Thursday, August 08, 2019

5 August 2019 11 miles!

On August 5, 2019, I swam my longest distance ever, 11.4 miles. For this, I owe huge thanks to my coach, John Kenny--whose combination of encouragement, humor, and no-nonsense toughness—not to mention his multi-tasking kayaking/feeding (both of us… kayakers need their food too!)/photography/relentless support/scolding/support (connected, really), I was able to swim this distance. 
While the Great South Bay Swim was a celebration of my growth as a swimmer, and an indicator of how far I’d come since I first did that swim (and took about a week or so to recover, in contrast to this year’s swim after which I was doing an interval swim workout within a couple days), my swim almost around Wildwood (I need a cool name for this swim; “almost around Wildwood” seems more like the name of a bar crawl) was definitely a stretch.
I was setting out in terra (or aqua) incognito—the goal: to swim at least 10 miles, with a stretch goal of 15 (full circumnavigation). Unlike the Great South Bay Swim, this was not a race. There would be no buoys every half mile to mark the course. It was John in a kayak, Diane swimming… and swimming and swimming, and discovering that I still needed work on swimming a straight path. The course John set took in ocean and bay, smooth water and chop… and dolphins.
Was I afraid? Yes! Would I back out? No! The saying is that if your dreams don’t scare you, they’re too small. The Great South Bay was once an “are you kidding me?” goal. I still can get nervous in the days leading up to it, but I know the drill now. Get in the water, make sure you pass the “gates,” feed regularly. And now that there were buoys every half mile, the job of staying on course was much easier. I was ready to be “promoted” to the next level.
We set out around 6 a.m., sun rising, calm ripples across the water. The first steps through shallows into water deep enough for swimming—where would they take me? Yes, around or almost around an island… but where emotionally? Spiritually? I could only focus on the present, on stroke by stroke. A brief moment of fear froze me as waves crashed over me in the first inlet section (there would be another later as we circled a jetty and into the bay).
Keep going! John shouted. So I did. And eventually, we found calm water. During the ocean stretch, it was a matter of, as the advice in Finding Nemo states, “just keep swimming,” with stops for fuel. John fed me water, Gatorade, gels, protein drink—whatever he offered, I took, although not always enough for his satisfaction, as he’d hand back the bottle of the chosen drink. (Note to self: maybe next time, bring Guiness. Well, okay, scratch that. Falling asleep while swimming not conducive to gaining distance.)
The ocean was calmer than I had any right to expect—my prayers and those of others were heard. Biggest fear was of fighting chop for 7 miles. But no, we made steady progress, and at five and a half miles, John announced that I’d beaten my best Great South Bay Swim time, 2:40! Mother Nature definitely in my corner—also Mother Mary. Needing to get into a meditative place, I went through the joyful mysteries of the Rosary. Why not joy! Swimming is a joy. Swimming that long is hard work in many respects, yet at least some of those respects are mental. Physically, I was feeling good at that point.
And I felt even better when John stopped me to point out some dolphins that had been swimming near us. He spotted many more, including a mother and baby. I saw just a few, since I was so focused on swimming. But sometimes it’s wonderful to throw focus aside, and notice surroundings. Later I saw a couple more dolphins.
I've heard dolphins protect people. So knowing there were dolphins near me made me feel safe. I’ve read that when a beloved pet dies, their spirits manifest sometimes as animals. I thought of my 18 year old cat, Woolf, my beautiful orange tabby who died in July; had she made her presence known by these dolphins—I saw them as my angelic visitors. Interesting article about dolphins' interactions w humans:
Eventually, it was time to circle the jetty and head back toward the bay. The easy progress I’d made was about to be interrupted, as I was hit with waves on all sides and began to panic. Here although my hope was to swim the whole distance without help, I accepted John’s offer to hold onto the rescue tube and just kick. That got us through the 100 yards or so of the most severe chop, and then (still a bit scared, but knowing this was not supposed to be a ride around the island), I was able to let go and swim again. I had already accepted that this wouldn’t be a pure English Channel Rules swim (I had already held onto the kayak to take fluids, a habit John later discouraged, but I still wanted it to be as much under my own steam as possible.)
The bay part was both easier and harder than most of the ocean section. I’d begun to tire, and there were so many more landmarks and boats—one might have thought the landmarks would make things easier, but I had to be close enough to shore to avoid the boats, but not so close as to hit the very shallow bottom near the marshes… and had some worry I’d bump into the bridge stanchion as we started under (fortunately, I didn’t). So it was more of a puzzle to solve. Well, I shouldn’t have minded that. John had given me a crossword puzzle to solve the day before! Wasn’t I one who liked puzzles!?
And on the subject of puzzles, often in a marathon swim, a swimmer is asked questions to ensure she is still with it mentally. John’s questions proved unique. “What caused the fall of the Roman Empire.” I suspect that “Geez, John, I didn’t study that one before we left!” wasn’t correct, but at least indication that I was in my right mind enough to protest that I wasn’t ready for a history question. Later, he asked why writers added two spaces after a period. This was closer to my area of interest. However, I didn’t have the energy to explain that nowadays typesetters don’t add the extra space, because it’s more costly. I had to wait until the car ride home to share that piece of information. Some folks test a swimmer’s mental state with simpler questions—I was once asked my phone number, although I have to admit I wondered why the person needed my phone number just then as neither of us had our phones with us—but John prefers conundrums. Still, these are entertaining in their own way. It takes some imagination to think up the out of the way questions he comes up with. And that imagination has served him well during masters’ practice, resulting in some interesting workouts. (That’s for another blog entry.)
At about 10 miles, I thought I couldn't go any further. I felt turned inside out. I could barely lift my arms and took a short backstroke break. I was throwing up the fluids almost as soon as I took them in. While I was still mentally there, I wasn’t sure how long that would last if I tried for a full circumnavigation. Knowing I’d made ten miles, I do wonder if I stopped fighting. But stopping the swim at that point, it turned out, wasn’t an option.
John offered to take me on board the kayak, but I wanted to swim to shore, not ride. He said we were near a stopping point (another mile-ish), so I decided to hang on until then. Some miles last a very long time; this one certainly did, but it also had the cute touch of a fish jumping out of the water near me, a small fish, maybe about 6-8 inches. And I found out that I did have more swimming left in me. Not pretty (I think John will confirm that!), but something. I wonder now if I could have stuck it out and completed the circumnavigation. But the way I felt at ten miles, I didn't want the end of the swim to be a trip to the hospital. I don't believe in regrets, so I refuse to regret my decision.
Full Circle
While I didn’t make a full circle around the island, I did, in a sense, add this distance first (first double-digit swim) to two other firsts, all three in the same general location. My first open water mile race took place in Sunset Lake, Wildwood Crest, in 2002, the September Splash, now no longer held. While I’d learned to swim in the Great South Bay, a shallow bay similar to conditions in Sunset Lake, I’d never done an open water mile until that race. I’d no idea what to expect. A runner for the most part at the time, I had an injury that kept me out of action. To stay in shape, I swam, not very fast and without much technique, but gradually working my way to swimming a mile all freestyle and under 45 minutes, as that was the previous year’s last place time. After finishing that race and not even in last place, I’d wanted then and there to pursue swimming, but the running injury was beginning to heal, and so swimming got put on the back burner.
A few years later, in 2005, I joined a masters’ swim group, largely out of curiosity (no running injury this time, just wanted to try a new, revved up form of swimming, taking in interval training and a coach who could give me feedback). The coach urged me at the time to enter a one-mile ocean swim, the also defunct Plunge for Patients on the ocean side of Wildwood. Ocean swim? No way! Except that I ended up doing just that. Story here:
And on Monday, there I was, ready for a new first. I hope it will be the first of many more!
Again, this was not done by Channel rules. Besides holding the kayak for feeds and accepting the tow through the chop near the jetty, I accepted John’s help getting up at the end and out of the water. I also stood at a couple points. But the swimming and swimming and swimming....arms and shoulders feel it all!

Altogether, I think of myself not as a full-fledged marathon swimmer but as a marathon swimmer in training. I still have much to learn, and I'm humbled by the many achievements I read about online. I'm a newbie compared to so many who have completed Triple Crowns, Oceans Seven, and other hugely impressive swims, all abiding by Channel rules.
All that said, I remain proud of and grateful for what I was able to accomplish
And I’m so, so grateful to John Kenny for his quizzes, for his endurance (kayaking with a swimmer, especially a crooked swimming swimmer with foggy goggles, is no easy task), and above all, for his encouragement, support—and courage. I think we were both exploring new vistas, John designing and redesigning a route, getting a kayak, working with friends familiar with the area, and then including me in this grand adventure. I hope I gave him reason to be proud, even though I didn’t quite make the circumnavigation. One adventure leads to another though. Who knows what comes next. I never thought I could swim across the Great South Bay. Now I’ve done twice the distance.
Embrace possibilities!
A couple photos--more to come

Great South Bay Swim, 19 July 2019

Great South Bay

Great South Bay Swim 2019 in the books! I swam 3:30:31, an improvement from last year by about 8 minutes for the roughly 5.3-5.5 miles, and was quite happy with this swim. Want to first thank Bob and Mary Fischer and their tireless team of volunteers, coast guard, etc. for their wonderful care for our safety. And I want to thank my excellent kayaker, Dana McElhinney. Dana had never kayaked on the Great South Bay before, much less for a 5+ mile race, but she was amazing! Just crushed it as a kayaker!
As for me? I think the 11,000 yard pool workout definitely helped me in this swim. I started off at a comfortable pace, as I did in that workout, and actually felt better as the swim progressed, so in the last ~400m or so, I had to throw in a bit of butterfly.
I think this swim tells me I'm good for even longer distances. Something about the light, bouncy feel of waves and the heartbeat of the water in my ears--I remember thinking early on, there are always some discomforts in any kind of distance swims, but I came because I love swimming, and this swim particularly supports a wonderful cause. So I focused not on the discomfort but on having some fun. I would pick up my pace to stay abreast of the kayak and see it as a great opportunity if I fell behind it to push the pace some more, to let it be play. Life is filled with work--swimming is my play, even when it's work.
I'm so grateful to God for the health to participate in these events and enjoy them so much. I was thinking too--geez, I get to swim in this beautiful bay, experience the sun peeking through clouds and turning the water to glitter.
The swim is reward by itself. Then to add the bonus... won a gift card from P.C. Richards, plus the "endurance award," a bobble head swimmer trophy. This meant I was the last woman in (some men finished after me). But last to me, simply means I lasted. And while some folks finished in less than 2 hours (bless them and congrats!), I figured, I just had longer to savor the swim and then enjoy the after party and the generous spread of food.
Congrats to all the swimmers, and thanks to Robert Roos for treating me to a second Guiness and sharing your helpful kayaking tips with Dana! She's impressed you swim breaststroke the whole way.
Thanks Brigid and Audrey for coming by to cheer! And thanks all of you for your support here and elsewhere.
How can I not mention the superb coaching of John Kenny who raises the bar in swim practice, doesn't let me forget to hydrate, and sets up fantastic open water events and noncompetitive swims in our beloved Schuylkill River. The Schuylkill Swimfest, especially, was an amazing workout, including a 5k, mile, and 800m swims, going with and against the current, meaning ideal open water practice for GSB. I'm a better swimmer b/c of John's coaching.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Recent swims (RIP Charles Van Der Horst)

Linked here is a story about a man who lost his life participating in an open water swim in the Hudson. I never met him in person, but we communicated as swimmers do so often via Facebook, and through that medium, I met a person of passion and compassion. He loved swimming--and even more, loved fellow humans whatever their color, gender identity, nationality, or any other facet of us that makes us who we are. One of my favorite swimming photos is of him leaping out and off the boat and into the Hudson for one of the 8 Bridges stages. Some say it was the last photo of him. I'm not sure, but it expresses so much his joy, his spirit, his leaping into life full bore.

June 16
Today's #swimlikecharles
I touched the Rte 422 bridge. From the water.
Our usual group open water swim to which our esteemed coach, John Kenny, added a bit of magic. After I'd completed a 3rd lap around the buoys, and the other swimmers had left because they had a longer to do list than I did, John asked if I wanted to swim to the bridge, about 300 yds from the start point.
Hey, sure, why not! (Years ago, a friend said to me, "your middle name should be 'why not?'")
Well, this isn't just any swim to a bridge. The closer you get, the faster the current moves against you. And within about 15 feet or so of the bridge, it feels like an endless pool.
Very grateful for John's coaching because he directed me in such a way that while it was still a serious challenge, it was doable--and fun!
I thought of Charlie and the joy with which he approached swimming. Yes, the going was getting harder. But I thought of how much I love this crazy sport. ("You swim in the Schuylkill?! Are you nuts?" Why of course!)
Soon enough I reached the endless pool section. This was getting to be work!
If any of you use a power rack, think of that image for a moment...
But John said "keep going," and I trusted his confidence in me. Plus I had dealt w that current 2 years ago after swimming about 5-6 miles. Of course I'm good for it! And CVDH was written on my arm!
Finally, I reached and touched the bridge, and then came the calmness of flying back downriver! Sometimes literally could I not indulge in a bit of butterfly here and there!
Thanks, John, for raising the bar, not letting me get lulled into a comfort zone!

June 18

Delightful open water swim (not a race--that's tomorrow weather permitting). I swam about a mile, mostly freestyle but played a little w the individual medley strokes, and vertical kick.
Before leaving for the swim, I was thinking of Charles Van Der Horst and all that happened.
I asked him for a favor....could he please in some way let me know he made it safely to heaven.
The huge rainbow we saw only moments after the swim....I think his answer was yes.

Two days of swims (June 21-22)
1 Friday 
Left first one at sunset. Working
class suburbs have moments. A pool
with my own lane, children’s pool noodles floating precariously close.
The forty-two hundred yards may or may not have grown to 4300. I may or may not
have done a final easy 100. It may or may not matter. If it does, the statistics:
Goal was to be a little faster each set, each repeat. In moderation.
1000 in 23:55
500 in 11:46
500 in 11:35
200 in 4:37
200 in 4:34
200 in 4:30
200 in ? Swam, perhaps, through a black hole and out the other side. Perhaps. I wasn’t looking.
200 in 4:26
100 in 2:20
100 in 2:16
100 in 2:16
100 in 2:13
100 in 2:14
100 in 2:13
100 in 2:13
100 in 2:12
100 in 2:10
100 in 2:09
2x100 IM, 3:07ish for the first one (w fins), no idea what the second one was.
Maybe I swam 100 free cool-down. Or not.
Walked out to a sunset. The city shining off in the distance.

Stop when you need to and be moved

2 Saturday
Next morning, a stray Chinese fortune,
“Always do your best.” This is confusing.
Not confusing, the flowers I pass on the way
to the pool for practice, their purple and lavender beacons
to be noted. I think it pisses God off
if you walk by the color purple
in a field somewhere and don’t notice it—or Alice
Walker’s voice in your head. Best is about kind, the kind
of flower you are.
Best had eluded me, or not, scrolling down
the list of distances, 500 to warm up, playing, then six
times 100, aiming for more
elusive speed. (Always do your best.)

A set involving IM strokes after every 50 free,
the backstroke a study in collision
avoidance, swimming one-armed,
the other rubbing against the lane line.
If I could touch it, I wouldn’t crash. Fear is useless,
yet pervasive.
Set free in the last 50 free.

From there, two hundred times three.
Fins don’t turn me into a fish.
Time passed too quickly.
Second and third 200 mushed together, a four hundred
was born at some speed or other.

Save the best for last. One
hundred of whatever stroke, as fast as possible.
(Always do your best.)

Second one, me vs time. I almost caught my lane-mate.
Edged time by a second.
I did my best. Or not.

In the water, rainbows form. So many swims
drink me in. I emerge soaked with all of them.

Lives lost and restored in me. The water our home.

I did the shorter sets in each section.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

What next? Just some thoughts on aging


So I passed another birthday a couple weeks ago. I won't say the number, but I'm eligible for senior discounts. This, while welcome, is at times alarming. Even so, if people want to give me swag because of my having a certain number of years, who am I to object?

Yet in so many ways, I'm a kid, so if that kid's body has more years than kids normally do, I'll go with that.

First, I hate any sentence that begins "at your age." Don't tell me what I should or shouldn't do "at my age."

I'm healthy (well, there's a trick knee going on right now, but overall...)

I have some favorite activities: swimming, writing--running if legs are both working, which isn't the case just now, but it will be.

Not as well organized as I'd like to be, and as I read different how-to pieces about blogging, I see that I'm supposed to give advice about something I excel in. This is difficult. 

I don't really excel in anything much. 

This isn't to denigrate myself. Focus has never been my biggest strength--but curiosity fills in where focus is lacking. I want to explore new possibilities, even if in the end I don't reach any level of expertise. And I don't like telling others what to do. You're adults. I won't even tell you to do what makes you happy because then I'd be contradicting myself and telling you what to do. :) 

It also isn't to say I haven't accomplished some worthwhile things: My longest swim was 8 miles and I've done some personally significant shorter swims as well, including the Great South Bay (6 finishes of 7 attempts), run 7 out of 9 attempted marathons, including Boston (qualified in 1995), published some writing (and not just here, not that here is so bad), received a Ph.D. So I've done a few things, but I'm humbled by the immense achievements of friends, which I celebrate, because they're invitations to me to aim high.

I still (from the time I first came upon it) love Virginia Woolf's vow to "go on adventuring, changing, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped. The thing is to free one's self, let it find its dimensions, not be impeded." This was from A Writer's Diary (location 206, par. 1).

Some things I haven't done with my life that I still want to do (and if you want to offer help, I won't mind, but don't worry if you're not so inclined for any reason. You're welcome to read and enjoy)...

Swim ten or more miles (with a wild pipe dream of maybe someday swimming the English Channel--beneath all this though I love to swim, so welcome your swimming adventures and suggestions.

Write a book...maybe a good way to finance the above, but I'm not betting the electric bill. Many books written--only a small proportion become best-sellers. It's okay. If I write a book and it's not a best seller, it's still an achievement.

Running: I used to think I'd run a 100 mile ultramarathon, and "never say 'never'"--but my interests have changed. 

Own my own home 

Have a car

Last two are unlikely since I haven't the cash flow. 

But this isn't a go-fund-me page, and I've gotten along fine without either for a very long time, so no need to take it to heart. 

If you're going to give, there are so many without homes at all and trapped amid wildfires or in abusive relationships or major illnesses (don't get me started about health care in America). They need your money more than I do. 

Maybe the benefit to you of this blog is for you not to feel terrible if you haven't hit your hoped for milestones. We're alive. There's time. Let's keep at this and help one another.

Maybe we just need to figure out how or whether. If you always thought you wanted to do something, you can still go for it...or you might change your interests and go for something else. All good.

Work Cited
Woolf, Virginia. A Writer's Diary, Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. Leonard Woolf. Harcourt, 1954. Kindle ebook file.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

So many experiences, so little time--here's a poem about being a supernumerary in the opera "Sky on Swings"

So it appears I've been neglecting this blog--so much goes on Facebook--I think it's time that more work goes here. While this spot doesn't get the traffic that Facebook does, the saying "If you build it, they will come," from Field of Dreams, might apply here. Stay tuned! Meanwhile, my most recent poem...

Sky—Diary of a Supernumerary

In the Kimmel Center, I wait, words slipping

my mind. Waiting in line, I gaze up. An endless ceiling fades

into space. I walk across stage on cue, fade off.

I am presence only, appearing to have Alzheimer’s

(pretense aided by memory lapses. There is no

singing. Is there a swan song—maybe mine?)

We come in different colors, all of us

fading into space, wondering.

(Has our fade begun?)
Who are we? We cross life’s stage, then gone. We are here,
however, always, walking, walking, weaving
into and out of lives, maybe noticed, always
present. Have we lived? had spouses? children? jobs? Or faded
over years, no connections, no one to choose us as their first and only? born
to roam? remind you that we live
and eat and sleep and die under your eyes?
We live. That much is true, the world our poem, the universe our music.

Where after that? We are a line, stretching

into space, connected  threads,

the universe, the atoms, protons, quarks, interwoven

to make us, disperse

us, and we keep coming, which is our prayer.

Where are we going? We become

the afterlife, the before life, the during life, the lives,

marching across the universe, reminding you,

you are that line. You too march across years and into the void,

or into the light, or into the heart of someone who falls in love. We are

forever, no end, no beginning, like God or so we’ve heard of God.

God marching with us across time, across space, into the firmament, into your heart,

where you fall in love, maybe have children,

the chain that takes us from now

to forever amen,

from now to forever amen.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Weekend in San Francisco -- a poem that barely touches the experience--and some photos

24 Hour Swim Relay, San Francisco

She shared the song with a doubtful friend.
What if I have a meltdown? Be sure to
wear flowers in your hair, she said.
I met some gentle people here and there.

Was I ready? I left snow, ascended into cold,
minus more degrees than I was old.
Through the window, mountains, stretches of wild.
How did the pioneers survive, push west?
We were flowers somewhere. It was hard to explain.
They swam in sunlight, the water cold, the people warm,
moving back and forth, belonging, as seals do

to water, slipping through their blood, hot and cold at once,
opposites, held tenderly, reclaimed by land.
We shook the cold from our skin over pizza or oatmeal or eggs,
hatched again in water, calling like gulls to one another,

sometimes flying. A woman swam butterfly in tight circles at midnight,
Lights dancing over the water, swimmers and stars,
tow floats with beacons inside,
swimmers getting wet, getting dry.

Night fades into morning. I leave the dock as sun fills sky,
return to swim. 


It's so hard to put so many memories into words. Seeing the Golden Gate as we neared the airport. The trip on the BART line to the wrong hostel (Mason Street, when I should have gone to Fort Mason--a trip via LYFT resolved that problem­.) Walking along the beach to the South End Rowing Club Friday afternoon to check in and help with dinner prep. People were swimming as if it was the most natural thing to do in February, children playing in the sand, occasionally venturing into the water, emerging quickly, but without shock, despite temperatures most of us would find chilly. 

Dinner--introductions. Where were we from and what book would we bring to a desert island? So many possibilities from the Cat in the Hat to Stephen King (I chose Virginia Woolf's The Waves--perfect for a swimming weekend). There I met Lisa, captain of my team, the Birdwatchers, along with several teammates.

I returned to the hostel thinking it was late, but I was on east coast time. Enjoyed down time with a couple of other swimmers--next morning, breakfast and another walk to the Rowing Club. This was getting real. Yet I was feeling calmer than I had in days--the fear, the anticipation, would I be ready? Would it be too cold? Would I panic? Now it was just a matter of beginning. Of swimming. And that, it turned out, during my first hour, was a frolic, shouting and laughing like children, stopping to chat with other swimmers, then moving on. We would swim around a flag buoy, then across to a pier that looked to be about 300-400 yards away, then to the dock and back out to the buoy. Lisa warned me against a certain spot further along the pier.

“That’s Bitey’s territory.” “Bitey,” probably the unofficial relay mascot, had, in fact, inflicted some pretty serious damage to a couple of swimmers about a month before the relay. Naming him—and even naming a team after him: gaining a kind of power by naming the adversary, perhaps?

On my first swim, I was perfectly happy to go two laps, although in my second one, some queasiness set in after one lap, and I chose to keep it to a single lap. Water temperature 53, according to a thermometer on the buoy.

After the first swim, a walk around Fisherman's Wharf, buying souvenirs, wandering through a museum and some galleries, and back to the club to get ready for the second swim.

It took longer to recover from my second swim, so by way of caution, I passed on the night swims and instead opted for two dock shifts (to record swimmers "getting wet, getting dry." Swimmers were to say that to the people on the dock, as it's unambiguous, unlike "going in" or "going out" which could mean going into the water or out of the water.) I was getting sleepy toward the end of that shift, and it was getting more challenging to record the swimmers, but 1 a.m. finally came, and with it the need to borrow a sleeping bag. Someone--I don't remember who--lent me a bag and led me by hand to the Dolphin Club in the dark.

A four-ish hour nap after shift number one (11 pm to 1 am) in the Dolphin Club (really, my only time inside there)--up at 0430, coffee, bagel, and onto the dock for the 5 a.m. shift. By now, I was more awake and enjoyed the friendly company of Everett, a volunteer helping with the Birdwatchers and getting a chance to swim. We chatted, watched for swimmers, some part of the relay, some just club members out for their daily swim. Someone swam butterfly near the dock--was it on the first or second shift? I forget. She made tight circles around and around until her time was up.  A peace settled over us, and the two hours flew by. Back in the Rowing Club, enjoyed some breakfast, more coffee.

I felt ready once again to take on another swim. There was to be a "victory lap," with all the team members swimming, and I began my swim about fifteen minutes before the lap was to start. Lisa had already gone in, and I was solo for about five or ten minutes until I caught up to her near the buoy. We exchanged hugs and swam together, again the childlike exuberance returned, the laughter, the shouting, the whooping it up, until all the swimmers hit the water, and we swam around, not all of us to the buoy, then back to the dock and to shore. By this time, I was delighted to be in the water, didn't want to leave, felt celebratory--could have stayed longer, but it was time to get ready for my trip back home.

The recovery period in the sauna was easy--I had familiarized myself by then to the after-drop, the odd sensation of both hot and cold inside, as if I'd swallowed Icy Hot, the muscle rub that can't make up its mind whether to chill or heat your sore muscles. I knew that feeling would pass in time, and meanwhile, I had new friends to cuddle with, shoulder to shoulder, women together talking swimming and so much else.

Teammates Everett and Jamie took me to the airport--smooth, on-time flight back, with the pilot providing not only flight updates but Superbowl scores. I half listened, dozed, read the inflight magazine, dozed, looked out the window--clouds with lights poking through from time to time.... landing in Philadelphia to the news that the Eagles won--applause on the plane as passengers retrieved bags from overhead bins. 

Horns honking on the LYFT ride home... and my sweet yellow 17-year-old kitten greeting me... So many memories swirling around, so hard to capture them all!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Weekend in the water

It wasn’t looking good that Tuesday—or, for that matter, the two days prior. Stomach cramps that at first seemed to be a GI bug (bad enough) turned into severe abdominal pain and nausea. But denial is how I was handling it. I wasn’t going to be sick, not this week, not the week of the Great South Bay Swim, after all the training I’d done, after all the work I’d put in to get there…the shoulder PT, the killer massage, and swim practice after swim practice—although that last part never felt like “work” even the 10,000 yard swim. I was going to make this one. I wasn’t concerned about time or place. 

That had been knocked out of me by last year’s swim. But I did want to finish this time, want to show that I hadn’t aged out of this business.

But by Tuesday, I couldn’t blow it off anymore. I had to dismiss my class early, felt nauseous. Needed Sandy’s help. An ambulance was called, and I was taken to the hospital. I wasn’t so sure I liked the idea of an ambulance—too expensive. But walking seemed out of the question and no luck with cabs (Sandy had called). So I was doubled over in pain lying on one of the couches in the Bonnell lobby, wondering if something really serious was happening and I’d find out I had cancer. Sandy stayed right there until they put me into the ambulance, and Liz came shortly after I arrived at Hahnemann, where I’d spend the rest of the day.

The doctors did two important things there: they gave me morphine and an anti-nausea drug, which made me feel much better. Then, after much waiting and some tests, including a CT, they informed me that I had a kidney stone—and that, importantly, I could swim if I felt okay on Friday, that there wouldn’t be further damage. Online I found out that swimming could even help pass a stone. While that would be nice, the fact that I had a name on my condition and a doctor’s assurance that if OTC meds calmed things down enough, yes, I could go ahead with the swim. I still felt wobbly that day, and Sandy gave me the day off the next day. But by the end of the day, I felt well enough to give the open water swim group a try. I was just going to swim easy, and pretty much did just that. John did rein me in when I started to do a few butterfly strokes just for fun.

“You have a race in two days! Stick to freestyle!”

But the river had energized me. My Amtrak reservation was ready. So was I. 


After packing clothes, swimsuit, goggles (including a spare pair in case the pair I was using broke), and swim nutrition needs and Safe Sea and Tri-Slide and my hopes, I headed for 30th Street Station. Go time. Original train delayed, but they honored my ticket on a train scheduled only 20 minutes later, so although the window of time to get the Long Island Railroad would be smaller, it was doable.

Aboard Amtrak, I relaxed, used their WiFi, drank from my water bottle (they reminded me at the hospital to drink plenty of fluids), and paid special attention to rivers—the Schuylkill (scene of so many runs and, further upriver, swims) and the Delaware and the “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” sign visible to all who cross the Delaware on the train.

Smooth trip to New York… and then to Bay Shore on the Long Island Railroad… the trip happens in steps…always has… the trains, the limo/bus (used to be a taxi) to the ferry, the boat ride… taking me from my day to day world into Manhattan and out, across Long Island… “This is the train to… Babylon. Next station stop is ….” Others on the train headed for Fire Island… somehow I could tell… tote bags, beachy clothes…. And there at the Saltaire ferry dock, the bay laid out before me, calm looking, but I knew that was just within the harbor, not out in the open. It could be a rough ride. I took some more Tylenol.

The ferry…. the trip across, the Captree Bridge off to the right… West Island, I knew to the left, although I didn’t get a look… the lighthouse getting closer, and after a stop in Kismet, chugging along the bay front and reaching the dock. Sky was gray. But it was Saltaire, the Saltaire I love, that my heart goes back to even though I haven’t been to it since 2009. Everything so familiar, even the places rebuilt since Hurricane Sandy…. Home.

Mary and Harry Scanlon said hello. I was surprised Mary recognized me, even though my picture was in the Fire Island News—although both pictures of me showed me in a swim cap. Apparently, I became famous! (I felt all the more the need to swim b/c how, having been featured in the Fire Island News, could I back out, although, of course, there are things over which I don’t have control.)
Kathleen met me with a wagon… so true to Saltaire tradition. Wagons everywhere… for trips to the ferry or the grocery store or to transport children to the beach. Wagons and bikes. I have to admit I never got around to riding bikes despite the many years I visited there, but one of these days. But it’ll have to be one of the beach cruisers with the coaster brakes.

Two things I had to do: take a swim at the bay beach. If I was going to swim five miles there the next day, I suppose I should let it lap around me a bit the day before. Very easy swimming, floating on my back as I used to do, enjoying the waves, practicing sighting, doing some drills. It started to rain and get very choppy, which wouldn’t have kept me out by itself, but as the lifeguard wasn’t there and I’d heard reports of thunderstorms, I decided to make my exit. Still, it was a perfect welcome home swim. Then, I had to stop at the Saltaire Market (another place that was rebuilt) for something to bring to Kathleen’s house: Lighthouse Ale. Can’t get more appropriate than that since the swim would start at Fire Island Lighthouse.

And of course I had to visit the McManus house. I hoped it wasn’t bought as a “tear-down,” as some beach houses are. Happily, not only was it standing, but it looked in good repair. The next day, I met the person who bought it and who told me it was “the perfect house” for her and her four children. That did my soul good—another mom was going to give her kids special memories that would be etched into their lives (I hoped) for many, many years. These photos show different views of the house.

Tennis court across from McManus house

A couple of other old haunts...

The statue outside Our Lady Star of the Sea Church... her hand was broken off during the 1938 hurricane; it was decided not to fix it because (I think this is the story) the idea was that she suffered with the people.

Not streets but boardwalks (or cement walks). Only motor vehicles allowed were service vehicles (and in later years personal cars could be parked in the village in the off season, but had to be moved to the main land after Memorial Day until Labor Day. Even then, special permits were needed.)


Unlike past trips the swim on race day, for this one I’d already slept on the island, didn’t need to rush as much to get there. After a bowl of cereal, coffee, and last-minute packing of supplies, it was time to take the walk to the start, along Lighthouse Promenade to Lighthouse Walk in Kismet, to the Burma Road, past the old fire station (near it is a fresh water pond that I only discovered as an adult), and soon enough, the lighthouse. 

Sky was gray, rain predicted. Would we swim? Kathleen and I decided if the swim as a go, so were we. We weren’t about to back out. We would go as far as we could. We would finish, Kathleen said. And I, despite some worries about my ability to handle these conditions, especially having just been sick, I decided to be Zen about it, take it stroke by stroke, enjoy the experience. The weather and water were not in my control. My response to them was. We would do this. We decided to have a team name. While walking, I pulled out a Power Crunch bar to snack on… and it hit me. Team Power Crunch. It was crunch time, and we had the power in us.

At the lighthouse, I stopped in the restroom and was surprised no one was there yet. I wasn’t late, was I? A woman entered as I was leaving.

“Is there an event at the lighthouse today?”

“Yes, the Cross Bay Swim, and I’m swimming.”

She smiled, bowed, and gave me a blessing that sounded like it could be Islam, but I wasn’t sure. But I felt very loved and supported, as if an angel had been sent to me.

Then down to the dock to check in—and there reassured by the crowds getting off the boat. No. I wasn’t late. I was even a little early.

Much hustle and bustle. Decisions about what to take on the boat, what to send along with a swimmer’s mom who offered to take things across and meet us there. Nerves. 

Team Power Crunch (before)

Prayed a bit. Stretched. Sun salutation. Nerves calmed some.

Air bristling with anticipation and resolve. The countdown to the start… 15, 14, 13… 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… 

GO! No burning up the water with sprints here, although the leaders pulled ahead quickly, and the rest of us settled into the task ahead, knowing we’d have to pace ourselves.
And here, the thanksgivings:
  • ·   God and the prayers people offered, so many prayers—the sense even when I first felt sick, that it would be all right, even though it was hard to believe;
  • Family—they may kid with me about my crazy passion (“why not just take the ferry?”) Yet they unfailingly support me not only with donations to the fundraising page, but with love, with presence and presents: Liz coming with me to the swim two years ago; the (formerly) Islip McManuses offering their house every year for me to stay; Rich and Cindy taking me in when I go to Boston for events; Pat sending me a beautiful beach towel! And more… see next item….

  • Kathleen’s and John’s generosity in providing me a place to stay, Kathleen on Thursday night to Friday so I could spend the night in Saltaire and John, Friday night to Saturday—I hadn’t seen him for quite a while, and this connected me to the Long Island McManuses; and Audrey who showed up at the finish with food, a sunflower, and a lovely scarf;

  • John Kenny’s coaching… The “you’re kidding right?” sets. The “wow” faces I’d make—but felt flattered he believed I could handle them. His wisdom about foot cramps: “There’s no such thing as cramps.” I needed to repeat that at times during the swim, as my feet would at times cramp. I found after a while that I was more calmed by saying “Oh, hello cramps, you’re back.” Then I’d stop kicking, focus on the exhale, and relax my legs as much as possible, be sure to drink and eat if I even suspected a cramp MIGHT come. John is adamant about nutrition. Thank you, John, for that. Thank you, Charles, for the focus on the exhale. But one thing I didn’t copy from John: when he won the first version of the Valley Forge Marathon Swim, he repeated to himself the Meow Mix chant, “Meow, meow, meow, meow….” That didn’t quite do it for me. However, I did think of some songs… when it rained, “Swimmin’ in the Rain,” a la Gene Kelly…. Sometimes “Born to be Wild,” as the waves lifted and dropped me…. Sometimes that old childhood ditty, “Sailing, sailing, over the bounding waves….”
  • Thank you, Nabil, who taught me to focus on the present and enjoy the experience, stay mindful, relaxed, open. Waves…. rain… chafing… seaweed in suit… temporary. Part of the experience. Let all of them wash over me. All would be well. I was in my beloved Great South Bay, a lucky soul getting to swim across in rain and chop. How many get to have that experience?
  • ·         The camaraderie, the support, the cheers—on and off-line tips from other swimmers; Did I mention Kathleen? Overnight accommodation, yes, but the bravery to go ahead with kayaking when she was so new to it and the water would be rough;
  • ·         The race crew—organizers, officials, volunteers… the Fischers! So much planning and work go into this swim. By January, they’re already at it. And the volunteers have a long, hard-working day. The year I volunteered (after which I needed a more relaxing task and chose to swim), the weather was much friendlier, and I can only imagine what it must be like when it’s blustery and rainy;
  • ·         CIBBOWS… the Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers. I was fortunate enough to swim in some of their events—one in the Hudson, involving going partway against the current (wicked hard!), and two ocean swims—all of them escorted by “swim angels,” volunteers who swim with anyone who feels nervous. They stayed with me, even gave me some tips;
  • ·         Swimming in the ocean last year with Bruckner Chase’s group. I’m not a pro at ocean swimming, by any means, but getting out of my comfort zone for even a short time helped me, I think, prepare for the conditions I got in the 2017 edition of the swim.
  • ·         Jack Martin taking me open water swimming near his house. Jack and I are about as far apart politically as possible… but he welcomed me into his favorite swimming space, watched out for me, even though he’s a faster swimmer, and provided a most enjoyable experience, once I relaxed and, although exercising due caution, didn’t stress about boats passing by;
  • ·         Mike McDevitt, my first masters’ coach, who lit the fire with that summer coaching in 2005 and the Plunge for Patients…. Excited about having completed an ocean mile, I shared my experience with someone during a visit to Fire Island and that person recommended the Great South Bay Swim (also thanks to you, even though I don’t remember your name). Although I originally dismissed it as too long, the seed was planted.
  • ·        Yet it goes further back in time. My passion for Fire Island was nourished before I was born—when my grandfather bought the house in Saltaire in 1916. I grew up going to Saltaire when most never heard of it. I grew up feeling the sand under my feet, smelling the salt water, taking early swimming and sailing lessons, waking up to the sound of motor boats and gulls…. until salt water began running through my blood. After we stopped renting regularly, I visited as often as I could, hosted by Grandpa, by Florence and Frank, then Florence and Ted….then Charlie. Even now, with the house sold, I’m grateful a family has it who will truly appreciate it and create their own history.
I couldn’t have imagined completing this year’s swim as a first-timer. But since 2007, I’ve learned a lot, grown a lot as a swimmer. This certainly wasn’t my fastest swim. That came two years ago. But given the strikes against me, I’m at least as proud of this swim as I was of the one two years ago. I didn’t realize the inner resources I had and it takes a village to raise awareness. I thank my “village.”

Bob Fischer MC'ing awards... organizer extraordinaire!

Gary Smith, winner of 1956 swim with Rob Roos, who should be listed among the people I thank. Rob kayaked for me in the 2010 swim and has been an invaluable resource in many ways, from 2007 onward when I interviewed him for an article I wrote in the Fire Island News. As the swim historian, Rob has a wealth of information about the swim, past and present.

What we swam through to finish