The Challenges of Extreme Swimming

The original article by Paul Lundgren is posted on Distance Swimming since September 21, 2010 9:39 pm

Ultramarathon swimming takes a blend of insanity with intense focus. It is a game where the mind and body try to move in harmony with the unpredictable rhythm of the wilderness. The rewards are as intense as the effort it takes to find them. Since discovering this strange bond I have made with water I have undertaken almost every extreme swimming adventure I could find. I have raced competitively around the world, completed a twenty-mile ocean swim at night, navigated bone crushing river rapids, swum the length of the Salmon River escorted by fingerling salmon, threaded my way through schools of sharks and been tossed over waterfalls.

But when Vito Bialla called me to meet for a beer a chill flowed across the surface of my skin. Vito controls a special kind of insanity and is a legend among his ultra-sports peers. After fighting in Vietnam, building an empire in executive head-hunting, a successful vineyard in Napa Valley, Vito dedicated himself to undertaking the supreme challenges in extreme distance sports. He has raced the Ultraman multiple times and survived the mind-altering Badwater Ultramarathon. We have been close friends for over sixteen years, when he called for a beer I knew it wouldn’t be casual.

I was right. “So, you want to swim across the Sea of Cortez?” He asked. I finished my first beer and ordered another. He went on in detail. “You know we didn’t make it last year on the first try. To this day there has never been a successful crossing. I have recruited a world-class team and need one more swimmer. You will swim with me, three female Ultramarathon swimmers from Mexico, and a past Div I NCAA swimmer who now swims with the Stanford masters.”

It only took three beers for me to agree to join the team. In truth, it didn’t take three beers—I just wanted him to keep paying. But, as always, Vito came out ahead. After three more beers he asked if I would join the thirty-mile Farallon Islands to San Francisco team-swim through shark infested freezing waters. The swim would follow less then a month after our Sea of Cortez swim. I agreed.

These two swims were to be amongst the most memorable and profound in my life, leaving me with an insatiable thirst to get back to the wild.

Diving into a wild body of water is as intimate a meeting as any I have ever shared. I am attracted to experiences like swimming the Salmon River, crossing the Catalina Channel or the Sea of Cortez by the mystery of their nature. I want to meet in person the monsters those waters nurture so they can play with the ones in my mind. Something about the Sea of Cortez told me it was a meeting I didn’t want to miss. The Sea of Cortez is the body of water in the Pacific that separates mainland Mexico from Baja California. As for the Farallon Islands, I think my agreement to do that swim had more to do with the beer than meeting monsters.

From my encounters with wild water I have learned that being in great shape is not what is most important. In the worst case I can call on thirty-five-years of experience and endure with clenched teeth. I had gained twenty pounds in the four months I took off from training after a solo twenty-mile Catalina to LA swim. If anything, I rationalized the weight would be useful insulation for the cold water around the Farallon Islands.

As the departure date for Mexico drew near, like most athletes anticipating the results of competition, I took a deep look at the truth of my preparation. In endurance sports, true confidence is something I value greater than fitness. I was only slightly confident my fitness was enough to endure, but had faith that my experience and spirit would take care of the rest. At least that’s what I told myself.

For us to complete the swim following English Channel rules, we would each be swimming one hour legs of a continuous relay until finished. To cross the Sea of Cortez, we estimated that we would be swimming potentially three days. A major question I had to ask myself was how my body, in its current state of fitness, could handle the regime. I planned to manage the problem with a technique I call “soft swims,” where I would apply as little pressure as possible against the water and move forward efficiently. As a member of a six-person team I had the responsibility to pull my load and do it well. To succeed I would need to engage the discipline of “course management.” Course management is regulating the use of energy with an eye on the total distance and its potential surprises. For these swims, course management would be my lifeline and experience would be my salvation or so I hoped.
John Lennon wrote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” In this case life tossed my plans overboard and I simply endured the best I knew how.

As for our swim, well, we didn’t make it. I met that body of water and I learned. There is nothing in her nature that reflects the name of a conquistador like Cortez, nobody can conquer her, and there is nothing for her to conquer. As much as I was curious about her she was equally curious about us and our nature. I think our ambitions amused her. And ambitious we were.

Our team was the brainchild of Vito. He had tried the swim the year before. His team stopped the first night when stormy seas caused the boat to lose sight of the swimmer in the water. He was the one in the water when his teammates chose to call off the mission. The five other members unanimously agreed to cut the swim. Clearly this didn’t sit well with Vito.

Somebody asked me what passed to our team from the previous. For our swim, Vito took complete control of every detail in the planning. Communication was clear and precise. Vito handpicked this team. He knew the background and character of every team member. He hired the best crew he could find. He rented a private plane to fly the US swimmers to Mexico. He spared no expense. The previous years swim had passed on experience, and with experience Vito could frame his plan.

What the other team passed on to me was fear. I bit into it like a juicy cheeseburger and let its juices make a mess of me. Last year, only days before the team was leaving for their swim, the members were sitting in a Jacuzzi after one of their workouts. Each member had a responsibility and one of those was to research the marine habitat of their proposed course. As much as I gathered the experts warned them it wasn’t sharks that should have them worried – but the man-eating squid. Apparently they come up at night and eat people.

Over the following weeks and months their words seeped into my mind and filled my thoughts with dark water, the domain of monsters. That fear was with me in September, the night I dove into the water to cross the Catalina Channel. After several hours into the swim, about 2 am, I looked into the darkness below and lost my mind in the thought of death caused by a force greater than mine. I have always enjoyed the solitude of swimming, but that night solitude changed to loneliness. I cried and no one could hear.

Shortly after agreeing with Vito to swim the Gulf I started thinking about the dark water again. Every night the following winter I saw squid rising from the darkness. In their feeding frenzies they entangled me with their tentacles as they pulled me below. I would bolt awake from sleep, grasping for air and the image of my hopeless, panic driven fight left me sleepless through many of those winter nights.

When we first arrived in La Paz, Mexico to our surprise our host rushed to a press conference. A room full of reporters and cameras awaited our appearance and a few words from the U.S. team leader Vito followed by a few speeches from our Mexican Teammates. The buzz leading to the start felt crazy and exciting.

It was Saturday afternoon, the twenty-second of May, when we settled in at our host sponsor’s resort, The Gran Sueño, found on the Bay of Dreams just east of La Paz. A lake-like Gulf greeted us. In the few days before our launch, we swam in this body of water which housed coral reefs and was rich with sea life. She was warm and welcoming, her water glassy and flat. Swimming just offshore felt like swimming in a giant aquarium. Someone even spotted a six-foot shark, but wisely chose to share the news sparingly.

There were no questions in anyone’s mind about the abilities of our teammates—Vito made it clear he was returning to get the job done. Our handpicked team included six swimmers—three Americans and three Mexicans. Vito and I were the only men. Our four female teammates, all accomplished athletes, were impressive to say the least. Nora Toledano served as the Mexican team captain. Her open water swimming experience gave us much confidence in her ability and heart. She has crossed the English Channel eleven times- one double-crossing, five solo crossings and five relay crossings. She has swum the 43.8 miles from Cozumel to Cancun in Mexico. There was no doubt that she was a strong asset to our team. Edna LLorens and Monica Ramirez had similar credentials and experiences. Christina Gonzales, our third American team member, was an NCAA Division I swimmer. All the team members shared a passion for open water swimming and had the backgrounds to express it.

On the beach just before sunrise on the day of the swim a reporter asked if I had any fears. I said “I do I fear what lives below.” The reporter replied, “Don’t worry. The whole country is watching and praying for you.”

Out of respect for her star status in Mexico, Vito selected Nora to do the first leg of the swim. At the start, the press followed her and our boat out to sea. For over fifteen minutes, they chanted her name, “Nora, Nora, Nora,” over and over again, before turning back to shore.

When Nora completed her hour, the press had gone and we were alone. The wind came and calm seas grew to 6-foot swells. My idea of recovery between swims was now impossible. The calm before we launched made me think I wouldn’t need anything for seasickness. I was wrong.

My first hour swim took what seemed like half a day. It was rough. I couldn’t find a rhythm. The waves broke my stroke and choked my breath. People on the boat used hand signals to tell us how far we were into our hour swims. I asked to know when thirty minutes had passed and when I had ten and five minutes to go. I thought a game of guessing the time to pass before signals would be fun. Again, I was wrong.

Like in life, marathon swimming has its peaks and sometimes dark valleys. Between my third and fourth swims, lying alone on a cot in the darkness of the captain’s quarters, I began to have doubts. My legs were cramping and I feared my body would fail and that I would break the chain of swims that would link us to the other side. The thought grew into panic, which led to the monsters swimming not far below my cot. I fought to find some light, but each new image was darker than the last.

I had repeated it a thousand times to athletes who I had coached and I repeated it to myself then, “Focus on what you can do – not on what you can’t control.” If my legs were cramping, nutrition was the problem and I knew I needed to replace the depleted nutrients. In the rocking boat I mixed an electrolyte replacement and sports recovery drink with what I thought was water. But the water was vinegar. Heaving until my stomach was empty over the side of the boat made me feel better. The seasickness subsided a bit.

Before I jumped into the water for my fourth swim I realized this adventure had shaken me to the core of my soul. In desperation I told myself, “The adventure begins here and now.” I dove in with my eyes open and looked deep into the depths of darkness for signs of life. The water was comfortably cool. With their distinct rhythmic sound, the waves became my thoughts. At night there is no need to close my eyes when my head is down; I do in the day, to avoid seeing the shadows moving below. I saw, or maybe I felt, the sea in the deep darkness around me; I heard her waves move through me. With her sound, her taste in my mouth, her smell, the coolness wrapped around my skin, I came to understand I was not and never would be alone.

The waves intensified with each stroke. They pounded against the bow of the boat and crashed over me as I swam. The sea, I realized, had awakened for our visit. In her way, she was showing her spirit and wild heart. In my way, I swam driving each stroke with all my force into the night. Again, no person could hear me when I cried and laughed. It is overwhelming to realize loneliness is forever gone. She helped me realize this was no place for a “soft swim.” I was seeing the glory of her spirit and her strength—I owed it to her to share mine.

I rose to the crest of a wave. I waited for its peak to breathe. I could see the light from the moon and the stars. Stars shine brighter at sea, where there are no city lights to still the night. My stroke felt strong. I was in my mind’s place where I enjoy going long. Before I noticed, the hour was gone.

Vito awoke me saying, “We have an emergency. Nora was hit hard by a squid.” It was midday. I asked him to clarify, “Did you say squid?” “No, a jellyfish,” he said. “We need to have a meeting.”

A jellyfish stung Nora so bad that it had temporarily paralyzed her in the water. The sting looked like somebody had poured battery acid on her arm and chest. Dr. Dave pulled her from the swim with thirty minutes to go in her hour shift. Vito just finished his swim leg and had his swimsuit on. He jumped in the water and did a legal transition (English Channel Rules) passing her on the right while Dr. Dave pulled her out. Vito continued swimming the remaining portion of Nora’s leg.

We were down to five swimmers. When he got out of the water, on a satellite cell phone Vito called Stephen Munatones, the FINA official who had deputized Dr. Dave. He said, though our swim did not stop, we had officially broken the rules when Nora got out of the water, but that we should keep going forward with five swimmers. The event would still go down in the record books and the notes would show we had made the swim harder, not easier, with Nora out of the rotation.

I had completed my fifth swim, but it took a Snickers bar to do so. About fifteen minutes into the swim I felt seaweed sliding down my arm. I was wrong. It was jellyfish. It started to tingle, and the tingle became a startling sting. This was happening rapidly over and over. One sting felt as if I had live electrical wires pressed against my skin on the under side of my arm. I nearly jumped on top of the water. Suddenly, as if I had run into a wall, the jellyfish drained every ounce of my energy out of me. I doubted that I could continue. In a panic, I screamed for a Snicker’s bar – I had a stash in the fridge for such an emergency. Andy Lebuhn, one of our support crew, snatched one and threw it to me. I bit it in half and shoved the whole bar in my mouth and chewed while I swam. Famished, I choked the bar down as fast as I could. Vito yelled, “Relax, take your time, there is no hurry.” Within moments I felt rejuvenated. It didn’t take long for me to find my stroke. The jellyfish continued to sting me over the next five to ten minutes until the wind picked up and the water grew rough. As the waves grew larger, the jellyfish started to disappear. The rest of the hour passed quickly and before long I was back on the boat.
In The Dialectics of Social Life, Robert F. Murphy wrote that, “Relatedness always implies a universe of nonrelations, and membership rules are predicated upon rules of exclusion. Contained in every opening outward is a tendency toward closure inward, and in every bond a series of alienations.”

Monica Ramirez was swimming in the water while Vito and I were discussing our fate. He suggested we turn the boat around and swim with the wind and waves to make going forward easier.
“…and in every bond a series of alienations.”

We had swum 63.8 nautical miles and 75 was the world record. It shocked me to hear him say this because, in my mind, I didn’t care about the record; I came to cross the Sea. If we turned the boat around we would only swim to 75 miles and then the swim would stop. We would be farther from the other side and crossing would not be a choice, and I told him so. He said, “You sound frisky for somebody who just had a difficult swim.” I tasted the blood from my lips between my teeth as I waited to find my words.

Vito asked for Christine’s opinion and that’s when I knew I better start talking or this trip was going to make a drastic change in direction. I argued that we still needed to swim no matter what direction and if we turned now we would not have the choice to get to the other side. Christine agreed and recommended we take it one swim at a time. The rest of the women felt the same and Vito agreed. We decided we would let Monica voice her opinion when she finished. I was confident I could convince her to continue.

Don’t get me wrong—I understood where Vito was coming from. The idea of the swim originated with the first team and with only a world record in mind. He chose the Gulf of California as an ideal location. Crossing the Gulf was a second thought that would only add to the adventure. When I first heard of the swim, what stood out in my mind was going from one shore to the other. I never thought about the record until that moment when Vito posed the question. Later, Vito commented that under the circumstances he appreciated how I handled the argument. I recognize now we just had different ideas of what the swim meant to us personally.

Not thirty seconds after we agreed to go forward, awaiting Monica’s mutual consent, Monica, who was still in the water swimming, started screaming. Jellyfish had stung her in the face and neck. The pain was obvious. Within seconds she had jumped onto the back deck asking for vinegar to pour on her face. Dr. Dave handed her the vinegar bottle. She doused herself and immediately jumped back in the water to finish her hour.

My heart sank to the bottom of my stomach. I looked to the sea and felt my eyes begin to burn and water. I looked off the stern from the direction we had just swum. The horizon faded into a haze of smog floating over what would shortly become a calm sea. Unknown to Monica, she broke the chain the moment she touched the boat. We swam 63.8 nautical miles unassisted and when Monica touched the boat, she stopped the swim. We were 63.8 Kilometers from the shore.

The jellyfish had stung me repeatedly throughout the swim. There were moments when I thought I might pass out because of the pain. But not one of my stings produced the burns and marks that Nora and Monica received from their stings. I have no doubt in my mind their pain was unbearable and I have nothing but respect for Monica. She jumped back in the water not realizing that she had stopped the swim. She dove back in, ready to face the same jellyfish that struck enough pain in her to make her scream. I don’t know many people who would have done the same. I do know that no pain compares to that which she felt with the realization the swim had ended.

Within moments after the swim ended, Vito asked “Where would be the best body of water to break the World Record?” What came to my mind almost instantly was Lake Powell. It is significant because it is part of the Colorado River which feeds into the Gulf of California. Here in the U.S. we control the flow of the river with Glen Canyon Dam, which forms Lake Powell. The Sea of Cortez swim was a fund-raiser for the Wounded Warrior Project, and it was raising funds to fight Breast Cancer in Mexico. It was also an effort to bridge the two cultures of the U.S. and Mexico. Before the Colorado River reaches the Gulf it dries up. What once was the world’s largest desert estuary is now a dried up region of salt and sand. The dam blocks the water from feeding into Mexico and the Gulf. I thought of Lake Powell and its symbolism, I thought with its nature tamed by the dam it would be ideal for a swim.

I came home and found the email in my inbox from Vito. I knew it would be waiting for me. I waited before opening it. It wasn’t because I found myself in bed sick with a poison in my stomach that was violently causing my body to eject fluids from all possible exits. I waited a few days to read what he had to say because I wanted to know in my heart what my answer would be. He was proposing a date for the World Record attempt and he wanted to see if I were in. As it turned out, he did chose Lake Powell.

In less than a month I would be swimming the most shark infested waters on the North American Pacific Coast. When I say sharks I mean 18 to 22-feet long Great White sharks. Vito is one of my favorite people on the planet. I know if I am with him, I will live life on the outer edges of sanity. I will always come home from a Vito adventure filled with stories that keep friends on the edges of their seats. So, yeah, sharks.

It was mid-June, less then a month after returning from Mexico, when we headed out to the Golden Gate on Jaws, Vito’s Grand Banks 32-foot Yacht. Beyond the Gate was ocean and out there are the Farallon Islands.

The Farallon Islands are a small group of islands 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco, California. Today they are a protected National Wildlife Bird Sanctuary. Legends say they were once the Devil’s playground where pirates used to bring captured women to mask their screams with those of the 500 species of birds that occupy the island’s rocks. It feels like a sanctuary of evil when you first see them. But as you approach the islands it’s not what you see that gives you this impression—it’s the sound of birds and their cries—it’s the smell of the birds and their shit.

Every time I have made the voyage to the islands they appear as shadows making forms in the fog. Long before the shadows begin to cut the fog come the screams of birds making company with the lonely sounds of the ocean’s crashing waves. Then the shadows become rocks, great white pillars of wilderness jetting from the ocean floor. As the pillars become islands, the sound of birds intensifies to a constant shrilling roar. Something always happens to my soul out there, something about the wild stirs me deeply.

Within an hour of leaving the Gate, Jaws climbed the face of 17-foot waves and fell down their back sides. Water was crashing over the entire boat. It was barely 8 a.m. and Vito was working on his second beer, grinning from ear to ear. Phil Cutti, a close friend and fellow swimmer, and Jim Hughes, the camera operator documenting our swim, were exchanging turns at the stern losing their breakfasts.

Looking from person to person I could see the same look in all our eyes, the one that says, right now you know down to the core of your being, you are alive. The ocean was alive and she was welcoming us to her wilderness.

It took over five hours to get to the Farallones. We couldn’t boat right up to them; we had to go past them, timing our turn in the trough between waves. The waves were big enough that if they hit us from the side they would flip Jaws. Everyone on board was alert. We made the turn and approached the jagged cliffs in awe. It’s strange how silently they exist in the chaos of noise from crashing waves, howling wind—and the screams of millions of birds.

I often find signs in the wild that bring peace to my mind. They usually come from the creatures that live there. The Farallones are a migratory refuge for Great White sharks who come to feed on birthing seals and sea lions in the fall. It was June, and the biologists who study them say they usually don’t come around the Farallones until September. It is funny they never fail to say “you never know if one might come early.” A Humpback whale circling the coves hunting creel met us at the islands. I took it as a sign the Great Whites had not come home early this year. I don’t know if whales will come around when the sharks are present, but I made a strong argument, in my mind at least, that they wouldn’t. We were swimming the next morning, so I didn’t want to bring up my theory in the chance somebody would know otherwise.

We found a quiet cove, dropped anchor and settled in for the night. We were drinking beer, eating food and swapping stories when that whale, not ten feet off our stern, blew its air and dove below. He or she hung out for a while we prepared to sleep for the night. Anchored on a boat at the Farallones on a clear night, while the ocean was beating the walls around us, I dreamed of the wilderness. I listened to the chain as it rhythmically pulled at the anchor secured to the ocean’s floor. Periodically, I would awaken and then settle down to the security of its sound, knowing we were still in the cove.

We were up by 5 a.m. Phil Cutti, Matthew Davie, who was also swimming and is much faster than the rest of the team, Vito, and I were the only ones at the Farallones for the six person relay team. There was a boat that was bringing the other two swimmers and the rest of the camera crew, John Mathews, who would be officiating, and Dave Ogden, the official Team Doctor. They were to arrive at the Island in time for the start of the swim and make the transfer of passengers in the quiet waters of the cove.

The plan was that Phil would swim first and Joe Locke would go second, followed by Michelle Deasy, Matthew Davie and I, then Vito would serve as our anchor swimmer. Well, Michelle and Joe weren’t there at 6 a.m. Because of the massive waves, the second boat that had left at four in the morning was an hour delayed.

As planned Phil jumped in the water, which measured 49ºF and swam his hour. The first swim is the one with the most uncertainty. Every swim following would have a less likelihood of Great Whites swimming below. If one shark had decided to come home early this year going first meant Phil would most likely be the one to greet her. He dove in with a calmness and clarity of mind that was comforting to my soul.

When Phil’s hour was close to done, the second boat, with our remaining team and crew, appeared out of the fog. I could tell they weren’t going to make it in time. We held an outside hope the water would warm up the closer we came to the Gate. I was still carrying my 20 pounds from my winter hibernation and Matthew is a tall, sleek and slender elite athlete. I didn’t make a fuss of going second in Joe’s place. Someone had to swim and we were well over a mile from the Islands, so, at least I could rationalize no sharks.

I never saw Phil get out of the water. Following English Channel rules I dove in and swam around his outside. He got out while I was swimming. After about four or five strokes, I found myself fighting to catch my breath. I took a few breaststrokes to slow down my breathing. It took a while – I’m not sure how long – before I got my breathing under control. I kept looking at my hands—I thought something was piercing them and it surprised me not to see blood gushing out of my palms. My feet felt the same way. I have swum in water this cold with wetsuits and dry suits and thought it rough. I have even swum in water this cold with only a Speedo, but those swims were quick with the warmth of a mountain hot spring or sauna waiting for me when I got out. Usually I will swim hard for four or five minutes and the effort will generate warmth in my core that will pass through my veins warming my extremities. My typical stroke rate is 72 strokes per minute, which is high for a swimmer. In cold water I might get it up to 80 strokes. John Mathews counted my stroke rate at 86.

There were only moments when I thought about sharks and they didn’t last long. The cold consumed me. Swimming into the next second and minute was a fight against my natural instinct to survive and get out of the water. I was fighting with a fury of rapid repetitive strokes, but this time it wasn’t to cross a body of water or commune with spirits, it was a fight to live. The cold was the monster with each stroke I increasingly grew to fear.

Just after I jumped in the water the second boat came alongside Jaws. The waves were 12 to 15 feet high. I didn’t see how they made the transfer. I knew it couldn’t have been easy. I was thinking the rest of the team should swim from the second boat and, when they finished their swim, they could then jump on Jaws. They didn’t see it that way. Jaws stopped and the boat pulled alongside. It took three tries to get everyone on board, each try taking several minutes. In a few minutes I can swim 200 to 300 yards. All you see of a swimmer from the boat is their rotating arms and swim cap. I was dropping into the troughs of 15-foot waves and Jaws was dropping down when I was rising to the peaks.

I stopped a couple times, in hopes that they would pull up beside me. The boat is the only lifeline a swimmer has when in the open ocean. In swims I have done in the past I’d think about the possibility of swimming the distance without a boat if it should lose me. Even in the middle of the night, in the middle of the Catalina Channel, I rationalized in the worst case I could probably make it to shore solo. It has never been a choice I wanted to explore, but it’s an exercise I do to smother the flames of fear. When I found myself pulling away from Jaws, I saw the waves tossing it from side to side. It appeared smaller in the distance, smaller in the ocean. “I can’t make it to shore alone,” I screamed as I thrashed my arms to fight the cold. I screamed again, “Fuck,” and nobody heard me. I kept swimming.

Jaws pulled in front of me, stopped as I swam by, passing comfort while it waited for the second boat to pull up to its side. Several times swimming at Jaws side a wave would hit it at the right angle and I could see its bottom side and prop. I would force myself to swim farther away.

Time didn’t pass. It froze into a solid mass—a block—an hour of ice. I was inside and couldn’t see a way out, except to move my arms and kick my feet as fast and as hard as I have ever swum.

After the transfer, the second boat raced off to home in the distant fog. Jaws joined me for the remaining 40 minutes of my hour. The first sight I had of Joe Locke was him at the stern bent over the rail tossing his breakfast over the side with his abdominals. I was laughing and yelled to him, “Good morning, Joe.” He looked up, forced a smile and waved, then bent over and heaved again. His smile warmed me. I knew we were all alive in our suffering and somehow it was comforting. Not moments later, Michelle Deasy was hanging off the back, baring her bare ass and puking between her legs. I tried to breathe to my left, but the waves were washing over me from that side, and they forced me to breathe to the right and share with Michelle in her misery.

Then I was done. I had thought my pain would pass getting out of the water, but to my disappointment it would continue. When I first got out of the water the wind felt hot against my skin. I knew the wind was cold and I needed to get dry and warm as soon as I could. Dave passed me as I was trying to dry off and get out of my suit.

I said, “Hello, Andy.”

He paused and said, “Hello.”

A few moments later I asked, “John, how was the boat ride this morning?”

He looked at me and said, “I’m Dave.”

I said, “Then you’re not Andy either,” and we laughed.

I realized I wasn’t thinking clear and that my thoughts were slowing down. Then shivering set in. I have shivered after swims before, and I knew they would come, but I have never shivered to this degree. I thought my teeth would break. I couldn’t get my clothes on without concentrated effort. It worried me. This was more than spooky. Vito, who had lived at the edge of death more than most, looked at me and said, “Dude, you’re scaring me.”

I sat down next to Matthew and when he looked at me I saw in his eyes that I scared him, too. Not the scared look you get when you’re unsure, but the scared you get when you know. I’m not a lean guy. I drink more than my share of beer. I weigh 30 pounds more than I did when I was a competitive athlete. Matthew is an elite, competitive athlete and his body fat, or lack of it, reflects the lifestyle. If I were suffering after an hour in that water, he knew he was in trouble. You could see his manner change, his thoughts internalized; he fiddled with his goggles for the next two hours before his swim.

Joe was in the water. He was happy in the cold water. In the water he didn’t feel seasick. Joe is solid. He can handle the cold and go long as hard as he likes. I have met some tough athletes in my time and Joe is among the toughest. There are faster, but not many are as tough. He is physically strong, complemented with power and stamina, but his toughness comes from his head. He may suffer or be fearful, but he won’t stop; he will endure a storm brought from hell and see it to the end.

When he finished he was cold, but he was fine. He regretted stopping, because not long after he was back to the stern of the boat emptying everything remaining in his stomach over the side.

Then it was Michelle who jumped in. If Joe had a twin sister it would be Michelle. She is right up there with Joe in toughness and spirit. If they married and had kids who competed in sports, they would have to create a new division in competition called “The Super Class” or it wouldn’t be fair. Michelle, suffering seasickness, was vomiting right until she jumped in the water. She swam her hour without a trace of discomfort and jumped on the boat and started to vomit again. I felt bad for both Joe and Michelle, but I was in awe of their athleticism under the conditions. They are of another world.

I always enjoy watching Matthew dive into the water with the sleekness of a razor slicing, not splashing, the surface. His stroke is long, slow, effective and beautiful to watch. As he pulled his goggles over his head I expected him to leap over the boat’s rail. To my surprise he lifted one leg over, followed by the other, and jumped in feet first, breaking the water with a splash as he slowed his entry by pushing his hand against the surface. He did breaststroke and stopped to adjust his goggles. There was no urgency to get into his near perfect form of freestyle. It was as if he didn’t know moving could produce warmth, or maybe he had lost hope. He swam, but it was slow, with no kick. He is a kicker, he has to be with his slow turnover rate, but his legs were only dangling.

Two hours after I had come out of the water, I was starting to feel normal again. My core was warm and I was thinking, telling myself, “I can do it again.” Vito and I were talking about the finish. He was telling me how much warmer it would be as we approached the Golden Gate. We could see it in the distance through the breaking fog. Then Emily came inside and said, “Matt’s in trouble.”

We were watching him and he stopped, he said something, but I couldn’t understand him. He mumbled his words, we yelled out to him and he turned away from the boat as if we were behind him. He said, “I can’t breathe.” That’s when we called off the swim. He tried to swim some more, but it was over.

. . .

Before I replied to Vito, asking if I would swim with him on his world record try in Lake Powell, I sat with it in my mind for a few days. I was absorbing how life had continued without me when I was away. My twin boys are 4 years old and in the week, while I was swimming in the Gulf of California, they had changed. It wasn’t monumental—it was subtle, in ways that only a parent would see. What I realized is the change comes from the force of life with in them, the spirit that my wife and I have passed onto them. The same force of life I connected with in the night on a body of water in Mexico, the same force that guided a whale to blow air while swimming off the stern of a boat in the night at the Farallones. Freedom fuels that choice to move, the freedom to choose how you want to live in moments when nothing but darkness surrounds you. Then I thought about Lake Powell, a body of water fed by the Colorado River, a body of water damned in Glen Canyon.

There is a spirit in my house; it is my family living in this part of the world by choice, fighting for warmth and life. I compared it to the river that dries up before it hits the Gulf of California, who I now know so well. The damned river has formed a reservoir with no freedom. I compared the life I share here against that of a body of water, locked behind a dam. Then I found myself thinking about the Gulf and realized it is her water I thirst to wrap around my skin, not the damned.

But, a matter of the spirit doesn’t explain everything. The cost this year of taking another week away from the family and work would be too high. My reaction to returning to daily life was overwhelming and I felt it was too much of a stretch to do it again this year. From the details Vito understood, like a good friend that he is, he fully gave his support. Now I will only hear about their swim from their stories, but I will be with them. I will be with them in the darkness under the moon and stars of the desert nights. And they will not be alone should they cry out into the night.