I was a runner for over 20 years. Between my own running and coaching others, my world revolved around running. I loved it. But in the last few years, my body had stopped loving it. I had chronic back pain. Then there was the pandemic. And I pivoted, hard (just like everyone else). Once I had some space and time to reflect, I found myself naturally easing off the road and into the water. Back to swimming.
This is the story of how I re-found my joy of swimming. And how that joy led me to swim my very first marathon (10k swim).
I’ve always loved the water.
There’s something magical and surreal about being in the water. The way the water feels on my skin, and the silence under the water, shutting out the noise of the world around me. The weightlessness, physical and metaphorical, and the peace it brings.
Growing up I did the typical swim lessons (though I did fail the “maroon” level several times for reasons I can’t recall). I even joined the local swim club for a season, but it wasn’t for me. My only clear memory from swim club is coming last in a race and being absolutely gutted and mortified. In spite of my maroon failures and swim club flop, I still loved the water and retained the fundamentals of swimming. Such that when I decided I wanted to explore triathlon at the age of 19, I had the skills.
The open water brought me back to that magical surreal feeling I recalled as a child. I felt so free in the open water.
But real life meant running was my priority.
Though I did many triathlons between ages 19 and 28 (including Ironman), post kids I was more focused on running. In many ways, it was easier. Just lace up and you’re out the door. I ran on the road, on the trail, and led running clinics for all levels (like I said, my world kind of revolved around running). And I loved the community of running. The social aspect of running brought me so much joy. And I loved chasing down goals and helping others do the same. There’s something so rad about conceiving this idea, putting in the work, and then achieving it. It’s so rewarding – both mentally, and physically.
But over time, my body liked it less and less.
Due to some pelvic floor dysfunction and chronic back pain, running was no longer joyful. It was painful. And while there were options (surgical) that didn’t involve quitting running, ultimately I came to realize there were other sports I loved – including swimming. And giving up running, while tough, wasn’t the end, but rather a new chapter.
It was a choice grounded in body respect. Because this body of mine, she’s the only one I’ve got. And I want to go on adventures with her for many years to come.
A return to the water.
For the last several summers I’ve been back in the water and loving it. Even prior to my exit from running, I would start in May, swimming with the sunrise swimmers (adults group with the boys’ summer swim club), and in the open water. Then it was mostly casual, and I’d often skip the pool come winter when my running and fitness classes picked up.
Once I quit running I had more time and energy for swimming. And it felt fabulous (no back pain – go figure!). So I started swimming more consistently.
In the spring of last year, I was consistently swimming 3 days per week at the pool and lake. I built up to my usual summer goal of a lap of the lake (about 1.5-1.8k depending on how “straight” you swim) fairly early, and I got to thinking.
I wonder if I could do 2 laps? Then, once I achieved that, I wondered, could I do 4?
It felt like a fun goal to chase. I missed that aspect of running. I love the pursuit of a goal and the focus and rewards it offers me. And with swimming – I didn’t pay a physical price. It felt like a win-win!
After some more exploring on the web, I discovered a 10k swim was considered a swim marathon. I’d never done a running marathon outside of the one Ironman triathlon I did – and that was 20 years ago. The idea lit a flame.
I decided to go for it. By my calculations, if I just added a kilometer each week I could be at a 10k swim by August. Cool! I was inspired and excited about “training” for something again.
My body had other plans.
I got to the 6k mark in my training and was well on my way to that 10k swim goal. Sadly, my enthusiasm had gotten the better of my exercise physiology wisdom, and I’d failed to add mileage gradually enough. And my body, she was talking to me. Frankly, I was feeling a bit broken. I hadn’t done all things I know to do (and tell my clients to do), and my shoulders weren’t thrilled.
In spite of my shoulders not being thrilled I planned to continue (have I mentioned I’m stubborn? Or as I like to call it persistent and determined?!). Then, I badly injured my rib waterskiing and I was out of pretty much everything for 6 weeks.
To some, this injury might seem random. But I knew in my heart it wasn’t. I was overtrained and my body was fatigued. Trying a new sport threw her over the edge (a tough lesson in body respect that often needs to be learned more than once).
Turns out ribs are pretty instrumental in just about everything – especially swimming. That was it for my open water swimming for the year. I was disappointed, but also knew it was for the best. My shoulders needed more time to acclimate and I needed to train smarter (you’d think a coach would have innately known this the first time, but it turns out we’re humans too!).
The coach gets a coach.
Healed and back in the water that Fall, I crossed paths online with Susan Simmons. She joined me as a guest speaker for the Crew to speak about cold water dipping and her swim adventures and I was immediately inspired by her attitude and approach. I asked her if she’d consider coaching me towards this 10k swim goal.
She enthusiastically agreed and shared that she wanted to gift me this training as part of a community she was creating to give back. She was calling it “Swim Gift” and that community has been a true gift indeed.
What has ensued is a lovely friendship and incredible support! I’ve been blessed to share a few swims with her, and have deeply appreciated her guidance and inspiration. It’s also been incredible to witness fellow Swim Gift members achieve their goals – everything from 1k open water swims to 10k swim marathons (myself and a few others!), and everything in between. The community aspect I loved about running, there it was again. Full circle.
Training officially began in January and guided by Susan, and included three swims per week at the pool. Two days per week I swam drills (provided by Susan), and one day per week I swam for time with the goal of covering as many meters as possible in the time allotted (again guided by Susan). I also walked the dog regularly, did some light cross training lifting weights, cycling (indoors and out), and a bit of yoga.
I also kept up my cold water dips 1-3 times per week to help with my acclimation to the cold water. Which turned out to be very helpful!
Typically I’m in the lake by May, but this year the cool spring temperatures prevented the lake from warming up and kept most of us swimmers out of the lake until June. When I started my lake swims this year the lake was still very cold (about 10-12 degrees celsius). In many of those early June days, I was the lone swimmer in “skins” (most opting for a wetsuit, and thermal skullcap).
Once I was in the lake, the distance started picking up. By the end of June, I was already nearing the 5-6k mark. In endurance training achieving the 60% mark is a milestone. If you can do 60% of the distance, theoretically your body can do the full distance (it might not be pretty, but it’s possible). I was feeling great and thrilled to be here, but also a bit sad that I’d be reaching my distance this soon because I was legit having so much fun!
Then I fell and hurt my rib (yes, again).
This time I was playing tag and tripped. It was just an unfortunate accident.
This time I was only out of the water for a week. Partly due to it being a less severe injury, partly because I wasn’t overtrained and my body had more bandwidth to heal (at least that’s my theory).
Though I was back in the water about 10 days after the injury, I couldn’t effectively push effort with my upper body, so it was a lot of kick drills (not my fave). But I persisted. And my sunrise swim coaches with the Nanaimo White Rapids were awesome. Side note: if you ever have the chance to swim in an outdoor pool near sunrise it’s magical – do it!
By late July I was back in my rhythm and ready to rebuild distance. Week over week I added moderate distance, with a few intentional recovery weeks, and I felt phenomenal. I was so in awe of my body and all she was doing! The foundation I built starting in January paid off and I knew that come to the end of August I would be ready.
I scheduled my swim for Saturday, August 27th.
Which felt momentous.
Three years ago on this exact date, as I was washing off my feet after a swim, I was stung by a wasp. Not knowing I was severely allergic, I headed home, irritated by the small welt and throbbing pain.
Unbeknownst to me, the sting triggered a significant internal allergic response. Part way through the drive home I realized I was in significant trouble. I was not going to get home. I needed help, now.
As I pulled over and called 9-1-1 I didn’t know how things would end. I couldn’t see, and could only hear. I felt confused and disoriented. By the time the paramedics arrived I was nearly unconscious and my blood pressure was 60/0 (“normal” is 120/80, for reference).
One shot of epinephrine, nothing. Fear and panic set in. I am not ready to go! Visions of my husband and kids flashed through my mind. Tears rolled off my cheeks. I was terrified. The paramedic coached me to breathe.
Just breathe. Have faith. Just breathe.
Second shot, and I came around.
This experience left me with an incredible sense of awe and appreciation for my body. She is a fighter. She is strong and resilient.
I also felt a deep sense of gratitude and an overwhelming sense of just how lucky I was.
I am lucky.
That sting was the start of a long and winding road to being diagnosed with Indolent Systemic Mastocytosis. A rare disease that causes the body to produce an excess of Mast Cells which wreak havoc in your body. Including causing extreme anaphylaxis and the resulting potentially lethal drop in my blood pressure I experienced.
At first glance, learning you have a rare incurable disease doesn’t seem “lucky.” But to me, it is.
I have the indolent or slow-growing form of this disease. The chance of it taking my life is very low (there’s only a 3-5% my disease will progress to the terminal kind). I also have relatively few symptoms in the grand scheme of things. I can mostly eat normally, and am high functioning.
Is it frustrating at times? Yes. I have challenging symptoms that I deal with daily that interfere with the quality of my life. I have to cart a small pharmacy, including two epi-pens wherever I go and sadly the medications I’m on still haven’t totally dealt with all the symptoms.
But I can choose to focus on those frustrations and my symptoms, or I can focus on what is great.
And there is a lot that is great.
I get to live. To be here – with my husband and kids. And do this work I’m so passionate about. I get to challenge my body, do hard things and live this life. And I am not going to take that for granted. Ever again.
So this swim was about challenging my body, yes. But it was also about celebrating her. Celebrating the journey we’ve been on (and continue to be on), together.
And on August 27th, 2022, with these lessons of living in tow, we did it! My body and I swam 10k – together!
Swimming 10k: a celebration of my body.
The night before a big event is generally not awesome (at least for me). All night I could hear the wind chimes outside our master bedroom window clashing and chiming. The wind. My mind worried. What will conditions be like? I slept restlessly. I had odd dreams. Anxious dreams about not being able to find my crew amidst a crowd. As if I was at a big event, not a personal event at a quiet lake.
I woke in a quiet dark house. Relieved that I’d found sleep, at least for a bit. Still tired, but knowing it was time. Here we go…
It was just me and the dog in all his early morning enthusiasm. I stuck to my long swim routines (advice I always give clients). I had my peanut butter and banana toast, and water, and packed up my food for the swim. Four gels, some chopped-up energy bars, and two bottles of electrolytes. I also packed some pre-workout drink for the drive to the lake.
On the drive to the lake, I listened to the “Feelin’ Good” playlist on Spotify. The second song on the list is “This will be (An Everlasting Love)” by Natalie Cole. It’s one of the songs on my body gratitude playlist – an athem to this blessed body of mine. I sang along enthusiastically and loudly. Then came “Drift Away” by Dobie Gray (more on that later).
As I drove up the hill to the lake I looked at the trees. Did they sway with wind? Yup. Hmm. As I drove into the nearly empty parking lot, sun just coming up, I said a prayer as I turned to look at the lake, “please be calm, please be calm.” I looked to the lake. Riples at the shore.
Just breathe. Have faith. Just breathe.
I was greeted at the beach by my SUP support and dear friend Kelly and my fab swim and cold water dipping friends Breanne, Megan, and their Mom Robbie. An epic cheer squad to send me off on my big swim.
Looking out at the lake I wasn’t sure about the chop. So often the front half of the lake will be calm or light ripples, but the back half can be surprisingly rough – even with white caps. If you can see the movement of the water near the shore, you know that’s the case.
This was one of those days.
But I knew I could do it. I’d swum much rougher conditions. In the last few weeks of training, including one long swim I’d persisted through whitecaps, and I had confidence I could swim through it, safely.
Just breathe. Have faith. Just breathe.
The swim begins.
As I toed into the water the emotions rose up. Tears welled.
I wanted to allow these powerful feelings, to be with this moment, but also knew you can’t swim and cry (it really fogs your goggles).
I joked Bre, Megan, and Robbie, took a deep breath and dove in.
On the stretch from the first bouy out from the beach to the one accross the lake, the waves were slow and undulating. A marker for what might come to be. I tried to remain present and settle into my rhythm.
1-2-3-breathe-1-2-3-breathe. First buoy. Hard right turn. You can do hard things.
She was choppy. On the entire back half of the lake the chop required very intentional breathing to avoid a mouth or nose of lake. And I wasn’t always successful.
(Looking at my swim stats my pace slowed at that turn from a 2:15-2:20/ 100m to a 2:38-2:42/ 100m.)
Just keep swimming.
This chop isn’t happening to you. It’s happening for you. You can do this.
The front half of the lake calmed. As I came to the end of my first lap I could hear cheers from the shore and dock. Megan and Robbie were out on the dock, and Breanne was on the beach with others (I couldn’t see who, but the display of support bouyed my spirit). As I took a swig of electrolytes, I checked in on Kelly to if she feeling ok (I was genuinely concerned about her capsizing due to the chop). She said she was just fine, and to focus on me.
Belly and spirit fuelled, I headed off for lap 2, Kelly by my side.
The undulating first leg and choppy second and third continued. I reframed it as an adventure. Wheeee. I kept swimming.
Near the shore again headed into the last leg of the loop I spotted my second SUP support, Danielle, joining us.
I popped up and said hi between strokes. She said, “is it ok if I take photos? I have my camera!” I have the best friends! Are you kidding? YES! I’ve included a few of the 50 shots she took in this post.
More fuel, this time a gel, and more electrolytes. I’m a heavy sweater and have come to know I need mostly electrolytes and very little water to maintain my electrolyte balance. The gift of body wisdom from years in endurance running helps in the water too. This is especially helpful because all your evidence of sweat and salt is lost in the water.
I headed into my third lap. It was still undulating. Still choppy. This time it felt less fun, and more daunting. I felt a bit seasick. My mind jumped ahead. Was the whole swim going to be like this? Would it get worse yet?
STOP. Just keep swimming.
I prayed it would settle. But also knew…
This is the journey.
It’s not always glassy calm waters, is it? In fact, it rarely is. As I counted my strokes, and listened to my breath, I felt an overwhelming sense of awe and appreciation for my body and this journey we were on together.
I thought about the journey that brought me here – not just the last few years but my whole life. I thought about my resilience and mental toughness and shifted my focus to my strength and perseverance.
Thinking about all the people who have supported me on this journey brought me joy. My family, Susan, my incredible cheer squad on the beach (who I came to know was Breanne, Megan, Robbie, Heather, Paulina, Susan, Meredith, Erin, Sue, Donna, Mike, and Chase), my SUP supporters paddling beside me.
When I would swim long solo in training I’d often use stroke affirmations. One word per stroke. Whatever I I needed to hear. During my 10k swim it was Peace. Joy. Freedom. (breathe). REPEAT. Or Strength. Courage. Wisdom. (breathe). REPEAT.
I sang songs. Circle of Life from the Lion King (don’t ask me why). The long way around (by the Chicks)…definitely appropriate. And Drift Away (I told you I’d come back to this).
The only lyrics I could recall from Drift Away were “Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul.” It felt resonant and appropriate. Settle into the beat. The rhythm of the swim. 1-2-3-Breathe. 1-2-3-Breathe…..
I reminded myself repeatedly: you can do hard things.
Take that choppy, not ideal waters. This body of mine, she’s a fighter. And she will persevere. We will persevere.
And then like magic, or divine intervention (thanks for the prayers Heather), the waters calmed. The blue sky prevailed. The sun shone.
The swim continued. Danielle took photos. I felt so seen, so supported, so loved.
Into the 4th lap my left rear deltoid muscle (shoulder) started bugging me. This was new. My mind went to the worst of places (it always does). This is bad. This is a bad injury. I’m not going to finish. Or I’ll be injured for months. I caught myself.
STOP. Reset. Redirect.
I played the mental game. You can focus on what is bugging you, or you can focus on what feels awesome. Breathe in what you need, exhale what you don’t. Feel the water supporting your body, the glorious sun shining down, and the views around you. You. are. blessed.
The pain went away (or at least out of my consciousness).
I kept swimming.
Late in my fourth lap my final SUP support Heather arrived. I couldn’t believe we were this close…and yet still so far (2 more laps to go). Head down and swim.
Focus. Listen to your breath and bubbles. Notice the drops of water falling from your arm with each stroke. My friend Thea was right, the look like sparkles in the sunshine. I admired the beauty around me.
I continued on.
Each time I returned near the first beach I could hear my cheer squad from shore. Not entirely knowing who it was, I just soaked up the love as I fuelled my body.
Five laps down, one to go.
The water was now relatively calm. But I was getting tired. I felt like I was swimming through molasses at times. I felt so slow. Heather kept telling me how strong I looked.
My mind went to the “this is hard, you can’t do this” place. I checked it.
YES. YOU. CAN.
Nearing the first buoy, I realized that I could simply head to the second buoy and then double back and that would be my distance.
Note: doing math during endurance events is never ideal. Brains don’t work their best as your body fatigues.
There were a couple of extra pauses and double backs, but while it was a mildly erratic route…it got me there.
10km swim complete!
(actually, 10.07km and we’re absolutely counting).
I came into a crowd of some of my favourite humans. My hubby Mike, and son Chase (my eldest was home sick), friends, former run mates, and swim buddies. It was pretty amazing to share the epic day with these rad humans.
A stranger walked up to us and said she was emotional just witnessing everything. She asked what I’d done, and my crew chimed in quickly “she just swam 10km!!! She swam for over 4 hours!”
(4 hours, 26 minutes, and 29 seconds – to be exact)
I felt proud. Accomplished. Grateful. Humbled. Happy. Elated. Thrilled. And just a little bit sad it was over (which I know is just fuel for the next adventure, exactly what I always tell clients).
What I’ve learned.
This journey to swim 10k, both the getting there and the day itself, was a metaphor for life. Perhaps that’s what I love about endurance events. They give you the opportunity to get connected and stay connected to the important stuff. Insight into what you’re capable of. Reverence for the process. Gratitude for the opportunity. And a deep appreciation for the folks that helped you get there. Speaking of…
Thank you to those who helped me get here.
Dreams like this don’t happen alone. They take community. To my brilliant coach Susan and her inspiring Spirit Orcas (especially Meliah and Ben whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, and swimming with!), I’m grateful beyond words. Your incredible Swim Gift gave me such a tremendous life experience, and I will never forget your generosity and warmth.
Thank you to the coaches from the Nanaimo White Rapids Adult Sunrise Swim and to my incredible swim friends who I’ve had the pleasure of seeing at the pool or lake at training sessions along the way: Adrienne, Erica, Donna, Lindsay, Megan, Breanne, Thea, Krista, Kelly, Elise, Deb, and folks from the Nanaimo White Rapids sunrise swims!
Thank you to my epic race day cheer squad: Breanne, Megan, Robbie, Heather, Paulina, Susan, Sue, Meredith, and Erin – your love and encouragement could be felt across the lake.
Thank you also to the many folks who sent me heartfelt messages of support and encouragement for my big day and congratulatory messages after. The stories you shared with me lifted my heart beyond words. I had no idea how many people have been following my Journey to 10k swim stories on social media – and how many folks have gotten into the water or tried something new inspired by my swims.
I’m humbled, truly.
To my epic SUP support crew – you ladies fuelled me physically and spiritually – thank you doesn’t cut it! Knowing you were there made a world of difference to me (and put my worried momma’s mind at ease too).
Thank you to my husband Mike for moral and logistical support. It’s not easy to have three swimmers in the house with big goals, and he takes it in stride!
And thank you to my kids, Connor and Chase. As a teen and pre-teen, you don’t always like me shouting you out, but I’m going to anyway. You’re a huge inspiration to me. Your dedication, commitment, and joy for swimming inspire me every day. My hope is that in seeing me bring my wild dreams to life, you realize that you too can do whatever you set your mind to do! Swim on my little fish!
Time will tell, but I know I’ve found a passion in marathon swimming. There are a few formal races on my bucket list, but I’m going to rest, soak up the beauty of this experience, and let my intuition and body guide me to what’s next. Because if I’ve learned nothing else, I can trust her. She and I are one badass team.
What I hope you hear in my 10k swim experience:
- Radical acceptance of what is can be a powerful place to live from. This is, now what? What do I choose to do from here?
- Everything doesn’t happen for a reason. There’s no magic in a crappy diagnosis, illness, or really hard times (that’s toxic positivity). But as an individual, finding meaning in the shitty situations you face, can make the experience less shitty, and possibly even rewarding and joyful, but more likely neutral.
- Crappy things happen to rad people. All the time. And, there is an opportunity to grow in the crap. I mean, there’s a reason we use manure to fertilize crops, right?!
- Before you find that meaning and grow, give yourself permission to notice the crap, grieve it, feel the feels before you search for meaning or it’ll feel like slapping a toxic positivity affirmation on the pile of crap (this is all part of that radical acceptance and neutrality).
- Letting go of what was, can create space for joyousness and experiences you quite possibly never imagined.
- What you focus on grows. Align your perspective accordingly. Especially if you find yourself focused on the crap.
- Your body isn’t your enemy, she’s your ally. And she’s here to do cool things with you. Befriend her. Get to know her. Listen to her. Honour her. Challenge her. She’s the only one you’ve got.
- You can do hard things. Really. You can.