Tampa Bay Marathon- Part II


Stroke left arm; right arm; left arm and breathe. Repeat. It's such a simple thing, and as I repeated the words in my mind, it became my mantra for the day. It created a stillness inside me that stood in stark contrast to my participation in other open water races.

In the past, the distances I swam were always much shorter. Those races brought an intense and focused state of mind. During the race you might be shoulder-to-shoulder with other swimmers the entire time, jockeying for position or trying to break away. Moreover, you are pushing yourself as hard as you can, and your oxygen-starved brain struggles with making the correct tactical decisions. Depending on the length of the race, it would be over in a relatively short 25 to 80 minutes; but marathon swimming goes on for hours and is a completely different experience.


Elk Lake 5K - If you look closely you can see me in the orange cap

Photograph by David Radcliff

Certainly, there are people who are at the top of the sport that race as intensely in a marathon swim as I do in a 5K, however, I'm not one of them. I am not trying to win, reach the podium or beat my closest rival. I'm swimming to complete, and not to compete. When I was preparing for Tampa Bay a friend gave me some invaluable advice: walk in, swim across and walk out; everything else is irrelevant. It sounds trite, but it's true. In fact, in that regard marathon swimming is very much like hiking in the wilderness.

Over the years I've been blessed with having been able to spend a significant amount of time in the mountains and wilderness. Sometimes I went with a friend or two, but many times I went alone. I always enjoyed sharing the experience with a friend, but going solo is profoundly different. When you are in the wilderness alone, you can either rant to yourself about the tough conditions, the weather and how you feel, or you can find a sense of peace in the silence. I have done both, and I can assure you the latter is much more enjoyable. In the mountains it is the singular focus of putting one foot in front of the other, whereas in the water it is one hand in front of the other, that brings focus to the event. It is a state of mindfulness which brings one’s complete attention to the present experience, on a moment to moment basis. It is this very state of mindfulness that best describes my Tampa Bay swim.


Despite appearances I was not headed the wrong way

Photograph by Jim Needham

So having completed the first 3 miles, I settled into my slower pace and put self doubts about my shoulder aside. As my mind stayed focused on the moment, my body relaxed. Swimming became effortless and the time passed quickly. I remained completely focused on my stroking though the water. So much so that I didn't even see a swimmer pass by on the other side of the boat.


Cindy Tobin Walsh swimming past me

Photograph by Jim Needham

I wish I could tell you about all the exciting things that happened over the next 10 miles, but I can't because they were largely uneventful. Yes, there were a couple of areas of churned up water which required a stronger effort, but not much else. However, one thing that really sticks in my mind is that unlike any other swim I had ever done before, I marked time by the position of the sun in the sky. It wasn’t something that I thought about much, but every once in a while I would look up and realize that the sun had moved noticeably from it’s last position. All day long I watched as the sun rose up from the horizon, crossed over the apex of the sky, and then headed back down nearly reaching the horizon at the finish.

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Often times you hear how important a team is to the success of a swim, but until you are in the water you cannot fully appreciate how absolutely essential they are. All I had to do was put one arm in front of the other, and they took care of everything else. It was energizing to see Jim and Rocky on the boat. Rocky with his eyes searching for the best line to take through the often shallow water, and Jim on board mixing up the essential liquid nutrition that I would consume during the day. Without the properly timed feedings I could not have finished the swim. Just as important was that the feedings needed to be quick so that I wouldn't lose a lot of time. Jim signaled me right on schedule, and tossed the bottles close by so I could reach them easily and be on my way.


Jim and Rocky

Photograph by Bob Needham

In some of my prior 10K races I had used kayaks that paddled alongside. I didn’t feel the need for them, but the races required them. They followed along as I sighted ahead to pick my line. They were acting as escort craft just in case there was some unexpected trouble. But for this race, Brent was right along side helping me keep on line. With him on one side and the boat on the other I needed only look to each side to ensure I was headed in the right direction; and, each time I turned to breathe in Brent's direction, I saw his constant gaze. It was reassuring and instilled a calm confidence in me.


The water was so shallow here you can almost see the bottom

Photograph by Jim Needham

As I continued my northbound swim to the Gandy bridge, the water temperature kept rising. While the water temperature at St. Petersburg was an already 81°, it heated up even more. I estimated it to be somewhere in the range of 86° to 88°, a temperature I had never swum in before. While I was swimming easy, even that exertion made me feel lightheaded and I could feel my mental focus waning. Making the situation worse was that the water had become more like a brine than the ocean water I was accustomed to. Thankfully, I had one more trick up my sleeve.

Knowing that the temperature of the water would be uncomfortably warm, I had Jim prepare a special squeeze bottle full of ice which was then topped off with water. The bottle was placed in a cooler to keep it as cold as possible. The water in the bottle would be too cold to drink, but perfect for pouring over my head. This ultimately was what worked best. I would squirt the water on my exposed face and neck. By the time I reached each 15 minute feed I was calling out for the ice-filled squeeze bottle. I could feel it’s cooling effect immediately and it shocked me back to attention. In fact, one time I had squeezed so much cold water on my face that I got an ice cream headache: a surprisingly pleasant feeling. I also shot the ice water up my nose to clear out the sinus-burning brine.

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At one point I remember looking up at the sun realizing that the sun had dropped substantially below it’s apex. This meant that I was well into the afternoon, so I plodded on. I was again swimming at a comfortable pace, and grateful to have put the power plant's hot water behind me. In addition, I was happy to find that my shoulder had quieted down and no longer bothered me. Maybe it was the hot tub temperature water I had just swum through. I guess there is a bright side to everything.

Having settled into my pace, I was interrupted only by the scheduled 15 minute stops. Time passed quickly and I was surprised when I reached the Franklin Bridge, 3 1/2 miles from the Gandy Bridge. At that point my brother called out to and let me know that there was a swimmer just a short ways ahead. I watched him pass under the bridge, and as I emerged I matched his pace. I quickly realized he was stroking strong, and that to catch him would take a big effort. I assessed the situation, and decided that with another 2 1/2 miles to the finish, I would stayed focused on my goal: finish the race feeling like I could go further.

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Looking ahead I was thrilled to see the finish off into the distance. The next couple of miles were terrific. I took a bit of extra time at each 15 minute feeding. The sun was low on the horizon, the wind had died down and I felt great. I had one other goal at the start of the race and that was to start spirinting with 1/2 mile left.  I had read that sometimes swimmers crossing the English Channel are required to pick up the pace and sprint for a mile to break through a difficult tidal current. I could not imagine the effort it would take, so I decided that if everything was going great I’d see what it felt like.


Swimming under blue sky with the finish line in the distance

Photograph by Jim Needham

All of a sudden my crew yelled out that I was closing in on the other swimmer. Frankly, I did not see the swimmer. "Closing in" is such a relative term so I had no idea how much distance there was between us. Gazing ahead I looked to be about 1/2 mile away from the finish. In light of how great I felt,  I decided to give it a go. I turned to Brent in his kayak and told him “take me in”. With his help keeping me on line to the finish, I put my head down and gave it everything I had.


Sprinting after the swimmer ahead of me in the distance

Photograph by Jim Needham

Surprisingly I had no problem picking up the pace. I did not feel fatigued. I looked up briefly to make sure I was headed in the right direction, but I did not see the other swimmer. I saw the finishing buoys and decided I would rely on Brent to keep me online and kept pushing on. As I reached the shallower water I began dolphining to advance my forward progress. Dolphining is a technique whereby you duck your head down while swimming, kick with both feet simultaneously, bring your feet under you and then in one quick motion push push off the botton with your hands and feet. This quickly propels you forward and out of the water like a dolphin.

I did this about a half dozen times before I looked up to see if the other swimmer had crossed the line. I briefly got a glimpse of him, did a couple more dolphin dives, rose to my feet and began to run. I didn’t take but 2 steps when I realized he was still 10 yards ahead of me and close enough to the finish to beat me. He was in very shallow water, and it was unlikely he would fall, so I took a deep breath and relaxed.

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As I jump to my feet I see the other swimmer for the first time

Photo Courtesy of Distance Matters

I walked slowly to the finish line enjoying every step of the way, coming in at just under 11 1/2 hours and in 10th place out of the 19 solo swimmers that started. I also finished ahead of a 4 person relay. I had successfully reached all of my goals: I finished the swim, I had a lot of energy left at the end, I wasn’t the last solo swimmer, and I was even able to sprint the last 1/2 mile.  As it turned out, it was my decision early in the day to swim at a slower pace which made it possible for me to achieve all of my goals.

Julie Sheldon presenting me with an award for finishing

Photo Courtesy of Distance Matters

Once on the beach I turned to greet my crew as they came to shore. I congratulated them, and thanked them for all their help. It was a group effort, and it was the hard work of the team that produced a successful swim. I got the award, but the success was their's just as much as it was mine..

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Brent protected from the Tampa Bay sun and me with my tan-lined forehead (from my latex cap)

Photo Courtesy of Distance Matters

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