Hello again friends! It has certainly been awhile since I have been able to entertain the idea of completing a long distance swimming event… a lot has happened in my life since then!
In June 2017 my daughter, Aubrey was born. It has been a joyous 21 months! Filled with laughter, learning and letting go. Letting go of long-held beliefs on what it means to be a parent. Letting go of uninterrupted sleep. Letting go of expectations. Letting go of personal time… and finally, learning that it’s OK to reclaim some of these things, even with a young child.
I decided it was time to reclaim my time in the pool. I made a commitment to swim twice a week in the early mornings with the masters group at Phoenix Swim Club (paying the drop in fee). This was about two months ago… I have only been able to maintain this commitment for one week at a time so far. Surprisingly, I’m not discouraged at all, in fact I am happy that I’m making progress and in the pool at least once a week! Because of my limited time to swim these days, I decided it would be against my better judgement to attempt the full four day SCAR event this year… although mental training for an event like this is critical, I think in this case, mental toughness wouldn’t quite cut it. TBH I think swimming twice a week is still on the light side, oh well!
Now that I have an event to train for, I am eager to start fundraising for FARA! I am in the process of getting my donation page set up for Team Juneau Joneses. Since it has been a couple years since I have done anything with this, I believe our running total has been lost… this is 100% OK because it doesn’t really matter. What matters most is that we continue to work towards a cure for FA.
As many of you know, I have three brothers, two of them have Friedreich’s Ataxia. Ryan is now 31 and Owen is 25. Both of them are living with my parents in Juneau, AK. Ryan has completely lost his hearing and vision, but can communicate with a select number of people who are around him most. He also developed a way to use morse code, (yes MORSE CODE) to communicate with those around him. His right shoulder = dot / his left shoulder = dash. He memorized the code a few summers ago with the help of various care providers. Listen, this guy is one smart cookie. He has lost control of his muscles, eyes, ears, etc and still refuses to give up. He developed this completely original way to communicate and while it is extremely tedious (tapping numerous times for each letter of each word of each sentence…) it provides such joy to be able to have a conversation, or share a thought with him.
This was by far my favorite of the four swims! I enjoyed the time before the swim, and I enjoyed the time after the swim! Oh, I also enjoyed the swim… but mostly before and after.
All the swimmers and kayakers and other volunteers met on the dock at the marina around 3 pm to discuss the course of the race and safety precautions and what would happen after we finished. There were a number of kids participating as a relay team, and a few youngsters that were completing the swim by themselves. I was very excited to see a whole group of people that loved the same thing, that were younger than I was. You would think that these long, strenuous events would attract younger athletes, but the reverse is normally true. I am always amazed when I overhear a swimmer talk about their grandchildren or ask what they do for work and to hear, “oh, I’ve been retired for years!” Anyways, I was happy to see all the faces there, regardless of age.
Once all the swimmers and crew had been shuttled to the start, Kent had to place two yellow buoys out in the lake for us to swim around (the only swim that required him to do so). We were all happy to relax and hangout on the boat launch for the next hour. It gave the kayakers plenty of time to decorate the boats with glowsticks and for us to anticipate the ominous looking clouds that were surrounding us. I personally enjoyed this time, because it was one of the last times you got a chance to see most of the swimmers before we all headed out our separate ways. Many of the swimmers were from different states and different countries. Everybody had travel plans the following day, so this was a chance to snap some photos and express congratulations to everyone that had made it as far as Roosevelt.
Once the buoys were set, the kayakers were all sent into the lake together (all three waves of kayakers), then the first wave swimmers lined up with their feet in the water… around 5pm Kent sent them off then immediately asked the second wave to line up, he checked that all the glowsticks attached to the suits and goggles were “cracked”, then sent them off! Finally, the third and final wave of swimmers were lined up, “30 seconds!” and then he yelled “Go!”. Half of us ran and dove into the lake, half of us timidly waded in and started to swim head-up.
It took about 15 minutes to find my kayaker. At this point my goggles were bugging me and kept filling up with water because of the way I had zip-tied my glowstick to them. I adjusted them as quickly as I could, then kept swimming toward the first yellow buoy, then around the second. Then I started the long trudge across the lake. I allowed myself to think, “Wow, what perfect conditions we are having! Wouldn’t it be magical to have perfect conditions across the whole lake?” I immediately regretted thinking this… the winds picked up, I felt raindrops on my back, I had to dodge my kayaker as he was blown sideways across the lake. The conditions were the worst I have ever been in! I was shocked. I was anxious. I was getting cold. I didn’t want to lose my kayaker under any circumstances. I started to backstroke and breaststroke, since anytime I tried to complete a freestyle stroke I was met with a giant mouthful of water. I was worried about all the swimmers in the lake, and if conditions were to worsen how the few pontoon boats could possibly pull out and find all the swimmers and kayakers in time. I know how important it is to stay calm when in the open water, I let the water carry me, I didn’t try to force anything during this time. I just kept my kayaker in sight, kept a pontoon boat in sight, and prayed that the storm would pass soon.
After about 20 minutes, the water smoothed out, my stroke smoothed out, I had some of my water and food then tried to make some headway across the lake while the conditions were good. Another hour passed, I looked up to gauge the distance from the dam. I felt pretty close, but didn’t allow myself to get too excited yet. The sun set, the wind picked up a little, I didn’t move for about 15 minutes… then I felt the wind change and felt a huge push in the RIGHT direction.
The sky was completely dark, and everything disappeared, except the glowsticks. I imagined myself blindly following the light. My depth perception was gone, so I was also zigzagging toward the finish buoy. I couldn’t “see” the water, so it also disappeared. I felt like I was flying! I felt like I was invincible. I couldn’t believe it, but at the end of swimming over 40 miles in 4 days, I felt invincible and strong. As improbable as the whole thing sounds, everything was perfect. I felt incredible gratitude for being where I was.
Since this day was the longest, I tried to make some mental notes while I was swimming. This was also a great distraction from the cold.
I think around 2 hours in I still had numb hands and feet, my core was doing OK because I wasn’t shivering. However, I was still dealing with the numbness and to put it mildly, I was very cold. I remembered earlier in the day texting my mom and asking her to send “warm thoughts” my way… so I began to search wildly for those thoughts. I realized that the Saguaro cacti on the shoreline almost looked like people. I began to visualize all my friends and family there cheering me on. I focused my energy on really seeing that person in the cactus. I imagined they were literally cheering for me! I know it sounds strange, but when you are swimming for 7 hours with nothing to think about but the cold, the soreness, and how much farther you have to go, it’s nice to be distracted for a few minutes.
I don’t know if you’ll believe me, but by the time I had cycled through everybody I could possibly think of to make into a cacti, I felt my hands and feet again!
It is hard to describe the emotions and stages I encounter during a long swim like this, but they fluctuate immensely. In fact, there is really only one thing I know for certain when I head into a swim – I don’t know what is going to happen, but I do know I am going to finish. I have never had to pull myself from swim, and I have never had anyone else pull me from a swim. However, I know this is always a possibility, but for me, I can’t think it is before I start swimming. It messes with my mentality, and gives me a valid reason for not finishing. Strangely enough, the more I am challenged by cold, wind, chop, or a number of other unknown variables, the more I want to finish.
During Apache, I went through three stages of cold: hours 0-2 cold, hours 3-4 not cold, hours 5-7 cold. It was pleasant to hit the halfway point when I was feeling “not cold”, because I optimistically thought for awhile that I might not be cold again during the swim, I even felt a patch of water (it only lasted about 10 seconds) that I would have described as “bath water warm”. When I swim through patches like this I want to stop dead and not move again, but instead I realize that this will only last for a short time, make a mental note of that gloriously warm water, be thankful for it, and then prepare for a severe drop in temperature.
I was told once that, “a one degree drop in water temperature is comparable to a 10 degree drop in air temperature”, I have no idea if this is remotely true, but it helps to mentally understand what it is like to have a 5 degree drop during a swim. It is unpleasant, it has the potential to cripple you physically and mentally in a matter of minutes… especially if you were battling the cold already. I think one of the biggest factors that helped me conquer Apache this year, was my experience in the lake. I have made the mistake before of convincing myself that the water will warm up, that the distance will somehow not feel so far, or that the wind will stop and never come back. While these thoughts might help you get through a tough moment during a swim, they are unrealistic. The reality is, you have no idea what will happen. The alluring thing about this sport is that it is so unpredictable. The conditions change minute to minute. You have to be so flexible and open to whatever nature throws your way… The few things you have control over are: how you react to changing conditions and your nutrition. Pretty simple, right?
After I passed the Apache Marina which is just over halfway, I started to get cold again, there were no more cacti to distract me, so I started to count my strokes, which is another technique I have used to get through long swims. Normally, I count to 100 then I reward myself with a glance forward to see how much progress I have made. During Apache I knew I would only be disappointed if I looked up so often, so I changed 100 to 1,000… then 2,000… then 3,000… then 4,000. I thought it would be pretty cool if I could estimate the number of strokes I had to take to swim 17 miles. I wasn’t able to stay focused long enough to do this, I’ll keep it in mind for another day :-).
The last 4-5 miles of the swim was gorgeous. Two years ago I was battling cold and wind during this section, but today I had the pleasure of taking in the scenery and enjoying a beautiful glow on the canyon walls.
Then the last stage of the race, you all know this one: the “when will it end?!” stage. You start to question everything you thought you knew about the lake, the water, the temperature, where the “damn buoy line” (thanks Asha!) is. Then, you hear your kayaker tell you for the umpteenth time, “I think it’s just around that point there…” as he motions with his head toward what HAS to be the end of the lake. You somewhat pessimistically assume he must be wrong, again, and say “Okay!” as cheerfully as you can muster, “so this is the last feed then?”, drop your head, start your eternally rhythmic stroke and chug onward toward that. last. point.
Started at 10:30 am, the water was cold but bareable… I think because I was expecting it to be colder. It was probably around 63-64 degrees. Water and wind were both fine for about 45 minutes, then the wind really picked up and was blowing me and my kayaker all over the place.
The canyon had a lot of turns which caused conditions to change constantly. We went through sections that were very calm and pleasant, only to turn a corner and hit a strong headwind.
Taj fell behind me a few times, so I had to spot for myself. This was only through the choppy sections though.
I tried to catch up to another kayaker, but Taj ended up catching me. I rounded the last corner and felt a glorious tailwind! The last push was awesome, I had plenty of energy and swam the last 15 minutes to the buoy with no problems.