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Sea monsters and giant ants

My friend always says that there are two types of events in life – good experiences and good stories. This past week, I had both.
Currently being between contracts, I traded in my air miles for flights to the southern US to end the swim season with a bang. I registered for Swim the Loop (a 3.5 mile bay swim in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina on 27 September) and To the Bridge and Back (a 5 mile river swim in Richmond, Virginia on 3 October).
I was nervous about Swim the Loop. The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim in June and the Cala Montgó Swim Festival‏ last summer (subject of my first blog in November 2014) taught me that I’m not a strong sea swimmer. But I am persistent. And slightly crazy. So I arrived at Wrightsville Beach the night before the swim in nervous good spirits.
I would like to say that everything after that was a good experience. But life is not that simple. The good story comes first.
My room at the Waterway Lodge was infested with ants! When I complained, I was given a new room with the strongest mildew smell I’ve ever experienced. I panicked briefly before remembering that I have a smart phone and a credit card. A quick Google search and $300 later, I moved to the hotel with the highest sanitation rating in the area.
I woke before my 5am alarm the next morning, having spent the night dreaming about sea monsters and giant ants.
As I jumped into the water at 7am, several thoughts crossed my mind. The first was, “Man the ocean is salty!” The second, “I wonder if there are giant ants lurking in the murky waters?” And the third, “What’s hitting me?”
In the lead up to Hurricane Joaquin, the east coast was slammed with strong winds and heavy rain. In a minor miracle, the sun shone on race day. But the water was rough. Waves battered my body, producing the nausea that I’m all too familiar with, and uprooting reeds that congested the water and attacked swimmers.
I reached the first feed station at mile one after 45 minutes of swimming with nausea. Two gentlemen entered the feed station with me. We were the last three swimmers. One of the men was in good spirits, quickly pushing forward. But the other had already broken, saying that he swam faster last year and didn’t make the three hour cut off so surely he would not this year.
I felt like the latter but tried to emulate the former, pushing off from the aid station and continuing along Lees Cut. I quickly received a kayak escort, who was assigned to the slowest swimmer. The sour man had dropped out at mile one.
I felt awful. My nausea was growing stronger and stronger and my optimism weaker and weaker. I had dropped out of two sea swims in the past 12 months. Why would this one be any different?
I pushed on but I didn’t know why. I was positive that the nausea would consume me long before I finished the swim, and even if not, in my nauseated state I was progressing so slowly that I would surely not make the time cut-off.
I was about to give up when I spotted the mile two feed boat in Banks Channel. Banks Channel was just as rough as Lees Cut but with a strong favourable current. I watched it rushing by me as I stopped to feed and decided I couldn’t quit while in a beneficial current.
So I swam on, picking up a second kayak escort. As I moved forward, my tired and miserable brain processed information slowly. It sluggishly noticed that I was cold. It then realised that was weird since I’d been concerned about overheating in the 25 degree Celsius water. I then remembered advice from 2swim4life, a 24-hour swim relay in May – if I’m getting cold while swimming in warm water then I’m slowing down because of mental, not physical, exhaustion. I need to push harder.
I picked up the pace slightly as I entered Motts Channel. We had been briefed before the swim that Motts Channel would be our biggest challenge with a strong unfavourable current.
The race director was wrong. Motts Channel indeed had an unfriendly current but it also had something that I desperately needed. Calm water!
Suddenly the nausea that I thought would never leave was gone and the energy that I hadn’t exerted while swimming sick returned quickly. As I turned onto the main part of Motts Channel, I braved the stronger current to make an angled crossing of the channel, bypassing the longer but easier shoreline option.
As I swam across the channel, my escort kayakers cheered. I had no idea why until I noticed swimmers taking the long route falling behind me. While I was gaining strength, other swimmers were faltering, and so I had passed three swimmers in quick succession.
One of my kayak escorts left to stay with the last place swimmer. The other kayaker guided me expertly through the channel, directing me to paths with the slackest current.
I worked like mad to keep up with her, knowing that every weak stroke would allow the current to push me backwards. I didn’t think about anything except following the kayaker and swimming hard.
After 3 hours and 2 minutes, I reached the finish line, just in time to make the cut-off. Two swimmers finished close behind me and the three that I had passed while I entered Motts Channel were pulled. Fifty-two men and 21 women (including me) finished the race.
I was dumbfounded as I exited the water. I had spent the first two hours trying not to vomit and planning to pull out. I spent the last hour focussing entirely on swimming strong. It was only in the last 20 minutes of the race that I had realised I could finish.
Suddenly my good story had turned into a great experience. My friend said that in the decade he’s known me, he has never seen me as happy as when I exited the water. He compared my ecstatic jumping to that of a dog. I took it as a compliment.
After that, my trip turned back into a good story.
The next day, I had my worst birthday in 28 years! Things finally fell apart with boat man (the rocky boyfriend from my previous blog), my friend confessed deep feelings for me that I do not reciprocate and Hurricane Joaquin moved closer to the eastern US, forcing cancellation of To the Bridge and Back.
But I still had a smart phone and a credit card so with three clicks of my ruby red heels, I was home with lots of good stories and one amazing experience. I won’t trade the trip for anything.
Except the ants.