“I love pain, it makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something”. At mile 20 when the easy long strokes faded away and painful shoulders and rickety elbows took over, I thought about that quote a lot. It’s one of my favorite quotes. When the pain comes, you’re doing work. You’re doing something that makes you want to quit. It starts now. This is the opportunity.
Many hours earlier I stood at the banks of the Red River in North Dakota at 5:30AM with one of the most low key starts I’ve been a part of. We stood there 90% naked, in an array of colored suits made worse by smears of sunscreen and Desiten. Then, (In a North Dakota/Canadian accent over a muted bullhorn) “well, eh, uh….I guess we have everyone here. Uh, ay, I guess um, we’ll get started…..Oh-kay, uh, well then, here we goh…..3, 2, 1…uh, have a good race. “ And one by we slid down the boat ramp into the water. The group was an eclectic mix of complete strangers to me 24 hours earlier, but in the small ultra-open water swimming community, of which I am a newbie, we quickly became fast friends. I knew most people’s names now and genuinely hoped each one of them had a good race.
Frightened by cold water and wanting to preserve the last few seconds of normalcy I would have on the day, I was one of the last to make it into the water. As my face hit the water the switch flipped. I was racing. Yikes!! However, everything was near perfect. We had warm overcast skies for the day (less concern about sunburn and glare) and the river was flowing at least at average flows if not a little above. The water was around 73 degrees which felt perfect. I was good mentally and physically and felt confident with a healthy dose of reverence for the river and swimmers I was with. I had no excuses. I just wanted a fair shot and I got it. Perfect.
The river was red (hence the name Red River) and cloudy, but the water felt fresh and tasteless to me. I should know about taste because I swallowed most of the river over the course of the day. I swam for nearly an hour before taking my first break to fuel. I was clumsy and slow and decided to alter my plan to eat every 20 mins to instead eat twice as much every 40 minutes to incur less of a penalty for my siestas. I alternated between Infinit sports drink, gels (2 at a time) and Ensure. I had packed some baked potatoes for solid food but never ate them. I took on close to 400 cals per hour which was based on my Ironman racing and training which seemed more than enough.
My kayaker, Joe, who I had met only 12 hours earlier had just graduated from NDU and was about as confident in his ability to kayak this race as I was to swim it. We didn’t know! But he proved to be a steady hand and what I call a “foxhole guy”….when stuff goes sideways and I have to dive in a foxhole, I’d be happy to see him in there with me. 7 of the 20 racers had distanced themselves from everyone else. I was barely at the front of the “middle group” of about 6 people. I had no intentions to race anyone, but you can’t help but notice that a good effort moves you 5 spots up the placing and a collapse moves 5 the other way. Crap. Now I felt some urgency. I honestly wished Joe had never told me about the placings even though I’m pretty sure I asked him 😊
It’s Dennis Rodman who said “I love pain, it makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something.” back when he played for the Detroit Pistons in the early 90s. The Piston’s were good and Sports Illustrated did a feature on their off-season training camp. The quote was overlaid on a full-page picture of Rodman running up the steepest ramp I have ever seen. It was sunny and hot. He was jacked. He was sweating and judging by the mask of pain he wore on his face, he was accomplishing a lot. I loved it. I’ve always remembered it. That picture was my definition of hard work.
Mile 24 came with mixed feelings. I was 2/3rds of the way done. “home stretch” territory. But 12 miles of swimming, even at a peppy 3 mph represented 4 more hours!! I couldn’t think of the race like that. It was mentally demoralizing, so instead I just focused on the next mile marker. 12 becomes 11 which becomes 10 which becomes 9, etc. I didn’t know if I could swim 12 more miles but I knew I could swim 1. After that, I didn’t know if I could swim 11 more miles, but I knew I could swim 1. And so it went down the line, one mile at a time. One manageable chunk at a time. The problem gets smaller as we go.
As we approached the 6 mile marker there was a full on 5 alarm fire in my upper body. If I wasn’t explicitly paying attention, my left arm would drag across the water on my recovery because my deltoid was failing. And my elbows…..I had no more elbows. Those joints died and went to heaven hours ago. I had an odd and debilitating pain on the top of my right forearm which I just learned from a doctor’s visit was tendinopathy. I was fading. I started doing a little breaststroke here and there to ease the suffering. There was a swimmer right beside me (we had been this way for about 6 hours) and 3-4 more a few hundred yards behind me. I wasn’t here to race anyone. I just wanted to finish. They were going to overtake me. I was hurting too bad to do anything about it.
You need to find motivation in these moments anywhere you can and while I didn’t want to race anyone, I felt I should at least try. I hurt and I’ve been swimming a long time, but so have they, and I thought, “if my arms hurt, their arms must hurt. If my shoulders hurt, their shoulders must hurt. If I’m in pain, they must be in pain. Why should they catch me? Who can take the most pain?” My outlook changed.
The picture of Rodman running up that ramp in absolute pain but with total focus hung over my bed for several summers back in the 90s. I loved it. I cut it out and taped it on the wall with other motivational quotes. I can’t even recall the others, but I’ve never forgotten that one. I saw it every night before I went to bed. When the pain comes you know you are accomplishing something. I knew this moment in the race would come. This is what I wanted. This is why I was here.
I was a mess, but I told myself I was going to take all the pain I could. I shifted my mindset to swim with a mindset of strength rather than weakness. Confidence, not doubt. The ending, not the beginning. This was hard. The 10 hour malaise had ground me to a nub, but I wasn’t going to drift with the mental current. I was going to throw an oar into the mental waters. This really had nothing to do with any particular placing or actually beating anyone, but everything to do with finding out how to get the most out of myself. And I did. I was strong…….until I wasn’t :0 I pulled away from everyone by several minutes, but In the last half mile cracks formed. I actually apologized to Joe for moaning so much the last 15 minutes. I pushed. I gave what I had. I died trying. I saw the first of several bridges that marked the gateway to the finish. I wrote 8 months ago that I didn’t believe yet (https://mikeguzek.com/2018/02/15/why-am-i-swimming-36-miles-down-the-red-river-its-just-time/)…..finally now, I believed I was going to do this. And I as I touched the dock after 11 hours and 57 minutes of swimming with Melanie there cheering me on, I did!
I’ve done hundreds of races. I’d put my lifetime of suffering while competing beside anyone elses. I’ve experienced more lows than highs, but this race was a true high. This was a no regrets, no excuses, all in sort of thing. This race and that result is exactly what I am.
I was in a bit of pain that night trying to sleep. My right forearm was swollen and in enough pain that I was concerned I had broken a bone. Every time I moved I would wake up because of some sort of pain, but it didn’t bother me because each jolt of pain was just a whisper from Dennis Rodman that yes, I had accomplished something.