As many of you already know, my friend Paul Lundgren recently swam the 21-mile channel between Catalina under the full-moon a few backs back. Everyone, me included, wanted to know why in the world he would do such a thing.
Well, here it is...after much reflection, Paul transferred his thoughts and heart-felt emotions into words, to share with us all and most importantly shed some light on his recent exploration. Paul writes, "I'm sorry I didn't get this to you sooner. I appreciate your support and never doubted for a moment you were with me during the swim. I get very emotional speaking of it so find it easy to say in email. Thank you and enjoy the read...
There is no doubt it was a special night. The mood on the boat was filled with an excited, nervous anticipation. Everyone was joking and laughing. A nervous laugh the kind you get when you breathe in the air and your lungs fill your belly with a hot sizzling gas that heightens your senses. The night was warm with a light breeze coming from the North West. Moon light was shimmering off the water and the mist in the air smelled of the ocean. We were all talking with questions of strategy, ideas of execution and stories of past adventures. My Blackberry was constantly buzzing with messages coming from literally all over the world wishing me luck and letting me know I was not alone. It got to the point I had to hand it to my friend Brian, because it was too much. I couldn’t digest all the attention. I needed to find a place quiet in my mind. The night was providing everything I could imagine and more than ever anticipated. It was the moon I kept turning to, it was the moon that centered my attention on the place in my mind that kept everything in perspective. With the moon I waited for the boat to make its two-hour voyage from San Pedro to Captain’s Cove on the north end of Catalina.
The most common question I hear in the final weeks leading to this night, mostly from myself, is, ‘Why?’ Why would I want to swim nineteen miles across an ocean channel at night? For years I always considered it just enough of a challenge to scare me into fitness. It’s not something I would want to go into unprepared. I would have to get in good shape. The other why is to explore the unknown domain of my mind. I think the process of on something new, unknown and of great risk creates a path to a closer understanding one’s true self. I don’t think of the Channel as a physical risk, but rather as the goal itself, and the sacrifice to achieve the goal is a risk. To ask my friends and family into the process of this goal increased the impact of its outcome. The risk of failing, of not being prepared for the challenge and not finishing the swim would weigh heavy on my shoulders. I wouldn’t want to let those people down and I mostly wouldn’t want to let myself down. To make this swim, at this stage in my life, and to invest the time and energy would be at a great cost. To fail would be devastating. The process of approaching a goal with the self-imposed weight of its importance is revealing. As a coach I have witnessed it hundreds of times. When the big event grows near the weight of the risks sheds the multiple layers of protective skin around one’s true self. Eventually the moment comes and nothing is left but the truth. Athletes either learn to explore the truth or mentally break down. I was hoping to explore the depths of my mind through extreme circumstances.
One of my strongest childhood memories is that of my swimming coach. He is a man who, when I was 14 with one foot in a youth detention facility and the other dancing at the line of a drug overdose, pulled me back to the pool and gave me the option of swimming or a beating to the death. The memory is of a practice or swim meet at the moment when every ounce of myself was invested he would stand up with coffee in one hand, a stop watch in the other, a pencil behind the ear and whistle. He would then do a big over arm swing with the hand holding the stop watch while taking three steps down the pool deck beside me. Then he would sit down, drink his coffee, and watch the story unfold.
I mention this because it was never a random moment. It only happened when I was giving everything I had. He would jump to action with 500 yards to go in a mile race or eight thousand yards into a timed ten thousand swim during workout. It was eerie in a way because he never showed much emotion. His philosophy was “the flame of life was within and it was up to the swimmer to find that flame.” He wasn’t the type of guy to yell his swimmers into motivation. His power to influence me in life was that somehow he knew when I was tapping into that flame. He knew the moment I was giving everything I had to give. He and I both knew in those moments that I was taking great risks and that he would stand up for me. An athlete knows there is nothing greater in sport when they finished a race or a workout and they have nothing left to give. The results are never as important as the effort provided, and I learned that when I gave it my all, nothing else mattered. For me to have a relationship with a coach who knew when I gave everything is unforgettable.
This report is as hard, if not harder, to write than the swim itself. This is my third attempt and I just dumped four or five pages of heartfelt, soul-wrenching, drippy scribbles into the trash bin.
I guess I feel vulnerable exposing myself, because, like I said, I was looking for the truth and I found it in a big way. The challenge now is taking you there and me going back. The reality that I came to understand, no matter how much I tried to deny it, in the final days leading to the moment was that I was scared. I was scared of sharks, and I was scared of the deep, dark ocean. I was afraid I would get too cold. I was afraid I wasn’t physically strong enough. I was afraid my mind would crack and I would go insane. I was afraid I would never see my boys again.
The problem was I didn’t understand any of the emotions or fears until I jumped in the water and started swimming. I kept looking at that moon. It was the light in my life that kept me in touch with the rest of the world. The same moon all my friends and family live under, the same moon I always looked to when ever I felt alone.
Before takeoff, Phil Garn told me to be careful not to get the grease that I used to lube up in my goggles. If I did I wouldn’t be able to see. Sure enough an hour into the night the only thing I could make out was the shapes of people and things. The kayak beside me was glowing from a night lantern in its bow. I could see the shape of the person sitting on top, but nothing more. The 54-foot escort fishing boat was lit up. I could see it clearly every time I breathed to that side. Unfortunately, every other time I turned to that side a flash bulb would blind me in the eyes. The first fifteen or so shots were fine, but after about an hour of flashing I was starting to get a little frustrated. As much as I appreciated documenting the event, I was starting to lose my mind. I’m not saying that as a cliché—I really was losing my mind.
At the start there were several fishing boats around and I had so many people telling me what to do and where to go that I was mentally scrambled. I started swimming and a spotlight was shining on me. I thought “Wow, this is interesting—I’ll be lit up the whole way.” I saw the boat that had the spotlight and started following it. Then I swam right into it. I was flustered, and wondering what the hell was going on. I looked up and realized it was one of the fishing boats docked in the little harbor. “Where was my kayak?” I came around the boat and found my guide kayaking away from me. He yelled for me to go the other direction as he started paddling. I yelled at him, trying to explain that I was following him. I guess he didn’t realize how frustrated I was that he was leaving me.
The water in the beginning was calm, with only a small current and waves. But soon I found myself struggling to keep in line with the boat. Either it was too close or too far away. I was depending on the kayak to keep me straight, but he was having the same trouble. The next thing I knew he was tipped out of the boat and I wasn’t sure if I should help him or keep going. I stopped and everyone on the boat yelled to keep going.I spent the first three hours swimming to the boat and swimming away from the boat. There was a north west swell pushing me south east, the boat was on automatic pilot heading east. To keep pace with the swimmer the boat engines would rev up and then down. When the engines revved down the bow of the boat would be pushed south, and as I would compensate accordingly, the boat would then rev up. As it revved up, the boat would speed up and I would find myself at the stern which had straightened itself. While I was compensating for the bow flowing south, the stern would straighten from the power of the engines, and I would need to compensate again. I was constantly pushing against the North West current and adjusting to the flow of the boat. My kayaker was having the same problem.
It was early on when I started to question how I was feeling. My legs for some reason were fatigued. They were fatigued in a way that made my body feel nauseous and weak. I started to panic, questioning my ability to pull this off. I wasn’t sure I could maintain this effort for nine hours. Something had to change or I was definitely going to fail.
I know enough about life and endurance that I know that it’s the mind that holds the key to reality. What is real is a perspective. I needed to get out of there. I needed to change my perspective. It must have been about two hours into the swim and I was at the edge of a full-on mental breakdown.
It is a lonely feeling to know you are just a few yards away from friends and you can’t talk to them and they can’t help you. I would take, longer then typical, two to three minutes to feed, not so much for nutrition, but for human contact. I was feeding every 45 minutes and the time between felt like eternity. My mind needed a break. It was 2am and I realized everything was coming to this moment all at once. The year of training and the impact of support on my emotions was all coming to a head at this moment and I was feeling the weight of it pull me down. I then thought of Chris and what she was doing at that moment. I saw her lying in bed and figured I should go there. If there was one place I would most want to be at that moment it was in bed with Chris, falling asleep. I climbed into my side of the bed, tucked under the covers and started to fall asleep. I swear, if I didn’t have to navigate where I was going I would have fallen asleep while swimming. I altered my consciousness and I found an amazing force of peace cover myself. That got me to hour five.
The swim was never easy. From the first stroke I never felt comfortable. I never felt in control. I never felt confident. There was something I learned from a river one time along time ago. The nature of swimming in water is a relationship with a life force. In my situation on the river I was dealing with a force much greater than I, and that night, a little over a week ago, I was in the same situation. I was having a relationship with such a force. What I learned on the river I brought with me to the ocean. There is no way in a life time I could out-power the force of this ocean. I know I am a small man in light of my surroundings, but if I am any man at all I am going to honor this life force of nature with every ounce of life I have.
I heard my coach whistle and saw him take three steps on the pool deck. For a moment I thought I was in lane six at the Pocatello, Idaho YMCA pool. That lasted only a moment, this ocean; she wasn’t going to let me go anywhere now. I tried to crawl back in bed with Chris, but she, the ocean, was with me and wanted me there.
The question now was if I could I feel the spirit move me. Did my little experiment work? Was I capable of feeling the power of friends and family sending me thoughts and prayers? I was struggling to induce myself into an altered state of awareness. The reality of the water around me kept me alert and lucid. Other than the feeling of falling asleep for a couple hours, my mind was awake. The awareness of spirit is undeniable. I felt something I have never before felt to this degree and that was a force of will. I am a stubborn man and have suffered through many a long days, but I have never felt such a deep force in my soul. My mind and body were constantly in question, but not once did I question my will to continue. Not once did I think I would stop. I thought they might pull me from the water when my body would fail, but I never once thought I would stop of my own will and get out of the water until this thing was done. I was aware that there was something greater than myself propelling me. But I never questioned where it was coming from.
I know it sounds sadistic, but I welcomed the pain. There was a pain in my left wrist. The tendon was inflamed from the fingertips at entry. They would catch the surface of the water and as I resisted, the pressure on the tendon of the wrist was causing inflammation. By the time I finished the it was nearly excruciating. The great thing about pain is that it gives you something to take your mind away from the rest of the pain. The little pains that popped up were welcome visits, taking my mind briefly to another place to focus my attention. When I was thinking my body was going to fail me and I was going to likely sink to the bottom of the ocean, I welcomed distractions.
The second kayaker was Mark Montgumery who I have known for over twenty years. We used to race triathlons together and train in Southern California. I have traveled the globe racing and training with Mark; I know him well. He is a retired L.A. lifeguard who grew up on the beach and is subsequently, a very capable water man.
For years I have been thinking about this swim. I remember eight or nine years ago, Mark returned a message I had left him to discuss the swim. He called me and started the conversation casually; discussing water conditions and friends he knew who were familiar with the nature of the channel, as if nothing were wrong. Then he said, “I have some bad news. In a couple hours they are wheeling me into the operating room to put a pace maker on my heart” (thus retired LA Life guard). I was shocked. Just a few years earlier we were traveling around the world trying to make a living racing triathlons. How could somebody who lived the life of an endurance athlete be physically vulnerable to heart conditions?
Mark guided that kayak so closely to me that I could reach over and grab it if I ever needed. He paddled for almost six straight hours. Because I was being pushed to the south Mark figured out a way to communicate when I needed to adjust and navigate to the north. With me between the fishing boat and the kayak I could sight off both boats. And because my goggles were so greased up I couldn’t judge distances. If Mark let the kayak fall back out of my sight, I knew I needed to adjust and turn towards the fishing boat. This was crucial, because the only other way for me to adjust was for him to block me with the kayak, which is very frustrating and could injure my hand. This communication technique was subtle and didn’t take words or effort. It kept my navigation on track through the night.
A lot of people want to know what it’s like to have the sun rise. It’s glorious. All I can say is it sure lightens a mood. Once the sun rose, the current died down and I mo longer needed Mark’s communication method to navigate. I wasn’t being pushed anymore and I could just sight off the boats.
The way I managed the swim from start to finish was to focus on the next 45 minutes, or the next 30 minutes, or the next 15 minutes, depending on my feeding time. I would always say to myself, “I know I can swim for another 30 minutes.”
In training, thanks to John Mathews and Gordon Clute, I used Belvedere Lagoon. One loop around the Lagoon took me roughly an hour. I figured, based on comparison of other people’s times, and depending on water conditions, I could do the swim the Channel in eight to ten hours. Eight hours would be a miracle with a big push from Mother Nature. Hey, I believe in miracles. Ten hours would be because the ocean felt it should take me a little longer. In my mind I was thinking that around nine hours would be about right. The swim took ten hours and nineteen minutes.
My friend Vito got in the Kayak after the sun rose and at 7.5 hours into the swim I told him only a loop and half—meaning the remaining amount of distance was equal to 1.5 loops in the lagoon. I am so thankful he didn’t tell me the truth.
If you ask me what the hardest part of the swim was I would say it was the first three hours and the last hour and a half. The first three hours I went insane, and in the last 1.5 hours I felt like I should have been done.
It took eleven minutes for me to swim the last 200 yards. As hard as it is to believe, one of the reasons was that I didn’t want it to end. I kept trying to suck it all in. I kept looking at the shore and the boat and my friends and tried to absorb everything. The other is the tide was pulling me out. It was some powerful force, I’ll tell you.
When I finished, Vito asked me if it was the hardest thing I have ever done. I was on camera and I said, “I’ll have to think about it.” There have been times in life I have endured when I didn’t think I could handle anything harder. Last fall when Phil and I did a bike ride down the coast from Oregon I was challenged pretty hard. Physically this was not the hardest thing I have ever done, but mentally it is the hardest athletic feat I have ever accomplished and it still scares me. The spirit cannot be measured by effort, but this was without a doubt profound.
I believe in the power of the human spirit. I believe we are all connected by some mystical force and, if willing, we can draw great strength. I learned to share that force whenever given the chance because its impact on another person’s heart is profound and too amazing not to share.
This was a once in a lifetime experience. I still don’t know if I want to pursue more goals similar to this or focus my energies and attention in other directions. Time will help me decide. For this particular experience I have to thank some very important people who helped me along the way. First, and without question, I could not have done this swim without Chris my wife’s support. She was literally pushing me out the door to train and I am deeply thankful to her. Vito Bialla was the constant companion and mentor. He lives for these kind of sick, twisted adventures and gives everything of himself so other too can find their truths. John Mathews, who, grabbed me by the arm one day, insisting he help. He provided access to his dock where I could swim in the lagoon, without which I don’t know if I could have trained properly. John also showed up at 10:30pm one night while my friend Joe and I were in the middle of a 15-mile training swim. Gordon Clute also provided access to the lagoon from his dock and made the experience enjoyable with his enthusiasm. I would also like to thank Night Train and all our friends of Night Train who have an insatiable taste for having fun. I have to thank Joe Locke who I shared many long hours with, swimming around the lagoon and at Scott Valley pool. “Smokin Joe” was a beast who pushed me hard and kept me honest. (I also want to congratulate Joe on his swim last week across the Channel in 9 hour and 45 min. Thanks for letting me be there with you to share the experience.) Thank you to Phil Cutie, my Sancho Panza, who was there when I made the plan and at every stroke of the way to the finish. Also, big thanks go to Brian Bunch, who crewed and kept the boat in the light. Mark Montgumery—without whom I don’t think I could of made it through the night. Knowing you were there if I was going down kept me up when things got so dark, thank you. Thank you Presidio Sport and Medicine for sponsoring the event.
Finally I have to thank all those who sat up with me that night, those who woke up in the morning and turned on their computers to tune into and see where I was going. I felt your thoughts, I knew you were there and I have to say their impact affected my far greater then just getting me across the channel. I have been blessed and I truly thank you all
Like swimming the Channel, this story never ends. I learned about the power of community, the power of people sharing one thought directed towards one goal. My drive home from L.A. was spent with Clancey, my sons’, Luke and Cole, teacher. She flew to L.A. so I wouldn’t have to drive home alone. I guess Chris took one look at me when I was done and figured it might be a good idea. L.A. to San Francisco is a long drive. You learn a lot about a person. Clancey told me the most amazing story of her Dad, who today is having his third brain surgery on the same form of cancer that took Ted Kennedy’s life. I was struck so profoundly by the story of this man’s life and how he has lived with unconditional love and support for his family. I believe the power of the human spirit has the ability to channel life’s force to where intended with miraculous effects. I have one last favor if you wouldn’t mind. Today, Kevin Kelley, who is in Texas in surgery fighting for his life, needs all the help he can get. Please send him and his family your heart felt thoughts and prayers with the same intensity and power you shared with me. I know it is amazing, I know it is powerful and I know it will help.
PS Below are some links to related media