A 10K, classified as a marathon swim, became a bucket list item several years ago. Each year something would get in the way – work obligations interfering with training, shoulder injuries, and scheduling conflicts. A few years ago, one of our local swimmers started organizing a 10K swim off Conanicut Island, better known as Jamestown. This was a perfect way to reach my goal, since it was local and was at one of my favorite places to visit. This was the year that everything fell into place and I was finally going to become an official marathon swimmer.
The longest official swim I had completed before this was a five-mile swim across Lake Willoughby in northern Vermont. I finished, but the last half felt like a slog, and in my post event analysis, I felt I did not train enough or fuel properly. This time I wanted to be better prepared. For my 10K training I got three 5-mile swims completed as well as a couple 3 to 4 mile swims. This was in addition to my 2-mile swims, 3 times a week. On my 5-mile swims, I made sure to practice fueling. I had a plan and was feeling strong.
Event day – excitement was high, and the weather and water conditions looked in our favor. With the kayaks lined up, safety briefing complete, we were off. Our course started at Fort Getty, went around Beavertail Lighthouse and up to Mackerel Cove Beach. As usual it took me ½ to ¾ a mile to really get my rhythm, but I was pleasantly surprised when 40 minutes had passed for our first fuel break. A quick drink, head back down, and I was feeling good. Another 40 minutes, another fuel break, and Beavertail light house was distantly in sight. But as I approached Beavertail, I started to get a mild headache. I was asking myself if it was it my goggles, but I had not had any issues during my training. I swam on, reaching the edge of the Beavertail, seeing the cars lined up in the first parking lot. That is when the conditions started to change. Every time I would breath to my left I would look up and the same cars were there. I asked my kayaker if we were making any progress and he said that we were. He would point out the buoy that was our turning point, but I could not see it without stopping because of the 1 to 2-foot swells. The good news was that I could tell that the buoy was getting closer, but the swells were getting bigger and my headache was turning into sea sickness. I would have to take a break every 100 to 200 yards, do breaststroke, and assure myself I was getting closer.
I finally made it to the buoy where the welcomed sight of some of my dear swimming companions in one of the support boats greeted us. They warned us to stay more to the right because the waves were pushing people to the left toward the lighthouse. After rounding the buoy, the swells were getting bigger and my sea sickness worse. I could only take 10-20 strokes and then I would have to stop or switch to breaststroke or backstroke. Every time I would go back to freestyle, I would feel terribly nauseous. I tried drinking more and focusing. This is where the mental game got tough. I had to talk myself into not quitting, to keep pushing on, even if I had to swim breaststroke to the end.
That is when first big wave nearly capsized my kayaker. I swam for a short stretch and then when I looked to my left he was gone, vanished, nothing in sight. I could not see a capsized kayak or person in the water. The panic that my kayaker and friend had just lost his life for me to swim was immediate. I started to swim in the direction that I thought he would be and searching for him. Then a large wave surprised me from behind. It crashed over me, brought me down, and took my cap and goggles right off my head. It felt like I was under water forever. I kept thinking “bubbles float up” to make sure I did not get disoriented. This was when I knew I was in trouble. In the state that I was in, I was not going to be able to swim against these waves. That was when I made the decision to take my chances on the rocks. In front of me I could see a flat group of rocks where I could land. I focused on those rocks and let the waves take me there. I remember lots of people watching me as I landed and gripped to the rock. Waves kept knocking me, but I was able to brace my foot behind me and keep my ground. The rocks were full of muscles that cut my hands and legs, but the adrenaline kept me from feeling any of it. I finally was able to stand and walk to an inlet where I could get out of the water.
It was at that point that I was able to see a boat pick up my kayaker – he was safe! I then saw the boat go to where they would think I would be in the water. I waved my swim buoy in the air to try to get their attention and let them know I was on shore. Once I saw they knew I was safe then my situation hit me. I was miles from my truck, and I had no phone. Even if someone lent me their phone, I didn’t have any useful numbers memorized. During this an exceedingly kind woman was attending to me and even offered to give me a ride – a gesture that has even more significance during the COVID pandemic. I was soaking wet and had blood running down my legs from all the cuts. By then a rescue vehicle had arrived. After I was assessed for my injuries, they returned me to my vehicle.
Two weeks before my incident, a 14-year-old boy drowned at Beavertail. The conditions around there are known to be unforgiving. It is not lost on me how easily I, or my kayaker, could have died. But after that is my disappointment in my performance. If I were not so sick, perhaps I would have swum more to the right and not gotten caught up by the surf. I wonder if I had drunk more, maybe I would not have gotten as sick. This was the day that I was to become a marathon swimmer, but I failed.
This is when you ask yourself, which is more important - achieving the goal or the effort in trying to accomplish it? Is it about the journey or the destination? In every failed attempt, there are lessons to be learned, new knowledge that can be applied to the next endeavor. I know that I am stronger from my experience and will be able to apply it to my next attempt. And there will be another attempt.