Why am I Swimming 36 Miles Down the Red River? It’s Just Time

Time to think.

I was curious to know how my bike was, but I couldn’t see it the way I was facing and I wasn’t able to move. All I could really do was moan softly to no one in particular. I knew I was alive and I knew I wasn’t going to die, but in the first minute or so I wasn’t sure how bad things were. I was lying in the road and I had just been hit by a pickup truck while riding my bike. The truck had pulled out from a side road in front of me and hit me head on.  Thank goodness he was coming off a stop, but he was looking backwards when he hit me while still accelerating. I hit the left front of his car and my entire left side went into his grill. My head hit the hood and then luckily slid down the side of the truck before hitting his rear view mirror (as opposed to supermaning into the windshield). Even at that moment I remembered the entire thing very clearly.  It was extremely quick, but at the same time it all seemed to happened in slow motion.

“Why is he pulling out.”
“Why is he still accelerating?”
“The driver is looking behind him!”
“He is going to hit me.”
“He is still accelerating!”
“Ouch, this collision really hurts.”

My bike

Wheels tacoed, fork snapped and cockpit got jacked.

I was 3 weeks out from what would have been my 20th Ironman. I was 95 miles into a 110 mile ride which was my last big ride before the race. 3 minutes earlier I made the decision to go straight instead of turning right towards home like I had planned because I needed extra miles and that decision led me to this spot. I lay on the pavement unable or at least unwilling to move waiting for the ambulance as several people kept an eye on me. I was still staring at the same patch of grass I saw when I first landed on the ground. I began to think.
Is riding a bike worth this? I wasn’t scared and by this point I felt I’d be no worse than a few broken bones, but I knew acquaintances who had been killed and friends who had been seriously injured. Some had sworn off riding. Is my 20th Ironman worth this? Would I ride a bike again? Did I even want to ride a bike again?  I couldn’t shake those thoughts and they rattled around in my head all the way to the hospital.

The ER was wild. I tried to tell them I wasn’t feeling too bad, but they were cutting my clothes off and probing me in all sorts of uncomfortable ways. People were shouting over me using words I had no clue of understanding. I spent the day at the hospital and one by one things began to check out.  Eventually I limped out of there a little bloodied and bruised IMG_20170902_160926504 but with no major injuries. Mike 1, Car 0. But I knew that my Ironman plans had likely gone up in smoke.

After about 3 weeks I began something that resembled swimming, biking and running. My riding was all indoors, not yet ready to get back into traffic. I decided I would try to do the Great Floridian Triathlon Ironman distance race in 3 weeks. It would be a “just finish” sort of effort, but I still wanted Ironman #20. Training was OK enough that we booked the hotel and plane tickets. Then, 8 days before the race I developed an ear infection. The doctor said I couldn’t swim for 10 days. Ouch. My ear hurt really bad and was swollen shut and I developed a fever. I tried to go out for a 3 hour ride the weekend before the race and I made it about 10 minutes before turning back. I couldn’t hear out of the ear, had a low fever and my equilibrium was off making me unsteady on the bike. The next day I tried to run for 1:15. No. It didn’t happen and my GFT dreams as well as Ironman #20 joined my triathlon bike up in heaven. There would be no Ironman #20 this year. Would there ever be an Ironman #20?  I was having doubts.

Time to let go.

I’ve actually been hit once before on my bike. It was more scary in some ways, but the injuries were less serious, but it did send another triathon bike into heaven. I wasn’t necessarily scared to ride anymore but at some point (especially with a family) it felt irresponsible, especially if there is no burning passion to justify it.

My bike after a car hit me in 2014

And after 17 years of riding bikes a lot and chasing Ironman dreams, I don’t think the passion was there to justify it. The sport wasn’t teaching me that much about myself anymore and what was left to learn I was realized I wasn’t that interested anymore in putting in all the work it took to figure it out. It was time to let go. The newness was gone and this accident reminded me there is a potential price to pay to play this game and I asked myself if the reward was still worth the risk. The answer was no. Those accidents weren’t the only reason I decided to give up Ironman and all the riding, but they ultimately extinguished the flame.  I do sill ride outside sometimes, but much less often and if I don’t feel like riding I just don’t ride without giving it a second thought.

Time to get high.

I was a bit adrift for a few weeks as I tried to figure out what was next. Taking away triathlon was like taking the drugs away from a druggie. I had been hooked on it for so long that I went through withdrawal. 10-20 hours a week of training for 17 years created, or at least enabled, my endurance addition and now I was looking for my next fix. But what? I had always enjoyed swimming and was pretty good at, but it was always the last priority – an afterthought to things I needed to work on that did not come so easy. Despite not growing up a swimmer or putting in serious work in the pool, being fairly good at it was actually pretty easy (unlike biking and especially running).  The answer was right there. An epic swim race was going to be my next high.

When I first came across this 36 mile Extreme North Dakota Watersports Endurance Test (END-WET) race down the Red River in North Dakota this June (the longest in North America) I immediately dismissed it.  That swim is way too long.  Way too crazy.  But it kept creeping back into my head. Initial thoughts of

“why would I do that?”

were slowly replaced with

“why wouldn’t I do that?”
“why CAN’T I do that?”

I began to swim more just see how my brain responded. Was this miserable or enjoyable? My swim friends saw my swimming extra after practice, but I didn’t dare tell them what I was thinking for fear of looking like a fraud….one of those people who always talks about what they are going to do but rarely ever does it. I didn’t believe yet. I know Crazy Town, USA exists and I feared I was its sole resident. I’d say I was just making up time for a missed workout or trying to work on my stroke. 12,000 yards per week became 20,000 became 30,000. The more I swam the more I wanted to swim. A month earlier a flame went out, but now a new one was raging. I wanted to do this.  I decided I wouldn’t commit to the race until I was consistently hitting 40,000+ yards (25 mile) per week with a weekly 15,000+ yard straight swim. The totals would go up from there, but that would be my launching pad to the really big weeks and give me the confidence I needed commit.  I pushed onward and started hitting those targets weekly.  Some say I’m still living in Crazy Town and if I am, I’m loving the place.

Time to freaking get after it!

I’m a big believer that even the seemingly worst things that happen when given the benefit of time are the basis for something beneficial. I’ve written about that experience several times while racing and experienced in life. No one in their right mind would ask to be hit by a car. I still have pain in my left ribs and foot and some scars on my knee, but that mishap did more than knock me off my bike, it knocked me off my hamster wheel and I’m thankful for that. I re-found my passion for the pursuit of what’s possible. People have asked me if it’s boring to swim so much and for so long. It’s not to me and it’s because I’m passionate about it and if you have a passion for something you will love to do it. I look forward to my weekly 15,000+ yard swims. I can’t wait for 60,000 yard weeks and 25K training swims. I see myself in the race when I close my eyes go to bed and again when I wake up. I’m anxious to get to the painful parts of the race and feel the hurt. Is that crazy? Yes, it probably is, but what can I say, I’m high again.


12.5 Mile Swim Around Key West

On June 22nd, I did a 12.5 mile swim race around the island of Key West in 5 hours and 5 minutes.  It was long and hard (which is pretty normal for a man like me), but in the end it wasn’t too bad.  The water temps were 90 degrees which made me pretty nervous, but it never seemed to bother me.  There wasn’t much interesting to look at in the water and with a personal kayak escort, what I saw on the day mainly went like this: water, kayak, water, kayak, water, kayak, water, kayak, water, kayak [repeat for 5 hours and 5 minutes]…..[bonk] Red buoy!!

My swim training built up to a handful of 12-15K swims with lots of frequency and total yards on my biggest weeks between 40-50K.  I found that once I got to around 40K for a week, I turned into complete idiot in the pool.  How marathon swimmers can get to 80-100K per week is beyond me.  I’m happy to be taking a break from a swim session that involves 600 flip turns!

post swim around key west

Post race back where I started on Smather’s Beach


Got a nice conch shell and mug for my age group award

Bridge to Bridge 10K Swim: The evolution of an endurance athlete


In 2011 I finished my 14th Ironman at Ironman Louisville and haven’t done a triathlon since.  With the coming birth of kiddo number 2, I needed to simplify my life for a while.  I did less training and more exercising in the early months after Cooper was born, but eventually found myself doing more and more trail running.  What had been an interest grew to a borderline obsession and eventually I was training to race again.  I completed a challenging 50K run and finished off the 2012 season with the 50 mile Bear Chase run in Lakewood.  Even in the offseason I was still doing a 20-30 mile run every weekend and looking forward to an even bigger year in 2013. I was evolving from an Ironman distance triathlete to an ultra runner. Well, all that running caught up to me and in early January I developed a stress fracture in my upper femoral neck (the part of the bone that sits in the hip socket). It was painful.  I absolutely couldn’t run.  I walked funny.  I couldn’t swing the kids around. I was stuck.  What to do?

I could swim with no pain and so I did that.  In early January I had been swimming once per week bagging an uninspired 2000 yards or so per swim.  It took a few months just to be able to swim hard on consecutive days, but the yards started adding up and I began to feel I should get something for all the effort besides dry skin.  I delved into a new world…the world of open water swimming.  I had only ever been a swimmer as part of being a triathlete.  To be honest, I had always been a pretty capable and confident triathlete swimmer, but I had never considered myself to be a true “swimmer”.  If you are a triathlete, you always have a built in excuse if you don’t swim well….you’re training for 2 other sports!  As soon as I start signing up for swim races, I need to step up my game. Searching open water race calendars and forums was a little weird at first.  I settled on the Bridge to Bridge race as my first race because the distance would be new to me and I knew the San Francisco area. The swim was 10 kilometers long and started at the Golden Gate Bridge and finished at the Bay Bridge.  It would be cold and there would be currents.  My training added up and my weekly long swims got to, and then beyond, 10K.  This was all a little different.

Map. First we had to swim towards Alcatraz. Then we hug the coast.

Map. First we had to swim towards Alcatraz. Then we hug the coast.

I was nervous about the water temperature, the currents, the distance and even a little about sharks and seals.  I dropped by a Swimming and Boating club near Aquatic Park for a practice swim the day before.  The gentleman who checked me in asked what the race’s “warming strategy” was for after the swim.  I just shook my head and fumbled through a confused response telling him we were just told to bring warm clothes.  He gave me a disappointing look that instantly made me feel unprepared.  Warming strategy?  What is that??  Oh my goodness.  I am in trouble!  I got in the water and was briefly overcome with panic when my face first hit the cold water.  Much of the panic was driven by nervousness, but I really was concerned I might not make it long in the water on race day.

Exiting the boat and swimming to the start line.

Exiting the boat and swimming to the start line.

The morning of the race I hopped on a boat that drove us out the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. I pulled on my wetsuit, neoprene cap and my goggles.  At the very last minute I jammed in some earplugs that they passed out which were supposed to keep the cold water out of your ears and prevent any headaches.  I didn’t really like trying something new on race day but I figured it would be easy to pull them out if they bothered me. I was one of the last few people to jump in the water.  The initial blast of cold water was certainly an attention getter, but the wetsuit took the edge of a real painful entry. I slowly made my way to the start line….a little too slowly I guess because the starting gun went off before I could get there!  From about 20 yards behind, I starting playing catch up. There were definitely some swimmers easing into the race.  I saw lots of backstroke and breaststroke as folks adjusted to the water temperature.  My plan was to start out pretty hard mainly so I could quickly warm up and to keep my mind distracted from feeling cold.  Pretty quickly I was towards the front, but it was very foggy so I couldn’t tell for sure who was ahead of me or where I was going quite frankly.

The race started during a slack tide so there wasn’t much current, but eventually it would start to push us forward. We had been advised to spend 20 minute swimming left (seemingly off course) towards Alcatraz Island to avoid getting caught in an ebb tide near the shore off to our right.  Swimmers stuck there would need to be “repositioned”. I followed a goateed fellow swimmer out towards Alcatraz until a kayaker advised us it was time to start headed back towards the shore.  I had seen one swimmer just ahead of us off to our right, but I lost them.  I figured we were either 1st and 2nd or 2nd and 3rd.  I don’t know what typical conditions in the Bay are, but on this swim it didn’t seem any worse than I had been prepared for.  There weren’t really any winds and other than the low thick fog the conditions seemed pretty good.  There was a chill in the water but it didn’t bother me in the least while swimming.  At one point I was even wishing I didn’t have the neoprene cap on because I felt warm.

Someone (not me) swimming by Alcatraz.

Someone (not me) swimming by Alcatraz.

The pace of the guy I was following seemed slow so I tried a few times to pass and realized it wasn’t as slow as I thought! I settled back in behind him.  For reason known only to God, I kept slipping back and not taking full advantage of the drafting opportunity, so I was probably working almost as hard as he was.  It all started to catch up to me about 45 minutes into the race when it became increasingly difficult to stay with him.    I started to feel better around the 75 minute mark and was thinking of trying to pass him when we hit some serious chop.  Swells lifted us up and dropped us just as quickly.  My long even strokes became disorganized and I got separated from my companion swimmer.  After 5 minutes or so the water calmed down and my swimming mate was about 20 yards to my left.  As we rounded a corner and came back on the same line he was now about 100 yards ahead of me.  He may have swam faster or got a better boost from the current.  It didn’t really matter why, the end result was that he was ahead of me.

After we made that turn the Bay Bridge came into view and it was quite a sight.  Being at water level the bridge seemed oversized and spanned the entire horizon.   The fog had finally lifted and the sun peaked her head out to light up the city and the bridge.  I actually took a brief moment to take it in.  Over the last 30 minutes I tried to catch up to the guy ahead of me and I’d make a little progress here and there, but never got close enough to feel I had a chance.  The current started to pick up a bit as I neared the finish at the bridge and between that and kicking hard for home, I was moving!!  I swam 20-30 feet away from a huge docked cruise ship which was awesome and terrifying at the same time.  I had thoughts of the huge propellers firing up and blowing me away! The final push to the finish buoy seemed to take forever.  The bridge is huge so even from far away it feels like you are pretty close.   I probably had 4-5 all out efforts to get home only to realize I started too soon and was crushed.  I’d recover and make the same mistake all over again.   I finally reach the buoy for a 1:48 swim time and swam over to the finish boat to a hearty round of applause from the spectators.



I was 3rd overall and completely ecstatic about it.  It’s easy to look back and say “of course I could finish”, “of course the cold water wouldn’t bother me”, “of course the currents wouldn’t shoot me off course”, “of course I’d finish well”, but going into it I really feared the opposite of all of those things, so there was a genuine satisfaction there.  Outside of some serious chaffing from my wetsuit around my neck I came out feeling great and ready for the next challenge.  I have just begun to run very very short distances again, but I’m still a ways from off from feeling like a “runner” again, so for the near future I will continue to masquerade as an open water swimmer.  Next stop is a 12 mile swim around Key West in June which will be a 35 degree difference in water temperature   Out of the icebox and into the firebox!  Onward, the next challenge awaits.