This is one of a series of posts chronicling my attempt at Uberman – The World’s Toughest Triathlon. Check out all of the related posts on the Uberman 2016 page here.
Departing from the Mainland
We departed Marina del Rey late morning on Tuesday and arrived to Catalina in the early afternoon with the crew – Mike (boat captain), Nicki (my kayaker), Dan (Uberman race director), Lena (my wife) and Samson (kayaker for a second swimmer slated to leave Catalina that night on at 6pm with a different boat.)
The swim crew
Pulling into Two Harbors
The weather was GORGEOUS! We departed around 11am for a 2.5 hour boat ride to Catalina Island under beautiful blue skies and nearly perfect conditions. Despite some queasiness on the ride over, I arrived to Catalina in good shape and excited for what was ahead.
Quick tour of Two Harbors
Our plan was to hit the water at 4am on Wednesday, October 19th.
Sidenote… Most swimmers opt for either a night crossing, or to start at midnight to finish the swim by midday to avoid currents, wind and chop that arise each day. We instead opted for the 4am swim to avoid swimming across the shipping lanes at night.While the huge freighters are easy to spot, distance and speed can be difficult to tabulate at night. Additionally, while Mike was an experienced boat captain that guided paddle boarders across the Channel, he hadn’t guided a swimmer doing the crossing in a single effort. I had done a TON of research on this and discussed our start time in multiple conversations with Mike, Dan and Lena and all variables considered, we felt the 4am start time, despite setting ourselves up for a more difficult swim, was better for safety purposes.
We docked, then Lena and I enjoyed a hefty lunch of burgers and fries at an outdoor cafe at Two Harbors. After lunch, we walked to the other side of the island to check out the second harbor and on the way, I admitted to Lean that I was scared. Really scared. Before that, I had always hedged how I felt when asked about Uberman by saying – “I’m somewhere between excited and scared.” Now I was just plain scared.
Lena gave me some great advice – “Scared is just one emotion you’re feeling. You probably have others – excitement, anticipation.” Of course she was right, but scared was the 1000 lb gorilla in my mind right now.
Captain Mike determining our course for the morning
Around 4:30pm, we made our way back to the boat to prep nutrition and food before nightfall a couple hours later. I spent an hour in the galley mixing my various food and nutrition concoctions – labelling bottles and talking with Mike, Lena, Nicki and Dan about tomorrow’s safety procedures.
After that, there wasn’t much to do except rest, so around 7:30pm I retired to the master stateroom graciously offered to me hoping to get a solid seven hours of sleep. I slept pretty well. The quietness of the night and the subtle rocking of the boat offered some comfort. It was all happening now. Nothing more to do, nothing more the plan, no more logistics. It was time to just do.
Hitting the water
Alarms beeped at 3am across the boat. The morning air was cool and peaceful. Just past a full moon, stars dotted the early morning sky. Sam and I did our final preparations, reviewed plans with everyone and headed to the Catalina shore. We docked a few hundred feet from the beach, so I hitched a ride from Nicki from the boat docked a couple hundred yards from shore. Why do any more swimming than absolutely necessary, right? 🙂
Hitching a ride on the kayak
Sam and I stood there on the beach, looked at each other, shook hands and wished each other luck. I yelled “Starting!” and off we went.
As I mentioned, Sam was supposed to leave at 6pm the night before with another guide boat and athlete. But….they left without him. On purpose – because the captain of that boat decided having two swimmers and one boat through the night would be too much to handle. Perhaps true. And perhaps would have been nice to inform Sam and Samson about that before departing for Catalina rather than by phone to Dan twenty minutes after they left.
Sam had flown from Scotland to Los Angeles that day to do the swim, filling in for another athlete part of a relay team that withdrew at the last minute. Even better, Sam had just successfully crossed the English Channel five days before – the same distance and swim but in colder water on Saturday. Now, here he was halfway across the world to tackle the Catalina Channel. Amazing that he would even agree to this. Astonishing that the boat crew knowingly left without him.
In the Water: Hours 0-3
Much like my Tahoe swim earlier this summer, the first miles were flowing and smooth. (The Tahoe crossing was immensely valuable, and I don’t think I would have completed the swim without that open water experience.)
The water was calm and soft, and I focused on long, smooth, slow strokes. Every bit of energy and efficiency I could save would mean more in the tank later. We got out to Dinosaur Rock around the time for the first feed.
The “Feed Plan” was every 30 minutes. I alternated between real food – a watery mix of sour cream and avocado for fat and protein, and a nutrition drink mix called 3Fuel that dumps fat into my system to burn for energy instead of relying on short-term carbs. (More on this in my eventual nutrition post).
Nicki and I found a rhythm pretty quickly. She was great from the onset and very comforting throughout the day with her positive attitude and confidence. She maintained a steady pace between one-thirty and two o’clock on my right side so that I could sight on every right-side breath. (I breath bilaterally – right, left, right, breathe. Left, right, left, breathe.)
During these early miles, I felt tiny pin pricks across my face every 10-20 yards as I moved through water – either they were tiny jellyfish stinging my face or I was running into expunged stingers from larger jellyfish covering the water’s surface. Later in the morning as daylight broke, I could see larger jellyfish swimming around 10-20 feet below and around me.
Somewhere between the first and second hour, the boat pulled up and directed me to slow down. My stroke pace was 60-64/minute and I was pulling away from Sam. There too much distance between us this early in the swim. It was still dark and with only glow sticks and headlamps, and now three miles from shore, we needed to stay closer to each other. No worries. Firstly, even though I thought I was swimming at a slow pace, I was probably too amped up and couldn’t keep that stroke pace for the entire swim. Secondly, I knew that every ounce of energy I saved early would payoff later.
We slowed to about 52-56 strokes/minutes for the next hour, and we reached the end of our first three hour segment only to have the boat ask me to slow down again. Even Nicki voiced some frustration because she had my stroke count at 48. I kept the same attitude as before – slower is better. Less energy burned now means more later. This was surprising because he and I talked about our predicted swim times, and they were about the same – 13-14 hours for him and 14-15 hours for me. That said, the guy did just fly halfway across the world after swimming the English Channel a few days ago!
(About the only positive in my swim form is that I get a lot of each stroke. Random swimmers I’ve met at pools have told me how they admire my long strokes. That’s about the only compliment I ever get for my swim form.. :-).
Early morning after sunrise
Towards the end of the third hour, the sun rose over my right side. The course from Two Harbors to Rancho Palos Verdes runs south to north, so the sunrise in the east was exactly to my right side. The sky turned from black to blue to pale gray, and eventually yellow and gold. Only a few minutes after peeking the horizon, the sun came into full view. It then dawned on me (pun intended…) that I would be following the sun’s ascent on my right, then over my head, then down my left side to sunset throughout the day. With any luck, I’d finish right round sunset to avoid refitting the kayak and myself with another round of glow sticks. There was something peaceful about this. The sun was my timer and marked my progress. As it rose in the sky and eventually we hit midday, it was a a more amiable signal of my progress than any mileage count or time marker.
Hours 3-6: Past the Beginning & Just starting
This segment was just all about early progress. At the end of the third hour, we swapped nutrition bags. I had eight water bottles prepped at a time – two were freshwater and the remaining six were filled with nutrition mix and the sour cream/avocado mix. We also had cooked sweet potatoes and white rice in ziplock bags for me to eat throughout the day. With the 30-minute feed cycles, each batch lasted three hours.
Smooth as glass. Far from land.
The water remained incredibly blue and smooth – even softer and smoother than Lake Tahoe. I felt like I was gliding and after the six hour mark, we stopped for a feed and to swap out the nutrition bags again. Dan told me I was already six miles into the swim and making huge progress. “You’re a third of the way there!”
“Well, not quite,” I said in a way to reserve any excitement. I felt satisfied knowing that I “only” had 15 miles to go. This was my plan going into the swim – I didn’t want to know distance or mileage until I had 15-16 miles to go because from there, I could psychologically get myself to think that 15 miles wasn’t that far… But I knew I had 15 miles to go and while getting six miles from the start was a checkbox, the real swimming wouldn’t start for many miles ahead.
“Well, almost…” replied Dan.
I appreciated Dan’s demeanor even if I didn’t express it throughout the swim and the entire experience. He was positive and a constant cheerleader for me and everyone. I felt a little badly about dousing his enthusiasm. Sorry, Dan…
Seasickness hit Lean, and I needed Dan to fill in to complete the nutrition plan. While treading water six miles from shore, I was shouting directions to him on what to put in each of the eight water bottles then made him repeat it back to make sure he got it right. I’m a stickler for my plan on this and I didn’t want any surprises. The exchange was made and off Nicki and I went for the next three hours.
Now several hours into the swim and the day, while the sun rose into a perfectly clear and blue sky, the moon persisted above to my left. I could also still see the edge of Catalina Island to my left too. They were my last anchors to the swim start which I think helped me to avoid what otherwise could have been an overwhelming sense of “Oh shit, I’m in the middle of the fu*cking ocean.”
Hours 7-9: The Transition Zone
The anterior of my shoulders near my rotator cuff started to ache with every stroke.
The next distance update from the boated reported that we were nine miles into the swim. I rolled back my wetsuit sleeve to check my Garmin for the first time, and it corroborated that we were indeed nine miles into the swim, though for me, it didn’t matter that I swam one, ten or a hundred miles so far. All that mattered was how much I had left to get to shore. I was solely focused on how much I had left to finish, not how far I’d gone.
I call this “The Transition Zone” because I was moving from the first half to the second half of the swim. While the absolute miles from nice to ten, ten to eleven, eleven to twelve are the same as the first mile or from mile one to mile two, these middle miles felt longer because psychologically I wanted to get down to single digit miles to go so that I could take the swim one mile at a time to the finish.
Worse, the math of the course began to skew. While the swim course is 20.5 miles in a straight line, I knew that because of current, our actual course would be at least 1-2 miles more than the straight line despite our best efforts to course correct along the way. So even while nine miles was a big accomplishment, I also knew I had at least twelve to go, and probably more than that. This is a difficult hurdle to overcome mentally and why these are hard miles.
We went another couple of feeds when I learned that we had about 10.5 to go. I checked my Garmin and saw that I was at 10 ten miles swam so far. I didn’t have the display show decimals, so to see “9” at the last check then swim for an hour and a half and then see “10” the next time I checked was pretty tough. I knew I could have gone from 9.1 to 10.9 in that time, but it was hard to see the raw numbers. I decided that I wouldn’t check my Garmin again for a while. Even here behind me, I could still see the edges of Catalina behind me while starting to see land ahead of me where I would eventually land. When we got to 8 miles to go, I checked again and saw “14” on my Garmin – confirmation that we’d be swimming more than the 20.5 miles of a straight line course.
Somewhere out there, I heard squeaking noises when I dipped my head below the surface and thought they might be dolphins. During a feed, Lena called out from the boat – “There are dolphins EVERYWHERE are you swimming around! It’s so cool!” I only wished I could have seen them. Still a pretty cool experience that I’d read about in other swimmer posts.
“I’ve never seen this much traffic out here…” -Mike, Boat Captain
Now in the middle of the channel, we approached the shipping channels – large ships arriving from some or headed another to port on the other side of the world. These freighters were giants even from several miles away, and later I learned from Lena that Mike, the boat captain, commented – “I’ve never see this much freighter traffic out here…” A couple of months before the race, Lena asked me if they would shut down the shipping lanes for the race (no they can’t…) but right about now sure seemed like a good idea…
Fortunately the timing of the freighters crossing worked out and we pushed through the shippig lanes without incident, save for the 2-3 brown sludge pools left behind for me to swim through.
Somewhere around this point, I decided to drop from 30 minute to 20 minute feeds. The 30-minute intervals became too difficult to maintain, the time and distance was taking it’s toll on my psyche. In seeing land ahead of me, I was again glad for my Tahoe swim this summer – knowing that distances were deceiving in the water and to just focus on the next mile. Lena had recovered from her seasickness, and it was very, very motivating to see her standing on the boat watching me. She took video and asked me to say hello to Benjamin.
To pass the time, I tried counting strokes. Normally I just count – “One, two, three, breathe. One, two, three, breathe.” I read in Lynne Cox’s book “Swimming to Antartica” that she counted 1000 strokes at a time to pass the time and distance. I tried this approach for a couple of 20-minute segments, getting to 800-1000 in sets of 100 strokes. After 2-3 sets, I found it too difficult to think about so many strokes between feeds instead of focusing on each stoke presently. I dropped this approach and went back to “One, two, three, breathe.”
We worked through the next couple of miles and got down to six miles to go. During a break, Mike commented – “You’ve covered a long way so far – really takes a lot of stamina to get this far.”
I replied – “We haven’t gotten to the part where stamina kicks in.”
I know that my retorts to encouragement make me seem awfully surly. I had to do this for myself to retain focus and the feeling that while I had made a significant effort to get to any one part of the course, that within my mind, I still had plenty in reserve left for the work that lay before me.
With six miles to go, the current and wind picked up noticeably. I could see the swells rising and falling each time I turned to breathe. I’d breath and see the horizon, and the next time on that side I’d see only the peak of a swell a hundred yards off. Ripples formed on the top of the water. I could begin to make out the lighthouse we were aiming for and the beach where we’d land. I also knew we still had a long way to go. In the sky, the sun had migrated from my right side to my left side and I begin to wonder if we’d have to reequip the kayak with glow sticks for me to finish.
Hours 10-11: Just. Keep. Swimming
I stopped along the way a few times here for a round of breathing exercises thatI picked up from Brian Mackenzie – three rounds of ten deep inhales and exhales, then a 20-second hold on inhale #10, then an exhale and a 20-second hold. Three rounds of this to oxygenate my body and reset my brain. (Check out more here at XPTLife.com)
As I got more tired, I started to wonder if I would make it and shared this with Nicki. She said – “You’re doing great. Trust your motor.” Trust my motor. Solid gold advice. She was right. I did an inventory and aside from my rotator cuffs, the rest of my body was fine. My posterior shoulders were strong and I relied on them to lift my arms out of the water. My legs felt great. My body temperature was warm and mental faculties felt sharp. Trust my motor.
Eventually we worked down to 5.5 miles, then to 4.9 miles. At this rate, I was swimming about mile every 40 minutes, or 1/2 mile for each 20-minute feed segment. While slower than the start of the swim, I was comfortable with this pace and progress and I found it was motivating to knock out a half a mile between each feed.
From 4.9, we got to 4.5 in 20 minutes. From 4.5 to 4.1 over the next 20 minutes. My pace was slowing because of the wind and current. My stroke count was consistent – we were simply facing Mother Nature.
The boat left us again at 4.1 miles to go back to check on Sam, and after two feeds, they returned. I was now down to 3.3 miles – still going 0.4 miles every 20 minutes, or 1.33 mph. Not great, but still okay.
The sun was gaining on the horizon to my left. The whiteness of the daytime sun was fading into a shade of yellow as it crept towards horizon. The blue sky behind it became darker as the afternoon wore on. I considered it a race to reach shore before sunset.
It was also around here that I began thinking about tomorrow’s bike segment, and how I might need to skip it entirely. My shoulders were aching and throbbing. I kept focus on where I hurt and it always came back to my shoulders. My mind felt sharp. From the water, I was lucid and felt like I was still in control. I tried to make a quick joke or conversation with Nicki during feeds, or make a decision to tell the boat to do this or that.
Hours 12-14:25: One Last Push
“3 miles to go!” called Lena. Getting close!
I yelled back – “That’s just a 5000 yard workout. Five by 1000s. I can do that.” On the boat, I saw Sam wrapped in a towel – he had dropped almost two miles behind me and was getting caught in the same current. He went from 4.1 miles to go to 4.8 miles to go. From here, I knew the boat and the day would now 100% focused on me and getting me across.
I slogged my way down 1.8 miles to go, and somewhere in here we dropped to 15-minute feed segments. I didn’t need the feeds so much as I just needed a break to hang on the kayak for a moment or two and reset for the next block.
The water temperature dropped as expected and it felt refreshing on my face and neck. I could see how this temperature drop could be troublesome on a swimmer without a wetsuit. Our pace continued to slow.
At 1.8 miles to go, the boat did a check on us then sped off towards shore. That was disconcerting.
“Where the f*ck are they going!?” I yelled to Nicki. “This is the most important part of the swim when I need them the most and they’re f*cking taking off and leaving us here. We have no radio and no way to communicate and they’re fucking leaving us. What the f*ck?!” yeah, I was losing it a little… Not my best moment.
From 1.8 miles to go, we got to 1.6 miles to go in 15 minutes, then to 1.4 miles to go over the next 15 minutes after that. My speed had dropped to 0.8 mph. A friend of mine did the English Channel a few years ago, and when his speed dropped to below 1.0 mph because of current, they considered pulling him from the water. I didn’t think I was in jeopardy of getting pulled because the crew was new for this swim crossing, so as long as I said I could keep going and stay warm, I knew I’d be able to stay in the water. It was just tedious to know I was swimming less than 1 mph.
My bigger concern was that the current would continue to increase to the point where I wouldn’t be able to make any progress at all. Low tide that day was 7:09pm, so not only was I fighting the current, but also the tidal flow out from the mainland.
Current direction in the Catalina Channel (October 19, 2016)
Low tide was 7:09pm on October 19, 2016
I understood now how a swimmer could reach this point only to be forced to call it quits. Land was getting closer. It changed from a haze ahead to where I could begin to make out individual rocks and trees.
Looking back up onto the boat, I noticed everyone outside watching me. From Lena’s body language, she was watching closely and getting concerned. Aside from my shoulders and the fatigue, I felt fine.
We got down to 1.2 miles – just a half-Ironman swim – and I still considered that I might not make it – that I could go all this way only to call off the swim because of conditions. I told myself that as long as we could keep getting closer to shore and that my faculties were in check, I would keep going. There was no clock. Even if I have to breaststroke or crawl my way there little by little, I was determined to get to shore.
Lena asked – “How are you doing?”
“I’m tired but I’m okay. The water’s much colder, but I’m warm and I feel good.”
By now, I switched to two stroke breathing, breathing only on my right side and relying on my right arms to do most of the swimming. I significantly increased my stroke count:
Stroke count calculation from my Garmin
My stroke count increase over the last 90 minutes
From 1.2 to 1.0. Then from 1.0 to 0.8. Still swimming at 0.8 mph, I was making progress, and digging hard. The water turned brown and murky.
Once we hit 0.8 miles to go, I knew that I would finish no matter what, even if it took me until midnight, but I received some interesting news here…
Lena yelled out to me – “When you hit shore, you have to swim back to the boat!”
Huh? That’s not right. The plan was to meet Tbone on shore with The Beast parked nearby. She’d tend to me, get me fed and ready for the bike segment tomorrow. While I had resigned to the fact I’d need to skip tomorrow’s bike, I just wanted to get to a place where I could crash and rest. Tbone could drive us back to Marina del Rey while I slept and we could figure out tomorrow in the morning. The boat ride back to the marina could take up to two hours with current and waves, and after 14+ hours, the last thing I wanted was to spend any more time in or near water.
I yelled back – “No – Tbone’s meeting me on the shore!”
“Change of plans! We got pushed south by the current to another part of the beach. TBone can’t get to you so you have to come back to the boat. After you hit land, you have to swim back to the boat!”
Why I had to swim back to the boat
“Nicki – There’s no f*cking way I can swim back to the boat – you’re gonna have to give me a ride.”
We dug in for another 15 minute segment, then she told me – “You’re only 0.2 miles!”
“How is that possible?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“We went from 0.8 to 0.2 miles in 15 minutes?” I was baffled. I didn’t realize it at the time, but natural land extensions just to the north blocked the current and made the last segment much easier. I didn’t think about it too long because ahead I could now make out individual rocks and plants on the shore. The finish was right there!
I dug in again – 100 strokes, then a crawled for 20-25. 100 more strokes, then crawled for 20-25.
“200 yards! You’re going to make it!”
Close to shore, I saw the Terranea rocks that many swimmers before me cursed. I climbed over and through a kelp bed closer to rocky shore, looking for a place to land. The waves pushed me into a wall of rocks where I tried to grab hold, then pulled me away again. The rocks were slippery and I couldn’t find a path to shore.
Up against the wall of rocks, I pulled myself over and dropped off into a small pool. I couldn’t touch anything below me – I was caught in a mixing bowl of seawater and foam.
The waves were hammering Nicki’s kayak against the rocks as she tried to stay close to me. The sun had set minutes again and it was dusk, almost dark. The air was brown and gray.
I finally found a pedestal of rocks to the left of me that would disappear and reappear with each wave. With the next wave set, I pulled myself up halfway to my waist, waited from the next wave set to cover and uncover them, then I hoisted my two feet atop the rock to clear the water, yelled “CLEAR!!” then jumped back into the mixing bowl. “Let’s get the f*ck out of here!”
The view from the boat the moment I cleared the water
“Absolutely!” yelled Nicki. I pulled myself out of the mixing bowl back into the water and told Nicki – “I can’t swim back to the boat – I’m done. You’re gonna have to pull me in.”
She maneuvered the kayak to head back out to sea and I grabbed onto the rear. “Let’s go!”
She paddled while I kicked. “You don’t need to kick.”
“The water temperature is cold and my body temperature is going to drop if I don’t keep moving.” I think this is the most I’ve ever kicked while swimming.
The boat was a good 1/4 mile or more from shore and to the east from our landing spot. “They’re gonna have to come over and meet us.” She pulled and pulled and then boat crawled slowly to meet us. Dan and Sam pulled me up by my arms and shoulders and got me aboard. Then Nicki.
We. Were. Done.
The Beast in waiting, which I never saw… Sorry Tbone!
Now my options were to either swim back to shore once we got a bit farther West to meet Tbone, or to simply go back to the Marina on a two-hour boat ride. There was no way I’d be able to swim, and the two-person kayak was stowed and was taking on water earlier in the day anyway. It was nighttime now and I could just imagine myself getting lost at sea because of fatigue and darkness. We bagged the meet up option to home and headed back to the Marina.
As I undressed, I discovered two large gashes on the bottom of my left foot. We wrapped them with paper towels, and I didn’t think much of them at the time.I couldn’t lift my arms above sternum height. My neck and shoulders were covered with deep abrasions from my wetsuit. Despite trying to keep the skin lubricated beneath the wetsuit, there was no solution for 14+ hours of the constant rubbing of 20,000 strokes and 40,000 yards.
My Garmin recording of the swim
I had somehow remembered to stop by Garmin at the landing spot to record the time. 23.76 miles in 14:24 – more than 2.5 extra miles compared to the straight line route.
Back on the boat – safe, dry & happy
The ride home was peaceful and quiet. Almost eerie. As we pulled away from Rancho Palos Verdes, a long white wake formed behind the boat pointed back to our landing spot. Lena and I sat in the stern of the boat, looking back to RPV slowing moving farther and farther from view.
We watched the landing pattern of airplanes at LAX. We looked at stars. Aside from the boat engines, it was very, very quiet. I wanted to talk about the swim and take pictures, but I didn’t know what to do or what to say. I know Lena was tired and ready to go home, and ready to just enjoy being on the boat. The stars and moon were out again – the same sky that I saw 15 hours ago from Catalina Island.
Somewhere in this ride, I decided once and for all that I’d need to skip tomorrow’s bike segment. I needed to rest, and more so, I wanted to take the day to celebrate with everyone in Venice what we just accomplished. Right then, in that moment, I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment – that even if my injuries would prevent me from going any farther on the race course, I was happy and content. If I could go farther, every mile from here would be gravy…
COMING SOON: See if I made it onto the bike after all…
[Spoiler alert… Yes, I did.]