The night before the race, I was feeling very good. The day before I had gone for a warmup swim in the Allegheny River with Darren, Chris and Kim. The water temp was very warm but still comfortable. I later learned it was the coldest of the 3 rivers at 75 degrees F. This was supposed to be the strongest current, but myself and Chris both noted at a break during the swim, that we could barely feel the current going against us! This was a nice surprise as I had been mentally preparing for a tough current in this river.
Later, back in the hotel room I was sharing with my mom, I mixed my carbo-pro beverages (3 water bottles, 1 gatorade) as well as my electrolyte mix (nuun). I stashed all my cliff bars, snickers, applesauce pouches and drinks in my swim bag along with my cap and goggles. I slept very well, but 5 am came early like always!
Everything was already packed and ready to go when I woke up, all I had to do was put my suit on, down my instant berry oatmeal bowl and chug my doubleshot espresso. The walk down to the start of the race was about 10 minutes for my mom and me; she helped carry the cooler bag that was going in the kayak to keep my drinks cool. She carried her own gear for the day (she would be on the main motorized boat with Darren, the captain and another mom). The race was ‘scheduled’ to start around 7 am, but a couple of the kayakers ran into parking trouble and did not arrive at the starting point until around 7:10.
At 7:30 Darren asked us all (five swimmers total) to jump in the river… after giving us a few moments to uh, “relieve” ourselves before starting, Darren did the final countdown and with as much gung-ho as a small gathering of marathon swimmers can muster early in the morning – we were off! I even remembered to start my watch!
The first thirty minutes flew, which is unusual for me – normally I need to adjust to the long, slow pace that I find most comfortable. However, myself, Chris, John and Sarah were swimming almost next to each other for about forty-five minutes, which made navigating somewhat challenging. The four of us had eight kayaks combined all trying to get into the positions on either side of us… I felt a little claustrophobic.
Heading down the Ohio river took about an hour and a half – we swam around Brunot Island then turned around and started the upstream battle. I was quite disoriented when we started the turn around, when I felt the current change I asked Max “Where is the island?” I didn’t realize we had already swam around it! I immediately felt the current change, and realized the next few hours would be tougher than I had anticipated. I would have to swim the 5k upstream in the Ohio, and then go directly into the next 5k up the Monongahela River. While the current wasn’t terrible, it was definitely noticeable. I continued with my 30 minute feed-times as I made my way up the river.
When I thought I must be getting close to the turn around buoy in the Monongahela, I started watching my clock, “3:45….3:55….4:10” Finally, I saw the tiny little orange buoy bobbing around in the distance. I was really excited as we got closer and closer because when I touched it, I knew I was halfway done! As we neared it, I could see the main boat was there waiting for us to hit the turnaround mark. I swam into it with my head up, saw Darren dive off the boat and start sprinting towards me… I wished he could give me some of his energy…
I decided to take a few minutes to relax and have some water and a cliff bar right after I touched the marker. After I felt ready to go, I turned around and headed downstream (YAY) the Monongahela River. I was hoping I would make it back down the river a little faster than it took me to swim the upstream part, but in reality it took about the same amount of time – I think I was getting pretty tired and sore at this point in the swim. I tried to rest a little on my back whenever I passed underneath a bridge, but that didn’t really give me much of a break.
My left arm really started to hurt at about the 18k mark. I had to stop and allow it to rest for a few minutes; it felt like I had pulled a muscle in my bicep. Everytime I tried to stroke, my arm would give out and shoot intense pain upwards. I tried breaststroke and backstroke, but nothing felt good. I asked for some Advil and allowed it to rest more. I did one-arm freestyle for a minute then tried my left arm again and it felt fine!
After I had gotten past that little setback, I realized I was starving I asked Max and Liz to change my feeds to every 20 minutes, and to give me half a cliff bar at each feed until I felt better. I also had a small snickers bar, yum.
We rounded the fountain at Point State Park and started the toughest river – the Allegheny. I was mentally prepared for a tougher current and started out feeling very strong. The main boat went past a couple times and cheered us on. Other than that there were quite a few larger boats travelling in the middle of the river as well as dozens of recreational kayakers all around us.
I stuck with my 20-minute feeds for the majority of the 5k upstream. But after we passed the initial starting point I felt like the flow of the river got stronger. My joints were starting to really hurt at this point, but my energy level was getting better after taking in more calories. After swimming for another hour I asked Max & Liz if either could see the orange turn-around buoy yet, “I think it’s just past that blue bridge up ahead”. I looked up; I saw the bridge but not the buoy. “Okay!” I replied enthusiastically… I knew I still had about another mile to go before I got to it, I said, “I’m just going to keep going until I get there, I’ll rest after we get there”. I put my head down and started to increase the power in my stroke. I did a mental ‘body scan’ to figure out where I could be more efficient in the water. My shoulders hurt, my hips hurt, my calves were on the verge of cramping, so I started to focus on my core – I tightened it up and worked on rotating through my stroke. To make the time pass a little more quickly, I would count my strokes up to 100 before I lifted my head to spot for the buoy. I saw the bridge approaching, we reached it, passed it, and I could still barely see the buoy… I was disappointed and it was mentally tough to keep up the pace I had set for myself, I was getting hungry and thirsty and knew I still had about 10-15 more minutes before I would reach the buoy. This was the hardest part of the swim for me, I didn’t want to slow down right before turning around and heading downstream, so I powered through until I touched it.
I looked up at my support and joked, “Right past the bridge huh?” We all agreed that the hardest part was behind us. I figured I had maybe another hour of swimming left to get to the finish, and it was all current assisted! I felt some relief in knowing I would be able to finish the day feeling satisfied with myself. After have a quick bite to eat and drink, we started back down the Allegheny.
The boat traffic had increased throughout the day, and I was getting slightly annoyed with the chop they created as they flew by us. I looked over at Liz who was right beside me now, she was fighting a strong headwind as I flew downstream with the current – it looked like she was working pretty hard to keep up with me.
My watch read eight hours, I lifted my head to see the last three bridges ahead of me. Max stopped me for my last break, and said; “I think you can make it the rest of the way without another break, right?” I put my head back down and tried to focus on counting my strokes as we made our way to the finish. Underneath one of the bridges I heard someone yell for me to stop. I turned to see the main boat stopped right behind us. Because of the increased boat traffic, we needed an escort to cross to the right-hand side of the river. They motioned for us to follow them, and we slowly made our way across. Once we were over safely, the boat sped off ahead to the finish.
I now had roughly 500m left and could see the finish buoy bobbing about 10 feet from the dock. I started to lift my head to spot every 20 strokes…10 strokes… every stroke… I could see my mom videoing me from the dock… Darren was jumping up and down cheering, making me feel like a rockstar. Other than that there were just a few people watching the finish, a few guys drinking beer and fishing, and the dozens of people aimlessly kayaking watching us with curious stares. I finished my 30k, clocking 8 hours 25 minutes of swimming up and down the three rivers. What a day, what a glorious day!
While the swimming part is over and done with (for now) I have to remind myself that the search for a cure is far from over. There have been some major breakthroughs recently that give my family and others affected by FA hope, but there is still a long road ahead. Through the help of many friends and family over the past three years, we have been able to raise $13,000! I hope that your continued support will help with the research that is being done, and that one day soon, the cure for Friedreichs Ataxia will be found.
My mom and me rocking the FARA t-shirts before the start!