Swim22 - The Ultimate Endurance Challenge

Posted on 10.8.10
Date 10/05/2010 Time 11:05:32 hrs Distance 21.7 mi Temperture 66° Pace 29:21 min/mile Speed 2 mph

Pictures from the swim and a lengthy account of my Swim22 experience. It truly has been an amazing couple of days. Video to come soon!

Swim22 – The Ultimate Endurance Challenge

Badwater Ultramarathon, Norseman Ironman, Deca-Ironman, these are all things that come to mind when I think of the term Ultimate Endurance Challenge. When I signed on to Swim22, a ‘relay’ of sorts where four swimmers complete four continuous solo Catalina Channel crossings, I did not feel that term fit our event. Sure Swim22 would be a challenge to complete, with low odds and logistical preparation that would make your head spin to think about, but Ultimate Endurance Challenge? It didn’t fit in my mind. Not until yesterday.

I’m still wrapping my head around the enormity of what David, Mike, Chris, and I attempted over the last several days. It just hasn’t set in yet. It hasn’t even set in that I, as an individual, have crossed the Catalina Channel in both directions. That just yesterday I climbed onto a boat in the pitch-black darkness of Doctor’s Cove on Catalina Island after having been in the sea for over 11 hours. But there’s this rock on my dresser that was on Catalina just two days ago telling me otherwise.

Here’s how it all started. I got this email two weeks before my Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. Chris Dahowski wanted to know if I would be willing to help, or possibly swim as the fourth member, of some crazy event I did not fully comprehend. I was intrigued, so met with him and David Hartmire in Seal Beach. I came prepared with a host of questions, to make sure they knew what they were getting themselves into and that they were aware of how logistically and physically challenging something like this was going to be. They were aware, and they had done their homework. The contacts they had made and the information they had gleaned was impressive. I said yes, I’d swim.

We stayed in contact throughout my NY and Europe trips. When I got back, I was able to assist more with the planning and fundraising, as one of our main goals for Swim22 was to raise awareness and funds for Jay Nolan Community Services, a wonderful organization that assists the developmentally disabled live more meaningful and independent lives.

Strategy was one of our main discussions: where would we start, aim for, and in what order? We determined that it would be best to set Mike Vovk up with the swim that best fit an ‘ideal’ Catalina swim. While Mike may have the best ability of all of us to grind it out under extreme circumstances (he’s an Ironman and ultra marathon man), he was fourth in terms of swimming ability. Since we wanted to start and finish on the mainland for PR reasons, we determined Mike would swim second, hopefully around midnight, after David finished his mainland to Catalina crossing. We scheduled that to start at noon, assuming that going against the current in afternoon chop would surely take 12 hours. I was to be third, as David and I are of similar swimming ability, and I liked the idea of going the other way. Chris, our team captain, was to take anchor. His swim could have gone either way: it could have been as easy as Mike’s if all went well on legs 1-3, but it conversely could have been the toughest. As our relay progressed, we knew most likely we would be pushed slightly south. Any weakness and I may have missed landing north of the Isthmus, which would mean a swim to Seal Beach for Chris. However, as the fastest of us all he was the man for the job.

The week leading up to the swim was full of chaos, at least from my perspective. For as much planning and preparation as we did, there was still much fine-tuning to be done, and it just seemed as though we did not have enough time for everything. We were also getting press on a scale unlike any other channel swimming event I’ve witnessed, and dealing with that required time and energy. Additionally, I changed my taper routine. Normally, I refuse to make even the slightest changes, but after evaluating my other two marathon swims this season, I determined I possibly was not getting enough rest. Between that analysis and a hurting shoulder, I made the decision to extend my taper. Looking back, physically that was a good decision. I felt fresh and excited to swim when I started. The tough part was mentally dealing with that extra week of rest: the doubting of whether I was doing the right thing and the questioning that I may be losing fitness. I continually had to remind myself that my decision had been made and at this point there was nothing I could do about it, so worrying was a useless waste of energy and focus.

Several days before the swim, the ocean was beautiful. I envied any person who attempted crossings the five or so days before our event. Warm air and water, no wind, and glass as flat as a pancake. I jumped with joy as I monitored friend and training partner Hank Wise’s almost-record-setting crossing. I was updated from his boat that the conditions were as good as can be and would hopefully hold just two more days.

Monday came around, and along with it, a drizzle. All four of us loaded up the Bottom Scratcher with gear for the next two days. David’s and Mike’s crew stayed aboard while Captain Greg Eliot motored from the port to the start beach. The swimmers, along with a few fans and news people, drove there. The drizzle and cloud cover was welcomed at the start as a sign of no winds; a way of keeping the sea flat. Mike, Chris, and I started with David to kick off Swim22. As though telling us to beware, the sea switched from welcomingly flat to angrily choppy as we entered.

David’s leg had officially begun. Swim22 had started. I was swimming tomorrow, and I was having a hard time grasping that. I felt overwhelmed with everything that needed to be done in just one afternoon. From that moment, it was a flurry of phone calls, emails, covering work for the next two days, and of course continuously checking David’s progress on the live GPS. When I finally went to rest, I slept an amazingly solid 8 hours. I woke up feeling excited and ready to swim.

The first thing I did was check the GPS. I realized I was a bit ahead of schedule. Then started the phone calls. Mike was not well. He’d gotten seasick on the way over, and was now swimming in 7-foot swells with a small craft advisory out. Slow progress was being made, but he was not keeping feeds down and at this rate would be in for 22 hours – is that possible? Chris and I put our crews on standby. Half of my crew was at our house, so we lounged in front of the TV as I fielded calls. Finally, I passed the phone to my amazing mom and slept for two more hours. When she woke me up it was with news that Mike had been pulled. His crew was now taking shifts to complete the 13 miles to shore. Time to go get ready for my swim.

As you can imagine, that was not the easiest thing to swallow. I’d trained with David, Mike, and Chris and grown fond of them. I knew what they had all been through to be here. I knew how seriously Mike had taken this, and how much work he had put in to prepare himself. I was devastated for him to say the least. How was I going to mentally get to a place where I could be excited to swim?

I sullenly got ready and gathered the crew. The cars were packed and ready to go, but I was not ready. We made a Subway stop and I stayed in the car. I knew I needed to change perspectives if this was going to work. I decided that I had the drive to feel for Mike, but by the time I got out of that car I needed to be excited for me. I struggled to reframe my goal; looking back it seems silly but this was not something I had mentally prepared for. As we neared the port, I finally came to grips with the fact that I was going to be a mainland to Catalina swimmer, and that getting through these rough conditions was excellent preparation for the English Channel. Forrest’s voice rang in my ears, “This is training for Dover.” By the time we reached our destination, I was again ready.

The LA Sheriff’s Department, who had graciously donated their resources and time to help us shuttle crews from the port to the Bottom Scratcher, motored us over to the escort boat where Mike’s support swimmers were hammering away. The sea had settled, but the energy on the escort boat was understandably low. I quietly congratulated David and made my way over to Mike. Mike has never ceased to amaze me with his mental strength. He already knew there was nothing he could have done to change the situation. He simply got a raw deal with the conditions. Any other day, no problem, he was trained, and he knew it. Our plan just did not work the way we wanted; we were unable to control Mother Nature and give Mike that perfect swim, or even a swimmable swim. Had any of the four of us been in that position, I am sure the outcome would have remained unchanged.

Amid the silence, I began to prepare myself. Chris had gotten in to pull us into the transition and to attempt to kick a bit of seasickness he had also been feeling. The kayakers transitioned and Uncle Dan and I hoped in along with Mike, who was feeling just barely well enough to finish it. We all understood it was something he needed to do. We swam through seaweed into the cove just south of where we had planned. My annoyance with this turned to dissent when I saw sea urchins covering the rocks. No way was I going to start my swim bleeding. Mike, who had simply had enough, finished there. I hoped onto my mom’s kayak and she took me though the vast kelp beds to the planned cove. I had a feeling Captain Greg was having a fit at the sight of this, but I was beyond caring; this was my swim and I was going to start it the way I wanted to. I took my time negotiating the rocks and surf, careful not to get banged up as I exited the water. Media and supporters were there cheering me on. I raised one arm to signal my start, and got right back in.

Cold from the kayak, I began at a pretty quick clip. My uncle and I settled into just slower than our normal training pace. The excitement of it all was hard to contain, and for two hours we went on at this pace, faster than I had planned. Something Mike had told me stuck with me: I was going to have the current with me. I knew I should not have accepted this as fact, but I wanted to hear that so bad that I did. My mind was spinning with unrealistic thoughts that if I continued at this pace, and we did in fact have the current, then a record was within reach. I don’t normally ask how far I’ve gone, but I knew that I needed to know. If the record was unrealistic, I needed to adjust my pace so I didn’t blow up. If it was attainable, I wanted to know so I could stay motivated to hold the pace. 6 miles would have put me under record pace for 2 hours. My crew had been told to not tell me unless I asked. I asked, and my mom reluctantly replied, 3.14.

“What?!” I exclaimed. “Are you sure?” Yes, she was sure. Okay, collect yourself, you planned for 12 hours at least, now do it. It was fairly easy to switch back to my original mindset of a long swim against the current. I told myself that the positive was now that I know, I can adjust my pace to something I can realistically hold for 13 hours so I don’t blow up at the end. And now that I know I won’t be devastated after 7 hours when I don’t see Catalina.

I backed off the pace ever so slightly and continued on. Katelyn swam for 30 minutes, then Marlena for an hour. She conquered her fear of night swimming unintentionally; her second 30 took her into the dark. Before the dark we were able to see tons of large jellyfish well below us. Nothing large stung us, but I did run into several no-see-ums along the way.

Along with the dark came the chop, a most unusual combination. The water had been glassy flat during the day, and aside from the negative current a real pleasantry. The seas became a combination of wavy and choppy, but nothing compared to the end of David’s swim and what Mike faced, and nothing I hadn’t swum in before. The challenge lied in adjusting to the lack of visibility. The glow sticks we had did not sufficiently light up the kayaks or swimmers, so the escort boat kept the bright lights on. This irritated my mom and Lenny in the kayaks (who, by the way, studs that they are, each kayaked the entire 21-mile swim), so as soon as I got a bright glow stick on, those lights went off. Now I had a hard time seeing, but figured I could adjust. It took 2 full hours, but eventually I found my rhythm and things seemed to go more smoothly. Marc had joined me for a full 3 hours, which was great because that was when I was really down. The chaos of night and the realization of the enormity of water I still had between the island and myself was overwhelming. He encouraged me and kept my pace fresh, and by the time he got out I was over half way – a huge boost. The encouraging from my crew on the boat - my dad, Scott, Marlena, Katelyn, and Marc when they were not in the water - also helped lift my mood, and soon enough I was charging along again.

My dad then hoped in, but just for a moment due to the confusion that comes with the darkness and a less-than-ideal goggle choice. I was only alone for an hour before Uncle Dan was back. We began to see amazing phosphorescence – fluorescent matter in the ocean that reveals itself as your hand pulls underneath you. I also saw the strangest creatures that surely came up from the deepest crevices in the ocean, including but not limited to a fish with fluorescent eyes extended from his body. I felt like I was watching the Discovery Channel.

Marc came in for his second shift after Uncle Dan was done with his. Now I was really starting to hurt. I began to ask how much further, and was I going to make it north of the Isthmus? I had 4 miles, and yes, I was aimed at Doctor’s Cove, the perfect set-up for Chris. I was relieved by the latter. The final 4 miles took 2 painful hours; my shoulder was not happy with me. At my 10 hour feed I exclaimed that this was the longest I had ever been in the ocean. Despite the physical pain, mentally I was still having as good of a time as can be expected. Marlena got back in for the final push. The last hour was simply a drag, and I stopped way too often to ask where we were. The problem with finishing in the dark, especially on Catalina, is that it is DARK. Doctor’s Cove is inaccessible by land and basically uninhabited. There are no lights. We literally did not see land until we were 50 yards from it.

I charged in those final 50 yards like I had just begun. I could see the bottom, the seaweed, and the land. Those small pebbles I remembered from last summer covered the beach. The water grew shallower and I ran up the shore and lifted my arms above my head – I made it! I gave Chris a transition hug and told him how amazing it was and that he was going to enjoy an incredible swim with great conditions. I hugged Marc and Marlena, grabbed four pebbles, and swam back to the boat.

Nick and Adam from NBC Universal Sports, who stayed on the boat for the entirety of Swim22, interviewed me about my experience immediately. I was freezing so after that took a shower, but only as long as it took me to figure out that it was just not going to get warm enough. I bundled up and drank several hot chocolates. Chris was in the water and the boat was full of excitement as we shared stories from the last 11 hours and 5 minutes. It was 2:30 am, so that only lasted so long before everyone who had been up for my swim crashed hard.

I tried to sleep but kept waking up from the shoulder pain. Every position hurt. Finally the sun was up so I came out to check on Chris. I figured he would be close to the finish by now and I wanted to make sure I had enough time to get ready to swim in with him, as we had planned. I was sorely mistaken and climbed on deck to see Chris struggling in a stormy, rainy sea, not even halfway yet. He was in bad shape and complaining of shoulder pain. He had no support in the water. Understanding the mental boost of simply knowing someone is there with you, experiencing what you are experiencing, my support swimmers stepped up one at a time and swam with Chris. Marlena did an hour, Katelyn a half hour, and later Marc for an hour. I swam for an hour as well. At his feeds he complained indignantly that his shoulders really hurt and the pain was unbearable. He would let his right arm slip through the water to alleviate the pressure and slowed his stroke rate significantly. He stopped frequently when not told to and at times would just roll on his back. Several times he tried to swim up to the boat to end it all, but was cut off by his astute kayakers. It was a painful sight to watch. I got out when he had 4 miles to go, and told him simply that yes, it hurts now and it’s unbearable, but you are going to finish this and it will all be over and you will be a Catalina Channel swimmer. Chris found something inside himself and courageously surged on, picking up his pace slightly, looking stronger and stronger. He refused to quit, and at last made it into Cabrillo beach. I followed behind him with a few others and rendezvoused with Mike and David. We all hugged, shared stories, and took pictures together.

We drove back to the port where we met the rest of our crews and gathered our belongings. Just before parting I gathered the three guys and told them I had something for each of them. I told them how amazing this experience has been and thanked them for asking me to be a part of it, then pulled four Catalina pebbles out from my pocket. We each took one and said our goodbyes…for now.