Tuesday, April 21. 2009
Simeon got the Promenade moving early to get us from St. John to Peter Island for our morning swim in Great Harbor. There is a fantastic stretch of coral here, although I am concerned about some algae-like growth on the bottom. Overdevelopment of Peter Island? Global warming? Too many yachts emptying their tanks in or near Great Bay? Naturally occurring anomaly? Maybe some critter will think it tastes great, and devour it one of these years.
I am still impressed by the fortitude this group has. Even after all of this swimming, most put in about 2 miles this morning, playing on some water toys at the Oceans 7 Club for a at the ½ way point. Fitzy led a hike on Peter Island, Hank sweated out another run, and some of us tried free diving again. It gets addictive, seeing how deep you can go.
In trips past, I have always had our last swim across The Bight (a large bay) on Norman Island to Willy T’s, a floating bar. This time I decided to lead the group (actually, Fitzy led) along the Norman Island Caves, then along the shore to Willy T’s to avoid any conflicts with drunken dinghy captains. It worked well; the caves were fun to swim into, and we all wound up at Willy T’s for a few rounds of Painkillers. I spoke with Al, the owner of Willy T’s for awhile, he remembered meeting me during my 06’ trip with Hodding Carter, he sent me off with a bottle of paint thinner, I mean Willy T’s rum.
Kerry made a great dinner and slide show for us, then we had a night sail (motor) back to Road Harbor, as we had to get Amy off for an early flight. I put on my dancing bathing suit and played some dance tunes, and a few guests joined in.
Saturday, April 18. 2009
Jam packed day. Wake up at Sandy Cay, swim to Jost Van Dyke, and hike to the bubbly pool. This is a frothy, fizzy part of the island where waves crash over a succession of boulders, filling a pool with clear water. I take a mental picture every time I'm there, as well as a few real ones, for later use in Maine in the middle of the winter.
Afternoon: several guests spent some time at Foxy's, others napped. Some of us did some free diving with deckhand/divemaster Simeon. Then a nice sail to Great Thatch Island. Tom went scuba diving and several of us went for a hike to some 18th century dutch ruins. Deckhand Brent led the hike, maybe "led" is being too kind, as we stumbled through brambles and cactus trying to find our destination. We did manage to get there; lots of really old bottles, a small graveyard, i'm really into that stuff. We brought back a bottle that had "R. Copper & co, Portobello". I believe this was likely a beer bottle from the portobello section of London. More research required.
Quick motor to St. John's Waterlemon Cay. I picked out a swim route that would end up at a nice little cay. I played it up by talking about how nice the starfish were at the finish of the swim; I had seen them there 6 months ago. What I forgot is that starfish move around, duh. Still, a nice swim, margaritas back on board, dinner of chicken and pasta, dark and stormys to wash it down, early to bed for most.
I really really like this group of SwimVacationers. They're easy going, but keep challenging themselves in the water. Only one day left. Urg.
Friday, April 17. 2009
I haven't talked much about this boat. Each time I come down here, I am reminded about how perfectly it suits our needs on SwimVacation. Promenade is a 65 foot long, 35 foot wide trimaran, built in England specifically for Caribbean cruising in the early 70's. It's roomy enough so that the 15 people aboard right now live quite comfortably. It has a lot more charm than newer boats, with lots of real wood and custom built furniture and cabinets. There are 5 guest cabins, 3 crew cabins, 5 bathrooms, a full kitchen, a big saloon, trampolines for napping, a huge cockpit with awning. The platform on the stern is ideal for us to swim from and for getting on and off the dinghy. She sails so smooth, especially on a spinnaker run. The spinnaker is so big I have never gotten a picture of it from top to bottom.
Just as importantly, Promenade's crew is amazing. Kerry and Bazza, who have owned and operated her for seven years (is that accurate Kerry?), are amazing people to work with. Kerry comes out of the kitchen with amazing meals and comes out of the water with amazing photos. Bazza knows the BVI like the back of his hand, and can sail the boat with his eyes closed while giving you a history lesson and soldering some piece of electronics, all at the same time. Simeon and Brent are our deckhands this week. They silently keep the boat clean, put the sails up and down, make drinks, get supplies, entertain the guests, a million other things, and help me keep guests safe while swimming.
Everything clicked today. we had a 2.2 or so mile swim in muskmelon bay off Guana island, then got pulled around the bay at high speeds on a variety of inflatable toys. a spinnaker run to sandy cay off Little Jost van Dyke, another swim of perhaps a mile, steak dinner, then a stroke analysis clinic in the saloon. I keep it really low key; anyone that pretends to know all the answers about swimming is full of beans. There's such an opportunity to improve your stroke down here; you float better, and you're swimming twice a day.
Could there be only 2 full days remaining? Ouch.
Wednesday, April 15. 2009
Hi. My name is Ashley Ellis and last year I competed in my first open water race ~ The La Jolla Rough Water Swim. This event takes place in beautiful southern California. The water clarity is fantastic as the La Jolla Cove is known for snorkelers and divers ~ most likely seeing seals, unique fish and even a leopard shark! I highly recommend this race for people not only locally but people who want to experience a fantastic city. La Jolla is only minutes from San Diego and Del Mar. Being the home of thousands of Tri-athletes and other elite athletes you will find people constantly enjoying the amazing weather and environment. I recommend planning your trip for a long three day weekend. On Friday night you will find TONS of people swimming in the cove while on Saturday take a hike in Torrey Pines. Also depending on the date of the race you might be lucky enough to see a Horse Race at the Del Mar Race Tracks. You will find TONS of great restaurants too all along the coast.
Last year I competed in the 1 mile where this year I plan to tackle the Gatorman. These races feature some of the best open water racers where as a spectator you will enjoy watching the race from the CLIFFS.
This morning we woke up at Mountain Point at the north end of Virgin Gorda. our morning routine consists of 2 breakfasts. the first one is continental; most of us have pb and J on toast, coffee, some fruit. then we swim. then we have breakfast again, this time made to order, lots of eggs, bacon, etc.
We started our first swim with a buoy turning clinic. this is an important skill in open water competition, and my assistant guide Fitzy does a nice job explaining/demonstrating. after the clinic, we all did a buoy turn at the same time, and it got rough; lots of jostling, all fun. the swim brought us over some of the best coral around, then to a white sand beach, then we completed the triangle back to the Promenade.
Mid-morning - back in the water to explore the Moon Pool. it's a cave with no roof that you can only enter by swimming underwater 4 feet down, then about 8 feet through a large hole in the rock, then up into the cave. Got some good photos here. some of us explored a really narrow cave nearby, the surge made a thunderous boom at the end of the cave, very dark, very loud, very exciting.
Afternoon - sailed with the spinnaker up to The Dogs, a group of uninhabited islands northeast of Tortola. I had never been here before, but quickly saw a good route for a swim. It turned out to be a little bumpy, so we swam as a tight group along the shore, snaked through a reef, then onto, you guessed it, a white sand beach. Everyone seemed quite proud of their efforts, rightly. We celebrated at Michael Beans Happy Aaarrrgghh at Marina Cay, feasted on mahi mahi, and went to bed.
Tuesday, April 14. 2009
This morning I kind of screwed up our swim for the second time, heading us into the wind and the sun, making for slow going (1 hour for the 1.2 or so miles) and tough navigation. but by the time we reached Cooper Island, everyone was exhilarated, to the point where 4 of us swam back (35 minutes) sun and wind at our backs.
Kerry made great hot breakfasts to order, several guests commented on the delicious omelets. Mid morning for many was spent exploring Salt Island, collecting ancient sea glass, napping was popular today (i took one too).
A quick sail to The Baths on Virgin Gorda, where we explored the natural grottos formed from massive boulders. Then we took some stroke videos for later analysis. our evening swim was an out-and-back through these great rock/coral formations. I had a great time with guest Tom; we swam like sports cars through Rome through narrow crevasses, feeling fast and maneuverable. ended at a white sand beach, saw a cute turtle in a coral garden on the way back.
Kerry made some 5 or so liquor "cool aids" that went nicely with a great sunset before presenting an excellent chicken dinner. I made a big dark and stormy for myself after dinner, then checked out the amazing starry sky with deckhand B and Fitzy. I might sleep better tonight; I'm quite sure my guests will, the group is jelling nicely.
Monday, April 13. 2009
Sunday, April 12, 2009
Big First Day
Snippets might work best.....
3:00 a.m. - wide awake after dreams about SwimVacation responsibilities.
7:30 am. - this hotel (Hilton Caribe) is posh. take a fancy rainshower.
9:25 a.m. - San Juan Airport - Cape Air terminal - even though flight is supposed to leave in 5 minutes, no
signs of life at the counter, which is typical, here. Finally, a woman appears, mumbles something, and 6
of us make out way to the tarmac. Pilot walks past us going the other way, cursing something about "the
wrong plane". We hang and watch our luggage get switched from one plane to another.
10 a.m. awesome flight over PR, Vieques, St. Thomas, St. John - I can tell from up here the winds are light.
The turquoise waters are really clear. Good signs.
11a.m. It's only a mile to the marina from the airport. should i walk? too hot, roads too narrow. take a cab.
11:30 a.m. meet with Promenade owners mostly about the next charter (SwimVacation is rolling!)
Now the fun part. New friends, old friends. 6 guests show up by noon. we have lunch, motor to beef island, quick swim. Back to marina to pick up remaining 3 guests. Now everyone is here, This is a list of all 15 souls onboard -
Kerry - owner, admiral, cook
Bazza - Captain, historian, fisherman,
Brent - Canadian Deckhand, Disco Dancer
Simeon - Scottish Deckhand, freediver
Hopper - Me
Fitzy - My assistant
Bill - PA
Hank - SC
Amy - Switzerland
Tom - NYC
Samantha - NYC
Yvonne - AK
Reneee - AK
I really enjoy overhearing the getting-to-know-you conversations. Hank built a 40' steel sailboat. Yvonne rides a snow/mt bike hundreds of miles in 20 below temps for fun. Traci is undergoing an inspiring reinvention. Renee ultramarathons. I'll get to know them all much better over the week.
Sail across the channel
Our first swim: Salt Island: Manhead rock to the wreck of the Rhone. Thought I had everything figured out until I realized we were swimming into the sun, making for some tough navigating, but we made it in about 40 to 50 mins.
This invigorated the jet-lagged crew, and we settled into painkillers then seared tuna, Oreo cheesecake. More conversation. A fun group brewing. Sleep.
Thursday, April 9. 2009
We’re just a few days from the start of our next SwimVacation trip to the British Virgin Islands. We’ll have 9 guests; swimmers from such far-flung places as Alaska, Switzerland, and New York City. I have plans for us to swim in some new places – around Sandy Cay near Jost Van Dyke, perhaps from Dead Chest Island to Deadmen’s Bay on Peter Island (much less dangerous than it sounds, unless you’re a non-swimming pirate from the 18th century), and the waters between Ginger and Cooper Islands, an endlessly blue experience.
This is the start of SwimVacation’s April 2009 pass-around trip blog. I say pass-around, because I hope to pass the laptop around the boat and have SwimVacation guests and guides all participate. Failing that, you’ll be stuck with me.
I just finished my packing list. I have copied it here in its entirety. I think it shines a light on what SwimVacation is all about.
2) Bathing suit for swimming
3) Bathing suit for dancing (keep checking back and you may get to see this in action)
5) SwiMP3 player
6) Shorts, t-shirts, sweatshirt
7) 6 pairs of Goggles, all different styles, for sharing
9) Go Phone
10) 2 prs Sunglasses
11) SwimVacation banner to display on the boat
12) Swim Caps – day-glo orange and green
13) Paperwork: guests itineraries, etc.
14) Ironman watch (I only wear a watch on swimvacation)
15) A hat
16) Underwater camera
17) A Monofin, which turns people into mermaids and mermen.
1 Contact lenses
19) General toiletries: toothbrush, etc.
All this stuff will fit in a carry-on, except the monofin, which I am still not sure about lugging along. Simeon the Scottish Deck Hand would really like to try it out while free diving, so I’ll likely attempt to bring it. It’s on loan from FINIS, a swimming stuff maker.
Monday, January 5. 2009
Clear skies and a calm sea greeted sixty-six sleepy swimmers as they awoke to prepare for the 8th Annual Bonaire Eco Swim. Ambling towards Captain Don’s for their race number markings, participants happily swilled java and water and exchanged warm, slightly nervous greetings. People from all over the world—Venezuela, Canada, as well as Alaska, California, New York, and many places in-between—gathered together in an air of anticipation and bonhomie for the 10k, 5k, 3k and 1k races. The stellar water—famous for its amazing clarity, and beauty—waited in its 82F splendor. The colors ranged from a brilliant turquoise to rich cobalt, known locally as “the deep blue”.
Not without a touch of awe swimmers jumped in for the water start, just as the clouds kindly rolled in just in time to shade the fair-skinned swimmers. Boat support, generously provided the Bonaire Marine Park and Captain Don’s, were already in place, as were the dedicated kayak support team. The air was a comfortable 83F as the countdown began. As swimmers started off towards their respective buoys, the race was occasionally interrupted by excited shouts of “turtle!” drawing swimmers off-course for a closer look. Sea turtles, giant blue parrotfish, great barracuda, and moray eels were some of the many exotic (at least to the non-locals) species that were encountered during the event. Bonaire, famous for it’s exceptional sea life and coral reefs, also thankfully has very little in the way of nasty critters, making for an idyllic swim.
Jimmy Wellborn, winner of the 10k swim, was rewarded with a frosty Polar as soon as his hand left the finish buoy. As swimmers left the dock, they gathered at Rumrunners for icy refreshment and to await the award ceremony. Afterwards, an impromptu dance party broke out, spurred on by the Venezuelans. Cave tours, a huge school of dolphin, groups swims (one to Klein Bonaire), eagle rays, a sunset snorkel aboard the very special Siamese junk Samur, octopus, seahorses, the famous flamingos—these were all part of the swimmers’ experience of Bonaire. Shared laughter while watching for the green flash at sunset cemented many an old and new friendship, as swimmers vowed to return to paradise next year. And maybe stay a bit longer next time….
Tuesday, December 2. 2008
Polar Bear Swim? No big deal! It’s not like we need to chop a hole in the ice, come on, we live in sub-tropical Texas; how bad could it be? Besides, there was an option. For the faint of heart the “Plunge” was a mere 200 meters. And the “Double Crossing” is less than a mile; just around the big orange buoy and back. Not nearly as bad as that 5K when you had to take it on faith that there was a buoy and just follow the other swimmers and aim for the water tower on the horizon. In this swim there was the buoy, big as life, and not too far away. No big deal. Besides, I’ve done, there was New Year’s Day in ’76 when the set was 76 x 100s.
But back to the Polar Bear Swim. On this race day, the temperature was an uncharacteristic 46 degrees and there was a blustery wind. No problem; it would give me a chance to pull out my old college sweats; you know the old fleece kind that they retired in the 70s. And besides, the water couldn’t be that cold. But then, as I stood on the dock in my Speedo (I know, nobody wears Speedos anymore, but I am an old guy!), waiting to jump in the water, I heard our Iron Man coach, Keith Bell, mumble, “I’m not so sure about this.” If old Iron Man Keith is unsure, I know that I am not! Turns out that, with the lake being very low that year, the water had cooled considerably, down to 53 degrees. Whoa!
But, in we went. I gotta admit that in all my 5 decades of swimming I do not ever remember being panicky in the water but this time I was - it literally took my breath away. This was the point at which several of our compadres opted for the “Plunge”. And this became my first open water race in which I didn’t even mind those swimmers who felt the need to cheat on the starting line – if someone would just blow the damn horn so we could start.
Then we were off and it didn’t take long to feel at least somewhat comfortable. And there began that lovely burn in my arms and legs as I stroked the water. Ok, I was around the buoy, and although I don’t do this to “win” anymore, (sure I don’t!) there were two swimmers within striking distance I just be able to catch. (I couldn’t catch them which led me to remember that I sometimes change my goals several times in a race like this.) It didn’t help at all when I discovered that the two in front of me, whom-I-did-not-catch, were women about half my age. Oh well, no need to be sexist, they were faster than I – AND they were half my age.
Finally, there was the triumph of having once again challenged my body and myself and succeeded. As I walked to the bank the water didn’t feel all that cold and they air, well, it was still that cold, but everyone was smiling and, I think we all knew that we had “won”!
Now in the old days it might have been beers on the beach to celebrate, but this day, and at this age, we were very content with, and grateful, for hot chocolate. And we did what swimmers do with a race just completed; we talked a little, lied a little and bragged a bit too.
Not a bad way to begin the New Year!
Monday, November 24. 2008
Set in paradise, again, this race compliments the Maui Channel Relay giving its participants (and locals) an open water race that does not require going to Waikiki. A very well run event that starts and finishes on the beach in front of the Maui Prince Hotel in Makena Beach. The water is a beautiful blue and about 80F and teaming with aquatic spectators (turtles, fish and coral). Towards the end of both distances, there is an optional underwater arch each swimmer can dive through for a time bonus. The awards ceremony is held shortly after the last competitor crosses the finish line and dishes out nice local art for the top three in each age category.
Set in paradise, this race is worth doing just because of where it is located. It is 10 miles between the Hawaiian Islands of Lanai and Maui. Well run by Ian Emberson, who hosts a Captain's meeting the night before and an awards banquet the night after. The race starts at 8 am at the Lanai Beach Club every Saturday before Labor Day. It is a six person relay in beautiful blue water with average temp around 80F. The format is each swimmer swims a 30 minute leg. After three hours (six legs), you keep the same rotation of swimmers but for 10 minute legs until your team finishes on Kaanapali Beach, Maui. The water is usually flat but can get rough depending on weather and wind. You are left to find your own teammates and boat (although Ian does assist teams that have difficulty with the latter) and it is pricey, but worth it at least once.
For the ambitious, Ian allows for ten soloist each year. A typical year will have around 50 teams and ten to fifteen soloist (Ian will allow extra soloists if there is demand and fewer teams than expected).
The start is a water start (~waste deep) and the end is a beach finish. There are a plethora of divisions with the OPEN division being the most hotly contested. Top three teams in each division get beach towels with extra towels going to divisions with the most teams. This is a very social event as the awards banquet is a swimmers' party.
Tuesday, November 18. 2008
My long New York training swims seemed like long ago as I boarded my Alaska Airlines plane heading north (way north) from Seattle. After only 45 minutes over British Columbia, I could see white capped mountains high and clear from my window seat. I wondered, where are the towns? What about the houses? Where are the roads? I turned to the woman sitting next to me, “ Hey, are we that far out into the wilderness already?" She said with a surprised smile, “where are you from?" I said, “I live in New York.” She smiled again and asked, "are you on vacation." I figured I’d be upfront and said, “ I’m not sure it’s a vacation --I’m going to try to swim 8.2 miles around Pennock Island this Sunday.” She said with a slight expression, “Oh, you’re kidding -- you’re one of them? So, do you think you can do it? I mean to say, are you ready for it?” I waited a second and asked, do you want the short answer or the long answer?" "I want the long answer!" she said emphatically. I paused again, then responded, "alright, here it is: yes, I think i can do it -I trained six months, I like the open water and I do better in distance events. I think once the race starts, I‘ll be very determined to finish. It will take some very serious issues for me to throw in the towel, but, hey, let’s face it, there are a whole-lot of variables. Guess I’ll need a little luck. Who knows what can happen?- currents, wave action, high chop, nasty wind, water temperature changes, a kayaker from hell, weird fish or maybe even some eye-to-eye contact with a killer whale.” She smiled and said, “ killer whales! Ha! --You will do it!” I smiled, then nodded and turned away to look for signs of life out the window --nothing …For the next half -hour, we talked about small town living vs. city living, winters in Ketchikan, Seattle in the summer and the now infamous “Bridge To Nowhere” (before the national exposure). Then, suddenly, I saw an island up ahead with a narrow, single runway. Yes, it was Ketchikan airport. After the plane landed smoothly, I quickly headed down the aisle for the exit & walked down the ramp into what has to be one of the smallest commercial airports anywhere. I walked away with two carry-on bags filled with clothes for a week, a laptop, my sports gear consisting of power bars, a sleeveless wetsuit, plenty of GU gel (energy gel packs), two pairs of goggles, anti fog liquid and some other necessary swimming gear.
I then walked to the small ferry that would take me to the southernmost Inside Passage town. Like always, my attention was drawn to moving water. It looked greyish and cold, but, be that as it may, I had five days until the big day and I had a race plan, and, yes, I knew I had to stick with it in order to have a chance to finish. In addition, I needed to keep a positive frame of mind, and, again, hope for a little "luck." Truth be known, I guess I tried to appear confident and cocky with my swimming partners and friends in New York about my chances of finishing, but deep down I knew that this event would push me and my swimming skills to the limit. I believe that “luck” has to be thrown into the equation in an event like the Pennock Challenge. I reflected on a swimmer’s short story that I read a few weeks ago: it was all about what could go wrong in a marathon swimming event, and, believe me, he made his point about "luck." In short, he wound up rescuing his kayaker after the kayak sunk before lightning canceled the event. End of story.
It was now 2PM and I waited for a bus to take me a few miles south to a swimming area. The race director, Willie Schulz, recommended Buggy Beach as a good training spot. He was the one who advised me to pack my wetsuit before I left New York since the water temperature was hovering around 55 degrees through August. As I entered the bus, I figured the air temperature was in the upper sixties but the sun was shining in the bright blue Alaskan sky, so I thought it was definitely the right time to start my Alaska cold water acclimation. As we passed Ketchikan (approximately one mile from the airport), I could not help but notice plenty of snow on the mountain tops that surround the town --do I need to say “not good?” After 15 or 20 minutes, I found myself lugging my gear to a 40 or 50 yard beach with rocks and 5 to 10 feet of sand. There may have been 30 people on the shore and a half a dozen kids playing in the water close to shore.
I found a young woman who appeared to have a kind and friendly face. I asked: “Do you mind if I leave my suitcases near you while a take a swim.” She smiled, “not at all, I’m here all day and two of my kids will be in the water for another few hours.” I quickly took off my clothes, slipped on my tight speedo, spit in my goggles, inserted my ear plugs and buckled up my neoprene cap. No time to waste, I thought…I walked out on the rocks to get to deep water and jumped.. “Whoa.”
Yes, it was cold, damned cold at that, but I’ve been in colder water --try Brighton Beach in April or Montauk in May for starters. I started doing breast stroke and figured I would do breast stroke to keep my head out of the water for a minute or two. I then got my crawl stroke going and took it nice and easy. I was concentrating on stroke form and enjoying the wild, interesting environment simultaneously. It was all very new and exciting to me --I was able to see interesting rock formations 35 feet straight down with bright colors and cool reflections. At one point, I actually saw the crystal-clear outline of my body off a huge, smooth, white rock 15 or 20 feet below! What really looked strange to me (which I could never quite figure out) were kelp branches that seemed suspended 5 or 10 feet underwater. Anyway, I stayed focused and set my watch to 45 minutes. Then I spotted some cool, old cabins with faded pastel paint as landmarks or direction points. In short, and in my view, one of the hard parts about cold water swimming is dealing with the first 10 or 15 minutes of tingling all over the body with varying degrees of numbness. So, to sum up, 45 minutes of cold water swimming in the bank…
I was heading back to my suitcases on the beach when a guy walked over to me and said: “I like your stroke.” I stepped back a little. He said, “you look surprised.” I said “Yea, I guess I am, the truth is that I don’t hear that too often. I guess swimmers just swim, anyways, it’s nice to hear, thanks, I guess distance swimming isn‘t much of a spectator sport.” He responded, “Sure, but are you kidding? Most people on the beach were watching you. People around here usually don't go out that far --you were "way out" there! By any chance, are you a swimmer in our big event this Sunday?” I said, “Yea, I am - guess I‘ll see what I have.” He responded: “My name is Tracy and it’s great to meet you, and , you know what? I have 2 kayaks on the top of my jeep in the lot, why don’t we meet later? -- we could kayak around the island, you want to see the course, don’t you?” I said “I’m John, and, sure, it would be great to see the course. We exchanged cell phone numbers and set up a 6:30 meeting at the marina. I then boarded a bus back to town, needless to say, happy and surprised (remember: I‘m a New Yorker, and, generally, friendly offers don‘t come from strangers -- I’m used to all kinds of “other” offers though).
As I sat on the bus looking at the Inside Passage from my window, I got a call on my cell phone from a guy named Mike, a Pennock race kayaker. He asked, “John, we heard you were coming to town and we’re having a party, more like a barbecue, later , can you make it?” I wanted to say "yes" right away, but I already had plans to kayak and I still needed to check into my $14 a night hostel (important note: one with a 10PM curfew). Hey, guess that didn’t leave much time for partying --not to mention the slight issue that I didn’t have a car. Could I have said, “sorry guys, I have to be home by 10PM, otherwise I will be locked out of my room?” So, to sum up, I had to say no to the party, but I ask you, the reader, could I have been more “lucky” on my first few hours in Ketchikan?
Anyway, we had a great kayak trip around the Island and now it’s the second day. I had to find my way back to the Inside Passage for another hour plus of swimming. It was a another rare, warm, sunny, beautiful day (more luck?). My plan was Buggy Beach again. My cell phone went off again. This time it was a guy named Bruckner. “I'll be swimmimng in the race this Sunday too. Just wanted to know if you would join us for a swim at Settler’s Cove, John? We got your number from another swimmer." I said, “well I’m already at Buggy.” He responded, “Okay let‘s do it tomorrow.” “No problem here, all good with me,” I said quickly.
The next day, Thursday, I found a diner without “too many cruise-ship tourists” and I started loading up on protein (3 eggs over medium). After that, I met Bruckner and Michelle (his wife) at a cool, little Red Bridge (I stopped at this bridge the day before to watch kids reel-in salmon every other minute -I’ve never seen anything like it). Anyway, we forgot to tell each other what we looked like, ha! “Luckily,” we were both holding sports bags, so it wasn’t too hard to make a connection. Bruckner & Michelle are from the east coast and it turned out that we knew some of the same distance swimmers. I was beginning to feel more comfortable and “at home” by the minute.
After a 10 mile drive north parrelel to the Inside Passage filled with little green islands backed by deep blue skies, all three of us hiked down to the water and got ready to jump in at the Settler’s Cove shoreline. We did it! Surprisingly, the water at Settler’s Cove felt about 5 to 7 degrees warmer than Buggy Beach. We started swimming north out towards some small, uninhabited Alaskan islands. Bruckner pulled ahead right away and I just did my best to follow his lead. As it turned out, Bruckner was not just a fast swimmer, he was the swimmer who won the Pennock Challenge in 2007. Michelle was also a great swimmer, so I found myself falling behind but stayed “within myself,” and, therefore, comfortable with my pace. We swam for about an hour and headed back towards the great snow-capped mountains of Ketchikan.
Bruckner asked, "would you like to do a radio interview with us at a local Ketchikan radio station that is covering the Pennock Challenge - it's tomorrow, can you fit it in?" I wanted to wait a moment and shoot for a low-key response, maybe something like “I’ll check my schedule” but I guess I waited all of a split second and said loudly and emphatically: “Yes, count me in.” The fact of the matter is that the Pennock Island Challenge USMS race is not only on the calendar of events in Ketchikan and talked about with frequency around town, it attracts some of the most-serious cold water distance swimmers out there. It is also a MAJOR fundraising event for diabetes. The director, Willie Schulz, founded the race five years ago and swims around Pennock Island each year. Willie has also completed a Catalina Island swim.
Anyway, back to my race preparation plan and to sum up: on my third day in Alaska, I had three cold-water swims under my belt, met some first-rate swimmers and very interesting people, and, to top it all off, I had plans to do a radio interview!
On Friday, I did the high protein (again, 3 eggs over medium) breakfast thing again . After that, Bruckner, Michelle and I met at the ‘Little Red Bridge” then we took a two minute walk to do the fun radio interview with Willie and his family. At this time, I think I was starting to feel like a rock star. After the radio interview, I made it a point to let people know I was one of the swimmers in the Pennock Challenge. By taking this approach, I was able to get free organic popcorn, discounted prices on health food, free tasty granola bars with almonds, some extra time at the offbeat Alaska Internet Café, and, lastly, some non-filtered ego gratification. Ha, people I didn’t know started introducing me to other people I didn’t know! Go figure? Hey, now all I had to do was handle the slight issue of swimming around Pennock Island on Sunday!
A few hours after the radio interview, I met Bruckner and Michelle at the "Little Red Bridge" and we drove north again to Settler’s Cove. We stopped along the way to pick up Claudia Rose (a California swimmer & Catalina Island finisher) and a friend of hers. Fifteen minutes later all five of us were back in Alaskan water! Claudia and I were swimming side by side for 20 minutes when she shouted, “John, there is a sea otter right behind you.” I turned around and did not see anything but crystal-clear, blue-green water. Later on, she told me the huge sea otter was trailing me for about 10 minutes. Be that as it may, all of us headed back but Claudia and I tried to take a shortcut by turning into a cove. Bad move: it took us 10 minutes to find our way out and another 10 minutes to swim out. We finally made it back to the starting point safe and sound. No sea creatures to be found. Did I/ we get “lucky”again? To close: add another hour of seriously cold water swimming to the race preparation log!
After the swim, we all met Willie Schulz, the race director, and Michelle Macy at the local Ketchikan diner for a nice pre-race get-together. Michelle swam the English Channel in 10 hours (very fast) a few years ago and did the Pennock Challenge in 2007. In 2008, she did the great Boston Light swim. Needless to say, she is one of the top cold water distance swimmers on the circuit. She showed us all a neat trick at the dinner table --she had a way of placing a spoon on her nose so that the spoon would not come off no matter which way she moved…She seemed to be having a lot of fun with it. After the trick, she gave me a few cold water tips. She knew exactly what happens to a swimmer’s body at varying temperatures. Did she think 55 or 56 degree water was cold? Yes… Like other elite swimmers that I have met or known, she seemed unpretentious and simply “fun to be around.”
After dinner we all met at the airport hotel for a race briefing. The chairs were marked with swimmers’ names. In the chair next to mine was a friendly young woman. She said, “John? Hi, I‘m your kayaker, Amanda, I'm from Southeast Sea Kayaks.” I smiled and said, “Hey, thanks for being part of this. So, ready, Amanda?” I guess I had five important questions (maybe more) on my mind but I quickly posed the most basic one. So, I guess you are very familiar with Pennock, Amanda, right? “Not really, I’ve never been out that way,” she said quickly and firmly. Guess my follow-up questions wouldn’t work well at this point. She read my surprised facial expression immediately. “It shouldn’t be too much of a problem, I know people that do it all the time,” she said as a matter of fact. “Alright, do you kayak a lot?” I responded. “Not really, I handle a lot of the office work at Southeast Sea Kayaks, I wish I could get out much more, the weather is not that great up here,” she said as she shook her head from side to side. At this point, I tried to analyze things or put things in perspective. The first and only phrase that came to mind was “not good.” I tried to get beyond that but when I tried to take a different perspective about the situation, the same thought kept popping up in my mind - not good... not good... not good…not good... not good... not good... not good...
The meeting progressed and we were all given maps of the course while Willie walked us through the tricky parts of the course. Amanda and I took notes about eddies, kelp, point to point direction, currents, possible wind action, waves on the south end, etc. We talked about GU, Gatorade and back up equipment (spare goggles, ear plugs, etc). As the meeting moved forward, Amanda looked involved and seemed to have a very quick and sure grasp of the information given. She then turned to me and said, “Oh I forgot to tell you, I used to kayak a lot as a summer camp instructor a number of years ago. The Pennock will be fun for me too -- I haven’t gone longer than 2 hours though.” Anyway, Willie then ended the pre-race meeting and we all parted.
The next time we would all see each other was on Sunday morning at 9AM at Thomas Basin (right next to the “Little Red Bridge”). So, in short, I walked away feeling good about the race and Amanda. She was honest, smart, had adequate kayak experience, and, more than that, she seemed to be very intuitive and task oriented. I also sensed that she had a no-nonsense side to her. If I needed a push or to hear the words “get moving or no slacking off, John,” she would say them with no second-thoughts. I was also sure she would take care of the feeding part without issues, and, yes, I was “lucky” to have Amanda as my kayaker. To sum up succinctly, things seemed in order, the rest would be up to me and me alone. It was almost time. One day left.
Some people made plans to meet up pre-race day and some made plans to party right after our meeting, but me, I wanted to be on my own at this time. I headed towards home (my hostel bed), but, on my way, I stopped off at the Sourdough Bar in town. After all, I was a tourist too. The Sourdough bar had dozens of interesting, huge photos of Alaskan shipwrecks on the walls. Truth be known, I guess I just wanted to connect with average Alaskans for awhile. I ordered a Heineken (carbohydrates?) and talked about Alaskan bears, camping, Jon Krakauer, Robert Service, Jack London and The Bridge To Nowhere (pre Palin) with a few people next to me. Have to admit, I drank my second Heineken (more carbohydrates?) when me and this Seattle guy traded ideas about Krakauer’s INTO THE WILD book. Oh, by the way, population statistics show that there are about ten guys to one woman in Alaska , and, yes, the population in the bar seemed to reflect those numbers exactly (counting the woman bartender). Oh well…
On Saturday morning (pre-race day), my plan was to play tourist. I took photos of white capped mountains outside my door and hung around with some cool Australian guests at the hostel, in short: I just wanted to relax and build up my strength, which brings me to my last race preparation issue besides getting a good sleep: eating a damn good meal filled with carbohydrates. As you probably guessed, I was on a tight budget (no car rental, hostel sleeping arrangement). I just remembered my long-time swimming partner, Tom Blatt, gave me the phone number of a family relative that owned a Chinese/American restaurant in Ketchikan. So I called Rudy & Clara (the owners) and they gave me directions. As it turned out, their cool Diaz Café was only 2 blocks away from the “Little Red Bridge.” More “luck?” I walked in and sat at the counter with mostly locals and fisherman. Rudy & Clara and the Diaz Café are an interesting success story. They came to Alaska from the Philippines and made the Diaz Café into a popular, first class café.
Both Rudy and Clara were as nice as could be to me. We talked about the race, New York, Tom’s family and Ketchikan. Since I have a true and real weakness for Chinese food , it wasn’t hard for me to order. I saw some orders (huge bowls) coming out of the kitchen. I asked Rudy, “that big bowl of soup over there is what I want , what is it?” He responded right away by saying, “Chinese noodle soup with vegetables - trust me, it’s good -real good,” I looked it up on the menu --it was 9 dollars. “Okay, let’s do it,” I said. Soon after, Rudy brought the huge noodle dish out from the kitchen himself. He smiled and said , “we made it especially for you, John.” I saw 3 or 4 boiled eggs right on top with all sorts of Chinese vegetables hanging from the sides. It seemed to me that the bowl Rudy was carrying was truly heavy. Anyway, I ate it all! (I didn’t even have to pace myself). I wanted to stop at the health food store before it closed, so it was time to go. I asked for a check, and Rudy said “No check, John, don’t even think about paying.” “Are you sure? Well, thanks. That’s awfully nice,” was all I could think of saying. I think they both sensed that I really appreciated their kindness, and, again, I was on a tight budget. We said goodbye and I got halfway up the block when I realized I had my camera with me. I rushed back to the Diaz Café, then we all posed for some great photos. In parting the second time, Rudy and Clara told me they would be rooting for me to finish with all their might. As I walked away down the street (a block short of the “Little Red Bridge”), I smiled and asked myself: more “luck?” Hey, I then made my way up a steep hill on an old side street to the cool, little Alaska Internet Café. To close, it was late in the afternoon on the day before the race , and, to sum up, my stomach was full, my body felt fine and my mind was free of issues. Nothing else but the race mattered to me at this point…
After emailing friends and swimmers, handling some business issues and surfing the internet, I left the Alaska Internet café. I walked 4 or 5 blocks to the hostel. It was 9PM. I got my race supplies together and I planned to get a full 8 hours of sleep. There were only 2 other people in the hostel room and both were already asleep so the lights were out. I pulled my sleeping bag over me and looked up through my window to the bright Alaskan stars. The next thing I heard was my alarm clock - it was 6AM. Eight full hours of sleep -perfect!…I got up, took a warm shower, put on comfortable clothes, then I picked up my race bag... Hey, time to go...
I stopped by the same diner (the one without tourists) and ordered a lightly buttered roll with a large cup of coffee to go. The waitress recognized me, and, yes, she knew where I was headed. “Hey, good luck, big guy,” she said with a warm smile. “Thanks, I’ll do okay,” I smiled back. I walked out the door then over the the “Little Red Bridge” to Thomas Basin. The air was damp and cold (50 degrees), the sky was grey, but the wind was still. I entered the marina an hour early. I looked out at the marina as the rugged and weathered Alaskan fishing boats started up their engines and headed out to sea one by one.
Sue Free, a San Francisco swimmer, waved to me and I walked over to be with her and the group. We all talked and bonded for a little while and then we walked to our assigned boats. I rolled on globs of Body-Glove all over my neck before slipping into my four year old sleeveless Orca wetsuit then I jumped into the 32 foot boat with nine or ten other swimmers. Soon after, the boat was at a red buoy (starting and finishing point). The kayaks were already lined up and ready to go. I saw Amanda and she waved to me with a big smile. I tossed my race bag to her with all I needed packed inside. The wind started to pick up and the cold, grey water got choppy fast. The conditions didn’t matter to me at this point, I just wanted to go.
It was time to jump. I pushed off from the boat with a slight sigh. Somehow, the water seemed to be colder than before. I met Amanda behind the red buoy near all the other swimmers. The gun went off! Finally! Amanda was on my right side paddling away and I tried to follow her lead. That was our plan, she was to lead the way, going from point to point. For the first 15 minutes I tried to find my pace and rhythm. I was holding back knowing that my adrenaline would speed up my stroke count naturally. I saw a few swimmers pass but I was fully aware that I was in it for the long haul and I had to be focused and stay “within myself.” At this point , I wanted to use my body for power. I rolled from side to side while extending my arms fully and holding my glide a little longer than usual (Stefan -Total Immersion coach) “You’re doing great,” Amanda shouted.
Time for my first GU break. Amanda was only a few feet away and passed me the wild berry GU. “I’m so impressed with you,” she said. The words were nice to hear -the break was fast and smooth. I couldn’t help but notice dark grey clouds coming down upon us. The water was also dark and the wind seemed to pick up. I quickly started my stroke. I felt myself on top of the chop and below the chop. I was starting to swallow saltwater so I changed to left-side breathing. Things started to get interesting. I was now into the second hour of the swim and I tried looking ahead for the southernmost tip of Pennock. All I saw were trees, dark seas and dark skies. Better to look into the mysterious Alaskan salty sea depths below, I thought. Some time passed and now I was at the south end of the island. Amanda was right beside me as usual. Time for more caffeinated GU and more orange Gatoraid. Done. Amanda and I knew this part would be tricky (heavy kelp, eddies and wave action). We planned right from the get-go to cut the island as close to shore as possible even if there were heavy kelp issues. After a few minutes of knocking into kelp branches and ducking under waves, I decided to go with my breast stroke. Guess things couldn’t have gotten too much worse, right? Wrong: now add-on an eddy from hell. I turned my crawl stroke up to ninety percent and ten minutes later I finally broke free. Amanda was getting closer now (she circled the island about 20 yards wider than me to stay clear of the heavy kelp). We were now heading north and past the half-way point, from a swimmer’s point of view that meant that I was “heading home.”
The water got smooth which enabled me to get my body into a much more streamline position. From that point on, I would be swallowing a lot less saltwater due to the changed swimming conditions. Amanda was now by my side in perfect position. The wind disappeared and the sky seemed brighter. Time for another GU. “John: look, look , a huge cruise ship, we‘re almost there!” Amanda said excitedly. Sure enough , it looked no more than a mile away to me. Yet, I knew that it was over 3 miles away according to the charts. “Are we getting a push,” I asked. “We could be,” Amanda said. It felt like we were, and, at that time, I thought I had a good hour of swimming left in me. I decided to pick up the pace.
I kept swimming for another half hour at a faster pace but I noticed that the cruise ship wasn’t getting much closer. Could it be that I was in denial from the first sighting of the cruise ship? Answer: yes. After all, I knew the distance of the race and the length of the island. I found out later that there was no assist on the way back - it was simply dead water. Back to the race, I swam on as hard as I could and tried not to look at the cruise-ship. For the first time I “needed” to stop. I was over 4 hours into the race. At this point, my arms were very sore- I was having trouble lifing them out of the water. My face was starting to feel very numb and my stomach was queasy. I think Amanda knew I didn’t have much left but she didn’t let on. “Not far now, John,” she said firmly. “I’m damn tired, Amanda, I don’t know.” “Look, the red buoy (finish line) is right around the corner,” she said as she pointed north. As I turned to look, I started to throw-up. All that was coming out of my mouth was warm liquid, and lots of it. When I turned back to Amanda, she turned away quickly (pretending not to see what just happened). She waited a moment or two, her facial expression turned very serious as she looked deeply into my eyes, then she just pointed her finger forward toward the finish without saying a word... The water seemed to turn colder -it started to feel like ice. I started shivering. I was also getting a nasty cramp in my right thigh that seemed to spread through my entire body when I moved it (I have never felt anything quite like it)... Obviously, things were not good: I was starting to doubt myself, I was damn cold and my body had lost a lot of power, but, that being said, I had the feeling that my kayaker thought I might be able to make it to the finish.
Deep down, I knew I had a little something left but I still wasn’t sure if what I had was enough. I turned on my back and did backstroke for twenty or thirty yards. I flipped over to begin my very slow crawl stroke. Now I would have to use everything I was taught to make it to the red buoy. I thought of my coaches at the CP club. What could I use now? Could I swim using less breaths like Lauren taught? What about Rod’s focus on straight leg kicking? How about Brian’s body rotation points? Could I get my elbows high like Cami wanted? The truth is that I was swimming on instinct now. The real question was, “how much did I want to finish?” I guess I knew all along that it would be my heart that would ultimately determine my fate. Back to the race: I continued on. My concentration was slipping away. I was weak, very weak.
At this point, I wasn’t sure if my arms were clearing the water. “John, look, there’s the buoy, you’re almost home!” Amanda shouted. Yes, there it was! She was not kidding this time. It was maybe 200 yards away! I put my head down and just kept my very slow pace consistent. I started counting strokes to myself: one, two, three... I knew that I would be a Pennock Challenge finisher before I got to one hundred fifty!Four, five, six, seven, eight, nine... I heard Bruckner Chase and other swimmers cheering me from two boats just south of the red buoy. I felt like it was all a dream. I was now within five yards of the red buoy. I held my breath and didn’t pick my head up until I touched it or hugged it. I was now at the center of Alaska’s Inside Passage-- it felt like I was at the center of the universe. I then turned to Amanda--she winked and I smiled. People were still clapping. I made a fist and lifted my arm as high as I could!
Friday, October 24. 2008
A Lovely Night Spent on the Water, October 2008
Right after our Catalina Island Swim in 2005, David Blanke started asking me about what “our” next swim was going to be. Our Catalina swim had come together when a common friend suggested we do it together. Liz Fry, a long-time friend from Connecticut asked to swim with us, and we became a trio. Our crew for this swim included a highly seasoned group of open water swimmers and kayakers. We were lucky enough to secure kayak escort extraordinaire, Richard Clifford, for the journey. (Visit DoverSolo.com/whatsnew for details of this swim.) I love swimming with David and Liz. Our speeds and personalities are comparable in the water and our crew members are fast friends.
After Catalina, I knew my next major swim was going to be the Chicago Skyline Swim, mainly because I could sleep in my own bed and didn’t have to travel. However, because of the details of my life, I couldn’t commit to when. Between my two young children, my husband who travels often for his job, my current position as Chair of the USMS Open Water Committee, and my own personal business, I finally stopped delaying a date, threw caution to the wind, and told David in the fall 2007, “We’ll do it in the summer of 2008.”
Our Catalina Swim had been the first time 3 swimmers had done Catalina in tandem. Boat pilots are reluctant to allow such swims because the swimmers must stay together, meaning swimming stroke for stroke. Each of us agreed to check our egos before we got on the escort boat to start, and thereby allow the slowest person to set the pace with the realization that this “slowest person” may change throughout the swim. Chicago would be no different except that Liz was in England making a 2-way attempt in the English Channel. In steps Chris Layton, now of Chicago and formerly, like me, from Connecticut. The two of us had swum on the same age group team in the 1970s, the Sharks, and in a pretty amazing coincidence, reconnected at a swim meet in Chicago shortly after I moved here in 2003. He and I started to swim weekly at Ohio Street beach on Saturday mornings three seasons a year, and became quite compatible in and out of the water. Chris was game when I broached the idea of this swim to him in 2006, knowing that we had lots of details to work out, but all in all, “it sounded like a good idea” at least at the time.
As I was well-aware, Chris could, would, and did blow by me in the pool but the Energizer Bunny and I have a lot in common. My moderate speed does not waiver. More importantly, I knew how David swims and I knew Chris would be a good all-around fit as both a strong swimmer and a very pleasant, agreeable person. He had some justified worries that needed hashing out (How am I going to stay up all night? Do you think I can make the distance? What will I eat?) but all in all, I sensed he would be ok.
In my regular life, I usually swim 4 to 5 times a week for a total of 15-20,000 yards week. This keeps me in decent shape and allows me “life balance.” At this point in my life, with each long swim I do, I need to do 30-35,000 yards a week for a sustained 5-6 month period. (For the sake of comparison, when I swam the English Channel in 1994, I swam 45,000 yards a week for nearly a year but that was before I had children.) When I set up my training plan in fall 2007, I planned to sustain my 15-20K through December then ramp it up weekly in January until I was at 30-35K. Ouch. It hurts getting there every time. The fatigue generated from my increased swimming wasn’t something negated by even the largest cup of high-voltage coffee. When Mark was in town, I often went to bed before the kids did. It was funny having my 7 & 10 year olds kissing me good night but then they were still snoozing when I got up at 4am to train. When Mark wasn’t in town, I went to bed about one minute after our children and swam when they were in school. When I trained for Catalina, I was able to go “doubles” (2 practices a day) one to two days a week so each individual session wasn’t super long. This time I didn’t have such a luxury of time so I swam long on two to three days, meaning (7-8000 yards), medium on 2 or three days (5000 yards), and as long as I needed to on the fifth or sixth day to obtain my weekly yardage. It usually worked out as Monday & Wednesdays were 8000 yards, Tuesday, Thursday, and Fridays were 5000 yards, and Saturday was 3-4000 yards. I also stretched and did abdominal/core work daily, or at least that was my intention. (It worked out to ~4 times a week but I should have been more diligent in this department.) Our household help during this training period was limited to a cleaning service every 8-weeks so I was getting plenty of “cross-training” in as well.
Since I do on-line coaching for other aspiring long distance swimmers, I signed myself up as a client and gave myself challenging workouts when I wasn’t working out with the master’s team at Northwestern University. Erica Rose, an American standout in open water swimming who participated in the 2008 U. S. Olympic Trials, told me she did much of her training with fins. Although I had always used fins sparingly, if it was good enough for Erica, it was good enough for me. On my long swim days, I used fins for at least half of my yardage, and occasionally on my shorter days. True to her word, Erica told me that I would be able to get my yardage in faster and there would be less stress on my shoulders, both which proved to be the case. I also started using a swimmer’s snorkel in November 2007 to adjust my head and neck position into a straight line with my spine. Both of these training aides proved essential to the success of the Skyline Swim. I could feel the enhanced power developed in my legs from all the fin work. Every time I started to slip into a less-than-perfectly straight body position, I would assume “snorkel position” from all that practice with that danged plastic tube in my mouth.
The longest swim I did in preparation was 4 hours on July 5th. My swim partner that day, Mike T-H, and I began in 62F rough seas at Foster Beach in Chicago. Bring it on. If I could work out in a washing machine, I would. Neither of us had any difficulties with this course, as we did “gerbil” laps along the beach, laying our minds as ease that boredom would be a factor to overcome. Most weekends, Chris, Mike, and I swam 2 hours in Lake Michigan, along with all the training we were individually doing during the week. During one of my mid-week sessions, when my Gal Friends were done and I still had several thousand yards to go, they were sitting poolside, sunning themselves, chatting it up, and sipping cool drinks. With great amusement, I yelled to them, “Come August 1st, I’m sitting right beside you.” For now, every single yard was important and necessary to me; hence I enjoyed it, well, most of the time.
Between February and July, I trained hard, took care of my family and home, kept up my chairmanship, worked with my clients, and had time for little else. I also began to tell people outside my close inner circle about my summer swim. I’m always careful about such disclosures because I want to do it close enough to the swim date that I am not driven crazy by well-intended questions. To the good fortune of our family, the friends we have made in the Chicago area are salt-of-the-earth, supportive, generous folks. We support one another in so many ways, regardless of whether there is only a vague sense of the subject matter at hand. Several of these great friends showed up at either the start or the finish of the swim, giving us a wonderful exit then entrance to the real world.
The weekend before Showtime approached, I packed for the swim and went over with Mark where everything was. Since Mark and I have done many of these swims together, we determined a feeding schedule. I was confident that he would be fine as my crew and clearly understood the directions. Although David just takes Gatorade during these swims, Chris and I ate the same thing. After the first hour, and every 30 minutes thereafter, I would receive a water bottle with Endurox and a Hammer Gel. As backup, I wanted peanut butter sandwiches. On every 4th feeding, I would receive a scoop of protein powder in my food. For the first few hours, I drank about ¼ to ½ of each presented bottle, ate the gels, and I was fine. After about 4-5 hours, the Endurox was feeling “heavy” in my stomach so Mark began to water it down. I also desired peanut butter sandwiches so Mark gave me ¼ sandwiches in lieu of the gels. I munched a few bites, let the rest fall away from my mouth and got back to swimming. When asked, Mark also delivered Tylenol or Motrin like a Mama bird feeding her babies. The feeds for the three of us took between 1-2 minutes, not lightening fast but not glacially slow, especially with three of us to feed.
Before the swim, I volunteered to make the necessary arrangements with the city authorities so our swim would be “legal,” and we wouldn’t be hauled out down to the police station in the middle of the night in our dripping wet Speedos. I had been in frequent communication with Nial Funchion who, in 2003, became the second person to do this swim. I had spoken with Kevin Murphy about logistics as well; in 2002, Kevin became the first person to do this swim and is the reigning “King of the English Channel,” having completed this famous lap 34 times. Both Nial and Kevin were supportive and helpful, steering our swim right every time I asked for help. We had secured two extremely competent and caring kayakers early on, Richard and Tom. Tom came with the added bonus of being intimately familiar with the coastline of Lake Michigan, especially in Chicago, and he had been Kevin’s escort in 2002. Eventually, we would veer about 50 feet off the course he meticulously plotted with GPS. Swimming alongside his kayak during our trek made me feel like I was following the stripe along the pavement of a running marathon.
Now all we needed were two escort power boats. We had a large Zodiac, piloted by one of Mark’s closest friends, Rob, and his son, Max. David confirmed about a week before our swim date that we could use his sister’s 19’ ski boat, docked in Madison, Wisconsin. The day before our swim, David and his 2 nephews, Paul and Dan, would trailer this final puzzle piece to Chicago from Madison. Getting the two boats we needed was incredibly stressful, time consuming, and potentially expensive. We were all thankful it eventually worked out as well as it did. And boy, were we ever blessed with first-rate boat pilots and kayakers.
Our crew proved to be excellent, both on the water and on land. Since no marathon swim would ever happen without a competent crew, the success of a swim can often be attributed directly to the skill of a crew. From having been in both positions way too many times to count, the job of the swimmer, that is (to shut up and) to swim is a heck of a lot easier than any other position. A crew is collectively responsible for feeding the swimmer the correct food in a timely manner, monitoring the swimmers’ mental and physical condition, keeping a log, tracking the course, dealing with all sorts of weather, receiving verbal abuse from a myriad of sources, conversing with the authorities on the marine radio, and being head cheerleader & chief bottle washer.
Chris volunteered his local teammates to support us on land and we could not have been in better hands. They chauffeured us to the start, carrying gear and keeping us calm. Coupled with my local friends, all of them gave us a wonderful send off from Juneway Beach. I was nervous about staying up all night but I felt very serene as we stepped into the water. Even more comforting was the blessing of several of these same and many new friends came to support our finish and called the boat while we were in the water. Finding Calumet Beach from a land point is no easy feat and I simply didn’t ask how they did it. I just figured that such top-notch friends would have the ability to find us wherever we landed.
Tom’s 5-star wife, Peggy, was incredibly supportive. She drove Mark, David, Tom, and me back to our car parked at the starting line. I have no recollection of the route we took, since I was zoning in and out of exhaustion then suddenly we were at Juneway. She thanked us for being prompt; with Kevin, she had had to wait around in Hammond, Indiana for 8 hours!
Our boat crews were on us the whole night. From the Zodiac, Mark, Rob, and Max handled the feedings and direct contact with us swimmers. When it was time to feed us, Tom and Richard would stop us, the Zodiac would zoom in from behind, feedings prepped and ready, and the pit stop would begin. All the while on the other boat, Joe, Cooky, Dan, and Paul were watching us and listening to the open walkie talkie for what was transpiring. Into the official log, they recorded what each of us ingested (or refused), how we each felt, our position in the lake, and the general happenings occurring at that exact time. A copy is now permanently housed in the International Swimming Hall of Fame as the record of our swim. The collective efforts of these seven crewmates were a major component of our success. To view our complete log, please visit DoverSolo.com/whatsnew.
Before we began, the local ABC TV station interviewed us and we appeared on the 10pm news, then again at 6:45am, via the traffic helicopter, and again at noon, when the newscasters reported our success now nearly 4 hours old. The local paper, Winnetka Talk, also covered the story and ran a front page photo and story in the next issue. What I liked best about this media coverage was that we are normal people, all in our 40s, with jobs and lives and families, and we managed to push ourselves out of our comfort zone to accomplish this goal. It took a lot of planning and even more training but we did it.
Starting the Friday before the swim, I started to get as much sleep as possible. Going from my regular 6+ nightly hours to 8 or 9 felt every bit like the vacation it was intended to be. Over the weekend, I swam at Tower Beach each morning. When Laura Slevin Moriarity caught up with me in the water on Sunday, surprised to see me topless, she laughed when I told her I was doing some “drag training.” On Monday and Tuesday, I swam only for an hour each day, then hung out on my bed and worked on my laptop computer the rest of the day. The plan was to stay off my feet and I actually did, allowing Jessie, our very capable and experienced summertime babysitter, to take over. I loaded up on the calories also, with daily milkshakes of chocolate milk, peanut butter, and bananas. Each and every one of those calories and grams of fat in those special shakes made so much of the previous training worth it.
When I got back from picking up or dropping off someone somewhere, I knew David, Dan, and Paul had arrived on Tuesday afternoon when I saw the boat in front of our house. As difficult as it was to secure a boat, it proved surprisingly easy to launch it from Lloyd’s Beach in Winnetka on Wednesday, a very good sign. Richard and Cooky joined us for dinner on Tuesday, and I really felt like things were falling into place. That night, Chicago had a typically dramatic Mid-Western thunderstorm that probably would have thwarted our efforts if we had been in the lake that night. The same thing happened on Thursday night, leading me to believe that the open water weather gods had sent us an apparent message by granting us clear skies and fairly calm winds on Wednesday night.
For the two days before the swim, I had deprived myself of all caffeine sources, making myself miserable in the process. Therefore the Starbucks Venti (XL) latte two hours before the start truly hit and stayed on the spot for the next 14 hours.
On Wednesday, Mark covered the AM household shift so I could sleep ALAP (L= Long), which wound up to be 8:30am. I ate a regular breakfast and lunch at the appropriate meal times and a PBJ sandwich before we left. Since we were feeding every 30 minutes through the night, there was no need to carry any extra food weight in my stomach. Many marathon swimmers choose to overlook this fact and gorge themselves beforehand and afterwards, something I don’t agree with at all.
It’s always a good sign when one is bored before a swim and that is exactly how David felt on the morning of the swim. His sole amusement seemed to be watching me dart about our house, dealing with my family and home, swearing under my breath, “This is the LAST time I do a swim at home and have to take care of other people on swim day.” Between meal preparations, carpooling, and making sure the kids had what they needed for the next 24 hours, rest I did not. That afternoon, before we took off, I attended “Family Day” at Sam’s camp, drove him home, changed into my suit, packed up the car, and Mark and I set off for the start of this marathon swim; all without the benefit of 48 hours worth of caffeine.
A lot was coming together. David and “the boys” were piloting the boat south from Winnetka to the start. Coming from across the lake, Rob and Max’s were nearly in Chicago, and would anchor at the starting beach. Tom and Richard had worked out the kayaks, gear, and course. Chris and Joe had been picked up at their home by the “Land Crew” and would be at the start when Mark and I arrived. Cooky, blank log in hand, was ready to go for this Chicago night boat cruise. Mark and I made a stop at Starbucks – PHEW! As everyone who wasn’t swimming bustled about, Chris and I were allowed to wait; David was on the boat getting ready.
The kayakers, boats, and crew suddenly all appeared on the water in front of Juneway Beach. It was now time to begin. After the media interviews and the magnificent send-off from friends, David, Chris, and I united on the shore line and marched into the water together to begin our Chicago Skyline Swim. It was 6:52pm on Wednesday July 30, 2008.
Often during the first few moments of a long swim, I ask myself if I really want to be doing this and do I think I can make it? (Truthfully, it often comes out, “What the (insert expletive of choice) are you doing here?”) With all the training and preparation I had done, a serene “Yes” to both is the only answer. (Actually, the answer is really “Shut the (insert expletive of choice) up and swim.”) For those first few hours, the sun was still up in the sky and we were swimming in relatively shallow water so the sandy bottom was clear below us. There was still plenty of “life” happening on the waterfront at this hour so we garnered many waves and cheers from curious onlookers. Tom’s course took us on the straightest tangent possible so we did get close to many piers early on. I looked at the landmarks as we passed: Loyola, several apartment buildings, Hollywood Beach, Foster Beach, gradually shifting my brain from land to water, getting into the non-stop, forever pace.
We also used those early hours of the swim to get everyone situated: boats, kayaks, and swimmers alike. Initially, the ski boat was on the east side. Tom came next and flanked us three swimmers: Chris, me, and David. Richard was on David’s right (west) side, and the Zodiac rounded out our flotilla on the west side. Aside from Chris and me changing places because he preferred the middle, we kept this formation for the duration of the swim. Later into the swim, when not feeding swimmers, the power boats would lag behind to confer and monitor boat traffic, as Tom and Richard competently shepparded us swimmers southward.
Throughout this entire swim, I felt fine. My left shoulder did start to bother me after several hours but it was not unbearable pain and regular Motrin kept it operational. My feeds agreed with me and I felt that they were of the right consistency and coming at the correct frequency.
Around 8:30/9 PM, the sun started to dip and every stroke taken was in one more gradient of darkness. I wanted to hold on to the sun for ALAP (L= long), but letting it go now meant we’d see it on the other side. Even better was the fact that we’d start to see the Chicago Skyline from a night-lit perspective. I also knew that Chris was worried about swimming in the dark so by David and me not deviating from our plan in any way, Chris’s fear could be kept at bay. At our next feeding, Mark gave us all light sticks to put in the straps of our bathing caps in order to track our whereabouts in the dark. Chris and David never touched theirs but leave it to me to fiddle with my equipment if I can. Within an hour, I had maneuvered my light stick right to the bottom of the lake so Mark gave me my next light stick with a safety pin attached, instructing me to attach it to the back of my suit, “And keep your hands off it.” All better and no more fiddling, darn it all.
By 9 PM, it was good and dark. We were north of Navy Pier and had a unique seat to the Wednesday night fireworks. A few hours later, we would swim through the area where the firework ashes had fallen; I like that charred, smoky smell. After the fireworks, we were into the heavy lifting of this swim. For the next 7 hours, it would be very dark. Time to get it done now.
About 4 ½ hours into this swim, Chris started getting sick. His feeds weren’t agreeing with him and combined with the slight chop we had encountered, he felt seasick. So for the rest of the swim, David and I encouraged Chris at every feeding as he either took in a little bit of something, even water, or declined his feed. We told him often, “Just make it to the next feeding. It’s only another 30 minutes.” Then we would set off to swim again. I would usually watch Chris feed the fish in the next few minutes, knowing how mentally and physically badly he was feeling. Both David and I have been there, done that. It’s such an ironic position because here you are, the Superduper Swimmer and something like an upset tummy is defeating you to the point of rock bottom, in your very own element. Cold water can do the same thing; fortunately for us, the water temperature held steadily in the low 70s, making hypothermia a non-factor.
At our feeding sometime around 11pm, Richard became the town crier.
“Chris, Joe says you have to eat something.”
“Marcia, just keep doing what you’re doing.”
“David, Leslie called and said to eat more protein and she’s going to bed now and will call again when she wakes up in the morning.” (Leslie is David’s wife and often accompanies him on his long swim but stayed home in Austin, Texas this time with their children.)
I marveled at how technology has allowed so many people to be involved from afar.
One the great things I like about swimming in Lake Michigan is that there is relatively little in the water that one is going to run into when swimming. When I swam in New York and Connecticut, we were forever dealing with seaweed, fish, sea lice, jellyfish, and occasionally, trash in the water. In Chicago, I primarily focus on just the swimming. Mark told me that a large school of fish, possibly perch, was picked up on the radar passing directly below us but that was about as exciting as it got all night. After the swim, one of my east coast friends asked if I had been inundated with jellyfish on my swim, like they were experiencing that summer in the Atlantic waters. I couldn’t resist telling him about the fresh water jellies and the great dark sharks.
“In Lake Michigan, the only jellies to worry about are the 10-foot monster fresh water jellies with 50-foot tentacles that only come out at night. If they sting you, a perverse reaction causes you to sing the Chicago Bears fight song over and over for the next 4 hours. ("Bear Down Chicago Bears…") If you escape these jellies, you must be able to outswim the Great Dark Sharks, the lesser known species related to the Great Whites but far more dangerous due to their voracious appetite for Lycra and Latex. It was a very very dangerous swim and we barely escaped with our lives.”
We were settled into a routine of feedings and swimming. We all swam freestyle but occasionally, I threw in a little backstroke, especially after a feed in order to finish what was in my mouth. Immediately after a feed, we swimmers would set off south without any escort for about a minute. The kayaks would reload anything they needed from the boats then catch up to us. I always felt safe because in those dark waters, it would have been easy to see approaching traffic. The boats would confer together and trail us for about the next 28 minutes when it would be time to feed again. Thus is the exciting life of an open water swim.
After we passed Navy Pier, Tom plotted us to start veering away from shore, following the most direct tangent of the swim. The lit up buildings started to get lose detail and look more like those professional panoramic night shots. I was loving every stroke of it, so appreciative of my ability to be in this spot at this time. It occurred to me that many of the current Olympians in Beijing at this time would not be able to do this swim since it is so different from pool swimming. When we were 8 hours into the swim, I happily informed Tom that I felt sufficiently warmed up and ready to go now. He just smiled at my goofiness.
South of Grant Park, the buildings disappeared and only the dark parkway loomed to our west. Not a problem because I now had in my sights what I thought was an enormous cruise ship. It took me a long while to conclude that #1) people do not take enormous cruise ships around Lake Michigan, #2) this was the water intake plant, visible as only a speck when viewed from South Lake Shore Drive. It was gigantic and had a lot of red lights in grid-patterns. We came within 500 yards of it and I got to wondering if I could be sucked into it, like the Sewage Treatment Plant south of the George Washington Bridge in the Hudson River leg of the Manhattan Island Swim. Since I was on the most eastern side of our assemblage, this was a possibility, especially when you consider that my brain wasn’t functioning at its optimal coherent capacity right now. David was wondering the same thing too but told me later, “I figured you’d be sucked in first so I was safe where I was.” The bottom line here is that we were always safe.
One of the best parts of our swim was just about to happen: DAWN! Watching the sun rise from the water never ceases to amaze me. Today’s day break event didn’t disappoint. I knew we had a very good chance of being successful as a group once that sun rose and pumped some energy into us. Chris was still nauseous but steadier now. He asked for feedings to be every 20 minutes since half hour intervals were becoming unbearable for his arms and stopping felt so good. Of course, the painful price was to start up swimming again after a break. I bargained with him for 25 minutes since David and I could have gone to a 40 minute feeding schedule. When he declined his feed at the first 25 minute stop, I told him sternly that we were stopping for him and therefore he HAD to eat something; he complied.
When we were fed around 5:45am, Mark announced, “Traffic Chopper will be here in 15 minutes.” The Channel 7 ABC newsroom had called to find out if we were still in the water and if so, where were we. Mark later said that giving these directions was one of the highlights of his summer! When the helicopter arrived, I expected it to hover close above us but it was way way up there. They must have some mega-zoom camera since the footage they showed on TV a few minutes later showed us up close, swimming in tandem, and looking strong.
Richard specifically told me, “We are going straight towards the split in that breakwater.” After being called many endearing terms over the years directly linking me to the phrase “Stop looking around, you tourist. Swim!” I took this opportunity to inform Richard, “Looking around isn’t my job, I’m just here to swim.” Smarty pants. To reinforce this descriptive, just before we went through the breakwater, I told Tom, “I’m ready for the main set now.” He laughed out loud.
The breakwater area is like a huge playpen. I knew beforehand that there are some military bases just north of this spot but I had forgotten such trivial information over the past 12 hours. If by chance they were doing underwater testing on explosives that morning, we would have received quite a lift but no such chance today. Within the breakwater, the water temperature went up at least 2 degrees. It was fine for the 1 ¾ miles we had to swim into the beach but such a temperature for the full swim would have been too hot.
There we were: taking stroke after stroke just as we had been doing for the past 12+ hours. Each stroke was bringing us one stroke closer to the beach. Chris thought we would never ever get to the beach. Soon, the sandy bottom appeared again and sea plants were trying to tickle our torsos. The biggest satisfaction and relief was getting inside of the “Swim Area” buoys at Calumet Beach since I knew now that we would finish. Our ground crew was standing in front of the flag pole and the closer we got, the easier it became to distinguish faces. When Chris, David, and I stood up and exited the water, following Channel Rules (“You have to get to where there is no water in front of you”), I was euphoric that we had made it. Our entire armada had worked as a team all night, stayed united, and made this happen.
I didn’t feel tired while we were swimming but once I had walked up the beach then come back into the water to “wash off”, I felt the fatigue. The past 25 miles of swimming and staying up all night caught up in an instance. Heidi, Liz, Peggy, Chip, Jacob, and a few other friends, made sure we were ok and helped us shower and dress. Everyone was fine, just feeling the effects of the effort expended. I vaguely remember Peggy driving us north as I was fading in and out during the drive.
In the afternoon, we took naps then had enough energy to go out to dinner. It was there that David started talking about “our next swim;” I just looked at him amusingly. Who knows when; first we have to figure out the where.
Thank you to all of you who made this swim happen:
Our crew, Mark Green, Rob & Max Carstens, Joe Gray, Cooky Donaldson, Dan & Paul (David’s nephews)
Our Kayakers, Richard Clifford & Tom Heineman
Our amazing Ground Crew and well-wishers, Heidi Kafka, Liz Kooy, Chip Gray, Jacob Karaca, Peggy Heineman, Laura Slevin Moriarity, Kaari Reierson, Susan, Kyle, & Kelly Bertram, Kris Rutford, Julia Green, Leslie Blanke, Robert Zeitner, and everyone else out there cheering us on! All of your support really mattered. Thanks!!!
Sunday, August 24. 2008
I wasn’t expecting to be at the Beijing police station 4 hours after my 10K race, so when I ended up there, frantic and confused, it felt like I had just participated in a particularly grueling portion of the “Amazing Race.” Unfortunately, my journey was not for television entertainment, rather it was to prevent my family from getting deported immediately. I want to send a big “Thank You!” to the female students from the University of Columbia that tried to mess with the Beijing authorities and, in so doing, caused an enormous international incident that affected quite a few Americans in Beijing.
So here’s how it got started. A few girls from Columbia University wanted to share their political persuasions with the world at the Bird’s Nest. They had made signs with a political agenda that we typically see on bumper stickers in America (particularly in California and Santa Barbara) supporting a region that has been at odds with the Chinese government. The local authorities didn’t like the political display at all and deported the girls immediately. Unfortunately my family had been renting a short term apartment in the same complex as the girls and, since we’re all Americans, my family started to look rather suspicious. The authorities demanded that everyone in the group report to the local police station immediately for an interrogation. Unfortunately, the demands from the Chinese authorities were made during my 10k race, so immediately after I was done swimming my family had to frantically hurry away from the venue to follow the orders.
The ordeal that my family endured opened my eyes a bit. I suppose I was under the presumption that criticism is essentially a human right. A few weeks ago, when I mused about the seemingly silly blogging laws during the Olympics, I believed that the Chinese warnings were more about posturing than anything else. It seemed to me that the Chinese authorities wanted everyone to have a positive Olympic experience without a bunch of bickering about cultural differences. The reality, however, is quite different. There are real consequences behind the threats of obedience, and both foreigners and natives are subject to punishment for disobedience.
Sadly, I lost a bit of my enthusiasm for China. When I first arrived here 2 weeks ago it seemed like the culture was firm but pleasant. For instances, instead of using the word “No” the Chinese people use the phrase “I’m sorry” constantly, and it seemed like a very polite way of communicating. I now realize that “I’m sorry” actually means “You’ll be sorry.” No one in the group was deported and they all got to experience the rest of the Olympic Games, but it did put a damper on the festivities.
In other news, the Olympics ended yesterday. The Closing Ceremonies were fun, I didn’t feel nearly as hot as I did at the Opening Ceremonies (thanks to a more manageable parade uniform) and there was plenty of room to sat down on the field and enjoy the show from a more relaxed setting.
In the days after the race I got to watch a few sports (beach volleyball and water polo significantly) and got to eat everything that I’ve been preventing myself from enjoying for the past few months. At the USA House, an exclusive location for American athletes and their family members, I had 3 pieces of cheesecake at one sitting. I also became an avid user of the Beijing mass transit system and got to enjoy the swap meet that ensues at the Olympic Village (athletes trade pins, T-shirts, warm-up jackets and whatnot with each other).
I’ve had some nice moments with my family as we reflect on the significance of the moment, and reminisce about the journey that brought us here.
I’m going to end rather abruptly because I need a bit more time to process how I feel about the experience, and I also have to go to the Silk Market – a truly bizarre shopping experience. My family leaves Beijing to go back to America this morning, but Diana and I are going to stay in China for a little longer to see some famous spots. Thanks for reading all the posts. It’s been a pleasure writing them and receiving your responses.