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It's a weird thing to finally find my tribe at age 52. It's not even like I was looking for them. Maybe, in actuality, it was they who found me - it was never more apparent to me than at this year's Ocean Games in Ocean City, Maryland, this past weekend.

First I want to say that I've never been happier in a sport than I have been in open water swimming. I can tell because although I still get nervous, I no longer obsess over my times and my training and what place I finish. Yes, I am aware of those things, but that's not what keeps me up at night. Whether I win or lose or PR does not occupy my thoughts before a swim race. MAKING it to the finish line has become the bigger deal. Swimming fast is only important because it gets me to the finish more quickly. Praying for smooth seas, weak currents, and ideal water temperatures - and laughing about it when it doesn't happen - has become my new reality. Caring whether the swimmers I meet have a safe swim has also become my new reality. My experiences in 25 years of marathon running and Ironman triathlon-ing has barely prepared me for this new battle with the elements. Open water marathon swimming is governed by rough and always-changing water and weather conditions and the few who embrace it. I say "few" because these events are not populated by every other person you know. It's a very small group compared to the many hundreds - or thousands - toeing the line at a marathon or Ironman triathlon start.

The fact that anything can go wrong in open water was never more obvious to me than in last year's attempt at the Ocean Games Nine-mile Swim in Ocean City, Maryland. More than in any event of the past, I learned a great deal about myself as well as the power of the ocean and the weather (blog post from last year: "Playing Ocean Games, aka Finding Corey"). But the true silver lining of dropping out of last year's event with hypothermia was revealed to me this year.

It started Friday night at the pre-race meeting. Because I did this year's race as a fundraiser, I had the opportunity to get to know race director Corey Davis a little better before we arrived in Ocean City. At the pre-race meeting, he introduced me to the all the race organizers and officials and many of the swimmers who come back year after year to support him and the charity it supports, Swim Ocean City. I left Ocean City on Sunday with a whole new group of friends who seem to have an amazing capacity to challenge themselves and appreciate the people around them. No one cared how fast or slow I was, there was no sizing-up or gear-head talk. They just welcomed me into their "crazy family." I felt like I belonged in a way I've never experienced before even though I was kind of the oddball because I live almost 500 miles away.

I was also lucky to have my friend Doug serve as my kayak support. He lives much closer to Ocean City and he agreed to come back and try to get me to the finish this year. Just like me, he was also better-prepared than last year. He usually paddles with his daughter in the kayak, so this year he added a 50-lb sand bag as a ballast in the front of his boat to help with balance.

There was no better group of athletes I'd rather toe the line with. And that we did.

On race morning, the swim direction was declared: north to south, which was in the direction of the wind but against the current. Water temperature was 72 degrees F, and after last year, my fear of a sharp drop in temperature kept me from going without a wetsuit. 72 is too warm for a wetsuit, and I struggled to make the call, but my first and foremost goal this year was to finish this thing no matter what - and it was a long race. And anything could happen. I had to err on the side of caution.

Unfortunately, the morning would also see the return of Disaster Magnet, jinxing both Doug and me before the race even started. During my warmup, I tried to body surf a huge wave and got twisted and tossed onto my back and into the hard sand. When I finally got up, there was pain in my back ribs every time I took a deep breath, and my left side and shoulders were traumatized. Had I just compromised my race? We would soon find out.

Here's a photo taken by my husband Jim right before it happened:

I shook it off and tried to not let it bother me because we would soon have to deal with a more pressing issue. The morning shore-break made it incredibly difficult for kayakers to get on the water, and Doug's attempted launch became the the worst of all. He got hit by one wave and then a larger one. It flipped his kayak, dumping everything - including the sand bag which was forever lost at sea. Doug's legs got banged up pretty bad, and Jim told me he may not be able to start. I ran over to check on him.

Of course, right after Doug's mishap, they started dry-launching kayakers - which worked much better. And Doug ("I don't need my legs to kayak") refused to be deterred - he brushed the whole thing off, got right back in the boat, and got out there. In retrospect, it was a rather comical start to the day with all these race people and bystanders on the beach cheering each time a kayaker got past the immediate danger of the breaking waves.

Soon enough, it was 10 am and we swimmers were lined up on the beach ready to start. I got hugs and high-fives and a new nickname ("Cleveland") from my new friends, and in no time, our little team was off swimming and paddling, determined to finish despite our rather unfortunate start to the day.

Here are some photos and video Jim took at the start:


With Doug before the race.


With my new friends Jay and Bobby (in wetsuits)
who "said" they hadn't trained. They were the last two swimmers to enter the event
but had done it every year at the urging of race director, Corey Davis.

 

I don't want to bore you to death with a play-by-play of nine miles of swimming, so I will try to relate the major moments of the swim with the thoughts that occurred to me while we were out there. My readers can be assured this event wasn't nearly as smooth-going as my swim in Key West. (You can see from the video that the conditions were far from "flat water.")

The first two to three miles were significant in that all I did was worry about the soreness and fatigue already plaguing my left side. I worried I wouldn't reach the halfway point. I worried I might have broken a rib. I worried a broken rib might puncture a lung. Seriously. I was a mess. A disaster. I was fighting myself every stroke because I remembered last year, when I was tough enough to swim through all of mile 4 while hypothermia was setting in BEFORE I dropped out. Saturday, I was two miles into this thing, and I couldn't even get a grip on my own mind.

Then, somewhere around three miles, I had to make an extended stop to adjust my goggles strap because I was getting a headache. Why was it too tight? Because, I'm an idiot. In a truly unthinking maneuver, I tightened the strap after the goggles were ripped off my head in the earlier wave incident - after it had been PERFECTLY adjusted for twelve miles in Key West.

So.. yeah, I was having issues. And Doug was having his own issues. He had to work extra hard to control his no-longer-ballasted kayak in a stiff northwest wind that wanted to blow us out to sea. At one point, I stopped swimming to look around and found that we were way out to sea and WAY off course - that is, if the location of all the other swimmers was an indication of being "on course." This manifested in us covering a much-longer distance than planned - we hit the mile markers with increasing distances.

The wetsuit turned out to be a bad decision. I did it because I had reservations about acclimating with only cold showers and in the warming waters of Lake Erie. But I really I should have trusted my instincts better. Open water swimming is still very new to me, and conditions change so quickly in Ocean City (as we found out last year). But during the race, the only way I could cool off was to dive down a few feet underwater every ten minutes or so to get cold water into the suit.

The pain and fatigue from my pre-race folly started to fade before mile 4, and I was finally able to stop worrying about that. But I was frustrated with my very slow pace, constantly struggling against the current, and always fighting swells. Doug kept me on schedule for feeding every 20 minutes. But it seemed like every time we stopped, the kayak would start to drift and smack me in the head while he was getting me a bottle. When we reached mile 7, it was the first time all day I felt confident we would finish. Then, I accidentally swam right into the back of Doug's kayak, and I snapped. I stopped caring and just burst out laughing. All of a sudden, everything was hilarious. The surf. The wind. The wetsuit. I felt like I was on a treadmill and going nowhere for almost four hours. My only reaction at this point was to crack up and mentally check out.

I started singing Jimmy Buffett songs in my head.

Here are some photos Jim took of us out there on the water. He was with Doug's wife, Kaz, and their daughter, Kat, and they were able to leap-frog down the beach to see us four times during the event.

Things seemed to ease up in that last two miles. The current wasn't as strong and I almost felt like I could get a push once in a while between waves. And Doug finally pointed out the orange finish buoy. He had seen it last year although I had not. By the time we reached it, we had traveled almost ten miles according to my Garmin. I didn't care, I was so done. And thus, I will let the finish video speak for itself because humor is the best medicine. I still laugh while watching it. At least I got accolades for "best finish."

At the finish (yippee!), my Garmin GPS watch had a total distance of 17,295 yards (9.83 miles) in 5:14. My total "moving time" was 4:55. I was never so glad to be done with a race, and I was never so ready to celebrate. I felt bad for those who were pulled out for not meeting cut-off times (45 min/mile), but they were all troopers on a very rough day. One woman had to pull out with seasickness. It was mind-boggling to me that she got sick about 20 minutes into the race but managed to make it three miles before calling it a day. Swimmers are tough.

I was very honored to win the "top fundraiser award" for raising the most money for Swim Ocean City. This trophy meant a great deal to me because I had promised Corey - who'd been so generous in 2016 - that I'd be back in 2017 to finish AND do it as a fundraiser. Mission accomplished, and a heartfelt thank-you to all who donated. I can't say enough about the organization of this race and how well they look after people on the course. It's a very small event - 17 swimmers started (hopefully that will change) - but they really made me feel like family, and I understand why so many of them come back year after year.

Next year? NO WETSUIT.

Some photos Jim took at the finish line:


These two - Jay and Bobby - were so inspiring. They were the last two
finishers, but they're the best! They gave me a new nickname: "Cleveland"
(it's better than "Disaster Magnet") and promised to train for next year.


This is Dave - he did the Swim Around Key West with me three weeks ago.
He's also a veteran of the race having done it every year since the beginning.
I look forward to learning a LOT about swimming from him.
(I beat him in KW, he beat me in OC. GAME ON!)


And this is me with Corey Davis, the race director.
He's an inspiration to everyone who knows him.

Race report from Ocean Games Nine-mile open water swim that I promised to finish this year after having dropped out with hypothermia last year.

It was back in early 2016 that I first learned of the existence of the 12.5-mile annual Swim Around Key West (SAKW). I had thrown in the towel on triathlon and embraced the fact that when it came to endurance sports, open water swimming was likely my first best destiny.

The SAKW (as well as my previous swim, the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim) showed up in a list of America's Top 50 Open Water Swims. I added them both to my bucket list. Seriously, the Island of Key West was already on the bucket list, and it was a place I wouldn't have to twist my husband Jim's arm to go - he's the one who made me a Jimmy Buffett fan, and I've always dreamed we'd someday be "strolling down the avenue that's known as A-1A."

But getting an entry in the SAKW was a little tricky. Solo swimmers needed a support kayak, and the window of opportunity was usually less than a week because the field gets capped at 110 swimmers. For an extra fee, 35 swimmers can "purchase" a kayaker, i.e., a race coordinator will pair them with a support kayaker. I couldn't possibly ask someone to foot the bill to come to Key West with me, so I needed to be one of those 35 swimmers. I knew as soon as race registration opened in March, I would have to sign up. I set my calendar to remind me, and when the reminder popped up, I evaluated my training situation.

Did I have enough time to train? I hoped so. It was still four months away, and I had already committed myself to the Chesapeake Bay 4.4-miler and the Ocean Games 9-miler in mid-July, so, heck, what was a few more miles really? I registered and then frantically started combing through all the swimming and open water online forums and blogs for Key West course details and training plans, nutrition plans, strategic plans, and mental plans for completing a 12.5-mile ocean swim in ridiculously warm conditions. I read as many race reports as I could find. I even joined US Masters Swimming hoping for advice.

There was a lot of info out there, and strategies were as varied as they could get. The minimum rule-of-thumb from my favorite open-water expert, Lone Swimmer, was that the distance a person "could" swim in one shot was four times the distance of their longest training swim, and one should swim at least that total distance on a weekly basis. In math terms, 12.5 miles was 22,000 yards which meant the following: I had to swim 22,000 yards weekly, and my longest swim had to be at least 7,040 yards.

Those were the minimum requirements. Have you ever known me to do anything at a minimum? (Except for cleaning my house, that is.)

I didn't think so. By the time we left for Key West, I had been able to complete the following (and I still worried it would not be enough):

  • swimming 5-7 days per week at a weekly yardage of between 26,000 and 45,000 yards
  • two 8,000+ yard workouts
  • two 10,000+ yard workouts
  • one 12,000-yard continuous swim in the pool
  • and one 14,000-yard continuous swim in the pool

The last two workouts in that list were also necessary for practicing race nutrition. I wanted to use SkratchLabs hydration mixes and Carbo-Pro (a high-carb drink of glucose polymers). Luckily, my pool water temperature was between 82 and 84 degrees F - perfect for practicing nutrition requirements in conditions (read: heat) similar to those I would experience in Key West. In my 14,000-yard session, 10 days before race day, I spent almost four hours in the pool and learned that my triceps would be prone to cramping without proper electrolyte consumption. (It happened in the final half-hour but was quickly remedied with SkratchLabs Rescue Hydration.)

About two weeks before the SAKW, I was given contact details of my assigned kayaker, Nancy. She was also a first-timer, in both the SAKW and serving as race support for a swimmer. But talking to her gave me confidence in her abilities: she was highly experienced and even possessed a certification in kayak rescue.

In the two weeks we had to plan, Nancy and I discussed her responsibilities: navigating the course, keeping me out of trouble (if you know me, you know this is not an easy task), and nutrition for both of us. Jim and I found a soft-sided cooler for my nutrition that could be mounted behind her seat on her 16-foot kayak. She could clip bottles to a 10-foot rope tied to her kayak and toss them to me. Race rules forbid swimmers from hanging onto kayaks (or boats, or anything) or standing up during the swim. I spent weeks researching the best way to carry all the fluids and fuel I would need in the heat. I decided on several 32-oz plastic milk bottles fitted with flip-top lids I found on Amazon (much easier to open than their screwtops). They were translucent so I could mark the volumes I had to drink, and the handles were sturdy for clipping onto the rope. I also had bike bottles fitted with zip-tie loops. Some of it would be frozen for later in the race. My nutrition plan was water for the first hour and then 32-oz per hour of a high-carb drink made with Carbo-Pro and Skratch. My feeding intervals would be 20 minutes. Nancy would use a countdown timer on her phone to keep me on track.

Nancy and I met the day before the race at Smathers Beach, the event start/finish location, to work out the engineering details. Jim was very instrumental in fabricating all our mounting, bungeeing, and zip-tying. Here are some photos:

Then Nancy and I went for a practice swim to make sure everything worked and that she was comfortable with me swimming on her left. We grabbed lunch out and returned to the beach for race check-in and the mandatory pre-race meeting. The course layout was explained in great detail by the race organizer, Bill Welzein who would also be completing his 90th circumnavigation of the island with us. He described the tides, the water depths, currents and winds, and how it all would affect our races depending on what time we reached certain points on the course. I took notes on the course map (which Nancy actually taped to her kayak on race day):

Basically, we would start with the current, get a slight push around the west side of the island while the tide was coming in, then had to navigate under a bridge at mile 5, into the main harbor and through the moorings, around a little island to the north, and into a channel where we would be going against the wind (miles 7-9). At mile 9, we went under Cow Key Channel bridge (hopefully we would see Jim there), and then, swimmers planning a 6-hour swim would get a second push where the Gulf meets back with the Atlantic Ocean as the tide was going out. Around mile 10, the water would get very shallow as time wore on (basically, if we got to that point early we would have a much easier time swimming through it). By the time we rounded the southeast corner, we would have less than two miles go and should see the finish line. Various sighting points were also described - like yellow buoys for the relay exchanges and features in the landscape.

Weeks before the race, my estimated finish time - based on how I felt in my long pool swims and how others had described their experiences in Key West - was about six hours. If I had a good day, I might be able to manage 5:40. If I fell apart, it would probably be more like 6:30. After factoring in feedings, current, wind, waves, etc., I was relatively certain that my time would he outside of any awards. Yes. I checked. There were only seven: top three, top two masters (40+), top grand master (50+), and top senior grand master (60+). And I looked at the times in years past. Last year's winner of the grand master category (mine) finished in 5:31. I accidentally saw that the awards were individually made and highly-coveted (they were conch shells). I had to block it out of my mind. I had to have one - and only one - goal in Key West. To finish. To prove to myself I could finish.

But I can't say I wasn't nervous. Being walked through the aerial view of the course terrified me - especially when the mile "markers" were pointed out. It was going to be a long day, and I had only a few hours left to come to grips with that and figure out how to get some sleep. Sleeping the night before was crucial to my morning mind-set. And to my (and Jim's) surprise, unlike two weeks prior in Annapolis, I managed to drift off to that elusive sleep zone using a self-relaxation tape. Well.. ok, so it took THREE tries, but it finally worked, and when the alarm went off at 4:45 am, I had about four hours solid rest and my nerves were not frayed like all those times in the past. 

I ate breakfast, put on sunscreen, packed everything up, and Jim drove me down to Smathers beach at 5:30 to get prepped for the start. The race officials handed me number 8 (Jim yelled "the OCHO!") - and Nancy and I joked at our luck because we didn't have to worry about how to tape it on the kayak since it looks the same upside down. Before I got in the water, I put on another layer of sunscreen (note: this still would not be enough to avoid a burned back and shoulders).

Here are some photos Jim took at the beach that morning showing Nancy and me, her kayak and the start:

Wave 1 went off at 7:15. Wave 2 (us) went at 7:45. The kayakers were sent out first and they would hook up with us after we started swimming. Watch the video Jim took of the start.

It was one of the most chaotic starts I've ever experienced in a race - not chaotic in terms of being pummelled by other swimmers but chaotic in terms of confusion. There were swimmers and kayakers all interspersed together trying to pair up. Unfortunately, few things made it easy to find Nancy. She wasn't the only one wearing a bright yellow shirt, and I swam after two of them before realizing they weren't her. I kept stopping to do breaststroke and look around to see what was happening. I was sure we had passed mile 1 by the time I finally found her. The thing that helped the most was the silly orange and white cooler that I picked out much to Jim's dismay (he made fun of me for choosing the most ridiulous-colored one). When we finally hooked up, I checked my watch and we were already 26 minutes into the race. And I had missed my first feeding. When we got relatively clear of the mayhem, I stopped and she was already prepping to throw me a water bottle.

Then, I just settled into an easy stroke and let Nancy lead the way. The time (marked by 20-minute feeds) seemed to fly by and in an instant, I could see the satellite dish that marked mile 2, then we took the corner that marked mile 3. And somewhere between mile 4 and 5 miles, I stopped because I smelled what can only be described as a "cookout." I had to mention to Nancy "that smells good." She pointed out there was a restaurant responsible. I swear, that was downright criminal. We weren't even half-done. I had to stop a few times in the first four miles because my eyes started to sting and water like crazy. I figured it was from sunscreen - I had to stop and take my goggles off twice and pour fresh water in my eyes to make it stop.

Jim went to the far west edge of the island to watch us pass around mile 3. He got some pretty cool photos there:

Somewhere around mile 6, when we reached the moorings, I flipped over onto my back to see the most amazing boats anchored all around me. Nancy piloted me through this area like a pro. There were ropes and buoys that I could have easily got hung up on. It was at this place I remember starting to hear Jimmy Buffett songs in my head. It made me ecstatically happy and it would continue on for the rest of the swim. These words were particularly stuck on repeat, from "A Pirate Looks at 40":

Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call
Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall
You've seen it all, you've seen it all

I was making my peace with the water in a very spiritual way. It was fun and truly fulfilling. When we hit mile 7, Nancy stopped to remind me that we were about to enter the "difficult" part - against the wind. She advised a feeding so we could push through and I agreed. I checked my watch and almost went into shock to find that we were on a ridiculously fast pace. I was swimming 15 seconds per 100 faster than my fastest expected pace. All I could think is that we're about to get slammed by the current and the wind. I drank a little extra and put my head down to power through. The waves got rougher, and I swallowed water a couple of times - I told myself not to fight, to relax and work with the rhythm of the water. It must have worked because I started to notice we were passing people during this stretch. Surprisingly, I didn't feel particularly bad even though I expected to hit the "wall" around 8 miles because it was the distance of my longest training swim. But I didn't. Maybe knowing I'd see Jim on the bridge at mile 9 is what kept me strong. Who knows?

Here's a shot Jim took of us coming toward the Cow Key Channel Bridge:

I looked up to wave at Jim when we reached the Cow Key Channel Bridge, and then we headed for the very shallow water. We had successfully conquered the windy part, and we were about to get another push. I stopped to check my pace. Shockingly, I was still 10 seconds per 100 ahead of expectations.

Of course, Jim has a photo of me checking my watch (which I only did three times in this race):

Here's video Jim took from the bridge:

OK. Here's when I thought: "Seriously. It's gotta hit me sooner or later. I'm going way too fast. I'm feeling way too good. Something isn't right."

Nancy perfectly navigated the shallows, which, at this hour, weren't all that shallow. The water was much hotter here and I was starting to get a little nauseous. I stopped with the high carbs and went for my high-electrolyte drink. But I kept swimming and I wasn't slowing down. When we rounded the far end of the island, we stopped a second and Nancy said to me: "do you know where we are?"

I said: "We have TWO MILES to go!!" She was clearly pleased with how fast we were going.

And, of course, it was here that Disaster Magnet reared its head. I was about to make a huge mistake. I was tired and slightly nauseous, and I wanted a surge of energy for the finish. I decided to do the ONE thing that has always worked for me - in Ironman races and marathons. I drank some Coke. What's wrong with a little caffeine and sugar in the last hour, right?

Ugh. I continued to swim a steady pace until we reached the final stretch - a line of wooden poles within earshot of the finish. My arms were tired, but I wasn't, by any means, falling apart. And I was shocked and bewildered to find I was on pace to finish in under five hours. We could literally see the finish line, and Nancy excitedly pointed out the final yellow buoy that I had to round before swimming in. It was right about then I started to feel a bit woozy. I've read about people vomiting during English Channel swims and always wondered "How the hell do they do that? Treading water?"

The first heave came about five poles from the finish. I stopped swimming and there it was. Vomit stops for no man. The Coke came up with a vengeance - in fact, that's pretty much all it was. I started swimming again. And again came another round of coke-flavored vomit. Nancy was perplexed, frustrated even: "The finish line IS RIGHT THERE!" Why the hell was I stopping? I was like, "ummm hold on..." It was the most ridiculous, maddening thing. I could almost reach out and touch that yellow buoy, but I just COULD NOT GET THERE. Meanwhile, once you stop swimming in an event of this length, everything locks up. My arms were no longer working the way they had five minutes ago. Finally, the vomiting was over, and I swam as hard as I could, but I couldn't hold off the guy coming up behind me. He had a much faster finish kick than I did. I consoled myself knowing he wasn't a female competitor.

Here's me finally rounding that last buoy: 

And just like that, I was up and running to a line in the beach sand.

Here's video Jim took of my finish: 

I heard Jim's voice over all the others. It reminded me of my swim coach from college yelling in my face when I was close to a NCAA championship qualifying time. I felt the FEAR. All I could think was that I MUST be extremely close to some goal time. I ran with everything I had across that line and hit the stop button on my watch. Whoa. There it was: a few seconds under 5 hours. Jim confessed later he had no idea about time, he was just cheering for me to finish. Whatever. It worked. I might have just walked it in, but because of him and the FEAR, I was the last finisher to make it under 5 hours. I still can't believe it.

We sat around at the finish for a long time while other finishers came in. It was a while before I felt like standing up or even eating something. When I finally gathered my strength, I inhaled a burger and lots of watermelon. I checked the results and was blown away by the fact that I was 17th overall, the 6th female finisher and 2nd female master (only two minutes from the 1st master). Official results are now posted online. Even more surprising was that I managed to get one of those amazing trophies, and I will cherish it forever. I chose not to kick myself after finding out how much time I wasted stopping to feed (in the heat, I had to make sure I got all my fluids each time I drank), to look around, slowing down to check out the fish swimming below me, or to lollygag and laugh with Nancy. My Garmin said I did about seven minutes of that. But I wasn't there to race, I had nothing to compare it to, and we were having fun.

If I have something to say to wrap this up.. First of all, I couldn't have done it without Jim and Nancy. Jim has been ultra-supportive through this whole open-water swimming learning process. He made sure I didn't worry needlessly about all the logistics and equipment. And Nancy was calm, professional, navigated the quickest route around Key West, and kept me from swimming into buoys and drifting off while swimming (yes, both of those things almost happened). At one point I swam right into the side of her kayak when I breathed on my left a few times. She asked me if I had "zoned out"  and it just cracked me up - I told her I swim in circles when I breathe on my left. My swim around Key West was similar to my fastest marathon and my fastest Ironman in that I truly enjoyed every moment of it. If my face weren't in the water, I would have been laughing the entire way. Even when I started to get sore and tired, I was still happy and singing to myself. The pain barely registers when I feel good and the time certainly flies by. The only struggle came in those last few hundred yards, and then, I was still kind of in a state of euphoria because I was almost finished, and it was amusing to me that I can rarely pull anything off without at least one glitch in the process.

Later the next day we walked through the Key West Cemetery and found this amazing grave marker, which perfectly summed up my trip to Key West. The inscription reads:

Sir Peter Anderson
1947-2014
Secretary General
Conch Republic
'He Had Fun'

Race report from my 12.5-mile Swim Around Key West with photos and video.

Number 52: not my age, but close enough!

My last open-water swim event this year was Epic Racing's "Swim to the Moon," an event that takes place somewhere near Hell (Hell, Michigan, that is). I suspect the reason I chose this event was because I loved the name. It's actually several swim distances - one-half mile up to 10K - that take place in a chain of lakes near Ann Arbor (Jim, with his two degrees from Ohio State University, in fact, finds this region of the USA to be his personal version of Hell, as he is surrounded by Michigan fans).

I chose the 10K... because.. why not? It was a lake swim so the water would likely be calm and warm, unlike the ocean in my last one.

We stayed overnight about 30 minutes east of the starting line, which was at Halfmoon Lake. The 10K swims across Halfmoon Lake and through channels and small lakes connecting it to Patterson Lake, where it turns around on private property, and goes back. There's also a 5K that starts at Patterson Lake and goes to the same finish line as the 10K. At the turn, 10K swimmers are required to exit the water and can partake of any nutrition or other items they stashed there in a special-needs bag.

I got very little sleep in the two nights before the race because I've been battling anxiety issues (which, incidentally, have nothing to do with pre-race jitters... just dealing with health problems and family issues). When the alarm clock rang race morning (Sunday), I could barely open my eyes, and the last thing I wanted to do was deal with a race that might take about three hours. But I had made a commitment, and I reminded myself how much I love swimming. I would make the best of it.

That morning, unlike the two weeks leading up to it, saw a drop in temperature into the low 60s. This meant that the water temperature, at 76 degrees, actually exceeded the air temperature. It also meant I didn't bring warm enough clothes to wear that morning. All I could think was: Oh great! This time I'll get hypothermia BEFORE I even get in the water!

But there wasn't a lot of time to wait around, and by 6:30, we were standing on the small sandy beach being accounted for as we were shuffled through the starting line arch to wait for the gun.

Early morning start under the moon.

Everyone was mumbling about the cold. Some people were actually getting in the water to keep warm. My fingers started to get numb. It took a little while to count everyone - so long that I decided to put my raincoat back on to keep warm. I was told by one group of men that I "could use a little more weight in order to stay warm" (I assured them I'm trying, maybe swimming in progressively-colder water next month will take care of that).

One way to keep warm.

After a quick singing of the Star Spangled Banner, we were finally off. Here's a video of the start:

In about five minutes, I had completely forgotten about the cold and was now in the melee of arms and legs and people all trying to spot buoys in dim morning light. That didn't last long (the dim morning light or being stuck in the melee), and before I made the turn into the first inter-lake channel, the sun was out and illuminating the far side of Halfmoon Lake. It was quite beautiful - I was no longer feeling tired but just happy to be swimming along at a speed that allowed me to appreciate the day.

Just before we took that turn - and based on my swim the day before, I determined the distance to be about a mile - I settled into a pace that had me swimming steadily alongside two others: a man and a woman. I would go into the first channel with this little group.

Before the race, a guy had told me the channels were shallow and you could walk through them. What he really meant was you might HAVE to walk through them. I found myself completely tangled up in weeds and trying not to run aground. I had to keep my underwater arm-pull against my body just to avoid punching the ground below. Unfortunately, the woman swimming next to me occupied the slightly deeper water, and I couldn't force myself into her space without sending her into another bank of weeds. I had to back off in order to get into her wake and avoid beaching myself or slamming into the wooden uprights of a foot-bridge over the channel. The two of us also had to stop a few times to find course-marker buoys.

Once we cleared the first channel, as long as I stayed close to the course markers, it was smooth swimming. I had only one or two run-ins with weeds until the second channel. Our little group stayed together through the second channel as well, which was equally shallow and treacherous and included swimming through a huge-diameter metal pipe (that had another bridge over it).

I found myself actually grabbing onto the weeds a couple times in a desperate attempt to pull myself forward. The first time I did it, the image that leapt to mind was one of standing on the pool deck and yelling at my swim team kids for grabbing onto the lane-lines during backstroke to pull themselves along. (They always think I don't notice that.) Hey, it works! I will have to come clean when I see them again.

When we finally reached Patterson Lake, the sun was well up. I stopped for a moment to free myself from a weed that had wrapped itself around my neck. My watch had us at 2.29 miles. Swimmers would now be on their way back. I got my bearings and started swimming toward the next bright orange buoy, only to have a stand-up paddler blowing a whistle at me and pointing me in the perpendicular direction. Swimmers were being directed to swim "directly into the sun" (what kayakers were telling us). By the time I was able to see the next marker, I had almost burned out my retinas, and spotting anything was now an issue. I almost had a head-on collision with a swimmer going in the opposite direction.

Finally I stopped. The girl next to me stopped. The guy next to me stopped. We had to flag down a kayaker to give us directions. It was then I saw the boat with a guy on the back carrying one of the big orange markers. Apparently the buoys had blown off course. He dropped this one directly in front of me and just like that!.. we were back on course.

When I made it to the beach turn-around, the first thing I saw was the time-clock. It said 1:19:something. Before the race, I told Jim that the 10K would probably take me close to three hours - at best, 2:45. This was very good news indeed. I was half-way through and under my predicted "fast" time. A volunteer handed me my special-needs bag containing nutrition.

The woman I had been swimming with gave me the slip on the beach and got back in the water well before me. I had a 21-oz bottle of SkratchLabs hydration mixed with Carbo-Pro, and I needed those calories. But I also didn't want to just "swim through" the second half of this race, so I drank only 3/4 of my bottle and ran back into the water to chase her. The guy from my original group was right alongside me.

He was the clobbering-type swimmer and his stroke was so strong it was like he had a tractor beam - I kept getting pulled toward him as though I was stuck in a gravitational pull. I had to get out of that influence so I swam hard and fast and pulled out in front.

Swimming the flip-side of Patterson Lake was easier because we were pointing away from the sun, it was a clear day, and the markers were now obvious. When I reached the channel, I realized that I was right behind the woman in our original three-some. I did not want to lull myself into swimming her speed again, so I worked hard in in the channel to get ahead. Instead, I swam off course and ended up in that group again - the three of us with me stuck smack in the middle.

Upon exiting this channel, I finally had enough. I swam hard to wrestle myself free of the group and the weeds.

I got out ahead and finally had the last two miles of this race all to myself. There was a lifeguard on a paddle-board who kept coming around to make sure I stayed on course, but I had no problem whatsoever spotting buoys and enjoying swimming hard to the finish. I stopped a couple times when we got back into Halfmoon lake to check my watch. With about a half-mile to go, my stroke finally started falling apart. Overall, I wasn't really that tired, I was just having trouble getting enough strength to keep a strong underwater pull. But I was alone in the water, and I told myself to enjoy it because it was almost over. I did backstroke just to look up at the clear blue sky, and then I flipped back over and pushed to the finish.

Getting out of the water after swimming for that long was a weird experience. It felt a lot like "the wobble" when you first step off the bike in an Ironman. I almost fell. I was disoriented for a few moments. Embarrassingly, it was caught on video, and since I have no shame to speak of, here it is:

My finish time was 2:39:03. And even though I swam hard, my second half was less than a minute faster than the first half. Awards-wise, I finished second in my age group (33rd overall) but the first female masters swimmer was also in my age group, so my time was actually third in my age group. I have a long way to go because there are some really fast women over 50.

Beer glasses are always the best trophies.

And I'm still loving this swim thing... and ready for the next one.

Just for kicks, here's the GPS plot from my Garmin:

ELO on the Pyramid Stage

What happens when 200,000 people gather annually in late June on a giant patch of farmland in Somerset, England, for several days of music and a general celebration of the arts?

Miracles.
It's called the Glastonbury Festival.
I never thought I'd see it firsthand. Glastonbury was always that elusive thing in the future I could never get to. Like the perfect house in the perfect location that you build when you retire. Like Shangri-La. Like the pirate ship you find by following the treasure map.
Like a dream.
It existed, but it would never be part of my reality.
Every year, my friend Andy would ask me. It was THAT sort of question: "WHEN are you coming to Glastonbury?" To him, it wasn't a question. It was a necessity. A command. You love music as much as I do? You feel it deep within? It moves you in ways you cannot explain? You must go to Glastonbury. It's a calling. Why?
Miracles.
I knew the Glastonbury Festival was great. I knew it was huge. I knew the performances were special because I had seen them. Just not in person.
I had never WITNESSED them. I didn't "get" it.
I do now.
Glastonbury isn't hype. It's the real thing. It's 200,000 people living in a communal space to experience something intangible - but palpable. It's all around. It's about people coming together. To celebrate. To make the world a better place. It's friendship. It's peace. It's love. It's respect. For your fellow man. For the environment. Everyone knows it. They feel it. 
The musicians feel it too. That's why they play Glastonbury when they get the opportunity. The rain doesn't matter. The mud (oh my, the MUD) doesn't matter. It's a calling. They know they must play there. Why?
Miracles.
Miracles happen everywhere at Glastonbury. Some of them are small. Some of them are show-stopping. You hear them. You see them. Most of all, you FEEL them. And when you leave Glastonbury, you are not the same person you were when you arrived. Your heart will be bigger. Your senses will be more acute. Your friendships will be stronger. And your mind will be wider.
Let's talk about those miracles. 
The first miracle was how we managed to get tickets in the first place. Let's just say it was a miracle. One of those karmic miracles. We never planned on going to Glastonbury this year. But when I found out Turin Brakes were playing, I said the right thing to the right person (that's you, Rob) and somehow, a miracle happened - a pair of tickets - landed in my hands. I will be forever grateful. 
The only bad news was we had a mere two months to sort out logistics.
The second miracle was how little we paid to get to England. After preparing to drop a huge chunk of cash on airfare with only a two-month lead-time, we found tickets to London from Toronto on Air Canada cost about half the price of flying out of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, or Detroit. It was only a five-hour drive for a direct flight to Heathrow.
Now, let's get real - I have no idea how to navigate a festival, and thus, we needed massive help. We needed another miracle.
I took the standing offer to attend this thing with Andy and Caroline (they go every year). In retrospect, I can't imagine doing it any other way, and I will be forever in their debt for their generosity and help in packing, getting there, and getting around. Glastonbury was the greatest experience because of them. They ARE the third miracle.
Our last day - in the rain and mud, with our dear friends,
awaiting Coldplay on the main stage.
In the weeks leading up to our trip, Andy wrote daily, sending us information, links to videos of various bands, packing list advice. He and Caroline purchased food, drink, inexpensive day packs, air mattresses, and pillows for us. Andy even sent photos of the trolley he was building to carry our stuff to the camp site. I couldn't ask for better friends, and I feel happy tears welling up just writing about them.
So, let's talk camping.
It was nothing short of a miracle that we actually found a place on high ground to put our two tents. We had almost given up when we found a spot - a spot almost as far away as you could get from where we would need to be for gigs. But it was high ground - a small miracle.
We had to sleep on a slope - that's when we were taught one of the great festival lessons. Never sleep horizontal on sloped ground because you will roll into each other. Saved yet again by the wisdom of A&C - we never had to make that mistake.
Getting to Glastonbury with A&C via car also yielded some life lessons. I found out exactly what were the three most useful household items: gaffer tape (duct tape), cling film (plastic wrap), and cable ties. The fourth might be bin bags (trash bags).

Scenes from packing and camping:

Packing the car
See what I mean about useful
household items?

The view from our camp site,
watching the sun go down on Wednesday
Our temporary home for five days.

Now, let's talk about the mud...
It rains in England. A LOT. And Glastonbury 2016 was not just a music-fest, it was a mud-fest (officially dubbed "the muddiest Glastonbury ever" by The Guardian). I received my PhD in mud and mud navigation this year at Glastonbury. I now know all the different consistencies of mud. I know how to tell the depth of it. I know how to walk in it so it doesn't splatter all over me or the people around me. I know how not to get stuck in it (although this was the hardest lesson and needed the most practice). And I know that no matter how much mud you have on your wellies (rubber boots), you can always add another layer, especially if you creatively mix it with hay, wood chips, or confetti.
There was no patch of ground free of mud. At times it was more than ankle-deep, and often had a cement-like consistency. If you stop moving for an instant, your boots (and you) will stay in the mud. I got stuck while waiting for Travis to come on stage. But you know what happened? You guessed it - another miracle. People I didn't know all around me helped pull me - and my boots - out of the mud. This happened several times during the festival.

Scenes of mud around the fest:

The main entrance gate was treacherous
Pyramid Stage
The Other Stage
The Park Stage
Selfie with mud 
This was in the Croissant Neuf tent,
where I saw Travis 

On Monday they had to tow cars with giant tractors
because of the parking in mud
The mud created a living hell from the car to the gate to our camp site. I swear it took us two hours to cart our stuff about two miles. By the time we reached the top of the hill where we camped, the trolley wheels were coated with about an inch of mud all around, and the four of us were soaked in sweat from the exertion. It felt like the last mile of a marathon. It was truly a miracle we made it with all our stuff. In fact, the whole journey from the car was littered with deceased trolleys and bags - victims of the mud.

Most of the mud came from rain early in the week, but the weather forecast continued to predict a lot more rain DURING the festival than we actually got. But as luck would have it, the sun came out often and gave us many more miracles in the form of relief from the cold and wet conditions. 
I never appreciated the miracle of a blue sky more than I did at Glastonbury.

This guy was as happy as I was about the blue sky

There were so many things I learned at Glastonbury that I would never have learned. Here are some of them:
It IS possible to put 200K people in one place without violence breaking out.
It IS possible to go without a shower or bath for five days if you have wet wipes, a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, and dry shampoo.
I learned new words at Glastonbury. (1) out-trolley, verb, used in a sentence, "Andy was out-trolleyed by the guy who installed mountain-bike wheels on HIS trolley." (2) Glastonbury is an adjective as well as a proper noun. In a sentence: "Brighton has a very Glastonbury vibe" - or, better, when someone offers to help his fellow man: "That's a very Glastonbury attitude."
Now, let's talk about the flags.
Flags are everywhere at Glastonbury. In fact, it seems like there's an unwritten competition going on  - the best flag competition. You can make a flag for ANY reason: country, county, football club, motto, musician (lots of Prince and Bowie flags), family, and my personal favorite of the weekend, the flag that just said "Flag."

Yes, there were GoT flags also.
And finally, let's talk about the performances, since that's the primary reason for the festival.
Every musician's performance at Glastonbury rises to a new level. Each show is no less extraordinary than the one you saw previously. Granted, it seems to reach a crescendo Sunday night (Coldplay blew everyone out of the water, so to speak), but the artists all seem to understand what you're expecting and what you've endured to get there - the traffic, the camping, the rain, and especially the mud.
Travis played the tiny Croissant Neuf Tent
for the venue's 10th anniversary
Fran Healy of Travis
Travis in Croissant Neuf Tent
Muse fireworks
Muse on Pyramid Stage
Hell Stage
KT Tunstall played an amazing set
in a tiny bar at the top of a hill.
Madness played to a monstrous crowd on the main stage 
Beck was the last gig before Coldplay
and tried to whip up an exhausted rain-soaked crowd
ELO played on the main stage Sunday afternoon
but couldn't bring the sun out even with "Mr. Blue Sky" sing-along
I'm going to use Turin Brakes as an example because of their unique and unfortunate time slot Saturday night up against the biggest acts of the weekend. Their tent stage was packed solid. They stood on stage in awe of US - their fans who gave up the opportunity to see one of the biggest acts in the world - Adele - headline the Pyramid Stage (not to mention New Order on The Other Stage). They were acutely aware of the crowd expectations and, wow, did they deliver a stunner!! There was not a single disappointed fan in the audience.

The packed Avalon Stage for Turin Brakes

And, ok, let's talk Coldplay. 

Whether you like him or not, it's undeniable that Chris Martin - who has one of the biggest hearts in showbiz - is on a crusade to save the world. Every single word he uttered and every move he made on the main stage Sunday night illustrated his dedication to giving his audience their greatest memory of the 2016 festival. And it WILL go down in history as one of the most epic.

Chris Martin went it alone on "Everglow"
when his piano was out of tune with Will, Jonny, and Guy

As for my best...
The singular most memorable moment I had at Glastonbury was not in the music or the weather or the logistical miracles. It was a tiny little statement by Andy as we were walking back to the tents one afternoon. 
He said to me, the world is looking everywhere for peace and love and people living together with tolerance and respect for one another - and it ALL happens RIGHT HERE.
 At Glastonbury.

Sunday at Glastonbury was a more relaxing day as we slept in and decided to plant ourselves at the Pyramid Stage. We caught sets by Laura Mvula, ELO, Beck, and the headliner, Coldplay.

All I can say about Sunday's gigs is that my expectations were blown away. The only one that suffered was Beck who struggled more to whip up a tired rain-soaked crowd. It rained most of the day, but I enjoyed every second of it.

Beck:



ELO - which happened to be my first concert ever in 1978 - brought me to tears with memories of my youth.

ELO:



And what can I say about Coldplay's set? There are just no words. I cried through "The Scientist" and was thankful that Caroline put her arm around me and pulled the four of us together. It was one of the greatest single moments I've experienced - a deep feeling of community and love and friendship.

Andy declared Coldplay's set the best thing ever done at Glastonbury (and he goes every year). It included no less than three show-stopping moments. The first was a heartfelt tribute to Viola Beach, letting them "headline Glastonbury in an alternate future." The second was Barry Gibb joining them on stage for "To Love Somebody" and "Stayin' Alive" (which Chris Martin declared "the greatest song ever"). And the third was Michael Eavis himself joining them on stage to sing "My Way." I couldn't take much more. It was stunning to say the least.

All I know is that when Coldplay throws out "Yellow" as the second song in their set, you're in for something special indeed. It was beautiful and full of heart. And there were lasers and light-up wristbands and star-shaped confetti and giant balloons everywhere.

Coldplay:






And then it stopped raining. Yet another Glastonbury miracle.


Once I properly compose myself and work out all my emotions (and take a shower), I will make my best attempt to summarize what these past five days really meant to me.

Here's a photo that captures some of it:


Sunday at Glastonbury was a more relaxing day as we slept in and decided to plant ourselves at the Pyramid Stage. We caught sets by Laura Mvula, ELO, Beck, and the headliner, Coldplay.

Saturday I woke up to a downpour. I wasn't worried at first, but then I looked over at Jim and noticed his sleeping bag was getting wet. I looked up to see our tent was leaking from water pooling up on the outer fly. I quickly woke him up and then found water dripping into several areas along the bottom of the tent. Jim put on his rain gear and went out to construct a cover for our tent using bin bags over the mesh window at the top. It was quick and dirty but did the job while I dried up all the water drops on the floor.  

The rain stopped soon after and the sun came out and we were able to get back sleep. It was 5 am. 

At 9 am, the alarm went off and we quickly jumped up to prep for the day. The guys in the tent next to us were frying up bacon like they do every morning, I'm sure just to make us hungry and jealous.

Selfie with mud: 


Our first gig was on the other side of the festival - KT Tunstall was doing an acoustic set in a bar called The Crows Nest. It was at the top of a huge hill in the area known as The Park. We hoofed it to arrive just in time. She played a short set of all new songs from the album due in September. This set alone was worth the trip to Glastonbury. Jim got her autograph and a photo and she even remembered him from Twitter. I know it was a little bit of heaven for him.



Next, we grabbed breakfast and I had to run back to the tent because I forgot my glasses. I needed them for later when we would split up and communicate via text.

The high ground was starting to dry out, but the mud was becoming more like cement and walking and watching gigs was becoming a serious workout.


We met up with Andy and Caroline at The Other Stage for St. Paul & The Broken Bones, a band we didn't know from Alabama. We only caught the last few songs, but they were all stunners! We will most definitely be checking out their music when we get home.




We walked a bit, grabbed some ciders, and realized it was getting close to 3 pm - time to split up. I went alone to see Travis at Croissant Neuf (solar-powered tent celebrating its 10-year anniversary), and the other three went to see Madness on the Pyramid Stage.

The Croissant Neuf tent was stifling hot and packed solid, but I was able to weave my way up close to the stage. I got stuck in the mud but was helped out by fellow Travis fans, showing me the Glastonbury hospitality is something special.

The mud:


The highlight of the Travis set for me was their cover of The Band's "The Weight." I have always wanted to see them do this particular one and finally had my chance! (and got it on video). I stayed 45 minutes then left after "Selfish Jean" to meet up with Jim, Andy, and Caroline for the end of Madness.

Travis:




When I got to the Pyramid Stage, I was blown away. Madness completely packed the lawn. It was even bigger than Muse. I got there just in time to hear "One Step Beyond," "Our House," and "It Must Be Love." Hearing Jim singing all the lyrics made me realize he made the right decision to miss Travis.

Madness was madness:



Then we had some time to kill before my most-coveted gig of Glasto - Turin Brakes. We quickly rushed over to catch some of John Grant on the John Peel Stage. Wow. I was very impressed, but unfortunately we had to leave after only a few songs as we had plans to grab a quick dinner and meet up with Turin Brakes before their gig.



We quickly made our way back to the tents to get clothes for the evening. The weather has been ridiculously unpredictable and kept going from hot sun to really cold wind and overcast with sprinkles. Who knew what to wear?!?

Then came my personal main event: Turin Brakes headlining the Avalon Stage. It was one of the best Turin Brakes gigs I've ever attended. The sound and lights were stellar. The venue was packed with die-hard Turin Brakes fans who gave up seeing Adele headline the Pyramid Stage to be there. 

On the way was a rainbow - there are miracles everywhere here:


Turin Brakes:










We ended up the night at Arcadia to see the giant spider with its lasers and flames and light show with music. It was spectacular! My eyes still hurt - hopefully it didn't burn out my retinas.



The mud on Saturday was so bad that we kept getting stuck and needed help getting out. It was ankle deep in places and like cement. Getting from one place to another was nothing short of painful.



Getting back to the tent was way more difficult than it should have been as Jim and I both almost slipped in the mud several times and I kept getting stuck in it. By the time we got to sleep, everything hurt but my mind, which was all abuzz from the best day of music I can ever remember having. Seriously, I am running out of adjectives to adequately describe this experience.
Saturday I woke up to a downpour. I wasn't worried at first, but then I looked over at Jim and noticed his sleeping bag was getting wet.
We were up early enough to catch the Glasto milk truck (who knew? on Twitter as @GlastoMilk), and got milk and orange juice.



Then checked the weather to see major rain in the forecast. We cleaned up, packed rain gear, packed our other stuff in plastic, and left at 10:30-ish to trek to William's Green to see an amazing dance-music-playing-acoustic-guitar duo called The Showhawk Duo.


We ate breakfast (toasties) and got rained on as we made our way toward The Other Stage and caught the end of James (also amazing) while we walked. The Other Stage was PACKED! 

Scenes on the way: 



James on The Other Stage



Then we headed to the Pyramid Stage to hang out on the grass. And the sun came out. And it was glorious.




Sun!!


We stayed to see Two Door Cinema Club who came on just as the rain hit. It didn't dampen our spirits though, and they were really fun and danceable even with full rain gear.

Rain!



Just as they finished, the sun came out and it got warm and glorious once more. We grabbed an early dinner and headed back to the tents to eat, drink, and change clothes for ZZ-Top, Foals, and Muse on the Pyramid Stage.

Sun!!



My face even got sunburnt:


On the way back, we realized how fortunate we were to be on high ground, as the rain now left muddy puddles and rivers of mud flowing down through the tents one level below us.

We got back to the Pyramid Stage for ZZ-Top:



More mud:


Foals and the ever-increasing sea of flags and humanity:



The sun went down. And Muse came on:






And my tiny little mind was completely blown. 


Time to sleep. More music tomorrow, including Turin Brakes.



We were up early enough to catch the Glasto milk truck (who knew? on Twitter as @GlastoMilk), and got milk and orange juice.
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