The morning of our swim started off well enough – a 5:20 wake up call at the Lexington Hotel (which also served as the race headquarters). I had communicated with my kayaker, Pam, the night before and had a bag of liquids and a bag of other miscellaneous other items to have her carry for me during the swim. Cody and I both ate a waffle from the waffle house next to our hotel, we then finished the last minute preparations and hopped in the car with my grandma to drive to Smathers Beach where we would be starting and finishing our island swim.
Once we arrived at the beach, which was around 6:25, we found a place for our gear and started to anxiously wait around. Most people had arrived by 7 and the body marking and zinc application began. Because we had colored zinc, we made a “map” of Alaska and the letters FARA on each others’ backs. The total time for zinc application was about 30 minutes… a little longer than we expected to spend doing it so the final preparations had to happen fast, last minute bathroom trip, cap and goggles, sips of water, and then we were out and into the 80 degree water. Once we were wading out to the start line, we had around 5 minutes until 8. I didn’t hear the horn to indicate the start, rather I heard someone near the back yell “GO!” and everyone took off.
I made eye contact with Pam and was able to quickly get to her side. I looked ahead to find Cody and saw him far out towards the front of the pack. I couldn’t see a kayaker by his side, after I finished I learned it took his kayaker 45 minutes and a race official to find Cody. The first 15 minutes flew by – I didn’t want to stop for water but knew I needed to stick to my plan as best I could. I looked around while sipping on my water, I was out in the front of the pack and felt great. Another 15 minutes went by, I stopped again and drank electrolyte water; I still felt great but decided to slow my speed a little bit, my breathing needed to be slower and more controlled. I started breathing every 4th stroke instead of every 2nd stroke which was my normal pattern, this allowed me to enjoy the aquatic life as well as relax and lengthen my stroke. The next 30 minutes went very smoothly, I had my first GU in the middle of growing swells, less than a minute later I realized the GU was not sitting well at all. I felt very nauseous. The swells and chop added to the queasiness I felt, less than 10 minutes after consuming the GU I felt it coming back up.
The converging waters of the Atlantic and the Gulf continued to produce large waves that rocked my stomach. From about an hour after starting until about an hour later, I was struggling to get through the first wavy section without vomiting. I didn’t stick to my nutrition plan at this point, at about 90 minutes I sipped from a water bottle, about five minutes later I vomited again. At about 2 hours the swells subsided and my stomach calmed down – I took the opportunity to drink about 4 ounces of electrolyte water and kick my stroke into full gear. I felt great flying through the sailboats as I approached Dredgers Key. I maintained lead for the female solo swimmers up until we rounded the island – I even had a chance to relax, have a couple more ounces of fluid, take two ibuprofen and enjoy some aquatic life – beautiful sea urchins, a sting ray and many sea sponges and small fish. As I rounded Dredgers Key and headed out in an open bay towards Cow Key bridge, I felt the nausea return.
All the liquids I had held down for the previous 45 minutes came back up. The waves increased and serious doubts began to enter my mind. I lost lead at this point, still holding onto second place for female solo swimmers, but I began to wonder if I would be able to finish the race at all. As far as I could tell, none of my planned nutrition had stayed in my stomach. I could feel my body physically weakening and I could feel my confidence draining. I began to struggle with thoughts of quitting, I wanted to stop the race at this point – over 3 hours into the swim and over 7 miles of swimming completed. The open bay area going into Cow Key was very challenging – partly because I was not able to figure out exactly where I was supposed to be swimming towards, partly because I was battling a slight current, and mostly because I was horribly sea-sick.
I finally saw a decent landmark to spot off of near the Cow Key bridge, I could see it approaching and my spirits were growing – I knew I would get a glimpse of someone from my support crew to help build my confidence back up a bit. As I caught the glorious current that pushed me through the channel I floated on my back under the bridge and waved to my dad – I was able to manage a weak, but extremely grateful smile up towards him.
The current here didn’t last long – I floated on my back for about two more minutes then rolled over and attempted more swimming. At this point I had been swimming for four hours and had gone over 9 miles, I was very discouraged and was slowing down by the minute – I had serious doubts I would be able to finish the swim. The rest of the channel was extremely shallow, and I had to scull a couple times and ask Pam to find deeper water so I could extend my arms correctly underwater during my stroke. I tried to distract myself from my nausea by focusing on my stroke count and breathing rhythm. The next two miles seemed to drag on and on, the wall on the side of the island was curved so it seemed like even after 45 minutes of swimming next to it, we hadn’t moved anywhere. This was incredibly discouraging to me and my stomach. Pam did her best to keep me positive and responsive, she also did a great job of forcing liquids into me. I kept refusing the water but she made me drink a few sips every 20-30 minutes, looking back I wish I could have drank more, especially right at this point in the swim – I think it would have helped to keep me hydrated for the last mile, which I completed by sheer will and the thoughts and prayers of my friends and family as well as continuous encouragement from Pam, who was by my side the entire time.
As I trudged through the last mile (towards what I thought was the last buoy) I felt like I was swimming in a delirium, in retrospect, I was extremely weak and dehydrated and was well into my energy reserves, which were all but depleted. The nausea continued to torment my entire body even as I saw the actual final turn buoy and felt another female swimmer effortlessly fly by me. With about half a mile left in the swim, I felt the waves subside and my stomach settle a little. I felt my confidence instantly grow as I realized that I would be able to finish the race, whatever was going on mentally in my mind at this point vanished and my competitive swimming experience kicked in. I finished the last half mile as quickly and as confidently as I had when I started over five hours prior. I passed the female swimmer easily and felt energized as I raced towards my family waiting patiently for me on the beach.
Cody met me in the water and pointed me in the direction of the finish line. I finished in a total time of 5 hours and 16 minutes. I had hoped to be well under 5 hours; while I was disappointed with my time, given the circumstances I endured I can’t help but be proud of my accomplishment and take from it a very important lesson – ginger, ginger ale, ginger tablets, prescription motion sickness medication, etc. are vital components to any successful open water swim, especially for me.
My biggest regret with this swim, is the obvious – I forgot to take my bonine on friday night (as directed) and instead took it the morning of, just a couple hours before the start. Bonine doesn’t help with motion sickness until the next day, valuable experience. In addition to learning about my physical susceptibility to seasickness, I was shocked to learn about my own mental susceptibilities when faced with adversity.
Honestly, the reason I didn’t stop when the going got rough, was because of the support I knew I had on land. I knew I had a reasonable excuse, and all of my supporters would understand if I needed to stop, but for some reason I felt that this was, perhaps, the most important reason that I could not quit. Friedreich’s Ataxia doesn’t offer a safety boat to follow alongside you throughout the race, people aren’t given the option of getting a nice, warm, comforting ride back to shore. Whenever I wanted to stop swimming during the race, I thought of all those afflicted by FA and that was enough to give me the boost I needed to continue stroke after stroke, just like FA’ers do. Not that seasickness can compare to FA, but as a metaphor it does just fine :-).
Thanks to all your support, Team Ryan and Owen Jones was able to raise over $5,000 for FARA
Here is a link to my personal donation page: