The North Channel

S: On June 26, 2019, at approximately 5:00am, I attempted to swim the North Channel. Onboard my pilot boat to ensure my safety, guide the way, provide nutritious feeds, coach me through the strong currents, and encourage my spirits were: the brilliant boat pilot Padraig Mallon, the magnificent Maryl Carow, the enthusiastic nut Jack Boyle, and the thorough and thoughtful Sean McDonald.

O: Preparation:

It was before dawn when we arrived at the marina to load gear and board the boat that would take me to Donaghadee to start the swim. The sky was overcast obscuring the stars, but there were Black Guillemots perched along the edge of the marina seawall, next to the stairs that led down to the boats. They didn’t seem to be disturbed by our passing, as they stood, extended their wings, and then resumed their initial position.

There was another swimmer also preparing. Graham, a two time English Channel Swimmer Veteran, from England, with his son (who looked slightly older than my son Tiernan) who was serving as his crew. They were boarding the neighboring boat to embark on Graham’s second attempt of the North Channel. His first attempt was last September. He said, he was back to settle unfinished business and wished me luck.

Our boats cruised about a half hour south east to Donaghadee, just as a red sun rose over Scotland. It was high tide and we could see people on the shore cheering our start. The shore area where they stood, however, was surrounded by large, black rocks, which the waves repeatedly crashed into. Graham dove in from his boat approximately 50 meters away from mine, and Padraig pointed toward a gap in the rocks where I should aim, to officially start my swim. The start would consist of me standing in waist-deep (or less) water, with both arms raised above my head, and a whistle from the boat.

This was more challenging than it sounded. Once in the water, I could no longer see the gap between the rocks, where I was instructed to swim to, because of the crashing waves and my tinted goggles (designed for daylight, sunny swimming, which it would be soon enough, but not yet) made everything look dark. Although clumsily, I eventually balanced well enough with the arches of my feet on a large pointy boulder, waves beating my thighs, to begin the swim. Graham didn’t appear to have trouble coordinating his start and was already well ahead of me. This was not a race though, it was my own individual challenge. I tuned out Graham and his team, lined myself up so that my crew was to my right, blocking the view of his boat, and got into a groove. The water temperature felt comfortable, there was no chop, and I felt strong.

The Scenery: The swim was beautiful. There were three islands called the Copeland Islands to my left at the start. The island furthest from shore had a white lighthouse, that was the last part of Ireland still visible to me later in the swim. There were also many enormous Lion’s Mane Jellyfish, with heads that I estimate to have been 1.5 feet in diameter, and their hundreds of tentacles stretching at least the length of a 25 meter swimming pool. The greatest adventure of the entire attempt was when Jack and Sean stood on the bow of the boat and directed me through mazes of the jellies with their hoots, points, and “come here” gestures. On one feed break, as I drank mint tea on my back, Jack instructed me lift up my bum so I was completely flat on the surface, as a large one apparently drifted right below me. The Lion’s Manes remained very deep for the most part, adding to the beauty of the swim, but I did hit one that’s head was maybe 20 feet below me. It was upside down and all its tentacles rose to the surface, where they brushed against my right forearm. Strangely, I barely registered the stinging since I was experiencing other more concerning issues.

Physical Sensations: Just before I was informed that I was in the slack tide (I have no idea how long I’d been swimming as time seems to no longer exist when in the swim), my chest started to hurt on inhalation. It felt full of gunk and my sternum stung. I was having difficulties rotating to my left side to breathe, and I could barely inhale enough air to keep my face in the water for two-to-three strokes. I began to hear an audible rattle and wheeze on all my inhalations.

Jack asked me to switch to backstroke for a half hour to see if it would help me power through the slack tide, before I encountered the current that would arrive with the next tide shift. Backstroke worked with consequences, I was faster, but my chest hurt more. I felt like I needed to cough, but couldn’t, and the rattle and wheeze of my breathing was always present. I switched back to freestyle after the next feed. I was more comfortable on the pain scale, but I still struggled to breathe to my left side, and I couldn’t hold my breath, in order to breathe every four strokes, which meant I was breathing every two strokes to my right (a very inefficient and dizzying stroke in open water).

Jack started writing comments on the white board instructing me to focus on my pull and the mechanics of my stroke. These were excellent cues because they distracted me from the chop that had blown in with the current, and the obstruction I felt in my chest. Unfortunately, I couldn’t correct my stroke. I have no clue what my left arm was doing, but my right arm was being led by my shoulder, not my elbow, and my forearm would just crash into the water all at once at my side, rather than fingertips first, up above my head. Jack again tried to encourage me to flip to my back, but it was more painful and I couldn’t inhale enough air when on my back to feel comfortable.

Eventually, Padraig emerged to my side, having left his spot behind the wheel and said, that he didn’t like the sound my breathing was making, and that I had a half an hour to increase my stroke rate before he called it. I asked about Graham as we had passed him hours before and I hadn’t seen his boat in the distance for several hours.

During my struggle, the thought of Graham was comforting because I knew that I wasn’t alone in this battle. He was behind me fighting the same wind and chop. I was informed he had turned back already. I dropped my face back in, knowing that I was alone, but relieved that my crew realized my breathing difficulties, and that it was their concern for me that would stop the swim, rather than me giving up. I focused all of my attention on increasing my stroke rate and couldn’t do it. It just made me hyperventilate more, and I could no longer inhale sufficient air. I popped my head up, admitted to not being able to breathe, and was quickly pulled from the water, dressed, warmed, an oxygen mask was placed over my mouth and nose, and oxygen was administered as the boat cruised back to Bangor.

A: Padraig confirmed the worry that plagued my thoughts, when he said I experienced Swimming Induced Pulmonary Edema (SIPE). He has seen it many times. I first read about it after Bainbridge. Although, I never had breathing difficulties during that long training swim, I experienced lower oxygen levels when lying on my back at my dermatology appointment two-days afterwards, felt extremely winded after easy routine tasks like showering, walking, and cleaning, and when I swam four-days after Bainbridge, I couldn’t side breathe on either side and ended up swimming backstroke. That initial swim was so discomforting, every training I swim I did, even short ones in very warm water afterwards was with a kayaker. Maryl was very sick with a cough during this time and allergies were rampant for students and teachers, so I chalked my breathing difficulties to allergies, and a side effect of my longest swim in cold water, and pushed the possibility of SIPE out of my mind.

I don’t have my North Channel observation notes yet from the official observer, but will include them in a post when they’re available. I do know I swam ten-ish hours, more than half-way with an intended distance/route of approximately 45 km. The water temperature was reported to me to be between 50 and 53 degrees, which felt comfortable (I didn’t experience grumpiness, a clawed hand, slurred speech), my quads got sore (which an Ibuprofen fixed), I had no cramps after a preventative Hotshot, and I experienced SIPE. Before Padraig discussed stopping swim, observers were concerned that my consistent stroke rate of 56-57 had dropped significantly to 44.

P: Take it easy while my lungs are repairing themselves, and work with my medical providers when I get home to Oregon so that I can continue to swim in open water safely.

Bangor, Northern Ireland

Bangor, from the Bangor Marina seawall

It’s 9:45pm in Bangor and Maryl has already gone to bed, on the pull-out sofa bed in the living room of the apartment, we have booked for the week. The sun has not set yet. I have a hard time going to bed when it is still light outside when school is in session, so even with a looming swim, I’m not ready to wind down and go to sleep. It is only 1:45pm at home. I think my body clock favors Pacific Standard Time. After sight-seeing and 15-20 miles of walking (many of those uphills on cliff-side stairs between natural attractions) over the past two days, we had a pretty mellow Sunday.

I slept in until 9:45 am. Took some pictures of the apartment, which we moved into yesterday, after taking the train from Belfast, and made scrambled eggs for breakfast to top the re-heated chips (what we call french fries in the states) from dinner number one yesterday (yes that is correct we ate two dinners yesterday! I’ll get to that in a bit), all while listening to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Thank you Maryl for tolerating this routine!

Back to the dinners. We ate first dinner early (maybe 4:30-5:00), after scoping out the marina and looking for a place, where I could safely hop in, to acclimate to the temperature. The restaurant was called The Salty Dog and they had gluten free fish and chips. I have not eaten fish in chips since being diagnosed with celiac disease, so more than 8 years ago. This was very exciting! Also really fun, was that there were well behaved pups everywhere in the restaurant and out our window, in view, on the porch. This was the dog friendliest restaurant I’ve ever been to, and overall I’ve seen more dogs in Bangor than anywhere else in Ireland. The city is full of cute furry pups. I’ve been on a mission to learn what Irish people name their dogs, while visiting with the dog walkers heading in the opposite direction. Today I met “Meg” and “Molly.” Maryl met a “Shingle,” while I was swimming, and we met a lovely woman/yoga teacher for children with ASD/North Channel Crew support, who has a dog named “Chunk.” She named him after Chunk in The Goonies (her favorite Movie).

Anyways here we go yet again, to last night’s dinner number two. After the The Salty Dog, we walked a couple of miles along the waterfront, still searching for the best possible swim spot, since the tide was very low and there were many exposed, barnacle-covered rocks breaking through the sea surface off shore. We found a nice, sandy beach, but with the tide so far out, the beach was like a quicksand mudflat, for at least 200 yards. I decided not to embarrass myself, getting stuck to my knees in mud, while trying to get out to the sea, and to just wait for high tide the next day. When we got back to the apartment, we sat out on the patio, where we were bombarded with the aroma of Indian cooking. Our front door apparently looks into the kitchen, on the back side, of an Indian restaurant! We only fasted about 15-20 minutes before both Maryl and I were in agreement that it was going to be a two dinner day. She ordered a prawn curry (the best of our orders), and I got the butter chicken. I’m pretty positive that I have never experienced two-dinners, in different restaurants, on the same night before. Maybe we’ll do it again after my big swim!

Our empty patio chairs after the decision was made.

This morning after washing the breakfast dishes, we walked up another decent hill, to Bangor Castle. The main castle is now a city building, but where the stables and laundry facility used to be, there is a very informative museum with high quality exhibits.

Bangor Castle

A model of Bangor Castle made out of 43,000 sugar cubes.

Padraig Mallon, the director of the crew company for my swim, messaged me as we were leaving Bangor Castle for a meet-up at The Salty Dog. I’ve read about Paidraig on the Infinity Channel website. He has an extensive, ultra distance athletic marathon, which includes finishing the North Channel resume. I’m hopeful he will be my pilot, and I was eager to meet him and find out swim logistics. Maryl and I met up with him and his partner Shirley, and left the conference feeling confident of our safe passage. I did learn that the swim route I will be taking is more likely 45km or 27.9 miles rather than the 22 miles that is the most direct route between the Irish starting point at Donaghadee and the Scottish point at Portpatrick. This is due to the currents and the changing tides. The strongest currents will be at the end when I’m approximately 3 miles off the Scottish coast, so I must maintain stamina and keep my mind in the swim!

After our departure from Shirley and Padraig, Maryl and I hit the beach and I got my first swim in the Irish Sea since swimming off Forty Foot near Dublin last August! I’m feeling ready! Padraig messaged me later and thinks I will start early Tuesday morning with the high tide. This is subject to change of course if the weather predictions change significantly. Tomorrow (Monday here) will be a busy day of feed, gear, and mindfulness preparations. Hopefully a good sleep-in too, since this is likely my last night and subsequent, relaxed morning before the swim. I will try to post something on #rijl_swims on instagram. Can’t Wait!

Padraig and I on sidewalk in front of The Salty Dog.

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Couch to North Channel Training Swim: Bainbridge Island

I’ve spent the last week since this training swim recovering, caring for a sick pup (who toxified himself on my unopened post-swim dark chocolate toffee bar, that he had to get onto the counter to find), making saran wrap party prize balls for end-of-the-year speech therapy celebrations, creating certificates for students moving on to the upper elementary school next fall, and trying to mentally structure my Bainbridge swim into a coherent blog post that contains the most important details.

Today it occurred to me that I should write this post as a SOAP note. I wrote SOAP notes after speech clinic sessions in graduate school, and for medicaid billing when I worked with the birth-to-three population. I don’t remember the last one I wrote, but the format is an easy fall-back for me, and I think it will help me organize all the thoughts that have been randomly drifting through my mind since the swim.

Previously, I’ve discussed my funny looking facial tans and sunburns from my swim cap, and I want to take a moment before I start my SOAP note to thank Dr. Lyons, who retired this last Thursday, her staff from Kaiser Dermatology, and all my friends and family who have been sending me positive vibes these past few weeks.

I saw Dr. Lyons several weeks ago for a suspicious mole near my ear. She conducted a whole body skin examination (only politely encouraging me to wear tights and a rash guard for long swims, rather than lecturing me on my swimming tan lines and patches of sunburn from the 20 mile training swim two days before), and agreed that the spot by my ear was atypical in appearance (fortunately that was the only unusual spot). She graciously worked with me, taking into consideration all my upcoming swim dates, to schedule the best time for a biopsy. I went in Tuesday morning, the day after returning from Bainbridge (giving Clarence the opportunity to eat my chocolate toffee bar). Two days later, I received an email from her office. The nevus was benign.  The message also read, “I hope that it is healing well and that she succeeds at her next big swim!” I never imagined I would have so much support from a dermatology department in addition to my own M.D’s medical office. Especially when I am likely a dermatologist’s worst nightmare (fair skin, blue eyes, blonde hair).

Ok. here it goes. Bainbridge Island…

S.  After a 3:30am alarm, weather app check (forecast mostly cloudy with a high of 69 degrees on Bainbridge Island), a hard boiled egg, slice of cheese, banana, and some beet juice for breakfast, my swim officially started at 5:47am Sunday, May 26th, as I stood above the water line on the left side of Bainbridge, Island’s Skiff Point Pier. The plan was to swim counter-clockwise around the island and exit the water to the right of the Pier to finish.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThat’s me covered with Desitin after swimming from the boat to the starting point.

On board the support boat were: Andrew Malinak (Pilot and safety plan creator extraordinaire); Maryl Carow (Crew Member, who spent many Sunday mornings this winter helping me warm up after acclimating swims in the Columbia River and Hagg Lake); Margot McKirdy (Crew Member and the first Oregon Wild Swimmer I ever met, who welcomed me to the club, back in May, 2017); Tiernan (Safety Crew/son, who won’t make my North Channel swim later this month, but as a teen in today’s culture, needed to experience an off-screen adventure, and see what hard work and practice looks like); Melissa Nordquist (Official Observer, who I didn’t get to chat with much during the swim, but she received rave reviews from Margot and Maryl).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATiernan and me on the boat leaving Elliott Bay Marina to Skiff Point Pier for swim start.

O: Overall, the weather was mostly sunny. The sky became cloudy completely obscuring my view of any blueness and the sun, during the Rich Passage section of the swim. Once I escaped the passage, the sun eventually reappeared. The water temperature at the start was 51 degrees Fahrenheit. It rose to a high of 55F on the west side of the island, and then dropped to a low of 48 degrees in Rich Passage at the south end of the island. I quit counting the Lion’s Mane Jellyfish after 24, which I saw prior to entering Rich Passage. There were also many Moon Jellies and Egg Yolk Jellies. The water felt fairly calm for the majority of the swim (e.g., significant less chop in comparison to windy Hagg Lake training swims). I was told before I exited the water, that I swam 23 miles in 12 hours and 23 minutes, and that I still had four more miles to go to get back to Skiff Point Pier.IMG_0032

Map of swim. Sorry it’s a screen shot. I’m not sure how long the link to the website will stay active.

I’m under the blue blanket lying on the floor between Maryl and Andrew, shivering and chattering, out of the wind on return crossing to Elliott Bay Marina

A: Several weeks ago, Cindy Werhane, my Oregon Wild and Yeti mentor, who just finished swimming 20 Bridges around Manhattan Island yesterday, asked me, “What is your why for swimming the North Channel?” I said, “to have fun, and I want to see if I can.” She laughed and responded with, “I don’t think anyone would say swimming the North Channel is fun!” I definitely enjoyed this swim. It was evident to my crew, as Maryl told everyone on the boat at one point out of my ear shot that, “Rijl is in her happy place.” Later during a feed, I told Margot to let Cindy know, “I’m having a blast!”

Water Conditions: I had fantastic surface water conditions with few choppy sections. I may not be so lucky in the North Channel, but thanks to very windy days at Hagg Lake this spring, I feel prepared to handle less favorable surface conditions. I am still concerned about the jellyfish though. Although I saw many, I don’t think I directly hit one. I did swim through knots of brown seaweed (one in particular caused a moderate pins and needles sensation on my forearm for many hours) that may have obscured tentacles and other unpleasant biting/stinging creatures. All week, I’ve been treating half a dozen suspicious, penny-sized patches of little red, itchy bumps on my stomach with antihistamine cream. I have no idea what caused them, but as far as I know, I avoided all direct encounters with jellies (however, I may not have noticed when cognitive functions waned. Read below).

Distance: I was told, when I was offered the opportunity to stop, that I had swam 23 miles and had four miles to go to completely circumnavigate the island. The North Channel is 21.8 miles. Now that I’ve swam 22-23 miles (the tracker recorded 22.3 miles) with a remainder of physical energy, I feel confident that I can swim the distance between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Physical Ability: Prior to reaching the half-way point, both rotator cuffs and the back of my left knee (at the joint) hurt. I took a feed bottle that had a dose of children’s liquid Ibuprofen and once I reached the coldest water, my shoulder joints were no longer sore. The back of my knee did continue to hurt, and soon both quads became extremely cold, rigid, and painful. As I neared the exit of the passage, my thighs started to shiver uncontrollably and remained sore until I woke up Tuesday morning. I never cramped and my shoulders and back felt strong the entire swim, with minimal second day soreness. The only physical side effect that lingered all week and that I am continuing to monitor, has been the sensation of a constriction or weight mid-chest. The morning after the swim, I began to have difficulty breathing when I rolled onto my side in bed. Once up and moving around, I became easily winded doing stairs and bending down to pick up bags off the floor. It felt effortful to fully inhale and expand my lungs until Thursday, when I swam at sunset with Margot. I couldn’t fully inhale at that time while side breathing when swimming freestyle. I ended up alternating breaststroke and backstroke with long treading water breaks (I continued to breathe more quickly and feel winded). My oxygen reading at Kaiser Tuesday morning was 100%. A week post-swim, I still have a mild sensation (incomparable to any feeling I’ve ever experienced) around my sternum when I inhale deeply. I’m waiting for this to subside completely before I swim again. Once it has improved, and I can comfortably breathe bilaterally again, I’ll have more confidence in my physicality for the channel.

Temperature: The 51 degree water temperature at dawn felt manageable for a complete island circumnavigation. I asked not to be informed of the water temperature, but I have a decent internal thermometer gauge from experience. I knew when swimming in Rich Passage, the water was in the upper forties. I pushed through it, believing it would warm again on the east side of the island, but it never really did. On a feed over half-way through the passage, I told everyone on the boat “I’m cold.” Andrew “Woo-hoo!”-ed me at that point (thank you Andrew! In hindsight there was no better response, as I didn’t know how to respond. I just drank my feed on my back and kept going). On the next feed, Margot got in to swim with me. 30 minutes later, on the following feed (an hour after the first “I’m cold”) I again said, “I’m cold.” Margot (who seemed to be inches from my face in the water with me and apparently hadn’t heard me the first time) chimed in with, “listen, this is the first time you’ve said you’re cold. You’re going to keep going.” I tossed my feed bottle back and complied (thank you Margot). I haven’t seen the official observation record yet, but I have heard from everyone on board that my attitude and demeanor changed during Rich Passage (I wasn’t as cheerful or talkative on feed breaks). Once Margot got in the water with me, everything became hazy, and I’m not exactly sure what all happened. I recall that I could only focus on two things. 1. The cold (e.g., my painful, shivering thighs; wondering if all the blood supply below my knees was constricted to keep my core warm; just mentally trying to maintain the temperature of my core). 2. Where was that Seattle to Bainbridge Ferry Harbor? I was going to have to cross it and potentially hold beside it at some point to wait for the ferries to pass (In my head, once I crossed that ferry harbor, I was finished and that thought consumed me). 

I was always aware that Margot was with me, but I must have quit monitoring my pilot boat. I think I was suddenly all over the place. Initially, I was always between the shore and the boat. In my haze, I somehow ended up on the right side of the pilot boat (now between the boat and Seattle far to my right). I quit seeing and caring about the jellyfish, and apparently completely didn’t notice a shallow reef with choppy, churning water that Margot and I swam over. Margot eventually got back onto the boat, and I kept going. Around 3.5-4 hours after my first “I’m cold,” declaration, I still passed the cognitive questions the crew asked me (although I responded in an annoyed tone after lengthy wait times, and Tiernan told me later that my speech was barely intelligible), but when Margot asked me if I wanted to get out and be done, and after I asked how much longer until the finish, and was told it was four more miles, I said I was done and swam to the boat. Once out of the water, I warmed up relatively quickly (boat ride back to Elliott Bay of shivering and chattering) and easily, and the crew decided I probably had at least an hour in that cold still in me. Apparently I was out of hot water though as one 2 qt. thermos had been left in the car so there was no way I had sufficient warm feeds to continue. Infinity Channel Swimming provides five, two quart thermoses, which they say is sufficient for most swimmers. I had six on the boat, but some of my hot water was used to warm up the crew. In any case, I will need more than five thermoses for the channel and the crew will never ask me if I want to be finished. In total, I was in the cold Puget Sound (with the lowest water temperatures six degrees colder than the posted temps of the North Channel) for 12 hours and 23 minutes. I feel like my ability to handle the cold is my biggest strength at this time. The channel may be close to feeling balmy after this Bainbridge attempt. Let’s hope!

P: Rock my North Channel swim.                      

Mother’s Day 16

Mother’s Day weekend 16 years ago, I was staying in an ocean front cabin in La Push, Washington on the Olympic Peninsula. I was 22, six-months pregnant, student teaching history full time at Port Angeles High School, and living with my aunt Tess Gallagher and her Irish partner Josie Gray in Port Angeles, WA, 90 minutes away. My college dorm mates from Whitman College came up for the weekend from Walla Walla, WA. This was before the Twilight Saga, so we walked the uncharacteristically warm sunny beaches, sang songs by a beach fire, and played card games, instead of taking a Twilight tour. We did go grocery shopping in the neighboring town, Forks, that Saturday, where a woman shopping asked me if Sunday was going to be my first Mother’s Day. She congratulated me and wished me a “Happy Mother’s Day!” This exchange with this woman at the small grocery store in Forks still resonates with me today, as it was the first “Happy Mother’s Day!” exclamation ever directed to me, and one of the few I received that year.

During my student teaching practicum, when I told my cooperating teachers that I was single and pregnant, I was asked to try to conceal my pregnancy from the Port Angeles high school students, as it would be a poor example to set for them. Although I disagreed, I had graduated from Whitman two-years early, was finishing a post-baccalaureate teaching certificate, I was passionate about working with kids, and I was confident I could raise a happy baby while making a positive difference wherever life took me, I successfully hid my pregnancy. It too lots of jackets, cardigans and 6:15am “pregnancy belly checks” before I left the house every day for the high school. Since I was out of town Mother’s Day weekend and it was warm, I let my small town guard down and ditched the jacket revealing my expanded stomach, which cued the woman at the store.

I was always taught that I could do anything. I remember passing the Bellingham Herald Building, while riding to summer swimming lessons in the back seat of our Mazda 626 and telling my parents up in the front seats, that I was going to be a nurse when I grew up. My dad said something along the lines of, you might as well just be a doctor, and my mom agreed saying, you would have to be able to clean up vomit if you are going to be a nurse. I planned on being a doctor for years after that discussion. I even had the hospital doctor in Skagit Valley explain step by step what he was doing, when he stitched up my thigh after a fall on a stake at summer camp, years later. I memorized what he said and watched it all.

The outlook of the high school teachers, who didn’t think the students should know I was pregnant, was unlike the “anything is achievable” filter, I learned growing up. I read their attitude as, “Her life is over. Chance of future success gone.”

Since that semester practicum: I finished my teaching program; substitute taught for the district; guided kayak tours; was the Health and Safety Services Director for the American Red Cross Olympic Peninsula Chapter; was accepted into graduate school in a competitive field and program (Communication Sciences and Disorders); graduated from the graduate program; maintained a great career working with kids who need support to effectively share their thoughts by speaking coherently; raised a kind young man who just competed in his first district tennis tournament. Next up… Attempting to be the first woman to swim around Bainbridge Island. Bainbridge Island represents freedom to me because for the five years I lived on the Olympic Peninsula, the Bainbridge Island Ferry was my escape to civilization (e.g., Mariners Games and weekend getaways at April’s and Dave’s in Seattle with activities like organic baby food cooking classes). I hope that if I can swim around the island some young women on the peninsula become motivated and think, I can do something like that too. Yes you can!

Swimming around Bainbridge Island was planned initially last fall, as my final big North Channel training swim. Water temps will likely be comparable to the North Channel, it’s salt water, and the distances between the two swims are approximate. At the time it was planned, I thought even finishing 18 miles would be a success, as I would be more aware of my challenges before the North Channel swim attempt. Now that I’m at the peak of my training, I want to finish the circumnavigation. My body has proven to me that it can handle swimming 20 miles, but there will be currents and tides around the island that I’m not accustomed to swimming in, so it really is a training experiment. I’m going to keep going for as long as I possibly can though! “I think I can” (The Little Engine that Could was one of Tiernan’s favorite books for years!).

The book has already closed on yesterday’s 20 mile Hagg Lake Swim, but I completed it, I feel strong (I swam 27-28 miles last week), and below are some photos from the pre-swim.

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Covered in Desitin. Should have somehow gotten some under the edge of my cap as I have a bad “Marv” burn again on my forehead.

Closing the Book

This past week I frequently found myself reflecting on last week’s Hagg Lake 30k Challenge attempt. In my warm-up shower at home, hours after the swim, I wished I had told the last group of paddlers to get in their car and meet me at the next parking lot for a feed. Maybe I could have pushed my beaten body another two to three miles. Who knows, possibly after those hypothetical few extra miles, I could have continued on to complete the 18 mile training swim?

After two days of those thoughts interfering with my showers, night time reading, driving and Barre3 workouts, I decided I would restore my meditation practice. I restarted a HeadSpace mindfulness program for athletes in training, that I completed back in January when I first started increasing my distance in the pool. I found the program very enlightening at the time, but apparently had not successfully incorporated the information into my swimming trainings, and subsequently forgotten it all.

HeadSpace compares training to bookends being opened and closed. At first I visualized this analogy as books being stacked next to each other on a shelf. The first book end is placed on the shelf at the opening of a workout, books are lined up next to it representing completion of different sets, and at the completion of the workout, the second bookend is set on the shelf, closing the workout. As I am no longer doing regular interval sets, as my focus at this time is to increase my endurance while maintaining a steady pace, I have tweaked this imagery from bookends to a book cover. The book opens when my toes enter the water, and the book closes when I exit. All reflection on the swimming session should take place during the swim while the book is open, and once the book is closed, it is time to eject that training from the mind.

This guided imagery helped me move past last week’s failed challenge attempt, which allowed me to focus on preparing for the May 4th Hagg Lake 16 Mile Challenge. Since the Hagg Lake 16 mile challenge has happened and I shouldn’t still be reflecting on it, the following will be a brief summary, before I close the book.

Summary:

Start Time: 6:17am

End Time: 3:35pm-ish (Watch Battery was long dead so no precise finish time available).

Course: Four, clockwise four mile loops, beginning and finishing at the Eagle Point boat ramp.

Support Crew: Nick (Kayaked for first six miles. He is a 100 mile ultra runner and Ironman), Maryl (behavior teacher extraordinaire, provided shore support for miles seven to 12 3/4 by mixing warm drinks and driving between boat ramps with warm feeds, gummy worms, and baby sunblock.), Amy (my good friend and favorite substitute teacher provided car support and kayak support for miles 12 3/4 to 16, and made sure I exited and warmed up safely).

Conditions: Glass-like water as the sun was rising. Wind and under water current present south of Sain Creek beginning around mile 6 when Nick took off leaving me with my orange tow buoy with mint tea with pure carb drink attached. Wind and waves (not as extreme as the previous Saturday’s) until mile 12 3/4. Then light chop from there until finish. Lots of sun and warm water. I never experienced slurred speech like I do in cold conditions.

Feeds: Hot Chocolate, Chai Tea, Mint Tea with Carb Powder added, Mint Tea without carb additives, Arbonne Phytosport hydration packets with Carb Powder additive, and Gummy Worms.

During Swim Thoughts: M.I.S (my students and I read in The Boys in the Boat this past week that the University of Washington coxswain yelled M.I.B (Mind in Boat) every time the boys were to start the catch of their stroke) “Mind in Swim,” don’t “stop traffic” with your hands because this is a swim, this is like swimming pool warm, just get to next boat ramp, yay I’m learning how to pee while swimming (peeing in water has been very challenging for me, and is crucial for health during marathon swims), “my body is stronger than my mind thinks it is,” and “I’m going to make this!”

Sensations: Soreness in trapezius muscles and deltoids, and stomach cramping and pain for last two miles. I was told this week that I will vomit during North Channel swim. My response was “no I won’t.” The response I got back was “Never say never.” Feeding horizontally for hours, and drinking carb drinks messes with your digestion. I think I was starting to feel the effects.

Emotions: Ecstatic, content, and confident.

Reflection from Today: I’m a lot less sore today than I was every single day last week. This is progress!

Present Moment: It’s time to forget about this training session. I’m closing the book. No other training swim will be exactly like this one, and it is time to start planning this week’s training schedule. Three weeks from today… I attempt to be the first woman to swim around Bainbridge Island (25 miles).

I’m Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

buff from my brother has been my most important fashion accessory for all outings since Saturday’s Hagg Lake 30k challenge. I’ve worn this buff twice now. The first time was last July as sun protection when I was Michelle’s support paddler for the Portland Bridge Swim. The last three day’s, I haven’t been separated from the buff, as it is concealing my swim cap sunburn. The few students I have shown this sunburn to (students who also have goofy sunburns from this past weekend) laugh hysterically because my cap burn matches Marv’s facial burn, from when the hot iron fell on his face, in the movie Home Alone. I am not sponsored by buff or receiving any compensation for my endorsement of their product, but if the company has any interest in sponsoring a marathon swimmer or donating some extra buffs, either to match a wider variety of outfits for someone needing to conceal iron shaped sunburns, or to give to my crew as thank you gifts, I would be grateful.

In preparation for the 30k, I frequently kept tabs on the weather all last week. Initially rain was predicted and a high of 55 degrees. Later this changed to cloudy conditions with a high of 57, and by Saturday morning, my phone app indicated partly sunny skies and highs in the upper 50s. I was relieved when the rain forecast changed for the sake of my good-hearted support paddlers, but the dry conditions meant more preparation for me. I am a blue-eyed blond with a history of atypical skin nevi, which means I’m at higher risk for skin cancer, and therefore needed to go shopping for sufficient sun protection and application supplies. On rainy days, I apply regular waterproof sunblock (even though this lasts about 90 minutes), and on days with sun and high clouds, my support crew and I glove up and apply Desitin (a diaper rash ointment with zinc). As with Buff, I am also not sponsored by Desitin or funded in any way. Their product works well for me and other marathon swimmers, as it was suggested to me by word of mouth from experienced swimmers. Desitin hardens (even when wet), prevents suntans and burns, and then takes days of harsh scrubbing with dish soap and body oil, to remove completely. It is known to ruin paint on cars. My friend Cindy still points out a Desitin spot on her kayak from me bumping into it (while covered in Desitin) on a swim almost two years ago. Given it is so difficult to remove, you don’t want to get Desitin on your goggles (big reason to wear gloves when putting it on), so to spare my goggles, the upper half of my face was sacrificed and only protected with waterproof sunblock. Now I have this embarrassingly awkward sunburn.

Except for my goggle/forehead area, and a few missed, or too lightly covered spots on my back, I was successfully prepared for the sun. I was not ready, however, for the wind. This was a surprise to me because I consider myself a professional whitewater swimmer. There is a waterfall on the Sol Duc River on the Olympic Peninsula called Rijl Falls, from my days as kayak safety support on white water rafting trips there. This waterfall was named after me by the guide, because every time I attempted it in our training trips, using his plastic sit-on-top kayak, water poured onto my lap, I floated off/fell out of the boat, and then had to navigate the falls boat-less (safely swimming the rapids, feet first on my back of course). This Saturday was my first experience swimming into rapid-like white water. I learned that I’m definitely not a professional in heavy wind circumstances.

My 30k challenge ended up being a 20k swim. The wind started near the end of the first 10k lap, and by the time my second-lap paddler and I were three miles in, she couldn’t safely stop for consistent feed breaks, and she couldn’t keep up with me. There were times when I would pause to see if she was safe, and couldn’t see her. We did stop and discuss if we should call it quits and exit the water, but this was risky as we were no where near our cars and we both could have become hypothermic (she was as drenched as I was). Eventually we made it to a less windy section at the other end of lake and made it to the third paddling team. I had a difficult time calling the swim at that point as the water appeared calmer, but I was battered from being thrown in all directions from waves, under-nourished, and concerned the wind would pick up again. It was the right call because within ten minutes of my exit, we saw a motor boat capsize and need to be rescued.

Despite only swimming 20k of the 30k challenge, I have a new record for my longest swim (7 hours and 15 minutes), and I had a wonderful support team. Ian Maginnis, a  Tualatin Hills Barracuda Masters Swimmer escorted me on 10k lap one. He maintained a direct line and kept me clear of fishing boats. His parents are Irish, and his father is from Bangor, Northern Ireland, where I will be waiting eagerly until my boat pilot gives me my North Channel start time. Kristin Valentine, a fellow Yeti swimmer and Iron Man triathlete, paddle boarded for me on the second 10k lap. I’m sure she worked harder than I did in that wind, and she got us both to the finish safely.  Two more Yeti swimmers, Angie and Amanda were ready and waiting on shore with a camp stove and gluten free muffins and brownies. They were prepared to alternate/swim parts of lap three with me when I coasted in to the end of lap two, but when I said the training swim was finished, they made gluten free grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, and helped me change for a quick warm-up. Thank you all for your energy, thoughtfulness and enthusiasm!

Next big training swim on the agenda is a 25k this Saturday without support boats! Unless… anyone has a much bigger, wind-steady vessel. Please let me know if you do!

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Above map is the first 10k loop from my swim before my watch battery died and quit logging the swim.

Prepping, a Piano, Planning, and Procrastinating

Prepping:

It’s the nicest evening of the year so far in northwest Oregon. Temperatures are still hovering near 70 degrees, with a mainly blue sky enveloping the late, amber sunshine. Rather than swimming in Hagg Lake (where I could be found every day of the previous two weeks), I’m on the couch waiting for Jeopardy to start to see how much money James Holzhauer has won after tonight’s show. I have pressing plans to clean up the dinner mess and prepare for this weekend’s swim, beginning with removing price tags and then washing my newly purchased open water feed bottles, on the commercial breaks. That is, if I don’t get interrupted by a call or text informing me the tennis team is back at the high school, from their away tournament…

This weekend, I will be attempting my first 30km (18 mile) swim by swimming around Hagg lake three times. It will likely take me about three hours per circumnavigation (9-10 hours total, and will then be my longest swim ever). This is not a group event, but a solo training swim to prepare for the North Channel. I thought securing three sets of support paddlers (each set accompanying me on a different 10k loop) and coordinating their anticipated start times was the end of my preparing, but thanks to a wise Yeti leader, it has come to my attention that preparing the kayakers was just part of the planning. I apparently have lots more to cram in after work, these few remaining days until the swim.

It was suggested that: my feed bottles were short-distance feed bottles (5-7 hour swim size); I shouldn’t be using insulated thermos’ to keep my drinks warm, as I could burn myself, and won’t be taking advantage of the warmth to my hands that squeezing a plastic bottle provides; my paddlers won’t be able to add hot water to smaller, plastic bottles to mix new feeds like a crew on a larger, motorized boat can; I will have to pre-make all my feeds ahead of time and find a way to keep them warm as long as possible; I should buy insulated “fisherman” coolers (one for each set of paddlers/each loop of my swim) to hold these bottles; I should stock up on cheap Rubbermaid plastic bottles with a plastic loop so the bottle can be thrown to me, yet easily attached to a rope connected to the boat (these bottles were said to be easy to find at Target and Fred Meyer); I make a decision and choose feeds for Saturday with adequate carbs/calories (rather than wait to the morning of or night before like I typically do); I buy new goggles as I frequently state that mine are too foggy and scratched to see where I’m going; I send a thorough written plan of my wishes, and emergency plan to each of my paddlers. Definitely excellent recommendations!

As of now, I have: three insulated bags; about half the necessary bottles (I spent 45 minutes post an after work vet appointment, following up on healing from earlier this month, unsuccessfully looking for Rubbermaid water bottles before buying five 60% off sport bottles, that I may or may not be able to open when I have mild-to-moderate hypothermic fingers. This is a great time to figure this out now and not in the Irish Sea); Hot Chocolate, Chai Tea, Mint Tea, Positive Energy Sweet Tangerine Tea, Carbopro to add to these teas, and an Arbonne during workout energy drink. I hope to pick up a new pair of goggles, find Rubbermaid bottles like what were recommended to me to use, purchase an armful of break apart hand warmers to keep the fluids warm in their bags, and send my written plan to my paddlers tomorrow afternoon. Next week, I will resume prepping for the North Channel by connecting with more potential sponsors, and buying my return plane ticket.

A Piano:

Early Easter Sunday (four-days ago now), I get an email as I’m running to Barre3, about an upright piano needing a home. Two days prior, the day I was going to buy my return ticket from Dublin to Vancouver, BC, I was held back by an emergency, expensive car repair (I may not be returning to North America from Ireland at this rate). The piano is in Forest Grove and is owned by a friend of a friend. Pianos are obviously not in the forefront of my brain, but until a few years ago, I had a loved, but neglected grand piano, where my parents’ dining room table should have been, in Bellingham, WA. Also only a couple of weeks ago, my son Tiernan informed me he wanted to learn to play the piano. I immediately shot this idea down as he has given up every sport and musical pursuit he has ever had, I had recently sold my piano (that he never was interested in playing), and I was in the midst of severe hand, finger, and wrist pain. We live in a townhome and have a shared wall, which is why the grand piano never made it here. However, the right-sized upright could potentially fit, and guess what? This one is free. I just have to move it. 

I decide that if I can squeeze in a viewing of the piano around training, work, prepping, and home life this week, I will. What’s one more item on my agenda? I’ve been pain free for six days now so the potential “wait and see” autoimmune arthritis’ are also not affecting my judgement. The owner of the piano calls on Tuesday and we agree to meet when I get off work that night. He offers to meet me at BJ’s one of the local coffee houses, with his son, or at the storage unit (which happens to be on my street). Given I don’t personally know these men and the weather is decent (an after work swim was consuming my pre-frontal cortex as I arranged the showing), I choose to meet at the storage unit. He gave me the address and told me to look for the “two old guys.”

The piano is beautiful. It is an 1897 Mason & Hamlin upright from Pennsylvania. It was originally bought in 1897 for the owner’s wife’s mother, the year she was born, with the expectation that she would learn to play it when she was old enough. It has travelled the country and been in the family ever since. They are downsizing and no longer have the space for it. Both father and son were delightful and had fond memories to share, as well as important details about the piano (e.g., where the tuning mallet is located). As we were leaving, I wished we had met up for coffee and more conversation before hand. 

Planning: 

Well I guess I’m getting a piano! In addition to pricing out movers, I need to experiment with living room furniture arrangement, and make sure the neighbors that I share a wall with won’t mind. I’ll think about this Saturday while I’m swimming for 9-10 hours. I was hoping to draft out my swim plan for Saturday in this “planning” section, but it’s late and I need to prepare the most immediate things still tonight: Complete today’s hydration prep work by finishing my pot of herbal tea; Meditate/visualize finishing three successful Hagg Lake loops; organize my swim equipment for a 6:00am sunrise swim in Hagg before work tomorrow. A 2,000m swim tomorrow will contribute to a 36,000m week, if I’m successful Saturday.

Yes I missed the nearly 70 degree evening swim today, but I did Barre3 at 5:45am Monday and today, and feel like I can easily be up to swim at sunrise when it is 44 degrees out. We called these Polar Bear swims at camp when I was a child. These days, I don’t consider the water to be cold enough for a Polar Bear. Tomorrow morning will be closer in temperature to Saturday’s predicted 57 degree overcast high, and very likely closer to temperature conditions of my North Channel swim day. Maybe tomorrow I won’t have excuses and will get to writing the safety plan for Saturday’s Hagg Lake 30km swim challenge!