Thursday, March 10, 2022

I’m 71 and a virgin. This has nothing to do with my experience in love/lovemaking. That’s none of your business. 😊

However, as a newcomer to the Memphremagog Winter Swim Festival, I was dubbed a "virgin," as were all my fellow newcomers. We entered a world in which the rules of normal society were suspended, however. This event featured escorts, strippers, and hookers. “In quiet Newport, Vermont?” you ask. You might think we’d be the target of a police raid.

Not at all! This was a swim meet. Yes, in February. In Northern Vermont, where one degree Fahrenheit is considered mild if the sun is out and the wind isn’t blowing. What was I saying about normal society?

You might think “What’s a 71-year-old Philly woman doing running around with this wild crowd?” What should I do, stay home, sit in a rocking chair and talk about the good old days? If I were to do that, the good old days would get further and further away until I couldn’t see them anymore. In her poem, “Warning,” Jenny Joseph promises to “make up for the sobriety of my youth” ( While I wouldn’t use “sobriety” to label my youth, it seems silly to set silliness aside now, since I’ve managed to indulge in it this long.

If you’re like me (poor soul!) 😊 and you find yourself musing about a particular event, thinking “I wonder if I could do that,” the answer is that you’re in trouble, because you’re probably going to do just that.

It’s how I went from swimming a mile in a quiet protected bay to swimming an ocean mile (are you kidding? No way! Of course I’ll do it!). This necessarily led to swimming 5 miles (“no way! too long! sure I’ll do it!”) in a choppy bay while suffering from seasickness and saying, “never again” and swimming that same 5 miles seven more times—and along the way deciding that if I could swim five miles, why not eight? or ten? or eleven? The lure of “I wonder if I could do that” is always in the back of my mind!

So when I read posts on Facebook from friends who had participated in the Memphremagog Winter Swim Festival, my first thought was “too cold!” followed by …. “but maybe I could do that.” Swirling through my mind were reports of all the fun people had and how could I not join this wild, raucous adventure? Of course I’ll sign up! A few clicks and I was in the 2021 festival—which had to be virtual due to the pandemic. So fine, I’ll do the virtual event. Even with the limitations of Zoom, it was a riot, as people shared their photos and hats and cold-water adventures. Yes, keep luring me in!

Not to worry, though. Those of us who had entered for 2021 were transferred to the 2022 festival. My appetite was further whetted by participating in the Kingdom 10k Swim—also a Phil White production. I hadn’t planned on the Kingdom Swim. I had planned on going to England to join a Channel relay. However, with the pandemic (yes, again), I would have needed to arrive ten days early and add about $2500 to my stay. It seemed risky too, given the covid cases rising there, so England had to be ruled out. That being the case, fine, I’ll go to NEW England and swim 10k. It was another impulse decision that I’m glad I made and that gave me a preview of that beautiful part of the country.

Of course, I want to swim in the middle of winter when the lake is frozen, and lanes must be cut in the ice! Why do you ask?

 I swim with a Philly-based group, French Creek Racing, and with the pandemic, we took to swimming outdoors year-round. Granted the pool was heated, but getting out wet at 16 degrees at least gave me some prep. I made sure to take my time going from the deck to the locker room, pretending it was a lovely summer day. 

Oddly, my fellow swimmers were skeptical. 

To this, I added some cold showers and nightly guided Wim Hof breathing videos. Still, I admit I was nervous. Other swimmers posted footage of their training ice swims. Would my preparation be enough? Still, let the adventure begin!

From Philly to Boston via Amtrak. From Boston to Hanover via Dartmouth Coach. Meet my friend Maggie Lonergan and on to Newport. The original plan was to leave Philly Thursday, stay overnight with my brother Richard, and make the rest of the trip Friday, but with a snowstorm coming, all involved agreed that getting there Thursday before the snow started was a better choice. Further, it allowed me to sleep late, relax, eventually get ready to join Maggie for the pool ribbon cutting, watch the Sharkbait Sheilas take the inaugural dip, and then off to dinner.

View from my room                            The Pool

One of the "Sharkbait Sheilas" "warming" up the pool for us! ;) 

The video didn't load, but I'll be glad to supply on request.
Video of "Sharkbait Sheilas" enjoying a pre-event dip!

Dinner the night before

It was time to get some sleep and be ready to roll in the morning! I was signed up for four events, three of which would take place Saturday.


The first was the hat swim, an untimed swim/costume hat contest. I chose a white rabbit hat complete with bunny ears, worn over a swim cap. 

Swimmers ready?

                                                GO! Frozen Hare--Newport Edition!


Just keep swimming!

This choice because

1. My swim coach, John Kenny, put on an event on 2/25 called the Frozen Hare. Since I was going to attend this Vermont swim shindig and so wouldn’t be present for the Frozen Hare, it seemed only right to channel my team and be literally a frozen hare (well, not entirely literally—I am, after all, human).

2. Warmth. There were some immensely creative costume hats and I salute the winners of the hat contest. But a (fake) furry hat seemed a more practical choice for a newbie. According to the science, a warm hat retains heat and I needed whatever retained heat I could get.

3. Listen to the Jefferson Airplane's song "White Rabbit" to get the idea of the state of mind needed to sign up. 😀

                                                            Almost go time!

When I stepped down the small wooden ladder and into the water, my first thought was “well, it’s not as cold as I expected. I can deal with this.” Four or five strokes later: Yeah. It actually is.” Still, by then, I was committed (or some say, should be committed, which I won’t debate). That temperature, about 30ish degrees, didn’t take my breath away, really—but I felt as if I was in a slow-motion video. The water clawed its chilly way into my muscles and bones. As hard as I worked, I could feel the water’s vise grip tightening around me. “Just keep moving,” I told myself. “You WILL get there. It’s only 25 meters, even if it feels like 2500 meters.”

Oh and here’s where the escorts, the strippers, and the hookers come in—admit it, you scrolled down the page to find out! 

The escorts walked with us from the restaurant to the “pool” (i.e. swim lanes cut in ice) and, after we finished swimming, accompanied us back to the marina where we could change into dry suits/clothes. The strippers helped us remove and later put on our parkas and shoes (we were minimalist—coat over swimsuit, because the idea was to take as little time with the undressing/dressing part as possible, the sooner to finish and warm up. Hookers? This was not about exchanging cash in seedy hotel rooms. Instead, a person carrying a long stick with a hook walked alongside the lane, keeping an eye on the swimmer to ensure that s/he was safe. In case of difficulty, the hook could be used to pull the swimmer out. (It should be noted that no one needed to be pulled out, but we were all grateful that they were there watching over us.)

During the walk back, the escorts asked me questions to determine whether I was with it or about to pass out. (Fortunately, these were easy questions, such as where I was from, why I was swimming—my reason: I’m crazy, of course! These contrast with John Kenny’s approach to asking compos menti questions, such as “what caused the fall of the Ottoman Empire?”).

Apparently, they thought I was with it, conscious, etc. Once I reached the shelter of the marina, a lovely woman was there with a small tub of warm water for my feet and microwaved socks filled with rice and tied so as to place on our necks or hands. Once we warmed up enough, we could shower/change, and return to the restaurant.

My second swim, the 25m freestyle felt easier because I’d already gotten the feel of the water (cold… did I mention that it was cold?), and with freestyle, I could swim a little faster than the breaststroke I swam to keep the rabbit hat in place. But getting my face in the water? I was about halfway before I could get the nerve to do that, and only because I thought I could get to the end faster by doing so. Still, I won’t make Katie Ledecky envious—that’s all I’ll say about my form. While the first swim felt harder and the warming process easier, it was the opposite in the second race. I needed more time to warm up and was much more uncomfortable. Still, I knew that would pass, and I’d warm up and be fine—and so I was.

Between events, there was a lunch break, and I made a couple mistakes with that: 1. If you’re swimming right after lunch, maybe the shrimp basket and fries won’t be the best choice. It takes too long to get something like that, and the time to eat it was too short as a result. (But the shrimp and fries were tasty, so I won’t regret this too much!); 2. Having everything ready to go before lunch prevents unnecessary rushing and forgetting stuff after lunch.

True there was a ceremony and group picture before my afternoon event, the 50 freestyle, so I thought that would give me a little more time. The ceremony was poignant: people bought biodegradable ribbons and put the name of someone they wanted to memorialize. The ribbons were then dropped in the water. We had a moment of silence for Ukraine. The spiritual energy of this was profound.  

That said, I started the 50 free having rushed and was a little stressed as a result. Still, I thought, I’ll feel better once I swim. That lasted 25 meters. At both ends of the lanes, there are platforms that we stand on before starting to swim (those doing more than one lap started at the end closer to shore, while those doing one lap started at the end further from shore. The object was to have at least a little bit less distance to walk back to shelter). 

I felt colder than I had in the other two swims, but thought I could eke out a second lap—except bumping into the platform, along with being colder than before, startled me and suddenly, it felt too much. I needed to stop. At which point, very kind volunteers helped me out and guided me into my parka. While disappointed in myself, wishing I’d been able to finish, I was very much moved by the gentleness they showed, especially Charlotte Brynn, an exceptionally strong marathon and ice swimmer and coach. Charlotte reminded me to focus on the positive: not I didn’t finish two laps, but I did finish one lap. She also complimented me on my stroke, "so smooth!" 

When I got to the marina and realized I’d forgotten my bag with a change of clothes, she went off to retrieve it. This was above and beyond because there were several rooms in the restaurant, and although I did my best to describe the bag and its location, I wasn’t sure how articulate I was given I was still chilly. But she returned with the bag. Officially she’s an angel on earth!

That evening, over a delicious dinner, we were treated to award presentations. To my surprise, along with a few other women seventy and over, I received a generous award—thermal mugs—and we all were presented with sashes that said “Sassy 70s.” I was the “kid” in the group, having turned seventy the most recently and was in awe of these amazing role models. The other women had much more experience in winter swimming than I did, and some pretty serious marathon swims.

We newcomers or “virgins” received patches to welcome us to the winter swimming tribe.

                                                                My sash--and my beer! :) Enjoying Phil's wit!

Awards of maple syrup, “woodles” (medals made of wood), and other prizes were given to the winners of races and of the hat competition. What a variety of creative hats! I admired them all—and would have found it hard to be a judge in that contest because there were so many to whom I’d have awarded first place!

When we stepped out of the restaurant, we were treated to a fireworks display, as all of Newport was celebrating a winter festival.

Sunday promised to be busy. I had to check out, as I was going to Hingham that day. Thank you, Ted Hirsch, for offering the ride and  Phil White for putting out the email blast that secured me a ride. I was signed up for the 25 butterfly, which I seriously considered scratching, as it seemed things could get rushed. However—and another thank you to Ted for talking me into not scratching—I decided to swim after all. As Ted suggested, I wouldn’t want to leave wondering if I could have done it, and I needed a finish to make up for the DNF in the 50. After all, it was only 25 meters (ha, only! I knew by then what 25 meters in 30 degrees felt like!). I was also told if you find you need to switch to breaststroke don’t worry.

My thought: I wanted to finish alive. So after a few initial butterfly strokes with the cold stiffening me up, I shifted to breaststroke, with a couple of weak attempts at butterfly.

Once back in the marina, I noticed that my legs were brilliant hot pink—a look I wanted to preserve since the color set off my black and white suit so nicely. But no--at this writing, my legs are now their normal color. Pretty color while it lasted!

How in the world had I managed to swim 200 fly in a meet in January and 400 IM a week later when I couldn’t do fly for even a lap? I say that not from self-judgment, but from a sense of wonder at what that level of cold can do to the body. Nature is tough—marvelously tough! The 200 fly and the 400 IM were swum indoors. Say no more!

I’m no speedster, but this winter meet for me was not about speed. It was about learning, about survival, about friendships, about the generosity of so many—the volunteers, who spent hours in the cold, whereas we could go out, swim, and retreat indoors to warm up, or those who took the time to warm us up indoors, caring for us like their own children—about being vulnerable yet powerful and learning the power of nature; about our race director, Phil White, who rejoices in this celebration of swimmers and volunteers, acts as combination Master of Ceremonies, guardian of swimmer safety, stand-up comedian, and all-around good soul.


Next post: bonus trip to see my brother Rich in Hingham!

Bonus trip—

Spent the night in Hingham at my brother Rich’s. We feasted on pizza, beer, and ice cream, had family Zoom/game night (first time I participated from his place), where for the first time, I won 6 Nimitz, then dozed off. The next day, we relaxed over breakfast, then Rich drove me around on a sightseeing tour around Hingham and Hull. We shared memories of Saltaire and so much more, had some lunch, and then Rich dropped me off at the ferry to Boston and Amtrak, then headed off to work. 

Thanks, Rich for taking such good care of your thawing sister! Here are some photos from Hingham... have more, but Google wouldn't let me add them. Will try putting them in the comments.


Walk along the waterfront

Ancient military installation in Hull

Boston Light--the start of my relay in 2015, looking across from Hull

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Christmas 2021 Daring to hope in an uncertain time


It was time to find where 

the light left off.

There were hide and seek games.

Clouds parting like tabernacle curtains. Music

from an unknown source. We followed

strangers who told stories. A refugee

family greeted us. We remember,

the gaze that held us softly.


May your journey, wherever it leads, lead to light and goodness.


Sunday, March 28, 2021

Passover 2021--a poem I wrote a while back that just resurfaced

Elijah’s Cup


A cup of waiting

wine celebrates surprises

Elijah might

disturb the still

air, slipping through

the slightly open door.


He might come, they say, as if

speaking of an old friend, long ago moved

to another town and come back, like an old

college roommate or lover.


Save a glass of wine for him. Save

a plate of dinner to microwave

for him. Save memories like pictures

in an old album to show him, laughing

at the hairstyles and funny clothes.

Did we really dress like that?


He is here

in our waiting eyes,

in our wishes for lost time, in dreams

of a future we magically,

despite missed appointments and scraped knees,

embrace with hope—in a present made

perfect with found pennies,

crocuses, friends.

Diane McManus

I wrote this poem in response to a seder I attended at my old friend Bonnie Baillis's house. The idea that a glass of wine was set out for someone expected who might come intrigued and delighted me. Each of us poured a little of our wine into the cup. We were instructed not to pour ALL our wine in because everyone should have a chance to give, and no one should be depleted. Finding the poem recently was a special treat, although I want to revise it more--and suggestions for revision are welcome.

Monday, September 14, 2020

 River Day and weekend—Sept. 12 and 13

Two lovely swimming days, one long, one short!

Saturday, Sept. 12: River Day, a French Creek Racing event, encompassing a 5k, mile, and 800m swim plus a swim/run/swim, consisting of an 800 swim/5k run/800 swim. People could choose any or all of the above.

First, BIG thanks to John Kenny and an amazing crew of volunteers, as always. Without their dedication and support, these races couldn’t be held. And they’ve been highlights of my summer!

I originally signed up for the three swims (not the swim/run/swim—I’m too out of practice running for that one).

The 5k? My SLOWEST ever. I seem to recall by watch saying 3:11, but I saw 3:15 on the official result. No matter. Let’s just say it could be timed with a sundial. My mistake? Hadn’t practiced using the swim buoy/tow float to hold water/gels—at one point I opened it to take water and a gel.

For those unfamiliar with this device, used by swimmers to increase visibility—also, if desired, to rest on when needed, as it inflates—and to store refreshments and other items, here’s a video:

Note that the gent in the video mentions that he puts his phone in a waterproof container before putting it into the “dry” compartment. “Dry.” Yes, he actually said that.

 In my case, …. Not dry. When I opened it to get to my water and a gel, it must not have closed it tightly enough. Swimmers, I’m sure you’ve seen devices like this:

So … it turns out that the New Wave Swim buoy can also work the say way. (Perhaps a good tool to take to the pool as well as open water. Fill up storage compartment with water.)

Let’s just say: DRAG!

So instead of being unhappy that I had a very slow 5k swim and missed the mile start, I’ve decided to put a positive spin on the swim: STRENGTH TRAINING, YES!

Also, I got to experience a river I love for a longer time—my favorite, beautiful river that has sustained me all summer. Yesterday, it was especially lively. We had an oblong course, three one-mile loops, half upstream, half downstream. The upstream part wasn’t too difficult, since the flow rate was fairly light. The section leading to the first turn was shallow and required care so I wasn’t hitting my feet against the rocks only a foot or so under me. The downstream part… unexpected chop, as the wind was blowing upstream and roiling up the water. During the first lap, it was somewhat startling. I’m used to chop along the coast in bays and oceans. To find it in the Schuylkill – whoa, what’s this?? However, given that it was going to be what I’d have, I decided to enjoy it. It was a fun roller coaster ride, gentle compared to last year’s Cedar Island swim, but frisky for the Schuylkill.

I was well behind the others, which I decided had to be okay since I didn’t see myself catching up. Some of those in my wave were the speedsters, so they would be done and showered before I was half finished. Instead, I settled into a pace I wouldn’t regret after half a mile. Or a mile. I probably took it too easy—59 minutes for the first mile. At this point, I stopped for water, and I thought the water and gel had done their work and I’d picked up the pace, but when I reached the second mile, nope… no faster, even though I felt as if I was pushing harder. (Swim buoy as swim parachute, remember?)

Since I hadn’t gained any time, it was time for mistake number 2… “what? No faster? I’d better not stop!”

Well, it didn’t take long to recognize that this wasn’t wise. I get leg cramps while swimming, and usually they seize up my leg for a moment and then release their grip. I rarely have to stop. But before I even reached the first turn buoy, my leg cramped so badly, I thought I’d have to call for help. Fortunately, the cramp calmed down and I was able to keep going. After successfully negotiating the first turn and heading downstream, those cramps would be my steady companion. While I was able to slip through some of them, others would shut me down and reduce me to treading water until they let me go. As I passed the start/finish area, I thought of bagging this swim and returning to shore. But then it occurred to me: what if I didn’t get to do any of the other swims I signed up for? What if this one was the only one I’d get to finish. I wasn’t going to leave without at least one swim finished. If I missed one or even two more, so be it. I was going to finish this 5k.

Furthermore, I still loved being in the river—the chop, the sun shining on the water, rhythm of breathing—this was home.

Finally, 800m turn buoys came into view—it would be only a quarter mile from there to the finish. I swam harder as I got closer…. Closer… Closer. Touched the dock. Finished.

At first, I thought I’d missed the start not only of the mile but the 800. Fortunately, I still had 25 minutes before my 800 heat. After some chugs of Gatorade, 2 protein bars, and a bottle of XRCel (, I was ready to take on a second swim (and it didn’t hurt that the swim would be only a fraction of the previous distance).

For the 800, I pushed my pace harder since I didn’t have to keep too much in reserve. Once I was headed downstream, I got into semi-sprint mode, and it wasn’t too long before I reached the 800 turn and could swim to the finish. My time was 25:48, which while not my fastest 800 wasn’t my slowest either. Considering I’d been swimming over 3 hours with the tow float turned parachute, I was pleased.

After all the kayaks and gear were packed and put away, Jana Nagoski, John Kenny, and I found outdoor seating at the Great American Pub in Conshohocken, where we raised pints of beer and feasted on some tasty goodies). Thanks, John, for the ride home, for your puns, for your support of my swimming!

L: Volunteer John Shoen holding a race swim cap

Below: Setting out to prepare the course


Sunday, Sept. 13: a quiet one hour swim which Garmin tells me was 2173 yards of pure bliss: a sunny morning, a nice mix of slow, easy swimming, some drills, some mixing of strokes (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, mostly freestyle), and sprints.

Every time I see the Schuylkill, you might understand why I think with affection, MY RIVER!


Swimmers wrapped in water (left and below)

Thursday, September 03, 2020

2020 Charles Bender Memorial Marathon Swim

With so many events canceled in 2020 because of the covid19 pandemic, the Charles Bender Memorial Marathon Swim and relay took place August 28, thanks to the hard work of Race Director John Kenny and an amazing team of volunteers, including my wonderful kayaker, Matt Bender, Charles’s son—and I think his dad would be proud of him. 

Despite getting a slow swimmer, he showed grace and patience, as he guided me through the course, including a tricky channel with some shallow spots, made sure I was adequately fed and hydrated, and saw me through the hours it took for me to finish.

 Yes, I was, happily able to finish this 8-mile swim! Katie Ledecky doesn't have to look nervously over her shoulder to see if I'm gaining on her. 🙂 But that said, I feel proud of and grateful for my finish.

I wasn't sure how I'd do with an upstream current on the second half, but conditions were ideal.

When I felt tired, I thought of Jaimie Monahan and her week of swims around Manhattan and of Sarah Thomas and her 4 way English Channel crossing. In fact, I wore the MSF t-shirt honoring her swim, showing the four-way track, as well as “I believed that I could.”

 Those words became a driving force for me, especially when my body began to rebel, my back to hurt, my arms to protest. Something—not sure how to describe it—kept me pressing on. In fact, sometimes I think in water, I become a different, stronger person than on land. It’s not that self-doubts disappear. They don’t. It’s not that I suddenly become superwoman. I don’t. I hurt and sometimes wonder if I can keep on stroking.

 I think it can be summed up in “I believed that I could.” The days preceding the swim, I did wonder how I’d do given having to push against an upstream current to finish and given the fact that covid meant more limited pool use than I had access to last year. Yet I had—what? An intuition? A stubborn hope? A drive to get in one marathon swim in 2020 despite the insanity of this year?

 The swim was studded with wonder.

 I saw a great blue heron lift off out of the water.

 I rode with the current and felt it splashing into my face (fortunately not nearly as fast as I feared).

 I prayed. Repeated mantras. Stronger with each stroke. Stay in the present. And in the last mile when hurting: #justkeepswimmingjustkeepswimming

 During second half, Charles’ brother Greg joined Matt and me. He had been kayaking for someone in the 5k, so having finished that responsibility, he kayaked along beside us to keep us company joining us near the 5k finish.

 “You’re kicking butt!” he announced. I was happy to hear that, yet overall just happy at that point that I was still feeling good—I’d gone by then about a mile upstream. I was pushing the pace a little harder than during the downstream leg, as I wanted to save something for the upstream stretch.

 I enjoyed half-hearing their chat as I swam and being included in it during feeds (which though they needed to be short so I could keep progressing, were welcome interludes).

 When my energy flagged, Greg called out, “Can you see the bridge?” (He was referring to the Rte 422 Bridge that crosses the river a little past the finish. I couldn’t yet, but I took his word for it. Then the two of them told me they could see the orange buoys marking the Catfish Dam (that place we had to negotiate carefully with its shallows). Yet I kept thinking “Why aren’t those buoys getting closer?”

 Well, they were, but slowly. And not swimming wouldn’t bring me any closer so just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming.

 About a half-mile from the finish, having passed Catfish Dam at last, I heard a woman’s voice shout, “Girl, you’ve got this!” Much needed shot of energy.

 Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming.

 I realized shortly afterward that the voice belonged to John Kenny’s girlfriend Christina Cunningham, kayaking with a sunflower in the bow, cheering, and shooting video. (I’d share, but I can’t seem to download from Facebook—so you’re welcome to visit the French Creek Racing page on Facebook, where you’ll find it.)

 Further along, with Matt on my right, I looked to the left, and there was John Kenny kayaking next to me. “You’re almost there,” he told me.

Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming. 

I felt teary-eyed by this time, not from pain but from the sheer exhilaration mixed with pain, that yes, I was going to finish this one after a DNF in 2017 (finished it the previous year…. Had begun to wonder if that was a fluke, and while I wasn’t sure how this year would go, I wasn’t about to DNF). I reminded myself—don’t cry yet. You need to keep going.

Then the dock came into view, marking the finish.

Closing in on it, I did a few joyful butterfly strokes. I’m no butterfly star, but I switch to it when I feel the joy of the moment, a way of saying “this swim hasn’t finished me off!” I remember Charles Bender finishing off our 2015 Boston Light relay with some butterfly. I don’t have his technique, but it’s still a fun stroke for a quick burst.

I touched the dock.

My Bender Memorial Marathon Swim 2020 in the books. Other swims canceled/postponed/turned virtual. No Great South Bay Swim, no Swim to the Moon, no Swim the Suck (although GSB and Swim the Suck are free entries next year, and Swim to the Moon became virtual). But the Bender Swim was ON!!

So I wanted very, very much to take part, to have my over the top adventure (although I'm humbled and inspired and motivated by the over the top swims mentioned above).

I was the slowest swimmer to finish. Yet I wasn't concerned w time or place, just wanted to finish.

And thanks to so many, I did. Huge thanks to John Kenny for all that you did to coach, encourage, and keep swimming alive for us, for those practice runs against the current, for nagging me about sighting, breathing on both sides, working on hip rotation, and believing in me.

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.