Children of Lir, Selkies, and Yetis

Children of Lir:

One of my favorite things about Ireland are the stories. I’ve been there the past three summers with my aunt, who has a cottage in County Sligo. We always spend a few days in Dublin when we arrive. I make sure that before we catch the train north, I make it to the Winding Stair book store, which I find by walking along the north bank of the River Liffey. I have bought a ghost story book each time I’ve been in there. The stories by authors like Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Sheridan Le Fanu make great middle of the night reading, when I’m wide awake because it is afternoon back home in the Pacific Northwest. Besides the ghost stories, I like hearing the mythology. In Carrick-on-Shannon in County Leitrim, there is an art gallery I enjoy visiting where there is a jewelry designer, who sells silver pieces she has made, using wax molds. I have two of her Children of Lir pieces. The Children of Lir were turned into swans in ancient times by Lir’s second wife, who was jealous of Lir’s love for the children. In preparing for my North Channel trip, I’m enjoying learning about Scottish mythology as well.

Selkies: 

The Selkie folk are seal people found in Scottish mythology. Selkies shed their seal skins on land revealing their human form. Most stories I’ve come across are about Selkie females being forced into marriage when their seal skins are stolen by fishermen. Years later, with the help of their children, they find their skins and return to the sea never to return to their families.

I feel like I’ve found my long, lost seal skin this week, after completing an outdoor swim every day. Tiernan provided shore support once when his tennis practice was cancelled, which was extremely supportive and fun. All this practice had decreased our quality time together, but I am working hard to continue to make all his home games, and he is supporting swims when he is available, and when I need extra motivation. I felt extremely strong the day before his shore support, after getting to the lake during a wind storm. The water temperatures cooled this week due to rains and snow melt, and on this particular day, the lake was covered with white caps and large, rolling waves. No one was on shore fishing at my entry point, which was very unusual and again speaks to the weather conditions. I still got in with my orange buoy and swam for an hour. I managed to avoid the big pieces of wood, but did hit what I cursed as a “stupid rosebush,” floating in the water. I later decided this was probably a blackberry bush. The next afternoon, the weather was worse in town than it had been the previous day. I had been up since 4:45 to attend a Barre3 class before work, so I really wasn’t motivated to go back in to cold, stormy water. Tiernan insisted we go though, and once back in the lake, I created a new one mile rope-swing loop in a more protected spot. I plan to go to this spot from now on in inclement weather.

Yetis: 

In the Pacific Northwest we have Sasquatches and Yetis. The Yetis are the cold water swimmers who dip into the open waters around Portland, Oregon throughout the fall and winter. Cindy Werhane started Yeti challenges in the fall of 2017 as the water temperatures began to drop, and I was lucky enough to be invited to join. The pack grew this past fall/winter. I would never have qualified for a North Channel attempt had it not been for Cindy and my Yeti teammates, as I never would have attempted a wild swim alone in the winter. These swims have helped me acclimatize to cold water.

Since this post started with stories, I’m going to share a Yeti story here for my friend Michelle in San Francisco.

One Friday afternoon in early April, two Yetis training for mammoth swims meet on Sauvie Island in the Columbia River for a practice. One of these Yetis was between an acupuncture appointment and a rheumatology appointment, and Sauvie Island happened to be between the two offices. This same Yeti had been swimming in the wild every day this week and was sick of swimming in the cold rain. All week the weather app on her phone indicated Friday would be warm and partly sunny. Of course, this being the Pacific Northwest, that forecast changed in the 11th hour and it was again rainy. She was determined to swim, however, and had a good friend willing to join her. They walked over top of the hill that led to the beach from the road, and were immediately shocked at the high muddy water. The tall wooden post that towels and clothing are always left by was in the river a good 10 feet from the shore, and there were decent sized logs flowing down river. The less determined Yeti decided she would wait and point out hazards to her friend who was still adamant about dipping in.

The water was estimated to be around 47 degrees (this Yeti’s pool thermometer quit reading temperatures accurately the day before), and she started swimming against the strong current upriver. She swam for over 30 minutes only hitting one branch that was completely submerged in the murky water and not visible on the surface. Her friend decided she wasn’t going to swim there that day and the Yeti’s left. By the time the swimmer had finished her parking lot change (e.g., suit off, sweats on, no underclothes), she had 30 minutes to get to the hospital for her second appointment. She cranked up the heat, drank her post-swim warm drink, and booked it.

The nurses immediately took her back to her room when she arrived (before she even had time to sit down in the lobby and adjust to the room temperature). Since she hadn’t yet been out of the water 35 minutes and she had been in the hot car, the room temperature of the hospital wing felt like a refrigerator. She immediately started to shiver causing all sorts of challenges for the nurses trying to get her temperature, oxygen level, and blood pressure. One nurse decided she wanted the Yeti to take off her sweat shirt so she could get a better BP cuff seal, and the Yeti embarrassingly didn’t have on any underclothing, so the second nurse had to bring in a gown and a sheet in order for the Yeti to maintain her modesty. Of course the Yeti’s blood pressure was slightly high (this is a normal bodily response for people with mild hypothermia who are shivering), so the blood pressure had to be retaken a few minutes later when the shivering had stopped, and the oxygen sensor didn’t read while the Yeti shook.

A few minutes later the doctor came in. This Yeti prefers female physicians and typically only sees males in urgent cases, but she had decided when making the appointment, she would take the first available appointment. Wouldn’t you know, the rheumatologist was handsome and her age! After taking a thorough history, it was time for the examination. He specifically had to look at her ankles and toes, knees, hands and wrists. Besides the hands still being a tad purple his examination of them was fine. Next, came rolling up the sweats for the knees to be looked at. They were covered in goosebumps and lots of visible, scruffy blonde hairs (shaving is not a priority when regularly swimming in cold water as the extra hair provides additional, psychological warmth). Then, the Yeti slips off her socks to reveal dried sand stuck to her heel, sand between her toes, and around the cracks of her toenails. The doctor maintained a flat affect throughout the observation, but the Yeti felt her face flushing each time she had to adjust or take off her clothing. Finally, he told her this diagnostic process could take some time and that this early on, the inflammation hadn’t been present long enough to cause any joint damage. She is to look out for certain symptoms, monitor pain, and get in touch with him when things change. He was pleased that her symptoms have been lessening with acupuncture and anti inflammatory medicines.

This Yeti is still debating if that hazardous muddy river swim was worth the chaos at the appointment. She is leaning toward “yes” since swimming 20k in open water, without a wetsuit, in early April seems like a great week of training for the North Channel.

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

IMG_1213

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!