Wednesday, May 22, 2013

17 miles in Pensacola

One of the things I like best about swimming is the incredible people I meet. This was my first ever ocean swim race, but years from now, the thing I'll remember most will be the new friends I made this weekend.

My daughter Audrey delighted in giving me a hard time about meeting up with "some guy you met on the Internet." I suppose it is a little out of character for someone who has for years  preached about the dangers of Internet creepers to feel totally comfortable sharing a vacation rental home for a weekend with someone I only know by his handle on a web forum. But come on. This is a marathon swimming forum - full of interesting characters, but not much of a portal for pervs. 

I was delighted to be welcomed by Tim, his wife Amanda, and Amanda's amazing family.  These people were like the Waltons on ecstasy - very warm, friendly and totally cool. How many families do you know who actually know the steps to the Cupid Shuffle and aren't afraid to show it off? Weekend. Made.

And this rental house was no cabin in the woods. We're talking marble countertops, 12-foot high ceilings, gourmet kitchen with a warming oven. A warming oven ... I don't even know what you do with that. Can you put your feet in there? The pale blue and soft white decor brought the seashore inside. I not only had my own bedroom with a dresser, walk-in closet and bathroom, but it had a chandelier. 

All this and it was about 50 yards by flipflops to the white powder Pensacola Gulf Coast beach. I hadn't been here in nearly 25 years and I had forgotten how beautiful this patch of sand is. Sure - Pensacola is a beach town and there are plenty of places to get your tie dye t-shirts and oyster shooters, but truly, the tall grass covered dunes, soft sand and clear turquoise waves make it a postcard perfect paradise.

We took full advantage of that gorgeous kitchen. Amanda's family can COOK. We enjoyed cranberry walnut chicken salad (OK - it was a prepared thing, but oh my freaking god delicious), lots of sandwich fixins, fruit, snacks and the world's most delicious grilled dinner after our swim, but more on that later.

We all got into the ocean just to play around on Friday. Tim and I did some short distance swimming to get into the ocean groove. The water felt cool as I pulled through it at first, but then melted into a comfortable non-noticeable temperature after just a few minutes. I saw a few rays and some floating sea plants, but nothing freaky like a shark or underwater nazi zombie (my friend Jen's biggest water phobia).

My kayaker, Heather, met up with us later that afternoon. She looked like you would expect a world-class kayaker superhero to look - cute, small, blonde ponytail, bright white smile and a "I'll have a side of sharp tacks with that burger" sort of ambiance about her.

We sucked down fresh fish and fixin's at one of the local seafood restaurants that evening and Tim and Amanda picked up the tab for Heather and me. Did I mention earlier how incredible these folks were? I'm from Nebraska and we take some pride in being gracious and hospitable, but Tim and Amanda could teach graduate classes. This swimming adventure was a big investment (well worth it) and I sincerely appreciated their generosity. 

Heather and I worked out the feeding logistics. Neither of us had done this before - wait, now that I think about it, Heather mentioned that she'd support kayaked for a friend before - so we needed to work out the timing and how to haul 8 bottles of Perpetuem mixed drink, a half dozen gel packs and some Cliff bar snacks on a kayak. With a small cooler to keep water cold, Heather thought it would work well to put a pre-mixed bottle in the cooler with a gallon of water, cover it all with ice, then mix as needed with the rest of the bottles.

Tim, being an engineer, had crafted an ingenious feeding tool. He had a rope with a couple of caribiners attached to pull buoy with the rest of the rope, about 10 feet, extending beyond the buoy and ending with a tied loop. It was perfect to launch a feed bottle and a mouthwash bottle. I had purchased a short net on a stick to use for the gels, but we didn't end up using it.

Thanks to modern pharmaceuticals, I slept pretty well the night before the race. I knew I'd be too nervous to sleep, so asked my doctor beforehand for some Ambien. That morning, I felt excited for the adventure and ready to give it my best shot.

I covered myself in spray sunscreen which didn't seem to do much good on Friday, so then slathered myself in Desitin, which is 40% zincoxide. I was the mime swimmer.

I stuffed my Garmin 310xt into my goggle straps, put another cap over the whole contraption and gathered with the other 5 swimmers at the edge of the water for the start of the race. I think it started with a "go."

I swam with the group for about a quarter mile or so (pure guess) until we spread out enough for our support kayakers to pair up with us. I felt like the Amelia Earhart of swimming - the water was cool and comfortable, the wind calm and I felt like every arm plunge into the water was a grab at glory. Well, maybe that's a little dramatic.

Things were going fine. Heather was right there, although "there" wavered from one side to the other, forward and backward. I hadn't specified right side, parallel please, until a handful of miles into the race. I was either chasing the kayak or wondering where it was. This was no fault of Heather's, we just hadn't worked out those details beforehand. She totally took care of the sighting for me, which helped me avoid the swim to the wrong buoy that affected everyone else.

So I'm swimmin, swimmin, swimmin just like Dory from Nemo, havin' a good time, asking for my Slim Jim's and my smokes at the feeds, life is good. Until it's not. About mile 7 I notice my right shoulder is feeling a little twitchy, in fact, more than twitchy, it's starting to hurt. Hmmm, this is unusual because I've not had problems with my right shoulder before. I've swum several 5, 6 and 7 hour swims in the pool without any unusual joint pain.

Joint pain supersedes my pee problem. I can't seem to get myself to pee on command. Even when feeding, I have to stop and concentrate like I'm going to bend a spoon with my mind. Treading water and peeing should not be this big of a deal, but for whatever reason, I was having a hard time. I was only able to go when I felt I was on the brink of exploding.

I swam for the next 2 miles with the right shoulder pain getting more and more intense. I asked for my med bottle, with 2 huge doses of ibuprofen and Gatorade, at mile 9. I took a single serving swig and noticed the effects after about 15 minutes. Ahhhh. Thank you.

But even feeling better, the toll of this distance was getting to me. ANOTHER frigging lap? Really? It was such a long slog from the one buoy near the bridge to the buoy on the far end of the bay. So, so long. Lift the arm. OW. lift the other arm. Lift the arm. OW. Lift the other arm, etc. 

So I get to about mile 12 and the arm thing is taking over. I'm no longer noticing the pretty white clouds skittering across the blue sky or the changes in water temperature or the total absence of anyone swimming near me. I only feel the piercing pain every time I lift my right arm. I asked for another dose of the green bottle and took a big swig. It made a small dent, but not much.

I kept going as best I could, but I was noticeably slower. That stupid bridge wasn't getting any closer. I wasn't having much fun anymore. No more jokes about Slim Jim's and smokes. I really wanted this over.

When my Garmin buzzed at 15 miles, I hit a mental dam. I was done. Toast. Crispy bits. Totally squeezed dry. It didn't help to see a boat go by carrying the buoys from the race route. I told Heather, "I'm done. I don't think I can finish this." She pointed out the obvious - that no boat was nearby, that the finish was just past the bridge, I could do it, yada, yada, yada. But if there had been a way to get out of the water then and there, I would have taken it.

As it was, I didn't have any choice but to keep moving forward. Or, at least quit moving backward. The current was against us on the way back (thanks for that - middle finger) so every time I stopped to bitch about my fate, I slid back into the abyss.

I started counting. I'd stroke 100 arm pulls, then reward myself with 20 breaststrokes and a sprinkling of kicks from the backstroke position. I did sidestroke. Some dogpaddle. More bitching. Then another 100 crawl strokes with every right pull sending a lighting bolt to my head. I'm not a hero here. I would have quit if I could have. I hated this. I just didn't have any other alternative.

Finally. Fucking finally - we passed that goddamn bridge. I just needed to make it past the stupid boats and the beach would be within sight. Just past the fucking boats. Sorry - limbic brain was all I had left at this point.

We passed the bridge and I could see the beach. I was surprised and delighted to see that the finish flags were still up. I figured since they took the buoys, the race was sort of over and there wouldn't be anything there to signify a finish.

The flags became the barn doors for this old horse. I plunged each hand in the water, ignoring the electric shocks, to get to the sand. Go, go, go, go. The water got shallower and shallower to point to where I could stand. I shuffled in, one leg in front of the other for what seemed like a 100 yard dash until the water fell away and I was stepping on solid ground. Nine hours and forty-five minutes of swimming for 17.12 miles. 

I felt elated and overwhelmed. This was my own Mount Everest. I had survived the distance and the pain to cross the finish. I know this isn't anything compared to the daily trials our patients endure every day in rehabilitation at Madonna, but I felt like I had a taste of that. I didn't want to keep going. I only kept going because there wasn't another option.

I stumbled over to a lounge chair and vegged out in a daze in the hot sun. I found out there was one more swimmer out there and I wanted to cheer her in. I was astounded that someone was actually behind me. No offence intended to this fantastic chick. I just couldn't imagine someone finishing behind me considering the ordeal it took for me to get in.

After welcoming the final finisher, we made our way back to Heather's Jeep and I started feeling dizzy and sick. I suppose some recovery food or drink would have been a good idea, but I hadn't thought of that. Food did NOT sound good at this point. Heather, being the She-Ra of endurance events, knew that a fruit smoothie would be helpful so we hit up Smoothie King. Or maybe it was Smoothie Kong or King Kong Kickass Smoothie Motherfuckers. It was good shit whatever it was.

Sorry. I'm getting a little too base about all this. But, I can better understand now why brain injury patients come out of their comas cussing up a storm. At a certain point, you don't have the energy for filters. You hit bottom and your lizard brain takes over. Everything hurts. A fruit smoothie tastes good. Your muscles are screaming. The car seat feels good. Your eyes hurt. Your friend's voice sounds good. The wind streaming through the window is loud. Things become very very simple.

So then we get back to dinner and the Cupid Shuffle. Amanda's family has made this unbelievably delicious dinner and they're all dancing and eating and laughing and the evening was magical. I felt so good about completing the race, the grilled salmon was incredible and the apple pie a la mode was the taste of your favorite day on the playground as a little kid. 

Unfortunately, I didn't sleep well. I couldn't get comfortable and my shoulder was killing me (I know that story is old). I worried about my ability to swim the Red River marathon in July. I worried about my ability to take on the English Channel - not only the distance, but the cold. I worried about how much I was worrying. Making it to the dawning light was another triumph.

Sunday morning, Tim drove another swimmer, Lisa, to the start of her 10K race while Heather and I packed up. We had some coffee, said good morning to the various family members shuffling into the kitchen - Amanda's dad Tim, her mother Karen, brother Austin, sister Sarah and (I predict) soon to be brother-in-law Steve - and packed up the Jeep for my ride the airport. We met Tim on the way so I could get my race t-shirt, which I showed to Heather and ended up leaving in the back seat of her Jeep.

The travel home was about what you'd expect - delays, expensive crappy food, gate changes and nowhere to get comfortable. But really, I made it home by 7:30 p.m. so there's nothing to complain about. That would have taken several weeks by horse. ;-)

I feel pretty good about the swim despite the shoulder injury, which my doctor diagnosed as a partial rotator cuff tear. It was a terrific learning experience and total emotional explosion. I doubted my ability to swim the Red River and my big goal to cross the English Channel next summer. I still do. But, I also know I have the stamina to go the distance. I have the mental defectiveness to just keep going, even if that means curling up like a cork and hoping for a favorable tide.

The compulsion to swim a long distance is hard to explain and justify. Why would someone voluntarily endure pain for such a long period of time? I suppose because it's like buffing an old silver teapot. It brings out the shine.


  1. Your last paragraph - 'The compulsion to swim a long distance is hard to explain and justify. Why would someone voluntarily endure pain for such a long period of time? I suppose because it's like buffing an old silver teapot. It brings out the shine.'
    I would say because it is a sheer passion to get through this small step to realize the bigger achievement of English Channel.. Keep going Molly! Remember the book Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo - when you really want something to happen, the whole universe conspires so that your wish comes true!

  2. Molly, I absolutly love this post!! I did a 6 hr cold swim and all the land marks for the last hour had been subsequently renamed to cussing pronouns! I get it!! Sorry to hear about your should. Rest a little and you will be right as rain. Also I just did a 8.5 hr swim 2 weeks ago. I had that why in the world I am doing this sport feeling for the last hour.
    Water warm here so I am jumping in that old ice bath! Keep peeing I mean swimming! :) Renee

    1. Thanks, Renee. I think I'd rather jump in a pit of cobras than take an ice bath... but that's why it's a such a huge challenge. Let me know how your swim goes!