January 24, 2017
There are two places where I have learned and thought about my open water swims: the Jacuzzi in La Jolla and the sauna in San Francisco.
A year ago, after a long training session in La Jolla, I ran into Dan Simonelli, who had just completed a Catalina swim in January. The idea to swim on the same date Young swam in 1927 was extraordinary. I made a mental note: this would be something to consider next season.
In the same place, but in another occasion, I happened to meet Penny Palfray. We talked about her swims, especially her two failed attempts to cross the North Channel. I could not help but ask whether she would try it again. “No,” she said unequivocally. “In Australia there is nowhere to train in cold water.”
After I came back from Moloka’i I began a series of training sessions in the San Francisco Bay. My goal was to acclimatize my body, and I managed to make progress slowly. I still remember how hard it was to pass the six-hour-test needed to qualify to the North Channel.
In one of my next visits, Steve Walker, who had recently swam across the North Channel, told me in the sauna that he had seen me swim and that he was worried about me not being sufficiently acclimatized to the cold. He offered his help and said: “We will make progress until you are able to swim during eight hours in 57-degree waters.”
In the summer, when I had to cancel my attempt to cross the North Channel, I remembered all three conversations and decided to put them together to create a single event during the next season: a Catalina Channel swim on the 90thanniversary of the first crossing. My aim would be to acclimatize to the cold water and manage to swim for more than eight hours.
In life, every person experiences different kinds of pain. First there is physical pain, such as toothache, headache, stomachache, or giving birth. There is also the pain of psychic sadness, like the feeling of losing someone we love or a part of the body. We can even feel sadness when we lose a valuable object.
The pain of love is horrible. It produces anguish and creates feelings of extreme solitude or abandonment. Reading Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, Mario Benedetti or W.B Yeats is enough to realize that lovesickness is a tragedy not easily forgotten. To mention a couple of examples, Neruda writes in his poem “Farewell:”
I love the love of sailors who kiss and go.
They leave a promise. They never return.
A woman waits in every port: Sailors kiss and go.
One night they lie with death on the seabed.
And Yeats in “Down by the Salley Gardens:”
In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.
Those who do high-intensity exercise know the pain caused by anaerobic training sessions or the tiredness of the muscles after several hours of constant movement. However, cold water makes you feel a pain that, in my view, is different to all the above. It is an anesthetic pain.
It is worth pointing out that for psychoanalysts like Freud and Lacan, among others, pain is related to the subjectivity of the person who experiences it. Pain is close to pleasure, and only through these sensations does one establish contact with one’s own body. It is nearly impossible to recreate or even remember the pain in itself. Even if we remember the experience and its context, the traits of the sensation leave no tracks. Thus, as I faced the pain caused by the intense cold, my only choice was to anesthetize it. Otherwise, another, more painful, experience would have emerged: the helplessness of having to give up halfway through.
The first time I experienced the pain caused by the cold was during my North Channel qualifying swim. I had to swim six hours, and during the first one a friend who swam more slowly than I accompanied me. I stayed with her for a while and, as a result, my body temperature significantly dropped. By the second hour I was trembling. Rafa Álvarez says that I have rarely looked worse.
This was an important wake-up call. If I really wanted to complete the North Channel swim, I had to be able to swim comfortably in 59-degree waters.
At the end of August I swam four hours in 60-degree waters with Kim Chambers and John York. Miguel Meléndez guided us from the South End Rowing Club (SERC) to the Bay Bridge. I had a hard time, since the tour included spots with several tourists with whom we had to joke around.
In October and Novermber the water in the San Francisco Bay dropped to 57 degrees and I was able to complete a couple of two-hour swims. When Miguel took me to Pier 41 in Thanksgiving, I remember he told me: “The water is very cold, let’s be careful.”
Organizing holiday trips with two adult children is no easy task, since they have plans and commitments of their own. Originally the plan was to go to Acapulco for a week after Christmas. I did not like the idea of having to swim in 82-degree waters for eight days right before my Catalina attempt. However, past experiences had taught me that, despite the warm water, this option was at least better than a swimming pool.
Plans changed at the beginning of the month and San Francisco became the new destination. This was a great opportunity to fulfill my dream of swimming in cold waters before my Catalina attempt.
On December 31 I showed up early at SERC. Happy to have my own key, I entered willing to face the 50-degree water, according to the temperature buoy.
The routine of entering the water on the beach has different versions. Some submerge their legs little by little, others run and dive, and still others contemplate the water while—I imagine—they convince themselves to get in.
I like walking until the water reaches my waist. Then I turn on my watch and start swimming. That is how I did it on that day. I had not even swum 50 meters when I had to stop and get my head out of the water. I felt like my ears were about to fall off. I set myself the goal of reaching the second buoy and then get my head out again. After 600 meters, where the flag is located, I did not feel my ears anymore.
It was my first day and I did not know what to expect. I decided to be cautious and stayed within the park’s walls.
After 30 minutes I did not feel my feet and my fingers began to get stiff. Since I was swimming by myself, I designed my route so that I would be near the beach during the last 20 minutes. After 55 minutes I started feeling dizzy. I did not feel pain, but something was happening. I had not felt so anguished in a long time. Was I about to faint?
I managed to control my emotions and got out of the water as soon as I could. I looked at my hands and my fingers were stiff. Since I was at the end of the beach, I had to walk all the way back to the club.
At the beach there were some people playing. A few triathletes were getting ready and putting on their wetsuits, while others were getting out of the water. Did they know that I had had to get out because I could not bear the cold anymore? At that moment I did not really care. I just needed to get to the sauna.
As I got closer to my destination I had to get into the water once again to enter the club. Luckily, the dizziness did not come back. There were several people getting ready for next day’s race. I sat down at the dock to recover; fortunately the sun was shining. Simon Dominguez and Susan Blew came to the rescue with words of encouragement. Basically, their message was: “Hang in there; this will be useful further down the road.”
In the sauna, while I was warming up, Neil Heller arrived in a state that looked even worse than mine. Bob Tandler got scared and got him warm water. He had swum 52 minutes and was pale and trembling. Two thoughts came to my mind: bring warm water tomorrow and maybe my performance had not been so bad after all, given that it was the first day.
During the next eight days I swam 80 minutes almost daily and 92 minutes on the last day. I returned to Mexico feeling reassured. I had been able to swim in 50-degree waters—one day even 49—and managed to overcome the pain of the cold water.
On Monday, December 9 I traveled to Hermosillo. Fortunately the swimming pool at the Los Lagos club has no heating, so the water was 60 degrees. I swam there until Wednesday. On Thursday I decided not to swim in a warm water pool and on Friday the 13th, after arriving in Long Beach, we did our traditional swim before dinner. I had no problem entering the water, which was around 61 degrees.
I had a flashback to an October 2008 swim during which the water was also 61 degrees. Back then I doubted whether I would be able to endure the swim the next day. My body’s resistance to cold water had definitely increased over the years.
The appointment for my crossing attempt was set for Saturday, December 14 at 7 pm. We arrived at the dock and Dan Simonelli was already there. We helped him move the kayaks and by 7:45 pm we were ready to leave.
That night’s surprise happened when Forrest Nelson, the President of the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation, showed up. Since he was around to supervise a boat, he decided to stop, say hi, and wish me a good swim. I was very happy to see him. We were inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame at the same time, and he is one of the open water swimmers I admire the most. He has done incredible swims.
Before leaving I asked for a picture. It is quite uncommon for four members of the Hall of Fame and someone with the Triple Crown to be together on the same boat.
The trip to the island was quick. Suddenly we were in front of the beach from which I would be starting. We began to get ready: Miguel Meléndez and Dan Simonelli with the kayaks, Rafa and I warming up, Ariadna readying the supplies, Nora preparing the laser paste, and Pablo Argüelles taking pictures.
As I am waiting for Rafa, I turn to my right and see a dolphin. It plunges into the water and jumps in front of me. It is welcoming me. It will be a good day.
I am almost ready to begin and René Martínez shouts the water temperature: “It’s 57 degrees!” My mind takes note of the information. In a few minutes I will know if my body was able to acclimatize and whether I will be able to resist.
Nora comes closer and asks me: “Do you want to see the Wind Guru?” “No, thanks.” I do not tell her that I am aware that the winds will be strong. We will see how I deal with them.
I plunge into the water. It is cold, but nothing to worry about. I swim to the beach, they give me the start signal, and I begin my attempt.
Strong winds are predicted for the first hours, but after sunrise they are supposed to calm down. There is a nearly full moon and I can see the stars in the sky.
Hours go by as we adjust the supplies. We notice that I will not be able to get close to the ship. I try to do so twice, but I struggle too much. We will have to manage with shouts and very brief conversations.
The most important development of the first hours of the swim is that I have been throwing up. The tomato soup made me sick. In addition to the soup, I vomit the muffin I ate on the way, as well as the Accel Gel. I am vigilant in case my body asks for more food.
By the fifth hour my left arm starts hurting. I ask Rafa and Ricardo Durón what can I do to alleviate the pain. I start putting more strain on my stomach muscles. Hours later the same thing happens with my groin, so I concentrate on my rotation.
Although I always get ready for the worst, I never lose hope that something different might happen.
If anything characterizes the Catalina swim, it is the transformation one feels at sunrise. Throughout the night I had been looking for clouds in the sky, but I never saw any. I mistakenly thought that this would also be the case after dawn.
The first minutes after the sun came out were filled with a light so intense that I decided to change my goggles and swimming cap. I never imagined that putting on the new cap would be so hard. Due to the cold I had no control over my fingers. I adjusted it with difficulty and put on my goggles.
Nonetheless, clouds appeared later and with them came more waves. As the sun disappeared—it would remain like this until the end of the swim—the temperature dropped again. I had a small crisis and I had to resort to my mental routine to overcome it and keep swimming.
When I recovered I started thinking about the cap incident. Although my hands had not responded, my entire body was moving without difficulty. I felt neither cold nor pain.
I remembered my conversation with Forest before the swim. Human beings are capable of controlling the pain and enduring extreme conditions. However, we cannot control our body when it feels that we are pushing it too hard.
Fortunately, on this occasion body and mind were on the same page. I got the training I wanted and, in doing so, I also managed to complete my fourth Catalina swim. The odds to succeed in the North Channel and the Cook Strait are now higher.