Race Report: Catalina Channel Swim, Just Close your Eyes

Let’s start off with the indescribable feeling of how excited I was! Walking down to the dock at 7pm the night of the swim, the warm southern California breeze, Bobby the seal eating fish off a boat, smiles, handshakes, pelicans gliding in the water…. Ah, what a night it will be! We all settle into the boat that has more character than anything I had ever seen, the boat captain (Greg) gives instructions to the crew and the lay of the ship, we listen intently as we sign the ship manifest. After Greg is up, my observers Don and Robin go over the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation rules for the swim and just as they wrap up we hear the boat motor roar and we start to push back from the pier. The excitement grows and the energy builds in the classic weathered ship room.

After all the instructions were provided, we all review and discuss the feed plan, backup plan, and go through what I like to say is my impeccably organized suitcase with all my gear labeled for easy grab-and-go. I show them how much to feed, review feeding frequency, and we discuss how to tether the feeding bottles to the kayak…. Hmm my stomach is feeling a little weird, oh well. I show my observers, Don and Robin, my binder perfectly organized with my event information and emergency information just in case something happens. I think I need to go outside…..

I wander outside on the boat, see Randy and Paul, talk to them then meet up with Patricio who asks me how I’m doing…. I think I need to yack, let me go back downstairs for a minute. I walk back downstairs, my stomach feels like it didn’t come with me, I come back out and say, “Yep, I’m just going to sit here until I have to throw up, maybe in 2 minutes (we are only about 20 minutes into the trip to Catalina). Patricio lays me down on my side with a blanket and pillows where I stay with Ben by my side for the next 2 hours, stomach turning, throat salivating. Just close your eyes. I felt Ben get up once and I got super cold, thank goodness he came back.

Finally the boat stops and I rush to the bathroom to get my suit on, dehydrated I down a lot of liquids, have the crew slather sunscreen and Vaseline all over, grab my lights, belt clip, cap, put my favorite pink Roka R1 goggles on and go. I couldn’t get off that boat fast enough! Just as I jump into the pitch black water I look up and there are stars all around. A pure black sky blended with the water, no moon, and the Milky Way so close and vibrant you could nearly touch it. Splash and I’m in to what will be the best 30 minutes of my swim.

Bioluminescence, I’ve never experienced it before like this. Just close your eyes…. and imagine outstretching your fingers as you swim through the night sky with every swipe hitting a star that moves with you and shines in neon green, lighting up the world around you. As a I swam into shore, my hands and fingers glided through the night water with all the bubbles illuminating in a neon glow the world below me, fish, coral, sea urchins, barnacles, the reef, truly amazing and something I will never forget.

Once I land on shore, I raise my hands and I’m off following my kayaker into the night. I played in the water while swimming the first few minutes amazed and feeling rewarded for the opportunity to glide through the milky way of the sea. As I turned my head to breathe I could see shooting stars go by brighter than the mid-day sun. Oh my gosh, I’m going to throw up. Just close your eyes, it will be okay….. yack number 1 starts.

I feel a little better, 10 minutes later, yack in my mouth again and thoughts of chumming the water go racing through my mind. Another 20 minutes, rollers coming hard, the wind is up, I feel like I have to puke again, then I run into massive kelp balls. I start wondering what would happen if I get caught in a fishing net? Will I be able to continue the swim? Could they cut me out fast enough for me to continue? I move through the kelp, look down and there is something in the water. It is like a big flat sheet, gray and speckled with light and dark colors…. Just close your eyes, three more strokes, holy crap it is still there and now with white ribbing on the side. Am I hallucinating? I don’t think so, I stop and ask my kayaker if the boat has a fish finder because there is something down there as big as the kayak. He assures me nothing is down there and the boat does have a fish finder, but I mean really? It’s not as if they are going to say, “Hey Melissa, watch out for that big creature underneath you” at midnight. I close my eyes for a bit again and swim until the feed. I try to take my food down and I can’t, I try again, I can’t, I’m going to be sick, and force throw up my prosciutto sandwich I had for lunch. Do I feel better, heck no, I feel worse. Just keep swimming.

The throwing up lasts the rest of the 2 hours with my first kayaker about every 20 minutes or so. Kayaker 2 comes in, she gives me new food and water, I can’t swallow that either and then throw up all I ate at the last feed. I see Randy jump in to swim with me and can’t even concentrate because my stomach is so upset. I continue to not eat, barely drink anything, and when I did I threw it up 10 minutes later. Nearly 4 or 5 hours in, I’m done. Scott gets in to swim with me for a bit, I throw up in complete convulsions, swallow sea water between throw ups, chat with my kayaker and Scott that I can’t do this. I’m not going to make it on zero calories or water for the rest of the swim. My body felt fine, but the sea sickness, I just couldn’t deal with it any more. Scott tells me to just do “10 more strokes, let’s finish out to the feed and then we can decide if you want to call it.” Maybe he was right, maybe I am on the verge of breaking through it. Ben recently switched out my food to Skratch, which I was able to keep some of it down, a sip or two, so maybe this really is a make or break moment. Just close your eyes, make it through 10 strokes without throwing up.

Finally, light is starting to shine from dawn, and the rollers are still making the ship feel like it is 50 feet higher than me and going to tip over, but my stomach doesn’t feel bad. Ben gets in to swim with me and it feels for the first time in a while sort of nice in the water, I have a friend out here, it’s going to get better. Then Ben gets out and the bag pipes start, the Skratch is helping me get some liquids in (still not eating), but at least I’m only throwing up every hour to hour and a half now and when I do it’s only a half a mouthful, not too bad! The bagpipes were a beautiful sound and I remember seeing a video where these play close to shore. Am I close to shore? I must be, but it doesn’t seem right this quick. Did I hit a fast current? I’m not going to look, I promised myself I wouldn’t until Barb (my kayaker) got back in because that is the right time. I must be close, I’m going to look. Mistake, I looked and there is no land in sight. The rollers slightly flatten out, for a brief moment I feel mixed emotions of okay and disappointment I looked for shore. Oh well, just close your eyes and take this feeling of okay in.

The rollers started picking up again and then Paul got in to swim with me. It was amazing, he was perfectly pacing me and very little wave action, and no throwing up! As we were swimming, the container ships came by with some wake, we are moving at a fast pace and looking down into this infinite sapphire blue water of up to 6000 ft deep. It was like floating through a liquid gemstone with the sun rays breaking through the clouds as we gently rocked from the massive sea wake. Paul got out, and yack, again.

The next hour was steady swimming, the waves, wind and rollers picked back up, then I finally, FINALLY, saw land! I looked over to my crew, what the heck, no one was paying attention to me. I look at my kayaker and she wasn’t either, but she had her camera out so I knew something was up. She said, “looks like you got your whale.” What?!?! I wanted to see a whale so badly and there were two circling the ship, a Grey whale and a Sei whale, then they said hundreds of dolphins were around us. Amazing! I can deal with sea sickness as long as Mother Nature will give me an animal to see, I promise I will finish if she does. Just close your eyes and pray.

It’s hour 10 and the pain is really starting to set into my shoulders and my throat is raw from throwing up and the salt water. Scott gets in and gives me some last words of encouragement for the final push and finally, I got my wish. Three adult dolphins and a yearling swim right under us, circling. You could see their little white bellies as they starred up at us through the sapphire water. It looked infinitely deep and that they accepted us into their world and playground. I felt they were meant to be there and they were protecting me the rest of the way in. I glance at Scott during a breath and get a nice comfort feeling that this is it, I’ve got this, I’m going to make it.

Scott exits, I only throw up a little during my feed, and start the last push into shore. I’m almost there and I hear Ben yell to swim fast, there’s a strong current and I have to get through it. Fantastic, CSS test into shore for 1000 yards, I can do it. A swig of flat coke to give me energy, followed promptly by what was my last yack of the day, and I start swimming as hard as I can into shore. I’m there, I’m making it, I’m getting smashed by the waves. I time my step with the wave to push me up on shore, then sprint out of it and onto the rocky shore before the next wave comes and pulls me back. Run up to dry land as my observers told me to do, turn around, raise both hands and I’m done (I’m crying as I’m typing this). I see my crew, Ben, Randy and Paul, all swimming in to greet me, them too getting smashed into the rocks as they get in. I’m tired, my legs are bleeding from the rock cuts, I have huge slice on my foot, my shoulders kill, and they all come over to give me a hug. Just close your eyes, you made it.

As I’m sitting on the beach, I look up at Paul and that was it. I just start crying and can’t stop. I’m overcome with joy, emotion, love and also sheer terror of having to get on that boat again. But let’s face it, the only way off the beach other than the boat was 300 stairs going up a cliff (called Cardiac Cliff or something like that) and I’m not much of a land person, so the boat it is. Randy and Paul give me a hug, then Ben gets down to give me the hug of my life and I collapse, arms around him, crying everywhere. We did it, we are done, we close our eyes, we made it.

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