Dear reader(s) know how much I love and admire marathon swimmer-extraordinaire Sarah Thomas. She still holds the record for the longest non-current assisted swim ever at 104.6 miles straight in 67 hours and 16 minutes. Yes, no sleeping. No resting. No bathroom breaks that didn’t happen in the water, treading water. This woman is unstoppable.
Her next adventure? A quadruple crossing of the English Channel. Yes, I said four times. For those in the back who just now woke up: Yes, she intends on swimming from England to France to England to France to England. No one has ever done this. Only a handful of people have swum a three-way Channel crossing. Sarah is going for four crossings. Most of us, if we even consider doing one of these things, are happy to cross just once. Oy vey. This woman cannot be stopped.
Even. Better: Sarah and Elaine Howley, another incredible marathon swimmer, are filming everything! From the Kickstarter:
The Other Side is an in-production documentary short film covering Sarah Thomas’ upcoming English Channel quadruple crossing attempt scheduled for September 2019—that’s four consecutive crossings without stopping—an 84-mile round-trip swim that could take upwards of 50 hours to complete.
This is so monumental it is not to be missed. There is still time to support their Kickstarter campaign. They got fully funded less than 6 hours after starting, but they could still use some bucks. None of the money raised will pay for Sarah’s swim; the money raised is solely for production of the film.
So if you have some extra bucks, please visit the Kickstarter and support this awesome endeavor. You can support them with as little as one dollar. So what’re you waiting for?
The logistics on race morning are a little different now that they’ve changed the finish spot. We had to bring the kayak to the starting spot at Suck Creek boat ramp and then drive to the finish. Problem is, the finish is on river left while the start is on river right. There’s no bridge crossing the river, so we couldn’t simply follow the river to the finish. We had to drive around the city to get there.
Once there we parked the car and waited for the school buses. I slept. Not sure what Aunt Donna and Uncle Tony did. Before long, the buses arrived. We got on the bus, where I met a nice neurologist named Steve who was doing his first marathon at Swim the Suck. We had a great talk on the bus and I was glad to see later that he had finished the swim. Congrats Steve!
We got to the start and Tony set about getting the kayak ready. I lined up in the bathroom queue. Still had plenty of time before splash so I walked around talking to old friends.
Before long, I had to Desitin-up and get in line. The worst, and I’m serious: the worst part of StS is walking on the boat ramp. Small pebbles, like little torture-Legos, digging into my wimpy-soft toddler feet. And even worse, you have to drop your finish-line clothing bag at the top of the ramp, then the death march to the line. I was at the end of the line (#1598, based on last name), so then had to walk to the water, and just got in the water right before Karah called the start.
Different this year (than 2012), we had to immediately swim to river left around a particularly interesting buoy: a cow. That’s right, a huge white with black spots cow. This is undoubtedly a buoy owned by the good people of COWS. It was very easy to spot and we all got to feel the wonderful push from the river: Every time I sighted on the cow, it was to my left. I was getting a really nice push from the dam output.
Then we had to swim to one of four buoys spread out over a half-mile distance to meet up with our kayakers. I got buoy four, based on my last name. The buoy sequence was red, red, cow, red. These were smaller than what would be the finish buoy, but still big enough and red-enough (except the cow) to be seen…if your goggles weren’t severely fogged. I saw the first red and the second red, then nothing. I stopped to try and see where the cow was. A kayaker asked me if I’d found my team yet. You see, you’re not allowed to go beyond your assigned buoy without your kayaker. I asked him where the cow buoy was. “You passed the last (red) buoy already.” Uh-oh, I better stay here and start shouting.
You can just see the cow buoy to the left of the woman sitting on the closest boat. That’s the cow we had to swim to and around to get us to river left. And if you look right under Karah’s left elbow, you can see the first of the red buoys. That span of red buoys stretched out approximately a half-mile. You can see where my team were waiting for me at buoy four based on where they were when they started my Garmin at the start of the race.
The white blob between the Trail and Rd is the Suck Creek boat ramp. That is where we started from and immediately swam to river left. My uncle started my Garmin when Karah hit the siren on the megaphone. That was about 600m of swimming before I got there. And yelled. I started swimming backwards a bit, heads-up; I didn’t want to be disqualified. After just a few shouts, I found them. There were only a couple tandem kayaks so it wasn’t hard. And I noticed my aunt had a wonderfully easy-to-spot purple hat on, so knew I’d have no trouble keeping them in sight. I put my head down and got to work.
I felt good! I had no right to feel so good, with my lack of prep for this swim. But I did feel good. No shoulder issues, no right elbow issues. I did have one little bit of pain in the tendons of my left elbow, similar to what I’d get in my right elbow. Why my left? That made no sense! That pain went away almost as quickly as it appeared. Sometime during this first hour of uninterrupted swimming, my stab wound started to nag me.
Yes. Stab wound. You see, Murphy reared his ugly head on the Thursday prior to the swim. I was at work, already changed into my riding-the-train-home clothes, to include my sandals. I was picking up my lunch dishes to wash them when my steak knife flew off the plate angrily and landed, point end first, in the top of my left foot. Right in the meaty part near the outside edge. And then it bled like a stuck pig. All over. I did my best to staunch the bleeding, but not much you can do on the top of your foot. I stuffed toilet paper around it and my sandal and walked the office looking for the first aid kit. I found some generic bandaids, grabbed a bunch, and went back to my cubicle. Still bleeding. A lot. I put a bandaid on and tried to keep weight off my foot. I still had an hour of work. Sitting for an hour seemed to help, but the minute I got up to leave for the day, it started bleeding badly again. The bandaid was covered in dark red. I got to the train, sat down and covered the old bandaid with a new one, just so I wouldn’t scare the other commuters. Then I walked home and did a better cleaning.
So here we are about 36 hours later and I’m still limping a bit. It hurts. And now I feel it throb every once in a while. My mind immediately going to tiny evil bacteria coursing into my wound and bloodstream. I’m gonna finish this, then go get my foot amputated. If I finish quickly enough and the evil didn’t go farther up my leg. The mind is a funny thing. The throbbing, real or imagined, only lasted a bit and was temporary and intermittent. Before long I forgot about it.
I swam to the first feed at 1:00. Still felt good. Drank fast and got my head back down and to work. From here on out it would be 30 minute feeds. I got to 1:30 and the team asked if I’d peed yet, just like I asked them to. I was close, but no cigar yet. Feed, keep moving. Somewhere between 1:30 and 2:00 I peed and shouted “Peed” to them on one breath. They smiled. From then on, I was able to pee with no issues. Hydration plan successful.
I used Rubbermade Chuggs. I bought the 10 oz ones this time; I had the bigger versions before but they’re just too big for what I need. What I didn’t notice about these is they have a straw/suck flip-top, instead of a flip-top which reveals a large whole in the lid. I like the latter better than the former. Easier to get a large quantity of liquid in ya in a short time. With these smaller Chuggs I had to suck the liquid out. Took a bit longer. The smaller size was nice though. I tried to drink about half the bottle each feeding. So I must have gotten on the order of 45 oz of liquid in during StS.
To make the time go by I started counting laps. I’d done this before while training on straps for Issyk Kul. It helps me take my mind off the swim. I knew I was stroking somewhere in the 50s per minute, so something along the lines of 1500 strokes should get me to the next feed. Of course, I’m sure I missed some counts, or counted 400 twice, but the three times I counted strokes between feedings, I was in the 1600-1700 range each time. That jives with my usual spm pace.
I think at the 1:30 or 2:00 feed, I licked the inside of my goggles. Fog gone finally. Now I could see what Tony was signalling to me. The fog was so bad prior to this that I could barely see his hand signals. Now I could see clearly. Only issue was I could see clearly. You see, the river has buoys and signs that give you an indication how far you’ve gone. I don’t need that kind of support! The last thing I want to hear is “You’re halfway!” I actually want the finish to surprise me.
As the 2:30 feed came up, I entertained the idea of asking them to “feed” me the ibuprofen bottle at the next feed. I was just starting to feel my back. Not in the usual place, the lower back, but in the trapezoids. I was surprised. I never feel it there. But I could feel I was using my traps for the event today and perhaps I should get ahead of the pain? But it wasn’t really that bad. And wow! I still couldn’t feel anything wrong with my right shoulder or elbow. I didn’t say anything about pain relief. I did eat though. I got a Babybel cheese. So yum. Head down, back to work.
Still feeling good at the 3:00 feed. I asked one question: Am I in danger of not finishing in the six hour time limit? The team responded “Not at all.” I felt good, so I ate some more, this time a Justin’s nut butter packet, drank a lot, and took some time to pee vertically. I told them to go ahead and give me the ibuprofen at the next feeding. I wasn’t hurting that much more, but knew it was coming so thought it better to get ahead of the pain. At least, that’s what my Issyk Kul doc told me to do. And by this point it was just over 4 hours since I took 800mg. The bottle is filled with 400mg of liquid ibuprofen. And the max per 24 hours is 2400mg, so I still had plenty I could take tonight. And I’d been eating, so my stomach should be ok. Head down, back to work.
Somewhere around this time the sun finally came out. The forecast called for sun right at the start, but it was overcast forever. I was afraid it would be blah like 2012. Amazing how your mental state, attitude, body feels so much better when the sun comes out. It was glorious. I could see some of the beautiful houses on the right bank, the gorgeous trees, the blue blue sky. I drank up the medicine at the 3:30 feeding and dared a glance up and down the river. No, I’m not last. Good. Ate a Justin’s dark chocolate peanut butter cup. Oh yeah. I can swim forever with these as rewards. (No, I’m not sponsored by Justin’s, but maybe I should be.) Head down, back to work.
As the 4:00 feed came I started to get tired. I really wanted this to be over with. I was happy that nothing really hurt. I was just ready to be done swimming. I started actively seeking out things on the right bank, trying to determine if I remembered anything from 2012 or if I was looking at something new. The finish is now 0.36 miles farther than in 2012, so surely if I see something new, I’m close to done, yes? Well crap, all those trees look the same. Not the same as 2012. I mean the same. I am moving, yes? It was also at this time that I thought back to one of my rules for my team: If I insist on being told how far I am or how I’m doing, and I’m not doing well or I’m not halfway yet, lie to me. Uh-oh! When I asked them if I was in danger of finishing, were they lying? Crap. The 4:00 feed came and went. Head down, back to work.
Sun still out. Body still tired. Mike still wanted to be done swimming. Somewhere after the 4:30 feed I saw something that definitely wasn’t there in 2012.
This is the view from my uncle’s camera. The view closer to the water level looked more like a wall lining the side of the river. Ending in a white hotel with a red roof. At least, that’s what I thought it was. I even saw one of our race motorboats approach the hotel and park. This sure as hell was not there in 2012. I’ve got to be past the 10-mile mark by now.
They stopped me a little after 5:00 for my final feeding. My rule-set did not prohibit them from telling me where I am if they can see the finish buoy. And sure enough, they pointed it out to me. 600-800m away. I threw the bottle at them and put my head down and sprinted. For about 10 strokes. Then I was tired. Hell, that was the 5:00 feeding. I’ve got an hour to make it those 600-ish meters. I’ll get there.
What I remember from the pre-brief was that there would be another (the same?) big cow buoy right before the finish buoy. I couldn’t see the cow anywhere, but I sure could sight on the red buoy. The first red buoy. My brain started playing tricks on me: Didn’t they say there’d be two or three buoys leading up to the finish buoy? Is the finish buoy around the bend up there? Oh my God, do I still have a half-mile or more to go?
The thought of having to swim even farther than that one red buoy was killing me. I just want to be done. I want to be vertical. I want to eat. I want out of the water. And before I knew it, I was.
That’s me right before I touched the buoy. You can’t see it, but I’m smiling ear to ear. Another Swim the Suck in the records!
Finishing a bit before me was my Army friend Tiffany. She jumped back in to get a selfie with me. Then I noticed another recent finisher getting back in the shallow end so her kayaker could take a picture of her with the cow in the background. Yeah! Where the hell was that cow?
Yep, there it was. And I swam right past it.
The announcer here, like in Salem, had fun with my name. “Few people know that the boxer Mike Tyson was named after the marathon swimmer Mike Tyson!” He had so much fun with my name that some folks asked me if I knew him. Nope.
Here is my track from the Garmin. You can subtract 5:00 from the time as Tony didn’t remember to press stop till we were already on the beach. Final official time: 5:15.56. Happy with that, especially considering the lack of prep. And you can add about 500m to that distance, so just shy of 11 miles. The dam pushed us pretty good, especially at the start. I had some periods where my 100m times were 1:30 or less.
I looked around for the changing tent area, couldn’t find it, so hid behind some guy’s Uhaul trailer and changed into dry clothes. (Later, before leaving, I would walk right past the changing tent area, which turned out to be about 30m from where I changed. What is with me and not being able to see things in front of my face today?) Next stop? Taco bar! Karah got a restaurant to cater and damn did she do a great job. Beef and chicken choices. All the fixings. Tortillas. I’m sure they weren’t low-carb tortillas and I didn’t care. I had two. And beer! Chattanooga Brewing sponsored the event and they had two brews available (a Maibock and Brown) I had to try each. Of course! (If you’re in town, go sample their beers. Very tasty.)
(I also found out that the “new” thing I saw near the end of the swim was, in fact, new. But it wasn’t a hotel. Turns out it was a barge that found out about our swim and decided to pull over to allow all of us to finish! What a mensch! He was pushing four huge barges full of who knows what. That would have created quite the wake for us to swim through. From all of us swimmers of StS, we salute you, Captain!)
We also got our finisher awards. StS is great in that everyone, including kayakers (and other volunteers I assume?) get a piece of original art. Karah finds a local artist and gets him/her to create something original for everyone. This year was pottery by 423 Pottery. I had a helluva time choosing. In 2012 it was “fish on a stick” which I still covet.
Then it was reunion time. Met so many great swimmers. Half of them I’ve already “met” online. So great to meet them in person finally. We also stayed to cheer in the final male and final female swimmers. Despite the 6:00 time limit, Karah got permission (from whom, I’m not sure) for Felicia to finish the swim, which she did in 6:45. StS is a unique swim in that you get an award for being the last one to finish. And the award is nothing to sneeze at: A very beautifully framed and matted photograph of some part of the swim. Nice touch, Karah! And it turns out that the final finishing male was escorted by a longtime FB friend, MJ, whom I met for the first time here. She said her swimmer had overheard another swimmer at around the 3:00 mark. That other swimmer asked how far she’d swum. “Halfway,” was the answer. “I don’t think I can swim another five miles in the three hours I have left. I quit.” Apparently this worked against MJ’s swimmer. MJ persuaded him to continue. “Karah’s not gonna kick you out at six hours when you’re close.” Sure enough, that guy finished in 5:48! Congrats James!
Before long I realized Aunt Donna and Uncle Tony were MIA, having gone and put the kayak on the truck. I felt bad, so I ran around and hugged all the swimmers I knew and then ran to the truck. That was a mistake; longest 100 yard run of my life. We got in the truck and headed back to the house. It was on 5:30pm by now, maybe later, and we were all full, so we opted for no dinner out and instead stopped and got ice cream for dinner. Best. Decision. Ever. Peanut butter chocolate. No better.
Bed by 10. So gloriously tired. Up at 3:30am for the Uber to the airport. Back home in Boston before noon. Already planning next year’s Swim the Suck.
Swim the Suck actually starts on the Friday before. This is when packet pick-up and (evil carb) pasta dinner happens. If you don’t know your kayaker, this is also the time to meet him or her. And of course it is time for the race briefing.
That right there is the “Suckiest Suckster,” the one swimmer who has done every StS since the beginning. She’s describing the course. This briefing is pretty in-depth. When I first did StS back in 2012, I was so thankful that Karah takes the time to brief so thoroughly. I now am thankful that she’s still briefing it that way, and I like how she’s letting the suckiest suckster brief the course. Nice touch. But the most amazing thing? And I’m not sure if it’s been like this for a few years, but I can tell you this was not part of the briefing in 2012: Swim giveaways.
Odds weren’t bad, compared to something like a lottery. Every swimmer had a chance to win an entry to SCAR, or Swim Hobbs Island, or Bridges to Bluffs, or a Viking swim. I mean really, holy crap. SCAR itself is worth $1500. The Viking swim includes paying for the boat escort. Jesus, how I hoped that one of the winners would announce that they couldn’t accept so that I got another chance at winning one of those swims! Beggars can’t be choosers, though; I was lucky to even get this spot in StS this year.
Karah is an esteemed marathon swimmer in her own right, so we are lucky to get her not only as the race director but as the briefer. And from her years of experience, she’s got a lot of great advice. Her best is illustrated below.
Can’t get much better advice than that right there.
Karah got the food catered and there were no complaints anywhere in the room. My aunt, uncle and I had eaten a late lunch so weren’t too hungry. And me eating LCHF, I opted for the salad. It was good, but damn did the meat sauce for the pasta look good. I seriously contemplated taking a plastic cup and filling it, but I chose to behave. Instead I decided to eat one of the homemade cookies they had there, chocolate chip.
The briefing took about an hour, to be followed up with a briefing by Dr. Andreas Fath. Dr Fath has swum the entire length of the Tennessee River while doing a study on water quality. I did want to listen in to his briefing, but it was already 7pm and I wanted to get back to the AirBnB and rest.
We made our way back to the house and settled in. We had already gone over my gear and needs. I briefed them on my rules: Let me swim for an hour, then feed me every 30 minutes from then on. Never tell me how far I’ve gone, in distance or time. Stay to my right, between 2 and 4 o’clock. If I need food I’ll either tell you during a feed or shout it while breathing. Don’t engage me in trivial conversation while feeding. At the 1:30 feed, ask me if I’ve peed and if I haven’t yet, ask me every feed until I have peed. Simple.
I also told them to not be offended if I was short with them. I just want to put my head down and swim after a feed, so I’ll throw the bottle back to you. We had the bottle on a nylon thin rope. It worked great. At one point in the swim, I ended up talking more, but I’ll get into that in part III.
Then I went to bed. At a pretty decent hour, 10:30-ish. I expected to not sleep and I failed to bring melatonin, so figured I’d be tired the next day. However, when the alarm rang at 5:15am, I was initially shocked to be on my wife’s side of the bed. Then I remembered I’m not home, but in Chattanooga and realized that I slept all the way through! This is gonna be the start of something great…
Saturday October 13th was the ninth iteration of my favorite marathon swim and the best named one, Swim the Suck. Swim the Suck is a 10-(ish) mile swim through the Tennessee River gorge nearby beautiful Chattanooga and the brain-child of the indefatigable Karah Nazor. The swim is with the current, which is variable based upon the whims of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Chickamauga dam. The water is always warm; temperatures being context-based for open water swimmers, I’ll say that most, if not all, swimmers of this event never complain about the water temp. I say ten miles-ish because the race course changed slightly in the last few years. The finish line has been pushed a bit farther down the river, resulting in some swimmers’ Garmins registering closer to 11 miles when they’re done. In this post, I’ll recount how I got to Saturday.
This swim usually opens for registration early in the year (Feb?) and is filled if not in an hour then by the day’s end. And that’s for 115 slots (a huge amount for a swim like this)! Back in Feb I was still in Moscow, but knew I’d be living in the states in October. However, that would have been only about a month and a half after getting here to Boston and starting this job, so I didn’t sign up. I didn’t want to show up here and immediately ask for a Friday off!
Politics happened and as you dear reader(s) know, we got here significantly earlier. (Early enough to crew for B in the Boston Light Swim!) On August 20th, sitting in our living room on our new couch (thanks to the lowest bidding moving company losing half our original couch), I see on the StS FB page a simple message from the race director:
Three slots open. First three to email me are in.
Holy crap. Of course I immediately emailed her and a little bit later got this:
Dang it. You were the 9th to reply out of 12 Thanks for your interest and wanting to swim the suck again. Ugh. Wish i could open to everyone but i cannot.
Sad, but understandable. I could always try to get in for 2019.
Everything changed a few weeks later. One Tuesday night early in September I was again sitting on my couch and got the following message:
Want in to swim the suck still? Had another cancellation! Let me know
Oh my crap! Hell yes I do. I told my wife I had a slot if I wanted it. I don’t remember what she said in response because I was too dang excited. I wrote Karah back and after some registration paperwork, I was in!
My next thought was my uncle Tony, who kayaked for me in StS 2012. But would he be available on only 31 days notice? I sent him a simple email asking him what he was doing on 13 October, and I included the link to the StS webpage. (Just a month or so prior at his son’s wedding he mentioned to me that kayaking for me in this swim was one of the most fun things he’d ever done kayaking.) His response was simple: Hmmmm!
Turns out he and my aunt already had vacation scheduled for the week of, but had not yet decided where to go and what to see. And apparently my last minute entry into StS 2018 decided it for them! Not only that, they would bring their tandem kayak and both escort me down the river. How lucky am I? By the next day they’d planned out their vacation, first in Nashville, then Chattanooga on Thursday through Sunday. Logistics covered.
So next was the swimming. I had kinda petered off on my yardage after what I thought was my last swim of the season in Salem. In fact, between that swim and the email from Karah, I had only swum 4.5 miles. Not good for three weeks. I set about to improve on that. The outdoor pool near work had closed on Labor Day, so my only option was swimming before work at the Y. I’m not a morning worker-outer. But I’m also not good at going after work. So I went in the morning.
But not enough. The past few months I’ve had a nagging issue with my right shoulder. I’ve been in denial that it is anything to worry about. But someday I’m gonna have to get it looked at. Meanwhile, I’ve been doing exercises for people with frozen shoulder. That’s what my WebMD-ing had determined it was. (Later, I will re-diagnose my shoulder as tendinitis.) The shoulder would really feel good while swimming, only later hurt when I’d turn my arm weird, or reach back to grab a seatbelt, that sort of thing.
I’ve also had long-standing issues with my right elbow. It’s an orthopedic doc’s dream with all its issues, but in the last few years I’ve had occasional pain with the tendons there. After my successful Issyk Kul two years ago we were driving back to the city and I reached forward to adjust the air conditioning vent and BAM, sharp pain in the inner part of my right elbow, the tendons were screaming. I’d have to hold that arm like it was in a sling. This pain would reoccur off and on since then. Rarely if ever while swimming though, only outside the pool. Regardless, a royal pain in the butt.
So back on my swim schedule I went, fully intent on ramping my swimming back up to at least doing 10 miles in the week two weeks prior to the event. In other words, the last week of September. Did 5 miles to finish off the week, to include a nice 1.5 swim in the ocean on the Sunday. But the next week I spent three days traveling and the hotel had no pool. No matter, because when I got back I was sick, so still no swimming. I did feel better on the Saturday and got 1.5 miles in at the beach. The next week, the week I was to do 10 miles, I did a whopping 4.3 miles. Uh-oh.
I had a few options at this point. I could try and make the first week of October the 10-mile week, then ramp down slightly leading up to StS. Or I could continue on as I’ve been doing, knowing that there’s not much I can do at this point and I did have a pretty good base from the summer. StS is a forgiving event and regardless, it is so nice down there that I’d have a good time whether or not I made it, right? Then the demons began. What little swimming I did in the two weeks prior (7250 yards, sum total) had my brain playing tricks on me. Oh jeez, another DNF? What’ll you tell the people at home? at work? online? Ugg…get out of my head!
Some mornings I’d wake up early enough to go swim and my shoulder would be screaming at me, barely able to move. I’d have to grab my right arm with my left hand to move it up or down, the shoulder hurt so much. I’d choose a long shower with the massage flow of hot water working my shoulder muscles. Or the inside of my elbow. Basically, I chose rest over swimming. I did a lot of walking, especially the last two weekends prior. The wife and I did three 5-mile walks around our town. That was about it for the exercise. I think some of that helped. It certainly couldn’t have hurt. But really, I had no business starting a 10-mile swim on Saturday, so ill-prepared was I.
But sometimes, rest is what you need, as you’ll see in Part II.
I think any and all followers of my blog know how much I freaking love Swim the Suck. Maybe if another swim had been my first longer-than-marathon-distance then maybe I’d feel the same about it. But I doubt it. There’s just something about Swim the Suck.
Is it Chattanooga? Perhaps. Sure seems like a nice place, what little I’ve seen of it over two StSs. It’s hilly and green, two great things for a city. It’s got an airport, which is a plus. And it’s got beer, including local beer, which was excellent. But that’s not it.
Is it the swim? Well, it very well may be the swim. Hard to get a nicer, softer intro to something beyond 10K. The river is very welcoming. Even when the dam doesn’t release much, or any water, you’re still going in the right direction. And wow is it ever scenic; plenty to look at as you float on. But that’s not it.
Is it the t-shirts? No, but they sure do rock. Always different, and none of them white (I hate white t-shirts!). I only have two and I love them both and take care of them. Both beautifully designed and soft fabric. Simply wonderful. And I intend on collecting more over the years. But that’s not it.
It must be the finisher gift, yes? No, but I also love (cherish?) those. Karah, the race director, finds a local artist every year and has him/her design something for everyone. To include pilots! In 2012 it was “fish on a stick” or a unique piece of pottery. This year it was coffee mugs. All different! It was a helluva time trying to decide on which one, but I think I chose well. But even with these unique gifts, that’s not it.
It’s the people! This swim is like a family reunion. Everyone is so happy to see everyone else. And if you don’t know someone yet, you’ll know them while waiting in line to enter the water, your feet in pain standing on the lego-esque tiny rocks. You’ll meet them wearing your Swim the Suck paper crowns the Friday night before. You’ll meet them and hug them and cheer them in to the finish. You’ll meet them while taking pictures with them enjoying the beer.
It’s the people. So many volunteers to make this swim run. A minimum of 115 kayakers! I say a minimum because, at least in my case, I had two, my aunt and uncle having brought their tandem kayak down to TN to escort me, and I know of at least one other swimmer who had two kayakers with him. Then there’s the safety cover. I have no idea how many kayakers and SUPs that involved, but there were many. And the safety boats. I think three? And their crews. The set-up, the guys watching over the kayaks in the morning. The guys who marked our arms in the morning and took our ‘after-swim’ bags to the finish for us. The folks who provided the food and directed us to our parking spots.
It’s the people! The faces you’ve only seen on FB. Friends you made on social media, through swim groups years ago, friends you’ve written to and shared pains and joys with over the years, and finally meeting them in the reals.
And it’s the race director. One of the nicest people you’ll ever meet and certainly one of the most dedicated to marathon swimming. Karah Nazor deserves more credit than she gets for continuing to hold one of the most successful open water swims in the world. How she’s managed to keep this thing going is just amazing. She is probably responsible for more people successfully transitioning to their first beyond-10k-distance marathon swim than any other race director out there. She is vital to this community and I hope she understands how much we all love her for what she does for us.
In the coming days, I’ll write up more on this swim and my preparation (or lack thereof), my experiences, compare it to 2012, and lots more pictures. Stay tuned, dear reader(s)! Now I’m off to take more ibuprofen.
A great swim happened yesterday, on International Womens Day. Pilar Geijo swam across the Rio de la Plata from Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay to Punta Lara (a suburb of Buenos Aires), Argentina, a distance of 42km, in a time of 9 hours, 33 minutes, 50 seconds. Felicitaciones, Pilar!
This crossing is a great one to talk about on 8 March. The first ever crossing, in 1923, was swum by a woman. Her name was Lilian Harrison and she swam across the Rio de la Plata in 24 hours, 10 minutes. Until yesterday, only three women had ever crossed it. Now the fourth has the record by almost an hour; Gustavo Oriozabala swam it in 1993 in 10 hours, 30 minutes.
In the midst of planning my next escapade, I came across this wonderful interview with one of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet, Akhmed Anarbaev.
Mr. Anarbaev was the first Kyrgyz Olympian, competing for the Soviet Union in swimming in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, specifically in the 400. He didn’t make the pedestal, but that didn’t stop him from another first in swimming.
I met Mr. Anarbaev in 2015 in Cholpon-Ata on lake Issyk Kul. Annually he hosts a swimming weekend, with indoor and outdoor events. He owns and runs a LCM pool on the shore of Issyk Kul, the only pool of that length in all of Kyrgyzstan. I met him after his indoor competition was over and asked if I could take part in the short (300m) open water swim later that day. He had no problem with that, and even introduced me to the other swimmers there, most of them also former members of the Soviet swim team in the ’60s and ’70s. Later that day I managed to talk 3/4 of my kids into swimming the competition with me. Along with dozens of other swimmers. All of whom were beat by Anarbaev, who at the time was 67. And in great shape.
This interview I just found, from 14 January 2018, sheds some light on the history of his Issyk Kul swims that I tried to gather back in 2015 with my so-so Russian.
His first Issyk Kul crossing, from Kyzyl-Suu in the south to Ananyevo on the north shore, 36 kilometers, he completed in 1982 in 11 hours (as exact as he gives). This is the route we call “historical” in the Lake Issyk Kul Swimming Federation. This I learned back in 2015, but what I didn’t know was that he swam it with someone else, some unnamed swimmer. (If I make it back to Issyk Kul this summer, I will have to ask him who the other swimmer is so I can update the crossing list.) Also, a little about his nutritional preparation for that crossing: He and the other swimmer split a can of stewed meat. In his own words, “It is good that we were escorted.”
Unbeknownst to me, he tried a solo crossing of the widest spot on the lake, from Tamga in the south to Cholpon-Ata in the north, a distance of about 65km. That crossing was unsuccessful. For this crossing he started at 7pm. He chose to start at that time because he wanted to swim in cold water at the beginning of the swim and to finish the swim in warm water after the sun had been up for 12+ hours. Unfortunately, his swim turned out quite different than planned, and frankly it is lucky he’s still alive. Strong winds, rain, lateral waves, his escort boat lost sight of him at one point for an hour twenty.
Even more strange was the second time the boat lost sight of Anarbaev. He kept swimming, but started to hear someone calling his name. He saw a boat on the waves so he swam up to it, but it wasn’t his boat. It was another from Balykchy, the village on the westernmost point of the lake! (Dear readers will remember this village as the home base for my crossing.) The crew of the boat thought they saw a dead body floating 200m away from them. Alas, the body was swimming. And the crew knew of only one person who could be swimming in the middle of Issyk Kul, so they started yelling “Akhmed! Akhmed!”
Anarbaev was lost a third time, and when he caught up, was forced to swim at the back of the boat. The boat only had one light in the stern so he decided to swim from that point so as to not get lost again. But swimming back there he was fighting against the currents of the propellers and started to breath in diesel exhaust. His breathing suffered, his chest muscles and abs got tight, and they finally pulled him out of the water, after only 5.5 hours. The doctor checked all his vitals and he was fine. (It is here that Anarbaev tells the interviewer that it didn’t matter that the doctor said he was okay, because “by the rules, at any point if you touch the boat, your swim is over and won’t be recognized.”)
There’s more to the interview, to include his philosophy on health, drinking and sport. Google translate doesn’t do too bad of a job (ignore all the he‘s and she‘s; Russian has grammatical gender), so if your Russian is lacking and you want to read the Google version of the interview, the translation is here.
“Tenacity” is one of the adjectives used to describe Adrian Sarchet, resident of Guernsey, long distance swimmer and the 28th person to swim the Irish Channel, star of the film Sea Donkey.
The movie is 1:35 and starts out pretty slow. Kind of like many adult open water swimmers! The first half hour or so covers his months of training in the waters off Guernsey. Especially appreciated is the glimpses of his failures. You learn so much from your failed attempts, I’m glad the producers decided to keep those bits in the film.*
Sarchet is lucky in that he has a super supportive family, to include his wife, father, mother, friends from his swim club, locals. This is highlighted throughout the movie; this would be a great movie for your family to watch or for your crew to watch, especially if they are new to supporting a crazy person who’ll be swimming for 12+ hours. He follows a rule that some of us have learned: no spouse on the boat. The last thing he wanted was to worry about his wife getting sick. The last thing his wife needed was to see how hurt he was at the end.
I’ve already given up the ending, but that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of watching this film. Watching Sarchet’s determination and tenacity. Realizing the effects a swim of that magnitude and cold has on a body. How your health is affected by jellyfish and cold water. Yet, how will can win over pain.
IronMike’s rating: Two thumbs up!
*Be sure to spend the time to watch the bonus features; well worth it.
Today marks a week since I attempted to swim around Manhattan.* I’ve been thinking of little else since. What could I have done to get past Hell Gate? Did I really push it enough, or did I hold back? Should I have stopped and asked Agnes what’s up when I saw both jet skiers come by to talk to her?
Initial thoughts? I should have been prepared to go 70 strokes per minute (SPM) for about an hour, an increase of 15 SPM over my usual. However, after talking to a swimmer I admire and trust, and after reading the Bible of open water swimming technique, I don’t think that would have helped. My technique isn’t what it should be; it certainly is not as effortless as my daughter’s. I work a couple times a week on getting my technique correct. More often than not, my technique suffers after either a long time in the water or my mind wandering. I sometimes go back to the sloppy “keyhole” technique I, and most kids in the ’70s, learned at the Y or in Scouts. I’ve worked over the years to erase that technique from my mind and I think I mostly have. What suffers most is my catch. When I’m not paying attention, more often than not I will all of a sudden throw in a pause right before the catch and/or push down rather than back when I start the catch.
So I think by working on my technique for longer periods, I will improve my distance per stroke (DPS) which could help me get through Hell Gate next time. In fact, my speed had improved over the last year while training for 20 Bridges. I did three CSS tests in my weird Russian pool (3 laps equals 100 yards): October my CSS was 1:36. Six weeks later in mid-December, it improved to 1:35. Three months later a vast improvement to 1:32. I think what I’ll do in the coming years is continue to test my CSS, but do it in my daughter’s school’s pool (SCM). The problem with the Russian pool is that for each 100 (yard) set I get six push-offs vs. four in a normal pool. My initial results will be probably in the 1:40’s since I’ll have fewer flips and meters vice yards, but that’s ok.
Two areas of my swim were absolutely on point: nutrition and injury prevention. Nutrition-wise, I stuck to my usual plan: let me swim for an hour before you give me anything to drink. I need that hour to get the nerves out and brush away the cobwebs. In that first hour I knocked out almost four miles, and it felt great seeing three bridges zoom on by me. My feeds consisted of Crystal-lite flavored water, Justin’s nut butter samplers, little bite-sized pepperonis from Whole Paycheck Foods, little Babybel cheese. I didn’t want my first feed till 2:00, and it would be a nut butter (always Agnes’s choice of flavor). When I didn’t get a feed at 2:00 I should have known I was in trouble. When the nut butters got boring, I asked for something different. “Agnes,” stroke stroke “pepperoni,” stroke stroke. She seemed really excited that I had cheese and meats as feeds; perhaps I was the first swimmer to not just give her a bunch of bottles of carb mix? I should add here that at the end of the swim, Agnes complemented my kids for always having the feeds ready for her, so I can say that my crew was also on point.
As for injury prevention, this was, frankly, the most surprising to me. I tried to keep it quiet in my social circles, both online and IRL, but my funky elbow has been giving me troubles for the past four or five months. First, for those who only know me through this blog, a picture of my fukt-up elbow.
From top to bottom: elbow from the outside (posterior?); elbow from the inside; elbow extended as much as possible; elbow contracted as much as possible. (Btw, the marks on the mirror are from white-board markers; we use the mirror as a message board!) Even thought my elbow looks horrid, I don’t think it affects my stroke at all, or at least not much. I have no problem with the elbow during the catch phase. I guess the only affect would be when my hand enters the water as I can’t reach as far with the right arm as I can with the left.
However, for the last few months my elbow’s been giving me trouble. Pain has ranged from the bony deposits on the olecranon (in picture one, the topmost part of my arm you see is not my elbow (medial epicondyle, technically) but the bony growth on my olecranon). I think technically it is known as an osteochondroma, but can’t be sure. The medical records covering my elbow surgeries are in St. Louis in the military archives; I never made copies, unfortunately. All this bony growth has led to arthritis. Interestingly, when I had my military retirement physical, an orthopedic surgeon took x-rays of my elbow, and spent a great deal of time looking at the films. He seemed genuinely interested. His only comment, and this from a doctor who looked to be in his mid- to late-50’s, so probably with a few decades experience behind him: “I’ve never seen elbow arthritis, but I imagine if I ever did, it would look just like this.”
So I knew five years ago that I might have trouble with this in the future. And it reared its ugly head months ago. But that’s not all! No, not all. I was lucky enough to get tendinitis as well! At least, that’s what my extensive WebMDing came up with. The pain started in the brachialis, and would get severely painful, almost hot. (Climber’s elbow?) I would feel it swimming when I extended my arm in preparation for the catch. It affected my swimming so much I’d have to shorten the reach of my right arm. More often than not, the pain would be so great I’d have to cut my workout short. Then, normal things like walking, with my arm hanging naturally, would hurt those tendons. I bought one of those elbow braces that are really just a warm snuggly hug on your elbow, thinking that warming up the tendon prior would do the job, but no. It still hurt. My wife’s had tendinitis before and found that continuing to use the tendon, cautiously, was the trick. So I cut my workouts back but still did them. I was okay for maybe two days then it didn’t matter. More pain. I took an entire week off. Still hurt just walking around.
I decided to stick to one plan and see how it goes. I took ibuprofen when the pain necessitated it. I swam an hour a day, two days on, one off. That seemed to do the trick. (I managed to do two long swims during this period, 10,000 yards and 11,200 meters, with low pain.) It still would hurt when I did speed work, and after my first open water swim here in Russia (5.8k), it was very painful for the rest of the day. Ibuprofen again.
I came up with a plan for 20 Bridges with the help of my crew chief cum doc from Issyk Kul: 800mg of ibuprofen 30 minutes prior to the start of 20 Bridges, then the equivalent of 800mg in Children’s Motrin (40ml) as needed during the swim, not to exceed 2400mg in 24 hours. Therefore I knew I had two doses I could take while swimming. (I put the 40ml into a water bottle with about 4oz of water. Doesn’t taste good, but it gets the meds into my system quickly.)
Well, during the swim, maybe around 4:00, I started to think about my lower back. I knew the minute I had anything even approaching pain, I had to get the meds down my gullet. So, another stroke stroke “ibuprofen” to Agnes, and somewhere around four hours into the swim I took my first dose. And never took another one.
It was an incredible feeling. The last thing I expected was to not have pain in my elbow. Not sure why, but I’m thanking God (and my training?) for nine-plus hours of swimming with no elbow pain. My left shoulder a couple times, however, went “Ouch” really loud. It would be when I wasn’t paying attention and my catch would slip. I rarely have shoulder pain, so this took me by surprise. But it really wasn’t anything for me to worry about during the swim. The next morning, while on our way to see Lady Liberty, I pointed to something with my left hand, back behind myself. Imagine, if you will, locking your elbow to your side, lower arm parallel to the ground, and rotating your lower arm away from your body keeping your elbow glued to your side. I did that movement and made it maybe three inches before extreme pain in the front deltoid. Weird. Within a few days, I had full motion again with no pain.
But, most important, my elbow never hurt during the swim nor after! The day after my Issyk Kul crossing last year I was in the car and reached with my right arm to open the glove compartment and BANG extreme pain in the elbow. Remembering that, I brought a sling and my elbow brace with me to NYC. Used neither. It was wonderful.
Finally, the mental game. You sometimes read or hear marathon swimmers mention how this sport is so-and-so much percentage mental. I really believe that. I spent the last eight months or so imagining myself swimming the whole thing. (I should have visualized myself swimming through Hell Gate!) I had all these great things I was going to do after. I was going to consider myself a “real” marathon swimmer. I was going to write up a short article for a work newsletter. I was going to get an iconic swim next to my name in the long swims db. Maybe The Seafarer tattoo I’ve wanted for so long?
Granted, I didn’t swim around Manhattan. I’ve already discussed that. But boy oh boy, did mental toughness ever get me through the second ‘half’ of the swim. So many times I wanted to quit. But I really didn’t have a reason. I wasn’t cold. I wasn’t nauseous. I wasn’t in pain. At times I was bored, or really, how to describe it…tired of being in salty water? Weary of the tedium? Running out of things to think about? Praying for the Hudson to push me even faster? Not sure, but I couldn’t quit. I came way too far, in air miles, in $$$, in training. Just couldn’t do it.
I guess that means three areas were on point: nutrition, injury prevention, and the mental game. Good. Now I can concentrate on my speed. Hell Gate, I will conquer you! See you in 2019?
*Coincidentally, a friend of mine just completed 40 Bridges today. Yes, she swam around Manhattan twice non-stop. Granted, she’s renowned for how incredible of a swimmer she is.