Energy of Open Water Swimming

The most common conversation that I have around ultra marathon swimming is about what it takes to prepare and do a swim. I usually talk about basic things like training, calories, physical energy, and time.  It’s easy to focus on these things simply because they are measurable.

I was reminded today there is something far more important.  There is an energy of open water swimming, a bi-directional flow. For all that I put into swimming (what it takes and what I give), I receive 2X as much in return. Im not really energized by being lauded for hard work and a good swim. I am energized by being able to help kids in dire situations. I think other open water swimmers experience something similar and this stood out as I watched the newly released film about Kim Chambers.   

Her joy and passion are so evident but it’s the ability to inspire others to go after their dreams, overcome challenges and stare fear in its face that provides the return for her.  Kim’s swims took a lot but what they’ve given to her and to others is amazing.  The give pales in comparison to the receive.  Check out the film here.

It’s been 6 weeks since my Loch Ness swim and the swim continues to give back to me in so many profound ways and I’m forever grateful.

 

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Seanachd  + Tha e mu Thàmh

I often think of a swim in terms of challenges and potential issues that I'll have to navigate.  For Loch Ness, the list of challenges was pretty simple; cold water, very limited sunshine, fresh water (less buoyant means more work), and wind.  Like all ultra marathon swimmers, I do my best to prepare for the worst but still hope for the best in terms of conditions. I thought about the worst that could happen on Loch Ness but I was totally unprepared for the best.

I was stunned by the beauty and the feel of the loch. Ancient and peaceful are two words that might express some of the uniqueness and magic.

Ancient: seanachd (in Gaelic)

The loch looks and feels very old. This isn't just because there are not any modern high rises or clutter of buildings and homes. Rather it's a feeling as well as the wildness of the landscape.  During the swim, I thought about how ancient this land is.  It feels unhurried.   A lot has been witnessed by this land.  I thought a bit about  how much joy and suffering has happened there. Humanity has come a long way since the times of tribal warfare across Britain but there are still tribal wars happening in places like Afghanistan that represses people and causes so much suffering and despair. I loved the ancient feel of the loch but lamented that some places in the world have gone backwards in terms of opportunities for kids especially girls.

Peaceful: tha e mu thàmh (in Gaelic)

Loch Ness is incredibly tranquil. Laughter or chatter flow across the lake and break the velvety quiet. There is a deep softness and stillness on the lake. It feels like time slows down.  
You can't help but feel at peace at Loch Ness, even when swimming for 12 + hours.

Im very grateful for the opportunity to swim across the loch and to experience the beauty and majesty of the loch. This swim brought together so many wonderful people in my life and Im so happy to have the support from near and far. 

Here are the basic details from my swim on August 12th:

22 miles

Ft. Augustus to Lochend Beach

12 hours and 26 minutes

55 degrees fahrenheit/13 degrees celsius

1 castle

3 seasons in one day

2 hours of sunshine

No Nessie...sadly

 

 

Tapering Is Not Just for Athletes

Taper is usually a favorite word for athletes.  But, it really could be a powerful word for anyone no matter what you do.

The definition that I like best is ‘a gradual narrowing’.  For getting ready for Loch Ness, it means a lot less yardage and time in the water swimming.  I taper from a peak yardage of 40K per week to 15K this week.  Lower weekly yardage means that I'll be recharged and ready to swim 22 miles across Loch Ness.

Simultaneously, I narrow how I spend my time. I still put a good amount of  time into my marketing role at Salesforce but I sleep more, spend more time with friends and have more capacity all around.  I feel like I achieve more and its more rewarding.

The value of a taper is the premise of a favorite book called Accomplish More by Doing Less by Marc Lesser.    This book is full of wisdom for everyday life.  Narrowing time spent ruminating and speculating on a future state allows space for clarity and focus . 

With this tapper, Im reminded that when I narrow my focus to things that are really important and that are in the present moment, I can accomplish a whole lot more.  Whether at work, at home, in my relationships or swimming across a lake.

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Training Gratitude and Surprises

Its not possible to do an ultra marathon swim without the help and support of others.  A runner could train for a marathon without ever running with another person.  Marathon swimming is different mostly because of safety considerations.  Its not really advisable to swim alone unless you are a very experienced swimmer and can creatively adapt to changing water and weather conditions.

I’m a bit of an introvert so I don’t necessarily always seek out others to do stuff.  But with training, it makes a difference when I can swim with others. A couple of laughs before getting in the water or exchanging a mermaid hug at a buoy make the training go faster and its more fun. I’m always grateful for a friendly exchange before, during or after a training swim.  

The 42 weeks to train for Loch Ness have gone by fast although there were some weeks when it felt like slog.  But, some of my training workouts have been full of surprises like swimming into someone in San Francisco's Aquatic Park that I haven’t seen in 6 months (it’s a big cove).  Or the conversation I had in the sauna in San Francisco with someone who swam in Loch Ness. 

My favorite surprise was during my 10K Donner Lake swim a few weeks ago.  Donner is at 6,000 ft elevation and I was feeling the lack of oxygen.  Despite the gorgeous setting, it didn't start out as my most fun swim.  But, at the end of my first sweep along the shore, I swam over a message left by some romantic .  J♡ M was spelled out in rocks on the bottom.  It completely stopped me mid stroke.  I was so surprised that someone took the time and effort gather rocks and lay out this message for some mermaid or merman.  I totally shifted how I felt about the rest of that training swim. I swam over that message 10 times and smiled every time.

 

My journey to swim Loch Ness has been about the physical training as its been about digging deep and expressing what is in my heart .  I love the challenge of the swim but I’m even more passionate about helping the kids and this is totally true to my heart.

Eat Like a 5 Year Old

“What do you eat?” is a question that I get asked a lot. After years of fine tuning my feeds, I finally have an answer that doesn’t require explaining the recipe for a homemade concoction - - ‘I eat peanut butter and jelly’.   Not really but its pretty close.

Every open water marathon swimmer has his or her own journey to find the right fuel for their metabolism and taste.  Mine started with the standard approach, Gu and a sports drink that I tried during training swims but I quickly learned that this really didn’t work well for me.  I explored what other endurance athletes ate and came to the conclusion that I needed:

-       A lot of calories from protein and fat

-       some % of carbs

-       Food that was closer to what I eat all the time so I don’t stress out my GI system (for a cold water swimmer stomach issues are huge since we need to keep in calories and throwing up in the water is not good –you can aspirate water and then you have a whole new set of issues).

Based upon my weight, the need to generate body heat and the pace that I swim (~ 72 strokes per minute), I estimate that I burn about 1,000 calories an hour in cold water.  Its well established that the average amount of calories that a person can process is between 300 – 350 per hour.  So, its not possible to take in all the calories that I’m burning.  After practicing during long training swims, I know that I can process 350 calories and sustain my pace and body heat.

The final variable for feeding during marathon swims is that a feed has to be quick.  Wasting time fiddling with a package means you lose body heat and you could go backwards if you are in the middle of a current.

The food, frequency and feeding method that works for me is:

1.     eat every 30 minutes

2.     take in 8 oz of Perpetuem at the bottom of the hour

3.     eat 1 packet of Justin’s Nut Butter and 1 sachet of blueberry toddler food + 8 oz of Perpetuem

4.     chocolate treat every once in a while spontaneously given by my crew

I might even add a Coke just for the caffeine and sugar boost when I'm a couple of miles from the end for good measure :-)

Only Someone Crazy Would Swim in the Cold

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been called ‘crazy’, I would be rich and it would be easy to write a check to Trust In Education ;-) Then I might relish knowing that I made a difference in the lives of kids who live in despair without asking for help from others.

But, I firmly believe in the saying ‘together we are one’ and doing this alone wouldn’t be gratifying at all to me, even if I had collected $1 for each mention of the word.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to have a community of support while reaching the goal of $100,000 for Trust In Education since I do need help.   Please take a moment to watch the video and share it.   Hopefully, we can cast a wide net to help make a difference in the lives of kids who live in desperate circumstances and have little to hope for.  Together we can make a difference no matter what amount of support is given.  I'm grateful for a donation of any amount and your support of this 'crazy' Loch Ness swim.

From Dublin (CA) to Loch Ness to Kabul

As I was training for my Lake Tahoe swim in 2009, I was also tutoring 3 Afghan refugee kids whose family was resettled in the San Francisco bay area.  It was through a string of coincidences that I learned of Budd KcKenzie and his non-profit organization called Trust in Education.

He and a small staff have provides education and health services to women and children in Afghanistan.  Its one of the poorest countries after 35+ years of war.  Afghan kids live in desperate circumstances, especially girls.

Over the past ten years, Trust in Education has expanded from one school of 120 children, to supporting classes in 10 villages that by 2017 helped educate more than 1,300 children, 50% are girls.

Budd McKenzie just published a book about his journey from the couch to Kabul.  He has inspired so many folks along the way to help in the struggle against suffering, repression and hopelessness. Im blown away by the number of elementary and middle school kids who are helping.

Im one of the many people who Budd has touched and I use my swims as a way to try to make a difference.  I know that there is suffering in my own backyard.  The level of desperation in Afghanistan far exceeds anything we have in the US or most wealthy countries. It is acute for kids, especially girls.  It was through the tutoring of local Afghan refugee kids that I realized how the brutality and suffering within Afghanistan robes kids of the opportunity to fulfill their potential, let alone find hope.

What I face during  hours of training or swimming 22+ miles  is nothing compared to the dire conditions Afghan children face every day.  I’m inspired by the tenacity of the kids to navigate their hardships and to learn when given a chance.

Budd is fond of saying, “we can’t be short distance runners” when injecting hope into the lives of those who have so little.  And that goes for this swimmer as well.

Training to A Plan While Having a Plan B

Something that I hear from a lot of athletes is ‘the event isn’t as hard as the training’.  This resonates with me since training takes up a good bit of time and can be fatiguing.

My typical training (Plan A) is a progressive and hold approach.  I usually train for 38+ weeks for an ultra-swim (22+ miles).  I progressively add more yardage each week to build to 40k yards in a week and I hold that amount for 3 – 4 weeks. Then, I will dip down from 40K for 2-3 weeks and then go back up and hold at that yardage.  I will do 2 very long swims; 15K+ and a 30K during peak weeks.  Like marathon running, I will not swim the entire distance which in the case of Loch Ness is 35k. 

This training model is something that I’ve refined from my early swims and have solidified through a great long distance coach.  When I started doing ultra-swims, I peaked at 60K per week on top of a full time, fast paced job.  I suffered from overtraining.   It took the wisdom of a coach, and the loss of sleep and appetite (a “canary” for an athlete) for me to realize that peaking at 40K per week is enough for me. Also, I learned the importance of recovery - - naps and days off.  My swim week is training Monday through Sat morning.  This way, I get almost 48 hours of recovery after my long Sat am swim.

Best formed plans can go sideways and its important to be flexible.  Plan B for me can mean jamming all my training into 3 -4 days.  Its not ideal but it can be useful for challenging my system as long as I get good recover afterwards.

The other thing that I’ve learned is to shake up where I swim and who I swim with. Variety is the spice of ultra training! Im very grateful for everyone that I train with, all the great training advice and places to swim.

Here's a shot of my training program

Finding Courage By Swimming with Heart

I get asked a lot “what has been your hardest swim?”  Its really hard to answer that question since each swim is different and has its own unique challenge (s).

What I do know is that Loch Ness will be the coldest swim 22 mile swim I’ll do and that makes it a top contender for the hardest swim.  Every once in awhile during a quiet moment, I feel angst about the swim. What works for me to lessen the fear is to think about who I’m trying to help and how grateful I am for everyone who has, in any way, helped and supported me.

These eloquent words from John O’Donohue are a poetic version of finding courage for my swim across Loch Ness.  

Maybe this will resonate with others no matter the challenge.

“When the light around you lessens, and your thoughts darken until your body feels fear, turn cold as a stone inside, when you find yourself bereft of any belief in yourself, and all you unknowingly learned has fallen, when one voice commands your whole heart, it is a raven dark.

Steady yourself and see that it's your own thinking that darkens your world. Search and you will find a diamond thought of light. Know that you are not alone and that this darkness has purpose. Gradually it will school your eyes to find the one gift your life requires hidden within this night corner. Invoke learning of every suffering you have suffered. Close your eyes. Gather all the kindling about your heart to create one spark.”

My kindling is a school full of Afghan kids.  

 

From: To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings

Swimming Loch Ness by Way of Alcatraz

It all started with the 2006 SERC International Alcatraz swim. My compulsion to swim in open water progressed to a full fledged addiction in which I am unable to look at a body of water and not wonder what it would be like to swim in it or to swim across it.  My mother told me that she used to do this too when she was younger...it's generic :-)

Even though I haven’t seen Loch Ness in person, it captured my imagination and I signed up to swim the length in August, 2017. The photos of Loch Ness show glassy, dark water nestled in the beautiful Scottish highlands with an ancient castle on its banks.  The thought of a friendly creature added to the mystique.  It sank into my psyche the way Monterey Bay did in 2011 when I decided to swim across that bay. 

I love the challenge open water swimming and completing marathon swims.  Loch Ness will be about 54 degrees (if I’m lucky) and I’ll be swimming in black water.  No dancing light like you find in Tahoe, Donner or Monterey Bay. This will pose a bit of a mental challenge on top of swimming 22 miles without a tidal push. My crew is already acquiring hats and costumes to keep us all laughing across the loch.  There is no shortage of Nessie wear for them to choose from.

Everyone has their own passion and drive to do a major swim.  My drive is to help others while I complete the swim adventure. Swimming the length of Loch Ness is an opportunity to raise funds for Trust in Education, an organization that I’m passionate about.  

Trust in Education has made education a high priority in war torn Afghanistan by developing schools, building community learning centers, sponsoring street children to attend school, and providing after school classes.  My goal is to raise $100,000 for Trust in Education.   I have tutored refugee kids in the bay area and know of the dire circumstances kids face in Afghanistan.

Education is the best course for these kids and the best chance for stability and peace.  Nothing I experience during a swim compares to difficulty they face. The thought of helping them and providing hope gets me through the dark moments on my swims.  There is always a dark moment or two, so I think about them a lot.

I’ve had the good fortune of being born into a family that emphasized and invested in my education and I feel compelled to play that forward.  100% of donations goes to Trust in Education.

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