Your whole life, you wake up every morning in your body. It’s your own to build and train and you have the freedom to flex it to your needs. You take for granted that it will be there to convey you through life. You spend time learning to be comfortable in your own skin and to accept your body for its strengths and flaws. You learn to love it for what it is: Yours.
And then you get a cancer diagnosis.
All of a sudden, your body is no longer your own. Any confidence you had in your body is shattered. Your body has betrayed you. It’s owned by disease, chemicals and doctors.
Cancer ravages your body and robs you of your peace of mind.
Even when the treatments have ended, even when the doctors have told you that there is no evidence of disease, cancer still rules your subconscious.
No matter how far out from treatment you are, there is always a little pea-sized nugget reminding you that every ache or pain, every tiny cough or headache could signal your worst nightmare: Cancer has returned. You try to push it aside, putting your hope in the science and doctors that said you’re cured. You live life to the best of your ability, relearning how to exist within a body that suddenly feels like a stranger’s. You push forward, always with the knowledge that if you live long enough, there’s a good chance you’ll have to face the cancer demon again.
You pray that day isn’t tomorrow. Or the next day.
Slowly, you rebuild hope. You rebuild trust. You put one foot in front of the other, from one day to the next, striving to be better and stronger than the day before, always existing alone within a body that betrayed you.
Then you get abnormal test results.
They could mean nothing- a fluke, a hormonal response, a false positive, an indication of something benign.
Or they could mean everything.
And that precarious, tentative hope and trust in the body who betrayed you comes crashing down.
I had some abnormal lab results a month ago- and the only thing to do was wait a month and re-test. It’s been a very, very long month of waiting, trying to stay positive and distracting myself with swimming and dogs. Thank you to the very few people we shared this with, who helped us carry this terror for a month. We didn’t want to tell very many people in case it turned out to be nothing, and it was a scary wait.
Wednesday, I went in for a repeat test and after a very long two days of more waiting, the results came back good. The last two days have been puke-inducingly tediously hard to get through, but to wake up to positive lab results this morning was glorious. It’s a beautiful day. I apologize for the delayed emails, lack of follow up, and sometimes prickly responses. It’s been so hard to focus on anything other than breathing; and I’m so glad to have put this behind us, for now, with the very horrible reminder that cancer never really is truly “behind us”.
But, when in doubt, go to Cabo, swim with the whales and ride the camels.
All winter, I’ve been swimming. Lots and lots of swimming.
Well, lots of swimming compared to a usual winter. But this isn’t a usual winter. I didn’t have a big swim last summer, so I’m not burned out on swimming and haven’t needed my normal mental break before I start a slow build into another long swim.
Instead of enjoying a lull, I’ve been feeling trapped. Aching for more, with nowhere to realistically aim my intentions.
An idea grows
This swim really begins somewhere in August or September.
Toward the end of the summer, D’Arcy and I picked up a new swim friend, Fast Mike. D’Arcy and I were plodding way at Chatfield and we noticed some random guy swimming alongside of us. When we reached the far end, he asked if he could swim with us. We were really happy that he asked, instead of just randomly drafting or trying to race us, so we enthusiastically said yes. After we finished our swim, we introduced ourselves.
As his name implies, Mike is fast. Really fast.
And for some reason, Fast Mike also wants to swim far.
During the fall, D’Arcy and I would randomly bump into Mike at the pool from time to time. Eventually, she asked for his number and the three of us planned a few pool swims together, which involved the complicated task of three of us being able to make a reservation during the same time slot. Growing frustrated with 75-minute time slots, we all joined a private gym that has a 3-lane pool, too much chlorine, and backstroke “flags” painted in red on the ceiling rafters. But, for only $20/month, there are no slots and no time limits. Score.
After a few frustratingly short swim slot sessions, Mike asked if I’d be interested in swimming a 10k sometime at the new tiny pool. I’d only swum 10,000 yards once in a pool all year. And now a strange boy wants to do it on a random Wednesday night?
And so it began. Once a week, Mike and I would swim a 10k. Sometimes, D’Arcy also wanted to swim a 10k. So, strangely, I was swimming back to back 10ks on the weekend. And Mike was still hungry for more, so during the week, we were banging out 8,000 yard swims. Fast Mike is so fast that even at my fastest, he’s still getting a lot of rest, so I was motivated to drop some time to make things harder for him. (I’m probably dreaming that I can ever get fast enough to challenge him, but to his credit, he doesn’t complain.)
Around Thanksgiving, I realized I had swum 11 days in a row. I never swim 11 days in a row. But, I was afraid gyms would close as we hit a holiday COVID spike. So any time I could get a slot at the rec center or D’Arcy or Mike wanted to hit the gym pool, I just said yes.
And this pattern continued through December. I was getting stronger and faster. Surprised, I started logging workouts to see how much I was actually swimming. Some weeks, just accidentally, I was hitting close to 40k. I didn’t mean to- I was just swimming for the pure joy of swimming. Mike and D’Arcy were my outside lifeline and the pools were helping me keep my sanity. And I was having fun, all while my arm hair and eyebrows were getting bleached off, like in the good old days of high school swimming.
Honestly, I don’t remember the last time I spent so much time in the pool. All because Fast Mike wanted to swim a 10k with me.
By the time January hit, I had a few months of solid winter training with D’Arcy and Fast Mike (usually just two of us at a time so we don’t overwhelm the 3-lane pool, but sometimes we managed to snag three slots at the rec center). There was still no purpose or reason for all of the swimming. I was just swimming, swimming, swimming.
Until one January afternoon, I met a few friends for a nature walk around our beloved Gravel Pond. The Pond is frozen this time of year, but generally, it’s where I spend my evenings after work training. During our walk, one of my friends mentioned she and her husband were planning a trip to Hawaii. Jealous, I asked for the details and she explained that flights are super cheap right now and as long as you get a COVID test before you arrive, you don’t have to quarantine. Sounds great.
After our walk, I met someone for a swim lesson and then knocked out another 10,000 yards with Fast Mike.
The next morning, I was cranky. I had planned to make a big breakfast for Ryan, but as I was pulling pots and pans out to start the biscuits and gravy, I just stopped. Close to a meltdown, I took myself down to my office, with the intention of doing some work. It didn’t take long until Cindy’s words were in my mind again…. Hawaii.
Out of curiosity, I pulled up flights. Yup- really, really cheap.
I looked up the requirements to enter Hawaii. Complicated, but do-able.
Should we do it?
Tentatively, I went back upstairs where Ryan had managed to make his own breakfast and I asked, “Do you want to go to Hawaii? I’d like to go to Maui.”
He looked at me like I was crazy (I’m familiar with this look), and mumbled something about wanting to check out the fishing. So, I went off to swim planning the perfect, relaxing Hawaiian vacation on Maui.
Clearly, we made it to Hawaii, but minus the relaxing part.
During his research, Ryan discovered that Maui didn’t have the fishing he was interested in, but the tiny island of Molokai DID. I looked up info on Molokai. There isn’t much to do there besides fish, sit on a rocky beach, oh, and swim to Oahu.
The Channel between Molokai and Oahu is called the Kaiwi Channel. It’s about 26 miles long, and full of sharks and jellyfish. It’s most well-known as being part of the Oceans Seven Challenge, which in addition to Kaiwi includes the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, the Cook Strait, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Tsugaru Channel, and the North Channel. I’ve ticked off three of these swims (Catalina, Cook, and English), with some desire to swim Tsugaru and Gibraltar in the future. I’ve never even considered chasing the Oceans Seven swims, mainly because I’ve never been especially interested in the North Channel (so cold! so many lions mane jelly fish!) or in Kaiwi (so hot! so sharky!). However, Ryan was proposing to pop me onto a deserted island (essentially) while he fished for days. What else was a girl supposed to do?
So I reached out to a few people I know who have swum this Channel, played around on the internet and found a boat pilot. Apparently, January and February aren’t ideal for a swim, but Matt agreed that he’d be happy to take me if we got a good weather window.
Thanks to all that extra swimming at high intensity with Mike and D’Arcy all winter, I felt as though, while not in peak form, I could still muster a measly 26-mile ocean swim on a whim. (That’s sarcasm, just FYI)
So, it was settled. No relaxing Maui vacation spent lounging beachside in the morning and snorkeling in the afternoon. We were in for a week of hard fishing trying to catch an elusive bonefish and hopefully swimming one of the Oceans Seven most intimidating channels.
We didn’t tell hardly anyone we were going. I know the decision to travel right now is divisive and I didn’t want to anger anyone with our reckless behavior. For those of you outside of the US, and even outside of Colorado in some cases, it may seem strange to feel like it’s safe enough to travel right now. However, cases in Colorado have steadily been declining since November. Our restaurants and gyms are opening up. Most of my friends’ kiddos have in-school learning. I know things are hard for many of you and for most of my day to day, I’ve been a really responsible citizen- doing my part to stay home and following all the rules. I have only been inside a restaurant once since last April. I have had family members and friends test positive for COVID. My mom and one of my sisters are teachers. My grandmother’s long-time man-friend passed away this summer from COVID.
COVID scares me. I don’t want to get it and I don’t want to give it to someone else.
So, our decision to go for it didn’t come lightly. However, I had some PTO I needed to use up, Hawaii travel is 100% legal, without any exemptions or special permission required, and we figured Molokai was as remote as you can get. All the studies say flying is pretty safe due to the air filtration systems. Besides, everyone on our flight and in Hawaii had to have a COVID test just to be there, so it seemed less risky than going to the grocery store. Seriously, I probably come into contact with more people going to my daily swims at the gym than I did after spending a week on Molokai.
We flew from Denver to Honolulu and then caught a puddle jumper to Molokai. There were 10 people on our flight and a handful of bags didn’t make it because we were 150 pounds overweight with the cargo. This flight was my first peek at the Channel I hoped to swim sometime that week. It was big, blue, and even high above, I could see the waves crashing. It was intimidating.
Landing in Molokai was surreal. You land on this teeny tiny airstrip in the middle of the island. Flying in, all you see are trees and pastures, with some mountains in the distance. The pilot pulled double duty and after he landed the plane, he hopped out and opened the door for us to crawl out. We snagged 2 of our 3 bags (the final one was part of the group that had been confiscated for contributing to the weight problem), and proceeded inside the one-room airport. A member of the National Guard took our temperature, we showed our QR code that proved we’d had our COVID tests and filled out our health forms, then meandered over to the rental car agency across the street.
We snagged our car and rushed off the only grocery store that was still open on a Saturday evening. We needed supplies since the store was closed on Sunday and none of the restaurants were open, nor would be open until Monday. We waited in line, paid $200 for approximately 3 days of food and headed off the west side of the island to check in to our Airbnb condo.
We woke up Sunday morning to waves crashing and birds singing and a beautiful ocean outside our door. After a Zoom baby shower with my sister in Missouri, we spent Sunday exploring the island and poking around for all the good fishing spots. Monday, I touched base with my boat captain, Matt, while Ryan fished. Fishing wasn’t great. Neither was the weather forecast.
The Waiting Game
We spent all week in the same routine: Get up, eat, fish/read, then some afternoon snorkeling at a nearby beach. Not a terrible way to spend a week, except the wind forecast was consistently bleak. Trying to not stress about it, I focused on finishing some books and not getting sunburned.
On Thursday night, Matt gave me a call. He was out on the water to test things out, and while it seemed good, he wasn’t sure about the forecast. He hung up and said he’d call me in the morning to confirm. Friday night was our last possible window to swim, since our flight home was Saturday night at 11:45 pm.
Friday morning, we waited until about 10 am, and we hadn’t heard from Matt. A friend had sent me a weather bulletin talking about a small craft advisory for the Kaiwi Channel and the weather app on my phone was warning about high surf conditions. So, we assumed the swim was off, ate a lazy breakfast and then went out for one last day of snorkeling and poking around. Ryan found us an abandoned beach, occupied by only two Hawaiian Monk seals with some very excellent snorkeling. As we were packing up to try a new spot, Matt called.
It was 2:30 pm.
“Are you ready?”
WHAT? I explained since we hadn’t heard from him, and all the weather warnings, we had assumed the swim was off.
He sounded shocked, told me the weather was perfect and to meet him at the beach by our condo by 6.
We had 3.5 hours to pack our suitcases, organize our gear, do a last minute supply run, drop our large luggage at the airport for a flight to Honolulu, return the rental car, book a place to stay in Honolulu the next day, and make my feeds. The urgency was high.
The bright side to the fire drill: I didn’t have time to get nervous.
We’ve done a swim a few times, so Ryan and I went into autopilot, running down our mental check lists and getting things prepared. At 6 pm, we were on the beach, waiting for Matt.
After some initial confusion on launch point, we got it together. Matt was stationed just off shore and sending two of my kayakers from the boat, through the crazy surf, to help Ryan get our gear onto the boat.
**I should pause here to note: Ryan doesn’t know how to swim. He can sorta float when we snorkel, but he doesn’t do waves and he definitely doesn’t move forward without help. I was currently asking him to grease me up and then swim some bags to the boat. In 6-8 foot swells. Yes, he loves me more than I deserve.**
Two of my kayakers, James and Connor, arrive on shore, just as the sun begins to set. The first thing I notice is that they aren’t the “guys” I was expecting. They are children. Babies, really. (Ok, to be fair, James is 19 while Connor and his friend Shay, waiting off shore in a kayak, are 16.) But, they seem eager and ready to help, so Connor grabs my carry on-sized suitcase, plops it on his boogie board and prepares to head out to sea. He just about times the waves right… but doesn’t quite make it. Watching a kid, hugging my suitcase to his chest while he crests a giant wave might have been one of the most barf-inducing moments of my life. But, he made it and came back in for round two.
Meanwhile, a security guard arrived in a golf cart. Ryan and I busy ourselves with getting me greased up, while James calmly and politely explained to the security guard that he and Connor have no intention of staying on Molokai, they’re just here to help escort me to Oahu, not spread COVID to the native population. Listening to James with the security guard, my nerves about his age are immediately alleviated. He was calm, respectful, and got his point across. I don’t know many grown men who could accomplish that so well.
Once the security guard was satisfied, James and Ryan are ready to head to the boat with a couple of bags of goodies. Connor has made one more trip while were prepping, and he was back for the last bag, which has my plastic tub that contains Advil, Nuun, my daytime goggles, headlamps, glowsticks, tape, etc. Ryan was quietly panicking as he zipped his glasses into his shorts pocket, while James calmly and confidently coached him on how to make it to the boat. They timed the swells perfectly and were off to the boat. Matt, to his credit, managed to get the boat in pretty close in that moment, so Ryan didn’t have too far to go. I held my breath as they swam out, but got distracted as Connor mistimed a wave and went crashing around with my last bag. Me and the security guard rushed around to check on Connor, collect the boogie board, and drag my now filled-with-water supply box out of the surf. While I was helping Connor, Matt begins to yell “Let’s go, let’s go!” I see Ryan safely on board, Connor was situated with my tub again and James was on his way back to help. I saw Shay out with the kayak and ready to go. There was a lull in the waves, so Connor and I left the beach together.
I swam heads up freestyle to the boat, pulling up alongside the boat and the kayak. James and Connor were a bit behind me, but moving along, with no dangerous waves approaching. I asked Ryan if he was ok, and he yelled down that he was fine. Matt directed me to keep swimming, so Shay and I headed off while Connor and James caught up.
This was turning out to be the most insane swim I’ve ever done, and we’d just barely begun.
By 7:00 pm, the sun is fully down and it was getting dark, fast. Shay had a hard time positioning himself with a swimmer- it was his first time escorting a swimmer and these weren’t exactly ideal conditions for a beginner. The wind was pushing hard, making it hard to hear. The swells were huge, shoving us together and then back apart. Because the wind was at our backs, Shay was constantly getting pushed far ahead of me, then backpedaling before I could see where he was. He was also positioned on my left- which isn’t my strong side. I really prefer things on my right, but the way the wind was blowing, being to the left was smarter. Only problem is, Shay was kayaking slightly erratically and I have a tendency to veer left into anything that is close by. Not really an ideal combo! Surprisingly, we only crashed into each other twice, though the second time I hit the side of the kayak with my head, just on top of my nose. I was just grateful that the loud crunch I heard wasn’t my nose full of blood. Still, I could tell Shay was trying hard and he was apologetic every time we stopped for a feed. The conditions are legit tough for kayaking, and I resolved to just deal with it, without getting annoyed.
Then, just after my 2 hour feed, Shay tapped me on my back with the paddle.
“We have to go back to the boat!” He’s yelling over the wind and the waves. “I don’t know why, but they just told me we have to come back.”
Knowing that’s not a good sign, I made haste back to the boat. We went around to the back of the boat and all I could hear was shouting. Thinking is a shark somewhere close by, so I started to panic as well.
I heard Matt yelling at me to “hurry up and get on the boat.” But as I was making my way toward the boat, Ryan’s clear and calm voice rang out: “Just stay there. The boat broke, but we’ll fix it. Just wait there.”
**I should also note here: This is not the first time I’ve had a boat break. They break all the time. So much so that my sister Melody likes to joke that I’m more reliable than any boat. I wasn’t concerned or bothered by a little engine trouble. I was confident they’d get it to work and we’d be back to swimming in no time.**
While Ryan and Matt fixed the broken motor, I was treading water, chatting with Shay. It was a moonless night and the stars were incredibly bright. I can see Molokai glowing behind me, already seeming small in the distance. I couldn’t quite make out Oahu. I was still busy appreciating the view and chatting with the kids when Ryan let me know that everything was fixed and we can start swimming again. A fifteen minute stop to take in the stars- not such a bad deal!
Shay kayaked another hour before switching out. Connor was in next and was having a much easier time. I was finally able to feel like I was getting into a rhythm. I could feel the current pushing off Molokai and I was grateful the wind and waves were headed in the right direction. Every now and again, I could catch the tail end of a wave breaking, earning a few moments of weightless body surfing. I was just settling in to enjoy the ride.
And then the nausea set in.
I made it about 5-6 hours before puking.
In the past, whenever I’ve puked, I always feel better immediately. Not this time. I puked up my feed, but could tell there was definitely more vomit coming. I proceeded like this for hours. Puke, dry heave. I kept trying to drink my regular feed for about an hour and half before giving up and asking Ryan for just straight water. At first the water didn’t stay down, either, but then gradually, I realized I’m going about an hour between puke fests. Tentatively, I asked Ryan to send me down a diluted Carbo Pro mix with a Nuun tab in it. It tastes DELIGHTFUL, but I immediately barf it up. I try again half an hour later. This time it stayed down. But, the next hour, everything came back up.
All the while, Ryan was encouraging me from the boat. At the first round of vomit, I heard Matt ask if I’m ok or not. Ryan, confidently told him, “Oh, she’ll be fine.” I knew I was fine, but hearing it from Ryan helped. At the next stop, Ryan assured me I’m making great time. I remembered being told there’s a current off of Molokai, so I don’t get too optimistic. Besides, I’m too busy puking to care how fast I’m going.
Every swim has it’s own rhythm. This one: Feed. Puke. Dry heave. Feel ok for 15 minutes. Gradually feel more progressively sick until right before the next feed, so I’m ready to vomit again right on schedule. Feed. Vomit. Dry heave. Repeat.
I lost track of time.
At one point, I asked the kayaker for the time. It was just about 4 am, he told me.
I was immediately flooded with relief. 4 am was GOOD. I had thought it was closer to 2 am, so the news that I made it through the dreaded 3 am hour was incredibly encouraging. I was close to sunrise and I KNEW I’d feel better just as soon as the sun came up. I risked a look ahead of me, toward Oahu. It looked CLOSE. Behind me was only blackness.
I put my head down. Puked. Start swimming.
As the sun began to rise, black giving into grays, I requested my favorite: Just water with a side of Peanut M&Ms. I was getting hungry from lack of calories, and starting to feel fatigued. I wasn’t convinced I could keep them down, but knew I needed to try.
The first throw, the M&Ms came down in a water bottle, filled to the brim with sea water. For the first time, I felt defeated. I let my exasperation win for a minute, but was able to remind myself I was just hangry. I gulped some water and nicely asked Ryan if he would reload the M&Ms and send them down again as soon as possible. He was understanding, pulled my bottles back up, and sent me fresh supplies quickly. I stuffed a few in my mouth, the chocolate feeling delightful on my swollen salt tongue. “Don’t puke, don’t puke.” I could feel the nausea start to rise as I chewed, but I fought it off and put my head down to swim. No vomit. 30 minutes later. Repeat. No vomit.
Finally, the sun was really starting to come up. As I was swimming, I thought I could start to see the bottom of the ocean. It was really deep and in the dim light, I couldn’t quite tell for sure, but as the full dawn arrived, I was more and more confident I was looking at ground. I was amazed. I poked my head up again and sure enough, there is land, directly in front of me, looming closer and closer.
No marathon swim is ever finished until your feet touch ground, so while I was incredibly encouraged at what I was seeing, I knew better than to let myself get too excited. I welcomed every wave that pushed me toward the finish line, all while knowing that the ocean could change her mind at any moment and decide to try and shove me back to Molokai.
As the sun fully rose, I felt like I was swimming in an aquarium. I could see schools of fish below and dozens of birds swooping overhead. More than one bird got a little closer than I’d like, clearly trying to decide if I was edible. I got my first full look at Matt- it was dark all night and I had no idea what he or Shay look like, since I only met James and Connor on the beach back in Molokai. I laughed and told everyone good morning.
As expected, I was feeling infinitely better now that the sun was up. We did one more M&M feed and James told me that we were in the final push. I momentarily wondered if he knew what he was talking about- the shore looked close, but not quite close enough for a final push/last feed situation. I’d predicted a 15ish hour swim, and while I was too worn out to do the math, I knew I was closer to 13 hours than 15. I hoped James was right and we were closer than I expected.
I’d heard Sandy Beach could be really crazy as far as swells go for a swim finish, so I was mentally preparing to body surf in. And then suddenly, I realized I was coming in for a landing. The swells were manageable, though I admit to very ungracefully failing to catch 2 waves in. But, finally, I was walking, clearing the water. A group of local open water swimmers had came to greet me, and as I exited, they all yelled at me to hurry up- a wave was coming, so I ran the last few yards to clear the surf. Cars were honking in the parking lot and I smelled someone cooking sausage. Bill Goding was the first to meet me at the finish and he immediately draped a lei around my neck. Then, several others came and did the same. What a magical ending to a perfectly miserable swim.
Matt’s wife was on hand to drive me via car to their house, where the boys are waiting with the boat (they live on a canal, so the boat docks there). We checked Ryan’s phone for the official start and end time- 12 hours and 39 minutes. The fourth fastest time across that Channel. I was incredibly thrilled that we pulled it off, happy to be done in 12 hours and not 15 or 16, and ready for a nap before our flight home that evening.
Eventually, we grabbed an Uber to the airport to get our big suitcases, then headed back to a hotel where we showered and napped before getting a huge dinner at Duke’s on Waikiki Beach, then another nap before heading to the airport.
Our flight home was uneventful. The blast of arctic air hitting us on the jet way back in Denver was the very real signal that our adventure was over.
A little over a year ago, I took on my first real life coaching client, Neil. When he first contacted me in 2019, he intended to swim around Key West in 2020 and wanted help in achieving that goal. Apparently, I’m a bad influence, because just a few months later he had decided he really wanted to swim the English Channel. He booked a slot for 2021 and suddenly we were discussing if a warm salt water swim around Key West in 2020 was the best target swim to get ready for the Channel in 2021. I sent him a list of swims that I thought offered some benefits as a test swim leading up to the Channel.
On that list was a 12.3 mile/19.7 km swim from Anacapa Island back to mainland California.
The Anacapa Channel offers water temps similar to THE Channel, generally involves a couple of hours of night swimming, and it’s salt water (something we’re strongly lacking here in Colorado). In my mind, it’s a perfect fit for someone training for the Channel or looking toward longer ocean swims. It’s long enough to help you practice feeds, long enough to know what English Channel water temps feel like, to give you salt mouth and chafing, and to see if your crew gets sea sick. But, it’s also convenient and easy to get to, and not terribly expensive. It was my first choice for Neil as a trial run, and I was delighted when he picked it (without too much interference on my end).
When 2020 started, I had no plans for any swims. But, then as 2020 really warmed up and started doing it’s thing, I realized I needed a goal or target. When June rolled around and I found that I could consistently train again, though not as much as I would normally like, I started looking for some swims that might be able to happen even with COVID restrictions.
The Catalina Channel Swimming Federation cancelled their swims for 2020, but the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association was still moving forward with their swims, with some restrictions and limitations. I’d been talking to Neil about Anacapa for about 8 months at this point and the idea occurred to me that it seemed like a really fun swim for me, too. So, I emailed Dawn Brooks who pilots the Elka Lynn, who was also taking Neil on his swim, and asked if she had another spot in September to take me, too. She had a spot two days after Neil, so I snagged it.
First up, I had the Lake Tahoe length on the agenda. Tahoe was a last minute trip thanks to COVID cancelling other plans. To get ready for Tahoe in August, I built up my distance and base, always with Anacapa in the back of my mind.
I suppose I should pause here for a moment and say this: I mostly never focus on records or trying to swim something fast. I enjoy the peace of just enjoying the water in my own time. I’ve always been a middle of the road swimmer when it comes to speed. I spent many a swim practice in college going last in a lane and being run over by the faster guys. I’m fully aware that there are lots and lots of swimmers faster than I am. Even in a marathon swim race, I’m able to focus on my own swim and own pace. If I win, neat, but that is rarely the focus. I enjoy a good competition as much as the next person, but generally, that’s never my goal.
Also, as I’ve focused on longer and longer swims the last several years, I’ve let go of a lot of my speed. Last summer, training for the English Channel, was especially hard for me. Coming off of my cancer treatments and with my tissue expander in place under my pec muscle, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t hit intervals in the pool that I’d been able to do in 2017, prior to my cancer diagnosis. I struggled a lot with the lack of speed mentally and questioned my ability to swim the Four Way because of it. As last summer went on, I had to gradually let go of my speed expectations and focus instead on my strength and endurance. I can’t tell you how many times I told myself, “You might not ever be as fast as you used to be, but you can still be just as strong!” When I swam the English Channel last summer, I was really at peace with my speed and my abilities moving on. I might not ever be as fast as I was, but I proved to myself I could be just as strong.
But, then in November 2019, I had my final breast reconstruction surgery. We replaced that hard, awful expander with a real breast implant. The real implant is a lot softer and moves a little more naturally. I regained a lot of shoulder mobility that I thought I had lost. As I eased back into training in January and February, following the surgery, I noticed something was happening- I was getting faster. By the time COVID hit, I was actually giddy with my progress in the pool. Even though I was still pretty out of shape, I was hitting intervals I hadn’t seen in a few years. I was incredibly happy and optimistic about the future.
And then COVID. Like most of you, I went a few months without a pool. Fortunately, we were able to swim open water here and there starting in April. I ran. Hiked a lot. Did exercises in my driveway. I did everything I could to hold onto my fitness and mental sanity. In mid-June, pools started to open up again. When I did my first pool workout in nearly 3 months, I was shocked: I hadn’t lost much of my speed.
As I was training in the pool and lakes for Tahoe- my times kept dropping. My strength was coming back and so was my speed. I haven’t been so excited to be fast in so long. Pretty much since 2013, I’ve focused on long swims and it’s been a long time since I had the opportunity to focus on something short and fast. 2020 gave me that opportunity and Anacapa provided a location to test myself and see what I could do over a sprint distance. It’s a totally different type of fun to sprint, and I gotta say- I’m into it.
So, the plan became: Build the base to swim Tahoe, then use the month in between to really focus on speed work. I had looked up the records for Anacapa- the existing female record of 5:28 by Karina Garcia seemed tough, but within my ability, as long as the weather, currents and tides cooperated. (The men’s record of 4:38, set by Jim McConica, is blazing fast and unless there was a push from a current and a really helpful tailwind, I knew that was probably outside of my speed range, even at my very best.)
As soon as I got home from Tahoe, I changed my typical training, focusing on shorter swims with more intensity, some speed work, and some kicking. I had a friend write me workouts to get me out of my own head, to add some variety, and help push me into a focus on intensity instead of volume. I preach this to others, but I’m not always so great about doing it myself. One time, he had me do 10 x 100 @ 2:00 all out. Unheard of. I almost revolted and refused. Such a waste of time to sit on the wall and just rest! But, a few friends ganged up on me and convinced me that this was a smart move, so I relented and gave in. I knew they were right. Guys, 10 x 100 all out is hard. I nearly got a cramp and I don’t recall the last time I got my heart rate so high.
In addition to the pool workouts, we started in the lake doing one lap easy and then sprinting all out on the way back. I had a pod of guys who are my speed and faster and they really pushed me out of my comfort zone. I might be faster in a 20k, but they can all beat me in a 10k. I learned that sprinting and swimming hard takes a lot more of my focus than just a long hard grind. I learned to try and maintain my kick over a longer period of time. At times it was frustrating, but it was also fun. As September moved on, and water temps dropped, a few of the guys put on wetsuits. They’d give me a head start and then chase me down across the lake. I’m not used to being chased, so this added a fun dynamic to a workout. They all knew my target and I can’t even express how grateful I am to everyone for pitching in and helping me work toward a goal. I’ve said before that the Colorado Open Water Swimming community is the best- but in case you missed it, we’re awesome.
The one month between Tahoe and Anacapa went by in a flash and before I knew it, Neil was tapering for his swim and I was winding down a little.
Neil was set to swim early Monday morning, Sept 21. My swim was set to start early Wednesday morning, on the 23rd. I flew out after work on Monday, after watching Neil’s dot all morning. He had a fantastic swim- 6 hours and 20 minutes, under our target of 7 hours. He had great conditions and I was crossing my fingers I’d get the same.
I traveled alone- enlisting the help of local kayaker extraordinaire, Neil Van Der Byl for help. Neil is an experienced kayaker, plus his wife, Grace, is a phenomenally talented swimmer herself, so I was confident he could handle me without adding a second crew member.
Neil was set to meet me on Tuesday evening, so I had all day Tuesday to rest and relax. I met swimmer Neil and his crew for breakfast to hear all about his swim, and then spent the rest of the day laying on my back in my hotel room, napping and waiting for kayaker Neil to arrive. He got there around dinner time and we had a sandwich picnic on the hotel balcony and then went to bed around 8 pm.
I’m a terrible sleeper in general, especially before a big swim. The day leading up to my English Channel swim, where we had a midnight start, I desperately tried to sleep, and didn’t manage it. I was not optimistic that I’d be able to fall asleep at 8 pm. But, when the alarms went off in the middle of the night, I was shocked to realize I’d managed to sleep for 3-4 hours.
We met our pilot, Dawn, and SBCSA observer Dave Van Mouwerik at 1 am at the marina. We loaded up our minimal supplies, signed the waivers, read the rules and headed out to Anacapa, right on schedule. I laid down, wrapped up in my parka, for a nap.
The plan was to start my swim around 4:30 am. However, when Dawn came down around 5, and we weren’t there yet, I asked what was up. She said we were just off the island, but the fog was so thick she couldn’t even see the water from the steering wheel. She was hoping it would clear, but until it did, we had to wait. At that point, I figured my goal of swimming fast was gone- we weren’t timed with the tides right any longer, so nothing to do but sit and wait, and hope that the fog would clear so I would actually be able to swim.
Luckily, around 6, as the sun came up, the fog vanished. Anacapa came into view first, and then a few miles off, we could see Gina, the oil rig. Dawn exclaimed, “I can see Gina! Thank God, let’s go!” (Or something like that.) So, I got my suit on, Neil got his kayak ready, and Dawn painted her customary black and white stripes on my right arm and leg. Dawn believes the paint looks like a sea snake, which deters predators above and below. Never one to balk at a tradition, I’d been looking forward to earning my stripes for months.
Finally, time to swim!
I jumped off the boat into the clear water, just off the island. Neil was waiting for me in the kayak and Dawn flashed a light on the point I needed to touch to start my swim. It was still fairly dark and I had my daytime/darker goggles on. I found swimming the 25 meters in the near dark, through the kelp beds to be one of the most terrifying minutes of my life. I’m only partly kidding. 🙂 But, I found the spot, touched the rock and we were off.
Neil really is a fabulous kayaker, so we got into our groove really easily, even though he’d never kayaked for me before. He has a cool kayak with pedals, so I could stay really close to him, without worrying about getting hit by an oar. They positioned me in-between Neil in the kayak and the main boat with Dawn and Dave. Normally, I hate this configuration because I have a tendency to take hard left turns, but Neil prefers this so he can see me and the boat all in one line. The kayaker wins in this setting, so I didn’t argue. Because Neil was able to hold such a steady straight line and I was comfortable staying close, this was a non-issue this time around. I focused on Neil; he focused on me and the boat. And I didn’t get yelled at for trying to get run over by the Elka Lynn.
Also because Neil was able to stay close, he was able to put my feed bottles right into my hand. This sped things up for me. He’d hand me the bottle while I was swimming, I’d chug, drop the bottle (attached to a rope) and start swimming. The observer, Dave, reported that I was averaging feeds under 10 seconds. Yeah!
One of the things I’d worked on the last month was a fast start. I take forever to warm up. Swimming hard actually hurts me more in the first 90 minutes than it does after 2 hours. We knew if I wanted to have a chance to break this record, I’d have to be out fast and hard. During one 2.5 hour lake training session, Jim got in with me and literally made me sprint for the first hour to keep up with him. I was cursing at him under water and just trying to hang the best I could. By the time we got to the last half an hour of our swim, Jim was lagging and I was able to sprint away from him over the last 1000 meters. We finished within one of my fastest 5 laps at the Pond, ever. Afterward, he told me that I’d proved his point: Even if I go out harder than I want, I can still hang onto it at the end. I knew he was right, so I went into this swim with confidence that I could take it out hard and still hang on through the finish.
As I came off the island, I was pushing hard. Trying to stay loose, make sure nothing hurt, but still trying to set a hard pace. At the 1 hour mark, during my feed, Neil was giving me my stats: stroke rate, distance traveled, etc. Hmm. Not great news. I knew I was swimming hard- thinking about all the guys back home urging me to go out fast. At the 90 minute mark, the same, with the additional news: You’ve got a current coming at you at your 2 o’clock. You’re only going 2 miles an hour, you need to hit 1 mile in under half an hour if you want to get this record. At the 2 hour mark, I was told: That was better, but you need to be 27 minutes/mile if you want any chance to catch up to the record. At the 3 hour mark: You’re definitely out of the current and catching back up. The kicking is helping. Stroke rate is still 77. We flew by Gina- I couldn’t remember how far out she was- but I barely paid her any attention. Neil assured me I was on pace, the currents were behaving for the time being and if I kept working, I was still on pace. At the 4:30 mark, exactly what I was hoping to hear: If you feel strong, this is your last feed. You have to keep kicking hard to get there- it’s going to be close.
I remember thinking at that point that I hoped he was lying to me- that we were a little closer than he was telling me. I was making an effort to not look ahead, but at this point, with less than an hour to go, I popped my head up to see what I could see. The shore looked REALLY far away- and I then believed Neil that it was really going to be close, within minutes. So, I put my head down and powered on.
I have a really good internal clock that tells me when my 30 minute feed is supposed to come. So, I knew, roughly, when we’d gone another 30 minutes. I poked my head up again and, with relief, saw a lot more sandy beach than I’d seen 30 minutes prior. I still wasn’t sure how far we had to go, so I put my head back down and powered on. Moments later, I realized that it was getting shallow. Swimmer Neil had warned me about this the day before: It gets shallow and you’re still a long way out. So, I didn’t get too excited, but couldn’t help smiling. At this point, I knew the record was mine. Right after that, I started seeing the pier and then Dawn in the main boat dropped back, then the water rapidly became more and more shallow, and then I could stand. I “ran” out onto the beach, where a few local swimmers had come to greet me.
5:07.10. We had done it!
Neil and I chatted with the folks who came to greet me for a few moments and then back into the water to the boat, where I floated a few minutes to cool off some.
My crew reported that the water was between 61 and 66 (16.1-18.8C) the whole way- I can report I was hot most of the swim. I only peed twice, which was not ideal. I saw nothing in the water, except one jelly fish way far below. Because we had planned a 4:30 am start, I didn’t even pack zinc/Desitin for sunscreen, so I came out with a pretty decent cap tan. I made no efforts against salt mouth, and my tongue managed to get pretty swollen in just 5 hours. My swim suit chafed along my back, where I didn’t hit it with lanolin prior to the swim. Rookie mistake – I know better. My arms were sore, and places in my core were also sore the next day. Clearly I was working in ways I don’t normally.
But mostly, I had lots of fun. It was fun to swim fast for a change. It was fun to only swim for 5 hours. I can’t tell you how many people asked if I was doing a double Anacapa or something longer. But, seriously, I love a good 12 miler. A 10k is still a little on the short side for me to really enjoy, but that 20k mark is just so much fun.
I didn’t get to savor the swim too much- we went from the boat, to a quick shower at the hotel, then straight to the airport, and home. I only took Tuesday and Wednesday off of work and then it was right back to the regular routine.
It was such a beautiful stretch of water. I can assure you, I’ll be back. I was happy to finish off my California Triple Crown (Catalina, Tahoe, and one of the Santa Barbara Channel Islands). I also really do recommend this swim as a great lead up to the English Channel.
This was my last planned swim- nothing on the calendar- so, I am feeling a little sad that summer is over with no plans for next summer made just yet. I’m feeling a little anxious about what COVID might do here over the winter. But, this was a beautiful swim to add to the mess that is 2020, so I am extremely grateful for the SBCSA and Dawn Brooks for allowing swimmers the opportunity to swim this summer.
Here is Dave’s quick recap from the swim, if you’re interested: