Here I am, two days after my second End Wet, this time I swam for Epilepsy awareness and funding for the benefit of my Nephew, Sister in Law and Aunt. I know that this is going to sound a bit crazy, but I enjoyed this End Wet (2021 (16 hours 19 minutes)) a lot more than my prior (2017 (13 hours 41 minutes)). I enjoyed it for many reasons, I’d say the number one reason is that the water was cleaner, I could see my forearm with each stroke, it was a cool, sunny day, and I had my best friend Ryan (support paddler for each End Wet) by my side.
Today I’m sore and tired, but when I look back, and into the future it’s worth it. For those of you that don’t know my backstory, here’s the super short version. Full body cast after my third surgery and resulting fused right hip (12 years old), surgery to reconstruct my right knee (19 years old), living a “normal” life that would spiral into imbalance, disfunction and disability due to my existing challenges. By the age of 34 I was failing, had a hump in my back, 4 prescription medications including a statin. I was miserable, had little to no athletic ability and needed a change.
I began swimming, when I started it was very difficult to swim a 100 yard interval, and a 200 was impossible. I’m 44 now, so this was a decade ago. Swimming can be a solution for many things, it undoubtably has saved my life (Full story written in an autobiography “Saved with Honu” that tells the story up to my first 10K). Because I’m a late bloomer in all of this (LOA “Late Onstage Athlete”), I don’t really have any fast twitch muscle left. As I’ve aged in this sport over the last decade, I’ve found more and more that my “competition” in this world are former collegiate swimmer that never stopped swimming. I quote competition because I cannot see it that way, it’s BS, when facing distances like these you may find inspiration in these people, but you must realize they are teammates. There’s really no room for competition the way I see it, because worldwide there are so few of us. With all that said, I’m usually a first wave swimmer and a bit of a thumper over all, I’m good with that.
The night before the swim we were honored to speak with Sarah Thomas who gave an inspirational speech about vulnerability. She stated that we are a vulnerable group because we need help to succeed. This is correct in every sense of the word, not only are we actively putting our lives on the line, regardless of our ability or training acumen, but we must allow ourselves to find solace and strength in our team. I recently experienced the difference on a swim where my team was incomplete, I couldn’t source that strength and although a shorter swim I didn’t finish. It messed with my head a bit, but I’ve come to realize that the water conditions matter far less than the team conditions. We can train for the water, training for vulnerability and team ends up being an unexpected challenge. Speaking of team, that same race that I didn’t finish, myself and two others were on the same pull boat in that race, and we all finished End Wet 2021. This is my definition of team!
Concerning the Red River, well it was pathetic, but like I said because it wasn’t flowing very well it was clean in comparison to 2017. We started the day by wading into mud, just when you thought you were through it there was another embankment, I finally just dove into about one foot of water and pulled myself hand over hand through mud and silt. Then I started the swim near the middle of the river. The first 15 miles was pleasant, I was in a mid-pace level two breath per side bilateral. The river for the first 25 is much more narrow than the last 11 miles, knowing this due to 2017 I was pacing to save energy. Looking back I could have given a bit more, I really wish I had given a bit more, but I didn’t understand how little flow there really was. Thinking about this, it may be worth having a 15 mile option of this race, that 15 is beautiful, and relatively forgiving. If the river gave miles away, they were given within the first 25 miles, and the river might have given 2 miles this year.
I was swimming well, if you follow me (I don’t post much) I pull an infant bathtub (Ruck Duck) around Lake Pleasant AZ to take along nutrition, training aides (paddles) and Ruck is a valuable deterrent to not getting hit by the ample boat traffic. I train heavy, and my average pacing pulling Ruck is about 1.8 Miles per hour, without Ruck with a butt buoy 1.9 Miles per hour, and about 2-2.1 swimming free with support. I’m a bit slow for the community, but I’m happy to be able to hang with my “Competition”. I was swimming pace, comfortable and happy. Shoulder pain was creeping in at about 12-15 miles so I took in a bit of ibuprofen (bottle of children’s, with a chewable pepto, chase with water). Passing Thompsons Bridge was wonderful, in 2017 I burst into tears at this point due to the overwhelming emotion of supporting my cause and the realization that it had been the furthest I’d swam. This time around I was more composed, I gave the crowd two strokes of butterfly to thank them for their cheers and kept pace. The next ten were a dream, triceps, biceps, and lats were sore, but I pride myself on a balanced stroke. I’ll define this a bit, because I think it’s important. Try to develop a stroke that leans on your pectorals, biceps, triceps, lats and delts relatively evenly, and if something hurts slight variations in that stroke to lean on another group can make the difference in making your goal (Finis makes Iso paddles that are great for this). I was using this time to have fun with Ryan too, I was talking lewdly about my nutrition balls and how they fill my mouth with sweet goodness, and for no good reason I practice speaking in a Jamaican accent and decided saying Ibuprofen in said accent was a lot of fun “Eeei-buu-pro-fen”. We were having a good day, and although I was swimming stronger, faster and better we were consistently pacing slower than 2017 because the river was stationary.
I make a point to not know where I am in the distance, I’d rather be in an unaware meditative space than be calculating pain over distance. People say it’s 90% mental, 10% physical, in my reality it’s about getting my mind out of the way, take in the feedings and trusting in my training. Now for the serious stuff, miles 25+ are the real deal. Up to this point you can swim corner to corner and always have an immediate gratification, that now changes. Not only have you completed 4 marathons already, but now the river widens, dies, and in both 2017 and 2021 your swimming into a head wind through longer, wider channels. With a stationary river this year, I’m pretty sure that due to the headwind it was flowing backwards, at least the top 6-8 inches were as they were forming head slappers and disrupting my breathing.
I see the 9 mile sign, I thought we were further along, but the river was done gifting distance. I wasn’t worried about that, I knew I had 9. We are about 8.5 out and Ryan says; “checkpoint is around the corner we need to haul ass”. Ok, I’m thinking let’s make this checkpoint, so haul ass means sprint? That’s a bit to ask, but let’s make that checkpoint. “Around the corner” was in reality a mile away. Ryan knows better than to let me know this, and was not the only time he misquoted distance till the end for my benefit. Ok, so I’m 27 miles in and I’m sprinting a mile, I’ve never been here before, but I’m trusting my training, and trusting my nutrition (which conversely I changed since SCAR 2021). I sprint out that mile, and we pull up to find out we are getting pulled for the day; but wait, there’s more. I yell out; “I can make that distance before dark!” After a brief and maybe heated conversation we get passed through given the knowledge that if we don’t make up time, we’ll get pulled at the next checkpoint.
Now I’m tracking the sun, and it’s not really on my side. I don’t train like this, I pull an inflatable duck behind me, I don’t sprint much, but here we go. I did 1 mile in sprint, I can do another 7.5 right? Sure, yeah, I convince myself it’s possible, but more over I decide to put on a show. I’ve got 3.5 miles till the last checkpoint, if I can shave a bit a time, put on a show, leave no doubt that I’m deserving of the chance, then maybe I get that chance. I take off in my strongest, fastest stroke, a left side single breath (Same stroke that caused my left pec to cramp and a bonk on Canyon at SCAR). My mind goes blank, with the exception of this internal drill sergeant who commands stroke over stroke. I tell Ryan; “I’m not stopping, I’m going liquid feed only, at this pace I have to feed every 15”. I have a full 3 liter camelback on the back of the support boat and the hose just hangs in the water. This way, I can see him, get nutrition and grind out distance. I just don’t want to squander this chance.
I push through another 3.5 miles of dead sprint at 100%, I get to that checkpoint. There are a couple of things that are happening that I’m unaware of at this point. My family is on shore at the 3 mile checkpoint, my children, wife, race directors and deputy sheriff are in conversation and at some point the sheriff says something to the effect of; “Well it doesn’t really get dark until about 10PM”. He also says something to the effect of “I’ve been watching these guys all day, it’s monumental, I can’t tell them they can’t finish” (A special thank you goes out to this gentleman). All things were on my side at this point, it’s summer solstice so I’ve got a bit of light, the river and flow is no longer a reason, much less and excuse, my mind is dialed in, and my body, well I’m no longer listening (a lesson learned while in that body cast 32 years ago), ignore and override!
I guess I swam far enough fast enough to again be given a chance, and this is an opportunity I could not squander. My goals kick back in, and this drill sergeant is commanding my body, the three more miles don’t phase me, nutrition is kicking due to the shortened feeding schedule, and I’m taking each stroke my body will give me, none of which are for granted. It’s just a 5K, I swim them all the time and it’s been base training distance for the last 5 years. Have a ever sprinted one? Hell No! The sun is lowering in the sky, there’s no longer a sun line on the far shore of the river, and I’m still sprinting as hard and fast as I can. It takes a bit but I can now see the bridges towards the end, I know I’m last swimmer now because the support boat is right there. I do the math on feedings and decide I don’t need anything else, I’ve got to be within a mile now. It’s just sprint, breath stroke from here on out. Ryan keeps trying to get me to move to my left, I finally pick up my head and ask him to move to that side so that I can follow his line in. The end point dock is not lit, my goggles are tinted, and a bit worse for wear anyway, I just can’t see it. I ask Ryan; “How many yards?”, he says “100 yards!” Liar! It was a bit farther than 100, but in the moment I give it all I can give for 100, still can’t see it, so another 50, still can’t see it so another 50, still can’t see it, another 25 and then I could see it! I’m now sighting over breath, get close, and to be true to myself and my training requirements I put in three butterfly strokes to finish the swim!
I have a fan club there, and there’s a glint of sun still over the horizon. I stayed true to my word, I made that distance before dark, which was mentioned by the race directors; “You’re a man of your word”. Everyone was excited for me, I was exhausted, but I could have gone further if needed (trust in the feedings, trust in the training, get the head out of the way). 16 hours 19 minutes (36 miles), the most swimming I’d done because the river wasn’t giving today.
Now some of you may be wondering what mental fuel could possibly be worth putting myself through all of this? Sure I was supporting charity, but bigger than that there are two things; I’m supporting my Nephew, Sister in Law and Aunt. Above and beyond that is the following romantic idea; I have two daughters, but only one 2017 medal. These medals are unique, they have your all time finisher number on the back (2017 #108), (2021 #150), and they are shaped like a dog tag. Here’s where I entrust you with a secret that I need you to keep from my daughters until after Christmas day 2021. I’m giving them each a End Wet medal paired with an engraved dog tag medal of; “Always remember you are Braver than you believe, Stronger than you seem, Smarter than you think, and Loved more than you know.” I did it for them, I did it to prove to them that they are capable, courageous and strong and that eventually it’s a matter of choice to be capable, courageous and strong. I can’t think of a more proof positive way to make this point. Moreover, if you find inspiration in this story then I did it for you, because after all we are teammates. To Sarah Thomas’s point, it’s necessary to be vulnerable, and it’s out duty to give back into the marathon swimming community.
There are graced moments in that line between life and death, this was one of those moments. Strength is a test of will, will is a test of self-belief.
PS - Sorry I've not posted for a long time, I've not been coaching as much with Covid and a recent move, as such less material. I'll try to get my SCAR experience from this year written too and post that.
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