A different sort of journey

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.

Can’t argue with three of ’em.

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.

My Catalina Finish in July 2010

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?

Our first camping trip- August 2010

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.

What a Zoladex shot looks like. You can see the pellet in the top right image.

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.

Horsetooth 10k- September 2018. A day of hope and joy.

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.

Our grocery store in March 2020. Who wants a baby when you can’t buy bread?

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.

it was a one-poke day. YAY!

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?

This was my misery doing our taxes. Not quite the same emotion as now, but closest I could find.

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.

Me and my fabulous friend/kayaker right before Canyon. I felt so sick I could barely walk.

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.

Apache

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!

The coveted 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.

Flowers from a friend.

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.  

Ryan took the day off to drive me to appointments. D’Arcy rewarded him with fancy coffee.

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.

The Adventure of Molokai

Prologue

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.

Frustrated, waiting for a swim slot.

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?

SURE!

One of our early 10k swims

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.

Standing on the ice of our Pond- the conversation that gave me the idea just happened!

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.

Papohaku Beach

Molokai

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.

Papohaku Beach

Travel

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.

Puddle jumper.

Adventure time

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.

The view from our 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.

Snorkel mask- not MSF approved. HAHAHA.

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.

GO TIME

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.

6:52 pm.

The start

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.**

Red is the kayak. Blue is me. About what nighttime swimming looks like.

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.

Day break

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.

Finished!

Epilouge

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.

Dessert

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.

Driving home from the airport.

PHOTO GALLERY

Anacapa Channel Recap

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).

The swim route.

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.

About to get my new boob! November 2019.

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.

The last pool workout before we shut down. COVID workout!

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.

Hot air balloons over the Pond during a training swim!

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.

Swimmer Neil and I after his swim and before mine!

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.

Kayaker Neil and I post-swim.

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.

Gina, the oil rig

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.

Anacapa and Arch Rock.

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!

Feed stop at 60 minutes. We got faster.

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.

Around 2 hours in.

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.

Around 3 hours in. I swear I was kicking more.

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.

Jim McConica, with his back to me.
Neil and his kayak!

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.

My Route

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.

My Speed plot- Maxed out at 2.7 mph.

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.

Crew aboard the Elka Lynn.

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.

Oh yeah, my tongue!

Here is Dave’s quick recap from the swim, if you’re interested:

You can learn more about swimming the Anacapa Channel and the other islands that make up the Santa Barbara Channel Islands here: https://santabarbarachannelswim.org.

For information on how to swim from Catalina Island, you can go here: https://swimcatalina.org

Reflections on The Four Way

One year ago, from Sept 15th– 17th (the 14th-16th if you were in the US!), I swam the English Channel four times, without stopping. It seems so crazy to say that out loud. Sometimes, I hardly even believe it happened.

Goggle change from dark daytime to a clear nighttime pair.

I’ve stopped and started a post at least half a dozen times over the last few days, but the right words always seem to escape me. Yesterday, especially, I’ve been moved to tears re-reading all of the Facebook memories being shared during the 54 hours I spent swimming the English Channel. In some ways, that swim feels like yesterday. In other ways, it feels like an entire lifetime ago. If I’m being honest, I’m not sure I’ve even really processed the whole thing just yet. However, I don’t feel like I can let the one year anniversary pass without saying something.

When I booked this swim, in the spring of 2017, right after Lake Powell and before Champlain and Cancer, this English Channel swim was supposed to be a celebration swim. I viewed it as an exclamation point on my swim career. The epilogue to the book I hope to write someday. However, as we all know, life threw me a curveball. In-between booking this swim and actually getting the chance to start it, I was diagnosed, at age 35, with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Suddenly, Cancer was the beginning of my story and this English Channel swim wasn’t going to be as “easy” as I’d thought.

Chemo time. Spring 2018.

For non-Channel swimmers, the way this whole thing works:

  • You decide you want to swim The Channel.
  • You email boat captains.
  • The captains give you some options about dates/times/tides/slots and you pick the situation that works best for you. You pay a small deposit to the boat captain and submit the info to either the CSA or the CS&PF. (Those are the two ratifying organizations- each boat pilot is affiliated with one of those two groups.)
  • The time between when you email a boat captain and when you swim is typically 1.5-2.5 years apart.
  • A year out, you pay half of your deposit to the boat people.
  • You plan your 6 hour qualifying swim, get your medicals done, and complete all the paperwork. You book travel and housing. You train a lot.
  • THEN, you arrive in Dover and wait your turn to swim, all dependent on what slot you have and what the weather is doing. Some people “fondly” call this the “Dovercoaster.” It plays with your emotions. One day the weather will be great and all the boats go out, only for terrible weather conditions to arrive the next and then everyone sits and waits for another good window. It can be maddening. It takes a bit of luck to even be allowed to start your swim. And to add to the fun, you don’t even really know what day/time you will swim. Your boat captain sees a window that matches weather and tides, and he/she tells you that you swim. You don’t second guess that. If you don’t like it, you can say you’ll pass and they’ll go on to the next person (but you’re an idiot if you pass on an opportunity to swim).

When I booked my swim, I emailed only one boat pilot: Eddie Spelling. He’d taken me across the Channel in 2012 and I love him. I’ve done a lot of swims and one thing that is somewhat rare is to find a boat pilot who actually CARES if you make it or not. Yes, it’s a business for most of them, and I get that, but finding someone who seems to genuinely have your well-being and success at the top of their mind is invaluable. You want a boat person who is as committed to your success as you are. I actually think most of the English Channel boat captains fit this description, but I already KNEW that Eddie met this qualification. Also, he’s highly experienced, has a great crew, did a fabulous job for me in 2012, and he has one of the larger boats- more room for the team I’d need for 2+ days at sea. For me, it was a no brainer to go with Eddie again and I didn’t even ask anyone else.

Me and Anastasia, 2012.

Eddie and I are Facebook friends, so he’s been following my journey since 2012. He sent congratulations when I finished Lake Powell and Lake Champlain. When I asked him about a Four Way, he was immediately responsive that he was excited to take me and believed I could do it. He followed my cancer journey.

So, when I got the email from him in October 2018, just barely a month after finishing all of my cancer treatment, he was gentle. “I hate to ask you this, but are you still coming?” It was a gut punch, a moment of reality. I’d been talking about doing this swim to my doctors and friends for close to a year, during all of my treatments. More than one treatment/plan of care decision was based off this upcoming swim. Still. I had to pause. Do I still have it in me?

“Yes, I’m coming.” I said.

The actual email exchange with me and Eddie. “I’m coming.”

I had to work really, really freaking hard to get ready. My body was broken down to nearly nothing in October 2018. I was overweight- bloated from steroids from chemo. Soft from lack of exercise. I was weak from my mastectomy and reconstruction. I’d had a temporary implant (an expander) placed under my right pec muscle. It was rock hard and uncomfortable, but the surgery to replace it for a permanent implant that is softer and more workable would have meant being out of the water for 4-6 weeks and starting the rebuilding process over. So I opted to leave it until after the swim. My stamina was gone.  My pace in the pool was way off. Because of the expander, my shoulder mobility was limited. Swimming was painful. I was depressed.

I had a million excuses- really great, real excuses- to either cancel or postpone this swim. Everyone would have understood. It might have been more practical, reasonable, responsible to do so. But, I’d waited long enough; I had a year to train. I was all in.

The first task on the training agenda was to complete the Cook Strait, the waters between the North and South Islands of New Zealand. This was also a swim I’d booked prior to Cancer and didn’t want to cancel. Starting in October, my focus was on New Zealand, which was scheduled for March. My first baby step toward recovery.

My Cook Straight Training Plan. Starting from scratch.

The Cook Strait is a relatively short swim at 23km/14 miles and I anticipated a 9-10 hour swim. A perfect first swim back to shake the cobwebs out, see if I’d lost some of my cold water tolerance, and maybe see some dolphins along the way.

When we arrived in Wellington, the weather forecast was not great. Philip Rush wasn’t entirely optimistic we’d get a window to swim. But, with just a day or so left in the tide, we saw a brief break. The water was right around 60F/15C (colder in spots). The wind was ferocious. I swallowed a lot of water early on, which I paid for later. Despite a mesmerizing and beautiful pod of dolphins who came to swim for a while, I was fairly miserable the entire swim, asking myself “If this is so hard, do I have what it takes to swim the Channel four times in 6 months?” It was the closest I’ve come to quitting a swim in a while, but knowing it was crucial to the EC, I persevered. A younger version of myself might have quit, but all my experience combined to give me enough oomph to push through. Still, while I try not to count time, I couldn’t miss the sun starting to set. I remember thinking, “Well that’s 12 hours gone- I bet Phil will pull me any minute now.” But, he let me swim. We busted out the glow sticks and head lights we didn’t think we’d need. And I pushed on through some tough currents, swimming in place for close to an hour before they shifted direction and took me to shore. Until Philip yelled “500 meters to go!” I never believed I’d finish that swim. After 14 hours of swimming, I touched a rock in the dark of night to finish the swim. As Ryan and Phil hauled me back into the rib support boat, I was laughing, a little hysterically. “Well, that’s not what we expected to happen today, was it?”

Phil Rush and Ryan in a rough Cook Strait.

In retrospect, I think I needed that swim. It was hard. It was tough. I had to decide if I was mentally ready for the pain and suffering of training that was to come.

I went home, ready. Hungry for the work to come.  Last summer’s training was some of the hardest I’ve done. I matched my Champlain training plan and hit all my distance targets, but it was hard. I was lacking speed. My right arm ached every time I swam more than 4 hours. PT and massage didn’t seem to really help.

A month before the English Channel swim, I decided to attempt a 32 mile/51km double crossing of Colorado’s largest lake, Blue Mesa Reservoir. I told myself I wanted to hold 2 miles/hr (3.2 km/hr) for the entire swim. I wanted to push my stupid right arm to the max and to see what would happen. We set off at 4:30 in the morning and almost 15 hours and 36 minutes later, I finished, right were we’d started. Two miles an hour for 32 miles. Done. My arm hurt. I had to dig super deep to push through that pain, to ignore it and power through. And, miraculously, the next day, the arm wasn’t more sore/tired than my left. Mission accomplished. I was ready.

Blue Mesa Reservoir. August 2019.

When we arrived in England, the weather forecast wasn’t fabulous. We met with Eddie on a Wednesday and he said we should consider extending our stay. Then, just hours later, the forecast changed and he messaged to say we had a big enough window to try.

People ask me all the time: Did you believe all along you could make this swim?

My answer: I wouldn’t have started if I didn’t believe it was possible.

In a swim like this, the weather is the determining factor. Eddie said the weather was good. I knew I’d trained. Done. We were going to do this.

And we did. A huge, massive team effort to make it happen. I had five team members of my own: Elaine, Karl, Craig and my husband (Ryan) and mom (Becky). They’ve all crewed long swims for me before. Elaine, Karl and Craig are amazing marathon/ice swimmers in their own right- they’ve all three completed the Triple Crown and done Ice Miles, plus some extras. They were true heros- pace swimming with as much as was allowed during the long nights.

My boat crew- Eddie and his sons Mike and Rob- were amazing. I can’t imagine how tedious it is to watch someone swim for over 2 days, but their enthusiasm never wavered. Suzanne Martin and Kevin Murphy were my official observers from the CS&PF and they fit right in with the crew, making it all happen, too.

Ten people, all there to help one person achieve a goal. It’s really mind blowing that people like them exist in this world, solely to help others.

The team.

I know it sounds crazy, but even after swimming for 54 hours, it doesn’t seem like it took all that long. All my swims seem to go by in a flash, from my first 10k to my 105 mile swim in Champlain. Two hours or 72; it’s all the same in my head. And it’s interesting how I only seem to remember the highlights. Flashes of images in time, all smooshed together, to make up my swim memories.

Samphire Hoe. Go Time.

Some highlights: Lap 1, where I told my mom I had spaghetti in my teeth after I threw up dinner. Nailing a jelly fish in the face at the start of lap 2. Watching an amazing sunset mid-lap 2, right before everything went to crap. The voices of my crew, encouraging me, telling me I was ok as I threw up repeatedly for about 6 hours at the start of Lap 3. Warm oatmeal on turn three, as my body start shaking from exhaustion. The rush of adrenaline and sense of victory starting Lap 4. I remember confusion, not knowing where we were headed into shore for the finish. Frustration as to how long lap 4 was taking. Water rushing up my nose and down my throat for the last half-hour as I fought the current; too tired to breathe properly. And the overwhelming emotions of being greeted by people on shore, cheering, as I crawled out and sprawled on my back from exhaustion. The beauty of M&Ms and their life-saving properties.

Lap 2. Sunset.

I have images of my crew smashed into my brain, all on top of themselves, too. Elaine’s cheerful voice at the turns, mashed on top of watching her getting ready for yet another pace swim and realizing she was tired and cold, too. I remember Karl telling me it was ok during yet another puke fest and a silent “kick your feet and pick up the pace” hand signal leading into turn 3. Craig in fins, handing me new goggles, then a minute later (i.e. during the next night) telling me we had to sprint. My mom cheering herself to death, even though I couldn’t hear a word, while wrapped in my UCONN parka, probably freezing to death. Ryan, telling me to “Drink this and don’t throw it up” and never going far from my sight. My rock. Occasional glimpses of Eddie, Mike and Rob- the magicians making it all happen, wondering if they were tired of watching me swim yet. Kevin and Suzanne lingering in the background, watching it all unfold.

Snippets that make up 54 hours. There’s a lot of blank space there. Time I can’t account for in my memory.

For some reason, this swim brings up really mixed emotions for me. I can celebrate the accomplishment, but it also holds a certain weight that none of my previous swims have held. I don’t entirely know why that is. It’s happy, but for some reason, a little sad, too.

I think some of the reason for that is that this swim was never just about swimming. All my other swims have been simply swimming. They were a new goal. A new place to enjoy beautiful water. A new temperature challenge. A new distance to push past. A first. But, fundamentally, it was all about swimming, and just for me. A photo to put into a memory book. A t-shirt to wear around the house. A story to tell to disbelieving nurses when I’m old in the nursing home.

This English Channel swim wasn’t my longest by distance or time. It wasn’t my coldest. I’d already done the Channel once, so I knew I could swim in this water. So, it wasn’t about time or distance or cold or being somewhere new. It was supposed to be my victory lap until I got diagnosed with cancer. And suddenly, I felt like I was starting over. No longer was this swim just about swimming. It was about being a survivor and overcoming something that literally tried to kill me. I wasn’t swimming just for me anymore. I did it for others who had been through what I was going through, and for those who would go through it in the future. I got lucky with my cancer journey. I know that. Through my swimming, I really wanted to show others that there is hope, even when you don’t feel it at first.

©2019 Tom Nicholson. 17/09/2019. Dover, UK. Long distance swimmer Sarah Thomas arrives at St Margaret’s Beach near Dover, Kent, after swimming across the English Channel four times. Sarah Thomas set off from Dover on Saturday evening. Photo credit : Tom Nicholson / The Times

And so this swim became more, so much, much more than Just Swimming. It was proving to myself that I was whole. It was a kick in the pants to cancer and every person who didn’t believe in me or told me it was impossible. For the first time, I had something to prove to the world- not just to myself.

But also, this swim wasn’t just mine. I shared it with thousands of people who cheered and followed along. I shared it with my family. My friends. My doctors. Strangers and people I love, all mixed into one. I think I gave a piece of this swim to everyone who followed it and sent me warm well-wishes.

I can’t hoard this swim the same way I hoard my Lake Powell and Lake Champlain swims. Hundreds of swimmers have come to England, sat in Dover, and waited to try their hand at these waters. I may have spent 54 hours straight in the water, mostly on my own, but nonetheless, it was a shared, collective experience. So this swim is less mine, and more ours. I did it, but it wasn’t about me and what I could do. It was about what WE can do, as humans, to overcome odds, adversity, and pain… together.

We got this: Together

I’m not entirely good at processing the swims I’ve done. I train hard, do the swim, and then move on to the next one. I have this deep need to always be swimming, always pushing at a goal of some kind, but this whole COVID thing has been a little crazy, so I’ve had a little extra time to dwell on this really big thing I did. After the swim, I sorta thought/hoped my life might change in big ways, but in reality nothing has really changed at all. Same job, same dogs, same husband, same house, same friends, same routine. Some of those I’m glad are the same (hey Ryan!), but others I might have wished were moving forward a little more. More speaking. More coaching. Clinics. Long swim plans. It’s like the whole past year has been a great big pause in life. Trying to move forward, trying to feel normal, trying to beat anxiety, trying to set goals- when all along we’re just waiting. It feels like the world is waiting. Yeah sure, I snuck in a Tahoe swim. I’ve got an Anacapa swim coming up. But, it all feels like a placeholder. Waiting. We’re all still waiting.

So, I suppose now is just as good of a time to try and process that English Channel swim as any. Giving it space and time to really settle in a way you can’t do in the days and weeks following is important. I’ll probably still be thinking about this swim for years to come, gaining some new type of insight. Did I actually do that? Was it a dream? What did I learn? What can I share with others, in a more meaningful way?

There is magic in the English Channel. I always tell people: If you have the ability to swim The Channel, you should do it. It’s a special stretch of water. It will test you in ways you didn’t know could be possible. And when you cross her, you’ll become part of my history and the history of all the swimmers who have gone before and who will go in the future. It’s a special place to be, a special history to share.

My final track.

Horsetooth Cancerversary

Early morning swim start

I’ve been meaning to start a blog for a long time, but have never gotten around to it. Sometimes, I just have more to say than seems appropriate for Facebook and I’ve never had a space to put it. I really do want to/need to stretch out my thinking and I love to share my swimming experiences. So, in building my very own website, I finally decided to go for it! I’ve already uploaded some of my favorite, longer Facebook posts from the last year or so and there’s a link in the intro to my CaringBridge cancer blog, if anyone wants to re-read those. This is, officially, my first swimming blog post. Hooray.

I’m marking the occasion by sharing a memory. Two years ago today, I swam the Horestooth 10k. Horsetooth was my first marathon open water swim race, way back in 2007 and it holds a special place in my heart. Horsetooth is where I first met people who had actually swum the English Channel. This event, those swimmers, that water is what ignited my love for open water swimming all those years ago. Truly, without that overwhelmingly positive first experience and intro to marathon swimming, the last 10 years might never have happened. Needless to say, the event holds a very special place in my heart.

My first Horsetooth finish- 2007

So that brings me back to the memory I wanted to share. Two years ago, I was just coming off of radiation treatment. I’d been through 5 months of chemo, a mastectomy, and then 5 weeks of radiation, which ended in late August. I was beat down. Broken. Depressed. Bloated. Puffy. Mostly still bald. Two weeks after radiation ended, I was still red, blistered and oozing in all the wrong places. But, I’d told myself I was going to swim Horsetooth this year, no matter what. I got clearance from my surgeon on the Friday before the race and off we went to swim a 10k on a Sunday with basically no training, 2.5 weeks after ending radiation zaps. More than one person told me I was being reckless. But when has that ever stopped me once I get an idea in my head?

The race director is a friend and he let me start in the very last wave. No pressure. No ambitious college kids to accidentally bump me or send water down my throat. I had no intention of racing. All I wanted was to enjoy the water and do something to mark the end of all my cancer treatment.

Pre-swim selfie

I started slow. Nice and easy. The first 800 meters or so, you’re on your own- you start, swim into a small cove, around a buoy and THEN you meet up with your kayaker. Ryan was in the kayak for me- not his favorite place to be, but he had happily admitted that this was a special occasion and agreed to kayak. I’m normally in the front of the pack in a race, making me fairly easy to spot, and for a while I was worried Ryan might not be able to find me or recognize me deeper into the middle of a bunch of swimmers. No worries- as I rounded the corner, I saw him waiting and we hooked up, just like it’s supposed to be.

And then I swam. Not hard. Not fast. Just swam. The day was beautiful, though had it been pouring rain and freezing, I doubt I would have noticed. I remember hitting the halfway point- no idea how much time had passed. I was still feeling surprisingly good, smiling up at Ryan every few strokes.

Swimming. My favorite.

Two years on, there are still no words strong enough to express the joy I felt, swimming, in open water and sunshine, Ryan by my side. This is what I am made to do and after a really long 9 months, to be able to just get out and DO it again, with nothing holding me back… well it was a perfect moment. After months of sadness, sickness, and pain the freedom of just being able to swim again was a touch overwhelming.

When I walked out of the water at the finish line, I was close to tears of joy, just like the first time I’d swum that race 11 years prior.

Normally, a 10k is nothing for me. A warmup. I barely even notice 10ks as they pass. Every January, I joke that I’m going to count how many 10ks I swim in a year. Inevitably, I lose count sometime in February. In 2018, I swam exactly 2 10ks. I did one to celebrate the end of chemo, in May. And I did the Horsetooth 10k. I was tired for a week from the effort, but who cares! I DID it!

When you get diagnosed with cancer and make it through treatment, most people celebrate their Cancer Anniversary, i.e. their Cancerversary. Some people celebrate it as the day they were diagnosed and began their journey toward health. They say that from the moment of diagnosis, they feel like they were a “survivor.” Some people celebrate it as the day they were declared cancer-free. I never know what day to pick. It’s not like the movies where you’re sitting in a doctor’s office in your Sunday best and some nice doctor says, “Congratulations, we got it- you’re cancer free” and music plays and everyone embraces and the movie ends. For me, it was more a series of events- ultrasounds that showed my tumors were shrinking throughout chemo; a voicemail from my surgeon telling me she couldn’t see anything but dead cancer cells after my mastectomy; ringing the bell after radiation ended, marking the end of active treatment.

I think I finally settled on a date. September 9, 2018. The day I swam a 10k in the sun and proved to myself that I was going to be ok, that I won, and that no matter what happened next, cancer would never, could never actually beat me.

The Four Way Recap- September 2019

I’ve been so overwhelmed over the last few days with the outpouring of well-wishes and media requests. Thank you to everyone who has written- I’m trying to get through my messages, but it’s been a daunting task. Also, I have very little photos to share now, so here is a selfie of my tongue. Gross.

When I left Samphire Hoe in the middle of the night on Saturday night/Sunday morning, I had no idea what was going to happen over the course of the next 54 hours. I usually like to do post-swim report, so here it is. The good, the bad, and the very ugly. It’s long, so I apologize, but so many things happened! Also, this is the story from my perspective and sometimes the swimmer perspective is different from the crew’s. But you’re stuck with me, so here we go!!!

First off, the boat I had booked to take me across the Channel four times was Eddie Spelling on Anastasia. Eddie had taken me across the Channel in 2012 on my first crossing and it never occurred to me to try the 4-way with anyone else. I trusted him, and when you go on crazy adventures, you want to trust the person who basically decides your fate. I also knew that the Anastasia would be comfortable for my crew as it is one of the larger boats. On Wednesday last week, we met with Eddie for an update. When we met with him, his weather prognosis was grim and he told us to consider extending our time here in the UK. However, just a few hours later, he messaged that things were looking good for a Saturday night swim. Talk about an emotional roller coaster!

We spent the next couple of days preparing- stockpiling food and supplies for myself and my crew, changing my American money to pounds to make sure Eddie was payed, and getting everything organized to be at sea for 2 days. Eddie had us meet him at 10:45 pm on Saturday night at the Dover Harbor Marina for a midnight start. I wasn’t crazy about the midnight start- I’m not a good napper and I knew getting sleep during the day on Saturday would be crucial to my success. I tried really hard, but maybe slept an hour on Saturday during the day of the swim. But, the tides wait for no one, so I didn’t complain. We quickly loaded our supplies and then motored over to Samphire Hoe, greased up, and before I knew it, I was jumping off the back of Anastasia, taking the few quick strokes to shore, and heading off into the night.

Things started off badly. There were 6 hours to daylight and I felt sick from the get-go. I’d had some spaghetti for dinner and it was not sitting well in my stomach. As my body was fighting the nausea, I was getting cold and shivery. Not exactly how you want to start a four way English Channel crossing. I finally puked up spaghetti at 7 hours in and we all celebrated. I felt immediately better and assumed that would be the last of my nausea. The first lap continued without any other misadventures. We hit Cap Gris Nes at 11.5 hours, right on schedule. The currents were strong going into the Cap and I had to sprint hard for an hour to break through, but eventually I was able to grab onto a rock as the currents ripped by. Lap 1- Done.

The rules for a lap swim like this say that when you hit the shore, you have to exit and clear the water. If it is rocky and climbing out is unsafe, you can simply touch the rock to signify the end of lap one. If you’re on a beach, you must immediately re-enter the water, but as long as your toes are in, you can sit and do whatever you need. No one can touch you or help you, but they can pass you things that you might need. We pre-planned that Elaine would always swim in with me, bringing lanolin and Desitin, plus any requested snacks. I had hoped for a beach landing to stretch out a little more, but the Cap is pretty rocky, so I hung onto a rock as the currents ripped by and re-applied some lanolin and ate some rice. My allotted 10 minutes was up quickly and before I had time to think, we were off onto Lap 2.

There were lots of jelly fish hanging out near shore there and as I swam out for the second lap, despite my best efforts, a jelly fish bounced off my swim cap, grazed my nose, and landed squarely on my chin. There were perhaps some swear words. But, I’m told that cold water is good for stings and I figured I had enough time between that moment and when I’d get out of the water that I’d be fine eventually.

A few hours into lap 2, the nausea started again. I was burping and feeling sick. Finally, I puked up the rice I’d eaten at the turnaround and told myself I would be fine again, like after I’d puked up the spaghetti. Nope.

Despite a stunning sunset, as the evening turned into the night, I found myself getting more and more demoralized. As I was fighting nausea, I was getting cold and chilled. I’d told Elaine on the turn that I knew the night was going to be rough and asked her to help make a good plan to get me through. As evening progressed, I could see my boat team making preparations for the night. Craig let me know they made a schedule for pace swimmers, so I would never have to be alone for too long in the water. I found myself repeating, over and over to myself, “I can swim through this night.” My only goal as the sun was setting was to make it through the next 10 hours until daylight. I knew it was going to be hard, but even I underestimated the misery of the next 10 hours.

As we swam back toward Dover and the lights of town steadily grew closer, I started to plan for the 2nd turn. I wasn’t feeling well, so I built myself up as I realized we were headed toward Samphire Hoe again and I was looking forward to sitting on the beach for a minute, stretching my back, and taking a moment of zen. Since I hadn’t had that opportunity on turn 1, I was really looking forward to the rocky pebbles of Samphire Hoe.

Unfortunately, there were other swimmers starting their swims from Samphire Hoe and if we had waited our turn to land, it would have caused us to delay. We let the currents pushed us down the sea wall at Samphire Hoe and instead of a beach, I had to tag the wall there to signify the end of lap 2. Two turns and no beach. I was devastated. I’m not exactly sure why I was so devastated- I didn’t have walls and beaches in Lake Powell or Lake Champlain, but in my visualizations of the swims I had always pictured turning at a beach. As I tagged the wall, fighting back tears, Elaine was a ray of sunshine. I told her I didn’t think I had what it takes to make it the rest of the way. I also let her know I was pretty sure the apple juice I was drinking with my feeds (like I always do) was what was causing the nausea. She took in the info, ignored my complaining and handed me some banana baby food. It tasted delicious. Then I puked it right back up. And kept puking. A few moments later, mid puke, we were told told me my 10 minutes were up and we needed to start swimming again. So I somehow started swimming again, toward who knows what. At my next 30 minute feed stop, they tossed me my feed and I immediately puked again. And again at the next stop. My memory is fuzzy about the timing during all of this, but it seemed like hours of taking a feed and puking. Taking a feed and saying I couldn’t do it anymore. I know at one point Karl was in the water to pace swim with me, so probably around 3 am. I was puking and dry heaving. I have no idea what I said to him to complain, but he just calmly and rationally told me to keep swimming. As I was whining, a voice from the boat told me to get moving. So I did.

I learned later that around this time the boat captain and one of the observers told my crew they needed to either figure out how to get me to stop puking or they were going to pull me. Honestly, if that had happened in that time, I would have gladly gotten on the boat and thanked every single person for saving me and letting me off the hook. I was daydreaming about being dry and warm and asleep.However, my crew had a different plan. At my next feed, Ryan tossed me down a Zofran pill, left over from my cancer treatments and something they give to pregnant ladies to help with morning sickness. I know people who use it on swims, so I had tossed it in my luggage last minute, thinking maybe my mom might need it if things were rough on the boat. I was relieved to see it, praying it would solve my issues. I swallowed it down, then immediate puked it right up. Demoralized again, I rolled over and kept swimming without any comment. Five minutes later, they stopped me and passed down a pill slightly dissolved in less than an ounce of water. I swallowed it down, determined not to puke, and prayed it would work. Thirty minutes went by. No puking. At my next feed, they just gave me straight water. They tried some of my regular feed at the next 30 minute stop, but it was still too much, so we went back to water. Finally, after about another hour, I was feeling settled enough to try a real feed. It had been a solid 4 hours (I think) since I’d had any calories stay down. When we did the turn, way back at midnight, several other boats were just starting out with other swimmers. I was puking and feeling sick, but apparently still swimming along well at the same pace as the others. In the midst of my whining, my crew informed me that I was swimming fine and still holding a solid pace. I was stunned. How on earth could I feel so sick and still be swimming my same speed?

Knowing that, I was determined to get my stomach settled and calories replenished so I could continue on. As time marched on toward the sunrise, I did start to feel better. It was around that time that I requested M&Ms as a way to get some extra calories into my system quickly. And they were crunchy. And delicious. Slowly but surely, we worked our way back to France. And somewhere in there, I resolved to at least make the turn at France to see what would happen from there.

As we approached France, I could feel the crazy currents picking up again. The water near France is brown and turbid, a perfect hiding ground for jelly fish. As I swam closer and closer to the Cap, fighting currents and fearing jelly fish, my crew gave me the word that I needed to sprint in order to hit the Cap again. We had been aiming just south, but the currents were merciless and didn’t want to let me drop in like a civilized person. Instead, after 36 hours of swimming and puking, my crew was asking the impossible- SPRINT! So, I picked up my pace, kicked my legs and just in the nick of time grabbed a rock on the cap. Luckily, there was a perfect rock formation that I could climb out on, with my feet still in the water, and have a proper sit on a rock chair. Elaine was with me again, feeding me treasures and boosting me up. I was shaking and exhausted. I think I uttered some swear words about having to have made that sprint. And before I knew it, my 10 minutes was up and we were headed back to sea. Again.

I noticed right away that we were being swooped down the shore in exactly the same path as the day before. Before the swim, I told Eddie I could hold 2 mph for 3 laps and then who knows what would happen after that. He assured me that if I made the turn on lap 3, he’d “float me back to England like a log.” So, heading into Lap 4, I thought the dirty work had been done and it was just a matter of passing the time. I’d held a consistent pace in the previous laps- all between 11.5-13.5 hours per crossing, so my guesses had me landing in England around 3 am. 4 am at the latest. I looked forward to sunset because I only had half a night of swimming ahead of me and then I could land.

Welp, wrong again. I didn’t know this until after the swim, though I did have a sense of something going wrong when I was in the water. Apparently, at some point, the tides changed early and instead of following the same route we had the previous day, we were pushed into a funnel in the Channel. If I had gotten stuck in it, we would have been pushed out to sea. Swim over. So, my pilot was forced to have me crab across the current with hopes I could break free to the other side and continue on. We made it, but it cost a lot of time. Also, during this time, a cold front blew through. The day had been overcast and dreary as it was and the cold front totally blocked the sun and took away any sense of time I had been able to hold onto.

However, impossibly, at this point, I was finally feeling fine. I was peeing on a nice, regular schedule and marveling that my arms, while tired, weren’t in pain. I wasn’t battling any ailments or discomforts, other than some chafing, which we fixed with an extra glob of lanolin. My lower back was aching some, but nothing impossible to manage. And we kept swimming. I was happy and unaware of the tide difficulties, so I was still thinking we’d finish by 4 am.

Then, at hour 47, Craig jumped in the water with me. He let me know that there was a current pushing us the wrong way and we needed to sprint for an hour to break through and get into the British inshore waters. He told me that if we did that, we’d be home free. So, my crew screamed and cheered, and I sprinted. Again. And after our Hour of Power, they reported to me that we had done it and made it past. Hooray! At this point, I really sensed this was going to take longer than planned, but when Elaine jumped in to pace swim two hours later, she said we had less than a 10k to shore. That was farther than I had been hoping, but if it was just a 10k, I told myself it was fine- I can do that!

And then things started to go wrong again. The currents were pushing us in all types of weird directions. My pilot aimed us toward one point, only to be pushed toward another. And then pushed to another. The team kept telling me to push, and I was pushing as hard as I could, but I’d been swimming for 50 hours! How much more could they ask of me at this point? At some point I did the math and realized this lap was already taking longer than 15 hours and I realized, with surprise, that I could see some pre-dawn light breaking through the darkness. The light was disorienting and I started to lose track of where we were. There is a red spire next to Samphire Hoe that I had used as a beacon the night before and most of this night. At first, the spire was far off to my right. Then, suddenly it was directly in front of me and I thought we were headed toward Samphire Hoe. And then I could tell we were somewhere else. A swimmers view of shore in the dark isn’t always accurate, so at some point I told myself to stop looking and keep swimming.

Then, at hour 53, Karl jumped in with me one last time. He told me we had to sprint if we were going to make it. I could feel the water pushing against me, some of it icy cold. Apparently, I’d been swimming in place for a bit and they needed me to get moving one last time.

So, with everything I had, I picked up my feet and hurled myself toward shore. I had no idea where we were, thinking I was seeing boats, but it was a wall. Picking up my pace made water start pouring in my nose and down my throat, which I’d been trying to prevent the entire swim. The way the wind was blowing, nearly every breath resulted in a mouthful of water. I was too tired to care anymore. I just wanted to finish. I knew the shore was close, but had given up believing it was that close. I knew all I could do was to push as hard as I could until we either got pushed back out to sea or made it through. I was starting to wonder what would happen if we couldn’t make it in, but pushed the thought aside. SWIM.

And then suddenly, I saw ground. Solid, real, hard, ground. I was familiar enough with the beaches in the area to know I wouldn’t be able to stand, so I took off my goggles and crawled gingerly to shore. Spent. Disoriented. DONE.There was a crowd of amazing people there to greet me. Somehow, they knew I’d been munching M&Ms and someone draped me in a towel and then a dry robe. They handed me candies and champagne.I had carried my rock from Chatfield with me the entire swim, so I told the story of the rock and dropped it onto the beach and swapped it for something bigger and newer. I remember cameras being there and my friends and people, but no idea what was said, except for a few videos I’ve seen of it. I’ve never been quite so disoriented at the end of a swim. Karl told me later that I seemed more out of it than he’d ever seen me.

Then, my crew hauled me into the rib, back on the boat, changed me out of my suit, drove back to the marina and stuffed me into a car. We drove back to our Airbnb, Ryan and my mom gave me a bath, and then I went to sleep. At that point, my throat was so raw I could only speak in a whisper and wasn’t even able to swallow my saliva. Ryan watched over me as I slept, worried I’d choke in my sleep.

I’m still recovering- I’m thinking my throat and tongue will take a while to recover. I didn’t chafe too much and I’m only sore in the regular ways. No worse for the wear, just tired. Still, it might be a while before I get wet again.

I know this is getting long, but I want to say thanks to my amazing crew.

Eddie and his co-pilots on Anastasia were outstanding. It’s incredible that he landed me right on the Cap twice. He dealt with the crazy currents on lap 4 and got me home safely. I firmly believe Eddie and his team are what made this swim possible. He is an amazing captain with loads of experience. He knows what he’s doing and it showed in this swim.

We also had two observers from the CS&PF to ratify the swim, Suzanne Martin and THE Kevin Murphy. They became part of the crew- willing me forward just like my own crew.

And that brings me to my own people: Ryan, my mom, Craig, Elaine and Karl. They were the perfect combination of experienced swimmers and crew members. Everyone on my boat had crewed either Champlain or Powell (and my mom and Ryan had done both). They knew what it took to crew a swim like this, have amazing problem solving skills (how many crews can say they brought a swimmer back from calorie deprivation to let them swim another 24 hours?) Elaine, Craig and Karl are all strong swimmers (they’ve each swum the Channel- and more). Each one of them brought something different to the team and I needed every single one of them to get me through. They each played a key and critical role to my success and I know I needed them. I provided the arms and flotation, but the other 10 people on the boat did everything else to make this swim possible. Pretty sure my job was the easiest. I just had to swim- they had to do everything else. I’m not sure I even know how to thank them enough for helping me to achieve a dream.

People are asking if this is the hardest swim I’ve ever done. Yes and no. Physically, Lake Champlain was definitely harder. 104 miles over 67 hours was grueling. Fresh water doesn’t ruin your mouth the way salt water does, but you don’t float as well, so every stroke takes a harder toll. However, mentally, this swim will probably be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Every lap had something wrong happen- something that could have easily ended my swim. I wanted to quit- and had good reason to do so. Yet, somehow, my crew gave me the strength to keep going. A year ago, I didn’t know if this swim would still be possible for me. But, I didn’t let go of my dream and gave it everything I had. I had a lot of mental challenges to overcome and a post like this would be remiss if I didn’t mention the people at home who trained with me, let me vent, and encouraged me. I couldn’t bring them all on the boat, but I’m a lucky person to have so many people in my corner, helping me along the way. It definitely takes a village. A special shout out to Jim, D’Arcy, Blaik, Ken, Florencia, Charity, the lifeguards at Carmody Rec Center, and new Karl. There are more, but this post is already insufferably long, so I’ll leave it at this for now.

Cancer- 2 years out- November 2019

Two years ago today, while I was laying flat on my back in an exam room, a doctor came in, looked me in the eye, held my hand and told me there was a very strong chance that the mammogram and ultrasound images she’d just looked at indicated I had breast cancer.

The official results from the biopsy came the next day, but I’ll never forget that first moment of knowing I had cancer. I’d like to tell you I was brave. I wasn’t. I was terrified. I sobbed, alone, in the safety of my car, with Ryan on the phone a hundred miles away. And the trajectory of my life was forever changed.

The girl who plans everything no longer had a plan to follow..That first holiday season was hard. Instead of celebrating Christmas and the season, we were focused on doctor appointments, MRIs, scans, getting my port put in, genetic testing, heart ECHO tests, discussions about whether we wanted to freeze eggs for possible future children we didn’t know for sure we’d ever want, and starting chemo.

Now, two years on, I can’t hardly believe the ways my life has changed and the things I’ve done despite the blockades cancer presented.

While I can’t exactly say that I’m grateful for cancer, I am glad this date falls close to Thanksgiving and the holidays. It’s a very real reminder to be grateful for my family, friends and our life. Cancer HAS brought many blessings: New friends, new experiences, and a deeper compassion for the struggles others face. It’s an ever-present reminder to stay focused on what truly matters and the knowledge that it is ok to let go of control when there are things beyond my powers.

Post-Op, back in the water- December 2019

Today was exactly 4 weeks post op. It’s been a really long four weeks. My surgeon said I could get in the water, for no more than 30 minutes, and “splash around.”

As long as I promise to take it easy, I have the go ahead to start building again, taking care not to put too much pressure on my pec muscle too soon, which, apparently, can cause my incision to split open. Rad.I have a cold. I didn’t care. I got in the water slowly. Savoring the feel of water on my toes, my knees. I slid in and gingerly let myself drop to the bottom of the pool. I pushed off the wall, deep, arms by my side, kicking gently underwater, feeling weightless and free. Within the first few strokes, my lower back was already thanking me. After 10 minutes, my right shoulder was screaming her gratitude as she creaked and stretched. And slowly, my soul heaved a huge sigh of relief. It’ll be ok. I’ve done this before. Breathe.

Grace- January 2020

I stole this picture from a friend cuz I love it.

Last summer, ramping up my training for the English Channel was HARD. At first, I was stressed about my progress (or lack of). I wasn’t hitting my time goals, my distance goals, my weight loss goals. I was frustrated and getting discouraged. I debated quitting, rescheduling, and giving up. Eventually, I came to the realization that I was getting better and stronger, even if it wasn’t at the rate I wanted. And even though I wasn’t the same as “before” and my body felt different, I was still capable, worthy of giving a big swim a shot. When people would ask me how my training was going (like really asking, not just a casual “how’s it going?), I started responding that it was going pretty well and that I was learning to give myself some grace.

Once I learned to let go of my expectations of perfection and the need to be the same swimmer I was before cancer, I found I was back to enjoying the training again. Once there was room to fail, I actually felt my confidence increasing. My body IS different and allowing myself the space to acknowledge those changes as facts, not failures, did so much for me. My training was not perfect this past summer. But I still kept at it, doing my best every day, and gave myself the grace to be imperfect, to try again tomorrow, and the determination to stick with it. And everything worked out just fine.

2:27.36- July 2020

2:27.36

The vast majority of my open water training is done at the Gravel Pond at Chatfield. It’s a touch over 900 meters of fresh water, free of boats, and generally unscuzzy. We’re strictly limited by Colorado State Parks to days and times we can swim there. On Saturday mornings there is a hard 2.5 hour cutoff. For years, the standard I’ve held myself to is 5 laps in 2.5 hours (i.e. 10 lengths, if I want to start a laps vs lengths debate).

In 2018, I never even attempted 5 laps due to my cancer treatments. In 2019, leading up to the 4 way, I tried and tried to get to those 5 laps. I made it once, with max effort. I told myself I was tired from training so much. But, I just resigned myself that my post-cancer body would never be the same again, and that’s ok.

Last fall, I had my final reconstruction surgery to remove my temporary implant (spacer/expander) and replace it with a softer, permanent implant. Almost immediately, I felt more relief than I thought possible. A few months post-surgery, I was hitting intervals in the pool that I hadn’t seen in a long while. I was so excited.

And then, COVID happened. Starting in May, I’ve been swimming 3 times/week at the Pond. That’s not enough to maintain my sanity, but it was all I had and I’ve made the most of the time- feeling very lucky to have been able to swim at all. I was able to get into a pool last week and surprisingly, my pool splits were still good!

Today was a beautiful morning. D’Arcy seemed fiery as we were getting in the Pond with a pod of fast guys, so I decided we were going for it. And we did. We trailed the guys for an hour (unsurprisingly, I’m a slow start). But, then we started to catch up, then pulled even, then overtook them. D’Arcy fought hard, right on my hip for 2.5 hours. In my head, I was screaming at us both to keep up the intensity, even into the wind. The splits were perfect. We were flying. When we hit 1.5 hours, I knew we were going to make our full 5, and I spent an hour swimming with such joy I cant even express it.

2 hours, 27 minutes, 36 seconds. Fastest I’ve been since 2017, and I got to do it with D’Arcy. My heart might burst.