Coach Craig's Catalina Channel Crossing
Leading up to the swim I had a lot of emotions. It was a surreal experience to think that I had been training for 9 months and the day was finally here. The 6 weeks leading up to the swim I had injured my shoulder. Every swim I was experiencing pain, so that alone made me very nervous about the swim. The swim is hard enough on a good day when you are 100% so going into it injured really hurt my confidence. On the day of the swim, I got up and did some stretching, got some breakfast and did some last minute shopping and prep work for the swim that night. The plan was to meet at the dock at 7pm to board the boat and ship out by 8pm to start around 11pm.
After checking in with my coach, Dan, and my support swimmers, Joe and Rob, I checked the weather one last time. The weather forecast for the night was great and the water was perfect. Around 12pm I ate a very plain high fat high protein lunch which was a can of tuna, a can of potatoes and an avocado. After lunch I went to sleep for about 3 hours. This was about all I could do to try to make sure I was wide awake for the swim late at night. Once I got up I had my last meal before the swim which was the same as lunch, then it was time to shower, pack up and go.
My parents, Joe, Rob and myself piled into the rental car with all the supplies and made our way over to the dock around 6:15pm on July 19th. Once at the dock we met up with Dan and Guy, the other kayaker. There was a slight curve ball thrown my way when we arrived luckily Dan and the crews of the Pacific Star and Bottom Scratcher sorted it out before I got there. Dan gave me an update and basically the Pacific Star engine had flooded and that was the boat I was scheduled to go out with. Luckily there were no swimmers on the Bottom Scratcher so the Pacific Star crew took over the Bottom Scratcher and we went out in the Bottom Scratcher instead of the Pacific Star. I am very appreciated to the owner of the Bottom Scratcher for making this happen otherwise I may not have gotten my chance to swim.
Once everything was sorted, we boarded the Bottom Scratcher and started to get settled in. After we were all on board, I met with Steve and Marc, my CCSF observers. At this point I signed the paper work and then it truly was no turning back. But for me, the no turning back moment was when I applied for the swim back in March. At this point, Marc and Steve did a support crew briefing to explain how the swim would go, the questions they would ask during the swim, what they were looking out for and to learn the roles of everyone on the support crew. Once this was done, I helped my Dad/Crew Chief make sure all the feeds were ready and the plan was all set and talk to the kayakers about my feed plan.
My feed plan was very simple. On the bottom of the hour I took in about 150 calories of Carbo Pro and water. Then on the Top of the hour I took in about 150 Calories of GU Roctane. Every 2.5 hours I would also take in ½ a chocolate chip cliff bar and a bottle of water. At hour 4 I took 2 Tylenol and at hour 8 I took 4 Advil. If I needed an extra boost I would toss in a GU Roctane Gel with Caffeine in it.
The plan was set and everything was in motion so at this point I went to the bunks and tried to sleep. Even though I slept a good chunk of the day, I was still tired because I am an old man and like to go to bed at 9pm. So between the jet lag and it already being late at night, I was tired.
Before I knew it my mom came and woke me up, because it was time to get ready to swim. At this point I was ready to throw up, I’m still not sure if that was because I was nervous or sea sick but it didn’t matter it was time to get in. Just before getting in, I got my lights ready and clipped on my suit and goggles. Everything was on and my dad was greasing me up with a mixture of Lanolin, Vaseline and zinc oxide. Then around 11:10 pm, Dan set off on the kayak and shortly after it was my turn to jump in!
Once I got the clear to jump in, there was a lot running through my head. I was very nervous and it was pitch black. The crew had a spot light shining on the area that I needed to swim to in order for the swim to officially start. They also warned me to watch out for the ropes that mark off the swim zone. So I’m already nervous and now I somehow have to try to not get strangled by ropes in the water in the pitch black. Ya, I am feeling really confident about now. So I jump in and swim to shore. The water felt like a comfortable temperature but I was really cold. This made me even more nervous. I made it to shore, climbed out, got my rock for a souvenir and was ready to start. In order for the swim to start, I had to put both arms up and walk into the water. As soon as my feet hit the water, I had to drop my arms and that started the official swim time. I did what was asked of me and as soon as my feet hit the water my arms dropped to the side and I was off.
The first 30 minutes of the swim was an absolute nightmare for me. I was very nervous and in my own head. The water was high 60s and I was freezing. All year I have been training in water between 55-61 degrees so I was really freaking out. I could not understand why I was so cold when the water was so warm and then I started panicking. How the hell was I going to make it 20 miles if I am freezing in the first 30 minutes. That was problem number 1. Then about 5 minutes in I started having goggle issues. Keep in mind I have been training with these goggles for months. They were filling with water like crazy and I had to keep stopping to fix them. The water in California is much saltier than at home so my eyes were on fire and I couldn’t see anything. This made it extremely difficult to actually see the glow sticks on the kayak and the boat to navigate. I was all over the place, zig-zagging between the kayak and the boat. That was problem 2. As if that wasn’t enough, I started to have issues with my swim cap. This was a cap I have used several times before and it wouldn’t stay on my head. I was really going nuts at this point because it was causing my goggles straps to fall off and make my goggles continue to fill with water. I was so cold and frustrated I refused to stop until 30 minutes. I made it 30 minutes and fixed everything, took my feed and tried to settle down. The good news is that I wasn’t thinking about my shoulder pain because I was having so many other malfunctions.
The next 2.5 hours were bad but not as bad as the first 30 minutes. For me this was the mentally the hardest part of my swim. I was so cold and still could not figure out why and I wanted to quit. I am all for a challenge and I don’t quit. I told myself there were only 2 ways I exit that water. I either make it to mainland and walk out or I get pulled out unconscious. During my mental fart, I kept telling myself that I can’t quit because Joe came all this way and Rob is spending his day off with me and I am going to really be letting them down if I get out before they even get to swim. Then I started thinking about how I would have to explain to everyone at home over and over and over about why I quit. That was a thought that made me sick to my stomach. It certainly would not sit well with me and I don’t have the funds to take another shot at this any time soon so I just kept taking strokes. The next feed came and went. Dammit, I was still cold!
Around the hour mark, the thoughts of how cold I was started to consume me. I was in a really bad place mentally. I took inventory of where I was at physically and I didn’t have a single sign or symptom of hypothermia. I thought how is this possible. I am so cold but am not hypothermic. It was only then that I realized I was cold not because I was really cold but because my mind was telling me that I was tired! I usually go to bed at 10pm EST and at this time it was 12am PST which was 3am EST. At this point my body is usually fast asleep in a warm bed for hours and with jet lag and being up late my body was telling me it is time to sleep so I’m going to make you cold. This made me feel better because I knew this was a mental issue not a physically issue. I was still cold but I knew it was not the type of cold that would put my swim in danger. I just had to stop being a baby and ride it out. At this point I just focused on my stroke and tried to think as little as possible about being cold.
Finally about 90 minutes, I stopped for a feed which included some warm water which I drank and dumped on myself and it felt amazing. I also was met by my support swimmer Rob. This was perfect timing. Instead of focusing on my stroke or being cold I could just swim and enjoy the company in the water. The water was pitch black and so was the sky. I could see nothing but the glow sticks on the boat, the kayak and on Rob’s head. So during this hour I literally could see nothing but glow sticks which was kind of cool. I was swimming much straighter and the zig zagging had stopped. I was still cold but it was becoming manageable. Before I knew it the hour was up and it was time for another feed and for Rob to leave me. Once my head popped up, I heard a song from college blasting form the boat. Joe brought a speaker to keep me going during feeds. Joe, Rob and I were all having a great time doing a little dance, laughing and enjoying the experience. It was so dark I don’t think anyone could see the dancing but it really helped snap me out of my funk. I knew there was a reason I wanted Joe and Rob as my support swimmers and this was it. The energy they brought to the boat was amazing. Here it is 1:30am in the middle of the ocean and Joe was blasting music having a great time. This got everyone on the boat up and having fun. After about 60 seconds by feed was over and it was time to start swimming again.
At this point I was just thinking “just make it to the next feed.” That is exactly what I did. I tried to focus on my stroke as much as possible and nothing else. An extremely fun experience that I noticed around the first hour through the rest of the night was the bioluminescence. My arms and the bubbles with every pull lit up the water. It was just the coolest thing to see. The water was pitch black. When I looked down all I saw was darkness and then flashes of light every time my arms took a stroke. Focusing on this was very meditative and I started to enjoy the experience more so. Swimming at night, other than being tired, was so cool and this was just the icing on the cake. Around this point in the swim, I was getting stung by something. I don’t know if it was jellies or something else. The stings didn’t hurt much and the pain didn’t last like a normal jelly fish. Who knows this all could have been in my head, but the I actually liked the pain from the stings. It kept me awake and allowed me to focus on something other than the cold. This stinging only last about 30 minutes and brought me to the 3 hour mark.
At 3 hours it was time for kayak switch. Dan was out and Guy was in. At this point I took an additional GU Roctane Gel with caffeine and this was the best decision I made the entire swim. The caffeine woke me right up and the cold feeling instantly went away. I was awake finally after being a pathetic mental wimp for 3 hours. For 3 hours all I wanted to do was quit, but I refused to let myself. If I had quit, then all those weekends that my parents and wife gave up to help me train would have been for nothing. I had a boat of people who would have spent half the night wasting their time and staying up late if I quit and I would have let down so many people. I was ecstatic to be done with that part of the swim. Now that I was feeling better, I put my head down and I was off.
At the next feed, it was Joe’s turn to be the support swimmer. I was terrible with listening to the feed signal this entire time. Basically in order to get my attention because it was so dark, the kayakers had to scream and just about ram me with the kayak to get me to stop. So hour 3.5 they get me to stop and my head pops up and as I am feeding I hear Joe yell out my name and jump in the water. He was definitely excited and ready to go! But as soon as he surfaces you hear him yell “Oh no, I lost my goggles. They fell off!” It is pitch black and there are no lights because it is 2:30am. One of the crew members grabs a spot light and tries shining it where Joe jumped in trying to help him find the goggles. Joe thought he saw them, so he divided down into the darkness then surfaced a few seconds later with his hands empty. His goggles now belonged to Davy Jones and sunk into the abyss. After he pops up, I heard Rob yell out “Good job Joe, you are blowing the swim!” which got me laughing. Joe said he was fine and didn’t need goggles so he came next to me and we were off. Joe only had a light on his waist not both his head and waist, so it was hard to tell if he was with me or not but he went to the Rio Olympics for the USA for Triathlon and he swam with Rob and myself at Boston College, so I knew he would survive. We swam the next hour together and then joe was out and I was back on my own.
As I was swimming, I started to get into a rhythm. I enjoyed how dark it was both in the water and in the air. Even though it made you feel insignificant and alone, it never bothered me because I knew I had my crew supporting me and they cheered for me throughout the night. Over the next few hours, the water remained black but the sun started to rise. Rob got in for his second shift and I think it was at this point I heard them playing the song “Good Morning Sunshine” from the boat. That gave me another good laugh. At this point we were about half way done with the swim and my injured shoulder started to give me some trouble. It was painful but manageable at this point, but I wasn’t thinking about it. I was just so happy that the sun was coming up. It gave me an extra boost of energy and once I enjoyed seeing around me for a second, Rob and I were back at it. I felt like I was making no progress and it really didn’t help when Rob would flip over on his back and hang with me doing backstroke. I thought for sure I was going nowhere. We made it the hour and Guy, kayaker, said I was swimming at a good clip and my stroke looked great. Little did he know that the shoulder pain was starting to increase. Before Rob left the water he said something about me being happy that the sun was coming out. All I remember was that my response was “That was the longest night of my life.” Who knew that 6 hours could feel like an eternity! Rob got in the boat and the kayakers switched and I was off again.
From this point on, I felt as though my swim was unraveling. Every time my left arm took a stroke, it was a grinding pain. I knew all the power was coming from my right side and I was basically swimming with one arm. At the next feed, I came up and asked Guy if I made any progress and he assured me I was swimming great. My stroke rate when I started the swim was 65 stroke per minute and only dropped to 62 strokes per minutes over the course of the 7 hours. Because of this and the fact that I was in good spirits almost every feed thanks to my support crew, no one knew how much pain my shoulder was in. But pain is my thing. I usually don’t mind it. I can grind it out and handle it. I felt like I was going nowhere and as the time went on the pain just got worse and worse but I told myself just get to the next feed and you can stretch.
After an hour by myself, it was time for Joe to jump back in for his second shift. He entry this time was much more successful. He was able to keep all his gear on this time around. I don’t remember what was said at this feed but he was excited to swim in the day light and I was excited he was in the water so I could enjoy the company and hopefully not think about the pain in my left shoulder. Apparently, I was slowing down, because Joe started to do some back stroke at some points and kicking my butt. My shoulder was hurting way too much for me to even care, I just tried to keep my head down and grind out stroke after stroke. It was at this point that I started seeing tanker ship after tanker ship fly by us. They were big and they were not stopping. Our timing must have been impeccable because we didn’t have any close calls with the big boats.
At this point land was close and I was 9 hours into the swim but I had no clue how far we were or how much longer. I didn’t ask for the distance at any point in the swim until now. Even at this point I didn’t ask the distance, I asked roughly how much longer. Dan told me I need to keep pushing because I was swimming against the current and to plan for about 2 more hours of swimming. Even though at this point my arm was pulling no water, I thought to myself I can handle 2 hours. I never asked the distance because if at hour 5 he told me 6 hours to go, I would have probably lost my mind. Hearing 2 hours left is way better than hearing 6 hours left. Some people like to know but I am not one of those people. I figured if I just kept moving my arms, I would eventually beach myself like a whale! Amazingly, even with my arm not really working I was still laughing with the crew and my stroke rate was still 61 strokes per minutes. I felt really good aside from the one shoulder which was encouraging. At this point I was making it to Rancho Palos Verde, I just wasn’t sure if I was going to be using both arms or one arm. Nothing was going to stop me!
It was at this point that I needed to stop to stretch more often than every 30 minutes. I made the call to chunk the swim up into 15 minutes segments and do my feeds every 15 minutes. I didn’t need the fuel because I felt fine, I needed to 20 second break to stretch. Right after the first 15 minutes, I saw everyone on my boat run to the other side and basically abandon me and Guy. After what felt like 15 minutes went by I started to get pissed off because I knew it was time to stop, but I wasn’t allowed until the Kayaker gave the boat a 2 minute warning. There was no one on my side of the boat to hear the warning. Finally they all come back and apparently there was a large pod of dolphins swimming by the other side of the boat. The pictures were cool but I was too busy swimming to see it.
An hour of feeds went by and land was getting closer…kind of. All of a sudden I hear a splash and I see Rob in the water with me and then I look up and see Joe flying in the water right behind him. This was the last leg. We were in the last mile and I had Joe and rob swimming next to me. I was starting to get a little emotional because I could see the landing point very clearly and I was finishing unless I got hit by a boat or attacked by an animal. 9 months of training and 19 miles of swimming was done and only 25-30 minutes to left. I took a feed and started swimming with the crew. 15 minutes later I took my last feed and I thought how could this be the last feed, I am so far away. It seemed like land would never come no matter how hard I would try to. Sure enough it was my last feed and as I was swimming closer and closer to the beach I still had Rob and Joe with me but then I saw my coach Dan swimming on my other side and my dad was in the water swimming along side. This was the most amazing feeling to be able to finish with the people who worked so hard to get me here. My mom would have been swimming right next to me but someone had to video the finish, so she sacrificed herself to stay on board and film.
The last 15 yards were interesting to say the least. It was not really a beach. It was more like a ton of rocks and kelp that were 3 feet deep and you had to glide over them until the surf pushed you in. My exit was far from graceful. I beached myself on a rock like 5 feet from the exit. The rock had slippery kelp on it and I slid right off it back in the water and finally stumbled out of the water. I had done it! All the pain was gone and I felt great. I had done what I trained and set out to do so many months and miles ago. On the beach I hugged my dad and we took pictures and enjoyed the moment. It felt really special. It may have been the first time one of my physical goals actually merited being proud of. This was a feeling of accomplishment like no other. After all the pictures and videos I found a rock as a souvenir for my finish and we swam back to the boat.
At this point my left arm wasn’t working. I couldn’t lift my arm even 2 inches off my side so it was a one arm swim to the boat. My mom was waiting on the boat to help us get on board and then I was quickly taken by the observers to sit and make sure I was okay. After that I had to clean up some battle wounds I got while trying to exit the water. Then it was time for pictures by the lighthouse on the way back to the marina. Once I got my phone I saw that Joe and Rob had made a bunch of videos documenting the swim and giving commentary. The videos were absolutely hysterical and were a real treat post swim! Once back to the marina it was time to go back to the hotel, clean up and pass out.
This swim was an amazing experience for me. It would not have been possible without a strong support crew. There are so many people that I owe a thank you to. First and foremost my supportive wife who let me take on this crazy challenge and stayed up all night texting the crew making sure I was safe. She was also one of my main kayakers during many of my training swims. I need to thank my parents who were my crew chiefs during the swim and spent weekends kayaking for me during training. Joe Maloy and Rob Keely were amazing support swimmers, who kept me motivated through the swim but also made sure I had fun even when I was suffering. They really kept me going the entire swim. I want to thank my coach and kayaker Dan Simonelli for putting together a thorough training plan that more than adequately prepared me for the swim and for being able to kayak for me during my swim. Guy Morgan was my other kayaker who really kept my spirits and confidence up and he took some great videos along the way. I also need to thank some of my swim buddies and kayakers who helped me train at home which include Ken, Mike, Will, Jaclyn, Dave and Kim.The two lifeguards, at Lifetime Westwood, Gio and Ron were always there for me and probably watched more swimming than anyone. They really took an interest in this attempt and became friends in the process. It was much easier going to the pool in the morning when I knew I would be greeted by one of them. Both amazing people and I never drowned so they definitely did their jobs! Peter Zeiger and Crimson Aquatics were extremely supportive of this goal and the first to know about this endeavor. Peter took an interest right away and was a greatly appreciated sponsor. I am so very thankful for his support. Finally I was lucky to enough to have the support from a few companies that made training and fueling the swim a little bit easier. Thank you New Wave Swim Buoy for the buoys and bright caps, Pepper Togs for the amazing swim suits, Finis for the great training aids and GU for all the nutrition for my training and feeds during my swim.
Lastly, watching all of my Endurance Swimming athletes, strive for and reach your goals motivated me to take on the Catalina Channel Swim. So thank you for all of your motivation and support.
As you can see this was not a solo effort. Everyone played an instrumental role and for this I can’t thank you all enough. Without the help and support of all of you, this swim would not have been possible so thank you!