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Triathlete Blog

Memories from the Madness of a 24 Mile Ocean Swim

Multisport Mastery is pleased to share a race report from an athlete’s 2017 Tampa Bay Marathon Swim.  We’re so proud of Dan for being brave enough to set the goal & persistent enough to put the work behind it.  Congratulations on your accomplishment, Dan!

About Me

I swim, therefore I am (Descartes was almost right). I am a 53-year-old attorney from Chicago. I have been in a relationship with water almost as long as I can remember. My oldest friend, she has been with me through thick and thin. Like all long-term relationships, we have shared a great deal of love, but anger, even hatred, regret, and separation anxiety have also played their parts.  My parents enrolled me in my hometown’s private swim team at an early age. We swam year-round in long and short course pools, ran two practices per day, and competed all over the Midwest. We also had superb coaching. My pre-teen coach left to become the women’s head coach at the University of Nebraska. His successor left when I was in high school to become the men’s head coach at New Mexico State University. It was not until college before I realized how important water had become to me. Thank you, Pat Barry, head coach at Northwestern University, who coaxed me onto his swim team after enticing me through water polo. At a low point in my swimming life, I had not even told the university I knew how to swim. I made it about six months – the longest I have ever been away from the water – when he found me doing intervals by myself during open swim.

After college, I swam on my own through law school and competed in USMS for many years. I managed to stay in touch with decent times in my 20s and even thirties. However, I vividly remember picking up an award during the first day of the 2005 USMS Illinois state meet. Regardless of the placing in my age group, there was no denying I had become old and slow, sadly clinging to some part of my life that was clearly over. I left immediately, and I have not competed for time since. There followed a period where I attempted to swim for “fitness.” That proved unsuccessful and pointless. My attention then turned to long distance open water swimming.

About the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim

Now in its twentieth year, the event has grown in stature to become, in most people’s opinion, the fourth “World Major” of open water swimming. Like Manhattan, Tampa is an invitational. You cannot simply go online and register. It is also a qualifier, and an application will not be accepted without independently verifiable proof of a qualifying swim. Swum on Earth Day each year, it is the only one of the four that is a true race. The start is a walk-in from the beach at the Magnuson Cove Marina Resort at the mouth of Tampa Bay. The finish is at the Ben T. Davis Beach, which is at the north end of the bay. 24 miles of wind, waves, tides, and currents lie between. Tampa shares many features with the Channel, Catalina, and Manhattan in that the distances are comparable and it is a salt water swim (with all the special challenges that brings). All four are governed by the Channel Swimming Association rules: No wet suits and a bunch of other technical things – if you accidentally touch your support boat during a feeding it’s a DQ). But there are two unique things about Tampa. First, the water is considerably warmer than the others (77F this year compared to 59F when I swam in the Channel in 2012). Second, however, the swim date is fixed, and race conditions can be just about anything. When I first attempted this swim in 2014 the conditions were so poor that only six of eighteen solo swimmers managed to finish the race, and one of the support boats sank. This year, conditions were variable but generally okay.

About Coach Liz Waterstraat

I am very grateful to Coach Liz for taking an interest in me, my swimming, and my preparations for this event. It would have been much harder to reach this goal without her, and I question whether I would have succeeded at all. What is all the more amazing is that I never actually hired her to be my coach, and I wrote my own workouts. Nevertheless, she took an interest in my plans, and she became my coach in every sense of that word. Coaching is about much more than just writing workouts, and the experienced athlete is not always looking for that. Liz provided everything that a world class coach could. Apart from listening to my training rants, encouraging me through periods of doubt, and offering her insight on things like nutrition, Liz worked with me like a collaborator. She always gave me a sense that she had confidence in what I was trying to do and how I was trying to do it. Having someone of Liz’s caliber, both as an athlete and a coach, supporting me buoyed my spirits and confidence. Liz is a great swimmer in her own right, and we swam together enough for me to know it. That played a big part in her ability to inspire me. I can honestly say she became my swimming muse during those difficult times when things were not going well, and I was struggling to find answers. When the deadline for the race entry finally came, I was questioning whether I could be ready in time. Others told me that “Sometimes you have to make the smart decision.” Liz told me unequivocally to “Stay the path.” I sent in the entry fee that day.

Training and Preparation

To understand my preparation for this event, you need to go back to the previous summer. I decided to give Ironman a try and joined a team, which is how I met Coach Liz. During a course ride on June 18th, I suffered a fall. The injuries and their consequences were significant: A fractured scapula, four broken ribs, two fractured vertebrae (thoracic and lumbar), a punctured lung, and a lacerated kidney. Fortunately, none of the fractures required surgery, and they were not extremely painful (unless a sneezed). The biggest problem was that I developed bilateral “massive” pulmonary embolisms – blood clots in the lungs – within the first 24 hours after the injury. Those were amazingly debilitating, and I spent three nights in an ICU on oxygen. I was hospitalized for a week. Upon discharge, the pulmonologist somewhat matter-of-factly told me that I should get my affairs in order because a clot could break loose without warning and kill me. The only treatment was blood thinners and time. I emailed Liz not long after discharge and sent her something I had written about my life as a swimmer. I asked her to send it to someone should I die. Her response was very emphatic: That was not going to happen. It was the one of the most positive things I had heard in weeks.

For months, I could not walk more than two or three blocks without being completely winded and having to sit down and catch my breath. In September, the water started calling me and, against medical advice, I tentatively got back in. She could tell I was injured, but when I offered my hand, she took it, and together we started to work through the stiffness from the orthopedic injuries. I struggled to swim more than a few hundred yards at a time. Improvements came in distinct stages: one day I could not walk three blocks, the next I could walk for miles. I soon found some yardage, but I was unable to do flip turns for more than a few hundred yards. During this time, Liz was also getting back in the water after the birth of her third   child. She invited me to swim with her in Naperville, which was incredibly flattering to me. Finally, in early February, I had a 4,000 yard swim without being able to do more than 300 yards with flip turns, and the very next day I had a 5,000 yard swim doing all flip turns. I have no explanation for that, but it was like coming home after years in a foreign country.

The decision to do Tampa was not initially mine. I have known Ron Collins, the Race Director, since 2012 when he witnessed and supported my English Channel qualifying swim from a kayak off of Clearwater Beach. He has sent me a race invitation every year since. It arrived in December. I told my fiancée Stephanie, who is an open marathoner and Ironman All World Athlete. She took it upon herself to inform the race director that I would enter, purchase air fare, and make reservations at the Magnuson Cove Resort. She presented those to me as a Christmas present. The race was April 22nd, leaving just under four months get ready.

Considering that a swim like Tampa takes as long as an Ironman, it should not be surprising that a typical training program is eight months. 24 miles is about 42,250 yards. A traditional training program involves building up to a base of 32,000 – 35,000 yards per week and maintaining that for at least three months – long enough to work through the deep fatigue that such training stress can induce – before building up to a peak of around the actual event distance just prior to tapering into the swim. During a 24-mile swim, a swimmer will typically take more than 30,000 strokes, and you need to build up the muscles, joints, and ligaments to withstand that kind of stress. The rigors of the open water make that even more important because wave action necessitates all kinds of unanticipated lateral arm movements that stress your body in ways not encountered in a pool

With only four months to get ready, I would like to say that I sat down, worked out a training program, and religiously executed that program to a successful conclusion, but that would be untrue. Yes, I had a plan, and yes, I was very dedicated to the training, but the actual plan was only generally defined and somewhat fluid in its execution. My biggest concern was injury, since even the slightest shoulder or elbow injury would have dashed any chance of success. In that regard, my background and experience were invaluable. I relied on that to know how hard and how far I could push and still recover sufficiently to do it all over again the next day. Only experience can define the line between pushing through the tired soreness that can be present at the beginning of a swim (to break through and get in a solid workout), and going too far. Writing my own workouts gave me the freedom to listen to what my body and the water were trying to tell me, and adapt accordingly. I had specific goals for every single workout, both for distance and intensity. Most of the time, I was able to meet them. However, there were a couple of days when I was out of the water after only 1,000 yards. There were also days when the water showed me great kindness and I was able to exceed my goals. I took back-off half weeks (only three) when I needed the rest and recovery. What a coach that you respect can offer is confidence that you are on the right path and not just wandering aimlessly or stuck in a rut – that the goal is achievable. Coach Liz was superb in that regard.

My initial goal was simply to develop a base. Long distance swimming requires both a single swim base and a long-term base. The single swim base is like doing push-ups. If you struggle to do 20 push-ups, you will not make it to 30, but if you can do 50, then you can do 110. In open water, I feed every thirty minutes, which is a common strategy. In that time, I will be lucky to cover 2,000 yards. One might think that is the longest continuous swim necessary to prepare for such an event. In reality, the minimum continuous swim requirement is at least 6,000 yards. That’s get in the pool, warm up, and then swim 6,000 yards without stopping for anything. No food. No water. No bathroom breaks. While that’s not every practice (you still need some intensity), you need to get comfortable doing that. As you approach the race, that distance is going to double (although once you get to 7,000 yards, you will need to eat and drink something). The long-term base, as noted above, is typically in the mid-30,000 yards per week, and you need to get comfortable with that also. In the past, my preferred swim schedule has been 8,000 yard swims on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and a 10,000 yard swim on Saturday. Lots of yardage and lots of recovery time. For 2017, I set my initial sights much lower: 4,000 yard continuous swims and 20,000 for a weekly total. It took some time to get there. The race entry deadline (and its $2,100 entry fee, which includes your support boat) came up on February 15th. By that time, I was finally doing all flip turns, and my continuous swims were between 5,000 – 6,000 yards. They were not terribly comfortable. The weekly totals were still in the low 20,000s, limited by my ability to recover. I begged Ron for an extension, and he gave me to March 9th. I was making clear progress, but still lacked confidence I could be ready in time. By March 9th, things were still improving, with individual swims of 6,000 yards getting comfortable, but weekly yardage totals still in the mid-20,000s and still recovery limited. I had pulled together a qualifying swim, but just barely.

Standing at the crossroads and really not knowing which way to go, I reached out to Coach Liz. I could see that if things continued to improve, a successful swim was possible, but I did not fancy my odds, and anything – even just a cold – would derail my plans. It was then that Liz so unequivocally advised me to “Stay the path.” There was no doubt in her opinion. No hedging. She clearly had more confidence in me than I did at that point. Only an elite athlete and coach, who had knowledge of the above and my progress to date, could have convinced me to suck it up and make that commitment. I am so glad that she did.

The final six weeks of training were a brutal ramp up in yardage. My longest individual swims jumped up to 9,000, 10,000, and peaked with a swim of 12,000 yards. Weekly yardages increased linearly up to over 40,000 per week immediately before taper. My intake of Ibuprofen (“Vitamin I”) increased dramatically. I prefer a ten-day taper maintaining some intensity through the first week but cutting yardage back sharply (The last swim before leaving for Florida was only 2,000 yards). Throughout the build-up, I just had to be smart, listen to my body, listen to the water, but not be afraid of the increased physical stress. I had to trust that the base I had, although not ideal, was sufficient to carry me through. The potential for deep muscle fatigue was a concern, and I hoped I could avoid it.

In addition to swim training, consideration must be given to the unique requirements for spending hours in salt water. People are supposed to be more buoyant in the ocean. Perhaps because of the wave action, however, I have never noticed much of a difference. If you only spend an hour or two in it, you might conclude that ocean swimming is similar to fresh water swimming except for the vile, nauseating taste of the salt. If you spend more time in it, the differences become bigger. There are seemingly little things, like chafing. You will chafe a lot more in the ocean, and in places where you would not in fresh water. Products like Vaseline will disappear in an hour or two. Most people use some kind of grease or a mixture of Vaseline and hydrolyzed Lanolin. The biggest difference involves nutrition. Normally, you need to ingest enough electrolytes to replace those lost through perspiration. In the ocean, you get a lot of electrolytes from the sea. Products intended for runners, bikers and fresh water swimmers are loaded with salt, and they will eventually nauseate you and drain your energy if consumed during an ocean swim. It is impossible to keep the salt completely out of your mouth, and the odd “rogue wave” will get ingested. If you swallow a wave, you need to puke it out immediately. Even if you just fed, get it out and re-feed. In time, the salt will sting the roof of your mouth and make your tongue feel like it is fat and blistered. A friend’s tri coach told me about a company called Infinit Nutrition. Based on past experience, I devised a custom low sodium mix for ocean swimming with them. Again, Coach Liz was very helpful in this regard. I had data about caloric burn (about 1,100 Calories per hour – 15,000 for the whole swim) and fluid loss. Her advice on replacement strategy proved spot on and was the basis for the formula I concocted. It worked well all day supplemented with some solids, orange slices, and watermelon cubes.

The Swim

I got my boat assignment a week before the race, and spoke with Captain Phillip on the phone. I learned he had a great deal of experience with the tides and conditions in the bay. He had also supported swimmers in prior years. The situational awareness he provided proved critically important. Stephanie (my “crew”) and I flew out on Thursday night (The race was on Saturday). Watching the weather all week, it looked okay. However, Friday morning dawned overcast, windy and choppy. We went shopping at the local Publix grocery store for supplies and noted that, unlike in 2014, the local tornado sirens did not go off. That had to be a good sign. I briefly debated getting in the water, but decided against it and just tried to stay out of the blazing Florida sun that eventually came out in the early afternoon.

The safety meeting was Friday night at the resort. It was good to meet the other swimmers, both soloists and relays. There were a lot of serious, famous people in the room: Marcia Cleveland, who wrote “Dover Solo,” the bible for English Channel swimmers; a woman who had swum the Channel over a dozen times and was training to swim from Dover to Dunkirk (40+ miles); and an Australian man who had, in stages, swum the Amazon, Danube, Yangtze, and Mississippi rivers from head to delta. None of them were making a solo attempt at Tampa this year, and most were doing relay legs. The river swimmer was kayaking for a very serious soloist from Houston who had won the SCAR lake swim series (36 total miles). I obviously did not belong in the same room with any of them, but I tried not to show it.

After the meeting, I discussed tides and currents with Phillip (about more later) before having my traditional carb loading dinner at IHOP. Yes, I know, and Stephanie complained, but it’s what I ate before my first ever ocean swim in 2012. I went to bed early and actually got a decent night’s sleep. We were up at 6:00 to load the boat. The boats then leave the marina and take up station about a quarter mile off shore for safety. If you have kayak support, the kayaks can come in close to shore, but I prefer to feed off of the support boat proper and not have a kayaker. The wind was already up to 7 mph, the water was starting to get choppy. Each support boat flies a numbered flag designating its swimmer. While scanning the horizon trying to figure out which boat was mine, I encountered an old college friend who lives in Tampa. He is now a Masters coach, and he was helping a relay with transportation. We were both surprised to see each other, but there was virtually no time to converse.

Stepping into the water, I experienced an eerie moment of silence where it seemed I was all alone with the water. I knew exactly what was coming, and had resigned myself to it. I told the water I needed her help. Sometimes I can hear her clear as day. If she answered then, her reply was overwhelmed by a megaphone announcing the race would begin in ten seconds. Goggles on, try to anticipate both the temperature and initial shock of the salt. Remember to ride the waves and not fight them. Suddenly I’m swimming.

The first five or so miles are due east, and the wind was also out of the east. It gradually rose in intensity to around. 10 – 12 mph. The sky was a little overcast, and the water was rough. I poached the river swimmer’s kayak for navigation until my support boat found me, swimming on the opposite side from his swimmer. Although about a mile off shore at that point, there are sandbars, and at times my fingertips were touching the sea grass growing up from them. That only makes the chop worse. I made the first and probably the most important tactical decision of the day about a mile and a half into the swim. If you look at a map of Tampa Bay, it looks something like the letter “Y”. The finish is near the top of the western branch. There is a natural constriction of the bay where it branches, which is exacerbated by the first of two bridges that must be passed: The Gandy Boulevard Bridge (“The Gandy” to the locals). Much of that “bridge” is actually a causeway, leaving a relatively narrow span for the water to pass between the two lobes of water above and below it. The incoming morning tide slowly fills the upper lobe. When the tide shifts, the upper lobe cannot drain easily. Like sand through an hourglass, the outgoing tide is very fast through the bridge until the levels eventually equalize. Captain Phillip told me I really needed to be at The Gandy by 1:00 to avoid that phenomenon when the tide shifted at 2:00. Unfortunately, I am old and slow, and that bridge is something like seventeen miles into the swim. I had my doubts about being able to get to in in time even under ideal conditions. The early chop was beating me up, and I decided to back off the pace. I paid for it later, but I don’t think I would have finished had I kept pushing so early. The two soloists that beat me both made it to the Gandy by 1:00. Pretty impressive.

As the course turned to the north, things started to improve. The sun came out. The winds died down. The water smoothed out considerably. I was swimming past St. Petersburg in good spirits when some kind of a fish attacked me. I never saw it, and I was later told it was a remora trying to attach itself to my legs. It attempted that for about twenty minutes, and I managed to kick it away each time. I also saw several rays and heard dolphins clicking. I only saw one dolphin swimming near the bottom about thirty feet below me on a perpendicular course. It was startlingly fast, and at first I thought it was going to hit me. I didn’t even figure out what it was until it had already passed. It was probably doing 25 knots!

Along the way, I just tried to focus and execute my plan to swim within myself and maintain efficiency. The water will speak to you if you listen hard enough, and tell you what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong. You need to adapt to what she and your body are telling you. People tell me it must take mental toughness to do such a swim. I like to think the mental part is just attitude. You have to stay positive. You can’t let physical pain or apparent lack of progress get you down. Your training, preparation, and prevailing conditions are either sufficient or they are not. Mental toughness might get you that last mile or two, but it won’t get you 24 miles. Getting down or depressed or developing a negative attitude will end your swim very quickly. I gave Stephanie a swim coach’s stop watch with a stroke counting feature: Measure three strokes and get a stroke per minute rate. It’s easy to subconsciously increase stroke rate by cheating on efficiency. Dropping an elbow during the pull or shortening your stroke will get you more breaths per minute, but it will also burn you out. I am unable to “zone out” in the water, and feel that every stroke is precious. If I need something more to keep my mind occupied, I count strokes. 425 left arm strokes per 30-minute feeding cycle, I learned, but the focus is always on the swimming. As the race wore on, I started paying for my lack of base building. Bilateral shoulder and right elbow pains set in. Nevertheless, it was manageable, and I never felt I was in danger of doing structural damage. My nutrition was also working. Some people drink on a schedule with a set volume of fluid per time. Having tried that, I prefer to drink to thirst. Stephanie monitored my intake and adjusted the strength of my mix accordingly to ensure I was getting the nutrition I needed. I was able to stay reasonably strong all day thanks in large part to her efforts.

My feedings are done off the side of the boat. I use two traditional water bottles like you would have on a bike. One has regular water and the other my mix. I use the first to rinse my mouth out and spit. Repeatedly. I drink the second. Being next to the boat, instead of a kayak, is great because everything is there. It’s like a refrigerator for you, and you can ask for whatever you think sounds good at that moment. Solids are passed by either a bucket on a pole or by fishing net. I prefer the latter. You cannot grab or hold onto the net, but you can see what is in it. I use one hand to support the food from below and push it up. I grab it with the other. I often rinse my hand and the food with plain water before eating it. Your ability to tolerate solids decreases as the swim goes on and the salt irritates your mouth and throat. Early on you can eat bites of things like nutrition bars or even mini Snickers bars to supplement the mix. Later on I use peanut butter and jelly pockets (They come frozen in the grocery store) that can just slide down your throat.

As I feared, I did not reach the Gandy by 1:00. In fact, I was a mile south of it at 2:00 – Probably the worst place to be. The next four hours were like swimming in an Endless Pool. I made 0.4 knots against the current and managed only two miles during that time. When the current was at its strongest, I drifted backwards 0.2 miles during a single feeding. Captain Phillip was very helpful and advised me that once the water levels above and below the bridge evened out, things would improve significantly. It was just time to get to work. The water was still pretty flat. The finish was only six or seven miles away. I swam at what felt like a 1:30/100 yard pace for those four hours (I’m sure it was slower). I swam under The Gandy at the peak of the outgoing tide, which was actually kind of cool. Fortunately, Phillip was right (I knew he was) and the tide finally abated. All I had to do was swim in the last five miles from there. During that time, a storm brewed up. We saw lightning and heard thunder, but it stayed to the west of us and the winds were only moderate for less than an hour. The sun set shortly before I finished, and it was beautiful to see from eye level in the water. Phillip’s boat had lights, and it was easy to follow in the dark.

Finally, fourteen hours and twenty six minutes into the swim, my fingers hit bottom. It was sand. I looked up and saw the buoys that mark the finish line. They were right in front of me. It was kind of anticlimactic in a strange way. We had previously agreed that I would swim to the left hand side of the course so Stephanie could enter the water and we could walk out together, hand in hand. That was a high point for both of us. Obviously, I could not have done the swim without her help on race day and her support while training. We walked out of the water, met the Race Director, posed for a picture, and I sat down.

I was a little woozy for a while on the beach and again getting out of the car back at the resort, but I felt much better the next day. Despite slamming lots of Vitamin I, I could not raise either arm above my shoulders. The right elbow was also stiff and painful. However, in the days following, both shoulders recovered fully. The elbow took longer, with mild residual pain while swimming hard after two weeks. However, I will be fine.

Lessons Learned

Although I had more in race and residual pain than usual, I was surprised (favorably) by my response to the large increase in training stress during the six weeks leading up to the swim. I did not develop deep muscle fatigue, and I tapered really well. Discussing that with Coach Liz afterwards, she advised me some professional Ironman athletes do something similar. I also remembered that during Christmas break training in college, where outrageous swim volumes and weight training were put into a two week period, people often set fast times in meets shortly thereafter. I still think the traditional training program is my preference, but I may modify those last six weeks to add more stress (should I be crazy enough to do something like this again).