Going Right To The Edge In The Open Water

Going Right To The Edge In The Open Water

Could I kill myself doing this?”

ESPN Sport Science host John Brenkus was right on the edge – and he knew it. John openly questioned himself and asked the medical staff during the latter half of the Distance Swim Challenge if he could really die if he went too far.

The doctor said, “You won’t die before you become completely incoherent. Since you’re not there yet, you’re just going to be very uncomfortable.” To which he replied, “I can live with being uncomfortable. I just can’t live with dying.”

Knowing that he was suffering from the distance and the water temperature, and knowing his absolute commitment to complete the Distance Swim Challenge, John’s question was serious. Coming seven days after he completed the grueling Ironman in Hawaii, John had not yet recovered from the full triathlon in extreme heat.

Now he was faced with cold water in a marathon swimming environment that he was unfamiliar with. Additionally, the Distance Swim Challenge included eight ins-and-outs along the 12.6-mile coastal route.

Getting in and out is not easy as all of the competitors learned. Energetic in the first few transition areas, the entire field was dragging towards the end as they struggled up the beach. Swimming into shore is not a problem, but it was the getting back into the water and continuing to swim that was much more difficult physically and mentally.

I decided to go out slowly to conserve energy. But by not exerting myself early on, I got a horrible chill at mile four and just couldn’t shake it. When I was at the check point with 7.8 miles to go, I seriously stood at the edge of the ocean and thought long and hard about quitting. I’ve seriously never been that cold in my life. The medical staff said my body temperature was 91°F (32.7°C), way below hypothermic levels.”

John’s exact course were recorded by his kayaker and channel swimmer Jen Schumacher (indicated by the blue lines along the coast in John’s GPS map above. “Jen told me to set up lots of small goals, just make it to those rocks, then that building. She said the total distance was just a bunch of smaller distances combined. I decided to jump back in the water and to swim harder.”

“But at the next check point, they said my body temperature was 89°F (31.6°C). I had stopped violently shivering because I think my body determined it wasn’t working. I decided to give it one last intense effort. But I knew I had to remain calm. Otherwise, I would start freaking out and that’s not a good thing to do in the ocean. By exerting myself as hard as I could, I somehow warmed up enough to lose the thought of quitting. I’m sure the last 3 miles were my fastest of the day

With the philosophy of helping newcomers try out the sport, the transition area staff allowed John to wrap himself in an emergency blanket and put warm packs in his wetsuit, trying to warm himself back up before entering the water. 8 hours and 35 minutes later, John – like many others who had never swum so far in the ocean – made the 12.6 miles.

The point of the Distance Swim Challenge wasn’t just to get people to swim 12.6 miles. It was to challenge people to achieve what they previously thought was impossible. Seriously, when Alan Morelli first mentioned the swim to me, I had no interest because I didn’t think I could go that far. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to find out for myself what my limits really were.”

“It’s too easy to label something as too hard or even impossible. I never swam growing up. In fact, I didn’t know how to swim until my late 20s. A month ago, I’d never swam more than 2.4 miles. Alan convinced me that if I did three long swims before the event that I could go 12.6 miles. We swam 4, 6 and 10 miles in consecutive weeks

John, with his truly creative view of sports, is warmly welcomed into the marathon swimming fraternity. “I made it, but it was tough. When you stand on the shore and look out at the ocean, you can’t help but to be in awe of its endless power. The ocean represents tranquility, power, mystery and, most of all, life. To sum it up, for me this long swim translates to the following: By calmly conquering the unknown, we all can tap into our inner power and feel truly alive.”

Photos by Howard Jordan. GPS map by Jen Schumacher.

Copyright © 2010 by Open Water Source
Steven Munatones