My entire life revolved around scheduling my adulting around what heavy metal bands were coming to a town near me and how could I score myself a pit ticket. I’m not sure what happened or why I woke up one day and felt like I wanted to swim. Of course this happened when I was still stationed in Hohenfels, Germany, where I had no access to a swimming pool (which would become the story of my swimming life a few years later), and the lakes were frozen over for half the year or more. So I decided that when I got back to the United States, I would join a Master’s Swimming team, and that is exactly what I did.
I started swimming with Maryland Suburban Master’s Swim Club at Fairyland Aquatics Center in Laurel, MD a few mornings each week. I loved it! Nobody made me feel embarrassed for not being fast or not knowing how to do a flip turn, or how to swim backstroke, breaststroke, or butterfly. Nobody made me feel stupid because I didn’t know what the coach was talking about when he told me, for example, to ascend 1-4 or descend or start at the bottom or whatever. I just did what everyone else did and had a good time and felt great for the rest of the day. I had all day to be made to feel stupid at work (I was in a veterinary pathology residency at the time, where the staff members specialized in making the residents feel stupid every day), so at least my days started well while I swam with this wonderful group of people.
One Saturday in February 2013, I must’ve been sitting at my microscope staring at the same histology slide for three hours trying to find the perfect intra-nuclear viral inclusion body in the perfect cell to dot with a fine-tipped Sharpie pen so that I could easily find it on Wednesday if I got called on to describe the slide to the peanut gallery of staff members who specialized in making residents question their worthiness to live when they started scrutinizing my choice of diagnosis for this particular case. My little brown dog told me I needed a break from studying so I took one and somehow ended up signing up for the June 2013 FKCC Swim Around Key West 12.5 mile swim (solo).
I emerged from my home office and told my husband to buy himself a kayak and learn how to use it, because we were going to Key West in less than four months to swim around the island. I would say that he must’ve thought I was crazy, but I think he knew that by now. Or maybe he was just happy that I wasn’t dragging him to another heavy metal concert or music festival. Without too many questions or much resistance, he got himself a used kayak from Craigslist and I signed up for a few open water swims to get ready for our first adventure in marathon swimming.
I entered the lottery for a registration in the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, and found a few other local early season open water swims to enter. I placed second in my age group (no wetsuit) at my first open water swim, the Centennial Lake One Mile Swim, and second (one mile – no wetsuit) and third (two mile – no wetsuit) in my age group at the Jim McDonnell Lake Swim in May 2013. This was great for my ego and motivation as I started out on this random swim journey. I found an activity that I enjoyed and thought I might even be good at!
My next swim was Two Bridges Swim Under the Walkway, a 5K in the Hudson River on June 1, 2013, during which I was introduced to the experience of swimming against a strong current with wind chop, and waves from barge traffic, and with all of that, the feeling of struggling to finish a swim at the back of the pack. John had become concerned when one swimmer after another finished, but there was no sign of me until the very end, when I was one of the last few to finish. He had already become accustomed to me swimming approximately 32- minute miles and winning a ribbon or a medal at the end. This 5K swim was the first of what would be many swims that I was just happy to finish even if it was at the back of the pack (or last!). It was a wonderful excuse to visit Poughkeepsie, NY, where neither of us had been before.
Little did I know then that I was swimming with elite marathon swimming legends who I would meet and swim with at various events around the country and come to know and love as inspirations and mentors in the very near future. I honestly had no idea then what I was getting myself into! And I Don’t Wanna Stop. Ever.
John didn’t know what I was getting him into either, or I’m pretty sure that he would have paddled his new kayak far, far away and sold it to the lowest bidder.
Another Bridge to Swim Under
Next up was the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim on June 9, 2013. Unlike swimming back and forth under the Two Bridges in the Hudson River, my next swim was across the Chesapeake Bay between the two spans of the highway connecting the Eastern Shore and Ocean City with the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area. Each span of highway bridge served as giant lane lines under which I could not cross or I would be disqualified. I had won an entry to the swim through the lottery before I had done any open water swims. Coach Jim at my swim club had faith in me and wrote a letter on my behalf to verify that I had completed a three-mile swim during one of our 06:00 AM practices in 1:39:05. The three-hour pool swim was nothing like swimming 4.4 miles across the Chesapeake Bay.
On that day, I found myself amongst 640 other swimmers, none of which I knew at the time, who would attempt the swim. I had tucked a small plastic sport flask full of some kind of sport drink in the backside of my swimsuit and hoped to emerge at the other side, where John McQueen would be waiting for me, hopefully with a warm hug and a cold beer. It was the first time that I had to swim at what felt like a 45 degree angle to the direction in which I wanted to go, in order to go in that desired direction, because the strong current was trying to push my body underneath the span of the bridge, which would have resulted in disqualification. I finished the 4.4 mile swim in 3:08:29 (42:51 minute per mile pace), in 522 place overall out of 572 swimmers who finished the swim. I was just happy to have finished because I had never experienced such a challenge while swimming! It was such an amazing experience to swim between those two huge lane lines in the Chesapeake Bay! I knew I was hooked on this long-swim business, but not so sure if I was ready to Swim Around Key West in less than two weeks.
I thought today’s Daily Prompt from the WordPress Daily Post was particularly appropriate for the next chapter of my blog describing my 2013 FKCC Swim Around Key West experience. As I alluded to in my “A Swim Gypsy is Born” post, I was under a tremendous amount of mental stress at the time I registered for this swim which I was completely unprepared for. Looking back, I think I subconsciously wanted to replace the pain that I was feeling which was caused by the intense mental and emotional stress that I was experiencing with physical stress, with which I may have though that I would be better able to cope. And besides, this swim was a great excuse for a family vacation to Key West.
If there was one thing that I had learned in my six-week open water swimming career, it was that I was not a fast swimmer. I am also not good at math, so I realized that it might take me a really long time to swim 12.5 miles around Key West. The swim was to start at 07:30 AM and the swim was to be over at 4PM, I was at risk for not finishing in time, and I needed to be finished in time to get the dogs out of the kennel where they were day-boarded while John and I attempted this ridiculous feat. I also wanted to be back in time for the awards ceremony in case there was any food left for the back-of-the-pack swimmer who had no business doing this swim at this time in the first place. So I made what turned out to be a wise decision at the mandatory pre-registration and packet-pickup to switch from “solo” to “solo with fins” category, and I would wear my brand new fresh-out-of-the-box training fins for the entire swim.
My mom was due for a vacation so she drove down to Key West to be a spectator in this ludicrous plan of mine. But having known me since birth, ludicrousness on my part does not come as a surprise to her. And since she I assumed that she was most qualified to grease me up with diaper rash ointment having experience in this realm, she was given the job of greasing up the entire back side of my body with Desitin in an attempt to protect my lily-white skin from the harsh sun.
Right off the bat Team McQueen had a delayed start which set us back about 7 minutes, because John had trouble getting his newly purchased kayak sorted and launched, so I helped him while everyone else commenced to swimming. At this point in my swimming career, I was ignorant to the rules of marathon swimming, so I didn’t know that I should have been disqualified for touching the kayak, but I was also wearing fins, so perhaps this is why they let us continue on, or maybe the let us continue on because we were in Key West where anything goes.
It was fun for the first few miles and I was getting into a good swim groove.
And then I think I got tired and puked a few times around the backside of the island, around the midpoint of the swim, which is clearly evident by my swimming on my back (as I believe fish do before they die) and my swimming breaststroke. I was so far at the back of the pack that I missed the tide and the water was so shallow that my belly was scraping bottom so I had to actually walk part of the swim between Mile 9 and Mile 10 through the Cow Key Channel past Checkpoint 3. I guess I should have been concerned about being disqualified for “pushing off the bottom” but at this point I didn’t care, I was just ready to be done with it.
This is what the rest of my swim looked like and what I looked like when I finally finished.
This is what it looks like to suffer through 12.5 miles of swimming – more than seven hours in hot salt water under the scorching Key West sun. This is what it looks like when you bite off more than you can chew because that is what you do when you are a Heavy Metal Swim Gypsy on the Bullet Train trying to kill the pain of being mentally tortured for a day job and subsequently emotionally tortured because the day job that you chose was your choice and had been your professional goal for over nine years and it wasn’t supposed to suck as badly as it did.
“Changing my Course. Breathing exhaust. Bullet bullet train Piercing through my brain. With each new mile, standing on trial. Bu-bu-bu-bu bullet!”
The definition of the word scorched is “To burn superficially so as to discolor or damage the texture of” or “Dried out by heat or excessive exposure to sunlight” which clearly applied to me on this day despite the pre-swim slathering of Desitin:
Another definition of the word scorched is “To go or move at a very fast, often excessively fast rate” which clearly did not apply to me on this day, given the fact that it took me over seven and a half hours to finish this swim, even with the fins. But it didn’t matter to me because not only did John and I have a great time and prove to ourselves and everyone else that we could achieve the ludicrous, Check this out:
A first place finish for Female Solo with Fins category! And with that business out of the way, the rest of our family vacation to Key West was a blast and I have the pictures to prove it:
John got to play with his new (used) Hobie Outback kayak:
We got our cheeseburgers in paradise:
And now I will have to go back again someday and do the swim right, without fins, without touching the kayak, and without walking the 9th mile in ankle deep water.
I can’t stop, No I ain’t a quitter
I’m on fire, ah baby I’m a home run hitter
You can turn your back on me now
And I’ll still find my way
Cause the sun don’t shine on the same dog’s ass everyday – Jackyl, Relentless (2002)
I swam in a variety of open water events in the months that remained of the 2013 open water swimming season. On July 13, 2013, I enjoyed swimming the 5 mile event at the Maryland Swim For Life in the Chester River as I was joined by a couple of my friends from my Maryland Suburban Swim Club and my husband who provided kayak support for the event. I was proud to have finished my longest swim to date (without fins) and I enjoyed being laughed at as I emerged from the river after swimming for almost three hours with a rather impressive mud beard.
Next up was the Ocean Games 9 mile Swim in Ocean City, MD. We had never been to Ocean City, and this was a great excuse to go there, and as a bonus, we were able to test out our new (vintage) 1973 Apache Eagle tent trailer that was light enough to tow behind the Prius.
This was the best part of the weekend, as the rest of it was a disaster. I thought that I was good to go for a nine mile swim, after all, I had completed a 12.5 mile swim just a month earlier? How much harder could it be without fins? Well, we were schooled in the lesson of launching a kayak in high surf conditions the hard way. After no less than three attempts at launching it, and the kayak and John getting dumped, losing his sunglasses, feed bottles and feeds getting sucked out to sea, and everyone standing on the beach staring at us in disbelief as the race director announced that EVERYONE was waiting for me to start the race, and that I could start without my kayaker and they would help him launch and he could catch up. I embarrasingly retreated back to the starting line on the beach, and started the race without my husband kayaker. I kept looking back to see if he was able to get launched, while everyone else sprinted off ahead of me. After what seemed like forever, he caught up to me, and everyone else was so far ahead that I lost sight of them. We were told at the pre-race briefing to stay just outside of the shore break, but my kayaker took me out much further than that, I think, because he didn’t want to be anywhere near the shore breaks after having been dumped three times trying to get launched. I think I had only swum about three miles when I noticed that the buildings on the beach were staying in the same place, and so was I, I popped up and asked John if he had a dollar. “Why?” he asked. I told him that I wanted to get out and I needed the dollar to take the bus down the strip to where I had parked the car at the finish so that we could go back to the campsite and drink beer. He said yes he had a dollar, and we aimed for the nearest lifeguard stand on the beach to land. The nice young lifeguard helped him land the kayak safely and I let the lifeguard know that I was ending my swim (as we were told to do at safety briefing) and he told me he would call the swim director on the radio and let them know.
After I borrowed John’s shirt and the dollar, I walked to the nearest bus stop, dripping wet, no shoes, and covered head to toe in stinky fish-smelling Desitin to catch the bus. That was the most miserable bus ride, as the air conditioner was on full blast and I was freezing while I was subject to some serious stink-eye looks from the little vacation princesses who were seated on the bus across the aisle from me. I was very well aware that I looked like a total freak as I sat there and shivered in my wet T-shirt with no shoes on and covered in stinky fish-smelling Desitin for the 6 mile ride back to my car. When I got to the finish where my car was parked, I retrieved my bag from the volunteer at the finish, who I also told that I had ended the swim at the three mile mark, which she acknowledged and gave me my bag. I went back to pick up John, loaded the kayak, and we made our way to the kennel where we had boarded our dogs for the day. I think they had just as much of an unpleasant experience at the kennel as we did at the swim. But it didn’t matter, because we were all together and were going to have a lovely evening back at the campsite. Then my phone rang. It was the race director asking me if I had finished the swim. I said no, I had gotten out over two hours ago, didn’t the lifeguard at the three mile mark and the volunteer at the finish who had given my bag tell you? No, apparently not. And that is how that swim went. So now you know the story about the unknown swimmer who came in 20th place at the Swim Ocean City 9 mile event.
The Virginia Beach Lifeguard Association Ocean Swim Series 3K swim posed an excellent excuse for a weekend getaway, so I swam that while my husband saw me off at the start and walked down the beach to meet me at the finish. We had a great weekend in VA Beach, up until the very end, when after we loaded the car and our bicycles, we left them unattended for no more than three minutes to returned the bicycle lock that we had borrowed from the innkeepers and to thank them for their generous hospitality, some asshole thief stole my mountain bike right off the bike rack from our car that was parked in the driveway. I will NOT be returning to Virginia Beach. Ever. For ANY reason. I miss that bike so much.
Not one to give up, I swam an uneventful HarborFest 2.4 mile swim and John volunteered to provide kayak safety support for that one, too. He remembers that one because the race director gave him a rash guard shirt and paid for our parking at the National Harbor to thank him for supporting the swim. Any kayaker who regularly supports open water swim events knows that it is more often than not a thankless job. Next time you find yourself at an open water swim event, make it a point to thank the kayakers.
The annual Lake George Open Water Swim was a great excuse to load the kayak, the Apache Eagle Tent Camper, and the dogs in the Prius and head up to Hague, New York, as neither of us had ever been before. What a beautiful lake! I swam the 2.5K on the first day, and the 4.4 mile point-to-point swim the next day. I can’t wait to go back to Lake George! I would like to swim the 32-mile length of this lake someday.
My most memorable swim of my first year of swimming was the Swim For The Potomac, which was my first attempt at a 5K swim. This swim was held on a 1 mile course in the National Harbor, and if I remember correctly, was to benefit the Special Olympics. I remember as I was coming around the last leg of my fifth lap, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that a paddler was tailing me very closely so I popped up and saw that I was the only swimmer left on the course and the support boat was pulling up the buoys. Without saying anything, I swam over to the feed station, retrieved my feed bottle, and swam over to the pier. There were about three people left on the pier, cheering and ringing the cow bell for me. As they proceeded to tell me what a great job I did swimming, I let them know that I did not finish, that I had only completed 5 laps (5 miles) of the 6 mile course. As the gentleman went to put the finisher medal around my neck, I reminded him that I hadn’t finished, I only swam five of the six miles. He told me that I should be proud, after all, I had swum for over three hours! Then he asked me if I knew what the Special Olympics oath was. I did not, so he told me what it is.
This made me feel better about this DNF and the Ocean City DNF. I felt really good about the five miles that I swim. I felt good about attempting the nine mile swim in Ocean City. I felt good about swimming, because swimming made me feel good, and I wasn’t going to stop. It made me feel good about my life, in general, because during this time in my professional career, I was made to feel that I couldn’t do anything right and that my graduate degree wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. I still think of this oath frequently, during a long swim when weakness starts creeping into mind. It is a reminder to me that even if my mind can’t make my body keep swimming, then I will have been brave in my attempt.
What I remember most about the next swim that I did, the ChesapeakeMan Endurance Festival SwimFest 2.4 mile swim, was watching the canvas cover of our vintage Apache Eagle tent trailer literally disintegrate around us as we slept in it on that windy night that we camped out in the parking lot of the Cambridge-South Dorchester High School parking lot the night before the swim.
I finished my first year of swimming with Peluso Open Water To The Bridge and Back 5 mile swim in the James River near Richmond, VA on October 6, 2013. I enjoyed this swim, even though there wasn’t any food left by the time I finished, but this was okay because there were hot tubs, which were empty because everyone was at the awards presentation by the time I was ready to get in for a soak. This was the first time that I experienced the end of swim season depression, because I had no more swims to look forward to and I felt somewhat lost without another swim to look forward to.
My pool then closed for what was supposed to be two weeks in January 2014 for routine maintenance, and it ended up being closed for over four months for major repairs. By the time it was scheduled to reopen in April, I found out that I my next assignment was to Fort Irwin, CA, in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
I was devastated. I didn’t swim for 18 months.