Playing Ocean Games (a.k.a. "Finding Corey")

Post-swim with race director
and living-testament to the human spirit, Corey Davis

It's not often we have the opportunity to be truly inspired by a another human being. But there are miracles (there's that word again) all around us and many of us will live our entire lives and never notice them. If you've been reading my blog, you know I've undergone many changes in attitude and the choices I make and that I have been fortunate to witness the power of the human spirit - mostly through music and friends.

But since this blog focuses mostly on my athletic pursuits, I will post about my latest swim event at the Ocean Games, a nine-mile swim in Ocean City, MD, where I witnessed what could be viewed as a lapse into my "disaster magnet" (read: negative) luck of old, but I was rescued this time by amazing humans and my new-found ability to see miracles all around me.

Most endurance athletes spend many years training to perfect their race performances. Very few people are born with bodies that can sustain high levels of activity over long periods of time. And even if someone is athletically-gifted at birth, it takes years of training and experience to get to the top of their sport. For us non-elite athletes, it's even harder and requires many more of those years and experience just to finish well and accomplish goals.

Knowing this, it was surprising to me when I experienced a high level of success very early in my "careers" as both a marathon runner and a triathlete: I qualified for Boston in my first marathon, and I qualified for Kona in my first Ironman (which, I might add, was only my fourth triathlon).

Go big or go home, right? There was no reason for me to start out "small" in my latest sporting pursuit, open-water swimming. My previous early-success pattern gave me a false sense of security, and eight years of competitive swimming from age 14 through 22 did nothing to deter me. I believed I had the ability to accomplish big things right away.

But I'm 51 and we all know trends don't last, and my first year of open-water swimming, although fun, has already become both a curse and a blessing.

And I don't mean curse in a bad way - more like a curse in an uncomfortable way. Because I have to make mistakes first this time. Early success is actually the curse. It always resulted in the devastating mental process of setting unreachable goals for future races, and for years I interpreted less-than-stellar performances as failures.

Now, even though I've given up the stress of Ironman by choosing to do the thing I enjoy most - swimming - I still chose a nine-mile ocean swim as my second open-water event. Live and learn, right? And I was about to find out how stupid... or ridiculous... or utterly hilarious... that was.

And it started out in classic Disaster Magnet fashion.

The kayak is almost bigger than their car.

The reasons I chose to swim in Ocean City had as much to do with the race support and travel as the distance. First of all, my great friend Doug (who lives near DC) agreed to be my support kayaker. He would feed me and guide me and get me through this thing. His wife and two daughters and my husband Jim would all be there, and I looked forward to spending time with them as much as I did having them as race support. They were a few of the true blessings of this weekend. It was like gaining a loving sister and brother and a two wonderful nieces for three days.

But the Disaster Magnet curse was not about to go down without a fight.

The day before the race (Friday), Doug and I decided to practice a bit to determine how kayaker support worked for us: which side he would be on, how close I could swim to him, etc. Jim also came out for a kayak lesson. We put the kayak in very shallow - and hot! - water on the bay side of Ocean City. During the swim, I caught some seaweed on my legs and arms. And shortly after, I felt some itchy stinging pain on my arm and my ankle and had to stop for a moment.

It wasn't seaweed. It was JELLYFISH! I panicked. I grabbed onto the kayak, terrified. I think I almost flipped Doug and Jim into the water trying to get away from the stinging jellyfish. GET ME OUT OF HERE. We turned around, but on the way back, I swam face-first into a jellyfish, and completely flipped out, grabbed onto the back of the kayak and had Doug just paddle me in. Fortunately, the face-sting was so quick and light that it never even registered as a rash. My arm sting was so superficial that after I swam in the ocean water a little, it wasn't even noticeable.

Disaster #1, averted!

Pre-race with Doug, all smiles.

That night, Doug, Jim, and I went to the race meeting, got briefed on the next day's event and how it would work, and then went back to the house we were all sharing for a very nice dinner. Everyone was happy, calm, and ready for the next day.

Until 5:00 am.

I had been sleeping well - again, most of my readers know about my anxiety issues that keep me up all night, so this was sort of a miracle (I owe my new-found ability to relax to my friend Olly). Something woke me up. It was still dark. I heard Jim come into the room and sit on the bed.

"I'm sick."

I shook off the sleep.. what? Did he have a cold?

"I'm vomiting."

Disaster #2 hit. Jim - and Doug's daughter Erika - had food poisoning. This was NOT GOOD. Doug's wife was also feeling ill and may have a touch of the same thing. Panic. I frantically searched for answers... was I next? Was Doug next? We all ate the same food last night. But we also had sandwiches for lunch. Jim and Erika were the only ones that ate ham, so I concluded that to be the culprit. But it didn't matter, Doug and I were going it ALONE. All of our transportation plans for the next day were washed out, and it would be the first big race in 14 years that Jim would miss. For a few minutes, I considered not swimming that day, but Jim urged me to go saying it would make him feel even worse. I understood - for him, I needed to start this race.

Me 'n Doug race morning, still smiling:

 

That morning, the conditions were announced on the Ocean Games Facebook page. The current was north-to-south and the race would swim down the shoreline in that direction. The water temperature was 74 degrees F. Perfect - I felt relief as I had already decided not to wear a wetsuit for two reasons:

  1. In the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, I overheated in my wetsuit in 74 degrees F.
  2. If I'm going to continue these open-water challenges, I need to swim without a wetsuit because that's usually the rule.

 

It looks friendly enough.

Fast-forwarding to the start of the race. I remember two things at the starting line. One was that Jim was noticeably absent. The other was I talked to a surfer named Drew who was questioning the decision to swim north-to-south because everything pointed to difficulty in this direction: the wind was coming from the south and the waves were coming from the southwest. But to me, the surf looked almost non-existent. All I could think of was how awesome it will be to finish a nine-mile ocean swim.

And my feelings were validated when I hit the water at the start and swam out to meet Doug in his kayak. The water temperature was ideal and I was smiling to myself for at least the first two miles. I stopped to feed mostly on schedule and I didn't feel at all taxed through the first three miles.

But then something changed. The surf got a little rougher and my hands started going numb. It happened pretty quickly. I tried swimming harder to warm up. It worked a little. I tried stopping and drinking warm fluids. I asked Doug to get me closer to the shore where the water was warmer (but rougher). I kept swimming, but I kept losing more feeling in my hands. I also started to shiver. It was discouraging when Doug said most of the swimmers were in front of me.

Around four miles, I stopped and tried to warm up, but the sun had gone behind the clouds. My teeth were chattering, and I was starting to shiver uncontrollably. I didn't want to quit, but Doug saw the writing on the wall and signaled to the lifeguard on shore.

The lifeguard came out and towed me in. All I could think about was getting warm (although Doug said I kept turning around saying I wanted to finish, but I don't remember that). When I was finally out of the water, the lifeguard and a bunch of beach-goers came over to warm me up. My whole body was shaking and I couldn't make it stop. A man gave me some gatorade, and a woman named Ashley (I'm surprised I even remember her name) and her two children put their towels over me and she held me while I shook uncontrollably waiting for EMS. It was a small thing, but the best of humanity was embodied in those people, and I don't think I ever thanked them.

Miracles all around.

The EMS guys took my temperature at 93 degrees F (not my personal Disaster Magnet record, but close). They gave me a warm IV and took me to the ER where I was covered with warm blankets and my temperature returned to almost-normal. I called Jim, who was laid up in bed with some of the worst digestive issues of his life, and he actually came to the hospital to pick me up. I don't know which one of us looked worse, me or him, but it was nothing short of miraculous.

I actually felt ok, but tired. I drove him back to the house and picked up Doug's wife Kaz to go to the finish line to collect Doug, their car, and the kayak (kayakers were required to stay on the water for race support even if their swimmer dropped out).

I had no idea how much time had passed, but Jim said my iPhone (in Doug's possession) was registering him still out on the water. Ocean city traffic was horrendous and it seemed like forever before Kaz and I got to the finish line. We (miraculously) found parking and walked onto the beach where she immediately spotted the kayak. Doug was exhausted but he looked good. He told us he was able to help another swimmer complete the three-mile race that day. That made me so so happy.

Miracles, I say.

As for me? Was this Disaster #3?

Not by a long-shot. For the record, I'm sad that Jim and Erika got sick - that was the biggest bummer of the weekend. And, I'm sad about having to abandon my race. In fact, I cried A LOT at the hospital. But, surprisingly, the fallout from this event is very different than other races I've DNFed. I don't think I'm a crap athlete this time. I got hypothermia. It wasn't something I had any control over (this time). I'm glad I started this race, and I wouldn't have done anything differently. I had the strength to finish, just not the ability to withstand the cold. I have none of my usual regrets.

Curious, I asked one of the race officials if anyone else got hypothermia. She said at least one other swimmer dropped out but for unknown reasons. I talked to a few others at the finish and was told the water temperature definitely dropped from the starting line. It may have been due to the wind ushering in colder water. And then the biggest miracle of the weekend happened.

Looking for stats on finishers, I approached the announcers table. The race director, Corey Davis, was there. He asked how it went, I told him I had to drop and just left the ER after being treated with hypothermia. His biggest concern was if I was ok. Then, he thanked me a million times for supporting the race (I think I told him we came from Cleveland). We had the most amazing conversation. Corey imparted a huge amount of his knowledge to me about open-water swimming (especially in cold water) and gave me some tips on training for next time.

Corey isn't just anyone. He's actually a huge inspiration to all who know him and I would have felt very fortunate to have had just a moment of his time. He is the survivor of a horrific accident that left him unable to walk due to a traumatic brain injury. The doctors and his determination in rehabbing have allowed him not only to stand on his own two feet again but to return to a very active lifestyle. He founded the Ocean Games to give back to the program that helped him and give hope to people who suffer similar injuries. You can read his story here (or watch the short video below, his recovery is quite remarkable).

Talking to Corey changed me. I have been able to put the entire thing in perspective and learn my lessons thanks to my new attitude and our conversation. One of Corey's most recent accomplishments was completing a 17-mile paddleboard race. Seriously, I can't even STAND UP on a paddleboard without falling down! Corey did 17 miles after being told he would never even walk again!

I am determined to enter this race again next year with the goal of finishing and doing it as a fundraiser.

And I have been able to look at all the blessings of this race instead of the curses.

So, what if I finished? Then, I might have a lot more open-water miles under my belt. I might have a lot more confidence in myself going into my next open-water challenge. I might be jumping up and down and patting myself on the back right now. And I might have impressed some people.

But, I wouldn't have learned the lessons I learned this weekend. I wouldn't know how unprepared my body was for cold water. I wouldn't have a plan for dealing with the cold water in the future. I wouldn't have been treated to the best of humanity in the form of Good Samaritans. And I wouldn't have had the opportunity to meet Corey Davis, one of the most extraordinary humans I've ever known.

And so, let the miracles continue...

The trials and tribulations of open water swimming in the Ocean Games nine-mile event where conditions can and will change abruptly, and I had to deal with the fallout of not being prepared for very cold water.

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