Monday, September 8, 2008

As we motor out past the breakwater and feel the first dark swells of the open ocean I make my way below and get settled into the recommended bunk. It is the one transverse to the long axis of the ship, that way the swells rock you like a baby in a cradle rather than head to toe. My oldest daughter Kelly comes below as well and soon the few of us that could tolerate the motion below decks are "horizontal". Trying to sleep before a big athletic endeavor entails coping with a strange cascade of thoughts and images that slip, slide and wiggle through your head as you try to remain calm and think good thoughts. I try to think of bright, dry, desert-like settings... I will get to think about dark, wet, ocean-like soon enough. It is 9PM and we are aboard the Outrider, a comfortable 50' sportfisher, captained by John Pittman. This is the same boat that our Catalina Channel relay team consisting of Emily Evans, Marianne Brems, Michele Santilhano, Virginia Justice, Lorraine Sneed and I had used last year. With us as observer from the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation is accomplished ocean swimmer Forrest Nelson. Forrest was with us last year as well, and it was the relay that planted the seed for this effort. The relay was a fun event, with great swimming on a calm sea with no wind. The relay was a test run for Michele, who would have a successful crossing a few weeks later. Two of us, Emily and me, began thinking about solo attempts. I needed a little prodding from Michele, but six months ago I finally took the big step of reserving a date with the Outrider. I was well behind Emily, she had already booked the boat for an early August date. Emily would go on to successfully cross in ~9:35, wow.

Over the PA: "10-minutes to island". I pop out of the bunk and am above decks so fast you would
have thought John had just announced we hit an iceberg. I find my wife Katy and sister Elaine looking pale at the rail. Bummer. They have been sick for a long time. Elaine is a trooper and starts to help me get ready, which includes some comedy while attaching the glowsticks that will allow the crew to keep track of me in the dark. I'm worried about Katy, she does not look well. Soon I am ready to go, suit/earplugs/cap/goggles/glowsticks in nervous procession. From the swimmers point of view, this is not a complicated sport. Finally, some A&D lotion for the chafe spots and to make myself a fragrant delicacy for whatever creature of the deep might be attracted to a pale thrashing, fleshy creature that smelled faintly of cod-liver oil.

My friend and co-conspirator in other absurd adventures over the years, Karl Ehlert, is in the water in the Kayak. Well trimmed with port and starboard glowsticks, he paddles off towards the cove. Then it is time. To the swim step, and in. Lots of open water swimming has taken the drama out of getting in the water quickly and without a lot of messing about. The water is clear and refreshing, the Outriders big light is illuminating the shallow rocky bottom as I swim quickly into the cove and out of the water. There is just time for a quick photo by Karl, I wave my arms, Outrider answers with a quick blast from her horn and I dive back in and start swimming. This is it.

Endurance athletes have ways to cope with the rough spots and bad thoughts that go along with a long distance event. At times, there comes creeping a sense of despair and doubt that is hard to dispel. Other times, a negative thought is more like a pestering un-swattable fly. You know it won't hurt you, but man is it ever annoying. The conventional wisdom is that the most challenging part of the swim will be in the hours just before dawn. The air is coldest, I will have been swimming for 5 hours, I will be tired. I'm pretty surprised then, to be having some pretty damn negative thoughts already, and I'm only in the first hour of the swim. The flat silky water that had inspired me on the relay team effort last year was replaced by the reality of a mixed up bumpy swell that has me catching crabs and taking in small gulps of water. I adjust my stroke, slowing down and gliding, rolling more, accepting missed breaths as inevitable given the conditions. Don't get me wrong, this is not victory at sea. The waves are not even close to capping and the wind is not howling, just a steady breeze. Nevertheless, it is not the primo conditions I had hoped for... I am going to have to adjust. And keep counting. By one hundred. 100 alternate breathing, 100 high elbows, 100 follow through, 100 aggressive, repeat. Get through this three times and you will get your 20 minute feed. Get through two feeds and the third feed will be another hour down. Get through one more hour, one less hour to go. Why am I getting cold? We move from the starboard side of the boat to the port side to avoid the diesel fumes. Karl keeps me company for the first three hours and I am sad to see him paddle back to the Outrider. Karl is a good open water swimmer and knows the conditions suck. But then... here comes Kelly! Something about having my own daughter kayaking next to me energizes me and I think that I am swimming harder now. Earlier this summer, Kelly paddled for me while I did a 7 hour training swim along the Laguna Beach coastline in bumpy conditions and longshore currents. Experience from that swim is going to be useful to us here tonight. Kelly keeps perfectly a-beam of me and with her glowstick halo and bracelets is easy to sight on. She will tell me later that she tried not to look out towards the inky bumpy open ocean, sort of freaky. Kelly pulls a two hour shift through some really nasty chop from 3AM to 5AM. At this point I know that I can make it. I have gotten to 5 hours and can start counting down, 5,4,3,2,1. I'm not thinking about the fact that it might well take more than 10 hours, I'll deal with that later.
Now Tom Markiewicz is on the water. Tom, my friend and mentor during my 9 years at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, what have I gotten you into? Nothing to bad evidently... Tom is a sailor, comfortable on the water, and will pull the longest shift of the swim. There is a slight delay during the exchange and Forrest tells me to slow backstroke. When I roll back over I realize that I have cooled off. I decide I have got to hammer the next 20 minutes or risk loosing the delicate balance between conductive heat loss and metabolic heat generation. But there is another problem. My good shoulder, the one that has not had surgery, is starting to spike with pain. What had been an annoying tug is now causing my arm to feel progressively weaker. I ask for and get some children's liquid ibuprofen in my next feed. I have no idea if it will help, but maybe I can trick myself into thinking it will. Elaine has been up all night making 200 ml bottles of carbohydrate drink. She and the crew come up with some dose and add it to the mix. Elaine's daughter Elise is a mighty age group swimmer so she has plenty of experience watching swimmers. I see her and Forrest at the rail watching and chatting. She has the font of all Open Ocean Swimming Knowledge (Forrest) at her side and I know she is learning something new. Not a lot of excitement watching someone slap along at 60 strokes-per-minute, but Forrest sets the standard for attentiveness and care and shows the whole crew how to monitor an open ocean swimmer.

Five hours, come on now, we can start counting down instead of up. Lets make it to six, then there are only four to go. Small celebration inside my head. Now the sky is lightening up. Seven hours, only three to go. Another small celebration of my very own. Dawn is here and we are in the shipping channel. I can see the big container ships in the distance. The shipping channel is wide, it is going to take a while to get through it. I'm looking forward to the big ship that will inevitably pass fairly close by and give is a wake. I'm right, a couple of hours later the big ship does come and I slip easily through the wake. As I do I switch sides breathing and it takes me a few strokes to realize I'm off course... again. All night my kayakers have been keeping me from heading off North towards Pt. Magu. I don't know if it is the weak arm or just a lack of reference points but I have had a tendency to drift off to the left every time I switch sides breathing. Tom has been patiently herding me for four hours now. I have been watching Katy huddled at the bow of the ship propped up against the wheelhouse and I feel like she is suffering more than me.

The cliffs along the Palos Verdes Peninsula are clearly visible and seem like you could reach right out and touch them. I know from experience that they are till a good 3-4 miles away. Just keep counting, don't get cocky. Karl is back in now and will do the final stint in the Kayak. A friendly Cormorant keeps us company as well as some harbor seals. Unbeknownst to me, at some point a distant pod of whales spouted for the entertainment of the crew.

Katy is in the water! Now things are getting fun. She swims over in her brightly colored swimsuit and the whole world just got a lot better. I start swimming "harder". Katy is keeping up with me swimming head up and occasional breaststroke. OK, I guess 17 miles will fatigue you a bit. Don't go getting all competitive. Karl, on my left, is trying too keep us straight. Katy on my right is swimming as close to me as she can. I'm sort of pinched between Karl and Katy but what else is new. Katy leaves me after 40 minutes (don't go!), but look(!), Kelly is in her suit on the deck of the Outrider. Now Kelly is in (Yay!) and swimming is fun again. OK, so that damn cliff is right in front of me, but I know we have a while to go. Now comes the current and the cold. Screw that... I'm getting out of here. I start to swim hard enough so that later Kelly says she actually had to put her head down to keep up with me. She had been cruising head up waterpolo style up until then (showoff). The current is a bit stronger than anticipated and we are pulled off course slightly, and start crabbing a bit to make the landing at a swimmer friendly cobblestone beach. I stumble out a bit disoriented, fall down, stand up, Outrider blows the horn. I'm done.

Splash back into the water. Kelly, Karl an I make our way quickly back to Outrider and aboard. My crew gets me dressed quickly. I look pale and purple according to Elaine. As I start to warm up I don't feel as cold as I have after some training swims. Forrest and I are chatting about the conditions, and it is only then that I realize why I was so "cold" for the first 6 hours of the swim. The cool steady breeze had been chilling my back and arms all night... evaporative cooling. While I was swimming I could not think straight enough to realize that my toes were not cold and my arms were. I was uncomfortable, but my core temp was not as cold as my skin was telling me it was. Except for the fact that I can't lift my left arm more than 6 inches, I feel great. I don't know what precipitated the weirdness with the arm, but maybe I'll have to improve my technique. Marianne says, and she is absolutely correct, that I have a windmill recovery. Maybe that lead to some tweaking after 5 hours? My right arm, the supposedly bad one... is perfectly fine. Strange.

My dominant emotions are relief, disbelief and gratitude. Relief because, lets face it, this sort of endeavour is a big investment in time and energy from a lot of people. You really don't want to let them or yourself down. Disbelief because, growing up as an athlete in Southern California, even as a runner not a swimmer, I was well aware of Lynn Cox and her swims. Although my humble crossing pales in comparison to her exploits, for me it is like a tip of the hat to her and the dozens of "real swimmers" who have hammered across the channel so expertly. I swam the Catalina Channel! Finally and most importantly, gratitude to the folks who have selflessly helped me in what is essentially a selfish endeavour. The crew of the Outrider led by John Pittman are real professionals. Forrest Nelson and Peter Attia both set me straight on nutrition and training. My friend Karl Ehlert who never hesitates to sign on to one of these adventures and paddled on training swims including the Santa Barbara Six Mile. My friend Tom Markiewicz who is smart, steady and good to go. Thanks to all my Channel Relay teammates and Menlo Masters teammates in particular Marianne Brems who got me out swimming at Coytote Point on more than one occasion and joined me on the Santa Barbara 6 mile, and of course Tim Sheeper for his inspired coaching. Special thanks to my sister Elaine who worked all day, then stayed up all night on her birthday to help me on this crossing. My daughter Kelly(19) who paddled FOREVER during training, as well as daughter Allie (17) coping with the 1st week at Berkeley, daughter Shelby (14) coping with Hell Week in water polo, and Mostyn (9) coping with his crazy dad.

I dedicate this swim to my wife Katy who, as everyone who has met her knows full well, is the nicest and most supportive woman in the world!