Fatigue, Pain, Doubt and Recollections

Fatigue:

It’s almost 1:30 in the afternoon on a blustery April Saturday. The sun appears to be attempting to break through a thin cloud layer, and the standing water that pooled and formed mini-lakes on the pavement this morning has evaporated. Siri is playing Adele on Tiernan’s Home Pod and I’m feeling a bit melancholic as I sit on the couch to kill 30 minutes, with my Boston Terrier Clarence. He is under a blanket wearing a tube cone around his neck. I was at the vet for over an hour, in an urgent care squeeze-in appointment Thursday evening after work, spending $273 on eye complications due to allergies. I have to chase him around with three different types of eye drops to be administered three times a day now for two weeks, until his follow-up appointment. I hope I can still make it to work on time given this additional time consuming chore! Right now, I am allowing myself this time in the bummer tent to reflect, before I put on a smile, and hopefully a dry swimming suit, and head to Hagg Lake for a swim with an unexpected friend, who just this morning told me I was going, when I had it in my head that this would be a no swim weekend.

I didn’t just wake up dispirited today. I’m pretty sure I’m experiencing a new flare this week (yesterday and today) or maybe the last flare never entirely went away despite the pain being barely present for almost a week. What type of flare? This is still to be determined. I see the rheumatologist this coming Friday. Tiernan stepped up to the plate to support me last night and got me out of the house and a crummy mood, by telling me to take him to the Mason Jennings concert at the Alberta Rose Theatre. Mason Jennings was my favorite singer through graduate school. He frequently played on our “old” cd player in our apartment in Bellingham and on our drives around Washington State.

Pain Observations:

Last week on my spring break, my joints felt ok for the most part. There were some mobility restraints with my wrists and ankles at times, but the only moderate to severe pain I experienced was from driving  (my right ankle and knee) through the Portland to Seattle and back I-5 traffic. I did notice my middle finger knuckles were red and swollen in the mornings on both hands, but any sensation was mild to none. I think not having the typing demands of work and the frequent cold water swims lessoned the pains, where the warmer lap pool water may have been an aggravator. I swam four times out doors while on break. Twice in the Puget Sound on the getaway to Seattle. Thursday for an hour and fifteen minutes next to Andrew Malanik’s boat (He is the president of Northwest Open Water Swimming Association, and accomplished open water swimmer. He’s the only swimmer to have swam around Bainbridge Island. I hope to be second as of May 26, 2019!), and Friday along Alki Beach in west Seattle. The temperature hovered between 47-48 degrees and the sun was out both days. These swims were validating after the 38-39 degree pins and needles swims in the Columbia River in February and March.

This past week (post spring break), I swam in Hagg Lake three times after work. Monday and Wednesday with a kayaker for 70-90 minutes each, and Tuesday along the shore, by myself, for 35 mins. Today’s swim will be open water swim number four this week. The temperature has been hovering between 51 and 55 degrees. Ideal training temp as it is similar to the expected North Channel temperature.  The water was warmest on Tuesday and cooled down three degrees by Wednesday. Maybe it was because I didn’t swim Thursday and subsequently didn’t experience the euphoria that swimming in cold water elicits, but Friday (yesterday), I was miserable and in significant pain most of the day. I got home at 5:30 from an acupuncture appointment, and immediately threw myself onto the couch. I had a low-grade fever, was flushed, my joints ached, and I had a real desire to quit everything and never get off the sofa again.

Doubt:

Tiernan actually noticed (surprising for a 15-year-old boy with a smart phone) and became concerned with my appearance and behavior. He pestered me and convinced me to take him to the show. I missed a Mason Jennings’ show in Portland once before, for a dress rehearsal of a musical I was performing in, and I was bummed until we saw him the next time he came back, over two years later. Last night’s show was amazing, and I loved watching his hands glide across the grand piano keys when he took breaks from the guitar. I would have regretted not going to the show, despite feeling crummy the entire time, so thank you Tiernan. You mean the world to me, which I know you know. Unfortunately the calmness and assuredness I felt last night had dissipated by this morning. Doubt has crept back in, and now I have found myself here cuddling on the couch, with Clarence as we listen to Adele.

Recollections: 

I frequently tell Tiernan and the students I work with that they can do anything and be anyone that they want to, if they put in the time and the effort. Tiernan wanted to be Michael Phelps and Barrack Obama both when he was four, but today he has no desire to put forth the effort. My swimming career has struggled multiple times previously because of this necessary time and effort.

My mom signed me up for the Bellingham, YMCA swimming team when I was five-years-old. The team swam in a four-lane, 20 yard pool in the basement of the former Hotel Henry building (which continues to be the YMCA facility today). I remember the team working out in lanes 2-4 and feeling all their eyes bore into me, when they were on a break between sets, while I walked barefoot from the shallow end to the deep end on the white concrete toward my parents as they visited with the coach, who had just observed me swim a length of each stroke. I became the team’s youngest swimmer and quickly began winning trophies, medals, and ribbons at the age group swimming meets that my parents took me to most every weekend. These meets were not only in neighboring towns and cities like Lynden, WA and Everett WA, but also further places like Spokane, WA and Edmonton, Alberta (I flew there with my team mates). In addition to these 2-3 day weekend meets (as I grew older, relays often started on Friday nights), and long weekend road trips, I was swimming twice a day before and after school by middle school.

In seventh grade, I was physically assaulted in the school hallways by a peer, who probably is very similar to some of the middle school students I work with today. He transferred schools and I experienced recurring illnesses. I had been sick with pneumonia a few times over the years beginning in third grade, but this was different. It was initially a recurrent strep throat, but later my doctor labeled it as Mono. I quit swimming by spring trimester of my seventh grade year (unknowingly giving up my dream of being the next Janet Evans), and didn’t resume until the high school season of my freshman year of high school. I swam all four years in high school (only high school season, I never went back to club), and then started swimming for Whitman College my first year there. A few weeks into the season, I became really sick again. I was away from home for the first time, lifeguarding at the college pool, teaching literacy to second graders at a local elementary school through the America Reads Program, and carried a full credit load of classes. The doctors at the student health center diagnosed with me Mono too. I stopped swimming and remember recovering relatively quickly. The following fall before swimming season even started, I again got really sick. This time missing weeks of classes. I was diagnosed with Mono for a third time. This time, a reduction of my extra curricular activities wasn’t a quick fix like it was the year before, and I ended up with a secondary issue (erythema nodosum), which took even more time to resolve. By the time my parents came to parent weekend in October, I was 15 pounds lighter than I had been when I left home at the end of August and still fatiguing easily. I think taking a time-out last night to listen to music from my past from a singer, singing about his darkness, stirred up these memories, allowing doubt to creep in at a time when I’m no where near feeling my best and strongest. I’m fearful now of history repeating itself.  At least I still have good friends that don’t give me wiggle room, by texting me out of the blue to say, “We’re bringing the kayak. See you at 2:30.”

This upcoming swim will be a cappuccino, tea, and chocolate swim as that is all I’ve had to eat today. I walked through heavy rain to the French bakery down the street from my Barre3 class this morning to get gluten free macaroons for my book club meet-up tonight, and I also got myself a gluten free mini-mousse to go with my cappuccino since I was already there. I’m still struggling with pre and during swim nutrition. I feel best on an empty stomach so anything besides coffee makes my swims feel harder. I don’t want to feel my lunch weighing me down while I’m out there, so best to wait until I finish. All right, I’m going to try to record how my stomach feels during this swim, and here I go to see if this will be the first time I put on a dry suit this week!

 

 

Achille’s Heel

I assume any “couch to (name your end goal here) training plan” poses risks of injuries to trainees who aren’t diligent about gradually building their endurance abilities. I was concerned initially with calf cramps and my left swimmer’s shoulder since these have been issues affecting my swims in the past. I never would have imagined though that sudden, whole body joint pain would be my Achille’s Heel.

Progression:

The morning after my last post was the end of the second trimester grading day. Shortly after 8:00am that day, as I began rapidly typing progress notes for my trimester students, the back of my right hand, between my knuckles and my wrist, started to ache and freeze up. I continued to work, and by the end of the day, when I finished handwriting meeting minutes for a referral team meeting, I could barely hold the pen using my normal pincer grasp. As I drove home from work, I couldn’t hold the steering wheel with my right hand because of the pain.

This was a Friday. The Thursday, eight days prior to this, I had had an iron infusion due to low iron levels that popped up in my blood work, which was ordered after I had called in to discuss mouth sores and a scalding tongue sensation. I emailed my physician as soon as I got home from work, wondering if this was a delayed side effect of the iron infusion. She got right back to me and ordered more lab work.

It hadn’t occurred to me until I was trying to fall asleep Friday night, with the painful back-of-hand, fingers, and by then also the wrist, that besides the hand pain, I had been experiencing middle of the night and early morning knee pain. I had woken up the previous three nights, on my right side, with excruciating pain in my knees. I couldn’t straighten either leg or use my legs to roll myself over for several, painful minutes. During the nights, I had chalked these pains up to pushing myself too hard during my Barre3 classes (although I only attended Tuesday night that school week) and then forgot about them by the time I got to work, as the stiffness wore off after moving around a while in the mornings.

By Saturday morning, both wrists hurt (the right hand hurt significantly more and appeared swollen in several spots) the knee pain lasted over half the day, my ankles started to hurt while driving and I had a low-grade fever. I started taking Ibuprofen and by Wednesday the pain had decreased from and eight to a two. I continued to work out as usual, but was gentle and thoughtful with my hand entry placement when swimming. Thursday night, I did a double workout: Barre3 followed by a 6k in the pool. By the time I got home from the pool at 10:00pm, my wrist pain was back to a nine. I went to the doctor the next day. She: 1) reviewed my lab work; 2) noted the swelling; 3) said she was referring me to a rheumatologist; 4) completed my North Channel Medical Application, which asked about my sinuses, ear drums, nervous system, blood pressure, ECG! She said that she had never completed a medical release for a channel swim before and that she couldn’t believe I was going to do it with my joint pain, but that she knew I could do it. Stiff upper lip and all without a wetsuit.

Since that appointment, I’ve continued to swim between 20k and 30k per week, but am sometimes taping my wrist and hand. I’m modifying my Barre3 postures to avoid negative joint pain, but continuing to go 4-5 days per week. The pain varies in location and severity daily. Today it is primarily in the wrists and feet, other days it is in the elbows and knees. Days when I feel it in the feet and knees are better swimming days as I can drag my legs behind me, and don’t have to think about modifying my arm entries. Cold water swimming is the best workout! The water is still so cold in the Pacific Northwest, it is like an ice bath for my entire body, and I just feel relief!

What’s Next?:  

I see the rheumatologist on April 12th. I have already been identified as having Hypothyroidism and Celiac Disease, which I treat with medicine and a gluten free diet respectively. Prior to my Celiac Disease diagnosis in 2010, I was very fatigued, jaundiced and always had significant foot swelling by the end of the day. Rheumatoid Arthritis was a disease that my primary care medical team considered pursuing at the time, pending the celiac results, but when the Celiac Disease testing came back positive and the symptoms disappeared after going gluten free, no referral to a rheumatologist was needed. Lupus is also another condition that has been briefly discussed in past medical appointments when I’ve had facial, neck, and chest rashes.

All I can do is wait for my next appointment and hope that this joint pain subsides or that there is a way to treat it so I can continue with my Couch to North Channel journey. I am seeing my acupuncturist for inflammation and pain management once per week at this point, and it is the next best thing to cold water emersion in terms of pain relief.

Overexertion and exhaustion are common triggers for autoimmune flares, so I am also reflecting on how to incorporate more sleep and rest into my training plan. Obviously I’ve failed tonight as it is 12:38 and I have to get up at 7:00 tomorrow morning. I will continue to reflect and get better at this though!

Be Committed, Dedicated and Attack It!

Forest Grove had two no school snow days last week and Maryl and I didn’t find ourselves sitting in our familiar snow day haunt, her car outside the liquor store at 9:50 in the morning. In previous years we have been out there ten minutes early, waiting for it to open, to buy Irish Cream and Jameson Whiskey for Irish Coffees. My Irish “cousin” Ryan in County Sligo finds this hilarious, as he says there is Whiskey in the Irish Cream, and we American’s are doubling it and having more alcohol than we would be served in Ireland. The snow days last week were definitely not our typical relax by the fire mornings, followed by afternoons vegging out with lemon drops. Maryl went in to work to organize data, schedule meetings, and prep for a two-day substitute, and I spent the days swimming 10ks.

Maybe if I hadn’t stayed up late finishing the most recent season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, after watching Spike Lee’s interview on the red carpet, and Lady Gaga’s Academy Award winning speech for best original song at the Oscars the previous Sunday night, I would have sunk into the warm couch cushions with a hot drink and binge watched the comedy, but the themes in the Oscar celebrities’ messages opened a window and gave me a new perspective.

Spike Lee was asked on the red carpet what advice he would give to people who wanted to be the next Spike Lee. He said, “They got to put the work in. It’s hard work. Is this easy? You gotta put the work in. You’ve got to hit it 24/7, 365. Be committed, dedicated and attack it!” A few hours later (ok I have to admit I was kind of vegging out here, but I did do a Barre3 studio workout and an hour swim earlier in the day and was recuperating), Lady Gaga said in her acceptance speech for the song Shallow, “This is hard work. I’ve worked hard for a long time. It’s not about winning. What it is about is not giving up. If you have a dream, fight for it. It’s about how many times you stand up, are brave, and keep on going.”

I have grit. As far as I know, I was born with it. I remember my dad saying, that once I took my first successful, un-supported steps, I wobbled out to the middle of the room away from him and all furniture, and I repetitively started to drop to the floor, then stand-up again, like I knew this was a crucial skill to be a successful endurance pedestrian. Few students I encounter in schools have aspirations let alone a determination to persevere through challenges. An objective I have been working toward in my therapy sessions with students this winter is having students establish goals for themselves, plan how they can meet this goal, and demonstrate through my own actions that achieving goals is not easy and takes fortitude. Several of my speech and language therapy groups are reading and discussing The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. I love this book, and chose to share the young reader’s edition with my students because it demonstrates what hard work and discipline can accomplish, and I was hopeful that re-reading it with my students would help keep me focussed on the hard work I need to put in to meet my end goal.

I appreciate that Spike Lee and Lady Gaga spoke out at the Oscars encouraging hard work, and I hope others watching reflect on their advice. I was reminded that there are others in different fields, besides athletics and education, working hard in their own ways to pursue their passions and goals. Hearing their efforts encouraged me to swim hard over multiple practices last week, when I very likely might have skipped. I was also reminded that although I feel alone when I’m the only one in the pool for two hours a night after working all day (and sometimes doing an hour barre3 workout in between work and my swim), I’m not solitary in my efforts, feelings and thoughts.

One concerning notion, I have been reflecting on during my recent swims is a conviction from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. This is my new favorite show (if you can’t already tell) that follows a 1950s housewife (Miriam Maisel) going through a divorce while pursuing a career/dream as a stand-up comedian. She encounters an artist, Declan Howell, who shares with her that he will never be married and have a family because he put all that he has into a painting (his masterpiece). He tells her that “you can’t have everything,” and “if you want to do something great, if you want to take something as far as it will go, you lose your family and sense of home.”

Howell’s insight stings and raises a serious question. Can you really not have it all? I’m a single mom with a full-time job, a part-time job, volunteer work, and time-consuming ambitions. Maintaining relationships has always been a challenge for me as I thrive on keeping busy and having well-rounded experiences. Then I hear on the radio, Lady Gaga split up with her fiance days before the Oscars. What happened there? I did too much socializing this past Sunday and my training this current week has seriously suffered. Now that my training is off this week, I find myself distracted, and doubts creeping in. All I can think to do, this late at night as I write to counteract these doubts, is strengthen my meditation practice, but then I’m back to another frequent, distracting question that I ponder during my swims, where is the time?

 

 

 

 

 

Cold Water Jogging off Sauvie Island

Maryl and I ventured to Reeder Beach on Sauvie Island after our 8:30 Barre3 class this morning. Maryl is the special education teacher I work with at Fern Hill Elementary School and brave crew volunteer accompanying me on my North Channel attempt.

Reeder Beach on Sauvie Island, in the Columbia River is almost an hour drive from Forest Grove. Despite the distance, it is my favorite open water swim spot because I can stand up in an emergency, and I can swim about ten feet off the long sandy beach, where my shore support can walk next to me with my warming gear ready.

The car thermometer reported an air temperature of 38 degrees when we parked at 10:45. My car was the only vehicle in the parking area supporting my hypothesis that I was the only lunatic open water swimmer out this morning.  There were other athletes on the island though. We had passed a couple speedy women running solo (not jogging), and a large pack of cyclists on our drive around the island to the beach. See the link at the end of this posting for a map of Sauvie Island.  We didn’t waste any time in the car. Just grabbed my gear and headed across the road to the beach.  It was gray everywhere. The sand high above the tideline was damp and looked like freshly poured cement. The water mirrored the overcast sky, and across the river on the Washington side, we could see bare-branched-trees (I’m guessing Cottonwoods, but my dad the tree identification expert wasn’t with me to confirm). The pool thermometer I swim with showed a temperature of 39 degrees close to shore (farther out it was closer to 38 degrees). It is definitely still winter in Northern Oregon.

My goal was to be in the water for ten minutes with the first five minutes spent swimming head high breaststroke (this was my first experience in sub 40 degree water). I started timing at 10:53 when I was waist deep in the water, and I got out at 11:09. I exceeded my time exposed in the water, but barely swam. Standing waist deep in the water, my legs experienced a painful stabbing sensation that I described to Maryl as a “pins and needles poking.” I jogged in place for several minutes with the water line at chest level, but the pain didn’t dissipate. Eventually I turned and started jogging upstream. Finally the prickling eased to the familiar comfortable, numbness that I have experienced in all other previous cold water swims. I lifted my feet off the sandy bottom and started my head-high breaststroke only to find that my arms then experienced the same painful prickly sensation. I couldn’t feel my hands beyond my stinging wrists, and when I pulled them out to make sure they were still there, they were a deeper red than the normal lobster red my shoulders turn when I’m swimming in cold water (my hands usually stay white). I quit paddling and continued running upstream until we came to a log on the shore about 500 yards from where I entered. I turned around and told Maryl I was going to swim back to my entry point. For the second time, I lifted my feet and tried some underwater breaststroke pulls. Once more the stabbing sensation returned to the entire surface area of my arms, which forced me to drop my feet back down to the bottom. My torso and legs remained comfortably numb, but my arms and brain couldn’t handle the frigidness. I jogged with the water line at my chest and arms grazing the surface, while keeping my hands above the water, the entire way back to my flip flops (Maryl had my fuzzy boots in the bag she was carrying in case I couldn’t make it back to start).  I fully submerged one time prior to exiting. My wrists continued to experience significant pain, but my neck and head didn’t feel any instant discomfort.

Despite the stinging in my wrists, I still had enough fine motor control to pull my swimming suit straps down off my shoulders before wading out of the river, and to turn the dial that ejects water from my apple watch. By 11:11, I had my suit off and clothes, swim parka, and warm Yeti Hat on. I left my fuzzy boots in the bag and walked to the car carrying my flip flops. I buried my feet into the “warm” feeling sand with every step until we reached the road. Once at the car, I dried the sand off my feet, pulled on warm socks and started drinking my hot tang. Perfect timing, as the uncontrollable shivering soon started. My shivering was shorter in duration than is typical for me, which made me regret not pushing myself through the limb pain and swimming with my arms submerged a little longer, rather than jogging. This was a disappointing “swim” for me, but the experience motivates me to attempt it again soon. I want the North Channel to feel balmy when I jump off the pilot boat so the more of these cold immersions the better.

Sauvie Island Map

Skin Care

Turns out sore, fatigued, muscles aren’t the biggest deterrent to making all scheduled swim practices. It’s pins and needles stinging and itchy skin. I’ve experienced two, what I would rate as moderate skin problems, from swimming in salt water (1. A Lion’s Mane Jellyfish sting 2. underarm chaffing), but it never occurred to me that my skin would suffer from doubling my hours in the pool.

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Rash from Lion’s Mane Jelly Fish obtained on August Bank Holiday Monday, 2018 off Forty Foot in Dun Laoghaire, Ireland. I don’t recommend getting stung by a Lion’s Mane especially on a bank holiday as most pharmacies aren’t open. Ireland doesn’t sell items like contact solution and antihistamine ointment in grocery stores like they do in the states. Instead you have to hit up a pharmacy. I struck out three times searching for an open pharmacy before finally finding one that was open.

 

Underarm chaffing from Puget Sound qualifying swim. That wound on the right, oozed for two weeks and repeatedly got stuck on gauze bandages and clothing. I finally saw a random general practitioner (almost a week after the swim), who had an open appointment slot. He explained to me that the water I was swimming in must have been extremely cold since I didn’t feel the burns until after I was out and warmed up. He prescribed a burn ointment to prevent infection, which stopped the oozing. The marks are still on my arms (over three months later), but look like old bruises.

Possible Solutions for Treatment of Chlorinated Skin:

I frequently use four point rubrics at work to obtain baseline data and to monitor progress. After browsing Amazon and choosing a few products developed for swimmers, I created this rubric (link below), and started using the purchased products in isolation and varying combinations. The maximum number of points (all scores of “exceeds”) is 16.

Skin Hygiene Rubric

Product 1: Swim Spray 

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Ingredients: Water, Sodium Ascorbate, and Ascorbic Acid.

Directions: Rinse off after swim. Spray 20-30 times on skin and hair. Shower as usual.

Rating: 11/16 (69%). Rids skin of chlorinated scent post-swim until early morning when sheets slightly smell of chlorine. Prevents widespread rash, but itchiness and a few pockets of bumps remain when product is used by itself and followed with normal, pre-heavy swim practice, washing and moisturizing routine.

Product 2: Zealios Body Wash

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Ingredients: Many ingredients including, “a rich blend of arnica, white tea, lavender and calendula,” aloe and jojoba oil.

Directions: Use in place of water and soap.

Rating: 13/16 (81%). Prevents rash and red bumps on my skin, leaves skin feeling smooth and moisturized, rids skin of chlorine aroma until barre3 workout sweat, and it reduces itchiness.

Product 3: Solpri Swim and Sport Lotion

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Ingredients: Many including: Aloe, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Shea Butter.

Directions: Pat skin dry after shower and apply lotion to skin.

Rating: 13/16 (81%). Leaves my skin feeling velvety soft and non greasy, skin emits a pleasant aroma (no chlorine scent until after a sweaty Barre3 workout), and it prevents bumps and rashes. I still experience mild itchiness during periods of calm and focus.

My Treatment Plan: 

In addition to trying the above mentioned products in isolation with my previous skin care routine, I tried them in pairs as well. I found, however, itchiness continued to be a recurring problem. Especially on my shoulder blades and ankles. My skin feels best after using all three products in my routine (e.g., rinse, Swim Spray, shower using Zealios Swim and Sport Body Wash, dry off, and moisturize with Solpri Swim and Sport lotion). Occasionally, I forget to use the swim spray directly after my practices, and I do notice increased itchiness. Coming soon on the agenda will be hair care. Conditioning inside my cap pre-swim and normal washing and conditioning is starting to not make the cut!

 

Close Calls

I’ve had two near death experiences. Both in cold water. I didn’t see the light, but rather read my obituaries through cloud breaks, while floating high above the earth.

“Lifeguard Drowns Wedged Under Log Jam in Elwha River” was the first.  The morning of that occurrence I was supposed to be on a guided sea kayak tour with the fire fighter boyfriend I was seeing at the time; however, thanks to raw sewage drifting in the Straight of Juan De Fuca from Victoria, BC, and his broad shoulders, which caused him to tip over in his boat frequently, I instead found myself trapped upside down in a whitewater kayak (envisioning this news headline on the cover of the Peninsula Daily News as it lay between two yellow coffee mugs on a circular wooden table in a stranger’s kitchen), with its keel bobbing up against waterlogged deciduous trees, stuck in a bend of the river.

The water was cold, silty green and clear. I could see white bubbles swirling around thin branches, and I heard the rushing water even when the guide banged on the boat above me. His weight on the dead tree submerging the kayak even deeper into the river. Each thought that passed through my mind, and action I attempted to carry out, seemed slow and deliberate. I knew the steps for removing a sprayskirt and exiting a capsized kayak, but I had never executed a wet-exit out of necessity or in practice. The sprayskirt was neoprene and tight fitting around the cockpit. A trained kayaker, free of obstructions in open water would have been able to roll themselves upright. I found the rand (cord around edge of spray skirt) and followed it with my hands to the loop at the front of the cockpit. I started to pull the loop down toward my chest. The spraydeck didn’t budge. I remembered hearing that sometimes the loop needed to be first pulled forward toward the boat’s bow, then toward the bottom of the body of water. Still the sprayskirt did not move. At this point, I ditched my paddle and continued pulling for what seemed like minutes. Soon blackness appeared around the edges of my peripheral vision. I gave up.

It was then that I saw this stranger’s kitchen table with the newspaper. I thought about the irony of my situation for again what seemed like half a minute, before remembering another tip I had heard regarding wet exits from a sprayskirt. Sometimes it may be necessary to “use your knees” as the loop is pulled forward and down simultaneously. Despite the blackness and feeling of light headedness, I had one more surge of energy I used to try and free myself again. This time, the sprayskirt released and I floated in my lifejacket out of the cockpit, surfacing next to the pale, big-eyed guide, who was perched on the tree, failing in his attempts to roll the kayak right-side up against the current.

The following days, I felt strange and unsure of my existence. I frequently pinched myself during mundane routines as if feeling that sensation would be proof that I was awake and still present, rather than dead and dreaming that I was among the living. At times I felt like one Rijl passed on, not surviving the experience, and this was another stronger Rijl who got to continue experiencing life. I wondered which one was the original. These thoughts eventually diminished, and I took kayaking safety classes. These classes shaped me into an expert capsized kayak-escape-artist, and superb whitewater swimmer. I also took a job as a safety kayaker for a whitewater tour company on the Sol Duc River (the most exciting job ever!).

My second near death experience occurred in December, 2017. This was my first winter of open water swimming. I occasionally swam with a group of “Yetis” whose goal was to swim skins (no wetsuit) a minimum of three times a month outdoors in nature. I met two other swimmers in Milwaukie, Oregon at a boat ramp on the Willamette in the early afternoon. It was cloudy and the weather was in the low forties. One of the swimmers used a meat thermometer and determined the water was approximately 44 degrees Fahrenheit. We agreed we wanted to be in the water for about ten minutes given this was about to be our coldest swim of the year and our lives. One of the swimmers decided we should swim together out and around a large orange cone-shaped buoy. We estimated it would be about 300 meters to the buoy (600 meters round trip). We were semi-prepared with two supporters on shore with hot drinks and our warm clothes (no boat). We also swam with orange tow floats so we would be visible from the beach. We stuck our feet in, waded out to our knees, dove in headfirst from the shore, and started swimming freestyle to the buoy. I immediately struggled with my breathing. Typically I breathe bilaterally, but this time I was gasping and had to breathe every stroke on my right side. I pushed my speed despite the cold water shock, and what felt like minimal oxygen to keep up with the other swimmers. We made it to the buoy in approximately six minutes and decided to head back. My speed dropped as soon as I circled the buoy. I didn’t feel like I had enough air. The other two in their white and pink caps edged ahead of me and I didn’t have the drive anymore to push myself to keep up. I took a few breaststroke pulls and tried to make out the shore supporters on the boat ramp through my fogged up goggles. My body felt heavy and I started thinking about how dumb an idea this swim was. As before in the kayak on the Elwha river, I eventually felt like I was looking down from the clouds at my situation. The shore support had no way to help me, the other swimmers distance from me was increasing. This time I saw my obituary several pages back in the Oregonian. Earlier in the day there had been an inaugural Amtrak commuter run from Seattle to Portland that had crashed on Interstate-5, killing some of the passengers. This was the cover story in the paper I pictured, and the open water swimmer drowning in the Willamette was not big enough news to compete with that story. This relieved me somewhat, my thoughts slowed down, and I came up with the idea to flip over onto my back. I started sprinting backstroke. I couldn’t see where I was going, but I hoped that I didn’t circle back out to the center of the river. I tried to glance back about every 20 strokes to make sure I was making progress. I made it back to the boat ramp 11 minutes after diving in. My speech was slurred from the cold, but I was able to dress myself and pace a bit before the shivers started.

I learned from this experience that I can’t dive into cold water and immediately start swimming freestyle. I have a routine now where I wade in gradually to my chest or neck before floating my feet off the ground and swimming head-high breaststroke. Once my limbs are numb and I feel like my breathing is relaxed, I dip my head in and start swimming freestyle.

Last Saturday (the day I started writing this post) I went for a swim at Hagg lake. The weather was mostly cloudy and again the temperature was in the low 40s. My friend Maryl came for support (she is training to crew for me on the North Channel and Bainbridge swims). The water was dark and the surface was smooth and still like glass with chunks of wood debris (I made note to avoid). We discussed my plan, which was to swim for about 25 minutes back and forth along the beach about 100 yards out (there were families fishing on the beach I also wanted to avoid). I waded in slowly as per my now established routine, checked the pool thermometer that I swim with (42 degrees), and yelled back, “maybe just 20 minutes today.” Twenty minutes later I still felt comfortable although I couldn’t feel my toes, and I had a slight “claw” on my right side. I swam back out toward the center of the lake one more time thinking I would aim for a 30 minute swim. On my return to Maryl and the planned exit point, I started to feel slightly dizzy while swimming and looking forward. Doubt crept into my head and soon I felt like I wasn’t progressing toward the beach. I was about 75 yards out and knew no one on shore could swim out to me to help. I rolled onto my back and started sprinting toward the shore. I hit the sandy bottom hard with my right hand when I got to the beach. Maryl was ready with my towel and hat. As we walked toward the car, she asked if I had felt the current from the stream emptying into the river as I finished my swim (no I didn’t, but then it became clear why I felt like I wasn’t moving). Once on the beach, I felt great and again was able to dress myself independently before shivering and chattering uncontrollably. Twenty six minutes in 42 degree water! A new personal record!

I’m pretty sure this last swim wasn’t another near death experience as I didn’t read my obituary in a newspaper or online. Reflecting back on this swim, I know I need to eat more before getting into cold water (I hadn’t had anything but a mocha prior to the swim, and I had done a Barre3 class earlier in the morning) and I should stay a bit closer to shore when there is no kayak support present.

My goal during the swim was to write a post detailing my experience swimming in low 40 degree water, but my thoughts were elsewhere since the brief panic attack at the end of the swim triggered frightening memories. I’ll try to be safer and keep my thoughts in the present moment next time!

Couch to North Channel: Training Week Two

Week in Review:

My son Tiernan is hyper verbal around topics of high interest to him (e.g., sports). He is not and never has been a child who would produce a detailed personal narrative about everything that happened in his school day, or the type to ask questions to find out about my own day. So… at the dinner table to encourage reciprocal conversation, we shared our “highs” (fun moments) and our “lows” (things we would change in retrospect). I’m going to recap my week here in that same fashion.

The Highs: 

  • Spent quality family time with Tiernan at a Blazer’s game Friday Night (he treated me for an early birthday present, and forked out money for closer seats, rather than the nose-bleed seats I usually get for us).  Walked Clarence on the sunny days after work.
  • Swam 20k in the pool (6k Monday night, 6k, Wednesday night, 6k Thursday night, 2k recovery swim Saturday afternoon).
  • Completed four one hour Barre3 classes in the Orenco Station studio.
  • Finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in time for my Saturday night book club potluck.
  • Meditated daily with the Headspace App as part of the week one Barre3 January Challenge.
  • Survived the “Back to School Blues” (my first 5-day work week post winter break)!
  • Moments of feeling calm, accomplished and empowered.

The Lows: 

  • Itchy skin, skin rash, dry/rough feeling skin, painful skin sensation along swim suit lines (more on this in an upcoming post).
  • Neck and shoulder pain in the pool, in the Barre3 studio, when completing paperwork on my laptop, and when trying to fall asleep.
  • Didn’t get in an open cold-water swim
  • Tiernan spent several hours per day home alone playing X-box live with his friends while I trained.
  • Maybe averaged 7 hours of sleep per night. I think sleep is important and would rather average 8-10 hours. Especially when increasing training/work load.
  • Anxious feelings cropping up during work on M,W,TH. The days of the evening 6k swims.
  • Didn’t schedule dentist appointments.

 

Activity levels recorded from past three months as on my Apple Watch: 

The Apple Watch activity app has three rings. The blue ring is for moving around every hour a minimum of 12 hours per day. The green ring is for completing a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise per day, and the red ring is for moving and burning 500 calories per day.  The days where all three rings are completed are what I would consider successful training days. You can see in November and December where activity levels are lower where I was sick and my respiratory system was recovering.

 

 

 

Celebrations and Motivations

Lying in Shavasana (corpse pose) during the final minutes of my Saturday morning Barre3 class, I distinctly smelled chlorine hovering in the air above my sweaty, limp body. During this exercise, I usually imagine myself sinking into wet sand on a tropical beach at dusk, the evening stars slowly becoming visible above me while my inhalations and exhalations sync with the waves ebbing onto the beach and receding into the ocean. Not today though! I couldn’t stop wondering if my cadaver neighbors on the mats next to me smelled it too.

I had a sit in the dry sauna, a long shower at home where I shaved my legs, a night at The Moda Center watching a Blazers Game before 7.5 hours of sleep, and another shower in the morning pre-class (yes my sheets did smell like chlorine too) since Friday’s 3,000 yard recovery swim, yet I was still clearly chlorinated. As much as I loathe the chlorine fragrance wafting from my body, this was a moment to be celebrated as it was proof of a good week of training, and a motivating start to the New Year.

Other Celebrations from the week of 12/30/18:

  • A 25 minute outdoor swim in 43 degree Fahrenheit  Hagg Lake: According to The Lone Swimmer’s post “Introducing a Precise Open Water Temperature Scale,” the explanation for a swim at this temperature is “Damn, that hurts.” Remember this is a skins swim (no wetsuit). I thought during my last Hagg Lake swim before Thanksgiving, I would be finished training there for the winter season. The water level was so low, that wading in the mud at the waters edge felt dangerous in that both my legs were knee deep in the clay and it was extremely effortful to pull each leg out to enter and exit the water. My New Year’s Eve Swim, however, was much easier. The deeper layers of mud on shore and beneath the water were frozen, which kept my feet on the surface layer of mud. Yay frozen underground mud! It will save me an hour drive to the Columbia River for cold water acclimating. I would like to thank my former lap lane partner from the Hillsboro Pool Steve Susserman for being my shore support and safety crew. Cold water swimmers frequently experience an “afterdrop,” where their bodies get colder after they’ve exited the water. During the “afterdrop” the swimmer is not necessarily safe just because they are out of the water, and they need support to ensure they warm up properly and safely.
  • 20k Yards in the Swimming Pool: I want to thank my swim friend Lee O’Conner for a great New Year swim start. He organized a 100 X 100 yards on New Years Day and invited me to swim with him and his fellow Tualatin Hills Barracudas Masters Swim Team buddies. Misery loves company and completing 10k in one day made getting the week’s last needed 10K over three more solo swims easy!
  •  Four BARRE3 Studio Workouts: I chose barre3 for my North Channel cross training as the workouts incorporate elements of ballet barre work, pilates, and yoga, and it is a local program that originated in Portland, Oregon. Swimming bulks up my arms and overworking them can lead to injury. I feel it is important that my cross training focuses on strengthening my core and lower body.

Upcoming Week Goals: 

Once I post this piece, I will start fine tuning my plan for this coming week. I intend to swim 20k again (I don’t want to increase my yardage too quickly and risk shoulder injury as I’m fresh off the couch) and complete four barre3 workouts. My obstacle this week is that winter break is winding down and school starts again tomorrow morning. Back to the eight hour, five-day-week grindstone, and squeezing in training with the before/after school taxi service, chef, tutor, dog walker, and house keeper positions I also maintain. Also book club meets next Saturday, and I chose the last book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I still have 150 pages to read at some point before we meet! Keeping motivated while tired will be my biggest challenge!

Motivations:

I like to have an end goal. Without one I know I would always be in a Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Prime “show hole” on the couch. Usually in January, I detox. Detoxing to me means no caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and packaged goods. Whole foods and water only! Instead of losing inches and detoxing like I typically do in January, and while my North Channel Pilot team creates my swim training and nutrition plan (which I should receive this week), I’m going to participate in the barre3 January Challenge (this starts tomorrow too the same as school), which aims to encourage me to “trust” myself rather than try to “fix” myself. Participation in this challenge will include completing barre3 workouts and participating in mindfulness/meditation activities using the program/app Headspace. Currently I do not meditate so I’m going to try it out and will share my experiences using the program. I hope that this experience will further inspire me and supplement my swim training.

In addition to being excited to start this new program tomorrow and continue to increase my training, I’m keeping motivated by my swim friends (Michelle, Lee, Steve, and Cindy), my barre3 instructors, Brooke and Christy, and my new swimming suits from Q suits (patterns pictured below). Hopefully one of the designs will encourage me to put it on and head to the pool for a 6k swim tomorrow night after work!

Just Diving Right Back In Here

Anyone who has ever swam with me before, or observed from the deck, can tell you that I am not one of those “the water is fine! just dive, or jump, right in here!” swimmers. I like ladders on docks attached to the shore, and ladders near (but not in) my lap lane. I like to ease in slowly grumbling to myself about how cold the water feels (even in an 80 degree pool when I’d been swimming outdoors in 50 degree water the previous day).

Single mom life has consumed me since my last post (Tiernan’s dad is in Norway until February, which isn’t conducive to long weekend swims or even daily practices). I was contemplating wading slowly into my posts again before Thanksgiving when I was off work, traveling to visit family, and swimming in cold, open water frequently, but on the return drive south to Oregon, I became extremely ill for weeks, which sunk me back onto the couch until 12/12/18, when I decided that although I was still too sick to swim, I would start cross training (more on this another time). Since Thanksgiving Day when I swam 40 minutes in 50 degree water, I have been in the water only four times (twice in the pool on 12/17/18 and 12/19/18 and two times in lakes (Christmas Eve and today, New Year’s Eve). So given my North Channel attempt is the last week of June, I better just jump off this couch and dive back in. Now I am looking at Couch to North Channel in six months!

Prior to Thanksgiving, I was swimming regularly in a new (to me) pool. The Forest Grove Aquatic Center, which is closer to home, and has more lap swim hours outside my working hours, than the Hillsboro pool where I have previously been training (I just wish the FG sauna was warmer like Hillsboro’s).  Also, I completed my qualifier swim for the North Channel swimming in the Puget Sound back on October 21, 2018 (See attachment at end of post).

Up and Coming:

Every year at New Years, my friends Jo and Joshua and I like to come up with goals that we would like to accomplish in the coming year. Two years ago today as we were sipping wine and playing board games, my goal was to solo swim the Portland Bridge Swim that coming July, which I registered for on New Years Day 2017! This year I have two huge swims on my calendar (The North Channel obviously, but I also want to be the first woman to swim around Bainbridge Island (second person recorded). This is tentatively scheduled for Sunday of Memorial Day weekend and will be my last big training swim before I taper for the North Channel. As I have these two immense goals, I will just make a more normal New Years Resolution today: to write more regularly about my experiences and training plan.

I’m attaching to a link to my official observation form with all the details from my qualifier below for anyone interested. The water was cold and it was foggy. Also, I discovered that the Puget Sound also has Lion’s Mane Jellyfish! Lion’s Mane Jellyfish, Seals, and Orcas Oh My!

Happy New Years!

– Northwest Open Water Swim Association Observer notes

 

A Hagg Lake Swimmer Coasts By Suck Creek

Background:

I was going to title this post A Willamette River Swimmer in the Tennessee River, until reflecting on a comment from one of my elementary fluency students, who heard I was flying to Tennessee to swim ten miles. “I I I heard you swam all around Hagg Lake! Th th that’s so far!” Hagg Lake obviously isn’t comparable to swimming downstream in the Tennessee River, like the Willamette River that divides west and east Portland is, but it is the closest open water to Forest Grove, Oregon where I live and work (approximately 7 miles away from Forest Grove). Hagg Lake is an artificial lake (created by a dam) fed by Scoggins Creek, that meanders from the Northern Oregon Coast Range. I actually only hopped in their once this fall, about three weeks prior to leaving to Tennessee, and wasn’t eager to go back after getting stuck in thigh high mud under low circling turkey vultures, occasionally diving to the surface to pick at a fish carcass. I pictured myself meeting my end in my swimming suit, stuck in wet, quicksand-like clay (like Br’er Rabbit covered in tar), as Tiernan and some unknown fishermen watched from the tree line above. Anyways, since I was embarrassingly and laboriously able to extract my legs from the muddy clay, and as many of my students are familiar with Hagg Lake, rather than the Willamette River (that’s about 45 minutes from Forest Grove in rare, ideal traffic), I’m titling this post for them.

Image-1

Image Above: My one fall Hagg Lake training swim from September 20, 2018 as recorded by my Apple Watch. The image makes it appear as if I started recording in the water and turned around before reaching the other side, but really the water level is so low in the fall, I walked out through mud to get to my starting point, and turned around as soon as I could see the murky bottom on the far side of the lake.

Trains, Planes, Automobiles, Freestyle and Whiskey:

Traveling to Chattanooga was a feat in itself. I like to support Alaska Airlines, the local airline, and had a companion ticket expiring in November, that I used for my safety kayaker. We were supposed to fly to San Francisco, leaving at 6:30am and then to Nashville (arriving at 6:50pm central time), where the rental car would be waiting. We left my house at 2:00am, parked in Beaverton, Oregon at my friend Jo’s house, walked to the Beaverton Central Max (light rail) station (where we were serenaded by an extremely inebriated older gentleman), boarded the first Max Red Line train to the airport at 3:28am, and were at our gate ready to board at 5:50am just in time to hear the announcement that the plane wasn’t functioning properly, but someone was coming to assess the situation. The plane was never approved for take off and after a two hour wait, we were bumped to an American Airlines Flight to Chicago, then Nashville that would be leaving at 1:50pm. We ended up, stumbling over our feet from exhaustion, into the Chattanooga Clarion at 3:00am Eastern Time. The return flight was significantly better as it departed on time, but it left Seattle 1.5 hours late putting us back in Forest Grove at 11:30pm Pacific Time Sunday night. I somehow still made it through the work week, although I still feel like I’m catching up on sleep.

Swim the Suck: 

The swim felt fantastic! Definitely not a “bummer tent” (Michelle read my last post and corrected me. It’s not “bummer ten,” but “bummer tent,” like you’re at a big music festival and end up in a lousy tent). The “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” chorus alternated with Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” in my head the entire swim, thanks to the early morning Nashville radio station. The water was warm. Hagg Lake, the Columbia River, and the Willamette River have been hovering around 60 degrees Fahrenheit while the Tennessee River stretch past Suck Creek was in the mid to upper 70s. There was also a strong current, making it a fast ten miles. I finished 37th/105 in 04:10:06.515. I also enjoyed all of my feeds. I had four different water bottles filled with goodies I found at the Chattanooga Whole Foods. An orange electrolyte drink, Chicken Bone Broth, local Chocolate Milk from Tennessee, and a mixed Coffee shot drink. This was much improved from the chalky powdery protein drinks I had when swimming around Mercer Island last June. After the swim, I got to choose a beautiful mug from a local potter as a keepsake, and met Shannon Keegan and Todd Lantry. They were stranger swimmers from Southern, Oregon who, I happened to meet on the beach post swim. Todd and I finished together 36th and 37th after swimming near each other for several miles (I could see his beard when I breathed to his direction around mile seven and assumed he was a Portlander. He’s actually from Seattle originally, so a Washingtonian like me!), and Shannon and I finished back-to-back in the Mercer Island Marathon Swim, but never met as it was so cold and rainy that day, we all just ran from the finish to our cars to warm up and get out of there! After visiting with other swimmers and enjoying sweet iced tea (since I’m celiac disease and gluten free, I couldn’t have the beer from Chattanooga Brewery), I rounded out my Chattanooga experience with 1) a trip and tour to Chattanooga Whiskey, 2) dinner at Meats on Main, and 3) a Ron White comedy show at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium. This was my first out-of Northwest state trip ever, as previously I’ve only been in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California. I can’t wait to go back and experience more, but that was all I could squeeze in this year!

Image-1           IMG_1435

Above Images: Map recorded from my Apple Watch during Swim the Suck. The battery died at 9.27 miles so didn’t quite record the finish, and me testing out the water at the race start, October 12, 2019, the day before the event.

What’s Next?: 

Ok. I actually need to be packing and heading to bed, but want to post this experience first, as my next swim “Couch to North Channel Training Swim no. 2,” is tomorrow. This swim was not planned/finalized until three days ago. I have a pilot reserved for my North Channel attempt June 24th to June 28, 2019, but in order to qualify for an observed “North Channel” attempt, you have to qualify by meeting Irish Long Distance Swimming Association criteria. One of the criteria for solo swimmers is a six hour swim in water of 13 degrees Celsius (approximately 55 degrees Fahrenheit). I’ve swam seven hours in water approximately 60 degrees Fahrenheit, but I’ve never attempted a longer swim in water chillier than that. Tomorrow will by my first attempt (and hopefully only needed attempt) up north in Puget Sound, off Bainbridge Island, where the water temp is hovering around 54 degrees and only getting colder between now and March. The pressure is on! I will have to attempt another qualifier at this temperature before spring, if I don’t make it tomorrow. Wish me luck!