Tampa Bay Marathon - Part I


As I stepped out of the Tampa Airport I was hit by a blast of hot humid air. Having left Portland’s mid-40’s a few hours earlier, I found myself in a world twice that temperature. As I tried to clear my heat-fogged brain, I was glad that I arrived a couple of days early to adapt to the heat. 

I arrived late Wednesday night to also get in some ocean swimming ahead of the Saturday's race. While this swim was going to be in a bay, it could get very chopping if the wind blew hard. So the next day, Thursday, I waited for the afternoon wind to pick up before heading out for a 2 hour swim. Once in the water, I worked hard to find a rhythm in the irregularly timed waves, and then I did my best to settle into a comfortable pace. 

St Pete's Beach

St. Pete's Beach taken from the Don Cesar Beach Resort Hotel. 

I found more modest accommodations at the Plaza Beach Resort shown below

TB Plaza beach Resort

The water temperature off St. Pete's Beach was a dizzying 30° warmer than my swim a month earlier in the bracing 52° water of the San Francisco Bay. The water was also the saltiest water I had ever been in.  A swimmer floats better in salt water than fresh, and in this water I felt like I was bobbing up and down like a cork. Just imagine being in water over your head, exhaling all of the air from your lungs, and finding yourself still floating on the surface. In fact, I floated so well that despite my vigorous kicking, I had a hard time picking up a Sand Dollar off the sandy bottom.

After my swim I took a long cold shower to cool off. I had arranged to meet with the members of the team over dinner, and my stomach told me it was time to find some fresh Gulf fish. I wanted to get everyone together that night to give us all a chance to meet each other, and for me to get a feel for how the personalities would mesh.

The first member of my team was my older brother Jim, who had flown in from Carmel, California. Jim would be in charge of nutrition on board the boat. Second, was Captain "Rocky" Rocamora who piloted the course for me. Finally, there was Brent Stevens who would paddle the kayak alongside, keeping a close eye on me and make sure that I was swimming straight. 

TB The Team

Rocky, me, Brent & Jim

Brent was an experienced waterman in the truest sense who had provided support to four other swimmers in this race. His expertise would be invaluable, and his close vantage point would put him in the best position to evaluate my physical condition. As it would turn out his calm and constant watch over me gave me a quiet confidence during the more difficult stretches of the swim.

TB Brent


Photograph by Jim Needham

Captain “Rocky” had a gregarious personality that would fill a room; and while his day job was with the fire department, his love of being out on the water was obvious at the outset. Rocky managed to surprise me more than once. Such as the time he was discussing his passion for cycling, and announced unabashedly that he shaved his legs. This is a practice well known to serious cyclists, but a mystery to all others. Frankly, I could not give him a hard time seeing I had shaved my whole body for this swim. However, I’ll save that story for another time.

TB Rocky


Photograph by Jim Needham 

Finally, there was Jim who as my older brother "ushered" me through the challenges of growing up in a large family. In other words, he pushed me around a lot.  Jim would be in charge of mixing up my various carbo-laden and electrolyte drinks, and would make sure my feedings went smoothly. Jim and I have done a number of things together over the years. Some of them went great, but there were others that brought with them a number of unwelcome surprises. I was counting on this being one of the former. However, Jim’s presence at this swim was also symbolic.

As I look back on the years of my love affair with open water swimming, I find certain critical experiences that provided the foundation. One certainly is that I learned to swim in open water: first in Oyster Bay, then Long Island Sound and finally in the Atlantic Ocean. But there was a constant throughout those years that cemented my passion: it was my brother Jim and his never ending efforts to hold me underwater. As a result of this, I learned at an early age that no matter how dire the situation may appear, somehow I would make it to the surface and fill my lungs (with air) once more. I guess I could have gone the other way and never went in the water again, but something inside kept sending me back out. That something still exists in me today.

TB Jim & I Finish

Jim and I

At our meeting I had only a few requests for race day. First, I wanted to know when I had been swimming for an hour. At that point I would have settled into my pace for the day, and it would be helpful to make a note my tempo to refer back to if I tired later in the swim. Second, they were to tell me when I had been swimming 3 hours, 6 hours, 9 hours and (hopefully not) 12 hours from the start of the race. I wanted to assess my condition at those points in the swim. I felt it would help me to evaluate the success of my training program, and point out any conditioning issues that I would need to address before my Catalina Channel attempt in September. Third, they were not to tell me how far I had swum, or how much further I had to go. I would be swimming 24 miles and when I hit dry sand I would be done.

There was however, one exception: I asked them to let me know when I had 1/2 mile to go to the finish. If everything went well, and I am feeling strong, I would love to finish with a little sprint. In the alternative, if things were not going well, I knew that with only 1/2 mile to go I could suffer through anything to reach the finish. By the end of the dinner, it was clear that I had a great team. If I did my part, and with a little luck, we just might be able to pull off this swim.

TB Route

The 24 Mile Route

When I woke up the following morning, Friday, I thought ahead to race day. I knew our start would be early, so I wanted to make sure that all I would have to do is get up out of bed and go. There was some last minute shopping for sunscreen and snacks, but the day was mostly spent relaxing out of the sun.

During the day I focused on my goals for the race. First and foremost was to finish. If I accomplished nothing else, finishing would make the swim an unqualified success. Second, I wanted to finish feeling strong knowing I could swim even longer. I have my attempt to swim the Catalina Channel scheduled for September 19th, and while it is "only" 21 miles, the potentially rough conditions and strong currents would make it a much tougher swim. Finally, if all went well, I didn't want to be last. I was the oldest solo swimmer, and I'd enjoy beating one of the kids. The day passed quickly and it was soon time to attend the Friday evening pre-race meeting.

Ron Medium


Photograph by Bob Needham

The Tampa Bay Marathon Swim, now in its 14th year, is the child of Ron Collins.  Ron pioneered the swim and decided to organize it as a race to celebrate Earth Day and the restoration of the Tampa Bay Estuary. Without Ron, this unique race would not exist.

Before the meeting Rocky offered to take me out to see the first few miles of the course. This first section of the course generally heads east, but then it turns to the north as it rounds Pinellas Point, continuing on for another 21 miles. 

Rocky and I

Photograph by Jim Needham

Once out, it was clear why Rocky thought this was the trickiest part of the course. Upon inspection, I could see that there were numerous shallow areas that could box in a swimmer, and their boat, forcing the swimmer to walk and the boat to go back around. We concluded that cutting the corner would only get us into trouble. However, as we headed back we saw a small channel cutting across the shallow area. It was decided that this channel, marked coincidentally by a green marker, would allow me to take a small short cut. The question remained if there would be enough water to allow Rocky to get his boat through in the morning. I would leave that to him and follow where ever he took me.

Once at the pre-race meeting, Ron went over a few important matters over the din of happy hour at the bar directly above us. It was a diverse group and people seemed both excited about the race, but also exuded a quiet confidence. It was clearly an elite group of open water swimmers (plus me). In all there were 19 solo swimmers, and 31 relay swimmers that made up the 9 relays in the race.

TB PreRace MTG

Photograph by Bob Needham

One person I was excited to meet at the meeting was  Barb Held, a Facebook friend of mine. Barb went on to be the first female finisher and 5th overall finisher. Barb has now volunteered to be an assistant observer for the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation for my crossing attempt later in September. Chris Kirwin also chased me down. Meeting another online friend reminded me that the marathon open water community is a small group of people passionate about their sport.

After the pre-race meeting, I looked out onto the water. It was so calm that a woman on a standup paddle board looked like she was walking on the water. It would be great to at least start the race in such calm waters, but I dared not wish for it for fear that I might jinx my swim. So we headed back to the hotel room and hoped for the best.


 Photograph by Bob Needham

Beep, beep, beep. It was the alarm; but frankly, I didn’t need it. I was already awake. I never sleep much the night before a race, and this day was no different. I looked over to the next bed and saw that  Jim was still asleep. I roused him, and began to prepare my pre-race meal: a huge bowl of oatmeal. It is not what I would usually eat the morning of a race, but this was no ordinary race. It was going to cover 24 miles, and I would be in the water swimming for nearly 12 hours. During that time, I would be consuming gallons of liquid, and I needed something solid in my stomach.

It was a short drive to the race venue and I was relaxed. No use getting all worked up for the start. That would only hurt my performance. It would be better that I showed up late, than showed up anxious about getting started. 

TB Sunrise

Photograph by Jim Needham 

Unfortunately, the calm conditions of the prior evening were nowhere to be seen. Instead I gazed out onto very choppy water created by a persistant wind. The race would head straight into it for more than 2 miles until it swung north up the Bay.

To get ready for the strong Florida sun, I covered my entire body with waterproof sunscreen, but I knew that would not be enough. On top of that, Jim liberally spread zinc oxide over the parts of my winter-whitened body that would be exposed to the sun. This combination worked wonderfully, and I would finish the race without a sunburn. 

TB Greasing

Photograph Courtesy of Distance Matters

The final layer applied was a mixture of Vaseline and lanolin, which is referred to as Channel Grease. I applied gobs of this anywhere my skin would rub against itself. Around the back of the neck, under my arms and on the inside of my thighs. Without this protection my skin would be rubbed raw in those area. Again, it worked like a charm.

We all headed down to the water and waded in up to our chest. It was comfortably warm, a respite from the morning wind. We waited for the signal of the start of the race. I say race because there were swimmers that once the horn went off, they would sprint off into the distance. It was the last I would see of those leaders. 

My race plan was very different. Tampa was to be my first ultra-marathon swim. My longest race prior to this were the 10Ks I had done last year. At 24 miles, this swim would be 4 times longer than any one of those. Among the things I did to prepare for this swim was to do two 12 mile swims. My 2 training swims were in an indoor 25 yard pool, so the conditions were completely different. Nevertheless, they provided me with the opportunity to try out a couple of speeds that I may want to use in the swim. In the end I settled on two speeds. I referred to them as Very Slow, and Very, Very Slow. I would choose one at the early part of the race depending on how I felt in the water. 

TB Getting in the Water

Chris Kirwin, Me and Barb Held entering the water on the left

Photograph Courtesy of Distance Matters

Open water swimmers mark their speed in a number of ways, but the most common one is strokes per minute. I had chosen stroke rates of 59 to 60 per minute, and my slower backup speed of about 57 to 58 strokes per minute. These would be considered slow stroke rates, but they worked for me. Whichever one I did choose, I would stick with it for the full 24 miles. Staying at a constant pace, or tempo, would help me conserve energy and stay focused when I became mentally fatigued.

One of the most critical things to a successful swim, is taking in enough food and water during the day. if you don’t feed successfully, you will not finish an ultra-marathon swim like Tampa. It just isn’t possible.

In my training I carefully planned a feeding schedule, and practiced it. I decided I would stop to take in nourishment every 20 minutes for the first 6 hours, and then switch them to every 15 minutes until the end of the swim. The feedings would consist of an endurance fuel called Perpetuem, along with Cytomax an electrolyte drink. The stops would be quick, just enough time to gulp down what I needed and be on my way. If my swim took 12 hours, I would be stopping 42 times and if I wasn't quick I could lose a substantial amount of time. If I took an extra 2 minutes at each stop it would add up to an extra hour and a half in the water.

One of the rules of marathon swimming is that you can not touch the boat at any time. In preparing for Tampa I checked out what other swimmers were using to get there nourishment to them during a swim. Typically a bottle is tied or clipped onto a long cord to make it.  The crew would then toss the bottle to you, hopefully not hitting you in the head. I chose to have 2 bottles tied to the cord. One would always be filled with Perpetuem and the second would alternate between Cytomax and water. As it turned out this worked out great for me, although having 2 bottles appeared to make it harder for Jim to toss them to me.

TB Windy Start

Photograph by Jim Needham

As we all began what was to be a long day in the water, longer for some of us than others, we were confronted by a 12 mph headwind. We would continue straight into it for the first 2 miles before finding a bit of respite as we steered north. As we headed out I saw that Rocky was taking us on a course to the left of the field. I concluded that despite the low early morning light and the rough water, he must have seen the way through. I noted the green marker and plowed ahead. We passed through some shallow water where my hand brushed up against sea grass as I stroked. As the water became shallower, I moved my hand closer to my body as I pulled myself forward through the water.

Screen shot 2011-06-06 at 12.34.49 PM

The Shortcut

I followed the boat closely and with Brent nearby in the kayak, I felt confident with the route they chose. No sooner did we get into deeper water than I was thrust into water shallower than the area I had just escaped. Not wanting to break the rules by standing up and walking, I prayed they would get me out into deeper water fast. Thankfully, moments later I emerged free of the confines of the route. The crew was excited, but I was just relieved. Apparently I jumped past quite a number of people. It was 3 miles into the race, but as far as I could tell, every one of them would later go on to pass me.

As I headed north I was still in the midst of choppy waves caused by the wind. In contrast to swimming in a pool, you have to constantly make slight stoke changes to adjust to the waves. If the waves are small, and the distance of the swim not too great, you just power your way through them. But with still another 21 miles ahead of me, I tried not to fight them. Taking frequent shorter strokes helped me make it through the waves, just like taking shorter steps when climbing up a hill makes that easier. Ultimately if you get into a very rough area you are either rocked silly by the waves or you decide to sprint through the bad section. When I came upon a rough spot, I made a decision to push through it. Unfortunately the awkward timing of the waves threw me about, and as I fought to take a breath, I felt a slight twinge in my left shoulder. In a pool or calm water this would not have happened, but the timing of the waves made it difficult to get a breath sometimes. So  I compensated by pushing down harder on the water to get my head up.


In the picture above you can see my head down and almost completely underwater. The picture below shows me pushing down on the water so I can catch a breath on my next stroke

TB Slide Show Image

Photographs by Jim Needham

I knew it wasn’t serious, but the slight pain I felt when swimming hard let me know that it didn’t appreciate the pressure being applied. So the moment of decision came upon me. I would swim the race using my slower pace. Fifty eight strokes per minute for the rest of the day it would be. I would breath every third stroke, alternately between my left and my right sides - called bilateral breathing. I would take a stroke with my left arm, one with my right arm and then breath as I stroked with my left arm again. This would be followed by another cycle: stroke with my right arm, stroke with my left arm and then breathe as I stroked with my right arm. I had practiced this for hundreds of thousands of yards in training so I should be able to keep this up all day.

As I swam, thoughts of my shoulder occasionally sparked a bit of self-doubt. However, I reminded myself  that whatever hurt at the start of a long swim was never what hurt at the end.  So I settled into my rhythm and focused on the swim ahead. Ultimately, I was able to resolve my shoulder problem by making an adjustment in my stroke: putting more pressure on the opposite shoulder to relieve the pressure on the complaining one. This was a trick I’d learned over the years, and served me well that day. What I didn’t know at the time, was that it would be another 15 miles before my shoulder found complete relief. 

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