I started and stopped writing this blog post about 25 times. I don't know why. I would start to write it, then delete everything. I even wrote something really long and then shut my laptop and never came back to it. On August 19, 2023 - I did something I never thought I would do. I became a marathon swimmer. It's not that I am not proud of this accomplishment, because I am more than proud of it. But its funny, this endurance sport life... sometimes you do something and accomplish something and you can't stop talking about it. Other times, you sit with it for awhile and think about why you did it, and what it meant to you. I think this was one of those times.
A little background on Mandy and Swimming...
When I first got into triathlon, I was a recreational runner, but decent runner. I was a sub 2 half marathoner, without a coach. Not exceptionally fast, but decent enough that once I hired a coach and followed a structured plan, I made progress quickly. Being heavily into fitness and running, my bike fitness grew fairly quickly as well, although my bike handling needed work - but that is a different post for a different day. However, despite the fact that I have always loved the water - and loved swimming- I was *not* a great swimmer. I wasn't afraid of swimming. I didn't experience panic attacks or fear of sea creatures. But, I didn't grow up on a swim team, and lacked any sort of efficient swim stroke. I became quickly frustrated with how technical a sport swimming is, and that I couldn't just muscle my way through it.
I would skip my pool workouts if I had move things around on my schedule. I found myself DREADING going to the pool....and the open water workouts , which were few in Indiana were worse. I would be so completely out of breath trying to keep up with my friends in the lake that swimming for 30 minutes was 100 times harder than running a half marathon for me.
Then, in mid 2019 I experienced a life changing back injury that forced me off my feet and the only exercise I could do for awhile was swim. It was during that time that I remember wishing I was better at this sport, but not knowing how. It wasn't long after that, the world shut down for a pandemic - pools closed, and I was out of the water completely for 6 months. Then, we moved across the country to San Diego.
When I moved here, I couldn't have been more excited to live 4 miles from the ocean. The ocean has ALWAYS been my happy place. I can't describe why completely; but it just brings me this sense of comfort and peace. The sound of waves crashing, the smell of salt water relaxes any anxiety I might be carrying. When I moved here, I searched Facebook for triathlon groups and found that there was a group that swam at La Jolla Shores on Monday and Friday evenings. I chatted a little bit in the group, feeling them out, but truth is, I was terrified to show up. I didn't know a single soul. Not to mention I hadn't swam at all in 6 months... and hadn't swam in the ocean in ....hmmmm... ever.
The first time I showed up to swim, its funny now..but I had no idea where "Tower 30" was. I wondered around La Jolla Shores in a my full sleeved wetsuit in August, sweating my ass off. I never found the swim group, lol. I posted about this, and they laughed with me and then gave me specific directions to find them the next meet up. My now friend -- Stephen, was one I specifically remember giving me directions on how to find them. And then...I showed up and found them. The first two people I met -- Stephen Treger and Sidney Russell... little did I know they would not only become two safe people for me, but they would both become part of my future endeavor of swimming around an island.
Fast Forward to 2023
Fast forward three years. I spent the next 3 years taking lessons and being coached by Sidney. I became an observer for the Catalina Swim Federation. I was part of a crew for several marathon swims for my friends. Sidney worked with me patiently, and helped me take my 70.3 swim time down from 54 minutes to 39 minutes. I showed up almost every Monday morning for open water masters with Sid and Stephen. Finally, I decided to commit to attempting my own marathon swim around Coronado Island. I booked the date a year in advance and committed to my goal. Sid helped me prepare diligently. This swim is local to us in San Diego. Its about 11.7 or so miles, and the head observer and kayaker, Dan Simonelli helps you find a date that works in your favor with the tides. We chose August for me, so that I would hopefully have warmer waters. I wanted to do this swim to be officially ratified by the Marathon Swim Federation, so that means I could not wear a wetsuit or any aids to keep me warm or help me swim faster. Sidney helped me train for the colder waters, and gradually we built up my swim endurance. Before I knew it, August 19 was here.
My swim time was 1am, meet up at 12. I took the day of the swim off work, since I was swimming overnight- I wanted to just be rested that day. I didn't do anything different that day, but just kept it relaxed at home. Ate and drank normally. At around 4pm, I ate an early
light dinner and went up to bed at 5pm, and had decided to lay down and shut my eyes until 10pm. If I slept, great. To my surprise, I actually slept. When Jerry woke me up at 10pm, I was very confused on what day and time it was. I got up, had a cup of coffee and my normal pre-workout waffles. Then around 11 or so, Jerry, my mom and I headed down to Coronado. It was go time!
Before I entered the water I took a deep breath and looked at my friend and swim coach Sidney who was waiting for me in a kayak and immediately felt safe. I have always felt safe with her, and as long as she is by my side in the water- I know everything will be ok. I look at my mom who is holding back tears and try to channel her the safety I’m feeling. I say I love you to my family and start swimming.
With every stroke the water sparkled with bioluminescence, almost like glitter. The city lights were on my right as I took a breath. The water was a comfortable temperature. I knew I wouldn’t have the familiar buzz on my wrist from my watch so I settled in.
My mind thought about how lucky I am that I can do this. Someone who didn’t grow up near the ocean. Someone who moved to San Diego 3 years ago and struggled to swim a mile in the ocean, let alone without a wetsuit. I thought about how magical this is. The sparkle, the lights, the sounds of clicking from dolphins under the water. Every time I turned my head to breathe in the first 2 hours, I saw the San Diego skyline and took it all in. How lucky was I to be able to experience this.
At one point, the swells picked up just a little. I stopped and said "its a bit choppy all of a sudden!" - Sid said "yep this is just the way it is. settle in, you're doing great."
I decided to not take any nutrition for the first hour. It was easier for me to get into a rhythm at first and settle in instead of stopping the first 30 minutes. This worked out well. I was using Skratch Superfuel in my bottles and each of my 18o
z bottles held about 3 feedings. I also had plain water on the kayak, that I would ask for when I wanted plain water. I also had Maurten gels, both caffeinated and regular - that we did supplement in later in the swim, because I got tired of a flavored drink.
When I did stop to feed, we could see the lightening very far off in the distance light up the sky. It wasn’t scary, as we all knew the hurricane storms were still hundreds of miles away from us, but the sky sure was beautiful. ( Yes, there was a "hurricane" on the pacific ocean for the first time in along time- OF COURSE THERE WAS!) - -thankfully this storm, which was weaker than anticipated anyway, waited until 24 hours after I was finished to show up for real.
About hour 3 or so, I rounded the famous jetty and I noticed the expected temperature drop. I was so grateful I had spent months training and acclimating for this moment. I looked at Sidne y and she told me to swim my 200 yard hard intervals that I had done at La Jolla. I was on it and it broke up the rest of the 3 miles I had to swim. Swim hard , let off the gas, repeat. As I did this, the sky started to lighten up, so I knew it was after 5am and I was getting close to being finished.
Another feeding came, and Sidney told me to go to Dan for a warm feeding. He gave me a bottle that was warm water and a gel. The water temperature was colder, and they could both tell I was getting cold. Sid always tells me she knows when I am cold because I stop talking. Haha! Then Sid told me to keep up the intervals. It was going to help me finish strong and stay warm.
My left arm started to ache a little near the bicep tendon, but I thought about how different this from running a marathon where you can feel your body breaking down. I never felt that. I knew I was probably swinging that left arm, which I tend to do when I get tired, and I tried to focus on raising my elbow and maintaining any form I could to help myself swim more efficiently. I never once thought that I wasn't going to finish.
Even though I knew the sky was lighter, I never sighted forward to the land because. I didn't want to start asking how much further I had to go. However, Dan stopped me suddenly to tell me I was there and just had to swim the 100 yards or so to the people. He pointed to the beach. I saw a crowd of my
people cheering. At that moment, my eyes filled with tears at the support that showed up for ME on a Saturday morning. I couldn't believe it. I still can't really believe it. It feels like a dream. I am a marathon swimmer.
8/19/23 Around Coronado Swim Official time, pending ratification: 6:10 Distance: roughly 11.7miles Crew: observer and kayaker: Dan Simonelli , Open Water Swim Academy Kayaker and coach: Sidney Russell, Swim Open Waters Land Crew: Summer Wesson
I have been asked what I am doing next. Am I going to try for Catalina or something bigger? The answer is maybe, probably, I don't know but not right now. Ha. How is that for a long answer? I am so grateful I did this swim, and nobody can take this away from me. Some swimmers in the community will say that Coronado is an "easy" marathon swim. But let me tell you - it is not easy. No marathon swim is easy. I swam for over 6 hours.
I have transitioned back over to do a 70.3 in December and in the spring I am going to run a marathon again. Before I hurt my back, qualifying for Boston was a HUGE bucket list goal of mine, and it still is. I don't expect to qualify on the first marathon back, truthfully , but I have to do one again to even see where I am. So .. I am going to settle in on that for a bit. BUT .. I am not done with marathon swimming.
The ocean has a special place in my heart.