Friday, October 29, 2010

Swimming to the Other Side

Elaine Howley is a freelance writer and Masters swimmer living in the Boston area. She is a frequent contributor to SWIMMER magazine. Look for her to attempt a 44-mile swim around Long Beach Island in New Jersey and a double crossing of the Straits of Gibraltar in 2011. For more information or to keep up with what’s next, visit Howley’s blog, “Tales of the Beer Baby” at:

Some highlights from her swimming resume include:

· Record-holder for fastest Boston Light “Double,” a 16-mile out-and-back swim across the Boston Harbor (between L-Street and Little Brewster Island). Second female to ever complete the course and first tandem solo swim. Completed on August 12, 2010 in 7:07:48, breaking the 41-year-old record by 2 hours, 23 minutes.

.Current National Athlete of the Month for Strength USA

· Successful solo crossing of the English Channel, England to France, completed August 3, 2009, in 13 hours, 55 minutes,

· Eighth female finisher, 17th overall, at the 2009 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim held June 6, 2009, in New York City. Completed the 28.5-mile circumnavigation in 8 hours, 39 minutes, 50 seconds,

· 158th person to successfully cross the Catalina Channel on September 22, 2008 in a time of 10 hours, 57 minutes, 44 seconds,

In July 1984, at just eight years of age, I lost my little sister to Leukemia. She was only three years old, and I had been the bone marrow donor in the transplant that signaled a last-ditch attempt to save her life. I was devastated and felt inadequate for what I perceived as a failure of excruciating magnitude. I felt like I’d let my sister down in the highest stakes game there is, and I still struggle to articulate how that’s influenced who I’ve become.

After my sister died, I drew in on myself and muddled along in a fog. It was a tough time. But there were two things that got me through it: music and swimming. I eventually swam up on the other side of that deep, dark ditch.


Despite the difficulties associated with the terminal illness and loss of a child, my parents strove to provide the most stable, normal childhood for me and my brother, full of all the same wonders and growing pains that any other children in our suburban Philadelphia community were experiencing. I learned to swim at 18 months and spent long summers playing at the local pool. My family would spend a week at the Jersey shore every summer in a neighbor’s second home. There, I learned to read the waves and lose myself in the lap of the ocean and the tang of the salt. Sunburned and blonde, we’d sadly leave the shore for another interminable fall and winter, but always with the promise that we would, eventually, get back to the beach for more ocean time.

All these years later, it’s the promise of more ocean time that gets me through so many of life’s trials. From the mundane of work stress and deadlines to the more dramatic—the loss of my father, moving, starting a new job, and every other problem that arises— the water is a place for me to reconnect with myself and focus on the bigger picture.

Proving Myself in Competition

I started competitive swimming at age five, largely to follow in the footsteps of an accomplished older brother who is an excellent swimmer. Sibling rivalry dictated that I should hurl myself into the sport with everything I had, and I obliged. I’ve never really been able to extricate myself from the pull of the water, nor would I want to. It’s the swimming that keeps me sane.

I swam in high school and in college, and loved being a part of a team and ready-made family that made such a difference in my acclimation to both new institutions. After college, I joined the Peace Corps and swimming became much more difficult, so I drifted away from it and from the lane line that kept my life on track. It took a long while of struggling, but I eventually found my way back to the pool, and after grad school, I sought a new challenge. Open water marathoning seemed like just the right combination of spiritual release and athleticism, of peace and competition.

I entered my first race, the 2006 8-mile Boston Light Swim, on a dare. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to finish that first Boston Light Swim. I trained well for it, but knew next to nothing about nutrition or what to expect. I did my homework and tested my limits in training. Still, despite the hard work, I was astonished that I’d actually finished the eight miles.

After that race, I realized that there was a whole new world opening up to me. Where I had only ever heard of one-mile open water swims when I worked as a lifeguard on the Jersey shore in college, suddenly I became aware of a host of big challenges ranging from 2.4 to 50 miles or more. The horizon expanded and I was hooked.

Discovering that there was a whole 'nother world of ultra-long-distance, open water swims out there gave me a new focus. And as it turned out, I was pretty good at it. I can be a lot more competitive over a distance of 20 miles than I can in a 500-yard pool swim. It’s all physics and hydrodynamics. I’m built for warmth and endurance, not speed; I look more like a beluga than a shark. And here, news to me, was a sport that favored my special talents. I began dreaming big and wondered just how far I could swim.

The next summer, I took on the 12.5-mile Around Key West swim. I had trained hard all winter with some friends and finished the race comfortably, even though the swim was officially cancelled in mid-run due to weather and other factors. It was a boost to me to finish that race feeling so good, especially since I was slated to participate in the 41K Lake George Swim Marathon two weeks later in New York. There’s nothing quite like taking that wide a leap of faith and doubling your longest race distance in two weeks!

Growing Up

Lake George may be the most important swim I’ve done so far. I felt like I grew up in that lake. I battled 12 hours worth of strong headwinds, doubting my plan, my nutrition, my training, and myself with nothing to do but listen to my own strokes, the pulse of the water and wind against my ears, my crew’s shouted directions, and the hum of the guide boat’s motor. I struggled a lot emotionally, as well as physically, and I think I slayed a few demons out there. The old familiar doubts and fears from my childhood— my feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty, that old, familiar distrust of self— reared up and threatened to swamp me, in collusion with the heavy head wind. But I just kept chugging along.

When time was finally called on the course for safety reasons— as a result of the adverse conditions, only one swimmer had actually finished the whole 41K in the allotted 12 hours— I couldn’t believe how good I felt. I was swimming very strongly and gaining on the next nearest swimmer. I was also gaining on that ever-elusive confidence that I needed to learn to build; swimming for 12 hours straight and feeling like you could just keep going forever afterwards does wonders for how you view yourself. My training had been solid. My feed plan had worked. I had listened to all the dark voices in my head for 12 hours and didn’t give up. For the first time in a very long while, I felt truly and utterly alive— electrified and in love with this sport that gave me back so much of myself.

But I’m one of those people who can’t just leave well enough alone. Every single day when I wake up, I consider it “starting at zero.” It doesn’t matter what I did yesterday, it only matters how far I can get today. Swimming helps me cope with this insatiable drive to do something, anything. While in Lake George, I reflected for a long while about a conversation I’d had with one of the race officials the day before: I would be Catalina bound if I managed to survive this swim. The Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming wasn’t far behind.

Quest for the Crown

The Triple Crown of Open Water swimming is a series of extreme open water swims: the 21- mile English Channel, the 21-mile Catalina Channel, and the 28.5-mile around Manhattan Island Swim. Fewer than 50 people have successfully completed all three cold-water swims, and the Crown has become a recognized goal for many open water marathoners.

I started with Catalina and was successful in September 2008. Then came Manhattan in June 2009. That was followed in short order by the English Channel in August 2009. In all cases, I had good conditions and uneventful swims. Uneventful, that is if you’re speaking from a boater’s perspective. For me, they were life-altering adventures that have set me on a new course, have helped me develop life-long friends, and have given me just the slightest edge over that lingering suspicion that I’m somehow not good enough.

Swimming has done all of these things for me, and it’s not just the fact that I take on big, cold expanses of water. I believe I would have achieved the same sense of a life’s mission and self-assurance had I chosen to focus on breaking a minute in the 100 free, or qualifying for Masters Nationals in the 200 backstroke. The key was learning to invest in myself and trust my judgment. Swimming has given me the opportunities and the tools to do that, and that has enriched every other aspect of my life. I’m more focused and driven at work. I maintain better relationships. I relate to others better in both personal and professional settings, and I have a better sense of who I am as a person. All because of the simple arm-over-arm motion of cutting through water and the learned self-discipline to get out of bed and just keep working at it every single day.