and the mass that hadn’t changed in two days were making the alarm bells start to go off.
On Friday afternoon, the results from my 2nd round of blood work came back. My pregnancy hormone had increased, but not enough to indicate a normal pregnancy. Because of the mass and because my HCG levels weren’t going down, it was a really strong indication of an ectopic pregnancy. I now had only two options to move forward: To treat the ectopic pregnancy medically or surgically. After weighing our options, we decided to move forward with the medical option. On Saturday morning, I picked up two vials of methotrexate and met the doctor in a deserted office to get two shots, one to each butt cheek. This drug should stop the mass from multiplying and save me from having a rupture in my fallopian tubes that would lead to immediate, emergency surgery to remove the ectopic pregnancy and one of my tubes.
I still have several weeks of blood work and follow up as we wait for my HCG levels to sink to zero. I’m tired. Like really, really tired. I’ve been bleeding for nearly 2 weeks. I can’t swim again until the bleeding stops. Test results from Tuesday’s third blood draw were really positive, so hopefully Friday’s results show more of the same downward trend. There’s still a small risk I could rupture something, which means an emergency room trip and emergency surgery, but with Tuesday’s results that seems unlikely. There’s still some journey left to go here, but hopefully no further complications.
I don’t think until now I ever realized how hard this moment can be. From the outside, it’s easy to look at it clinically, and for the last week, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing to myself. I’ve been logically telling myself some combination of: It was early; barely formed. There was just something genetically wrong. We can try again. At least now we know things can work. It’s not a big deal- things like this happen more than I know. Better it happened now, so early, than later on. Good thing we caught it before I needed surgery. And on and on.
But, living it, it’s not that simple. I’ve been going about my life, holding my pain on the inside for two weeks, barely telling anyone. I swam a race. I went to work. I spoke to a group of high school students, literally minutes after getting results that indicated we’d moved from miscarriage to ectopic. I’ve smiled outwardly, as though my heart wasn’t breaking on the inside. This is just what women do. We hold onto our grief in some weird, unspoken code that says we don’t talk about miscarriages and are expected to just carry on normally. I’ve felt the pressure to be like others who I know have dealt with this, to just feel the loss, get over it, and move on as soon as I’m ready (which should be quickly, btw. It wasn’t a REAL pregnancy). There’s only the secret confession when a friend confides she had a miscarriage, “I had one, too”, that lets me know I’m not alone.
I wish more people shared. Maybe then, I wouldn’t feel so hurt and alone, broken with grief.
Ryan has barely left my side, I know this is hard on him, but I think he’s more scared for what this is doing to me and my body. He had a hard year watching me suffer through cancer treatment and if I had to guess, this is bringing up difficult memories for him, seeing me physically hurting and emotionally suffering.
But, for me, in my heart, I’m acutely feeling the loss of hope. What’s happening to my body is secondary to the feelings of the loss of a life I wanted to create. The loss of a family I hoped to have. And I’m scared. I’m scared for what happens if we do try again. I’m afraid that chemo did damage my body and that if we try again, this will keep happening. Also, I turn 39 in a week. Not exactly prime age for having kids. I’m terrified I’ll never again get to feel the joy of what I felt for just a few days, knowing I was finally going to get to be a mom. I’m scared that I won’t have the courage to risk this pain a second time.
I know Ryan and I are both still reeling. We have no idea what comes next. We agreed to get through this one day at a time, together, and then decide later what happens from here.
But, sitting here on Mother’s Day, with my heart breaking and tears flowing, I knew I needed to share my story. I am blessed to have people reaching out to say they care and to say that they’re here for me. I know we’ll get through this and that things will get better than this moment. But, right now, this moment hurts. The Mother’s Day social media pictures of pregnant women and new babies, the best wishes from dads and kids to their moms, the celebration for something I desperately want and may never have about killed me. Tomorrow, I will be able to share in those joys again, but today, just for a moment, I need to allow myself to feel sad and to sit with my grief. In a world that tells us to move on, today I’m telling myself it’s ok to hold it, feel it, experience it. Not forever, but as long as I need to heal.
And just like I hope when I shared my cancer journey, I pray that someone reads this and knows they’re not alone. You are loved. Your baby is loved. And, if you need me, I will share your pain and heartache. I’m here for all of it.
All winter, I’ve been swimming. Lots and lots of swimming.
Well, lots of swimming compared to a usual winter. But this isn’t a usual winter. I didn’t have a big swim last summer, so I’m not burned out on swimming and haven’t needed my normal mental break before I start a slow build into another long swim.
Instead of enjoying a lull, I’ve been feeling trapped. Aching for more, with nowhere to realistically aim my intentions.
An idea grows
This swim really begins somewhere in August or September.
Toward the end of the summer, D’Arcy and I picked up a new swim friend, Fast Mike. D’Arcy and I were plodding way at Chatfield and we noticed some random guy swimming alongside of us. When we reached the far end, he asked if he could swim with us. We were really happy that he asked, instead of just randomly drafting or trying to race us, so we enthusiastically said yes. After we finished our swim, we introduced ourselves.
As his name implies, Mike is fast. Really fast.
And for some reason, Fast Mike also wants to swim far.
During the fall, D’Arcy and I would randomly bump into Mike at the pool from time to time. Eventually, she asked for his number and the three of us planned a few pool swims together, which involved the complicated task of three of us being able to make a reservation during the same time slot. Growing frustrated with 75-minute time slots, we all joined a private gym that has a 3-lane pool, too much chlorine, and backstroke “flags” painted in red on the ceiling rafters. But, for only $20/month, there are no slots and no time limits. Score.
After a few frustratingly short swim slot sessions, Mike asked if I’d be interested in swimming a 10k sometime at the new tiny pool. I’d only swum 10,000 yards once in a pool all year. And now a strange boy wants to do it on a random Wednesday night?
And so it began. Once a week, Mike and I would swim a 10k. Sometimes, D’Arcy also wanted to swim a 10k. So, strangely, I was swimming back to back 10ks on the weekend. And Mike was still hungry for more, so during the week, we were banging out 8,000 yard swims. Fast Mike is so fast that even at my fastest, he’s still getting a lot of rest, so I was motivated to drop some time to make things harder for him. (I’m probably dreaming that I can ever get fast enough to challenge him, but to his credit, he doesn’t complain.)
Around Thanksgiving, I realized I had swum 11 days in a row. I never swim 11 days in a row. But, I was afraid gyms would close as we hit a holiday COVID spike. So any time I could get a slot at the rec center or D’Arcy or Mike wanted to hit the gym pool, I just said yes.
And this pattern continued through December. I was getting stronger and faster. Surprised, I started logging workouts to see how much I was actually swimming. Some weeks, just accidentally, I was hitting close to 40k. I didn’t mean to- I was just swimming for the pure joy of swimming. Mike and D’Arcy were my outside lifeline and the pools were helping me keep my sanity. And I was having fun, all while my arm hair and eyebrows were getting bleached off, like in the good old days of high school swimming.
Honestly, I don’t remember the last time I spent so much time in the pool. All because Fast Mike wanted to swim a 10k with me.
By the time January hit, I had a few months of solid winter training with D’Arcy and Fast Mike (usually just two of us at a time so we don’t overwhelm the 3-lane pool, but sometimes we managed to snag three slots at the rec center). There was still no purpose or reason for all of the swimming. I was just swimming, swimming, swimming.
Until one January afternoon, I met a few friends for a nature walk around our beloved Gravel Pond. The Pond is frozen this time of year, but generally, it’s where I spend my evenings after work training. During our walk, one of my friends mentioned she and her husband were planning a trip to Hawaii. Jealous, I asked for the details and she explained that flights are super cheap right now and as long as you get a COVID test before you arrive, you don’t have to quarantine. Sounds great.
After our walk, I met someone for a swim lesson and then knocked out another 10,000 yards with Fast Mike.
The next morning, I was cranky. I had planned to make a big breakfast for Ryan, but as I was pulling pots and pans out to start the biscuits and gravy, I just stopped. Close to a meltdown, I took myself down to my office, with the intention of doing some work. It didn’t take long until Cindy’s words were in my mind again…. Hawaii.
Out of curiosity, I pulled up flights. Yup- really, really cheap.
I looked up the requirements to enter Hawaii. Complicated, but do-able.
Should we do it?
Tentatively, I went back upstairs where Ryan had managed to make his own breakfast and I asked, “Do you want to go to Hawaii? I’d like to go to Maui.”
He looked at me like I was crazy (I’m familiar with this look), and mumbled something about wanting to check out the fishing. So, I went off to swim planning the perfect, relaxing Hawaiian vacation on Maui.
Clearly, we made it to Hawaii, but minus the relaxing part.
During his research, Ryan discovered that Maui didn’t have the fishing he was interested in, but the tiny island of Molokai DID. I looked up info on Molokai. There isn’t much to do there besides fish, sit on a rocky beach, oh, and swim to Oahu.
The Channel between Molokai and Oahu is called the Kaiwi Channel. It’s about 26 miles long, and full of sharks and jellyfish. It’s most well-known as being part of the Oceans Seven Challenge, which in addition to Kaiwi includes the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, the Cook Strait, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Tsugaru Channel, and the North Channel. I’ve ticked off three of these swims (Catalina, Cook, and English), with some desire to swim Tsugaru and Gibraltar in the future. I’ve never even considered chasing the Oceans Seven swims, mainly because I’ve never been especially interested in the North Channel (so cold! so many lions mane jelly fish!) or in Kaiwi (so hot! so sharky!). However, Ryan was proposing to pop me onto a deserted island (essentially) while he fished for days. What else was a girl supposed to do?
So I reached out to a few people I know who have swum this Channel, played around on the internet and found a boat pilot. Apparently, January and February aren’t ideal for a swim, but Matt agreed that he’d be happy to take me if we got a good weather window.
Thanks to all that extra swimming at high intensity with Mike and D’Arcy all winter, I felt as though, while not in peak form, I could still muster a measly 26-mile ocean swim on a whim. (That’s sarcasm, just FYI)
So, it was settled. No relaxing Maui vacation spent lounging beachside in the morning and snorkeling in the afternoon. We were in for a week of hard fishing trying to catch an elusive bonefish and hopefully swimming one of the Oceans Seven most intimidating channels.
We didn’t tell hardly anyone we were going. I know the decision to travel right now is divisive and I didn’t want to anger anyone with our reckless behavior. For those of you outside of the US, and even outside of Colorado in some cases, it may seem strange to feel like it’s safe enough to travel right now. However, cases in Colorado have steadily been declining since November. Our restaurants and gyms are opening up. Most of my friends’ kiddos have in-school learning. I know things are hard for many of you and for most of my day to day, I’ve been a really responsible citizen- doing my part to stay home and following all the rules. I have only been inside a restaurant once since last April. I have had family members and friends test positive for COVID. My mom and one of my sisters are teachers. My grandmother’s long-time man-friend passed away this summer from COVID.
COVID scares me. I don’t want to get it and I don’t want to give it to someone else.
So, our decision to go for it didn’t come lightly. However, I had some PTO I needed to use up, Hawaii travel is 100% legal, without any exemptions or special permission required, and we figured Molokai was as remote as you can get. All the studies say flying is pretty safe due to the air filtration systems. Besides, everyone on our flight and in Hawaii had to have a COVID test just to be there, so it seemed less risky than going to the grocery store. Seriously, I probably come into contact with more people going to my daily swims at the gym than I did after spending a week on Molokai.
We flew from Denver to Honolulu and then caught a puddle jumper to Molokai. There were 10 people on our flight and a handful of bags didn’t make it because we were 150 pounds overweight with the cargo. This flight was my first peek at the Channel I hoped to swim sometime that week. It was big, blue, and even high above, I could see the waves crashing. It was intimidating.
Landing in Molokai was surreal. You land on this teeny tiny airstrip in the middle of the island. Flying in, all you see are trees and pastures, with some mountains in the distance. The pilot pulled double duty and after he landed the plane, he hopped out and opened the door for us to crawl out. We snagged 2 of our 3 bags (the final one was part of the group that had been confiscated for contributing to the weight problem), and proceeded inside the one-room airport. A member of the National Guard took our temperature, we showed our QR code that proved we’d had our COVID tests and filled out our health forms, then meandered over to the rental car agency across the street.
We snagged our car and rushed off the only grocery store that was still open on a Saturday evening. We needed supplies since the store was closed on Sunday and none of the restaurants were open, nor would be open until Monday. We waited in line, paid $200 for approximately 3 days of food and headed off the west side of the island to check in to our Airbnb condo.
We woke up Sunday morning to waves crashing and birds singing and a beautiful ocean outside our door. After a Zoom baby shower with my sister in Missouri, we spent Sunday exploring the island and poking around for all the good fishing spots. Monday, I touched base with my boat captain, Matt, while Ryan fished. Fishing wasn’t great. Neither was the weather forecast.
The Waiting Game
We spent all week in the same routine: Get up, eat, fish/read, then some afternoon snorkeling at a nearby beach. Not a terrible way to spend a week, except the wind forecast was consistently bleak. Trying to not stress about it, I focused on finishing some books and not getting sunburned.
On Thursday night, Matt gave me a call. He was out on the water to test things out, and while it seemed good, he wasn’t sure about the forecast. He hung up and said he’d call me in the morning to confirm. Friday night was our last possible window to swim, since our flight home was Saturday night at 11:45 pm.
Friday morning, we waited until about 10 am, and we hadn’t heard from Matt. A friend had sent me a weather bulletin talking about a small craft advisory for the Kaiwi Channel and the weather app on my phone was warning about high surf conditions. So, we assumed the swim was off, ate a lazy breakfast and then went out for one last day of snorkeling and poking around. Ryan found us an abandoned beach, occupied by only two Hawaiian Monk seals with some very excellent snorkeling. As we were packing up to try a new spot, Matt called.
It was 2:30 pm.
“Are you ready?”
WHAT? I explained since we hadn’t heard from him, and all the weather warnings, we had assumed the swim was off.
He sounded shocked, told me the weather was perfect and to meet him at the beach by our condo by 6.
We had 3.5 hours to pack our suitcases, organize our gear, do a last minute supply run, drop our large luggage at the airport for a flight to Honolulu, return the rental car, book a place to stay in Honolulu the next day, and make my feeds. The urgency was high.
The bright side to the fire drill: I didn’t have time to get nervous.
We’ve done a swim a few times, so Ryan and I went into autopilot, running down our mental check lists and getting things prepared. At 6 pm, we were on the beach, waiting for Matt.
After some initial confusion on launch point, we got it together. Matt was stationed just off shore and sending two of my kayakers from the boat, through the crazy surf, to help Ryan get our gear onto the boat.
**I should pause here to note: Ryan doesn’t know how to swim. He can sorta float when we snorkel, but he doesn’t do waves and he definitely doesn’t move forward without help. I was currently asking him to grease me up and then swim some bags to the boat. In 6-8 foot swells. Yes, he loves me more than I deserve.**
Two of my kayakers, James and Connor, arrive on shore, just as the sun begins to set. The first thing I notice is that they aren’t the “guys” I was expecting. They are children. Babies, really. (Ok, to be fair, James is 19 while Connor and his friend Shay, waiting off shore in a kayak, are 16.) But, they seem eager and ready to help, so Connor grabs my carry on-sized suitcase, plops it on his boogie board and prepares to head out to sea. He just about times the waves right… but doesn’t quite make it. Watching a kid, hugging my suitcase to his chest while he crests a giant wave might have been one of the most barf-inducing moments of my life. But, he made it and came back in for round two.
Meanwhile, a security guard arrived in a golf cart. Ryan and I busy ourselves with getting me greased up, while James calmly and politely explained to the security guard that he and Connor have no intention of staying on Molokai, they’re just here to help escort me to Oahu, not spread COVID to the native population. Listening to James with the security guard, my nerves about his age are immediately alleviated. He was calm, respectful, and got his point across. I don’t know many grown men who could accomplish that so well.
Once the security guard was satisfied, James and Ryan are ready to head to the boat with a couple of bags of goodies. Connor has made one more trip while were prepping, and he was back for the last bag, which has my plastic tub that contains Advil, Nuun, my daytime goggles, headlamps, glowsticks, tape, etc. Ryan was quietly panicking as he zipped his glasses into his shorts pocket, while James calmly and confidently coached him on how to make it to the boat. They timed the swells perfectly and were off to the boat. Matt, to his credit, managed to get the boat in pretty close in that moment, so Ryan didn’t have too far to go. I held my breath as they swam out, but got distracted as Connor mistimed a wave and went crashing around with my last bag. Me and the security guard rushed around to check on Connor, collect the boogie board, and drag my now filled-with-water supply box out of the surf. While I was helping Connor, Matt begins to yell “Let’s go, let’s go!” I see Ryan safely on board, Connor was situated with my tub again and James was on his way back to help. I saw Shay out with the kayak and ready to go. There was a lull in the waves, so Connor and I left the beach together.
I swam heads up freestyle to the boat, pulling up alongside the boat and the kayak. James and Connor were a bit behind me, but moving along, with no dangerous waves approaching. I asked Ryan if he was ok, and he yelled down that he was fine. Matt directed me to keep swimming, so Shay and I headed off while Connor and James caught up.
This was turning out to be the most insane swim I’ve ever done, and we’d just barely begun.
By 7:00 pm, the sun is fully down and it was getting dark, fast. Shay had a hard time positioning himself with a swimmer- it was his first time escorting a swimmer and these weren’t exactly ideal conditions for a beginner. The wind was pushing hard, making it hard to hear. The swells were huge, shoving us together and then back apart. Because the wind was at our backs, Shay was constantly getting pushed far ahead of me, then backpedaling before I could see where he was. He was also positioned on my left- which isn’t my strong side. I really prefer things on my right, but the way the wind was blowing, being to the left was smarter. Only problem is, Shay was kayaking slightly erratically and I have a tendency to veer left into anything that is close by. Not really an ideal combo! Surprisingly, we only crashed into each other twice, though the second time I hit the side of the kayak with my head, just on top of my nose. I was just grateful that the loud crunch I heard wasn’t my nose full of blood. Still, I could tell Shay was trying hard and he was apologetic every time we stopped for a feed. The conditions are legit tough for kayaking, and I resolved to just deal with it, without getting annoyed.
Then, just after my 2 hour feed, Shay tapped me on my back with the paddle.
“We have to go back to the boat!” He’s yelling over the wind and the waves. “I don’t know why, but they just told me we have to come back.”
Knowing that’s not a good sign, I made haste back to the boat. We went around to the back of the boat and all I could hear was shouting. Thinking is a shark somewhere close by, so I started to panic as well.
I heard Matt yelling at me to “hurry up and get on the boat.” But as I was making my way toward the boat, Ryan’s clear and calm voice rang out: “Just stay there. The boat broke, but we’ll fix it. Just wait there.”
**I should also note here: This is not the first time I’ve had a boat break. They break all the time. So much so that my sister Melody likes to joke that I’m more reliable than any boat. I wasn’t concerned or bothered by a little engine trouble. I was confident they’d get it to work and we’d be back to swimming in no time.**
While Ryan and Matt fixed the broken motor, I was treading water, chatting with Shay. It was a moonless night and the stars were incredibly bright. I can see Molokai glowing behind me, already seeming small in the distance. I couldn’t quite make out Oahu. I was still busy appreciating the view and chatting with the kids when Ryan let me know that everything was fixed and we can start swimming again. A fifteen minute stop to take in the stars- not such a bad deal!
Shay kayaked another hour before switching out. Connor was in next and was having a much easier time. I was finally able to feel like I was getting into a rhythm. I could feel the current pushing off Molokai and I was grateful the wind and waves were headed in the right direction. Every now and again, I could catch the tail end of a wave breaking, earning a few moments of weightless body surfing. I was just settling in to enjoy the ride.
And then the nausea set in.
I made it about 5-6 hours before puking.
In the past, whenever I’ve puked, I always feel better immediately. Not this time. I puked up my feed, but could tell there was definitely more vomit coming. I proceeded like this for hours. Puke, dry heave. I kept trying to drink my regular feed for about an hour and half before giving up and asking Ryan for just straight water. At first the water didn’t stay down, either, but then gradually, I realized I’m going about an hour between puke fests. Tentatively, I asked Ryan to send me down a diluted Carbo Pro mix with a Nuun tab in it. It tastes DELIGHTFUL, but I immediately barf it up. I try again half an hour later. This time it stayed down. But, the next hour, everything came back up.
All the while, Ryan was encouraging me from the boat. At the first round of vomit, I heard Matt ask if I’m ok or not. Ryan, confidently told him, “Oh, she’ll be fine.” I knew I was fine, but hearing it from Ryan helped. At the next stop, Ryan assured me I’m making great time. I remembered being told there’s a current off of Molokai, so I don’t get too optimistic. Besides, I’m too busy puking to care how fast I’m going.
Every swim has it’s own rhythm. This one: Feed. Puke. Dry heave. Feel ok for 15 minutes. Gradually feel more progressively sick until right before the next feed, so I’m ready to vomit again right on schedule. Feed. Vomit. Dry heave. Repeat.
I lost track of time.
At one point, I asked the kayaker for the time. It was just about 4 am, he told me.
I was immediately flooded with relief. 4 am was GOOD. I had thought it was closer to 2 am, so the news that I made it through the dreaded 3 am hour was incredibly encouraging. I was close to sunrise and I KNEW I’d feel better just as soon as the sun came up. I risked a look ahead of me, toward Oahu. It looked CLOSE. Behind me was only blackness.
I put my head down. Puked. Start swimming.
As the sun began to rise, black giving into grays, I requested my favorite: Just water with a side of Peanut M&Ms. I was getting hungry from lack of calories, and starting to feel fatigued. I wasn’t convinced I could keep them down, but knew I needed to try.
The first throw, the M&Ms came down in a water bottle, filled to the brim with sea water. For the first time, I felt defeated. I let my exasperation win for a minute, but was able to remind myself I was just hangry. I gulped some water and nicely asked Ryan if he would reload the M&Ms and send them down again as soon as possible. He was understanding, pulled my bottles back up, and sent me fresh supplies quickly. I stuffed a few in my mouth, the chocolate feeling delightful on my swollen salt tongue. “Don’t puke, don’t puke.” I could feel the nausea start to rise as I chewed, but I fought it off and put my head down to swim. No vomit. 30 minutes later. Repeat. No vomit.
Finally, the sun was really starting to come up. As I was swimming, I thought I could start to see the bottom of the ocean. It was really deep and in the dim light, I couldn’t quite tell for sure, but as the full dawn arrived, I was more and more confident I was looking at ground. I was amazed. I poked my head up again and sure enough, there is land, directly in front of me, looming closer and closer.
No marathon swim is ever finished until your feet touch ground, so while I was incredibly encouraged at what I was seeing, I knew better than to let myself get too excited. I welcomed every wave that pushed me toward the finish line, all while knowing that the ocean could change her mind at any moment and decide to try and shove me back to Molokai.
As the sun fully rose, I felt like I was swimming in an aquarium. I could see schools of fish below and dozens of birds swooping overhead. More than one bird got a little closer than I’d like, clearly trying to decide if I was edible. I got my first full look at Matt- it was dark all night and I had no idea what he or Shay look like, since I only met James and Connor on the beach back in Molokai. I laughed and told everyone good morning.
As expected, I was feeling infinitely better now that the sun was up. We did one more M&M feed and James told me that we were in the final push. I momentarily wondered if he knew what he was talking about- the shore looked close, but not quite close enough for a final push/last feed situation. I’d predicted a 15ish hour swim, and while I was too worn out to do the math, I knew I was closer to 13 hours than 15. I hoped James was right and we were closer than I expected.
I’d heard Sandy Beach could be really crazy as far as swells go for a swim finish, so I was mentally preparing to body surf in. And then suddenly, I realized I was coming in for a landing. The swells were manageable, though I admit to very ungracefully failing to catch 2 waves in. But, finally, I was walking, clearing the water. A group of local open water swimmers had came to greet me, and as I exited, they all yelled at me to hurry up- a wave was coming, so I ran the last few yards to clear the surf. Cars were honking in the parking lot and I smelled someone cooking sausage. Bill Goding was the first to meet me at the finish and he immediately draped a lei around my neck. Then, several others came and did the same. What a magical ending to a perfectly miserable swim.
Matt’s wife was on hand to drive me via car to their house, where the boys are waiting with the boat (they live on a canal, so the boat docks there). We checked Ryan’s phone for the official start and end time- 12 hours and 39 minutes. The fourth fastest time across that Channel. I was incredibly thrilled that we pulled it off, happy to be done in 12 hours and not 15 or 16, and ready for a nap before our flight home that evening.
Eventually, we grabbed an Uber to the airport to get our big suitcases, then headed back to a hotel where we showered and napped before getting a huge dinner at Duke’s on Waikiki Beach, then another nap before heading to the airport.
Our flight home was uneventful. The blast of arctic air hitting us on the jet way back in Denver was the very real signal that our adventure was over.
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: