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I want to start my recap of my 2017 End Wet swim by saying, I don’t think I’ll ever be quite the same, the level of respect that I have for ultra-marathon swimmers has grown exponentially. It’s one of those things; once you’ve broken through, you realize that you need to honor those that came before you, and celebrate those that come after.
My story starts as we drop the kayak, and check out the start, looks like a river. I do a little marketing on Facebook, because I’m supporting a charity effort. I get back to the hotel about 9:45PM, and Ryan (Best friend, and paddler extraordinaire) says “Sleep fast.” With every intention, I set my alarm for 3:30AM because we had to report to the bus by 4:30AM. Sleep fast, yeah right, I tried, I really did, next thing you know I look at the watch; 11:20PM, I must have fallen asleep shortly after to reawaken at 3:13AM, no reason to snooze till 3:30AM, I’m up! I guess we are going to do this on less than four hours of sleep. Adrenaline is jacked, so it might just work. The night before Ryan says, “I’m going to sleep on the bus,” I responded, “Me too.” The bus pulls up, it’s a party bus, with a full sound system, and LED light show. The only things missing are a brass pole, and disco ball. Needless to say, no sleep, but we did jam out to “Eye of the tiger.” It was odd.
We get out there, after about thirty minutes travel, I immediately strip down and start applying lanolin oil to my pits, Aqauphor over the top of the oil, and zinc oxide over exposed skin. Start time is in fifteen minutes, so we’ve got to move. It’s cold with an air temp in the lower 50’s, will warm to mid-60’s, but I don’t feel much, due to sleep deprivation, and adrenaline. I take in two granola bars and a feeding out of my daily allowance, along with a sip from one of the camelbacks that we tied to the top of the kayak.
As we line up to get in the water; one of the smallest crowds I’ve been a part of, I start to feel the cold. I’m so deep in thought about what I’ve got coming up, that I forget to yell out, “We are all winners!” which I commonly do prior to a race. I’m looking forward to the water, I’ve been in taper for two weeks, so the itch is bad. I hear “Go,” we all start to dive in, it’s not the normal sprint, and ease back, it’s all ease. My first thought, “Oh my God, that’s dark.” The difference between the morning light, and the pitch black of the river is at sharp contrast. On the bright side, seventy-two degrees feels really good at the moment, and there is the continual hope of a warm day.
Getting started the water feels great, it’s my first time swimming in a river so I’m calibrating every sense. I’m stroking well. The cold is noticeable, but I know that the day will warm, and I’ll be ok. Through the day it would become apparent that if I wanted to be in the current, I could not reasonably expect to swim in seventy-two degrees. The slip stream of the current is colder, and you know when you are in it, because you’re hitting sticks, and other debris. So, you start making the decision early, and this decision continually changes, given your ability to find the slip stream. To be, or not to be, in the current? That’s a relevant question.
Back to my original thought, I’m stroking along, and have settled into a bilateral breathing pattern that is to the following rhythmic chant. “Muck muck, North Dakota tree, muck muck, Minnesota tree, muck muck ND, mm, MN ect…” Ryan caught up to me a while back, the kayaks launch after the swimmers. I look at him with relief now and again, to have a best friend at my side is a true gift. The water is heavy, and grows heavier through the day because you’re stroking against the river, and it’s dirty, so it’s not light like your local pool. It’s not the consistency of mud, so it’s viscous, but thick enough to know the difference. At this point, I think of the 5k’s that I swam with paddles, and begin to think, “Glad I did, I’ve got this”. I think my shoulders will hold.
Two miles fly by; then my right hand strikes an underwater tree between my pointer finger, and thumb, my hand folds, and rolls to accommodate the blow. The same branch, I think, then scrapes down my left side left side, and it feels like it takes my left nipple clean off. To clarify any question you may have about visibility, I never see the branch. Undeterred, I think; “Great, mile two and it’s going to be a long ass day, if I have to swim with a broken hand, and no nipple.” “I’ll blead out before the end, because how would I clot?” Needless to say, I don’t plan on stopping, so I checked the nipple, still there, but there is a scrape, “Ok, and the hand?” “Hurts, check back later.” The analyst in me says; “Indicates a slight overreach at the top of the key on your right, level out, stroke clean.” After this ten seconds of thought, I just start to laugh to myself, happy in the fact that I still have two nipples. Celebrate the small things! Pun intended.
I didn’t realize who it was, but I’m gaining on a fellow swimmer, later I find out it’s Elaine. I pull up next to her, the Butterfly guy, John is also near. We have a bit of a race for a moment. Elaine, and I would continue this through about mile eight, where upon she would pull ahead for the duration, and I would think to myself, “You’ve got to swim your own race.”
Feedings are going well, for the first eight or so miles, I’m feeding on the forty-five, with a fluids stop in-between. Ryan would air drop my food, consisting of my nut balls, dates, and cheese. I found that going into Chicken, Star, Soldier, or Backstroke while chewing was a great way to maintain buoyancy, and stretch muscles that needed a changeup. After the eight mile mark I asked Ryan to separate my feedings, cheese and fluids on one interval at about twenty five, and nut balls, and dates with fluids on the alternate. Another lifesaver was my inhaler, allergies have been a constant problem in my life, this water, and the pollen in the air began making breathing difficult. Early on, I asked Ryan to dig out the inhaler, the first two of eight total puffs is taken in about this time, along with the first two of six total pain pills, acetaminophen. The only other med taken in the day, is every other nut ball has a Gas X in it, unwanted buoyancy can be a really bad thing.
I’m swimming pretty well at this point, I feel like my muscles have warmed up. People say I’m crazy, but it’s common for me to feel tight prior to the five-mile mark. Through the prior two weeks of taper I was extremely tight, and suffering from headaches, so, I’m relieved when I begin to loosen a bit at mile eight. Air temperat ure is still cold, water temp is the same, colder in the slip stream. I’ve stayed in the channel as much as possible, hitting random debris, and the continual chill is just part of the gig at this point. Right hand? “Still hurts, check back later.”
“Yeah,” I’ve been looking for it, the big fifteen-mile mark, Thompsons bridge. I’m closer to the North Dakota shore on my approach but notice that there is a small gathering near a probable boat ramp on Minnesota side, and begin to drift in that direction. I have high hopes of seeing my wife, babies, and parents. As I heard them scream, “Go Daddy!” I pull my head, wave, placed my hands in the shape of a heart, quickly submerged due to the effort, level out, and begin stroking again. I immediately begin a river of emotion; To have their support, for my little girls to see me live a fearless life. It’s not only the support of my family, but it’s the support of the swim community that I’m a member of, all of the Brothers, and Sisters; warriors of stoke, and kick. All of the people following my efforts, and those that have donated to my cause. I’m out here trying to benefit children faced with the adversity of an injury that can only be seen as unfair, these children, so close to my heart, are imprinted, because I was that child. The thought, from prior writing rolls, “Be a hero to the childhood you,” “Well; Here I am, in pain, I’ve just crossed my longest swim on record, have overcome my disability, all the odds, raised money for a great cause, have more support than I can fathom, and oh shit, only have twenty-one miles to go.” The tears roll, filling the bottom edges of my goggles, I figure it’s just saline, no harm there, and let them flood. This goes on till my next feeding because just the sensory of it all is overwhelming, much less the emotional toll I begin to feel.
Mile eighteen, half way. It’s pure coincidence, but I have a feeding at this time. I’m doing my normal thing, and Ryan says: “This exact spot is half way!” I smile for lack of words, Ryan and I hold a small personal celebration. I don’t know what he is thinking, but I’m thinking, “That was a really long half way.” I think we were both spooked by the grandeur of it all, and for the first time, I understand why boat captains never tell an English Channel swimmer how much farther they have to go. If that distance sinks into your mind, and you are unprepared to fight off the demons that come with it, your journey will get longer with every passing stroke. I go a bit quite, and with a wince of pain break the seal on my goggles for the first time, to let out the three mile tears. Goggles have been digging in for some time, and I have a constant pain under my eyes. I place them back, trying to avoid the exact placement as before, with little luck.
We get back to it, I begin to settle back in, my mind is a bit damaged by the whole half way thing, but I start to shake it off, “Life begins, where your comfort zone ends,” is on repeat until the magnitude of the distance begins to fade to background. I start up a single side breath pattern, and at the next feeding take another couple of pulls off the inhaler. My lungs are beginning to tighten up again, and I can feel my stroke start to wane a bit. Additional things start going wrong, I’ve had a nagging pain in my left hip, and my left should is feeling the stress, there is pain there too. I’m right handed, so it’s no surprise that my weak side is starting to revolt. Right hand? “Still hurts, check back later.”
The arms are still moving, the current is still running, and I’m still hitting sticks so things are ok. As my stroke begins to fall off, I decide to try different ones, and start cycling through the base stroke structures of all of my Masters students. I try this, and that, much like Goldie Locks until I find something that fits the moment just right. I’m glad that I have, it’s Andi’s, an arm entry just off the top of the cap, with extension high in the water, a little shorter than my normal pattern. Then a clean under body sweep, slightly shallower than my normal pull. All paired with an even six beat kick. It’s efficient, effective, and most of all comfortable. I call this stroke pattern home for the next eight miles, and then need to recalibrate a bit.
Mile twenty-four is memorable, that pain in my left hip has become significant, and is effecting the entire left side of my body. It’s started to lock, and I’m trying everything in my power to get it to loosen or pop. Since I don’t have a right hip, I’m not a big fan of breast stroke, but I start up a breast stroke, to move that hip in a different way. I stop, try to stretch it manually, I try to get it to pop. This has been going on and off for miles, when I finally decide to ditch my six beat kick, and try a three beat kick. This just feels weird, and I’m growing frustrated, but stick with it short term.
A couple of new distractions would present themselves: The support boats were really good about throttling down, you could hear the screws in the water come to a stop. I could even tell that one of the boats needed to replace the spark plug, because when firing back up, it would click, click, click, and then you’d get a whiff of gasoline over the water. This was disturbing, but I came to the satisfaction that it was in the name of safety. At mile twenty-five, the river widens, and the current drops to a point where you can’t feel it at all. The river stays this way for the next ten miles, making this a prime boater spot, and non-support boats fly by, casting a large wake. One in particular caught me, I pull my head, and say, “what the hell was that?” Ryan patiently responds “boat wake”. I then notice that Ryan is positioning the kayak to protect me from wake in future events; What a great guy!
Soon enough I hear more screws in the water, not slowing, I lift my head to see a fellow competitor being boated off the course, this is difficult to see. I’d had a conversation with this individual the night prior on the finish dock, while checking out the river. We discussed flow, and the goal. It was a short but impactful conversation, he’d traveled a long ways for the opportunity, and it was heart breaking to see him, center boat, wetsuit down, being pulled. I could still feel his strong, solid hand shake, and see matter of fact southern confidence of his smile. A true bad ass, this didn’t change that at all. Just to step to this line is an accomplishment!
Left hip continues dying a slow, and painful death, I stop again, in an effort to stretch it. I’ve been working in broken three butterfly drill, because it doesn’t want to move at all. This is tiring, it’s locking, and fast. I would later learn that this was my Psoaz. The Psoaz is a tricky muscle group that connects the spine to the pelvis crossing the body back to front, and after hours of pain it no longer wants to move. Don’t ask me how the physics work, I find myself treading water with my right leg only, left leg in both hands, I’m bringing it up to my chest, and then with a jerk with my left arm, I swing it out to the left, while trying to rebalance with my right arm. “Holy hell, it popped!” As the nerves in the leg recoil, it’s like a shot of cold water runs down my leg, dizzy euphoria sets in. The good thing, my left hip is moving again, not as much pain, but still there. I shake out my arms, and start back up, still trying to master a three beat kick, I’m swimming wounded.
This is about the time, my mind desperate for something to distract it from the task at hand, focuses in on some electrical poles high above at the moment. They become entertainment, before I even realize the thought has crept in, I’m sixteen years old, in my best friend Tony’s basement, watching a VHS bootleg copy of; The Life and Times of Brian, by Monty Python. The poles to the power lines resemble crosses, and I begin to sing to myself; “Always look on the bright side of life”, and then mentally whistle the rest of the chorus. This repeats over, and over, I’m becoming slightly annoyed in my inability to whistle at the moment, and think, “It’s totally worth it for a smile.” I pick my head up, and sing out loud; “Always look on the bright side of life!”, then I whistle; not in my head, but I whistle that bad boy out! Ryan looks, and smiles, he knows me so well that this does not worry him, he knows I’ve not lost my mind. He knows me so well, that he knows the entertainment has value.
Swimming, swimming, Right hand? “Still hurts, check back later.”
The next surprise gets labeled under; Expect the unexpected, as if that’s possible. No wetsuit, because I want this to count, nine plus hours, the cold is setting in. Unfortunately, it’s not cold enough to numb me, just cold enough to hurt. I’ve been this cold before, just two weeks prior in Okoboji I’d done a 14 mile test out swim, in 55 degree water, but I had the wetsuit on. This is 68-72, but no wetsuit. The staple in my right knee, that protrudes the bone a bit, just under skin surface, appears to be closer to the temperature of the water, than that of my body. As the cold penetrates the bone, my entire right leg begins to ache. I can’t explain the ache, it’s like arthritis I suppose, but if you metal in your body, you probably know it. This is my entire leg, and I’m mentally trying to will it back. Moving is more important now than ever, if you get chilled, then you have to move, or hypothermia will set in. Fact: the body loses heat four times faster in water than in air, water is much more invasive.
These are all apparent struggles coinciding within what I call the longest ten miles. I mentioned it earlier, the current drops out as the river widens between miles twenty-five, and thirty-five. I’ve not mentioned the wind, we’ve been swimming into a fifteen to twenty mile per hour wind, all day long. This only effects the water when there is a quarter to half mile stretch that is due north. In those stretches I’m fighting the annoyance of six-inch head slappers. In this segment of the swim, with the river wider, and current dwarfed, I’m fighting these small waves. I begin to tire of it, and again as a form of distraction start trying out new stroke patterns. I still have my lungs, and my buoyancy control so I begin to wonder if I can dive under them. Ok, new goal, new stroke, dip head left, drop left shoulder, high right arch in the right arm, place it forward, a couple of butterfly kicks to secure a dive, and try to swim under getting a couple of meters per stroke. This works for a while, it takes the pressure off the left shoulder (still in pain), and for a moment takes the head slappers out of the picture. I thought I may find a lower current, which did not work out, but it was notably fun to create a new stroke. I have a student; Tracy, who had a high sweeping right, and three beat kick, so I adopt his stroke pattern for a bit, and we are forging ahead.
The dive stroke format eventually messes with my stomach, over the last eight miles it turns four times, but I manage to hold it. I start to count down, “I didn’t swim twenty-eight miles, to lose it in the last eight”. I check in with Ryan, “How are you doing”, he responds; “I just want to stand up”, my response “Me too!” We both chuckle. Mental fortitude continues; “I didn’t swim twenty-nine miles, to lose it in the last seven.” My body, cold, and in pain, tries to find relief in my mind. My mind responds with a dream of warm saline, and a tramadol drip. The only way that I can describe the pain is; Surgical recovery pain, but instead of being in a hospital bed with narcotics, you’re working with dopamine, and adrenaline. Surgical pain in comparison is required, and every moment of this, you’re a volunteer, “I can stop, and the pain will subside.” “I won’t stop!” “F the pain!” Mental stamina needs to stay intact, “Always look on the bright side of life”, “Life begins where your comfort zone ends”.
I know I’m close to the end, but I can no longer track time. I’ve been tracking the sun all day, but the evening is cloudy to the west, the night is coming on, and I can’t see the sun. I’m trying to track time, but can’t remember well enough, I begin to panic because they said that they would pull us at 9:01PM, as that is official nightfall. I’m freaking a little, I don’t think it’s that late, but at this point who knows, am I going to get pulled due to sundown cutoff? “I can’t see the sun!” Four miles to go, counting down, and doing some math, energy VS food, I’ve lost interest in feedings, but take in some more cheese because it coats my stomach, and I know I’ll need it.
I Start to think, “I don’t ever want to do this again”, then I think “Pain is temporary, glory is forever”. “Life begins where your comfort zone ends”. Ryan says, “Sarah is texting, when can we see the bridge?” I can’t see the bridge, more panic sets in. “No sun, no bridge, no good; I did not swim thirty-four miles to get pulled in the last mile!”
Ryan and I turn a corner, and I see three bridges; “What the hell, which bridge am I supposed to see?” “I know I’ve got it now, I try to swim with a bit more pep, the pain is real, the exhaustion is real, but I’m going to make it.” Soon after we see the bridges, we get to the fork in the river, and the adjoining river creates a swirl current. I feel current for the first time in four or five hours. I pick my head up and say, “Current, I feel it!” Ryan says,” I know, it’s weird.” After I get out of the swirl, it begins to push me again.
I can see, “The bridge,” my family is on it, they are cheering me on. I again make the heart with my hands, because this is the best way to communicate what I feel. I start looking for the dock. I stood on this dock merely twenty-four hours prior checking out the river, speaking with the brave southern gentleman mentioned earlier. I’m told, I just have to touch the dock. I’m flashing through descriptors for what I just experienced, all of them have swear words in them, but I have the presence of mind to know my babies are there. I pull myself up just enough to rest my shoulders, and lay down my head in a moment of exhaustion. I say, “That was a really long swim”. That’s all the description I can manage. Getting out, my body is extremely heavy, and begins to shiver uncontrollably. My daughters are again being there to warm, and comfort their daddy. My wife steadfast, and supportive standing beside me, holding me up. This is the best part of my day.
My attitude about the swim begins to change, the second that it’s over. It’s a worthy challenge, the magnitude of the accomplishment, and glory begins to hit me. I get some warmer clothes on, and report to the canopy, where there are some chairs, and a last piece of Boston Cream pie. I’m offered, the pie, and accept with a “Hell Yes.” Elaine, our accomplished swim leader for the day says: “Thanks for pushing me”. I respond, with an element of surprise “I pushed you?” She replies: “Yeah, I kept thinking, who is this guy, and why won’t he go away.” She later tells me her English Channel time, it’s thirteen minutes more that my finish time, so I do some quick math to figure her overall difference, surprised that I’m capable, I think “Shit, I could totally swim for another twenty five minutes to thirty minutes, if it got me to France”. This goal just became real! A couple minutes after finish, and my drive, is back.
Right hand? “Still hurts, check back later.” Be brave, be stubborn, swim with grace upon your every stroke, and make it!
Philanthropist, Swimmer, Author of; Saved with Honu – A Story of Adversity.
$2,212.00 Raised for Omaha Children’s Hospital. Thank you!