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You know those days…

July 14, 2016

Ok, you know those days where you are going along doing something you do repetitively and then that ONE day it might as well be like you are Sisyphus rolling the stone up the hill ( ).  No matter how hard you try either your mind or body is just not having it.  For example:  you can always run a 9 minute mile (FYI – no idea if this is a good or bad time or even reasonable mile time), you do it every day as part of your workout.  And then you get up one day for your regular run and you can’t break 9:30.  No real reason that you can think of.  You feel fine.  You had a normal day, week, month.  In theory there should be no reason why you can’t run your 9 minute mile.  However, you can’t and no matter how hard you try you are not going to get 9 minutes.

Well this happens in cold water swimming too.  There are some days where unexpectedly my body is just not going to tolerate the cold.  Now most often this occurs during a training day and doesn’t cause to much of an issue.  Unfortunately, my body decided that during my North Channel attempt it was the day to roll the stone.  Sure I could roll that stone all I wanted but I wasn’t going to get to the other side as my body was revolting against the temperature.  Ok I realize that my metaphor sort of fell apart there because a stone isn’t water temperature, but nobody said I was Mark Twain so go with me here.

The North Channel gave up a good day to do some swimming.  The winds had calmed down from the bluster of the previous days.  The weather prediction was swimmable.  All I had to do was swim.  I jumped into the water at stupid o’clock am and got to the business of swimming.  Now for the first hour my crew just leave me alone to settle into my rhythm, release butterflies, and generally get over any bad mental vibes about what I’m about to do.  Oh yeah, I do get the feelings of “What the heck am I doing? We could be back home in bed.”  Usually if I’m left alone for the hour, I can settle in and remember that I do love this crazy sport.

All was going well…sort of.  My stroke rate was good.  I felt strong.  The sunrise was starting to turn the sky which was lovely.  But at the surface, I kept thinking “Man this feels pretty fresh.”  I had been acclimatizing for the last week.  I felt good in the water.  Not so much during this day.  I figured it would just take me a bit of time to adjust and all would go back to normal working order.

3 hours in though, I knew it wasn’t the case.  I couldn’t adjust and my body was not participating.  I knew from past experience that either I called the swim and remained safe or continue forward and get pulled out in potential emergency situation causing issues for the crew and pilot.  My mantra is always first and foremost a safe swim, so that is what I decided.  I had a frank conversation with the crew and pilot and basically said that my body was not tolerating the cold.  I had lost all feeling in my extremities.  I had started retching as my body didn’t want to waste energy digesting food, and there were some internal tremors.  Now if we were 2 hours from the end, I probably would have pushed on.  We were at the beginning with a long way to go.

I know that ultimately I made the right call, but I’m not happy about it.  Plenty have asked if there was the opportunity to go again during this tide.  The answer is yes, but then the next question is should I?  I think no.  There is something going on with my body that isn’t readily apparent.  Since the swim, I’ve been sleeping like the dead and sleeping a lot.  (OK I know it has only been really a day and a half, but seriously lots of sleeping.)  Additionally, I had a small whoopsies in trying to get back on the boat after calling the swim.  Minor detail when you don’t have control of hands or feet…climbing a ladder back into a boat is VERY difficult, impossible even.  I may have fell off the ladder creating some pretty spectacular bruises on my arms and legs, which on a positive note I couldn’t feel until much later, but it does still affect my body’s performance for another attempt so soon.

Other positives from this swim is that my stroke was there.  In 3 hours, I had traveled 7 miles (2.3 miles per hour), which in running is 28 miles in 3 hours.  Not a bad marathon time I’m told.  So when my internal body gets reset, I know my swimming will be there to get me across the next channel.  My back and shoulders in the past few days feel pretty good which is HUGE considering I couldn’t stand upright at all 10 months ago.  Plus, I was having a good time mentally in the water.  I still love this sport and want to compete in it AND it looks like I can.

There it is.  I had a bad cold acclimatization day on a good swimming day in the North Channel.   (SIDE NOTE:  My head crew does want me to point out that it was 54 degree water + air temp never above 58 + a wind which creates wind chill, so it wasn’t tropical out there and it WAS a COLD DAY.  She even had on ski pants.  While I know all this to be true, I’m still upset and sad about the outcome.)

Thank you all for your continued support and encouragement.  Onto the next swim…planned for November 🙂

I’ve already gone back in the water for a little swimmy swim to start training.  What, me rest?

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That was then…this is now.

July 7, 2016

My “fake it until I make it”  has gotten me all the way over to the UK where I’ve begun acclimation and preparation for July 10 – 18th North Channel tide dates.  I’m not sure the faking it anymore is going to hold up.  OK really I was using this method to help with my anxiety and depression versus my actual physical fitness.  Now that I’m here, I’m quite terrified of the days to come.

For the past 6 years, I’ve used a tested and I’d say pretty successful training regimen.  Due to the bulging discs in my back, that regimen was no longer sustainable.  I couldn’t put in the miles of swimming or the hours of cross training that I used to do.  What I found is that if I tried to accomplish that schedule, is that I would have a pretty major setback in spinal nerve pain and be literally flat on my back for days.  My coach and trainer adjusted for this new normal.  I began more quality over quantity swimming and very focused strength training on my body.  While this has seen me through the past few months, I stand on the edge of what I know to be one of the most (if not the most) challenging marathon swims in the world and I am starting from a new place.  (SIDE NOTE 1:  I’m beginning to realize just how insane I am to decide to do the BIGGEST swim after an injury instead of starting easier.  Go big or go home I guess.  Too late to change focus now.  North Channel stats:  21+ miles, below 55 degree water, one swimsuit, one cap, and one pair of goggles, no stopping or support once you start).

I sort of feel like I did years ago when I returned to the pool after a 6 year hiatus.  All of my mental measurements were from when I was in college.  I definitely wasn’t that college swimmer anymore even though my mind thought that I was.  I was out of shape, heavier and much slower.  Plus there was more of life to juggle and balance.  I would say that it took a good year or two to accept that as a 30 year old swimmer I couldn’t compare myself to my 20 year old swimmer.  It is very similar now, except I’m not exactly sure what I look like now as a swimmer coming back from an injury.  What is the new NOW?  And will the now training help me succeed in the sport I love.

What I get to do while I acclimate here in Northern Ireland is wait.  You may remember that I have to wait for a good weather day to even be able to swim, so there is a chance that the weather won’t cooperate between the 10th-18th.  This means no swim.  Yep months of training and mental preparation and I could just have a very successful trip of waiting in Northern Ireland. (SIDE NOTE 2:  While I can do some sight-seeing, I tend to lay low, rest and work remotely waiting for the weather.  I’d hate to expend all my energy playing around to get the call that the swim is a go in 8 hours.)  (SIDE NOTE 3:  No word yet on the date of the swim.  All the pilot says is that the weather this weekend is crap and extended forecast is too unpredictable.)

As I think about this possibility of not swimming, my stomach turns to butterflies.  I wish that I had a crystal ball that would tell me the outcome:  would the weather cooperate, would I have a good swim, would I succeed?  All questions that I have to wait to have answered and in the words of Inigo Montoya “I hate waiting.”  And then there is the flip side that if I get the call that the swim is on…how will it all go and am I ready to jump into the water.   ARRRRRGGGGHHHHHHH!

My therapist asked why I have put so much pressure on this swim.  In my modification of his advice “You’ve failed before and it didn’t mean that you couldn’t be a marathon swimmer, why if you fail this time would it be different?”  Ok, he probably didn’t say failed, but then this may prove why I have a therapist in the first place J  For me this swim represents whether I’ve still got “it.”  And it will help me understand what is the new “it.”  I know I’m not as fast as I used to be and that could be that I’ve only been back training since November and I’m still 30 pounds too heavy.  I guess my fear is that IF I’m not successful that the reason will be that my back/spine gives out thus making me have to take another step back and re-evaluate.  I know my mom would say “it doesn’t do any good to deal in what ifs, just take the day has it comes do your best and then we will see.”

So that is sort of my mantra “A safe, relaxed swim and then we will see.”  If I can stay focused on that, keep breathing and not fall down the rabbit hole of crazy, maybe just maybe I’ll be ok with the new now.

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H2Open Magazine Recognizing Accomplishments

August 16, 2013

A fellow swimmer forwarded on this lovely article in H2Open Magazine.   It’s fun to see the news spreading.

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This girl is on fire!

August 15, 2013

Ok as promised to the last update, this is the story about the after effects/affects (oh who cares I never promised grammatical accuracy in these updates) of being stung head to toe by Lion’s Mane Jellies.   Immediately after the swim, we pulled into Port Patrick Scotland.  Thankfully in the marina there was an electric shower.   This meant that I could warm up from the swim AND that I wouldn’t run out of hot water.  No cold water shower for me this time.  Double bonus!  There was only one barrier between me and this hot shower…20p and a turn style.  NOOOOOO foiled by about 35 cents.  The attendant was very nice to let me jump the turn style when I promised that we would pay double.  Plus I think my shivering and bluish skin let her know that a shower was way more important than the money. 

Now when you are stung by jellies there are a few schools of thought about what works best to alleviate the venom and ultimately keep the stingers from continuing to fire.  Yep, jellies are like bees in that the stingers stay in.  Unlike bees, they have way more than one stinger.  Treatment options:

  • Come on now people!  I know you are all thinking of the Friend’s option.  No this does not really work and wasn’t considered as a treatment option.
  • Vinegar or meat tenderizer – place on jelly sting and then scrape with a dull instrument like a credit card.
  • Baking soda paste placed on stings
  • Soaking in and rubbing with salt water

These are the ones that I knew offhand.  Then a google search turned up this lovely item.  I love the illustrations and step 2 recommendation.  Guess I missed that step.  Also don’t rub sand in the sting as you may already have blisters and this can cause infection.   Frankly I think rubbing is just a bad idea overall for jelly stings.

Even if we had brought vinegar, baking soda or meat tenderizer on the boat there would not have been nearly enough for me to cover essentially my whole body.   I would require a tub for that type of application and probably a whale hoist to lower me in and hold me steady.  Then I began to worry if we went down that route how long in a tub of vinegar before you are considered a pickle?  I had already been brined in salt water, so really I wasn’t too many steps away from pickles.  Then the credit card.  I forgot to stash one in my pocket.  Oh wait, I don’t have a credit card pocket in my swimming suit.  What would I buy anyways in the middle of a channel?  A vowel, a clue?  And while I knew that the pain from the stings was dulled in salt water, I wasn’t exactly itching to get back in the North Channel.  So a hot shower was what I had. 

While in the shower, I determined that it was most likely the stings that were making me feel cold vs. the frigid water.  Basically I felt mostly warm 10 minutes into the shower, but the shivering wouldn’t stop.  I took this to be a reaction to the venom, which was confirmed later at home.  Since I had unlimited hot water and confirmation that no one was waiting for the shower,  I gave myself an extra 10 minutes.   I said that I’d stay in the shower for “9 hours, 34 minutes, and 39 seconds” to even my time in the North Channel, but really it was only 20 minutes.   I’m about water conservation after all 🙂

Then I got quickly dressed.  Remember I said that I had been stung in prior days training sessions?  Well I learned that having a layer of tight clothing under a layer of warmer clothing is really helpful.  This keeps the fabric from moving against the skin and causing any leftover jelly stingers from firing.  Yes they stay on even after showering.  They are sticky little buggers and live in water so they don’t necessarily come off just using water.  I bet Nike Pro was never considered for this use!

After the 3 hour boat ride back to Northern Ireland and a small celebration with photos, I drove my crew member and I back home.  Thankfully she offered to cook dinner while I took another shower.  This time with the aforementioned vinegar and credit card.  Then into another set of clean clothes.  I knew that now I just had to ride the tide of the venom process.  Basically your skin feels like it is on fire with the massive pin pricks thus leading to internal singing of “This Girl Is On Fire” by Alicia Keys.  To the actual touch, the skin feels sticky as it is what I call weeping – sticky, wet and cool to the touch.   I believe this either to be the skin working out  the venom or the venom working on the skin cells.  Either way not pleasant.  This lasts for about 1-2 days depending on the severity of the stings.  Seeing as I had 9 hours of stings, I labeled it on the severe side.  Needless to say, this kept me from sleeping that first night.  I did try, but then quickly got up, drew a bath and gathered all the salt in the house and dumped it in.  I stayed in this manner until the water got cold and even then I considered staying there.  I did manage to get a few hours of sleep that night a bed not the bathtub.

The next day was pretty much the same as the evening so we did the only thing we could think of, swimming.  Yep you read that right, I went swimming the day after the event.  It allowed me to just stay in the water and feel some relief.  Day 2 after the swim…we went swimming again.  However, the burning and painful pin pricks were subsiding and transitioning into crazy itchiness.  This lasted for another day and a half.  I felt bad for people who were around me those days as I my “I’m an adult and shouldn’t scratch those areas” filter was completely overridden.  (Side note:  I think guys are born without this filter.  Just saying.)  Thankfully most of this itching was on my arms and legs, but still there were some awkward moments.  Ah another joy of open water swimming!  Want to learn more about the various types of jellies in the Irish Sea – here is a great link:  I can confirm that I saw the Common, Blue, and Lion’s Mane.  The “Little Jellyfish” are usually the ones that take a trip down my suit and cause some major havoc on sensitive stomach skin.  Thankfully none of those on this trip.

Here is a picture of me the evening after the swim.   This is a rare photo where I am bundled up to the hilt and still shivering.   At least we have some idea of what I’ll look like when I’m 80.

Bundled Up Post swim

And here is an account of Day 2 – post swim swimming adventures.  Some good photos in this entry as well.

I know you are all still thinking about the $0.35 cents that I owed for the shower and rest assured that it was paid in full.  We can all sleep easy tonight!

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In the mad mind of the marathon swimmer

August 8, 2013

I’ve been contemplating what to tell you about the North Channel swim and have been drawing a blank.  Maureen McCoy already wrote such a beautiful account from the boat perspective.  In case you missed it, here it is again    And just this week the Beaverton Leader has this article:

Then I thought of some questions my crew member and friend Erin asked me after the swim.  She asked “How do you get into the water knowing that you are going to be stung by jellyfish?  What keeps you going?”  When she asked me this question, I was stumped for an answer.  It isn’t something that I even really thought about as being a choice.   Now I’ve had the time and I think that is as good a place to start as any to tell you about my perspective of swimming the North Channel known for its extremely cold temperatures and loads of jellies.

Jellyfish are some of the oldest organisms in the world dating to 500 to 700 million years old.  And according to Wikipedia the Lion’s Mane jelly (pictured below – and yes that is me flirting with danger.  This was taken after the swim, so you’d think I know better.) “Although capable of attaining a bell diameter of 2.5 metres (8.2 ft), these jellyfish can vary greatly in size; those found in lower latitudes are much smaller than their far northern counterparts with bell about 50 centimetres (20 in) in diameter. The tentacles of larger specimens may trail as long as 30 metres (98 ft) or more. These extremely sticky tentacles are grouped into eight clusters, each cluster containing over 100 tentacles,[4] arranged in a series of rows.”  ( )

Ok not sure if you digested that information, so it bears repeating – the tentacles can reach up to 98 feet long and are EXTREMELY sticky grouped into EIGHT clusters each containing OVER 100 tentacles.  Just wanted that to be crystal clear. 


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Now on arriving in Northern Ireland, I did do some practice training to get ready for the ultimate swim of the North Channel.  Unfortunately during two of these training swims I was stung by a Lion’s Mane jelly.  Probably not the same one, but cousins I’m sure 😉 I got a lot of first hand knowledge of what the stings felt like and how my body would react.  My friends and I had hoped that this welcoming to the North Sea by the jellies would be my only encounter and that my actual swim would be jelly free. 

July 15th rolled around and it was time to get into the water for the North Channel swim.   As I was working my way to shore to start on the actual land, I managed to beach myself like a whale on a barnacle covered rock.   In the process of trying to remove myself through some amazingly graceful flopping around, I ended up bloodied and bruised.  Not exactly how I wanted to start a swim, but at least I was pretty confident that there weren’t sharks in the North Channel.  Or at least I was pretty sure.  (Side note:  3 weeks later and the leg cuts are almost healed.)

I was also hoping for a good jelly forecast – meaning no jellies or jellies way below water surface level.  It became clear very very early in the swim that this was not going to be the case.    Shortly after starting the swim I ran into a large group of jellyfish, which is called a “bloom, swarm or a smack.”  Smack seemed appropriate at this time.  Here is the sequence of events when encountering a smack of jellies – this sequence occurred multiple times during the swim:

  • Shoot there is a jelly – let’s swim around it.  YAY you!  You missed it!   Be Dori and Nemo – you can do it.  Thread the needle!  Dance and slither around the jellies!  Happy times swimming.  You are so going to make it through this!
  • Dang! Shoot! Plus some other larger non-appropriate expletives as I felt myself swim into threads on my arms.  The best way that I can explain it is that it is like when you walk into a spider web that you didn’t see.  You can feel the threads and they are stuck to you, but you can’t exactly find them to get them off so you do the spider web dance as you flail your arms, wiggle your body side to side all while saying ACCCKKK FLLLLFFFF.   Now a jelly encounter is somewhat similar.  If you are lucky, you catch the bell of the jelly and really only end up with a stung forearm because you grab the bell and push it under you while trying as much as possible to levitate over the rest of the jelly.   Heck if you can manage to levitate out of the water you’d do it.  Unlucky and you get to have the jelly slide all along your body creating havoc as it goes.   Instead of ACCKKK FLLLLFFF you either decide to keep your mouth closed so you don’t swallow any tentacles or lift your head up and bellow.  Most often I go with the mouth closed approach. 
  • I did raise my head up to inform my crew that the jellies were going to be paying a visit and that I had been stung.  I also warned my kayaker to be careful as I didn’t want them to have a jelly slide up their kayak paddle and sting them.
  • Then I get to wait a very brief second before the burning starts.  In addition to burning, you also feel as if you have an extremely bad case of the painful pin pricks that occur when a body part has fallen asleep or more accurately has started to wake up.

At this point I decided that I needed to add another mantra to my repetorie.   Prior to the start of the swim they were:

  • We are going to have a safe, relaxed and successful swim.
  • You are made for cold water and excel there.
  • You have prepared for this swim and are focused.
  • Control what you can control and let go of everything else.

I quickly added:  The jellies should not kill you. 

I didn’t go so far as say won’t because at this point I wasn’t really sure and I knew plenty of swimmers that had ended up in the hospital due to jelly stings.  Then I started to think about counting how many jelly stings I got as this is often a question.   Then I began a debate with myself – does it count as one if a jelly rolls down your body stinging as it goes or does each separate point that it hits count as one?  Does being stung in the face count as more than the forearm?  What constitutes a lot of jellyfish?  Because to me this seems like a lot of jellies, but I don’t have a lot of reference points so maybe this is just a little and a lot is way more.  If this is a little, then I should be thankful that it isn’t a lot!  This thinking killed quite a bit of time during the swim.  I never settled on what counted as one sting so I don’t have a count of stings.  I know that I ran through many groups of jellies and was stung from tip to toes.  One even managed to sting through my swimsuit.  At this point counting seemed futile.

I also spent time thinking about the seal.  Why was it following me?  What did it want?  I wan’t super concerned as it was maintaining its distance and I only really saw it during the feedings.  (Side note:  Yes they are called feedings when my crew gives me food.  They occur every 30 minutes.)  Then there was the Nike futbol (or soccer) ball.  After the ball was pulled from the water, the seal disappeared.  We later joked that because we took the seal’s ball it decided there was no reason to hang around with the crazy swimmer.

Most of my time is spent trying to be meditative.  I count my strokes in a pattern – “One, two, three, breathe.  One, two, three, breathe.”  Yes after many hours this can get boring. 

During the feedings, my crew would cheer me on and keep me entertained.  They also asked questions to ensure that I was still functioning and not hypothermic.   One of the rules that I have with my crew is please don’t tell me how far I’ve gone, how many hours, or what I have left.    I have the crew tell me one bit of information – when I’ve reached OVER halfway.  Now it is up to my crew if they tell me this close to the actual halfway point or wait until much later into the swim.  Up until I hear this I try my best to keep track of exactly how many feedings I’ve had which in turn tells me how long I’ve been swimming.

As we reached what I calculated as the 6 hour mark, I realized that either I was getting cold or the stings were causing me to feel cold.  I couldn’t exactly determine which.  This led to a bit of time debating that fact.  Ultimately I decided it was an effect from all the jelly stings.  Then I also started to calculate that I was in for potentially another 6-8 hours of swimming.  Could I do that?  Would my body hold up?  Just how much more jelly venom could I withstand before I had problems?  At the 6.5 hour feeding, my crew announced that I was more than halfway.  For the next 30 minutes, I did some bargaining with my body.    “Ok body,  if you keep pushing forward, doing your job, and handling the jelly stings… I will never make you swim this body of water solo again.”  Some of you may have caught the key word in that sentence “SOLO.”  Yep, I was already talking with some of my crew about how fun it would be to do a relay 2-3 days after this swim was over. 

At the 7 hour feeding, the crew told me that if I pushed harder they thought the swim would be over in 2 hours.  I asked “and if I don’t?”  They replied that the swim would be maybe 3-4 hours more.    I decided I’d try to push.   One of my crew members also suited up to swim with me for an hour which was a nice distraction.  At 9 hours, my crew asked me to keep pushing.  I told them that I could push for 1 more hour and then I’d have to scale back to something more manageable.  It was around this time that I just decided to put my head down and swim forgetting that looking for jellies may still be a good idea.  Shortly after this I ran directly into a large Lion’s Mane and ended up wearing it as a shawl wrapped around my neck and upper body.   Needless to say this caused some bellowing and slapping of the water as I pealed the jelly off my body.  Thankfully that was the last major jelly encounter for the swim.   I ended up finishing 34 minutes and 39 seconds after that last feeding. 

That’s a bit of what I was thinking during the North Channel swim.

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North Channel Swim – An account from the boat

July 17, 2013

Please take time to read this beautiful account of the swim from the perspective of the official Irish Long Distance Association observer, Maureen McCoy, with photos by Paul McCambridge. 

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