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When Hurricane Irma hit Florida this year, my tiny view of the open water swimming world was drastically expanded. I wasn't directly impacted by the wind and water, but the chain of events following in the wake of that storm seemed to have an otherworldly hand at work, leading me right to the place I belong. 

It started with Irma's devastation in the Florida Keys forcing cancellation of the 8-mile Swim for Alligator Lighthouse in Islamorada, FL, an event in which I was registered. I set off on a desperate internet search for a way to capitalize on the months of training I did for that event. There were only a few drive-able options in September and October, but I was severely limited by commitments on several of those weekends. However, there WAS a perfect fit: a 10.5-mile swim in New York's Finger Lakes on the same weekend as the cancelled event. The hitch: event entry was already capped (at 15 swimmers).

I wasn't giving up so easily, so I wrote an email to the event coordinator, Bridgette Hobart Janeczko, in hopes she might accept my case. I offered to bring my own support kayak and kayaker (my husband, Jim), and she graciously accepted. I will never be able to thank her enough. This event would eventually be somewhat of a revelation to me - on many levels.

Friday morning, Jim and I packed up the car - kayak on top - and drove 4.5 hours to Watkins Glen, NY. We had no idea what to expect but it all started on Friday night with a course preview in Seneca Lake. With several of the other swimmers, we were given a tour by boat of the course and points of interest such as mile "markers" in the landscape. Bridgette explained areas of concern and gave navigation tips. I'm not gonna lie - while on that boat, I was beginning to feel like I was in way over my head. Listening to conversations, I realized I was surrounded by swimmers who specialized in distances much longer than 10.5 miles. I think I spent the entire boat trip cowering in a corner of the deck. But it was no fault of theirs. It was all me and my disaster-magnet insecurities. After the boat tour, Bridgette generously served a catered dinner to the swimmers and kayakers who came out that evening. We were also able to leave our kayak there overnight. I went to bed that night worrying about surviving the water temperature and being the last one to finish. I even considered not starting. I did NOT belong here.

Here are some photos of the Friday night tour:

Surprisingly enough, I was able to get some sleep that night, and the next morning, we did arrive at the staging site. I've rarely seen such great organization. Yes, the swim was small.. but every kayaker was given a radio and a whistle for safety. All kayaks had numbered flags on suction-cup bases. The biggest question everyone had was: "What was the water temperature?" A few of us (less hearty) swimmers still needed to decide whether to wear wetsuits. After last week in Lake Erie at 70 degrees, I was all but certain I could handle the cold, but a couple other swimmers put the temperature question back in my head. Seriously, I had not even brought a full wetsuit - all I had was a sleeveless neoprene vest. After the Ocean City wetsuit debacle, I decided on swimsuit only. The convincing argument was air temperatures forecast in the high 80s.

Some pre-race photos:

The kayak line-up:

Swimmers listening to instructions and being paired up with their kayakers:

Our little set-up:

Waiting on the dock and our boat shuttle to the start:

The swim start was in deep water. It was a beautiful cloudless morning and we were boated out to a jetty to meet up with our kayakers who launched about 15 minutes earlier. It all happened so fast once we arrived. Most of the swimmers jumped off the boat with gusto. I went the wimpy route and climbed down a ladder to slip quietly into the water off the back of the boat. (At least three of us chose this option, I think mostly fearing a "goggles" disaster.) 

Several people said the water was "perfect," but I thought it was ever-so-slightly cold. It wasn't necessarily worrisome-cold, but in the waaaay back of my mind, there was concern. However, swimming out to the kayaks relaxed me enough to put fear to rest and within seconds, Bridgette counted down to the start and we were off - headed due West to the shoreline. Once out of impending boat traffic, we made an L-turn and swam north along the shoreline of Seneca Lake. I swam relaxed and easy and the first two miles flew by. My 20-minute feedings went quick, and I felt very little cold. I glanced at my watch only during feedings to see my pace was around 1:30 per 100 yd (26.4 minutes per mile) - just where I wanted it. The water was calm and clear and, seriously, we couldn't have asked for better water and weather conditions.

It was all near-perfect... until I hit a warm patch of water near the salt factory (mile 2) on the shoreline. The warm patch was very deceiving. Once I felt it, going back into the cold water was disconcerting - it had a profound effect on my comfort level. I tried not to think about it. It was the same temperature as before - it just FELT colder. My fingers started getting numb and by the end of mile 3, I started to shiver. Yep, my core temperature was dropping. Anxiety was taking over.

I was only three miles in, but memories of two bouts with dangerous hypothermia sent me into panic mode and that old bugaboo - negative self-talk - sent me into a downward spiral. Some thoughts that went through my head: "Oh no, I'm not going to finish," "Holy crap, I'll be the only one that dropped out, and I'll have to face all the other finishers as a complete failure," "What am I doing wrong?," "Why am I colder sooner than last week in Lake Erie?" I was doing that THING. I wasn't fighting the urge to give up. I was giving myself permission to quit.

I HAD to fight this narrative. I decided not to tell Jim what was going through my mind. Telling him would give it a voice. I had to just keep swimming. Hypothermia was NOT inevitable! It COULD, and WOULD, get better. If other swimmers can do this, I can too! I fell back on things I knew: pick up the pace to generate some heat; take feeds as quickly as possible to keep moving; take deeper breaths to stay calm and ward off the shivers; think of warm fuzzy feelings (like my cuddling up to my cat).

And then my mind quieted enough to remember something - there was hot water in the kayak! Before the race, Bridgette had made available several airpots of hot water to those wanting them. Jim had carried one in the kayak just in case, and at the next feed, asked him for it to warm up my hands.

(Afterwards, Jim told me what a complete disaster it was for him to manipulate that big pot and not demolish or mix up his whole system in the kayak. But I was so thankful that he was able to work it out.) Once he had it out, Jim expressed concern - worried the water was too hot and it was a really bad idea to pour boiling water on my hands. I told him to DO IT!! I had no feeling in my fingers anyway. He obliged. It actually worked (and seriously, I wanted to take a shower in that boiling water). Some feeling in my hands returned, but I still had to fight, and I kept fighting.

And, while I battled my hypothermia demons, time kept ticking away... before I knew it, we were in sight of the 5.25 turn-around. And the sun was warming things up. And by the time we turned, I had almost regained all feeling in my hands. I was thrilled enough to wave to the people waiting for us at the turn-around buoy.

And a new thought creeped into my head... I began to believe I could, and would, finish.

That's all it took. The 5.25-mile swim back was mostly marked by the ability to watch things go by on the shoreline (since I breathe mostly to the right) and increasing fatigue. A couple major landmarks (the salt factory and the jetty) seemed to remain frustratingly far away no matter how long or far I swam (we all joked about that after the swim). Even when I eventually reached them everything went by in slow motion. Unfortunately, my Garmin watch lost GPS reception at 6.82 miles, so I no longer had any idea how fast or far I was swimming except when Jim clued me in. I focused on keeping my stroke long and relaxed and swam hard enought to catch the swimmer in front of us without blowing myself out. I kept the lead until the last few hundred yards when he and his kayaker cut the L-corner to the finish and beat me by about 30 seconds. I was surprised but I didn't care - it was over! I finished. Without a disaster.

Jim took video snippets from the kayak - shows how amazing the day was: 

I climbed onto a pontoon boat that took the latest group of finishers to the main boat where we could warm up and get dry while waiting for others. There, I found out I finished fourth (and first female). I'm STILL a bit shocked. We were eventually boated back to the staging area where we had time to hang out and socialize with swimmers and kayakers (most of the kayakers were from Nazareth College Swim Team - this event is actually a fund-raiser for them). AND Bridgette generously fed everyone again - it was one of the best post-race meals I've ever had.

It was at this post-race gathering that I had the opportunity to meet the remarkable people I swam with in Seneca Lake that day. They all have smiles a mile wide. They have swim stories that will blow your mind and make your hair stand on end. Collectively, they have done the events and big swims I've only ever read (and dreamed) about. And there was amazing camaraderie among these swimmers. 

There was Craig, the swim electronics geek - he and I accidentally swam three events together this year. (I may be his jinx because he came in second overall in most of them.) There was Mary and Eric (it appears they often come as a pair as she's his coach) - they have done more mileage in a year than I will do in a lifetime. Their collective stories involve a total of three collarbone breaks. I got the feeling that to know them is to "get" the true marathon swimming mentality. They were both only about a month after the 20-bridges 28-mile swim around Manhattan. Mary swims these (colder-water) things in a two-piece suit to avoid extra stress on her shoulders. Yep, that's bad-ass in my book. Eric pointed out a muscle spasm in his calf that would have reduced me to a screaming lump, and when I asked "does it hurt?" His reply was "it's not comfortable." (Pain doesn't even phase these people.) Then there's Steve. He just swims. And swims. And swims. In 2017, he completed one of my bucket-list events, the Hudson River 8-Bridges Swim - seven days of swimming more than 15 miles daily. He said he lost 17 pounds that week. There was Jia and Lyn who had stories (and gah!, pictures) of sea lice rashes from swimming in the Florida keys. There was Kim, who struggles with cold water, who, in the boat afterwards was in a state of shivering that bordered on full body shudders. All she said was "don't worry, this is normal for me." I hope she wasn't offended that I kept trying to put my arms around her to warm her up. There was Jane who did the eight mile Boston Light Swim in 65-degree water (warm for that event) and said that Seneca Lake was "almost too warm." And finally, there was Bridgette, who set up this race - an accomplished marathon swimmer herself - who ran a tight ship to make sure everyone had a support kayaker, was safe, had what they needed, and finished. She's the reason everyone who started reached the finish line. (Another thing I love about the marathon swimming world: time cutoffs for events are usually disregarded to let everyone finish. It happened in Key West. It happened in Seneca Lake.)

Seriously, I think the more we learned, the more Jim began to fear what I might ask him to support in the future.

I'm looking forward to 2018.

Here's a photo of me after the finish with my custom-designed shark suit (I had the design printed by Q Swimwear - very comfortable and well-made):

Review of 10.5-mile open-water swim event in Seneca Lake on September 23. I had to fight some demons in this one, but I learned a lot about myself. The event is incredibly well-run, and I had the fortune to meet some very inspirational swimmers.

Over the last month I've been working harder than usual to fix my overall swim form to eliminate my ultra-draggy kick. I made major progress determining the cause(s) but only minor progress fixing it. I want to discuss it at some point, but my long swim in Lake Erie on Saturday was much more interesting to write about, especially the bizarre effect of current that showed up on video.

Saturday was a perfect day for a long swim in the lake. Several days of good weather meant the lake would be (relatively) clean, it was warm and mostly sunny, and winds were calm. My husband Jim accompanied me in his kayak so I could practice my feed routine. Any chop we encountered came mostly from boats and jet-skis in close range. in addition to getting a long swim with feedings, I wanted to learn how to and if I could swim comfortably in colder temperatures for a long period of time. Based on buoy readings, the water was 70 degrees F or just under - perfect for a beginning study. Most cold-water swimmers would laugh at this temperature, but I have to start somewhere, and the water will only get colder from here as air temperatures drop.

Some photos from the morning:

And the Lake Erie surface temperature profile around the time we started:

I was able to swim for three hours comfortably. After an hour, I began to fight numbness in my fingers, but I had no sense of cold overall, i.e., my core temperature wasn't dropping. I constantly reminded myself of advice gleaned from open water swimmers' blogs and forums: don't stop for more than 30 seconds to feed, and get used to discomfort in fingers and toes because that goes with the territory. If you can't learn to like it, at least learn to tolerate it. No matter how numb my fingers got, I could still manage a good underwater pull - this was a victory in my book. And it didn't get progressively worse because I found that intermittently making a fist would cause some blood to flow back into my fingers. Surprisingly, my feet and toes remained comfortable through the entire swim (unexpected since I kick very little).

The more interesting and difficult part of the swim resulted from the course we took. We started out heading east, against the current, and turned around after 40 minutes when boat traffic picked up near the mouth of one of the rivers that flows into the lake. When we turned, I looked at my watch to see my average pace was around 1:43 (per 100 yards). We now headed west back to our starting point - which we reached at 1:16. Swimming with the current now was four minutes faster. From the starting point we now went west for 44 minutes - until we hit two hours. And then, when we turned around to head back (east), against the current, it took over an hour to get back to our starting point. It was more than 16 minutes slower coming back on the second out-and-back loop, yet the distance was only about 0.2 miles more than one leg of the first loop.

Here's the route on a Google map: 

It certainly felt like the final return leg was against a stronger current that the first, but I had a hard time believing things changed that quickly. So afterwards, I checked the Lake Erie current profile by the hour during the time I was swimming (2:20-5:20) and here's what it showed (note: my swim location was the bottom of the little dip just to the left of the date in the map of Lake Erie):

2:00 pm:

3:00 pm:

4:00 pm:

5:00 pm:

6:00 pm: 

So, there it is, current conditions changed drastically from the start to the finish of my swim.

After the swim, Jim told me something interesting. He said when I was swimming WITH the current, it looked like I wasn't moving at all. But when I was swimming AGAINST the current, it looked like I was going really fast. How could this be so noticeable? Later, while looking at the videos he took from the kayak, I was shocked to see exactly what he had described. Check it out: 

Swimming with the current, it "looks" like I'm going nowhere: 
 
 
Against the current, it "looks" like I'm moving much faster:
 
 

I went for a long swim in Lake Erie this weekend. The weather was awesome and I learned more about Lake Erie's changing conditions, how to spending more time in colder water, and the interesting effect of swimming in a current that showed up on video.

It's a weird thing to finally find my tribe at age 52. It's not even like I was looking for them. Maybe, in actuality, it was they who found me - it was never more apparent to me than at this year's Ocean Games in Ocean City, Maryland, this past weekend.

First I want to say that I've never been happier in a sport than I have been in open water swimming. I can tell because although I still get nervous, I no longer obsess over my times and my training and what place I finish. Yes, I am aware of those things, but that's not what keeps me up at night. Whether I win or lose or PR does not occupy my thoughts before a swim race. MAKING it to the finish line has become the bigger deal. Swimming fast is only important because it gets me to the finish more quickly. Praying for smooth seas, weak currents, and ideal water temperatures - and laughing about it when it doesn't happen - has become my new reality. Caring whether the swimmers I meet have a safe swim has also become my new reality. My experiences in 25 years of marathon running and Ironman triathlon-ing has barely prepared me for this new battle with the elements. Open water marathon swimming is governed by rough and always-changing water and weather conditions and the few who embrace it. I say "few" because these events are not populated by every other person you know. It's a very small group compared to the many hundreds - or thousands - toeing the line at a marathon or Ironman triathlon start.

The fact that anything can go wrong in open water was never more obvious to me than in last year's attempt at the Ocean Games Nine-mile Swim in Ocean City, Maryland. More than in any event of the past, I learned a great deal about myself as well as the power of the ocean and the weather (blog post from last year: "Playing Ocean Games, aka Finding Corey"). But the true silver lining of dropping out of last year's event with hypothermia was revealed to me this year.

It started Friday night at the pre-race meeting. Because I did this year's race as a fundraiser, I had the opportunity to get to know race director Corey Davis a little better before we arrived in Ocean City. At the pre-race meeting, he introduced me to the all the race organizers and officials and many of the swimmers who come back year after year to support him and the charity it supports, Swim Ocean City. I left Ocean City on Sunday with a whole new group of friends who seem to have an amazing capacity to challenge themselves and appreciate the people around them. No one cared how fast or slow I was, there was no sizing-up or gear-head talk. They just welcomed me into their "crazy family." I felt like I belonged in a way I've never experienced before even though I was kind of the oddball because I live almost 500 miles away.

I was also lucky to have my friend Doug serve as my kayak support. He lives much closer to Ocean City and he agreed to come back and try to get me to the finish this year. Just like me, he was also better-prepared than last year. He usually paddles with his daughter in the kayak, so this year he added a 50-lb sand bag as a ballast in the front of his boat to help with balance.

There was no better group of athletes I'd rather toe the line with. And that we did.

On race morning, the swim direction was declared: north to south, which was in the direction of the wind but against the current. Water temperature was 72 degrees F, and after last year, my fear of a sharp drop in temperature kept me from going without a wetsuit. 72 is too warm for a wetsuit, and I struggled to make the call, but my first and foremost goal this year was to finish this thing no matter what - and it was a long race. And anything could happen. I had to err on the side of caution.

Unfortunately, the morning would also see the return of Disaster Magnet, jinxing both Doug and me before the race even started. During my warmup, I tried to body surf a huge wave and got twisted and tossed onto my back and into the hard sand. When I finally got up, there was pain in my back ribs every time I took a deep breath, and my left side and shoulders were traumatized. Had I just compromised my race? We would soon find out.

Here's a photo taken by my husband Jim right before it happened:

I shook it off and tried to not let it bother me because we would soon have to deal with a more pressing issue. The morning shore-break made it incredibly difficult for kayakers to get on the water, and Doug's attempted launch became the the worst of all. He got hit by one wave and then a larger one. It flipped his kayak, dumping everything - including the sand bag which was forever lost at sea. Doug's legs got banged up pretty bad, and Jim told me he may not be able to start. I ran over to check on him.

Of course, right after Doug's mishap, they started dry-launching kayakers - which worked much better. And Doug ("I don't need my legs to kayak") refused to be deterred - he brushed the whole thing off, got right back in the boat, and got out there. In retrospect, it was a rather comical start to the day with all these race people and bystanders on the beach cheering each time a kayaker got past the immediate danger of the breaking waves.

Soon enough, it was 10 am and we swimmers were lined up on the beach ready to start. I got hugs and high-fives and a new nickname ("Cleveland") from my new friends, and in no time, our little team was off swimming and paddling, determined to finish despite our rather unfortunate start to the day.

Here are some photos and video Jim took at the start:


With Doug before the race.


With my new friends Jay and Bobby (in wetsuits)
who "said" they hadn't trained. They were the last two swimmers to enter the event
but had done it every year at the urging of race director, Corey Davis.

 

I don't want to bore you to death with a play-by-play of nine miles of swimming, so I will try to relate the major moments of the swim with the thoughts that occurred to me while we were out there. My readers can be assured this event wasn't nearly as smooth-going as my swim in Key West. (You can see from the video that the conditions were far from "flat water.")

The first two to three miles were significant in that all I did was worry about the soreness and fatigue already plaguing my left side. I worried I wouldn't reach the halfway point. I worried I might have broken a rib. I worried a broken rib might puncture a lung. Seriously. I was a mess. A disaster. I was fighting myself every stroke because I remembered last year, when I was tough enough to swim through all of mile 4 while hypothermia was setting in BEFORE I dropped out. Saturday, I was two miles into this thing, and I couldn't even get a grip on my own mind.

Then, somewhere around three miles, I had to make an extended stop to adjust my goggles strap because I was getting a headache. Why was it too tight? Because, I'm an idiot. In a truly unthinking maneuver, I tightened the strap after the goggles were ripped off my head in the earlier wave incident - after it had been PERFECTLY adjusted for twelve miles in Key West.

So.. yeah, I was having issues. And Doug was having his own issues. He had to work extra hard to control his no-longer-ballasted kayak in a stiff northwest wind that wanted to blow us out to sea. At one point, I stopped swimming to look around and found that we were way out to sea and WAY off course - that is, if the location of all the other swimmers was an indication of being "on course." This manifested in us covering a much-longer distance than planned - we hit the mile markers with increasing distances.

The wetsuit turned out to be a bad decision. I did it because I had reservations about acclimating with only cold showers and in the warming waters of Lake Erie. But I really I should have trusted my instincts better. Open water swimming is still very new to me, and conditions change so quickly in Ocean City (as we found out last year). But during the race, the only way I could cool off was to dive down a few feet underwater every ten minutes or so to get cold water into the suit.

The pain and fatigue from my pre-race folly started to fade before mile 4, and I was finally able to stop worrying about that. But I was frustrated with my very slow pace, constantly struggling against the current, and always fighting swells. Doug kept me on schedule for feeding every 20 minutes. But it seemed like every time we stopped, the kayak would start to drift and smack me in the head while he was getting me a bottle. When we reached mile 7, it was the first time all day I felt confident we would finish. Then, I accidentally swam right into the back of Doug's kayak, and I snapped. I stopped caring and just burst out laughing. All of a sudden, everything was hilarious. The surf. The wind. The wetsuit. I felt like I was on a treadmill and going nowhere for almost four hours. My only reaction at this point was to crack up and mentally check out.

I started singing Jimmy Buffett songs in my head.

Here are some photos Jim took of us out there on the water. He was with Doug's wife, Kaz, and their daughter, Kat, and they were able to leap-frog down the beach to see us four times during the event.

Things seemed to ease up in that last two miles. The current wasn't as strong and I almost felt like I could get a push once in a while between waves. And Doug finally pointed out the orange finish buoy. He had seen it last year although I had not. By the time we reached it, we had traveled almost ten miles according to my Garmin. I didn't care, I was so done. And thus, I will let the finish video speak for itself because humor is the best medicine. I still laugh while watching it. At least I got accolades for "best finish."

At the finish (yippee!), my Garmin GPS watch had a total distance of 17,295 yards (9.83 miles) in 5:14. My total "moving time" was 4:55. I was never so glad to be done with a race, and I was never so ready to celebrate. I felt bad for those who were pulled out for not meeting cut-off times (45 min/mile), but they were all troopers on a very rough day. One woman had to pull out with seasickness. It was mind-boggling to me that she got sick about 20 minutes into the race but managed to make it three miles before calling it a day. Swimmers are tough.

I was very honored to win the "top fundraiser award" for raising the most money for Swim Ocean City. This trophy meant a great deal to me because I had promised Corey - who'd been so generous in 2016 - that I'd be back in 2017 to finish AND do it as a fundraiser. Mission accomplished, and a heartfelt thank-you to all who donated. I can't say enough about the organization of this race and how well they look after people on the course. It's a very small event - 17 swimmers started (hopefully that will change) - but they really made me feel like family, and I understand why so many of them come back year after year.

Next year? NO WETSUIT.

Some photos Jim took at the finish line:


These two - Jay and Bobby - were so inspiring. They were the last two
finishers, but they're the best! They gave me a new nickname: "Cleveland"
(it's better than "Disaster Magnet") and promised to train for next year.


This is Dave - he did the Swim Around Key West with me three weeks ago.
He's also a veteran of the race having done it every year since the beginning.
I look forward to learning a LOT about swimming from him.
(I beat him in KW, he beat me in OC. GAME ON!)


And this is me with Corey Davis, the race director.
He's an inspiration to everyone who knows him.

Race report from Ocean Games Nine-mile open water swim that I promised to finish this year after having dropped out with hypothermia last year.

I've gone into data analysis mode today. Because that's what I do. I downloaded the data points from my Garmin and plotted them in Excel. Because that's what I do.

First... here's the map that I uploaded to Google Maps.. so you can see the actual route Nancy and I took around the Island of Key West on Saturday, June 24, 2017. It gets funky in the final few miles but I have no explanation for that. Maybe I kept losing the signal when I stopped (my hand could have been underwater).

And below are my Excel charts from the race: my pace charts in both minutes per mile and minutes per 100 yards (which is actually more how I think of pace as a swimmer who trains in a 25 yard pool). Note, the official race results had my averages at 1:22/100 yd, 24.00 min/mile, and 2.50 mph. My Garmin stats had my totals at 2.73 miles swam in 4:59:47 with averages of 1:20 min/100 yd, 23.55 min/mile, and 2.54 mph.

Because I'm a nerd, I proceeded with plotting points on maps and charts to describe my swim around Key West. With Google Map of my specific course and Excel spreadsheet charts of my pace and averages.

It was back in early 2016 that I first learned of the existence of the 12.5-mile annual Swim Around Key West (SAKW). I had thrown in the towel on triathlon and embraced the fact that when it came to endurance sports, open water swimming was likely my first best destiny.

The SAKW (as well as my previous swim, the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim) showed up in a list of America's Top 50 Open Water Swims. I added them both to my bucket list. Seriously, the Island of Key West was already on the bucket list, and it was a place I wouldn't have to twist my husband Jim's arm to go - he's the one who made me a Jimmy Buffett fan, and I've always dreamed we'd someday be "strolling down the avenue that's known as A-1A."

But getting an entry in the SAKW was a little tricky. Solo swimmers needed a support kayak, and the window of opportunity was usually less than a week because the field gets capped at 110 swimmers. For an extra fee, 35 swimmers can "purchase" a kayaker, i.e., a race coordinator will pair them with a support kayaker. I couldn't possibly ask someone to foot the bill to come to Key West with me, so I needed to be one of those 35 swimmers. I knew as soon as race registration opened in March, I would have to sign up. I set my calendar to remind me, and when the reminder popped up, I evaluated my training situation.

Did I have enough time to train? I hoped so. It was still four months away, and I had already committed myself to the Chesapeake Bay 4.4-miler and the Ocean Games 9-miler in mid-July, so, heck, what was a few more miles really? I registered and then frantically started combing through all the swimming and open water online forums and blogs for Key West course details and training plans, nutrition plans, strategic plans, and mental plans for completing a 12.5-mile ocean swim in ridiculously warm conditions. I read as many race reports as I could find. I even joined US Masters Swimming hoping for advice.

There was a lot of info out there, and strategies were as varied as they could get. The minimum rule-of-thumb from my favorite open-water expert, Lone Swimmer, was that the distance a person "could" swim in one shot was four times the distance of their longest training swim, and one should swim at least that total distance on a weekly basis. In math terms, 12.5 miles was 22,000 yards which meant the following: I had to swim 22,000 yards weekly, and my longest swim had to be at least 7,040 yards.

Those were the minimum requirements. Have you ever known me to do anything at a minimum? (Except for cleaning my house, that is.)

I didn't think so. By the time we left for Key West, I had been able to complete the following (and I still worried it would not be enough):

  • swimming 5-7 days per week at a weekly yardage of between 26,000 and 45,000 yards
  • two 8,000+ yard workouts
  • two 10,000+ yard workouts
  • one 12,000-yard continuous swim in the pool
  • and one 14,000-yard continuous swim in the pool

The last two workouts in that list were also necessary for practicing race nutrition. I wanted to use SkratchLabs hydration mixes and Carbo-Pro (a high-carb drink of glucose polymers). Luckily, my pool water temperature was between 82 and 84 degrees F - perfect for practicing nutrition requirements in conditions (read: heat) similar to those I would experience in Key West. In my 14,000-yard session, 10 days before race day, I spent almost four hours in the pool and learned that my triceps would be prone to cramping without proper electrolyte consumption. (It happened in the final half-hour but was quickly remedied with SkratchLabs Rescue Hydration.)

About two weeks before the SAKW, I was given contact details of my assigned kayaker, Nancy. She was also a first-timer, in both the SAKW and serving as race support for a swimmer. But talking to her gave me confidence in her abilities: she was highly experienced and even possessed a certification in kayak rescue.

In the two weeks we had to plan, Nancy and I discussed her responsibilities: navigating the course, keeping me out of trouble (if you know me, you know this is not an easy task), and nutrition for both of us. Jim and I found a soft-sided cooler for my nutrition that could be mounted behind her seat on her 16-foot kayak. She could clip bottles to a 10-foot rope tied to her kayak and toss them to me. Race rules forbid swimmers from hanging onto kayaks (or boats, or anything) or standing up during the swim. I spent weeks researching the best way to carry all the fluids and fuel I would need in the heat. I decided on several 32-oz plastic milk bottles fitted with flip-top lids I found on Amazon (much easier to open than their screwtops). They were translucent so I could mark the volumes I had to drink, and the handles were sturdy for clipping onto the rope. I also had bike bottles fitted with zip-tie loops. Some of it would be frozen for later in the race. My nutrition plan was water for the first hour and then 32-oz per hour of a high-carb drink made with Carbo-Pro and Skratch. My feeding intervals would be 20 minutes. Nancy would use a countdown timer on her phone to keep me on track.

Nancy and I met the day before the race at Smathers Beach, the event start/finish location, to work out the engineering details. Jim was very instrumental in fabricating all our mounting, bungeeing, and zip-tying. Here are some photos:

Then Nancy and I went for a practice swim to make sure everything worked and that she was comfortable with me swimming on her left. We grabbed lunch out and returned to the beach for race check-in and the mandatory pre-race meeting. The course layout was explained in great detail by the race organizer, Bill Welzein who would also be completing his 90th circumnavigation of the island with us. He described the tides, the water depths, currents and winds, and how it all would affect our races depending on what time we reached certain points on the course. I took notes on the course map (which Nancy actually taped to her kayak on race day):

Basically, we would start with the current, get a slight push around the west side of the island while the tide was coming in, then had to navigate under a bridge at mile 5, into the main harbor and through the moorings, around a little island to the north, and into a channel where we would be going against the wind (miles 7-9). At mile 9, we went under Cow Key Channel bridge (hopefully we would see Jim there), and then, swimmers planning a 6-hour swim would get a second push where the Gulf meets back with the Atlantic Ocean as the tide was going out. Around mile 10, the water would get very shallow as time wore on (basically, if we got to that point early we would have a much easier time swimming through it). By the time we rounded the southeast corner, we would have less than two miles go and should see the finish line. Various sighting points were also described - like yellow buoys for the relay exchanges and features in the landscape.

Weeks before the race, my estimated finish time - based on how I felt in my long pool swims and how others had described their experiences in Key West - was about six hours. If I had a good day, I might be able to manage 5:40. If I fell apart, it would probably be more like 6:30. After factoring in feedings, current, wind, waves, etc., I was relatively certain that my time would he outside of any awards. Yes. I checked. There were only seven: top three, top two masters (40+), top grand master (50+), and top senior grand master (60+). And I looked at the times in years past. Last year's winner of the grand master category (mine) finished in 5:31. I accidentally saw that the awards were individually made and highly-coveted (they were conch shells). I had to block it out of my mind. I had to have one - and only one - goal in Key West. To finish. To prove to myself I could finish.

But I can't say I wasn't nervous. Being walked through the aerial view of the course terrified me - especially when the mile "markers" were pointed out. It was going to be a long day, and I had only a few hours left to come to grips with that and figure out how to get some sleep. Sleeping the night before was crucial to my morning mind-set. And to my (and Jim's) surprise, unlike two weeks prior in Annapolis, I managed to drift off to that elusive sleep zone using a self-relaxation tape. Well.. ok, so it took THREE tries, but it finally worked, and when the alarm went off at 4:45 am, I had about four hours solid rest and my nerves were not frayed like all those times in the past. 

I ate breakfast, put on sunscreen, packed everything up, and Jim drove me down to Smathers beach at 5:30 to get prepped for the start. The race officials handed me number 8 (Jim yelled "the OCHO!") - and Nancy and I joked at our luck because we didn't have to worry about how to tape it on the kayak since it looks the same upside down. Before I got in the water, I put on another layer of sunscreen (note: this still would not be enough to avoid a burned back and shoulders).

Here are some photos Jim took at the beach that morning showing Nancy and me, her kayak and the start:

Wave 1 went off at 7:15. Wave 2 (us) went at 7:45. The kayakers were sent out first and they would hook up with us after we started swimming. Watch the video Jim took of the start.

It was one of the most chaotic starts I've ever experienced in a race - not chaotic in terms of being pummelled by other swimmers but chaotic in terms of confusion. There were swimmers and kayakers all interspersed together trying to pair up. Unfortunately, few things made it easy to find Nancy. She wasn't the only one wearing a bright yellow shirt, and I swam after two of them before realizing they weren't her. I kept stopping to do breaststroke and look around to see what was happening. I was sure we had passed mile 1 by the time I finally found her. The thing that helped the most was the silly orange and white cooler that I picked out much to Jim's dismay (he made fun of me for choosing the most ridiulous-colored one). When we finally hooked up, I checked my watch and we were already 26 minutes into the race. And I had missed my first feeding. When we got relatively clear of the mayhem, I stopped and she was already prepping to throw me a water bottle.

Then, I just settled into an easy stroke and let Nancy lead the way. The time (marked by 20-minute feeds) seemed to fly by and in an instant, I could see the satellite dish that marked mile 2, then we took the corner that marked mile 3. And somewhere between mile 4 and 5 miles, I stopped because I smelled what can only be described as a "cookout." I had to mention to Nancy "that smells good." She pointed out there was a restaurant responsible. I swear, that was downright criminal. We weren't even half-done. I had to stop a few times in the first four miles because my eyes started to sting and water like crazy. I figured it was from sunscreen - I had to stop and take my goggles off twice and pour fresh water in my eyes to make it stop.

Jim went to the far west edge of the island to watch us pass around mile 3. He got some pretty cool photos there:

Somewhere around mile 6, when we reached the moorings, I flipped over onto my back to see the most amazing boats anchored all around me. Nancy piloted me through this area like a pro. There were ropes and buoys that I could have easily got hung up on. It was at this place I remember starting to hear Jimmy Buffett songs in my head. It made me ecstatically happy and it would continue on for the rest of the swim. These words were particularly stuck on repeat, from "A Pirate Looks at 40":

Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call
Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall
You've seen it all, you've seen it all

I was making my peace with the water in a very spiritual way. It was fun and truly fulfilling. When we hit mile 7, Nancy stopped to remind me that we were about to enter the "difficult" part - against the wind. She advised a feeding so we could push through and I agreed. I checked my watch and almost went into shock to find that we were on a ridiculously fast pace. I was swimming 15 seconds per 100 faster than my fastest expected pace. All I could think is that we're about to get slammed by the current and the wind. I drank a little extra and put my head down to power through. The waves got rougher, and I swallowed water a couple of times - I told myself not to fight, to relax and work with the rhythm of the water. It must have worked because I started to notice we were passing people during this stretch. Surprisingly, I didn't feel particularly bad even though I expected to hit the "wall" around 8 miles because it was the distance of my longest training swim. But I didn't. Maybe knowing I'd see Jim on the bridge at mile 9 is what kept me strong. Who knows?

Here's a shot Jim took of us coming toward the Cow Key Channel Bridge:

I looked up to wave at Jim when we reached the Cow Key Channel Bridge, and then we headed for the very shallow water. We had successfully conquered the windy part, and we were about to get another push. I stopped to check my pace. Shockingly, I was still 10 seconds per 100 ahead of expectations.

Of course, Jim has a photo of me checking my watch (which I only did three times in this race):

Here's video Jim took from the bridge:

OK. Here's when I thought: "Seriously. It's gotta hit me sooner or later. I'm going way too fast. I'm feeling way too good. Something isn't right."

Nancy perfectly navigated the shallows, which, at this hour, weren't all that shallow. The water was much hotter here and I was starting to get a little nauseous. I stopped with the high carbs and went for my high-electrolyte drink. But I kept swimming and I wasn't slowing down. When we rounded the far end of the island, we stopped a second and Nancy said to me: "do you know where we are?"

I said: "We have TWO MILES to go!!" She was clearly pleased with how fast we were going.

And, of course, it was here that Disaster Magnet reared its head. I was about to make a huge mistake. I was tired and slightly nauseous, and I wanted a surge of energy for the finish. I decided to do the ONE thing that has always worked for me - in Ironman races and marathons. I drank some Coke. What's wrong with a little caffeine and sugar in the last hour, right?

Ugh. I continued to swim a steady pace until we reached the final stretch - a line of wooden poles within earshot of the finish. My arms were tired, but I wasn't, by any means, falling apart. And I was shocked and bewildered to find I was on pace to finish in under five hours. We could literally see the finish line, and Nancy excitedly pointed out the final yellow buoy that I had to round before swimming in. It was right about then I started to feel a bit woozy. I've read about people vomiting during English Channel swims and always wondered "How the hell do they do that? Treading water?"

The first heave came about five poles from the finish. I stopped swimming and there it was. Vomit stops for no man. The Coke came up with a vengeance - in fact, that's pretty much all it was. I started swimming again. And again came another round of coke-flavored vomit. Nancy was perplexed, frustrated even: "The finish line IS RIGHT THERE!" Why the hell was I stopping? I was like, "ummm hold on..." It was the most ridiculous, maddening thing. I could almost reach out and touch that yellow buoy, but I just COULD NOT GET THERE. Meanwhile, once you stop swimming in an event of this length, everything locks up. My arms were no longer working the way they had five minutes ago. Finally, the vomiting was over, and I swam as hard as I could, but I couldn't hold off the guy coming up behind me. He had a much faster finish kick than I did. I consoled myself knowing he wasn't a female competitor.

Here's me finally rounding that last buoy: 

And just like that, I was up and running to a line in the beach sand.

Here's video Jim took of my finish: 

I heard Jim's voice over all the others. It reminded me of my swim coach from college yelling in my face when I was close to a NCAA championship qualifying time. I felt the FEAR. All I could think was that I MUST be extremely close to some goal time. I ran with everything I had across that line and hit the stop button on my watch. Whoa. There it was: a few seconds under 5 hours. Jim confessed later he had no idea about time, he was just cheering for me to finish. Whatever. It worked. I might have just walked it in, but because of him and the FEAR, I was the last finisher to make it under 5 hours. I still can't believe it.

We sat around at the finish for a long time while other finishers came in. It was a while before I felt like standing up or even eating something. When I finally gathered my strength, I inhaled a burger and lots of watermelon. I checked the results and was blown away by the fact that I was 17th overall, the 6th female finisher and 2nd female master (only two minutes from the 1st master). Official results are now posted online. Even more surprising was that I managed to get one of those amazing trophies, and I will cherish it forever. I chose not to kick myself after finding out how much time I wasted stopping to feed (in the heat, I had to make sure I got all my fluids each time I drank), to look around, slowing down to check out the fish swimming below me, or to lollygag and laugh with Nancy. My Garmin said I did about seven minutes of that. But I wasn't there to race, I had nothing to compare it to, and we were having fun.

If I have something to say to wrap this up.. First of all, I couldn't have done it without Jim and Nancy. Jim has been ultra-supportive through this whole open-water swimming learning process. He made sure I didn't worry needlessly about all the logistics and equipment. And Nancy was calm, professional, navigated the quickest route around Key West, and kept me from swimming into buoys and drifting off while swimming (yes, both of those things almost happened). At one point I swam right into the side of her kayak when I breathed on my left a few times. She asked me if I had "zoned out"  and it just cracked me up - I told her I swim in circles when I breathe on my left. My swim around Key West was similar to my fastest marathon and my fastest Ironman in that I truly enjoyed every moment of it. If my face weren't in the water, I would have been laughing the entire way. Even when I started to get sore and tired, I was still happy and singing to myself. The pain barely registers when I feel good and the time certainly flies by. The only struggle came in those last few hundred yards, and then, I was still kind of in a state of euphoria because I was almost finished, and it was amusing to me that I can rarely pull anything off without at least one glitch in the process.

Later the next day we walked through the Key West Cemetery and found this amazing grave marker, which perfectly summed up my trip to Key West. The inscription reads:

Sir Peter Anderson
1947-2014
Secretary General
Conch Republic
'He Had Fun'

Race report from my 12.5-mile Swim Around Key West with photos and video.

On Sunday, I completed the first "race" of my 2017 open-water season. I put race in quotes because I struggle to call my open-water swim events races the way I used to call my triathlons and marathons races. Unlike the latter two, I approach swim events with different goals - to finish, to feel strong, to beat my previous effort (if there was one). Open water swimmers are different that way. Most of them swim to swim, as I do, and not to win. They swim to get to the other side. They swim to conquer the water - the elements - or because they feel a kinship with the water. During pre-race check-in on Sunday, I met a guy who "does only one event [this one] every year." He does it to stay in shape, and he always finishes in the middle "somewhere," but he loves the idea that swimming is just him and his speedo against the elements - and that's it.

The event I did was the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. It's a 4.4-mile swim across the bay between the two separate lanes of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. I did it last year (2016) and had a less-than-enjoyable experience because of overheating in my wetsuit. This year, I had no intention of wearing a wetsuit, which would obviously make me slower, but the goal was to have a strong swim. You know, one with no stopping, no lolly-gagging, no eating and drinking, no molesting a kayaker for water, and no consideration of dropping out.

Because all those things happened last year (2016 race report).

This year's race was different in many ways. As I said, I swam without a wetsuit. But my preparation has been different. I'm swimming a lot more and a bit faster in training. I also knew what to expect in terms of the course. And the race day was different. The swim started at 8:30 am instead of noon. Chesapeake Bay was about three degrees colder, but it was also calmer. And the tides were slightly different.

The day started for me with that old racing bugaboo: a sleepless night. It was most surprising for me because my husband Jim and I had spent a lovely evening in Washington, DC, with dear friends, and I was in a very relaxed and happy mood. I wasn't thinking about the swim, but apparently my subconscious was preoccupied with it. I don't know why. I was trained well, I had finished it last year, and I had no designs on placing.

When the alarm went off at 5:30, I had to remind myself of how many races (including Ironman Kona) that I had, indeed, completed on no sleep. But I was disappointed in myself because I ALWAYS feel better when I get even just one hour of sleep.

When I got up, I quickly ate a banana and a liquid protein/carb drink, we took showers, and headed to Sandy Point Beach for the start.

Here are some photos of the Bay Bridge from Sandy Point State Park (location of the start) in Annapolis, MD. This shows almost the full distance we have to swim (the bridge span is just over 4 miles long):

Mile two is somewhere between in the middle of the suspension bridge span (in the shipping channel), here:

Mile three is somewhere under the truss bridge span, here:

With a predicted high of 90 degrees F, it was already warm, so we stayed in the shade while I doused myself in sunscreen, and waited for my start in the second wave. The race director gave us the lowdown on what to expect: almost perfect conditions, with tides changing from right to left halfway through and a water temperature of 71 degrees F. As it did last year, the statistic on number of volunteers blew me away: near 750 volunteers helping about 650 swimmers (that's more than one per swimmer!). It's impossible to overstate how well-organized this event is.

Before my start, I got in the water for a short warm-up just to be sure the water temperature was ok. I was surprised that it felt much colder than when I swam the day before, but after about a minute, I felt very comfortable and was confident in my decision to go without a wetsuit especially after seeing people struggling with that same decision and remembering how I overheated last year.  I decided before the race that I would not need to drink or eat during the swim, and I made sure I was well-hydrated by drinking 32 ounces of SkratchLabs hydration during the two hours beforehand.

Pre-race photos (from Jim's camera):

In a matter of moments, it seemed like we were on the starting line. I still felt like the only woman without a wetsuit (in fact, I was one of 46 women without). I started way to the left which, afterward, we realized was a much greater distance than those who started on the right near the breakwall along the side of the bridge. But I wanted to stay out of the congestion at the right. Even so, I still got pummeled by other swimmers for the first five minutes or so. Once we turned left to get between the bridge spans, we had much more space, and I rarely ran into other swimmers unless they were stragglers from the first wave.

I had decided to swim as steadily and continuously as possible with pauses only to avoid hitting others or catch my breath. From last year, I remembered the locations of the mile markers, and I still hadn't decided if I would check my time and pace when I reached them. I reached the first pylon of the suspension bridge (just under two miles) having successfully NOT checked my Garmin at mile 1. The water wasn't nearly as choppy as it had been last year and I felt relaxed and strong and swam pretty easily for most of the first two miles. I focused solely on trying to keep my pace steady with very little effort. But when I saw the giant orange 2-mile buoy, I couldn't stand not knowing if how I felt corresponded to my pace, so I flipped over on my back to check my time. I saw 51 minutes - just about where I wanted to be.

Some of the unique moments I remember from the race this year were noticing the different water temperatures in the sun and in the shade from the bridge, almost accidentally noticing both of the two aid stations (even though I didn't stop), being passed by a guy towing a personal swim buoy with a GoPro mounted on it, and watching a paddle-boarder glide majestically past me within about three feet. All of these things made me smile.

In 2016, my struggle began around 2.5 miles. I remember looking at my watch at that point and thinking there was no way I still had two miles to go. This year, I never even knew that feeling. When I saw the second aid boat near the truss span of the bridge (and the 3-mile buoy) and noticed people from my wave stopping there, the competitive instinct kicked in, and I decided to pick up my pace to catch at least one person. One turned to two, and three... and then I found myself in a battle with another woman who took to drafting off my feet. At one point I got tired of her touching my feet, so I stopped to let her pass me. But I stayed within sight of her and a guy who were swimming my pace. Her stroke looked choppy and strained, and by the time we all reached the far-end breakwall and turned to get out from under the bridge, I had enough of following them and made my break. I would swim as hard as I could to the finish. Last year, this part of the swim was extremely warm, and I had to stop several times from overheating. It seems like forever from there to the finish line, but I held on strong to stay ahead of them and pass several more swimmers in my wave.

When I crawled out of the water at the finish, I saw the clock. I was certain I would beat my goal of under two hours, but, unfortunately, I came out at 2:05 - only four minutes faster than last year (although the distance on my GPS watch was over 4.7 miles). It was disappointing, discouraging, unsatisfying... all those things, but those feelings lasted only a few minutes because I felt great! I was sore, but it was so SO much more fun.

In analyzing my swim, I checked out the pace graph after uploading the event file to Garmin Express. My pace was even but just slower between miles 3 and 4 and then I picked it up again (when I made the conscious decision to push hard). Unfortunately, I have to attribute it to lolly-gagging - I wasn't even conscious of it. There was a bit of chop that hit me a few times in that segment, but I wasn't fatigued. If nothing else, it gives me a tiny bit of confidence to face a few longer races in the near future. I didn't taper this week, I only cut back my yardage Friday and Saturday because of lingering soreness from an extra-long swim on Tuesday.

I am thankful for the support from Jim in this new sport despite having to cut short a business trip and get up early on Sunday just to wait around for me to start and wait around for me to finish. On a hot day. If it's any consolation, I think I'm finally doing the sport I love most.

On Sunday, I completed the first "race" of my 2017 open-water season, the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. It's a 4.4-mile swim across the bay between the two separate lanes of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. I did it last year (2016) and had a less-than-enjoyable experience because of overheating in my wetsuit. This year things were entirely different.

It's always about the watch, isn't it?

Just when I'm smack in the middle of writing up a thoughtful analysis of how I'm fixing my (non-symmetric, right-side-dominant) swim stroke and my (drag-inducing, lack-of-a) kick, I had a revelation in the pool yesterday. It came after about a month of frustration and stressing about why I don't seem to be swimming any faster after weeks of hard, and long, workouts. I've been working on improving so many things using video and drills and fins and my snorkel. And I feel like a different person swimming these days.. I'm working on all the things experts say will help me swim faster (from the best-rated online sources, coaches, and books) but nothing feels natural, and nothing feels "right" (yet?). I do feel stronger. And I feel faster. But my lap-times are slower. 

I pace and shake my head and jump up and down in frustration and discouragement. And I come back to the problem on a daily basis. Yesterday, I got in the pool and tried letting go of all the things I "know" and all the things I've been taught and just tried to swim "natural," without focusing on any one thing.. without thinking about my stroke or my kick or the positions of my hands and feet.

And nothing happened. The. Same. Speed. No faster. No slower. I tried not to cry. It was all I could do to stay IN the pool and not get out and walk away from the workout. Overwhelming defeat was settling in.

I decided to do a set of 100s experimenting with a bunch of different things while giving myself enough rest between intervals to get an accurate assessment. I tried breathing on the right. Breathing on the left. Putting my head down. Kicking harder. Kicking narrower. Bilateral Breathing. No discernible difference. And then.. back to using a pull-buoy to see if it was faster. And, guess what, it WAS. Two seconds faster! (in the swim world, two seconds is a lifetime).

Yep. I was boggled. I tossed up my hands in disgust.

Then, like a bolt out of the blue, it HIT me. I asked myself: "What, besides floating my legs, was I doing different with a pull-buoy?"

The answer: my FLIPTURN! When I use a buoy, I don't dolphin kick off the wall.

Could that be it? Was it possible? They say the underwater dolphin kick is THE second fastest "stroke" - second to all-out freestyle sprint. When I coached, we routinely stressed the importance of a strong dolphin kick off the wall. And if you remember the 2016 Olympic men's 400 free relay, you know it was pretty much won on the Michael Phelps flipturn - he went into the wall in second place and came up ahead after the most phenomenal underwater dolphin kick ever.

I decided to swim my final 100 yards with no dolphin kick off the wall - and wouldn't you know? That was it. My time was almost identical to my 100 with a pull-buoy. Who'dathunk? The one thing I've worked hard to develop in recent years (because back in the olden-days, we flutter-kicked off the wall) was the one thing I'm still not good at. It makes sense to me as I started swimming at age 14 and never had the flexibility and durability most swimmers develop at a young age when they learn to dolphin kick for butterfly. My butterfly every only had one kick - it was mostly shoulders.

Part of me was relieved to have figured out I'm ultra-draggy while making like a dolphin, but the other part of me was really disappointed because I had worked so hard to make it a natural thing - I was secretly thrilled each time I reached a further point underwater off the wall. The dilemma now becomes: should I spend lots of time on my dolphin kick for my pool workouts? Or should I start acting like a real open-water swimmer and just accept it as is?

There is one thing I'm sure of: I am now grateful for no walls in the ocean.

It's always about the watch, isn't it?
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