Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Frostbite in Florida

Last weekend we barely escaped a winter tsunami in Omaha to fly off to "sunny" Florida for a long weekend of swimming and an attempt to complete my 6-hour qualifying swim for the English Channel. 

We landed in Orlando about 11:30 p.m. and went to get my reserved rental car at Budget. After waiting for someone to return to the counter, and 15 minutes full of paperwork covering all sorts of info I already supplied when I paid online for the reservation, the Budget rep informed me that the economy car I had requested was on the other side of the airport. It would take 20 minutes to a half hour for them to drive it over to where we were located or I could upgrade for $10 a day (plus God knows what taxes and add-ons) to get a car closer. I told him I'd wait. Somehow, after a great show of going in and out of the back office, he was able to find me a car closer to our airport exit. My mom and I dragged our suitcases to the correct spot, where dozens of economy cars were lined up. Do NOT rent a car from Budget.

It's now past midnight, and completely strung out after a busy day a work, a harrowing drive through the snow covered interstate to Omaha, a nailbiting departure from Eppley Airport and the car rental experience from hell, we embarked on a two hour commute to Clearwater Beach. Remind me of this the next time I get a steal of deal airfare for a place a hundred miles away from my destination. 

We made it to the Ritz Motel -- a place with more overnight experience than Kim Kardashian. It was clean and located right across the street from the beach, so it worked well for us. Especially at 2:30 a.m.

The next day I met up with my friend GB, but strike those fictitious initials from your memory because this was some sort of top secret mission for him. I had to swear I wouldn't post any photos or evidence of his existence at our training camp. Figures I'd have a clandestine weekend involving nothing more than swimming with a friend under the eagle eye of my mother. I'm forty-eight going on fourteen.

The water felt cold, but wasn't a total shock thanks to those cold baths in previous weeks. In fact, after about 10 minutes, the water felt great! Slicing through the waves, spitting out (or more often, drinking in) the saltwater, watching the clouds overhead, and catching glimpses of dolphins are all things I love about ocean swimming. It is exhilarating to just SWIM - no lane lines or flipturns in a box. 

Unfortunately, the cold started creeping in after about a half hour or so. I tried to concentrate on other things, but eventually, the chill knocks louder, then rings the door bell, then knocks the damn door down. I was so glad our hotel was close by so I could get into a warm shower. Even then, it still took about an hour to finally get rid of the shivers.

We didn't swim as long or as often as I had planned. GB was more concerned with staying fresh for our 6-hour attempt and preferred to put in one swim a day. I thought we'd do 2 or 3, but really, it didn't take much to twist my arm to go shopping and riding the pirate ship instead. 

On Saturday, we met up with our kayakers in Tampa Bay for our 6-hour qualifying attempt. I didn't sleep much the night before. I was so, so nervous about it. My kayaker, Ron Collins, is the director of the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim and a triple crown achiever. Kind of a big deal in swimming circles, and a very friendly and generous guy. A facebook friend of mine helped find a kayaker for GB. Her name was Merit, which I could never remember, so I nicknamed her Mittens. She was the most badass Mittens you've ever met. 

The day was cool and overcast and the water at 60 flat. A couple of other swimmers joined us, including Carl Selles, who'd swum the Red River with me last July, and Chris who's doing the English Channel in 2015. I slinked into the water, getting used to the temp drop. At 8:59 a.m. we were off - GB and me swimming next to each other with our kayakers on each side and the other swimmers ahead of us a bit.

We swam straight out from the beach, then turned around a buoy and retraced the same path back. The other swimmers wished us well as they departed. GB and I continued swimming next to the kayaks, now heading up one side of the bay. 

I felt good. Ron told me later that my stroke rate was consistent at 62 strokes per minute, which is faster than my usual 54. I wanted to keep my body heat up without getting too tired and that seemed a good pace. We took feeds each half hour. GB was usually ahead of me, but I slammed those feeds a lot faster and then he'd have to catch up.

We swam along a row of docks with nice boats and even nicer houses. They were hard to see in the mist, but I could tell they were huge. I thought of various songs and for some reason got stuck singing "I've been workin' on the railroad" in my head. What a dumb song, but helped me keep going.

After about two hours, the cold started seeping into my skin. The fingers in my left hand were floppy. I couldn't keep them together. Then, my toes disappeared. At one point, I reached down to pull seaweed off of my right foot only to discover they were my numb toes. Gross.

At the third hour feed I was getting a little freaked out. I was shivering and desperate to get warmer. I think being really cold is a little like being really hungry. It's almost painful and you'll do anything to make it stop. Imagine being stuck on a streetside on a windy winter day wearing nothing but a wet swimsuit. Now stand there for 3 hours.

I was determined to make it. I always figured the only way I'd not make it across the Channel is if I went unconscious and had to be pulled out. I am committed to this. I tried thinking of songs. I imagined a torch burning in my tummy. I counted to ten, then 20, then 30.

At the 4 hour feed, I was toast. No. I WISHED I was toast. I was an ice cube. I was nauseated from swallowing saltwater, my back was killing me and the only thought I had in my head was how I had never experienced cold like this before. I thought a cold bath for a half hour was misery. Now, I felt like rats with ice teeth were gnawing at my bones.

I told Ron I couldn't keep going. He wisely asked me what my birthday was and what my mom's name was. I knew and was able to reply through chattering teeth, so I wasn't so bad off that I'd need medical attention. But the drive to get out of that water was overwhelming. I swam a little further to get close to the beach, then stopped again and told Ron I was swimming in. My friend GB was right there and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was going in and he said to try to make it to the next feed. I appreciated the nudge and figured I'd give it another try. I swam for about 10 more minutes, but I was going further from the beach. I didn't want to be stuck out in the water where I couldn't easily get to shore, so I bailed and told Ron I was done and swam back to the beach while GB kept going.

I was miserable but also absolutely relieved to get out of the water. With Ann's help (my facebook friend who met us there, took care of our gear and kept tabs on us), I made it to the pool, which felt like a hot tub compared to the ocean. I shook off some of the cold, although I was still shaking after a half hour. My head was throbbing and I was hoping I wouldn't puke in the pool.

I finally felt warmed up enough to get my feet in the real hot tub next to the pool. It was pure bliss. I eventually sunk down into the hot water and steamed off the rest of the chill. I've never been so happy to have misery end, but my confidence was still floating out there in the bay. If I can't swim 6 hours in this stuff, how am I ever going to make it for 15 or 16 or 18 hours in the Channel?

Ron reassured me that I had plenty of time to continue my acclimation. I swam longer in cold water than I have ever done before on nothing more than cold baths for my prep. At this point, my head just hurt and I couldn't really process my thoughts. I was a mess of emotions, but mostly glad to be warm.

I got out to check on GB who was nearing the finish of his 6-hour swim. At least one of us was going to make it and I was very happy for him. I took video of his finish. You'll never see it, but it was cool.

We drove back to Clearwater Beach and I took a long hot shower, scrubbing off the Bag Balm/Desitin grease mix with Dawn dish soap. That is awesome stuff. We met up about an hour later for dinner at one of the beachside restaurants and enjoyed a nice dinner before my mom and I had to leave - at 4 in the morning. A group of young women sat next to us. Turns out these were gals my mom had met earlier that afternoon so there was a lot of squealing and photo taking. When I found our waitress to pay our dinner bill, I found out one of the young women had paid our bill. How cool is that?!! What a beautiful ending to a great week.

This was a learning experience. It's still early in the season so I have the gift of more time to train and acclimate. But man. That was a COLD wake-up call. I need to spend a lot more time in cold baths until the ice melts on our lakes. And more experience will help toughen me up mentally, too. I really really really hate quitting.


  1. Wow, Molly. So what is your plan to acclimate? Will you be jumping in Branched Oak soon? When do you fill your home pool?

  2. I'll swim in Branched Oak as soon as the ice melts. I may only be able to get in short swims until it gets into the upper 50s, but as long as I can move through the water, I'll get in it. It really is possible to acclimate. It requires multiple exposure and longer swims as I am able to do them. I'm heading to La Jolla, California, in April for another week of training. If you are interested in the acclimation process, Ned Denison has a fantastic blog at

  3. Well done Molly - don't be disheartened. There's plenty of time to get used to the cold!! You'll be fine I am sure! 4 1/2 hours is longer than I've swum at 60F!!

    Loneswimmer is Donal Buckley by the way. Same part of the world, different guy.....

  4. Thank you for giving Donal the credit he deserves! I knew that - I'll blame the lingering effects of my Florida swim for the mistake. Thanks for your support, swimsequence!!

  5. Wow! What a places in Florida. I think you will be enjoying there. I was read from a blog that Florida owes nearly all its weather to water. Being a peninsula plus having the humid climate allows the state to enjoy its wonderful climate. People come from around the world to experience the tropical paradise Floridians enjoy every day. Thank you for sharing your travel experience in Florida .